It is World War II and Captain Charles Ryder reflects on his time at Oxford during the twenties and a world now changed. As a lonely student Charles was captivated by the outrageous and decadent Sebastian Flyte and invited to spend time at the Flyte's family home – the magnificent Brideshead. Here Charles becomes infatuated by its eccentric, aristocratic inhabitants, and in particular with Julia, Sebastian's startling and remote sister. But as his own spiritual and social distance becomes marked, Charles discovers a crueller world, where duty and desire, faith and happiness can only ever conflict.
Release date: December 11, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 432
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Here love had died between me and the Army.
Here the tram lines ended, so that men returning fuddled from Glasgow could doze in their seats until roused by their journey’s end. There was some way to go from the tram-stop to the camp gates; quarter of a mile in which they could button their blouses and straighten their caps before passing the guard-room, quarter of a mile in which concrete gave place to grass at the road’s edge. This was the extreme limit of the city. Here the close, homogeneous territory of housing estates and cinemas ended and the hinterland began.
The camp stood where, until quite lately, had been pasture and plowland; the farmhouse still stood in a fold of the hill and had served us for battalion offices; ivy still supported part of what had once been the walls of a fruit garden; half an acre of mutilated old trees behind the wash-houses survived of an orchard. The place had been marked for destruction before the army came to it. Had there been another year of peace, there would have been no farmhouse, no wall, no apple trees. Already half a mile of concrete road lay between bare clay banks, and on either side a checker of open ditches showed where the municipal contractors had designed a system of drainage. Another year of peace would have made the place part of the neighboring suburb. Now the huts where we had wintered waited their turn for destruction.
Over the way, the subject of much ironical comment, half hidden even in winter by its embosoming trees, lay the municipal lunatic asylum, whose cast-iron railings and noble gates put our rough wire to shame. We could watch the madmen, on clement days, sauntering and skipping among the trim gravel walks and pleasantly planted lawns; happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle, all doubts resolved, all duty done, the undisputed heirs-at-law of a century of progress, enjoying the heritage at their ease. As we marched past, the men used to shout greetings to them through the railings—“Keep a bed warm for me, chum. I shan’t be long”—but Hooper, my newest-joined platoon commander, grudged them their life of privilege; “Hitler would put them in a gas chamber,” he said; “I reckon we can learn a thing or two from him.”
Here, when we marched in at mid-winter, I brought a company of strong and hopeful men; word had gone round among them, as we moved from the moors to this dockland area, that we were at last in transit for the Middle East. As the days passed and we began clearing the snow and leveling a parade ground, I saw their disappointment change to resignation. They snuffed the smell of the fried-fish shops and cocked their ears to familiar, peace-time sounds of the works’ siren and the dance-hall band. On off-days they slouched now at street corners and sidled away at the approach of an officer for fear that, by saluting, they would lose face with their new mistresses. In the company office there was a crop of minor charges and requests for compassionate leave; while it was still half-light, day began with the whine of the malingerer and the glum face and fixed eye of the man with a grievance.
And I, who by every precept should have put heart into them—how could I help them, who could so little help myself? Here the colonel under whom we had formed, was promoted out of our sight and succeeded by a younger and less lovable man, cross-posted from another regiment. There were few left in the mess now of the batch of volunteers who trained together at the outbreak of war; one way and another they were nearly all gone—some had been invalided out, some promoted to other battalions, some posted to staff jobs, some had volunteered for special service, one had got himself killed on the field firing range, one had been court-martialed—and their places were taken by conscripts; the wireless played incessantly in the ante-room nowadays, and much beer was drunk before dinner; it was not as it had been.
Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o’clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.
Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day—had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading?—as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm, her jealousy and self-seeking, and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.
So, on this morning of our move, I was entirely indifferent as to our destination. I would go on with my job, but I could bring to it nothing more than acquiescence. Our orders were to entrain at 0915 hours at a nearby siding, taking in the haversack the unexpired portion of the day’s ration; that was all I needed to know. The company second-in-command had gone on with a small advance party. Company stores had been packed the day before. Hooper had been detailed to inspect the lines. The company was parading at 0730 hours with their kit-bags piled before the huts. There had been many such moves since the wildly exhilarating morning in 1940 when we had erroneously believed ourselves destined for the defense of Calais. Three or four times a year since then we had changed our location; this time our new commanding officer was making an unusual display of “security” and had even put us to the trouble of removing all distinguishing badges from our uniforms and transport. It was “valuable training in active service conditions,” he said. “If I find any of these female camp followers waiting for us the other end, I’ll know there’s been a leakage.”
The smoke from the cook-houses drifted away in the mist and the camp lay revealed as a planless maze of short-cuts, superimposed on the unfinished housing-scheme, as though disinterred at a much later date by a party of archaeologists.
“The Pollock diggings provide a valuable link between the citizen-slave communities of the twentieth century and the tribal anarchy which succeeded them. Here you see a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of permanent highways, over-run by a race of the lowest type.”
Thus, I thought, the pundits of the future might write; and, turning away, I greeted the company sergeant-major: “Has Mr. Hooper been round?”
“Haven’t seen him at all this morning, sir.”
We went to the dismantled company office, where I found a window newly broken since the barrack-damages book was completed. “Wind-in-the-night, sir,” said the sergeant-major.
(All breakages were thus attributable or to “Sappers’-demonstration, sir.”)
Hooper appeared; he was a sallow youth with hair combed back, without parting, from his forehead, and a flat, Midland accent; he had been in the company two months.
The troops did not like Hooper because he knew too little about his work and would sometimes address them individually as “George” at stand-easies, but I had a feeling which almost amounted to affection for him, largely by reason of an incident on his first evening in mess.
The new colonel had been with us less than a week at the time and we had not yet taken his measure. He had been standing rounds of gin in the ante-room and was slightly boisterous when he first took notice of Hooper.
“That young officer is one of yours, isn’t he, Ryder?” he said to me. “His hair wants cutting.”
“It does, sir,” I said. It did. “I’ll see that it’s done.”
The colonel drank more gin and began to stare at Hooper, saying audibly, “My God, the officers they send us now!”
Hooper seemed to obsess the colonel that evening. After dinner he suddenly said very loudly: “In my late regiment if a young officer turned up like that, the other subalterns would bloody well have cut his hair for him.”
No one showed any enthusiasm for this sport, and our lack of response seemed to inflame the colonel. “You,” he said, turning to a decent boy in “A” Company, “go and get a pair of scissors and cut that young officer’s hair for him.”
“Is that an order, sir?”
“It’s your commanding officer’s wish and that’s the best kind of order I know.”
“Very good, sir.”
And so, in an atmosphere of chilly embarrassment, Hooper sat in a chair while a few snips were made at the back of his head. At the beginning of the operation I left the ante-room, and later apologized to Hooper for his reception. “It’s not the sort of thing that usually happens in this regiment,” I said.
“Oh, no hard feelings,” said Hooper. “I can take a bit of sport.”
Hooper had no illusions about the Army—or rather no special illusions distinguishable from the general, enveloping fog from which he observed the universe. He had come to it reluctantly, under compulsion, after he had made every feeble effort in his power to obtain deferment. He accepted it, he said, “like the measles.” Hooper was no romantic. He had not as a child ridden with Rupert’s horse or sat among the camp fires at Xanthus-side; at the age when my eyes were dry to all save poetry—that stoic, red-skin interlude which our schools introduce between the fast-flowing tears of the child and the man—Hooper had wept often, but never for Henry’s speech on St. Crispin’s day, nor for the epitaph at Thermopylae. The history they taught him had had few battles in it but, instead, a profusion of detail about humane legislation and recent industrial change. Gallipoli, Balaclava, Quebec, Lepanto, Bannockburn, Roncevales and Marathon—these, and the Battle in the West where Arthur fell, and a hundred such names whose trumpet-notes, even now in my sere and lawless state, called to me irresistibly across the intervening years with all the clarity and strength of boyhood, sounded in vain to Hooper.
He seldom complained. Though himself a man to whom one could not confidently entrust the simplest duty, he had an over-mastering regard for efficiency and, drawing on his modest commercial experience, he would sometimes say of the ways of the Army in pay and supply and the use of “man-hours”: “They couldn’t get away with that in business.”
He slept sound while I lay awake fretting.
In the weeks that we were together Hooper became a symbol to me of Young England, so that whenever I read some public utterance proclaiming what Youth demanded in the Future and what the world owed to Youth, I would test these general statements by substituting “Hooper” and seeing if they still seemed as plausible. Thus in the dark hour before reveille I sometimes pondered: “Hooper Rallies,” “Hooper Hostels,” “International Hooper Cooperation,” and “the Religion of Hooper.” He was the acid test of all these alloys.
So far as he had changed at all, he was less soldierly now than when he arrived from his OCTU. This morning, laden with full equipment, he looked scarcely human. He came to attention with a kind of shuffling dance-step and spread a wool-gloved palm across his forehead.
“I want to speak to Mr. Hooper, sergeant-major… well, where the devil have you been? I told you to inspect the lines.”
“ ’M I late? Sorry. Had a rush getting my gear together.”
“That’s what you have a servant for.”
“Well, I suppose it is, strictly speaking. But you know how it is. He had his own stuff to do. If you get on the wrong side of these fellows they take it out of you other ways.”
“Well, go and inspect the lines now.”
“And for Christ’s sake don’t say ‘rightyoh.’ ”
“Sorry. I do try to remember. It just slips out.”
When Hooper left the sergeant-major returned.
“C.O. just coming up the path, sir,” he said.
I went out to meet him.
There were beads of moisture on the hog-bristles of his little red mustache.
“Well, everything squared up here?”
“Yes, I think so, sir.”
“Think so? You ought to know.”
His eyes fell on the broken window. “Has that been entered in the barrack damages?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“Not yet? I wonder when it would have been, if I hadn’t seen it.”
He was not at ease with me, and much of his bluster rose from timidity, but I thought none the better of it for that.
He led me behind the huts to a wire fence which divided my area from the carrier-platoon’s, skipped briskly over, and made for an overgrown ditch and bank which had once been a field boundary on the farm. Here he began grubbing with his walking-stick like a truffling pig and presently gave a cry of triumph. He had disclosed one of those deposits of rubbish, which are dear to the private soldier’s sense of order: the head of a broom, the lid of a stove, a bucket rusted through, a sock, a loaf of bread, lay under the dock and nettle among cigarette packets and empty tins.
“Look at that,” said the commanding officer. “Fine impression that gives to the regiment taking over from us.”
“That’s bad,” I said.
“It’s a disgrace. See everything there is burned before you leave camp.”
“Very good, sir. Sergeant-major, send over to the carrier-platoon and tell Captain Brown that the C.O. wants this ditch cleared up.”
I wondered whether the colonel would take this rebuff; so did he. He stood a moment irresolutely prodding the muck in the ditch, then he turned on his heel and strode away.
“You shouldn’t do it, sir,” said the sergeant-major, who had been my guide and prop since I joined the company. “You shouldn’t really.”
“That wasn’t our rubbish.”
“Maybe not, sir, but you know how it is. If you get on the wrong side of senior officers they take it out of you other ways.”
As we marched past the madhouse, two or three elderly inmates gibbered and mouthed politely behind the railings.
“Cheeroh, chum, we’ll be seeing you”; “We shan’t be long now”; “Keep smiling till we meet again,” the men called to them.
I was marching with Hooper at the head of the leading platoon.
“I say, any idea where we’re off to?”
“D’you think it’s the real thing?”
“Just a flap?”
“Everyone’s been saying we’re for it. I don’t know what to think really. Seems so silly somehow, all this drill and training if we never go into action.”
“I shouldn’t worry. There’ll be plenty for everyone in time.”
“Oh, I don’t want much you know. Just enough to say I’ve been in it.”
A train of antiquated coaches was waiting for us at the siding; an R.T.O. was in charge; a fatigue party was loading the last of the kit-bags from the trucks to the luggage vans. In half an hour we were ready to start and in an hour we started.
My three platoon commanders and myself had a carriage to ourselves. They ate sandwiches and chocolate, smoked and slept. None of them had a book. For the first three or four hours they noted the names of the towns and leaned out of the windows when, as often happened, we stopped between stations. Later they lost interest. At midday and again at dark some tepid cocoa was ladled from a container into our mugs. The train moved slowly south through flat, drab main-line scenery.
The chief incident in the day was the C.O.’s “order group.” We assembled in his carriage, at the summons of an orderly, and found him and the adjutant wearing their steel helmets and equipment. The first thing he said was: “This is an Order Group. I expect you to attend properly dressed. The fact that we happen to be in a train is immaterial.” I thought he was going to send us back but, after glaring at us, he said, “Sit down.”
“The camp was left in a disgraceful condition. Wherever I went I found evidence that officers are not doing their duty. The state in which a camp is left is the best possible test of the efficiency of regimental officers. It is on such matters that the reputation of a battalion and its commander rests. And”—did he in fact say this or am I finding words for the resentment in his voice and eye? I think he left it unsaid—“I do not intend to have my professional reputation compromised by the slackness of a few temporary officers.”
We sat with our note-books and pencils waiting to take down the details of our next jobs. A more sensitive man would have seen that he had failed to be impressive; perhaps he saw, for he added in a petulant schoolmasterish way: “All I ask is loyal cooperation.”
Then he referred to his notes and read:
“Information. The battalion is now in transit between location A and location B. This is a major L of C and is liable to bombing and gas attack from the enemy.
“Intention. I intend to arrive at location B.
“Method. Train will arrive at destination at approximately 2315 hours…” and so on.
The sting came at the end under the heading, “Administration.” “C” Company, less one platoon, was to unload the train on arrival at the siding where three three-tonners would be available for moving all stores to a battalion dump in the new camp; work to continue until completed; the remaining platoon was to find a guard on the dump and perimeter sentries for the camp area.
“Can we have an issue of cocoa for the working party?”
“No. Any more questions?”
When I told the sergeant-major of these orders he said: “Poor old ‘C’ Company struck unlucky again”; and I knew this to be a reproach for my having antagonized the commanding officer.
I told the platoon commanders.
“I say,” said Hooper, “it makes it awfully awkward with the chaps. They’ll be fairly browned off. He always seems to pick on us for the dirty work.”
“You’ll do guard.”
“Okeydoke. But I say, how am I to find the perimeter in the dark?”
Shortly after blackout we were disturbed by an orderly making his way lugubriously down the length of the train with a rattle. One of the more sophisticated sergeants called out “Deuxième service.”
“We are being sprayed with liquid mustard-gas,” I said. “See that the windows are shut.” I then wrote a neat little situation-report to say that there were no casualties and nothing had been contaminated; that men had been detailed to decontaminate the outside of the coach before detraining. This seemed to satisfy the commanding officer, for we heard no more from him. After dark we all slept.
At last, very late, we came to our siding. It was part of our training in security and active service conditions that we should eschew stations and platforms. The drop from the running board to the cinder track made for disorder and breakages in the darkness.
“Fall in on the road below the embankment. ‘C’ Company seem to be taking their time as usual, Captain Ryder.”
“Yes, sir. We’re having a little difficulty with the bleach.”
“For decontaminating the outside of the coaches, sir.”
“Oh, very conscientious, I’m sure. Skip it and get a move on.”
By now my half-awake and sulky men were clattering into shape on the road. Soon Hooper’s platoon had marched off into the darkness; I found the lorries, organized lines of men to pass the stores from hand to hand down the steep bank, and, presently, as they found themselves doing something with an apparent purpose in it, they got more cheerful. I handled stores with them for the first half hour; then broke off to meet the company second-in-command who came down with the first returning truck.
“It’s not a bad camp,” he reported; “big private house with two or three lakes. Looks as if we might get some duck if we’re lucky. Village with one pub and a post office. No town within miles. I’ve managed to get a hut between the two of us.”
By four in the morning the work was done. I drove in the last lorry, through tortuous lanes where the overhanging boughs whipped the windscreen; somewhere we left the lane and turned into a drive; somewhere we reached an open space where two drives converged and a ring of storm lanterns marked the heap of stores. Here we unloaded the truck and, at long last, followed the guides to our quarters, under a starless sky, with a fine drizzle of rain beginning now to fall.
I slept until my servant called me, rose wearily, dressed and shaved in silence. It was not till I reached the door that I asked the second-in-command, “What’s this place called?”
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.
Outside the hut I stood bemused. The rain had ceased but the clouds hung low and heavy overhead. It was a still morning and the smoke from the cook-house rose straight to the leaden sky. A cart-track, once metaled, then overgrown, now rutted and churned to mud, followed the contour of the hillside and dipped out of sight below a knoll, and on either side of it lay the haphazard litter of corrugated iron, from which rose the rattle and chatter and whistling and catcalls, all the zoo-noises of the battalion beginning a new day. Beyond and about us, more familiar still, lay an exquisite manmade landscape. It was a sequestered place, enclosed and embraced in a single, winding valley. Our camp lay along one gentle slope; opposite us the ground led, still unravished, to the neighborly horizon, and between us flowed a stream—it was named the Bride and rose not two miles away at a farm called Bridesprings, where we used sometimes to walk to tea; it became a considerable river lower down before it joined the Avon—which had been dammed here to form three lakes, one no more than a wet slate among the reeds, but the others more spacious, reflecting the clouds and the mighty beeches at their margin. The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak gray and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide green spaces—Did the fallow deer graze here still?—and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs. All this had been planned and planted a century and a half ago so that, at about this date, it might be seen in its maturity. From where I stood the house was hidden by a green spur, but I knew well how and where it lay, couched among the lime trees like a hind in the bracken.
Hooper came sidling up and greeted me with his much imitated but inimitable salute. His face was gray from his night’s vigil and he had not yet shaved.
“ ‘B’ Company relieved us. I’ve sent the chaps off to get cleaned up.”
“The house is up there, round the corner.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Brigade Headquarters are coming there next week. Great barrack of a place. I’ve just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I’d call it. And a queer thing, there’s a sort of R.C. Church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on—just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine.” Perhaps I seemed not to hear; in a final effort to excite my interest he said: “There’s a frightful great fountain, too, in front of the steps, all rocks and sort of carved animals. You never saw such a thing.”
“Yes, Hooper, I did. I’ve been here before.”
The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my dungeon.
“Oh well, you know all about it. I’ll go and get cleaned up.”
I had been there before; I knew all about it.
I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendor, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.
That day, too, I had come not knowing my destination. It was Eights Week. Oxford—submerged now and obliterated, irrecoverable as Lyonnesse, so quickly have the waters come flooding in—Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint. In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day; her autumnal mists, her gray springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days—such as that day—when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth. It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamor. Here, discordantly, in Eights Week, came a rabble of womankind, some hundreds strong, twittering and fluttering over the cobbles and up the steps, sight-seeing and pleasure-seeking, drinking claret cup, eating cucumber sandwiches; pushed in punts about the river, herded in droves to the college barges; greeted in the Isis and in the Union by a sudden display of peculiar, facetious, wholly distressing Gilbert-and-Sullivan badinage, and by peculiar choral effects in the college chapels. Echoes of the intruders penetrated every corner, and in my own college was no echo, but an original fount of the grossest disturbance. We were giving a ball. The front quad, where I lived, was floored and tented; palms and azaleas were banked round the porter’s lodge; worst of all, the don who lived above me, a mouse of a man connected with the Natural Sciences, had lent his rooms for a Ladies’ Cloakroom, and a printed notice proclaiming this outrage hung not six inches from my oak.
No one felt more strongly about it than my scout.
“Gentlemen who haven’t got ladies are asked as far as possible to take their meals out in the next few days,” he announced despondently. “Will you be lunching in?”
“So as to give the servants a chance, they say. What a chance! I’ve got to buy a pin-cushion for the Ladies’ Cloakroom. What do they want with dancing? I don’t see the reason in it. There never was dancing before in Eights Week. Commem. now is another matter being in the vacation, but not in Eights Week, as if teas and the river wasn’t enough. If you ask me, sir, it’s all on account of the war. It couldn’t have happened but for that.” For this was 1923 and for Lunt, as for thousands of others, things could never be the same as they had been in 1914. “Now wine in the evening,” he continued, as was his habit half in and half out of the door, “or one or two gentlemen to luncheon, there’s reason in. But not dancing. It all came in with the men back from the war. They were too old and they didn’t know and they wouldn’t learn. That’s the truth. And there’s some even goes dancing with the town at
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