“Next day Apthorpe reported: “Things are looking worse.”
It showed how much the thunder-box had occupied Guy’s thoughts that he at once knew what Apthorpe meant.
“No, not that. But this morning as I was coming out I met the brigadier going in. He gave me a very odd look—you may have noticed he has rather a disagreeable stare on occasions. His look seemed to suggest that I had no business there.”
“He’s a man of action,” said Guy. “You won’t have to wait long to know what he thinks about it.”
All day Apthorpe was distracted. He answered haphazardly when asked an opinion on tactics. His solutions of the problems set them were wild. It was a particularly cold day. At every pause in the routine he kept vigil by the hut. He missed tea and did not return until ten minutes before the evening lecture. He was red-nosed and blue-cheeked.
“You’ll make yourself ill, if this goes on,” said Guy.”
“It can’t go on. The worst has happened already.”
“Come and see. I wouldn’t have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
They went out into the gloom.
“Just five minutes ago. I’d been on watch since tea and was getting infernally cold, so I started walking about. And the brigadier came right past me. I saluted. He said nothing. Then he did this thing right under my very eyes. Then he came past me again and I saluted and he positively grinned. I tell you, Crouchback, it was devilish.”
They had reached the hut. Guy could just see something large and white hanging on the door. Apthorpe turned his torch on it and Guy saw a neatly inscribed notice: Out of Bounds to all ranks below brigadier.
“He must have had it specially made by one of the clerks,” said Apthorpe awfully.
“It’s put you in rather a fix, hasn’t it?” said Guy.
“I shall send in my papers.”
“I don’t believe you can in wartime.”
“I can ask for a transfer to another regiment.”
“I should miss you, Apthorpe, more than you can possibly believe. Anyway there’s a lecture in two minutes. Let’s go in.”
“The brigadier himself lectured. Booby-traps, it appeared, were proving an important feature of patrol-work on the western front. The brigadier spoke of trip-wires, detonators, anti-personnel mines. He described in detail an explosive goat which he had once contrived and driven into a Bedouin encampment. Seldom had he been more exuberant.”
“This was one of the evenings when there was no discussion or night exercise and it was generally accepted that those who wished might dine out.
“Let’s go to the Garibaldi,” said Apthorpe. “I won’t sit at the same table with that man. You must dine with me as my guest.”
There, in the steam of minestrone, Apthorpe’s face became a healthier color and strengthened by Barolo his despair gave place to defiance. Pelecci leant very near while Apthorpe rehearsed his wrongs. The conversation was abstruse. “Thunder-box,” an invention of this capable officer’s, unjustly misappropriated by a superior, was clearly a new weapon of value.
“I don’t think,” said Apthorpe, “it would be any good appealing to the Army Council, do you?”
“You could not expect them to meet a case like this with purely open minds. I don’t suggest positive prejudice but, after all, it’s in their interest to support authority if they possibly can. If they found a loophole…”
“You think there are loopholes in your case?”
“Quite frankly, old man, I do. In a court of honor, of course, the thing would be different, but in its purely legal aspect one has to admit that the brigadier is within his rights in putting any part of the brigade premises out of bounds. It is also true that I installed my thunder-box without permission. That’s just the sort of point the Army Council would jump on.”
“Of course,” said Guy, “it’s arguable that since the thunder-box has not risen to the rank of brigadier, it is itself at the moment out of bounds.”
“You’ve got it, Crouchback. You’ve hit the nail right on the head.” He goggled across the table with frank admiration. “There’s such a thing, you know, as being too near to a problem. Here I’ve been turning this thing over and over in my mind till I felt quite ill with worry. I knew I needed an outside opinion; anybody’s, just someone who wasn’t personally implicated. I’ve no doubt I’d have come to the same solution myself sooner or later, but I might have worried half the night. I owe you a real debt of gratitude, old man.”
Sword of Honor