A sky the colour of old bruises hung low over the battlefields of France, and rolled with ponderous dignity towards the German lines.
Brigadier-General Sean Courtney had spent four winters in France and now, with the eye of a cattleman and a farmer, he could judge this weather almost as accurately as that of his native Africa.
‘It will snow tonight,’ he grunted, and Lieutenant Nick van der Heever, his orderly officer, glanced back at him over his shoulder.
‘I shouldn’t wonder, sir.’
Van der Heever was heavily laden. In addition to his service rifle and webbing, he carried a canvas kitbag across his shoulder, for General Courtney was on his way to dine as a mess guest of the 2nd Battalion. At this moment the Colonel and officers of the 2nd Battalion were completely unaware of the impending honour, and Sean grinned in wicked anticipation at the panic that his unannounced arrival would create. The contents of the kitbag would be some small compensation for the shock, for it included half a dozen bottles of pinch bottle Haig and a fat goose.
Nevertheless, Sean was aware that his officers found his informal behaviour and his habit of arriving suddenly in the front lines, unannounced and unattended by his staff, more than a little disconcerting. Only a week before, he had overheard a field telephone conversation on a crossed line between a major and a captain.
‘The old bastard thinks he’s still fighting the Boer War. Can’t you keep him in a cage back there at H.Q.?’
‘How do you cage a bull elephant?’
‘Well, at least warn us when he’s on his way—’
Sean grinned again and trudged on after his orderly officer, the folds of his great-coat flapping about his putteed legs and, for warmth, a silk scarf wrapped around his head beneath the soup-plate shape of his helmet. The boards bounced under his feet and the gluey mud sucked and gurgled beneath them at the passing weight of the two men.
This part of the line was unfamiliar, the brigade had moved in less than a week previously, but the stench was well remembered. The musty smell of earth and mud, overladen with the odour of rotting flesh and sewage, the stale lingering whiff of burned cordite and high explosive.
Sean sniffed it and spat with distaste. Within an hour he knew he would be so accustomed as not to notice it, but now it seemed to coat the back of his throat like cold grease. Once again he looked up at the sky, and now he frowned. Either the wind had shifted into the east a point or two, or they had taken a wrong turning within the maze of trenches, for the low cloud was no longer rolling in the direction that fitted with the map that Sean carried in his head.
‘Are you still right?’
And he saw at once the uncertainty in the young subaltern’s eyes as he looked back.
The trenches had been deserted for the last quarter of a mile, not a single soul had they passed in the labyrinth of high earthen walls.
‘We’d better take a look, Nick.’
‘I’ll do it, sir.’ Van der Heever glanced ahead along the trench, and found what he was looking for. At the next intersection a wooden ladder was fastened into the wall. It reached to the top of the sand-bagged parapet. He started towards it.
‘Careful, Nick,’ Sean called after him.
‘Sir,’ the young man acknowledged, and propped his rifle before swarming upwards.
Sean calculated they were still three or four hundred yards from the front line yet, and the light was going fast. There was a purple velvet look to the air beneath the clouds, not shooting light at all, and he knew that, despite his age, van der Heever was an old soldier. The glance he took over the top would be swift as a meerkat looking out of its hole.
Sean watched him crouch at the top of the ladder, lift his head for a single quick sweep and then duck down again.
‘The hill is too much on our left,’ he called down.
The hill was a low, rounded mound that rose a mere hundred and fifty feet above the almost featureless plain. Once it had been thickly forested, but now only the shattered stumps stood waist-high and the slopes were dimpled with shell craters.
‘How far is the farm house?’ Sean asked, still peering upwards. The farm house was a roofless rectangle of battered walls that stood foursquare facing the centre of the Battalion’s sector. It was used as a central reference point for artillery, infantry and aircorps alike.
‘I’ll have another look,’ and van der Heever lifted his head again.
The Mauser has a distinctive cracking report, a high and vicious sound that Sean had heard so often as to be able to judge with accuracy its range and direction.
This was a single shot, at about five hundred yards, almost dead ahead.
Van der Heever’s head snapped backwards as though he had taken a heavy punch, and the steel of his helmet rang like a gong. The chin-strap snapped as the round helmet spun high in the air and then dropped to the floorboards in the bottom of the trench and rolled on its rim into a pool of grey mud.
Van der Heever’s hands remained locked closed on the top rung of the ladder for a moment, then the nerveless fingers opened, and he tumbled backwards, falling heavily into the bottom of the trench with the skirts of his great-coat ballooning around him.
Sean stood frozen and disbelieving, his mind not yet accepting the fact that Nick was hit, but, as a soldier and a hunter, judging that single shot with awe.
What kind of shooting was that? Five hundred yards in this murky light; one fleeting glimpse of a helmeted head above the parapet; three seconds to set the range and line up, then another instant of time to sight and fire as the head bobbed up again. The Hun that fired that shot was either a superb marksman with reflexes like a leopard – or the flukiest sniper on the western front.
The thought was fleeting and Sean started forward heavily and knelt beside his officer. He turned him with a hand upon the shoulder and felt the sickening slide in his guts and the cold grip on his chest.
The bullet had entered at the temple and exited behind the opposite ear.
Sean lifted the shattered head into his lap, removed his own helmet and began to unwind the silk scarf from around his head. He felt a desolation of loss.
Slowly he wrapped the boy’s head into the scarf, and immediately the blood soaked through the thin material. It was a futile gesture – but it served to keep his hands occupied and detract from his sense of helplessness.
He sat on the muddy floorboards, holding the boy’s body, his heavy shoulders bowed forward. The size of Sean’s bared head was accentuated by the thick curls of dark wiry hair shot through with splashes and strands of grey that sparkled frostily in the fading light. The short thick beard was laced with grey as well, and the big beaked nose was twisted and battered-looking.
Only the black curved eyebrows were sleek and unmarked, and the eyes were clear and dark cobalt blue, the eyes of a much younger man, steady and alert.
Sean Courtney sat for a long time holding the boy, and then he sighed once, deeply, and laid the broken head aside. He stood up, hefted the kitbag on to his own shoulder, and set off along the communications trench once again.