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McAuslan in the Rough

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      McAuslan in the Rough
George MacDonald Fraser

'McAuslan in the Rough', the second volume of George MacDonald Fraser’s stories featuring “Old Private Piltdown” (as the court-material defence called him).Includes such episodes as the desert mystery of Fort Yarhuna, the Great Regimental Quiz, the search for a deserter in a native town threatened by epidemic, McAuslan in love, and his finest and funniest hour – as a caddy to that rugged Caledonian eminence, the Regimental Sergeant -Major, in a golf game whose importance, makes the Open Championship look like a seaside putting competition. As his chronicler reminds us: “McAuslan is always with us. He was probably at Cannae and Pharsalia, and hasn’t washed since. And you can bet that he’ll be there, more or less at attention, with his rusty rifle and his buttons undone, when the ranks fall in for Armageddon.”

GEORGE MACDONALD FRASER

McAuslan in the Rough

For

Sie, Caro, and Nicky

some more stories

Contents

Cover (#u4a26568c-d08d-5aa0-b541-f89bc5123c77)

Title Page (#ud4c1248c-0647-5782-888d-dd29a7102e94)

Bo Geesty (#uf79b25d8-ed42-5cad-9b66-cc69f04a6faa)

Johnnie Cope in the Morning (#u2ef1e01d-22bf-5da8-935d-f6fc5afdcfbb)

General Knowledge, Private Information (#u302a003c-6ba0-5a24-b370-429d76e8663f)

Parfit Gentil Knight, But (#litres_trial_promo)

Fly Men (#litres_trial_promo)

McAuslan in the Rough (#litres_trial_promo)

His Majesty Says Good-Day (#litres_trial_promo)

Author’s Note (#litres_trial_promo)

Glossary (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

By the same author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Bo Geesty (#ulink_665c60f1-022c-5386-8c44-c144e83f2296)

See this fella, Bo Geesty? Aye, weel, him an’ his mates, they wis inna Foreign Legion, inna fort, inna desert, an’ the wogs wis gettin’ tore in at them. An’ a’ the fellas inna fort got killt, but when the relief colyum arrived a’ the fellas inna fort wis staundin’ up at the wall, wi’ their guns an’ bunnets on, like they wis on guard. But they wis a’ deid. The fellas in the relief colyum couldnae make it oot; they thought the place must be hauntit. So they did. It wis a smashin’ picture, but.

—Private McAuslan, as critic, on the film

of P. C. Wren’s Beau Geste

Fort Yarhuna lies away to the south, on the edge of the big desert. It was there, or something like it, in the days when the Sahara was still grassland; in more modern times it saw long-range patrols of Alexander the Great’s mercenaries from fair Cyrene across the sandhills eastward, and it received the battered remnants of Hannibal’s regiments after Zama. It was garrisoned by Roman legionaries before the Vandals swept into it from the west, or Arab riders from the Great Sand Sea brought the first camels and planted the date-palms in the little village beneath its walls; it shielded the Barbary rovers’ sea-nests until a little detachment of U.S. Marines marched across the desert to plant the Stars and Stripes for the first time on foreign soil. The Caliphs ornamented its gateway, the Crusaders built the little shrine in the courtyard, the Afrika Korps stored the petrol for their panzers in its stables, the Highland Division left their inevitable “H.D.” trademark on its walls, and Private Fletcher (I suspect) scribbled “Kilroy was here” and “Up the Celtic” on its main gate. That was during the Twelve Platoon occupation, circa A.D. 1946.

The reason for Fort Yarhuna’s long existence is that it commands a crossing of the great caravan trails, the last oasis on the edge of nowhere. The great trains from the south, with their ivory and gold and slaves, paused here before the last lap north to Tripoli and Tunis, or before they turned eastward for Egypt; coming in the other direction, it was where the Mediterranean traders tightened their girths and sharpened their weapons against the Touareg bandits who infested the southern roads through the biggest wasteland in the world. Fort Yarhuna, in fact, has seen a lot of hard service and is a very hot station. Its importance to me is that it was my first very own independent command, and the significance of that is something which Hannibal’s men, and Alexander’s, to say nothing of the Romans, Vandals, Crusaders and Leathernecks, would be the first to appreciate.

Why we had to garrison it, nobody knew. The battalion was stationed on the coast, in civilisation, the war was over, and there was nothing to do except show the flag, bathe, beat retreat every Friday with the pipes and drums to impress the locals, and wait to be demobilised. But Higher Authority, in Cairo, decreed that Fort Yarhuna must be garrisoned—they may have had some vague fears of invasion from the Belgian Congo, or been unduly impressed by seeing The Desert Song, but more probably it was just military tidiness: Fort Yarhuna had always been manned, and it was officially in our battalion area. So, since I had been commissioned for six months and attained the giddy height of lieutenant, I was instructed to repair to Fort Yarhuna with two platoons, place it in a state of defence, occupy it for a month in the name of the King and the United Nations, close its gate at sunset, see that the courtyard was swept and free from litter, and in the event of an Arab uprising (I’m sure someone had seen The Desert Song) defend it to the last round and the last man etc., etc.

Of course, there wasn’t a chance in a million of an Arab uprising. Since the Italians had been heaved out in the war, all that the genial Bedouin wanted to do was carry on loafing in the sun, catching cholera and plodding his caravans through Yarhuna village from nowhere to yonder; the nearest thing to illegal activity was the local pastime of looting the debris of war which Montgomery’s and Rommel’s men had left spread over the countryside, for in those days the whole way from Egypt to Tunis was a great junkyard of burned-out tanks, wrecked trucks, abandoned gear, and lost ammunition dumps. And whatever Cairo thought, the local official opinion was that the Arabs could have it, and welcome.

I was more concerned at the possibility of a Twelve Platoon uprising. A month stuck in a desert fort would be no joy to them, after the fleshpots of the coast, and while six months had established a pretty good working relationship between me and my volatile command of Glaswegians and Aberdeenshire countrymen, I was a trifle apprehensive of being their sole authority and mentor so far away from the battalion, where you have the whole apparatus of Army, Colonel, Regimental Sergeant-Major and provost sergeant to back you up.

The Colonel, that kindly, crafty old gentleman, gave me sound advice before I set out. “Work ’em stupid,” he said. “Every parade—reveille, first inspection, cookhouse, and company office—must be on the dot, just as though you were in the battalion. Anyone drags his feet by as much as a second—nail him. I don’t care if half the detachment’s on jankers. But if you let ’em slack off, or have time to be bored, they’ll be sand-happy before you know it. It can happen well inside a month; ennui has undermined more outpost garrisons than plague or enemy action, take my word for it.” And he went on to tell me harrowing tales of Khyber forts and East African jungle stockades, called for another whisky, and assured me it would be great fun, really.

“To keep you occupied, you’re to dig for water, inside the fort itself. The place hasn’t been occupied for years, but there’s got to be a well somewhere, the Sappers say. If one is found, it’ll save the water-truck coming down every second day. You can pick up the drilling equipment at Marble Arch depot—they’ll give you a driver to work it—while Keith takes the detachment down to Fort Yarhuna and settles ’em in.”

Keith was the second-lieutenant who commanded Eleven Platoon—the garrison of Yarhuna was to be a two-platoon force—so I despatched him and the command to the fort, while I went with one section to Marble Arch for the drilling gear. It was a long, dusty, two-day haul east on the coast road, but we collected the drilling-truck from the Service Corps people, were shown how the special screw attached to its rear axle could drill a ten-foot shaft six inches across in a matter of minutes, and told that all we had to do was proceed by trial and error until we struck water.

I was in haste to get back along the coast and down to Fort Yarhuna to assume command before Keith did anything rash—young subalterns are as jealous as prima donnas, and convinced of each others’ fecklessness, and Keith was a mere pink-cheeked one-pipper of twenty years, whereas I had reached the grizzled maturity of twenty-one and my second star. Heaven knew what youthful folly he might commit without my riper judgement to steady him. However, we paused for a brief sight-see at Marble Arch which, as you may know, is one of the architectural curiosities of North Africa, being a massive white gateway towering some hundreds of feet out of the naked desert, a grandiose tombstone to Mussolini’s vanity and brief empire.

It was probably a mistake to stop and look at it: I should have remembered that in the section with me was Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world, of whom I have written elsewhere. Short, be-pimpled, permanently unwashed, and slow-witted to a degree in the performance of his military duties, he was a kind of battalion landmark, like the Waterloo snuff-box. Not that he was a bad sort, in his leprous way, but he was a sure disaster in any enterprise to which he set his grimy hand. As his platoon commander, I had mixed feelings about him, partly protective but mostly despairing. What made it worse was that he tried to please, which could lead to all sorts of embarrassment.

When we got out of the truck to view the arch he stood scratching himself and goggling balefully up at it, inquiring of his friend Private Fletcher:

“Whit the hell’s yon thing?”

“Yon’s the Marble Arch, dozey.”

“Ah thought the Marble Arch wis in London. Sure it is.”

“This is anither Marble Arch, ye dope.”

“Aw.” Pause. “Who the hell pit it here, then? Whit fur?”

“The Eyeties did. Mussolini pit it up, just for the look o’ the thing.”

McAuslan digested this, wiped his grimy nose, and like the Oriental sage meditating on human vanity, observed: “Stupid big bastard”, which in its own way is a fair echo of contemporary opinion of Il Duce as an imperialist.

The trouble was that they wanted to climb the thing, and I was soft enough to let them; mind you, I wanted to climb it myself. And Marble Arch is really big; you climb it by going into a tiny door in one of its twin columns, ascending some steps, and then setting off, in total darkness, up an endless series of iron rungs driven into the wall. They go up forever, with only occasional rests on solid ledges which you find by touch in the gloom, and when you have climbed for about ten minutes, and the tiny square of light at the top of the shaft seems as small as ever, and your muscles are creaking with the strain of clinging to the rungs, you suddenly realise that the black abyss below you is very deep indeed, and if you let go. … Quite.

McAuslan, naturally, got lost. He strayed on to one of the ledges, apparently found another set of rungs somewhere, and roamed about in the stygian void, blaspheming horribly. His rich Parkhead oaths boomed through the echoing tunnels like the thunderings of some fearful Northern god with a glottal stop, and the ribaldries of the rest of the section, all strung out in the darkness on that frightening ladder, mocking him, turned the shaft into a deafening Tower of Babel. I was near the top, clinging with sweating fingers to the rungs, painfully aware that I couldn’t go back to look for him—it would have been suicide to try to get past the other climbers in the blackness—and that if he missed his hold, or got exhausted playing Tarzan, we would finish up scraping him off the distant floor with a spoon.

“Don’t panic, McAuslan,” I called down. “Take it easy and Sergeant Telfer’ll get you out.” Telfer was at the tail of the climbing procession, I knew, and could be depended on.

‘Ah’m no’ —— panickin’ ” came the despairing wail from the depths. “Ah’m loast! Ach, the hell wi’ this! —— Mussolini, big Eyetie git! Him an’ his bluidy statues!” And more of the like, until Telfer found him, crouched on a ledge like a disgruntled Heidelberg man, and drove him with oaths to the top.

Once at the summit, you are on a platform between two enormous gladiatorial figures which recline along the top of the arch, supporting a vast marble slab which is the very peak of the monument. You get on to it by climbing a short iron ladder which goes through a hole in the slab, and there you are, with the wind howling past, looking down over the unfenced edge at the tiny toy trucks like beetles on the desert floor, a giddy drop below, and the huge sweep of sand stretching away to the hazy horizon, with the coast road like a string running dead straight away both sides of the arch. You must be able to see the Mediterranean as well, but curiously enough I don’t remember it, just the appalling vastness of desert far beneath, and the forced cheerfulness of men pretending they are enjoying the view, and secretly wishing they were safely back at ground level.

We probably stayed longer than we wanted, keeping back from the edge or approaching it on our stomachs, because the prospect of descent was not attractive. Eventually I went first, pausing on the lower platform to instruct McAuslan to stay close above me, but not, as he valued his life, to tread on my fingers. He nodded, ape-like, and then, being McAuslan, and of an inquiring mind, asked me how the hell they had got they dirty big naked statues a’ the way up here, sir. I said I hadn’t the least idea, Fletcher said: “Sky-hooks”, and as we groped our way down that long, gloomy shaft, clinging like flies, a learned debate was being conducted by the unseen climbers descending above me, McAuslan informing Fletcher that he wisnae gaunae be kidded and if Fletcher knew how they got they dirty big naked statues up there, let him say so, an’ no’ take the mickey oot o’ him, McAuslan, because he wisnae havin’ it, see? We reached the bottom, exhausted and shaking slightly, and resumed our journey to Fort Yarhuna, myself digesting another Lesson for Young Officers, namely: don’t let your men climb monuments, and if they do, leave McAuslan behind. Mind you, leaving McAuslan behind is a maxim that may be applied to virtually any situation.

We reached Yarhuna after another two-day ride, branching off the coast road and spending the last eight hours bumping over a desert track which got steadily worse before we rolled through Yarhuna village and up to the fort which stands on a slight rise quarter of a mile farther on.

One look at it was enough to transport you back to the Saturday afternoon cinemas of childhood, with Ronald Colman tilting his kepi rakishly, Brian Donlevy shouting “March or die, mes enfants”, and the Riffs coming howling over the sand-crests singing “Ho!” It was a dun-coloured, sand-blasted square structure of twenty-foot walls, with firing-slits on its parapet and a large tower at one corner, from which hung the D Company colour, wherever Keith had got that from. Inside the fort proper there was a good open parade square, with barracks and offices all round the inside of the walls, their flat roofs forming a catwalk from which the parapet could be manned. It was your real Beau Geesty innit and it was while my section was debussing that I heard McAuslan recalling his visit to the pictures to see Gary Cooper in Wren’s classic adventure story. (“Jist like Bo Geesty, innit, Wullie? Think the wogs’ll get tore in at us, eh? Hey, mebbe Darkie’ll prop up wir deid bodies like that bastard o’ a sergeant in the pictur’.” I’ll wear gloves if I prop you up, I thought.)

Keith, full of the pride of possession, showed me round. He had done a good job in short order: the long barrack-rooms were clean if airless, all the gear and furniture had been unloaded, the empty offices and store-rooms had been swept clear of the sand that forever blew itself into little piles in the corners, and he had the Jocks busy whitewashing the more weatherworn buildings. Already it looked like home, and I remember feeling that self-sufficient joy that is one of the phenomena of independent command; plainly Keith and the Jocks felt it, too, for they had worked as they’d never have done in the battalion. I went through every room and office, from the top of the tower to the old Roman stable and the cool, musty cells beneath the gatehouse, prying and noting, whistling “Blue heaven and you and I”, and feeling a growing pleasure that this place was ours, to keep and garrison and, if necessary, defend. It was all very romantic, and yet practical and worthwhile—you can get slightly power-crazy in that sort of situation, probably out of some atavistic sense inherited from our ancestors, feeling secure and walled-in against the outside. It’s a queer feeling, and I knew just enough from my service farther east to be aware that in a day or two it would change into boredom, and the answer, as the Colonel had said, was to keep busy.

So I was probably something like Captain Bligh in the first couple of days, chasing and exhorting, keeping half the detachment on full parade within the fort itself, while the other half went out on ten-mile patrols of the area, for even with a friendly population in peacetime you can’t know too much about the surrounding territory. To all intents it was just empty desert with a few Bedouin camps, apart from Yarhuna village itself. This was a fair-sized place, with its oasis and palm-grove, its market and some excellent Roman ruins, and about a hundred permanent huts and little houses. It boasted a sheikh, a most dignified old gentleman whose beard was bright red at the bottom and white near his mouth, where the dye had worn off; he visited us on our second day, and we received him formally, both platoons in their tartans and with fixed bayonets, presenting arms. He took it like a grandee, and Keith and I entertained him to tea in the company office, with tinned salmon sandwiches, club cheese biscuits, Naafi cakes, a tin of Players and such other delicacies as one lays before the face of kings. The detachment cook had had fits beforehand, because he wasn’t sure if Moslems ate tinned salmon; as it turned out this one did, in quantity.

He had an interpreter, a smooth young man who translated into halting English the occasional observations of our guest, who sat immovable, smiling gently beneath his embroidered black kafilyeh, his brown burnous wrapped round him, as he gazed over the square at the Jocks playing football. We were staying for a month? And then? Another regiment would arrive? It was to be a permanent garrison, in fact? That would be most satisfactory; the British presence was entirely welcome, be they Tripoli Police or military. Yes, the local inhabitants had the happiest recollections of the Eighth Army—at this point the sheikh beamed and said the only word of English in his vocabulary, which was “Monty!” with a great gleam of teeth. We required nothing from the village? Quite so, we were self-sufficient in the fort, but he would be happy to be of assistance. … And so on, until after more civilities and another massive round of salmon sandwiches, the sheikh took a stately leave. It was at the gate that he paused, and through his interpreter addressed a last question: we were not going to alter or remove any of the fort buildings during our stay? It was a very old place, of course, and he understood the British valued such things … a smile and a wave took in the carved gateway, and the little Crusaders’ shrine (that surprised me, slightly, I confess). We reassured him, he bowed, I saluted, and the palaver was finished.

I’m not unduly fanciful, but it left me wondering just a little. Possibly it’s a legacy of centuries of empire, but the British military are suspicious of practically everyone overseas, especially when they’re polite. I summoned the platoon sergeants, and enjoined strict caution in any dealings we might have with the village. I’d done that at the start, of course, parading the whole detachment and warning them against (1) eating fruit from the market, (2) becoming involved with local women, (3) offending the dignity or religious susceptibilities of the men, and (4) drinking native spirits. The result had been half a dozen cases of mild dysentery; a frantic altercation between me, Private Fletcher (the platoon Casanova), and a hennaed harpy of doubtful repute; a brawl between McAuslan and a camelman who had allegedly stolen McAuslan’s sporran; and a minor riot in Eleven Platoon barrack-room which ended with the confiscation of six bottles of arak that would have corroded a stainless steel sink. All round, just about par for the course, and easily dealt with by confinement to the fort for the offenders.

That in itself was a sobering punishment, for Yarhuna village was an enchanting place apart from its dubious fleshpots. Every day or so a little caravan would come through, straight out of the Middle Ages, with its swathed drivers and jingling bells and veiled outriders each with his Lee Enfield cradled across his knee and his crossed cartridge belts. (What the wild men of the world will do when the last Lee Enfield wears out, I can’t imagine; clumsy and old-fashioned it may be, but it will go on shooting straight when all the repeaters are rusty and forgotten.) The little market was an Arabian Nights delight with its interesting Orientals and hot cooking smells and laden stalls—lovely to look at, but hellish to taste—and I have an affectionate memory of a party of Jocks, bonnets pulled down, standing silently by the oasis tank, watching the camels watering, while the drivers and riders regarded the Jocks in turn, both sides quietly observing and noting, and reflecting on the quaint appearance of the foreigners. And for one day a travelling party of what I believe were Touaregs camped beyond the village, a cluster of red tents and cooking fires, and hooded men in black burnouses, with the famous indigo veils tight across their faces and the long swords at their girdles. They made no attempt to speak to us, but a few of them rode up to watch Twelve Platoon drilling outside the gate; they just sat their camels, immovable, until the parade was over, and then turned and rode off.

“There’s your real Arabis,” said Sergeant Telfer, and without my telling him he posted four extra sentries that night, one to each wall. He reported what he had done, almost apologetically; like me, he felt that we were playing at Foreign Legionnaires, rather, but still. … Everything was quiet, the natives were friendly, the platoons were hard-worked and happy, and it was a good time to take precautions. We were in the second week of our stay, and there was just the tiniest sense of unease creeping into everyone’s mind. Perhaps it was boredom, or the fact of being cooped up every night in a stronghold—for what? Perhaps it was the desert, hot as a furnace floor during the day, a mystery of silver and shadow and silence by night; as you stood on the parapet and looked out across the empty dunes, you felt very small indeed and helpless, for you were in the presence of something that had seen it all, through countless ages, something huge beside which you were no bigger man an ant. It was a relief to come down the steps to my quarters, and hear the raucous Glasgow patter from the cheerful barrack-room across the square.

And still nothing happened—why should it, after all?—until the beginning of the third week, when we started drilling for water. We had lost the first two weeks because of some defective part in the rear-axle drilling mechanism, and a spare had taken time to obtain from Marble Arch. It was a minor inconvenience, for the water-truck came from the coast three times a week, but a well would be a good investment for the future, for the only alternative water-supply was the oasis, and one look at its tank, with camels slurping, infants paddling, horses fertilising, grandmothers washing the family’s smalls, and everyone disposing prodigally of their refuse, suggested that our little blue and yellow purification pills would have had an uphill fight.
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