Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 5
Schreklichkeit


‘Buckets of eyeballs? Old hat, my boy. A canard dating back to the First Crusade.’ Trog Ward did that wet, puffing, clacking thing with his pipe, heaved a tar-congested sigh and shifted massively from foot to foot on the pavement.

‘But it was in the Berlin papers,’ protested Tolly.

‘To justify schreklichkeit,’ said his old headmaster. ‘Official policy. Remarkable how the Prussian invades neutral territory in violation of international law, claims Belgian civilians are contravening those same laws in offering resistance, and perpetrates atrocities in the guise of reprisals pour encourager les autres. I’m not sure that this Kaiser, or those around him, is altogether very bright. You know he has a withered arm? Difficult birth. Hmm. The dear, democratic Americans are outraged. It will be the Prussians’ undoing in the end.’

‘And the nuns, the women?’

‘Probably true up to a point. Prerogative of the invading army since the days of Genghis Khan. To humiliate, to demoralise, to reward and at the same time dehumanise one’s own troops – you don’t want Boy Scouts, do you? – and spread the conquerors’ seed. The despoliations of war.’

‘Well, at least the Belgian women are fighting back.’

‘Ah, our heroic “munitioneers” of Herstal. Boiling water to welcome the Uhlans, ey? Good for them. More power to their elbow, if it’s true, though it will only make things worse for them in the long run.’

‘That’s why we must fight.’

‘That is why you say you must fight. There are other reasons, especially for you, my boy. But I’m with you, Tolman, for what it’s worth. If you must fight, you and all the young men – hello Lafford, you too? – at least fight the good fight.’

‘With all our might!’

‘Yes my boy, with all your might.’

Trog Ward was a large, rumpled bundle of brown tweed and tobacco smell. Sad eyes observed a distressingly modern world. Reacting to Miranda Lockwood’s remarks about his ‘filthy old pipe’, Trog would make a half-shrug and, glancing to his right, a characteristic gesture, explain that the English ‘filthy’ came from the Old Saxon, cognate with fülitha, or foulness – Dutch vuilte – and Old High German fülida, from Proto-Germanic fülíthō, and quoted – as far as he knew, divinity was not his long suit – its first recorded use in written English in the 1384 Wycliffe Bible, I Tim., ch.3. v.2: ‘Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre’. Referring to the proper conduct of bishops. Not pipes.

Trog was, unusually for men of his generation, more or less clean-shaven, with an unrepentant, dandruffy cowlick of ash-coloured hair across his broad forehead. He grasped his pipe like a pen in stained, stubby fingers. He ambled as if slightly lost on his way from one armchair to another, and when he reached one would plonk himself in it, wheezing, fat legs apart. His natural home was a library leather armchair, his natural backdrop shelves of dusty books in archaic, guttural languages, his natural atmosphere a twisting, foul cloud of blue and brown smoke. He had never married. He spoke fluent Anglo-Saxon, High Dutch, Low German, Limburgish and Afrikaans. How he had ended up as headmaster of Millbridge Day School was anybody’s guess. He was in headmaster mode now.

‘The Prussians, “a race hatched from a cannonball” – Napoleon the Third, my boy – in 1870, easily within living memory, were hamstrung by the French corps-francs of fewer than 60,000 irregulars, who obliged von Moltke to divert 120,000 troops to protect his rear, a quarter of the Prussian forces in France. Francs-tireurs, the Prussians called them, French murderers. They probably accounted for precious few actual casualties after Sedan but they terrified the Prussians. No doubt stories featuring buckets of eyeballs were doing the rounds then. Hence schreklichkeit. Frightfulness. Terror, you might say, to cow the Belgians. Doughty fellows, as they showed at Liége – look at that chap Leman – but no match for Big Bertha and Schlanke Emma. What a name for such a beast, Skinny Emma! But what the Prussians – I suppose we must call them Germans now – ’

‘Huns!’ exclaimed Harry.

‘– Huns, then – trust the Thunderer – what the Hun fears is a new force of francs-tireurs behind his lines. Hence Louvain…poor Louvain…like burning Oxford, which is what will be in store for Oxford if these beastly chaps invade. And Dinant, women and children, terrible business. They give us Goethe, Schiller, Meister Eckhardt, and now this…’

‘And Beethoven,’ said Tolly.

‘…of course, Sturm und Drang,’ Trog mused on, not hearing Tolly, ‘captured the thwarted spirit of German nationalism even then…hmm…but bildungsroman to Big Bertha…queer people, terrible business. Well, I must be off. Mrs Cunningham will be fretting about luncheon. Good luck Tolman, you too Lafford, pop in and see me before you go. I don’t suppose it will be long now, after this Amiens dispatch? All hands to the pumps now, ey? Bad business, poor chaps, but we’re not done yet.’

‘We hope not, sir,’ said Tolly.

‘Well, cheerio!’

‘Goodbye, sir,’ they chorused, watching Trog amble off  along Salt Street towards his house in Croft Lane, his lunch and his armchair and a fresh pipe.

‘Doesn’t change much, does he?’ said Harry.

‘Not a bit,’ said Tolly. ‘Good old Trog.’

‘Once he’s off…I thought he’d never shut up. You had yours, then?’

‘What?’

‘Your notification.’

‘I’ve been out all morning, piano lessons.’

‘Sergeant Lomas brought mine round to the shop. Yours is probably at home.’

‘And?’

‘We’re for the North Cheshires.’

 

 

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