Read CHAPTER IX - SHOPPING of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on ReadCentral.com.

As the Captain sat down to breakfast, he turned to speak to me: “I propose ...” he began, but Lawson interrupted him. “Oh, John dear,” he said, “this is so sudden.”

The Captain took no notice of the interruption. “... that you and I go shopping this afternoon.”

“Jane,” I called to an imaginary maid, “please tell Parkes to bring the car round at eleven o’clock; we are going shopping in Bond Street, and lunching at the Ritz.”

“You all seem to think you’re deucedly funny this morning,” growled the Captain as he pushed aside a piece of cold bacon with the end of his knife. “The pure air of the billets seems to have gone to your heads so that I think a parade would suit you this afternoon.”

We sobered down at the threat. “No, seriously,” I said, “I’d love to go if I can get anything to ride.”

“You can have the Company’s pack horse. I’ll order both beasts for two o’clock.”

Now the Captain’s horse stands far more hands than any really respectable horse should, and the Captain is well over six feet in his socks; I, on the other hand, am nearer five feet than six, and the pack pony is none too big for me. Again, the Captain is thin and I am fat, so that even the sentry could scarcely repress his smile as we set forth on our quest a modern Don Quixote, and a Sancho Panza with a hole in the back of his tunic.

But we had little time to think of our personal appearances, for our way lay over the Mont Noir, and there are few places from which you can get a more wonderful view, for you can follow the firing line right away towards the sea, and your field glasses will show you the smoke rising from the steamers off Dunkirk. We paused a moment, and gazed over the level miles where Poperinghe and Dixmude and the distant Furnes lay sleepy and peaceful, but, even as we looked, a “heavy” burst in Ypres, and a long column of smoke rose languidly from the centre of the town.

“We shan’t do much more shopping in that old spot,” said the Captain as he turned his horse off the road, and set forth across country to Bailleul.

The Captain has hunted with nearly every pack of hounds in England, while I have hunted with none, so that I was hot and thirsty and uncommonly sore when we clattered into the town. Leaving the Captain to see the horses stabled at the Hotel du Faucon, I slipped off to get a drink.

“Here,” said the Captain when he tracked me down, “don’t try that game on again or you’ll have to take the early parade to-morrow. Besides, you’re supposed to be Company Interpreter, and you’ve no right to leave me to the mercy of two savage grooms like that. I advise you to take care, young man.”

My qualifications for the post of Company Interpreter lie in the fact that I once, in company of various other youths of my age, spent a fortnight in and around the Casino at Trouville. Peters of our company knows a long list of nouns taking “x” instead of “s” in the plural, but my knowledge is considered more practical more French.

And now comes a confession. To retain a reputation requires a lot of care, and to keep my position as Company Interpreter and outdo my rival Peters I always carried about with me a small pocket dictionary if anyone ever noticed it, he probably mistook it for a Service Bible in which I searched for words when occasion offered. I had carefully committed to memory the French equivalents for all the articles on our shopping list a pot of honey, a bottle of Benedictine, a pair of unmentionable garments for Lawson, and a toothbrush so that I walked across the main square with a proud mien and an easy conscience.

Pride, they tell us, comes before a fall. We had successfully fought our way through the crowds of officers and mess waiters who swarm in Bailleul, we had completed our purchases, we were refreshing ourselves in a diminutive tea shop, when the Captain suddenly slapped his thigh.

“By Jove,” he said, “I promised to buy a new saucepan for the Company cook. Good job I remembered.”

What on earth was the French for a saucepan? I had no opportunity of looking in my dictionary, for it would look too suspicious if I were to consult my Service Bible during tea.

“I don’t think we shall have time to look for an ironmonger’s,” I said.

“You blithering ass,” said the Captain, “there’s one just across the road. Besides, we don’t have dinner before eight as a rule.”

The fates were working against me. I made one more effort to save my reputation. “We should look so funny, sir, riding through Bailleul with a great saucepan. We might send the Company cook to buy one to-morrow.”

I remained in suspense for a few moments as the Captain chose another cake. He looked up suddenly. “We’ll get it home all right,” he said, “but I believe the fact of the matter is that you don’t know what to ask for.”

“We’ll go and get the beastly thing directly after tea,” I said stiffly, for it is always offensive to have doubts cast on one’s capabilities, the more so when those doubts are founded on fact. Besides, I knew the Captain would love to see me at a loss, as French has been his touchy point ever since the day when, having a sore throat, he set out to buy a cure for it himself. The chemist, mistaking his French and his gestures, had politely led him to the door and pointed out a clothier’s across the way, expressing his regret the while that chemists in France do not sell collars.

When we entered the ironmonger’s shop I could see nothing in the shape of a saucepan that I could point out to the man, so I made a shot in the dark. “Je desire,” I said, “une soucoupe.”

Parfaitement, m’sieu,” said the shopman, and he produced a host of saucers of every description saucers in tin, saucers in china, saucers big and little.

“What in the name of all that’s wonderful are you getting those things for?” asked the Captain irritably. “We want a saucepan.”

I feigned surprise at my carelessness and turned to the shopman again. “Non, je desire quelque chose pour bouillir les oeufs.”

The poor man scratched his head for a minute, then an idea suddenly struck him. “Ah, une casserole?” he questioned.

I nodded encouragingly, and, to my intense relief, he produced a huge saucepan from under the counter, so that we trotted out of Bailleul with our saddle bags full, and the saucepan dangling from a piece of string round the Captain’s neck.

Misfortunes never come singly. We were not more than a hundred yards from the town when the Captain handed the saucepan to me. “You might take it,” he said, “while I shorten my stirrups.”

The pack horse becomes accustomed to an enormous variety of loads, but apparently the saucepan was something in the shape of a disagreeable novelty to him. He began to trot, and that utensil rattled noisily against the bottle of liqueur protruding from my saddle bag. The more the saucepan rattled the faster went the horse, and the more precarious became my seat. In a few seconds I was going across country at a furious gallop.

If I let go my hold of the saucepan it rattled violently, and spurred the pack horse on to even greater pace; if I held on to the saucepan I could not pull up my horse and I stood but little chance of remaining on its back at all, for I am a horseman of but very little skill.

Suddenly I saw a gate barring my way ahead. I let go the saucepan and something cracked in my saddle bag. I seized the reins and dragged at the horse’s mouth. Then, just as I was wondering how one stuck on a horse’s back when it tried to jump, someone rode up from the other side and opened the gate.

But it was only when I was right in the gateway that I saw what lay ahead. Just before me was a major at the head of a squadron of cavalry. The next second I was amongst them.

A fleeting glimpse of the Major’s horse pawing the air with its forelegs, a scattering of a hundred and fifty men before me, and I had passed them all and was galloping up the steep slope of the hill.

When at last the Captain came up with me, I was standing at the top of the Mont Noir, wiping Benedictine from my breeches and puttees. I made an attempt at jocularity. “I shall have to speak to Parkes about this engine,” I said. “The controls don’t work properly, and she accelerates much too quickly.”

But the Captain saw the ruin of the liqueur bottle lying by the roadside, and was not in the mood for amusement. So we rode in silence down the hill, while the flames of Ypres gleamed and flickered in the distance.

Of a sudden, however, the Captain burst into a roar of laughter.

“It was worth it,” he panted as he rolled in his saddle, “to see the poor blighters scatter. Lord! but it was lovely to hear that Major curse.”