I’m reading Alms for Oblivion again and this is an excerpt from the second book1 ‘Sound The Retreat’. I was so impressed that in bed last night I read it aloud to Mrs J.
1 In story chronology – the books were published in a different order.
I sometimes think of writing, a couple of my neighbours have (and it’s rubbish); then I read something like this and decide not to bother.
Muscateer, Earl of: son of Lord and Lady Canteloupe q.v.; an
officer cadet at the O.T.S., Bangalore, 1945-6 (R)- ✝ 1946
And then one evening a few days later they heard that Muscateer was dead.
‘Dead, sir? Dead of jaundicel’
‘They say he had a dodgy liver,’ Captain Detterling said.
‘Funny, that. His old governor’s is made of brass.’
‘Bad news, Molly. Muscateer’s done for. I’ve just had a wire
from his Commandant.5
‘Oh. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear.’
The Marquis Canteloupe handed his wife the Commandant’s telegram and went to the window. Outside, February lay long
and blank over the Wiltshire fields.
‘I thought,’- said Lady Canteloupe eventually, ‘that cousin
Detterling’s letter said he was all right’
“Some time ago, that was. Poisoned in a wog cook-shop,
Detterling said, but not to worry. Seems he was wrong. Jaundice,
that telegram says. Something to do with the liver, ain’t it?’
‘My father had it. Twice.’
‘I s’pose Muscateer gets it from him. Not your fault, old girl.
Pity it’s too late for another, though.’ He turned back to look
through the window. ‘When there’s all this.’-
‘He was such a kind boy,’ Molly Canteloupe said.
‘It’ll all be wasted on my bloody brother Stephen. Or Alfred.
Should either of ’em live to collect it’
*Why should this happen to such a kind boy?’
‘Ask me another,’ Lord Canteloupe said.
And with that he left the room and then the house, and walked
sharply across his demesne to a small boat house which, until
now, no one had ever entered during the winter. Someone had
locked it until the summer should come, but Canteloupe, know-
ing what he wanted and being a man unaccustomed to hind-
rance, kicked the door in with one blow of his foot, and then
dragged a rowing boat down into the creek which lapped into
the open end of the shed. Once seated in the boat, he fitted the
oars in the rowlocks and coaxed his way down the narrow
creek, shoving at the banks with his oar-blades to gain passage
and correct his course.
Very soon he reached the river. Without hesitation he turned
upstream and rowed towards a distant wood; but Canteloupe,
facing to stem as he rowed, could not see the wood: his view
was of marshy flats lined with willow that stretched silently
away, growing dim and white in the lurking mist; and ever
between him and this view, sitting in the stern and holding the
steering ropes, was a lightly flickering shade, now of a little boy
in baggy shorts, grinning gaily at the start of a new day—
‘Daddy, daddy, Mr. Synge at school says there’s going to be a
war soon. Is there? And when will it be my turn to row?’
—now of a furry and pustular ephebe in worn corduroys—
‘Father, I’m worried about mother. She gets so lonely while
you’re away fighting.’
—and now of a fine young man, stretched lazily across the seat with his long legs thrust out in front of him and crossed at
the ankle, with eyes that smiled even when his face was grave,
with large, brown capable hands—
‘So you’ve come home. Papa, just when I’m going off to join
up. Lucky for me the war in the East is over, though I don’t care
for the sound of this new bomb.!
So Canteloupe came, as they had always come, to the trees
which spread their branches over the river; only now the trees
were leafless and he could see the low, grey sky above; and
when he came out on the other side of them, into a meadow
which there was, it was not like coming out of a dark tunnel (as
it always used to be) but more like emerging from a narrow
street into an empty square. But if this was different, the voices
were the same: ‘Daddy, Daddy … Father … Papa. TeU me the
story about the knight, the knight who was murdered in this
And when he heard these voices, the unhappy man at last
bowed his head and wept. Hitherto he had kept his face straight
and stem, like a face on a tomb, as became a nobleman of an-
cient line who was visited with great misfortune; but now that
the voices had asked for the story which he had told so many
times, he shipped his oars and bowed his head and wept, bab-
bling out the story as the tears ran down his face, interrupting
it, now and then, to pray for the souls of the murdered knight
and his own lovely son … until the kindly river, seeing that he
would row no more that day, took his boat in its slow stream
and carried him back again through the trees, the way that he
“Your trousers are muddy, dear.”
‘I’ve been down to the river.’
‘I see. I’ve been thinking. We can have him brought home,
you know. Even if they’ve already … We could still have him
brought home. Then he could be here, which is only right.’
‘He’ll sleep sound enough where he is,’ said the Marquis
Canteloupe. ‘Look ‘ee here, Molly. We’ll speak no more of
Muscateer in this house. He was our boy, and now he’s dead,
and there’s an end of that.’