Rain had dripped steadily into a bucket by the major's desk the day Angus was told he'd been promoted to lieutenant. "Your education is one thing," the major had sighed. "Not orthodox exactly, with time in divinity school, but nothing in this war is orthodox. This is a citizen army, and we"
Can't be too choosey?
"What I mean to say is that combined with your age and maturityand the fact that you've been a captain of, what was it, a cargo vessel? In the Maritimes?" He tapped his pen on the desk.
"Coastal trader. Nova Scotia, yes sir," Angus answered. Small schooner, crew of three, nothing grand, he might have added.
"Understand you were headed for cartography." The major coughed, put the pen down, picked it up again. "Look, you seem to have your head on straight. You're steady, well educated, and Sergeant Campbell thinks, as do I, that you'll be well placed as a first lieutenant."
Campbell? Campbell the bulldog had recommended him? That very morning he'd slapped up glossy photos on an easel, depicting in revolting detail just what a bayonet could and should do. Disemboweling men was quite another thing from ripping through straw targets. When he'd closed by saying the pictures were of Allied soldiers, he had men frothing for revenge. Head down, Angus had not joined in. Aww . . . squeamish?
Campbell had mocked. Angus had known better than to reply. Squeamish was the least of it.
"Well?" the major asked impatiently. "First lieutenant. What have you to say to that?"
Angus had had little to say. Lieutenants were as expendable as the rank and filemore so. They dropped like flies, leading the charge. His education was hardly the preparation called for, but at thirty-four, age he did have. "Maturity" was a kind way of putting it. What did he think? He was astounded and afraid. How exactly did one grow into the hope of taking another man's life?
All that was left to say was, "I'll do my best to honor the regiment. Thank you, sir."
"Yes, yes, of course," the major said, turning back to his paperwork. But then looked Angus in the eye and said, "I'm sure you will, MacGrath."
Standing outside on the rickety steps, Angus wasn't so sure. He turned up the collar of his coat against the heavy mist. "Lieutenant MacGrath," he repeated softly. That night, the rain's steady drumming took on the beat of a cold rain on the Lauralee's canvas. It called up the rush of her bow wave curling and falling back, the lull of it transformed to repetitive regret.
Three weeks after his promotion, on leave in London, the rain stopped and the skies suddenly cleared. All around him black umbrellas came down, were shaken and folded. People were smiling, and the puddles, shimmering on gray flagstone, took on the pale blue of the sky and caught the reds and blues and whites of the Union Jack in a child's hand. Without effort, Angus reproduced the image in a quick sketch in a pub, right down to the fragmented reflection. He wanted to memorialize blue sky in case he never saw it again, he'd said to the amusement of his fellow officers. The drawing was in charcoal.
Now, as the men hopped about in the cold and toweled off with an army blanket, Angus let that memory of color and reflected sky engulf him. Allowed himself the luxury of going further backto the tall white house on the hill above the bay, and the low-roofed sheds behind it, to the sharp smell of turpentine, the twist of sable brushes in the dented tin can, the paint-splattered floorboards. And on down the hill to the stony beach where seaweed draped over itself in the low tide and where Hettie Ellen, hair coming loose in the wind, leaned against a boulder, watching Simon Peter skipping rocks with ease, one after another, three, four, five skips. And beyond them to the Lauralee, nodding at her mooring, bright work gleaming in the last, long rays of sunlight.
Excerpted from The Cartographer of No Man's Land by Peter Duffy. Copyright © 2013 by Peter Duffy. Excerpted by permission of Liveright / WW Norton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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