Colonel Nicholson replied that he would see what could be done. Now that the situation was established on a proper constitutional basis there was no longer any reason for trying to oppose the enemy program. As in every civilized army, the officers—it went without saying —would be responsible for the conduct of their men.
This was total surrender on the part of the Japanese. That evening the victory was celebrated in the British camp with songs, cheers, and an extra rice ration, which had been issued with the greatest reluctance on Saito's orders as a further gesture of good will. That same evening the Japanese colonel retired earlier than usual, wept for his loss of face, and drowned his sorrows in a bout of solitary drinking which lasted well into the night; until he slumped dead drunk onto his bed—a. state which he hardly ever managed to reach except in unusual circumstances, for he had an amazingly strong head and could normally stand the most barbaric mixtures.
Colonel Nicholson, accompanied by his usual advisers, Major Hughes and Captain Reeves, went down to the river along the railway embankment on which the prisoners were at work.
He walked slowly. He was in no hurry. Immediately after his release he had scored a second victory by obtaining four days off duty for his officers and himself to compensate for their unjust punishment. Saito had clenched his fists at the thought of this further delay, but had given in. He had even issued orders for the prisoners to be decently treated, and had bashed in the face of one of his own soldiers whom he had caught smiling sarcastically.
If Colonel Nicholson had applied for four days' exemption from duty, it was not only to recover his strength; it was also to give him time to think, to sum up the situation, to hold discussions with his staff, and draw up a plan of action—steps which every conscientious commander should take instead of rushing blindly at the easiest solution, a thing he hated doing more than anything else in the world.
It did not take him long to spot the outrageous mistakes intentionally committed by his men. Hughes and Reeves could not suppress a cry of admiration when they saw the astonishing results of this activity.
"That's a fine embankment for a railway line!" said Hughes. "I suggest you put the culprits up for a decoration, sir. Just think of an ammunition train trundling over that lot!"
The Colonel did not even smile.
"A splendid job, sir," echoed Captain Reeves, the ex-public-works engineer. "No one in his senses could possibly imagine they intend to run a railway over this switchback. I'd sooner face the Japanese army all over again than take a trip along this line."
The Colonel looked as solemn as ever and asked:
"In your opinion, Reeves, your opinion as a technician, could this be put to any use at all?"
"I don't think so, sir," Reeves answered after a moment's reflection. "They'd do better to abandon this mess completely and build another line a little further up."
Colonel Nicholson looked more and more preoccupied. He nodded his head and moved on in silence. He wanted to see the whole of the building yards before forming an opinion.
He reached the river. A squad of about fifty men, stark naked except for the triangle of cloth which the Japanese called "working kit," were milling about on the stretch under construction. A guard, with rifle slung, marched up and down in front of them. Some of the squad were engaged in digging a little further away, while the remainder were busy collecting the earth on bamboo carriers and spreading it out on either side of a line marked out with white pegs. This had originally run at right angles to the bank, but the insidious genius of the prisoners had succeeded in shifting it so that it was now almost parallel to the river. The Japanese engineer was not on the spot. He could be seen on the opposite bank gesticulating in the middle of another squad, who were taken across the river every morning on rafts. He could also be heard.
"Who set out that line of pegs," the Colonel asked, coming to a standstill.
"He did, sir," said the British corporal, springing to attention and pointing to the engineer. "He set it out, but I helped him a little myself. I made a slight improvement as soon as he left. He and I don't always see eye to eye, sir."
d, since the sentry was not looking, he gave a conspiratorial v. ink. Colonel Nicholson did not acknowledge this secret message, but remained deep in thought.
"I see," he said in a voice as cold as ice.
He moved on without further comment and stopped in front of another corporal. This one, with the help of a few men, was devoting considerable effort to clearing the ground of a number of large roots by heaving them up to the top of a slope instead of pitching them down the side of the bank, while another Japanese guard blankly looked on.
"How many are at work in this squad today?" the Colonel asked in ringing tones.
The guard gaped at him, wondering if it was in order for the Colonel to speak like this to the prisoners; but his voice held such a note of authority that he did not dare move. The corporal at once sprang to attention and began to stammer a reply.
"Twenty or twenty-five, sir, I'm not quite sure. One man went sick as soon as we arrived. He suddenly felt dizzy—I can't think why, sir, for he was perfectly all right at reveille. Three or four of the lads were needed, of course, to carry him to the hospital, sir, as he couldn't walk by himself. They haven't come back yet. He was the biggest and the toughest chap in the squad, sir. As it is, we shan't be able to get through our quota today. There seems to be a curse on this railway."
"A corporal," said the Colonel, "ought to know exactly how many men he has under him. What is the quota, anyway?"
"A cubic yard of earth per man per day, sir, to be dug and then carted away. But with these damn roots and all, sir, it look as if it's going to be too much for us."
"I see," said the Colonel as coldly as ever.
He moved off, muttering under his breath through clenched teeth. Hughes and Reeves followed behind him.
They went to the top of a rise, from which they could see the river and the whole of the surrounding country. At that point the Kwai was over a hundred yards wide, with both banks high above the level of the water. The Colonel studied the ground from every angle, then turned to his two subordinates. What he had to say was obvious, but he said it in a voice which had recovered all its former tone of authority.
"These people, the Japanese, have only just emerged from a state of barbarism, and prematurely at that. They've tried to copy our methods, but they don't understand them. Take away their model, and they're lost. They can't even do the job they've taken on here in this valley, yet it doesn't need much intelligence. They don't realize they'd save time by planning an advance instead of rushing bald-headed at the thing. What do you think, Reeves? Railways and bridges are in your line, aren't they?"