The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 13

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"Six hundred years!" exclaimed the Colonel. There was a glint in his eye as he involuntarily turned toward the river. "Six hundred years, Reeves—that would be a pretty good show!"

"Oh, but that's an exceptional case, sir. You could hardly count on more than fifty or sixty years in this place. Less, perhaps, if the timber dries out badly."

"We'll just have to take that chance, Reeves," the Colonel firmly decided. "You must use fresh timber. We can't achieve the impossible. If they blame us for any fault in the construction, at least we'll be able to tell them that it couldn't be avoided."

"Right, sir. Just another question. Creosote, for protecting the beams against insect damage ... I think we'll have to do without it, sir. The Japs haven't got any. Of course, we could make a substitute ... I'd thought of setting up a wood-alcohol still. That might do, but it would take some time . . . No, on second thought, I don't think we'd better . . ."

"Why not, Reeves?" asked the Colonel, who was fascinated by all these technical details.

"Well, there's a difference of opinion on this, sir; but the best authorities advise against creosoting when the timber's not sufficiently dry. It keeps the sap and the damp in, sir; and then there's a risk of rot setting in at once."

"In that case we'll have to do without creosote, Reeves. You must bear in mind that we can't afford to embark on any scheme beyond our means. Don't forget, the bridge has an immediate role to fulfill."

"Apart from those two snags, sir, I'm quite certain we can build a bridge here which will be perfectly all right from the technical point of view and reasonably strong."

"That's it, Reeves. You're on the right track. A reasonably strong bridge which is all right from the technical point of view. A bridge, in fact, and not a Heath Robinson contraption. That's what we want. As I've said before, I'm relying on you entirely."

Colonel Nicholson left his technical adviser, feeling pleased with the simple phrase he had coined to define his objective.

12

Shears—or "Number One," as he was called by the Siamese partisans in the remote hamlet where the envoys of Force 316 were now in hiding—was likewise the sort of man who devotes a great deal of thought and care to systematic preparation. In fact, the high regard in which he was held at headquarters was as much due to the caution and patience he showed before taking any action as to his cheerfulness and determination when the time for action arrived. Warden, Professor Warden, his second- in-command, also had a well-earned reputation for leaving nothing to chance unless circumstances dictated otherwise. As for Joyce, the third and youngest member of the team, who was still fresh from his course at the Plastic and Destructions Company's special school in Calcutta, he seemed to have his head screwed on the right way in spite of his youth, and Shears valued his opinion. And so, during the daily conferences held in the two-room native hut which had been put at their disposal, any promising idea was carefully considered and every suggestion thoroughly examined.

One

evening the three of them were studying a map which Joyce had just pinned up on the bamboo wall.

"Here's the approximate course of the railway, sir," he said. "The reports seem to tally pretty well."

Joyce, who was an industrial designer in civilian life, had been detailed to keep a large-scale map marked with all the intelligence available on the Burma-Siam railway.

There was plenty of information. During the month since they had safely landed on their selected dropping zone they had succeeded in winning the friendship of the local population over a wide area. They had been received by the Siamese agents, and been housed in this little hamlet inhabited by hunters and smugglers and hidden away in a corner of the jungle well away from the nearest line of communication. The natives hated the Japanese. Shears, who was trained to take nothing for granted, had gradually been convinced of the loyalty of his hosts.

The first part of their mission was successfully under way. They had secretly established contact with several village headsmen. Volunteers were ready to rally round them. The three officers had started instructing them and were now training them in the use of the weapons employed by Force 316. The most important of these was "plastic," a soft brown paste as malleable as clay, in which several generations of chemists in the Western world had patiently contrived to amalgamate the best features of every known explosive and several others besides.

"There are any amount of bridges, sir," Joyce went on, "but if you ask me, most of them aren't up to much. Here's the list, from Bangkok right up to Rangoon, complete as far as our information goes."

The "sir" was for the benefit of Major Shears, his "Number One." Although discipline was strict in Force 316, such formality was nevertheless not usual among members of a special mission; and Shears had asked Joyce several times to stop calling him "sir." He had not been able to break him of the habit—a prewar habit, Shears imagined, which made the young man cling to this mode of address.

Yet so far Shears could find nothing but praise for Joyce, whom he had selected from the Calcutta school on the instructors' reports as well as on the candidate's physical appearance, but most of all on his own instinctive judgment.

The reports were good and the comments flattering. Young Joyce, it seemed, who was a volunteer like all the other members of Force 316, had always given complete satisfaction and had shown exceptional keenness on every part of the course—which was something to be said for him, in Shears's opinion. According to his personal file, he had been a draftsman on the staff of a big industrial and commercial concern—probably only a minor employee. But Shears had not inquired any further. He felt there was no profession that could not eventually lead to the Plastic and Destructions Company, Ltd., and that a man's prewar career was his own business.

On the other hand, all Joyce's visible qualities would not have been sufficient to warrant Shears's taking him in as the third member of the team if they had not been backed up by others which were less easy to define and for which he relied on little else but his own personal impression. He had known volunteers who were excellent during training, but whose nerve failed them when it came to certain duties demanded by Force 316. He did not hold this against them. Shears had his own ideas on this subject.

He had therefore sent for this future companion of his in order to try and find out what sort of man he was. He had asked his friend Warden to be present at the interview, for the professor's advice in a selection of this sort was always worth considering. He had been favorably impressed by Joyce's appearance. His physical strength was probably not much above the average, but he was fit, and seemed a well-balanced type. His clear, frank answers to the questions he was asked showed he had a practical mind, that he never lost sight of his objective, and was well aware of what he was letting himself in for. Apart from this, his keenness showed unmistakably in his eyes. He was obviously dying to accompany the two veterans ever since he had heard the rumor of a dangerous mission being planned.

Shears had then brought up a point which he considered important, as indeed it was.

"Do you think you'd be capable of using a weapon like this?" he had asked.

He had shown him a razor-sharp dagger. This knife was part of the kit which members of Force 316 took in with them on every special mission. Joyce had not batted an eyelid. He had replied that he had been taught how to handle the weapon and that the course included practicing with it on dummies. Shears had repeated the question.

"That's not exactly what I meant. What I want to know is: are you quite sure that you'd be really 'capable' of using it in cold blood? Lots of men know how to use it, but aren't able to when it comes to the point."

Joyce had understood. He had silently thought the matter over, then solemnly replied:

"That's a question I've often asked myself, sir."


Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
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