"The Siamese weren't far wrong, sir. It's a really beautiful job."
Zero hour drew nearer and nearer as the rails stretched further and further along the embankment at the cost of countless hardships suffered by the Allied prisoners of war in Burma and Siam. Shears and his two companions had followed the daily progress of the line. Joyce spent hours amending his map and keeping it up to date according to the latest information received. Every week he added to the line in red pencil which represented each newly completed section. The line was now almost unbroken from Bangkok to Rangoon. The more important river crossings were indicated by a cross. The particulars of each construction were noted down on slips of paper, carefully kept up to date by Warden, who liked to have everything neat and tidy.
With their information on the line growing more complete and more accurate, their attention was irresistibly drawn to the River Kwai bridge, which had attracted them right from the start by its many advantages. With their specialized knowledge of bridges, they had been amazed by the exceptional number of circumstances favorable to the plan which they had instinctively started to work out, a plan which combined the practical sense and the imagination typical of the Plastic and Destructions Company, Ltd. Prompted by instinct as much as by logic, they had gradually come to pin all their faith and hopes on the River Kwai bridge and on nothing else. They had considered a number of other bridges just as carefully and had discussed their respective advantages, but had ended up by choosing this one, which seemed naturally and purposely designed for them as an operation target. The "big show," which was at first no more than a vague, abstract idea existing only in the imagination, was now represented by a concrete body in time and space—a vulnerable target, in other words, liable to every contingency, to every degradation of which the mind of man is capable, and especially liable to annihilation.
"This isn't a job for the R.A.F.," Shears had observed. "It's not easy to destroy a wooden bridge from the air. If the bombs find their mark only two or three arches are damaged. The rest are just knocked about a bit. The Japs can patch it up in no time—they're past masters at that sort of thing. Whereas we can not only blow the whole thing sky-high and shatter the piles at water level, but also time the explosion for when a train is actually crossing the bridge. Then the whole convoy'll come crashing down into the river, increasing the damage and putting every beam out of action. I've seen it happen before. Traffic was held up for weeks. And that was in a civilized part of the world where the enemy was able to bring up cranes. Here they'll have to detour in the line and build the bridge all over again—not to mention the loss of a train and its load of war material. What a show! I can just see it . . ."
All three could imagine what a show it would be. The attack had assumed concrete shape over which the imagination could wander at will. A succession of mental snapshots, some of them underexposed, others in bright technicolor, disturbed Joyce's sleep. The former appertained to the period of clandestine preparation, the latter culminated in such a brilliant picture that the smallest detail stood out amazingly sharp and clear: the train poised above the gully, with the River Kwai sparkling underneath between two blocks of jungle. His own hand was clutching the plunger. His eyes were fixed on a certain point in the center of the bridge. The distance between that point and the engine was rapidly decreasing. He had to push the plunger down at the right moment. The distance between the
m was now only a few feet, only one foot. At that very moment he automatically pushed down the plunger. On the bridge which he saw in his dreams, he had already reconnoitered and found a suitable spot, exactly halfway across.
One day he had anxiously exclaimed: "I only hope the Air Force chaps won't have a go at it, sir, before we do."
"I've already sent a message to tell them to keep out of it," Shears had answered. "I don't think we'll be worried by them." —
During this period of inactivity countless reports had come in, all referring to the bridge, which the partisans were keeping under observation from the top of a nearby hill. They themselves had not yet approached it, in case the locals got wind of the presence of white men in the area. They had had it described to them hundreds of times, and the more intelligent agents had even made a drawing of it in the sand. From their hideout they had followed every stage in its construction, and were amazed by the unusual method and system which seemed to govern each successive phase and which were confirmed by every report. They were used to sifting the truth from every rumor, and had quickly detected a feeling akin to admiration in the partisans' description of the bridge. The Siamese were not qualified to appreciate the technical genius of Captain Reeves, nor the organization for which Colonel Nicholson was responsible, but they were fully aware that this was no shapeless scaffolding in the usual Japanese style. Primitive people have an instinctive appreciation of applied art and design.
"God Almighty!" Shears would sometimes cry out in desperation. "If what our chaps say is true, it's a second George Washington Bridge they're building. They're trying to compete with the Yanks!"
Such unusually lavish work, amounting almost to extravagance—for according to the Siamese, there was a road running alongside the fine, which was wide enough for two trucks abreast—was an intriguing but disturbing prospect. An installation of this size would almost certainly be more closely guarded than ever. On the other hand, it might be of even greater strategic importance than he had thought, so that attacking it would be all the more worthwhile.
The natives had quite a lot to say about the prisoners. They had seen them working almost naked in the scorching sun, working without a break and under strict surveillance. When they heard this, all three of them forgot about their scheme and gave a moment's thought to their wretched fellow countrymen. Knowing the Japs as they did, they could well imagine how far their brutality would go in order to get a job like this one finished.
"If only they knew we were in the offing, sir," Joyce had said one day. "If only they knew this bridge of theirs was never going to be used, it might raise their morale a bit."
"Perhaps," Shears had answered, "but we can't afford to contact them. That's out of the question, Joyce. In our job security's the first essential, even among friends. They'd let their imagination run riot. They'd start trying to help us and might give the whole show away by having a go at the bridge themselves. The Japs would get wind of it, and the only result would be terrible reprisals. No, they've got to be kept out of it. We mustn't allow the Japs even to think of the possibility of the prisoners' co-operating with us."
One day Shears had suddenly decided to test the reliability of the fabulous reports which were coming in every day from the River Kwai.
"One of us will have to go and have a look. The work will be finished any day now, and we can't go on relying on these chaps' reports, which seem utterly fantastic. You'd better go, Joyce. I want to know what this bridge is really like, understand? How big is it? How many piles are there? I want the exact figures. How can it be approached? How is it guarded? What are the chances of attacking it? Do what you can, but keep your head down. You mustn't let yourself be seen at any price, bear that in mind. But for God's sake, get me some proper information on this bloody bridge!"
"I saw it through my glasses, sir, as clearly as I can see you now."
"Begin from the beginning," Shears insisted in spite of his impatience. "How did it go?"
Joyce had set off one night accompanied by two natives who were accustomed to these secret nocturnal expeditions since it was their practice to smuggle wads of opium and cases of cigarettes over the border between Burma and Siam. They claimed that the paths they used were quite safe; but it was so important for no one to know that a European was in the neighborhood that Joyce had insisted on disguising himself as a Siamese peasant and on dyeing his skin with a brown pigment made up in Calcutta for just such an occasion.
He soon saw that his guides had been telling the truth. The real enemies in this jungle were the mosquitoes and particularly the leeches, which fastened onto his bare legs and climbed up his body; he could feel them sticking to him each time he stroked his skin. He had done his best to overcome his disgust and to disregard them. He had almost succeeded. In any case he could not get rid of them during the night. He refrained from lighting a cigarette in order to burn them off, and he needed all his wits about him to keep up with the Siamese.
"Fairly tough, sir. As I said, I had to keep one hand on the shoulder of the chap in front. And these fellows' so-called paths have to be seen to be believed!"
For three nights they had made him clamber up hill and down dale. They followed rocky river beds blocked here and there with stinking clumps of rotting vegetation, and each time they brushed against these they collected a rich crop of fresh leeches. His guides showed a preference for these paths, in which they were sure they could not get lost. They kept going till dawn. When the first rays of the sun appeared they dived into the undergrowth and quickly ate the boiled rice and cooked meat they had brought for the journey. The two Siamese then squatted under a tree until nightfall, puffing away at a bubbling water pipe which they always carried with them. That was their method of relaxing after the rigors of the night. From time to time they dropped off between two puffs, without even shifting their position.
Joyce, however, insisted on sleeping properly in order to harvest his strength, for he was anxious to make the best of every circumstance on which the success of his mission depended. He began by getting rid of the leeches which covered his body. Some of them, completely glutted, had fallen off by themselves during the night, leaving a little clot of congealed blood. The others, which had not yet had their fill, stuck firmly to this prey of theirs which the fortunes of war had brought into the jungles of Siam. Under the glow of a burning cigarette their swollen bodies contracted, twisted, then finally let go and fell on the ground, where he squashed them between two stones. Then he lay down on a ground sheet and went to sleep at once; but the ants did not leave him in peace for long.
Attracted by the drops of congealed blood which bespattered his skin, they took this opportunity to advance in long black and red cohorts. He learned to distinguish between the two as soon as he felt them, without even opening his eyes. Against the red ones there was nothing he could do. Their sting was like white-hot pincers on his sores. A single one was unbearable; and they advanced in battalions. He was forced to yield ground and find some other spot where he could lie down until they located him again and launched a fresh attack. The black ones, especially the large black ones, were not so bad. They did not sting and their tickling did not wake him up until his sores were alive with them.
Yet he always managed to get enough sleep, quite enough to have enabled him, when night fell again, to scale mountains ten times as high and a hundred times as steep as the hills of Siam. He felt drunk with delight at being on his own during this reconnaissance, which was the first stage in the development of the big attack. It was on his own energy, his own judgment, his own decisions during this expedition that the success of the operation depended. Of this he was certain, and the certainty enabled him to preserve intact his inexhaustible reserves of strength. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on the imaginary bridge, that shadowy form which was a permanent part of his dream world. The mere thought of it endowed his every gesture with an unlimited magic power which increased his glorious chances of success.
The actual bridge, the bridge on the River Kwai, had suddenly sprung into view when, after a final climb, the stiffest they had so far encountered, they reached the top of a hill commanding the valley. They had kept moving later than on the previous nights, and the sun had already risen by the time they reached the observation post which the Siamese had mentioned in their reports. He looked down at the bridge as though from an airplane. Several hundred feet below him a light-colored band stretched across the water between two strips of jungle; a small gap over on the right enabled him to make out the geometric network of piles and platform. For some time he noticed no other feature of the panorama unrolled at his feet, neither the camp directly opposite him on the far bank, nor even the groups of prisoners at work on the construction itself. It was an ideal observation post, and he felt perfectly safe. The Japanese patrols were hardly likely to risk their necks in the undergrowth between him and the river.
"I saw it as plainly as I can see you now, sir. The Siamese had not exaggerated. It's a big job. It's properly built. It's nothing like any other Japanese bridge. Here are a few sketches, for what they're worth."
He had recognized it at once. The shock of confronting this materialized ghost of his was not due to surprise but, on the contrary, to its familiar aspect. The bridge was exactly as he had imagined it. He studied it, anxiously at first, then with overpowering relief. The general background also conformed to the patiently worked-out pattern of his imagination and hopes. It differed only in detail. The water did not sparkle as he had seen it in his mind's eye. It was muddy. For a moment he felt almost cheated, but cheered up at the thought that this defect would better serve their purpose.