For two days he lay concealed, crouching in the undergrowth, eagerly observing the bridge through his binoculars and studying the ground over which the attack was to be launched. He had painted a mental picture of the general layout and individual features, taking notes and making a rough sketch of the paths, the camp, the Japanese huts, the bends in the river, and even of the l
arge rocks protruding here and there out of the water.
"The current's not very strong, sir. The river's an easy proposition for a small boat or a good swimmer. The water's muddy. There's a road over the bridge, and four rows of piles. I saw the prisoners driving them in with a ram—the British prisoners. They've almost reached the left bank, sir, the bank with the observation post on it. Other teams are following up behind. The bridge'll be ready in a month, I should think. The superstructure . . ."
He now had such a mass of information to report that he could not keep it in its proper order. Shears let him run on without interrupting him. There would be time enough, when he had finished speaking, to question him on specific points.
"The superstructure's a geometric network of crossbeams which looks as if it's been carefully designed. The supports are all squared up and properly put together. I could see the joints in detail through my glasses. A really well-designed job, sir, and a solid one too, let's face it. It'll mean more than just slashing up a few bits of wood. While I was there, sir, I thought of the safest way of dealing with it, and I think it's the simplest as well. I think we'll have to go for the piles in the water, or rather, under the water. It's thick with sediment. The charges won't be noticed. That way the whole works will capsize all together."
"Four rows of piles," Shears muttered. "That's a big job, you know. Why the hell couldn't they build this bridge of theirs like all the other ones?"
"How far apart are the piles in each row?" asked Warden, who liked to have exact figures.
Shears and Warden silently made mental calculations.
"We'll have to allow for a length of sixty feet, to be on the safe side," Warden finally observed. "That makes six piles per row, in other words, twenty-four to 'prepare.' It'll take some time."
"We could do it in a night, sir, I'm certain. Once we're under the bridge there's nothing to worry about. It's wide enough to give ample cover. The water washing up against the piles muffles any other sound. I know "
"How do you know what it's like under the bridge?" Shears asked, gazing at him with renewed interest.
"Just a moment, sir. I haven't told you the whole story. I went and had a look myself."
"You went underneath it?"
"I had to, sir. You told me not to get too close, but that was the only way I could get the information I wanted. I climbed down from the observation post, on the blind side of the hill from the river. I felt I couldn't let this opportunity slip through my fingers, sir. The Siamese took me along some wild boar tracks. . . . We had to move on all fours."
"How long did it take you?"
"About three hours, sir. We set off in the evening. I wanted to be in position by nightfall. It was a risk, of course, but I wanted to see for myself . . ."
"It's sometimes not such a bad idea to put your own interpretation on the orders you're given," said Number One, as he glanced across at Warden. "You got there, anyway—that's the main thing."
"No one saw me, sir. We came up on the river about a quarter of a mile upstream from the bridge. Unfortunately, there's a small native village tucked away there; but everyone was asleep. I sent the guides back. I wanted to reconnoiter on my own. I slipped into the water and floated down with the current."
"Was it a clear night?" asked Warden.
"Fairly. No moon; but no clouds, either. The bridge is pretty high, they can't see a thing . . ."
"Let's get things in their proper order," said Shears. "How did you approach the bridge?"
"I floated down on my back, sir, completely submerged except for my mouth. Above me . . ."
"Damn it all, Shears," growled Warden, "you might think of me when a mission like this crops up again."
"I'll probably think of myself first if there ever is another one," Shears replied.
Joyce described the scene so vividly that his two companions succumbed to his own enthusiasm and felt really disappointed that they had missed this part of the fun.
It was on the very day Joyce reached the observation post, after three nights' exhausting march, that he had suddenly decided to do the reconnaissance. He had not been able to wait a moment longer. After seeing the bridge almost within arm's reach, he felt he simply had to go and touch it with his hand.
Flat on his back in the water, unable to make out a single detail in the solid mass of the banks, barely conscious of being carried downstream, and unaware of the current, his only landmark was the long horizontal outline of the bridge. It stood out black against the sky. It grew larger as he approached it, soaring up into the heavens, while the stars above him dipped down to meet it.
Under the bridge it was almost pitch dark. He stayed there for some time, hanging motionless onto a pile. Up to his neck in the cold water wThich still did not cool him down, he gradually managed to pierce the darkness and distinguish the strange forest of smooth trunks emerging from the surrounding eddies. It was no surprise; he was equally familiar with the view of the bridge from this angle.
"It's worth having a shot at it, sir, I'm sure. The best thing would be to float the charges down on a raft. It wouldn't be seen. We'd be in the water. Under the bridge there's nothing to worry about. The current's not strong enough to stop us swimming about between the piles. We could tie ourselves on, if necessary, to avoid being carried away. I went right across and measured the beams, sir. They're not very thick. Quite a small charge would do the trick—under the water. It's thick, muddy water, sir."