All three fell silent for a moment, each lost in his own private thoughts.
"The British soldier's got any amount of guts when he's really up against it," Warden finally observed.
"What else did you see?" said Shears.
"The officers, sir, the British officers. They're not being made to work. They're all in charge of their men, who seem to take more notice of them than of the Japanese guards. And they're all in full uniform."
"Badges of rank and all, sir. I could count the pips on their shoulders."
"Well, I'll be damned!" Shears exclaimed. "The Siamese had told us about this point and I refused to believe them. In every other camp they're making all the prisoners work, irrespective of rank. Were there any senior officers?"
"A colonel, sir. That must be the Colonel Nicholson we've heard so much about, who was tortured when he first arrived. He was out there all day. I suppose he feels he should be on the spot in case there's any more trouble between his men and the Japs—because I bet you there has been trouble. I wish you could have seen those guards, sir. Monkeys dressed up as men! The way they drag their feet and slouch around, you'd never take them ^ for anything human. Colonel Nicholson's a model of dignified behavior. A born leader, that's how he struck me, sir."
"He certainly must have an amazing influence, and exceptional qualities as well, to be able to keep the men's morale so high in such appalling conditions," said Shears. "I take my hat off to him."
Surprise had followed surprise in the course of that day. Joyce went on with his story, obviously eager to let the others share in his astonishment and admiration.
"At one moment a prisoner from one of the groups furthest away came across the bridge to speak to the Colonel. When he was six paces off he snapped to attention, sir—in those funny clothes they all wear. Yet there was nothing funny about it. A Jap came rushing up, screaming and waving his rifle about in the air. I suppose that man must have left his team without permission. The Colonel just gave the guard one of those looks of his, sir. I saw the whole thing. The Jap thought better of it and shambled off. Incredible, isn't it? But that's not all. Just before dusk a Japanese colonel came on to the bridge—Saito, probably, the one who's said to be such a brute. Well, believe it or not, sir, when he went up to Colonel Nicholson, he almost kowtowed—there's no other word for it. There are certain ways you can tell . . . Colonel Nicholson saluted first, of course, but Saito smartly returned the salute—almost nervously, I could see! Then they walked up and down together. The Jap looked exactly like a junior officer being given his orders. It really cheered me up to see that, sir."
"I can't say I'm sorry to hear about it myself," Shears muttered.
"Here's to Colonel Nicholson," Warden suddenly proposed, raising his glass.
"You're right, Warden, here's to him—and to the five or six hundred other poor beggars who are going through such hell because of this bloody bridge."
"All the same, it's a pity they won't be able to help us."
"It may be a pity, Warden, but you know what we're up against. We have to go through with it on our own. But let's get back to the bridge . . ."
They spent the whole evening discussing the bridge and studying Joyce's sketch-map in a fever of excitement, occasionally questioning him on some specific detail or other, which he promptly explained. He could have drawn every bit of the bridge and described every eddy in the river from memory. They then got down to the plan he had suggested, making a list of all the operations it would entail, working each of those out in detail, keeping a sharp lookout for any unforeseen snag that might conceivably crop up at the last moment. Then Warden went off to receive the incoming messages on the radio in the room next door. Joyce was silent for a moment.
"Look, sir," he finally blurted out, "I'm the best swimmer of the three, and now that I've been over the ground . . ."
"We'll discuss that later," said Number One.
Shears realized that Joyce was at the end of his tether when he saw him stagger on his way to bed. After spending three days lying in the undergrowth studying the lie of the land, he had set off on the return journey during the night and got back to camp by marching without stopping, except for a short halt for food. Even the Siamese had hardly been able to keep up with the pace he had set. They were now busy describing with admiration how the young white man had managed to walk them off their feet.
"You'd better get some rest," said Number One. "There's no point in working yourself to death before we start. We want to have you in proper shape when the time comes. Why did you return so quickly?"
"The bridge will probably be finished in less than a month from now."
All of a sudden Joyce fell asleep, without even taking off the make-up which made him unrecognizable. Shears shrugged his shoulders and did not attempt to wake him. He sat there alone, working out the part that each of them would play in the scene shortly to be enacted in the Kwai valley. He had not yet come to any decision when Warden returned with a handful of messages which he had just deciphered.
"It looks as if the balloon will go up any day now, Shears. Information from H.Q.: the railway's almost finished along the whole of the line. The opening ceremony will probably be held in five or six weeks' time— a 'first' train, crammed full of troops and V.I.P.s. A nice little celebration. A fair amount of war material as well. Things are looking up. H.Q. have passed all your plans and are giving you a completely free hand. The R.A.F. won't interfere. We'll be kept informed daily. The youngster's asleep, is he?"
"Yes, don't wake him up. He deserves a little rest. He did pretty well, you know. Tell me, Warden, do you think we can rely on him in any emergency?"
bsp; Warden thought the question over before answering.
"He looks all right to me. Of course, one can't be sure beforehand, you know that as well as I do. But I know what you're driving at. You want to know if he's capable of taking an important decision in a matter of seconds, or even less, and acting on it. But what made you bring that up?"
"Because he just said: Tm the best swimmer of the three.' And he's not shooting a line. It's true."
"When I joined Force 316," Warden growled, "I didn't realize I would have to be a swimming champion in order to see some action. I'll put in a little practice on my next leave."