The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 24

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"I must admit," said Warden, "I've never seen anyone quite so keen on the idea of destroying a bridge. I'm beginning to think, Shears, that Force 316 is a heaven-sent opportunity for men like that. If it didn't exist, we'd have had to invent it. Take yourself, now; if you hadn't been fed up with regimental soldiering . . ."

"And if you, for instance, had been completely satisfied with lecturing at a university . . . Well, whatever the reason, at the outbreak of the war he was still completely absorbed in that girder. He told me quite seriously that in two years he had succeeded in saving a pound and a half of metal, on paper. That wasn't too b#d, it seems, but the firm thought he could do still better. He would have had to go on like that for months on end. He joined up during the first few days. When he heard about Force 316, he could hardly wait. And people still say there's nothing to predestination. It's a funny thing, though. If it hadn't been for that girder, he probably wouldn't at this very moment be lying flat on his face in the undergrowth a hundred yards from the enemy, with a knife in his belt and an instrument of wholesale destruction by his side."


Shears and Joyce had chatted like this all day, while the two Siamese conversed in an undertone about the expedition. Shears had an occasional twinge of conscience, wondering whether he had chosen the right man for the most important role, the one who, of the three of them, had the best chance of succeeding; or whether he had simply succumbed to the earnestness of Joyce's entreaties.

"Are you quite sure you'll be able to act as decisively ill as Warden or myself no matter what the circumstance?" he had solemnly asked for the last time.

"I'm absolutely certain now, sir. You must give me this chance."

Shears had not pressed the point and had not reconsidered his decision.

They had started the launching just before dusk. The bank was deserted. The bamboo raft—which they had themselves built, since they trusted no one else to do the job properly—consisted of two separate, parallel sections, to make it easier to carry through the jungle. They slid it into the river and fastened the two halves together by lashing a couple of shafts across them. When in position, they made a rigid platform. Then they fixed the charges on as firmly as possible. There were other parcels containing the rolls of cord, the battery, electric wire, and the generator. The fragile material, of course, was wrapped in waterproof sheeting. As for the detonators, Shears had brought an extra set. He had given one to Joyce and carried the other himself. They were wearing them in their belts. These were the only really tricky things to carry, plastic being in principle immune to rough handling.

"All the same, you must have felt uncomfortably weighed down with those parcels round your w

aist," Warden observed.

"You know, one never thinks of that sort of thing— anyway, that was the least dangerous part of the voyage. Yet we were shaken about, I can tell you. Damn those Siamese who promised us an easy stretch of water!"

According to the information of the natives, they had calculated that the trip would last less than half an hour. So they had not set out until it was pitch dark. Actually, they had taken over an hour, and it was heavy going all the way. The current in the River Kwai, except for a calm stretch around the bridge, was like a torrent. As soon as they started, the rapids swept them away into the darkness, past rocks which they could not avoid, while they clung desperately to their precious, dangerous cargo.

"If I had known what the river was like, I should have chosen a different line of approach and taken the risk of launching the stuff nearer the bridge. It's always the simple information like this that turns out false, Warden, whether it comes from native sources or European. I've often noticed that. I was led up the garden path once again. You can't imagine how hard it was to maneuver the submarine in that torrent."

The "submarine" was the name they had given the raft, which, weighted down at each end with bits of iron, floated half under water most of the time. Its trim had been carefully worked out so as to make it only just buoyant when launched. In this way the mere pressure of a finger was enough to submerge it completely.

"In the first rapids, which sounded as loud as Niagara, we were tossed around, buffeted about, and whirled over and under the submarine from one bank to the other, sometimes scraping the river bed, at other times the branches. When I got things more or less under control (which took me some time—I was half drowned) I ordered each man to hang on to the submarine and not let go at any price, to concentrate on that and nothing else. That was all we could do, and it's a miracle no one had his head bashed in. A really splendid tonic, just what we needed to put us in the right mood for the serious job ahead. The waves were like a storm in mid-ocean. I was nearly seasick; and there was no way we could avoid the obstacles. Sometimes—would you believe it, Warden—sometimes we could not even tell if we were going backwards or forwards. Do you thing that's strange? When the river begins to narrow and the jungle closes over you, I defy you to know for certain what direction you're moving in. We were being swept down with the current, you'll say. Yes, but compared to us, the water, apart from the waves, was as calm as a lake. It was only the obstacles that gave us some idea of our direction and speed—when we bumped into them. A question of relativity! I wonder if you can imagine . . ."

It must have been an extraordinary sensation. Shears did his best to describe it as accurately as possible. Warden was intrigued as he listened to him.

"I can well imagine it, Shears. And the raft held together?"

"Another miracle! I could hear it cracking whenever my head happened to be above water level, but it did hold together—except for a second. It was the youngster who saved the situation. He's first class, Warden. It was like this. At the end of the first rapids, when we were just beginning to get used to the dark, we crashed into a huge rock bang in the middle of the river. We were literally thrown up in the air, Warden, on a cushion of water, before being snatched down again by the current and dragged over to one side. I should never have thought it possible. I saw the obstruction looming up when we were only a few feet off. There was no time. All I could think of doing was shooting out my legs and straddling a bit of bamboo. The two Siamese were chucked off. Fortunately, we picked them up again a little further down. Pure luck! But do you know what he did? He only had a split second to think. He flung himself flat on his stomach right across the raft. Do you know why, Warden? To keep the two halves together. Yes, one of the ropes had snapped. The shafts were slipping and the two bits were beginning to come apart. The bump must have shaken them loose. A disaster—he took it all in at a glance. He thought fast. He had the sense to act and the guts to hold on. He was in front of me. I saw the submarine rise out of the water and leap into the air, like a salmon making upstream—just like that; with him underneath, clinging onto the bamboo sticks. He did not let go. Later on we fixed the bits together as best we could. In that position, you realize, his detonators were in direct contact with the plastic, and he must have taken a hell of a toss. I saw him right above my head, I tell you. Like a flash of lightning! That was the only moment I was conscious of the explosives we were carrying. It didn't matter, of course. There wasn't the slightest danger, I'm sure. But he had realized that in a split second. He's an exceptional chap, Warden, I know it. He's bound to succeed."

"A wonderful combination of sound judgment and quick reflex action," Warden agreed.

Shears went on in a low voice:

"He's bound to succeed, Warden. This job is part of him, and no one can stop him going through with it. It's his own personal show. He knows that. You and I are only onlookers now. We've had our day. All we've got to think about now is making his task as easy as possible. The fate of the bridge is in good hands."

At the end of the first rapids there had been a lull, during which they had put the raft together again. Then they had another rough passage through a narrow gap in the river. They had wasted some time in front of a pile of rocks which obstructed the proper flow of water, causing a vast slow-moving whirlpool upstream, in which they had been caught for several minutes without being able to move any further.

At last they had escaped from this trap. The river had widened, going suddenly sluggish, which had given them the impression of being washed out onto a huge, calm lake. Soon afterward they had caught sight of the bridge.

Shears broke off and gazed in silence at the valley.

"Strange to be looking at it like this, from above, and seeing the whole thing. It's got quite a different appearance when you're down there at night. All I saw of it were separate bits flashing past, one after the other. It's those bits that matter to us right now—and also afterwards, for that matter. But when we arrived it was outlined against the sky surprisingly clearly. I was scared stiff someone would see us. I felt we were as visible as though it was broad daylight. Just an illusion, of course. We were up to our necks in the water. The submarine was submerged. It even showed signs of sinking completely. Some of the bamboos had caved in. But everything went off all right. There was no fight. We glided silently into the shadow of the bridge. Not even a bump. We tied the raft up to one of the central piles and got down to work. We were already quite numb with cold."

"Any particular trouble?" asked Warden.

"No particular trouble, I suppose, Warden—unless you think this sort of job is all in the day's work."

He fell silent again, as though hypnotized by the bridge, which he could see still shining in the sun, the light-colored wood showing clear above the yellowish water.

"All this seems to be happening in a dream, Warden. I've had that feeling before. When the time comes, you wonder if it's real, if the charges are really there, if it's really true that one touch to the plunger of the generator is all that's needed. It all seems so utterly impossible. There's Joyce, less than a hundred yards away from the enemy's lines. There he is, behind that tree, watching the bridge. I bet he hasn't moved an inch since I left. Just think what could happen before tomorrow, Warden. If a Jap soldier should happen to amuse himself by chasing a snake into the jungle ... I shouldn't have left him there. He shouldn't have got into position until this evening."

"He's got his knife," said Warden. "It's up to him. Tell me about the rest of that night."

Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
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