The Bridge Over the River Kwai - Page 27

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ous by the inhuman whim of this trickle from the mountains. The success of the big attack, for which he had for good and all sacrificed his hitherto neglected reserves of stamina and strength after thriftily saving them up for years, was now again in the balance, being weighed once more on scales which took no heed of his soul's ambition. His destiny was to be fulfilled during the minutes that remained before the train's arrival, fulfilled regardless of himself, fulfilled on a higher plane; consciously fulfilled, perhaps, but in an external consciousness, a pitiful consciousness scornful of the impulse which had carried him thus far, a consciousness which directed human affairs at such a high level that no human wish could sway it, neither entreaty nor despair.

This feeling that the discovery or non-discovery of the explosive was now independent of anything he could do made him, paradoxically enough, a little calmer. He stopped hoping. He could not afford to waste an ounce of energy on things that were taking place on a supernatural plane. He had to forget about them, so as to concentrate all his resources on the factors which were still within the scope of his own initiative. It was on these, and these alone, that he now had to bring his mind to bear. The operation was still feasible; he only had to envisage what form it was likely to take. He was still wondering what his reactions would be. Shears had noticed him doing that before.

If the charges were discovered, the train would be stopped before it reached the bridge. He would then thrust the plunger down before being discovered himself. The damage would be easily repaired. It would be only a partial success, but he could not help that.

It was a different situation when it came to the electric wire. This could be seen by anyone walking along the beach a few feet away from him. In that case there was still a chance of taking independent action. Perhaps there would be no one on the bridge at that moment, and no one on the opposite bank who could see him. And the slope hid the pebble beach from the Japanese in the camp. The man would probably hesitate before sounding the alarm. In that case he, Joyce, would have to act, and act fast. And to do that, he would have to keep both bridge and beach in view.

He thought again, returned to his previous hide-out, and brought his gear back to his new position behind a flimsy screen of undergrowth from which he could see at the same time the bridge and the patch of open ground now bisected by the wire. An idea crossed his mind. He took off his shirt and shorts. He kept on his pants. This was more or less like the prisoners' working gear. From a long way off he might be mistaken for one of them. He carefully set up the generator and knelt down beside it. He took his knife out of his sheath. This important item of equipment, which was included on every Plastic and Destructions Company expedition, he placed on the grass by his side. Then he waited.

The time passed desperately slowly, at a snail's pace, as sluggishly as the diminished flow of the River Kwai; it was measured for him in endless seconds by the muffled murmur of the water nibbling imperceptibly into a future fraught with danger, storing up in the past a few flashes of security, each invaluable but infinitesimal and tragically out of proportion with his anxiety. The tropical light flooded the dripping valley and shimmered on the wet black sand of the recently exposed river bed. After outlining the crossbeams in the superstructure of the bridge, the sun, hidden for a moment by the platform, rose above this obstruction, casting before it the gigantic shadow of this example of human artifice. It crossed the pebble beach in a straight line parallel to the wire, was distorted in the water where it writhed in countless curves, then melted away on the other side into the shape of the hills beyond. The heat hardened the cuts on his tattered hands and made the wounds on his body smart horribly in the grip of multicolored legions of ants. But physical pain did not distract his thoughts; it was only an agonizing accompaniment to the obsession which had been racking his brain for the last few minutes.

A fresh fear had assailed him just as he was trying to imagine what form the action would have to take if, during the next few hours, his fate-line were to be crossed by one particular event—a Japanese soldier wandering idly along the river and stopping to investigate the pebble beach. He would be surprised to see the wire. He would stop. He would bend down to take hold of it and stand still for a moment. It was then that he, Joyce, would have to intervene. It was essential for him to visualize his own actions in advance. As Shears had said, he brooded too much!

Picturing this action was enough to tie his nerves in knots and paralyze every muscle. He could not help it. He had a deep instinctive feeling that this action was imperative, that it had been ordained a long time ago, that it was the natural conclusion of events leading inevitably to this final test of his capabilities. It was the most dreaded, hateful test of all, which he could throw onto one or the other side of the scales, a test sufficiently fraught with horror and sacrifice by itself to tip the scales on the side of success by snatching him from the hungry grasp of destiny.

He exercised all his brain cells with this final end in view, feverishly going over in his mind the school instructions, trying to devote himself body and soul to the dynamics of the job on hand, yet still unable to banish the nightmare of the immediate consequences.

He remembered the worrying question which his C.O. had once asked him: "When the time comes, would you be 'capable,' in cold blood, of using this weapon?" He had been uneasy about his instinctive reactions and will power. At the moment of launching out on the river he had been absolutely certain; now he was not sure of anything. He looked at the weapon lying on the grass beside him.

It was a sharp, long-bladed knife with a short metal hilt just big enough to ensure a reasonable grip, blade and hilt being all in one piece. The back-room boys of Force 316 had modified its blade and handle several times. The instructions in its use had been specific. It was not simply a question of clenching one's fist around it and striking blindly; that was too easy—anyone could do that. Every form of destruction requires its own individual technique. The instructors had taught him two methods of using it. For purposes of defense, against a man rushing forward, it was advisable to hold it in front of one, with the point tilted slightly upward and the cutting edge uppermost, and to strike with an upward thrust as though disemboweling an animal. The gesture itself was not beyond his powers. He could have done it almost automatically. But in this case he would not have to. There would be no enemy rushing forward. He would not have to defend himself. For the action which he was anticipating, he would have to use the second method. It needed hardly any strength, but a lot of skill and utter ruthlessness. It was the method by which the trainees were taught to wipe out a sentry in the dark without giving him the time or opportunity to raise the alarm. It necessitated striking from behind; but not in the man's back (that, too, would have been too easy). It necessitated cutting his throat.

The knife had to be held palm downward, with the nails underneath, the thumb running along the back of the blade to ensure proper control; with the blade itself held horizontal and perpendicular to the victim's body. The thrust had to be made from right to left, firmly, but not violently enough to turn it off its course, and directed at a certain point an inch or two below the ear. This point, and no other, had to be aimed at and hit to prevent the man from crying out. Such was the general plan of the operation. It also involved several further subsidiary gestures, secondary but no less important, which had to be carried out immediately after the blade's penetration. But the advice on this subject, which the Calcutta instructors gave so light-heartedly, Joyce did not even dare whisper to himself.

He could not dispel his mental picture of the immediate consequences. So he forced himself instead to examine it closely, to build it up in his mind in every detail of its shape and horrid aspects, in the mad hope that he would thereby get used to it and so reach that state of detachment which is born of habit. He relived the scene a dozen times, twenty times over, and gradually managed to create not a ghost, nor even a vague imaginary shadow, but a human being, a real flesh-and-blood Japanese soldier standing on the beac

h in uniform, wearing his funny cap, his ear projecting underneath it, and, a little lower down, the small patch of brown skin which he aimed at as he silently lifted his outstretched arm. He forced himself to feel, to judge the resistance to the blow, to see the blood spurting and the body jerking as the knife in the palm of his clenched fist went through the subsidiary gestures and his left arm flashed down and bared the victim's throat. He steeped himself for hour after hour in the worst horror he could imagine. He made such an effort to train his body to be nothing more than an insensible obedient machine that he felt overwhelming fatigue in every muscle.

He was still not sure of himself. He was appalled to see that this method of preparing himself was not effective. The threat of failure taunted him as relentlessly as the realization of his duty. He had to choose between two courses: the first ignominiously scattering, in an eternity of shame and remorse, the same horror that the second concentrated in a few seconds of ghastly action —an ignominious but passive course, demanding only inactive cowardice and so all the more attractive for providing the insidious temptation of the easy way out. He came to realize that in cold blood and in full possession of his faculties he would never be capable of the action which he insisted on picturing to himself. He felt, on the contrary, that he would have to banish it from his mind and find either a stimulating or sobering alternative » which would turn his thoughts elsewhere. He needed more help than he could derive from the paralyzing contemplation of this terrifying task, i Outside help? He looked around him in despair. He was alone and naked in a strange land, skulking in the - undergrowth like a wild beast, surrounded by enemies of , every kind. His only weapon was this dreadful dagger burning a hole in the palm of his hand. He searched in | vain for some support from any feature in the landscape which had fired his imagination. Everything now looked hostile in the Kwai valley. The shadow of the bridge was now nothing but a lifeless, useless structure. There was no hope of help. He had nothing more to drink, nothing to eat. It might have been comforting to gulp down some sort of food, any sort.

He could expect no outside help. He was left entirely to his own devices. This was what he had wanted, what he had welcomed. He had felt proud and inspired. His personal powers had seemed invincible. Surely they could not suddenly fade away, leaving him stranded like some machine with a sabotaged engine! He closed his eyes on the surrounding world and looked inward on himself. If there was any hope of rescue it lay there, and not on this earth beneath these skies. In his present misery the only gleam of hope he could see was the hypnotizing flame of those mental pictures which are born of hallucination. His imagination was his only refuge. Shears had been worried by that. Warden had wisely not declared whether it was a virtue or a fault.

He had to combat the evil effects of obsession by the counterpoison of self-imposed obsession; to unwind the film on which the representative symbols of his spiritual capital were inscribed; to examine with an inquisitor's fury every specter in his mental universe; to hunt passionately through these immaterial witnesses of his existence until he found a sufficiently absorbing figure to occupy the whole realm of his consciousness without leaving a single gap. Feverishly he reviewed them all. Hatred of the Japanese, sense of duty—these were ludicrous irritants which could not be expressed in a sufficiently clear form. He thought of his superior officers, of his friends who were relying on him entirely and who were now waiting on the opposite bank. Even that thought was not sufficiently real. It was barely sufficient to induce him to sacrifice his own life. Even the intoxication of success was now of no avail. Or else he would have to envisage victory under a more palpable guise than that half- extinguished halo of glory whose fading beams could no longer find any material element on which to shine.

A thought suddenly flashed through his mind. It flashed with startling clarity for a split second. Even before realizing it, he had the feeling that it was sufficiently significant to give him hope. He struggled to retrieve it. It flashed again. It was last night's vision: the sheet of drawing paper under the projector lamp; the countless designs for the girder on which the brown squares were superimposed and which were dwarfed by a heading endlessly repeated in huge shining letters: the word DESTRUCTION.

It went on flashing. From the moment that it was instinctively recalled and triumphantly occupied his thoughts, he felt that this alone was sufficiently consistent, sufficiently complete, sufficiently powerful to make him rise above the disgust and horror of his wretched carcass. It was as exhilarating as drink and as soothing as opium. He gave in to it completely and took care not to let it escape him again.

Having reached this state of self-induced hypnosis, he was not surprised to see some Japanese soldiers walking along the bridge over the River Kwai.


Shears also saw the Japanese soldiers, and lived through another nightmare.

For him, too, time was passing at a relentlessly slow pace. After the dismay caused by the thought of the charges, he had pulled himself together. He had left the partisans in position, and climbed a little further up the slope. He had stopped at a point from which he could see the bridge as well as the river. He had noticed the little waves around the piles and examined them through his field glasses. He imagined he could see a patch of brown rising and falling with the movement of the eddies. Instinctively, involuntarily, and from a sense of duty, he had racked his brains to discover what personal action he could take to avert this stroke of misfortune. "There is always something further to be done, some extra action to take," so the Force 316 authorities asserted. For the first time since he had been engaged in this sort of work Shears could think of nothing to do, and he cursed himself for his impotence.

For him the die was cast. He had no more chance of retaliating than had Warden, who from up there had no doubt also discovered the treachery of the River Kwai. Joyce, perhaps? But had he even noticed the change? And who could tell if he would have the necessary initiative and instinct to deal with such a catastrophe? Shears, who was used to judging the size of the obstacles to be overcome in situations of this sort, bitterly regretted not having taken his place.

Two endless hours had dragged by. From the spot he had reached he could see the hutments of the camp. He had noticed some Japanese soldiers moving about in full- dress uniform. A hundred yards away from the river there was a whole company of them waiting for the train, lined up in honor of the authorities who were to open the railway line. Perhaps the preparations for this ceremony would occupy all their attention? Shears hoped so. But a Japanese patrol had emerged from the guardroom and was now on its way to the bridge.

Now the men, led by a sergeant, were moving along the platform in two ranks, one on either side of the track. They walked slowly along in a leisurely manner, their rifles carried carelessly over their shoulders. Their mission was to make a final inspection before the train arrived. From time to time one of them stopped to lean over the parapet. Clearly, it was only to salve their consciences, to carry out their orders, that they were performing this task. Shears tried to persuade himself that their hearts were not in the job—which was probably true. No accident could happen to the bridge over the River Kwai whose growth in this God-forsaken valley they had personally witnessed day by day! "They're looking without seeing," he told himself as he watched them advance. Each step they took echoed through his head. He forced himself to keep his eyes on them and follow every movement they made, while he silently delivered a vague prayer to whatever god or devil or other mysterious power there might be. He automatically judged their speed and the distance they moved along the bridge in every second. They were now more than halfway across. The sergeant leaned over the parapet and spoke to the leading man, pointing at the river. Shears bit his hand to keep himself from shouting out loud. The sergeant laughed. He was probably making some remark about the fall in the level of the water. They moved oS again. Shears was right: they were looking without seeing. He felt that by following them like this with his eyes, he would be able to exercise an influence on their sense of perception—a miracle of telepathic suggestion. The last man had gone past. They had noticed nothing.

Now they were coming back. They were moving along the bridge in the opposite direction at the same ambling pace. One of them leaned head and shoulders right over the dangerous section, then stepped back into the ranks.

They had gone past again. Shears mopped his brow. They were moving away. "They have seen nothing"; automatically he whispered these words to himself, to convince himself all the more of the miracle. Anxiously he kept them under observation and did not take his eyes off them until they had rejoined the company. Before allowing his hopes to soar he was seized by a strange feeling of pride.

"If I'd been one of them," he muttered, "I shouldn't have been so careless. Any British soldier would have spotted the sabotage. Ah well, the train won't be long now."

As though in answer to this last thought, he heard a harsh voice shouting out orders on the enemy bank. There was a stir among the men. Shears looked into the distance. On the horizon of the plain a small cloud of black smoke proclaimed the approach of the first Japanese convoy to cross into Siam, the first train, loaded with troops, munitions, and high-ranking Japanese generals, which was about to cross the bridge over the River Kwai.

Tags: Pierre Boulle Fiction
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