Shears's heart softened. Tears of gratitude to the mysterious power ran down his cheeks.
"Nothing can stop us now," he whispered. "Fate has no more tricks to play. The train will be here in twenty minutes."
He quelled his anxiety and returned to the foot of the mountain in order to take command of the support group. As he scrambled down, bent double and taking care to keep under cover, he was unable to see the fine upstanding officer in the uniform of a British colonel approaching the bridge from the opposite bank.
At the very moment that Number One got back in position, still in a flurry of emotion, with every faculty concentrated on the anticipated sight of a blinding explosion followed by the fire and wreckage that spell success, Colonel Nicholson in his turn started to cross the br
idge over the River Kwai.
With a clear conscience, at peace with the universe and with God, gazing through eyes that were bluer than the tropical sky after a storm, feeling through every pore of his ruddy skin the satisfaction of the well-earned rest that is due to any craftsman after a difficult task, proud of having overcome every obstacle through his personal courage and perseverance, glorying in the work accomplished by himself and by his men in this corner of Siam which he now felt almost belonged to him, light at heart at the thought of having shown himself worthy of his forefathers and of having contributed a far from common chapter to the Eastern legends of empire-builders, firmly convinced that no one could have done the job better, confirmed in his certainty of the superiority of his own race in every field of activity, glad of having furnished ample proof of this during the last six months, bursting with the joy that makes every commander's effort worthwhile once the triumphant result is there for all to see, drinking the cup of victory in tiny sips, delighted with the quality of the construction, anxious to see for himself, and for the last time, the sum total of its perfection compounded of hard work and intelligence, and also in order to carry out a final inspection, Colonel Nicholson strode with dignity across the bridge over the River Kwai.
Most of the prisoners, and all the officers, had left two days before, on foot, for an assembly point from which they were due to be sent to Malaya, to the islands, or to Japan, in order to undertake other duties. The railway was finished. The ceremony which His Imperial Majesty in Tokyo had graciously ordained, and imposed, on all the groups in Burma and Siam had been held in honor of its completion.
It had been celebrated with particular pomp in the River Kwai camp. Colonel Nicholson had seen to that. All along the line it had been preceded by the usual speeches from Japanese officers, generals, and colonels, perched on a rostrum, wearing black boots and gray gloves, gesticulating with their arms and heads, making an extraordinary parody of the language of the Western world in front of a legion of white men—men who were crippled, sick, and covered with sores, and still in a daze after living through several months of hell.
Saito had spoken a few words, of course, in praise of the Southeast Asia Sphere, and had condescended to add his thanks for the loyalty which the prisoners had shown.
Clipton, whose temper had been sorely tried for weeks, during which he had seen dying men dragging themselves to the workyards in order to finish the bridge, felt almost like weeping with rage. He had then had to put up with a short speech from Colonel Nicholson, in which the C.O. congratulated his men, extolling their self-sacrifice and fortitude. The Colonel had ended up by declaring that their hardships had not been suffered in vain and that he was proud of being in command of such fine fellows. Their conduct and demeanor in the face of adversity would be an example to the whole country.
After that came the festivities. The Colonel had lent a hand and taken an active part in them. He knew that nothing was worse for the men than inactivity, and had ordered a mass of entertainments, the organization of which had kept them breathless for several days. There were not only several concerts, but also a comic act performed by soldiers in fancy dress, and even a ballet of men made up as dancers which provoked a hearty laugh.
"You see, Clipton," he had said, "you criticized me once, but I stuck to my guns. I've kept the morale of the unit high, and that's the main thing. The men have stuck it out."
This was true. A fine spirit had been maintained in the River Kwai camp. Clipton had to admit this when he looked at the men around him. It was obvious that they were taking an innocent, childish pleasure in these celebrations, and the sincerity of their cheers left no room for doubt about the level of their morale.
The next day the prisoners had moved off. Only the seriously ill and the cripples had stayed behind. They were to be evacuated to Bangkok in the next train from Burma. The officers had left with the men. Reeves and Hughes, to their great regret, had been obliged to join the convoy and had not been allowed to see the first train cross the construction which had cost them so much toil and effort. Colonel Nicholson, however, had been given permission to travel with the sick men. Because of the services he had rendered, Saito had not been able to refuse him this favor, which he had requested in his usual dignified manner.
He now walked along, taking lengthy brisk strides which resounded triumphantly on the platform. He had won the day. The bridge was ready. There was nothing fancy about it, but it was a sufficiently "finished" job to advertise the qualities of the Western world in large letters across this Siamese sky. This was where he deserved to be, in the position of a commander reviewing his troops before a victorious parade. It was unthinkable that he should be elsewhere. His presence was some consolation for the departure of his faithful assistants and his men, all of whom deserved to share in this honor. Luckily, he, at least, was here. The bridge was soundly built, he knew. There was no weak spot. It would stand up to what was expected of it. But nothing can take the place of a final examination by the man responsible for it, of that he was also certain. One can never foresee every eventuality. Years of experience had taught him that something always tends to crop up at the last moment, that there is always some fly in the ointment. If it does, even the best junior officer is incapable of taking the necessary steps to deal with it. Needless to say, he placed no faith in the report made by the Japanese patrol which Saito had sent out that morning. He had to see to things himself. As he strode along, his glance confirmed the firmness of each support and the soundness of each joint.
When he was a little over halfway across he leaned over the parapet, as he had done every five or six yards on the way. He caught sight of a pile and stood rooted to the spot with surprise.
His trained eye had at once noticed the extra ripples on the surface of the water caused by one of the charges. Examining them more closely, Colonel Nicholson thought he saw a brown patch against the wood. He hesitated for a moment, then moved on and stopped a few yards further off, above another pile. Once again he leaned over the parapet.
"That's funny," he muttered.
Again he hesitated, then crossed the line and looked over the other side. Another patch of brown was visible a bare inch below the surface. This made him feel vaguely annoyed, like the sight of a blot disfiguring his work. He decided to walk on, went as far as the end of the platform, turned around and retraced his steps, as the patrol had done before him, then stopped once more, wrapped in thought and shaking his head. Finally he shrugged his shoulders and turned toward the right bank. He kept talking to himself the whole time.
"That wasn't there two days ago," he mumbled. "The water level was higher, it's true. Probably some muck that's been washed up against the piles and stuck there. Yet . . ."
The ghost of a suspicion flashed through his mind, but the truth was too extraordinary for him to grasp immediately. Yet he was no longer in a cheerful mood. His morning was spoiled. He turned around again to have another look at the anomaly, found no explanation, and finally stepped off the bridge, still feeling rather puzzled.
"It can't be true," he muttered, as he contemplated the vague suspicion skimming through his brain. "Unless it's one of those Chinese Communist bands . . ."
Sabotage was firmly associated in his mind with gangster activity.
"It can't be true," he repeated, still unable to recapture his light-hearted mood.
The train was now in sight, though still some way off, struggling up the line. The Colonel calculated that it would take at least ten minutes to arrive. Saito, who was strolling up and down between the bridge and the company, watched him approach and felt embarrassed, as he always did in the Englishman's presence. Colonel Nicholson suddenly made up his mind as he drew level with the Japanese.
"Colonel Saito," he declared in a lordly manner, "there's something rather odd going on. We'd better look into it more closely before the train goes across."
Without waiting for an answer, he scrambled quickly down the slope. His intention w
as to take the small native canoe moored under the bridge and make a tour of inspection around the piles. As he reached the beach he instinctively swept it with his trained glance and noticed the length of electric wire on the shining pebbles. Colonel Nicholson frowned and walked over toward it.
It was while he was scrambling down the slope, with an ease born of the daily habit of light exercise and the peaceful contemplation of everyday truths, that he came into Shears's field of view. The Japanese colonel followed close behind him. It was only then that Shears realized that adversity still had a card up its sleeve. Joyce had been aware of this for some time. In the state of trance to which he had managed to force himself he had seen the Colonel's behavior on the bridge without any further feeling of alarm. But he seized his dagger as soon as he saw the figure of Saito following behind him on the beach.