The People of the Ruins (13)
August 16, 2012
HILOBROW is pleased to present the thirteenth installment of our serialization of Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins: A Story of the English Revolution and After. New installments will appear each Thursday for 16 weeks.
Trapped in a London laboratory during a worker uprising in 1924, ex-artillery officer and physics instructor Jeremy Tuft awakens 150 years later — in a neo-medieval society whose inhabitants have forgotten how to build or operate machinery. Not only have his fellow Londoners forgotten most of what humankind used to know, before civilization collapsed, but they don’t particularly care to re-learn any of it. Though he is at first disconcerted by the failure of his own era’s smug doctrine of Progress, Tuft eventually decides that post-civilized life is simpler, more peaceful. That is, until northern English and Welsh tribes threaten London — at which point he sets about reinventing weapons of mass destruction.
Shanks’ post-apocalyptic novel, a pessimistic satire on Wellsian techno-utopian novels, was first published in 1920. In October, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful new edition of The People of the Ruins, with an introduction by Tom Hodgkinson.
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LAST WEEK: “‘I will not take command of the army,’ he said, letting the words fall one by one. ‘I am not fit to do it. I should only bring disaster on all of us. I have too much at stake to risk it. It would be better if Thomas Wells were to take command.'”
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THE FIELDS OF WINDSOR
Jeremy sat with the Speaker in the parlor of a rude farmhouse at the edge of the little village of Slough. It was now a week since the army had taken the field, and during that time they had not once come to grips with the enemy. The President of Wales had lingered unaccountably at Oxford, and Jeremy had pitched his camp in the neighborhood of Windsor, not daring to move further from London. He could not tell whether the Welshmen would follow the windings of the north bank of the river or cross at Reading and approach the capital from the south, or march by Thame around the top of the Chilterns. The Speaker, judging the enemy by his own strategical notions, had affirmed that they would advance towards Windsor if they supposed that battle could be joined there; and he wished to go straight on, as far as Oxford if necessary. But Jeremy, determined to be in truth what the old man had forced him to be, refused to move. They spent a weary week of doubt and anxiety, receiving every day a dozen contradictory reports, and occasionally moving out the troops to the west or the north on a wild-goose chase.
This state of affairs told heavily on them both. Jeremy ceased to be able to sleep, and he felt inexpressibly tired. The Speaker grew irritable and the ardor of his spirit, confined by delay, daily corroded his temper. The Canadian, who attended them faithfully, never refused to give Jeremy his advice; but he never suggested less than two possible courses of action, and he never failed to make it clear that either might bring success, and that either might involve complete disaster. On this day at last Jeremy’s patience had worn very thin. He had just explained to the Speaker for the twentieth time his objection to moving up the river direct on Oxford, and a dissatisfied silence had fallen between them. Jeremy sighed, and let his hands fall on the table, across the crude, inaccurate maps which were all that he had been able to obtain.
The dispute between them had grown so bitter that he felt unwilling to encounter the Speaker’s gaze, fearing lest his own weariness and disgust and resentment should show too obviously. But as he glanced cautiously at the old man he saw that he was leaning back in his chair, his eyes closed and his hands folded in his lap. In this attitude of rest he betrayed himself more than was common with him. The air of fire and mastery had gone out of his face, the lines of power were softened, the thick lips, instead of expressing pride and greed, drooped a little pathetically, and showed a weary resignation. Not only his features, but also the thick-veined old hands, seemed to have grown thinner and frailer than they were. He looked to Jeremy like a lamp inside which the flame is slowly and quietly dying. Jeremy’s heart suddenly softened towards him and he felt more unbearable than ever the fate in which they were all thus entangled.
But his tired brain refused to grapple with it any more, and he fell to making pictures. When they had marched out he alone in the whole army had felt despondent. The people of London wished them good luck with as much enthusiasm as, a few days before, they had welcomed them home. The troops marched off down Oxford Street and along the winding valley-road, covered again with flowers, which they stuck in their hats or in the muzzles of their rifles, singing odd uncouth snatches of boasting defiance in curious cadences which had suddenly sprung up among them and passed rapidly from mouth to mouth. Most of these praised Jeremy and his guns: some of them exalted him as a necromancer and credited him with supernatural powers. Even the Speaker chanted one of them in a rumbling, uncertain bass, somewhat to Jeremy’s discomfort. The discomfort was greater when Thomas Wells hummed another below his breath, with a satirical grin directed at the horizon before them.
The Lady Eva at their parting shared Jeremy’s distress but not his doubts. They had a few moments alone together on the morning of setting out, before the public ceremony at which she and the Lady Burney were to wish the army God-speed. She clung to him speechlessly, begging him with her eyes and her kisses to confess that he looked cheerfully to the result. Jeremy, shamefacedly conscious of having felt some resentment towards her since he had yielded to her entreaties, comforted her as well as he was able, and yet could not bring himself to say what she wanted to hear. Their short time ran to an end: the minutes ticked inexorably away; below in the courtyard he could hear the servants bringing around the horses. A dozen times his mind framed a pleasant lie for her which his tongue would not speak. Then they parted with this between them, and Jeremy went down into the courtyard with a heavy spirit. A few minutes later he and the Speaker and Thomas Wells were riding up Whitehall towards Piccadilly, the Lady Burney and the Lady Eva going before them in a carriage. There, on the spot where once the poised Cupid had stood, the Lady Eva kissed him again before the cheering people, and the army set out. Jeremy rode dully with it, wishing that his obstinate fixity in his own opinion could have given way for a moment and let him part without reserve from his beloved. He wondered much whether he would ever see her again, and the thought was exceedingly bitter.
Then followed this week of confusion and wretchedness, a depressing contrast with the lightning brilliance of the campaign against the Yorkshiremen. Jeremy’s resolution, braced for a swift and single test of it, withstood the strain hardly. It seemed to him that the moments in which good luck might carry him through were fast running away; he felt them like material things melting out of his hands. Still at Oxford, the President maintained his enigmatical immobility. Slowly the spirit of the troops faded and withered, like the trail of flowers they had left behind them on the march. Jeremy preserved the stolidity of his expression, grew slower of speech every day, and hid the bewildering turmoil of his thoughts. Only the Canadian went about the camp with an unaltered cheerfulness of demeanor. He behaved like an onlooker who is always willing to do what he can when the players of the game invoke his help. He talked with the officers, rode out often in front of the lines, seemed always busy, always in a detached manner interested in what was going on. Jeremy grew to hate him as much as he feared him…
He started up from his meditation and found that the old man was speaking to him.
“Listen! Wasn’t that firing… a long way off?”
He listened intently, then shook his head. “No, I’m sure it wasn’t.”
“Jeremy, how much longer is it going to be?”
He was seized with surprise at the pitifulness of the Speaker’s tone. “God knows, sir,” he answered slowly, and added in an exhausted voice. “We haven’t enough men to go on adventures and force the business.”
“No… no, I suppose not.” And then, losing some of this unusual docility, the Speaker burst out: “I am sick of this hole!”
“Campaigning quarters!” Jeremy replied as humorously and soothingly as he could. He was sick of it himself. The Speaker had desired that they should establish themselves in Windsor Castle; but much of the old building had been burnt down in the Troubles, and what was left had been used as a quarry. It was not possible to go anywhere in the neighborhood without seeing the great calcined stones built into the walls of house or barn. Hardly anything of the Castle was left standing; and the poor remains, in fact, were used as a common cart-shed by the inhabitants of the village of Windsor. In all this countryside, which was held and cultivated by small men, there was no great house; and they had been obliged to content themselves with a poor hovel of a farm, which had only one living-room and was dirty and uncomfortable. Jeremy grew to hate it and the wide dusty flats in which it stood. It seemed to him a detestable landscape, and daily the scene he loathed grew intertwined in his thoughts with his dread of the future. His feverish brain began to deal, against his will, in foolish omens and premonitions. He caught himself wondering, “Will this be the last I shall see of England?” He remembered, shuddering, that when he had first joined the Army in 1914 and had complained of early morning parades, a companion had said, “I suppose we shall have to get up at this time every morning for the rest of our lives!”
While he was trying to drive some such thoughts as these out of his mind, he was conscious of a stir outside the farmhouse, and presently an orderly entered and announced, “A scout with news, sir.”
“Bring him in,” said Jeremy wearily. He hardly glanced up at the trooper who entered, until the man began to speak. Then the tones of the voice caught his attention and he saw with surprise that it was Roger Vaile who stood there, his head roughly bandaged; his face smeared with blood and dust, his uniform torn and stained.
“Roger!” he cried, starting up.
Roger hesitated. The Speaker, who was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees and his face between his hands, muttered sharply, “Go on, man, go on!”
Roger straightened himself a little, disregarded Jeremy’s outstretched hand, and began again. “I went out alone, sir, three days ago,” he said, looking at neither of his listeners, “and went on upstream as far as a place called Dorchester. I saw a patrol of the enemy there coming out of the village, and to get away from them I had to leave my horse and swim across the river. There’s a hill on the other side that you can see the road from —”
“I know it!” Jeremy jerked out. “It’s called Sinodun!” The mere name as he pronounced it almost took his breath away. How well, in old journeys up the river, he had once known Sinodun!
“Is it?” Roger asked indifferently. “I didn’t know. Well, I stayed on top of the hill under a bush that night. The next morning about eleven I saw a lot of cavalry coming into the village from the Oxford road and soon after that infantry. It looked to me like the whole of the President’s army. There must have been ten or twelve thousand men altogether. So I started off to come back as fast as I could. I had some difficulty because when I got across the river again at Wallingford I was right among their patrols, and I couldn’t get away from them till they camped at Marlow last night.”
“At Marlow!” Jeremy cried, starting up. “Are you quite sure the whole army came as far as Marlow?”
“Absolutely sure,” Roger replied. “I was hiding just outside the village while they pitched their camp.”
“Then God be praised,” Jeremy breathed, “they’ve come past Reading and they’re marching straight at us. They can’t cross the river between here and there. Ten or twelve thousand, you say? Then we’re about equal in numbers and I believe we shall be equal to them in spirit — let alone the guns. And, Roger,” he finished, “are you hurt?”
“Nothing much — only a cut,” Roger assured him with his gentle smile. “Luckily I ran into one of their scouts and got his horse away from him — or I might not have been here so soon.”
“Come, Jeremy,” growled the Speaker, rising. “The battle is on us. We must get ready.” Jeremy would have stayed to speak to Roger and to see that he was provided with food; but the old man was insistent, and he found himself outside the house before he could protest.
It was about eleven o’clock of a fine, dry day, and the variable wind was blowing clouds of dust this way and that over the flat fields. All around them stretched the tents of the encampment in slovenly, irregular lines; and the soldiers, on whom, untrained as they were, the period of idleness had had an unlucky effect, were lounging here and there in careless groups. Jeremy’s attempt to make use of this week in drilling them had been for the most part unsuccessful. Officers and men alike were too much flushed with victory for his orders or appeals to have any effect. They were not so much impatient of discipline as negligent of it.
Jeremy sighed a little as he looked at the camp; but his spirits immediately revived. The Speaker was taking short steps up and down, rubbing his hands together and lifting up his nostrils to snuff the sweet, dry air. A kind of exhilaration seemed to fill him and to restore him to his former self. Jeremy caught it from him, and his voice was lively when he shouted to a servant to fetch thither, the principal officers.
The council of war had hardly gathered when a new report came that the enemy were marching on Hitcham, following the main road that had once, crossed the river at Maidenhead and now came around by the north bank. Jeremy’s plans were prepared, and he rapidly disposed his army, with the right wing resting on the slightly-rising ground of Stoke Park, the center running through Chalk Hill and Chalvey, and the left guarding the bridge, in the empty fields where Eton once had been.
As he gave his orders, with some show of confidence and readiness, he tasted for a moment the glories of a commander-in-chief; but when he detailed to Thomas Wells his duties as the leader of the right wing of the army, his heart unreasonably sank and he faltered over his words.
“I understand,” the Canadian replied gravely, with an inscrutable expression. “I am to stand on the line between Stoke and Salt Hill until you give the word. Then you will send up the reserves and I am to advance, wheel around, and force them against the river.”
“That’s it,” said Jeremy with a heartiness he did not feel.
“So be it… sir,” Thomas Wells assented lingeringly; then, with an air of hesitation, he murmured: “I suppose you’re quite certain… that they’ll mass against our left… that they won’t attack me and try to drive us into the river?”
“I’ll take the chance, anyway,” Jeremy answered stoutly; and, nodding, he rode off to look at the guns, which were under the command of Jabez, immediately behind the center of the line.
“We’ll do them in, master,” said Jabez reassuringly. “Never you fear. You leave that to us.” As he spoke a sharp crackling of rifle fire arose by the river-bank near Queen’s Eyot.
“Well, we’ve started, Jabez,” Jeremy smiled at him. “I must go back.” As he rode again towards his chosen point for directing the battle his breath came regularly and his heart was singularly at rest.
When the firing spread and became general all along the line, showing that battle had actually been joined, Jeremy began to feel a little light-headed with excitement. He stood, with the Speaker and two or three officers, on the western edge of the slight rise on which the village lay; and from this point of vantage he could see that the outposts were being rapidly driven in from Dorney and Cippenham upon the main line of defense. In the center the enemy seemed to be pressing towards the Beaconsfield road. On the right, where Thomas Wells was in charge, the firing was furious, and great clouds of smoke were drifting away among the trees of Stoke Park; but the attack had not the air of being seriously driven home. Jeremy regarded it for a few moments, biting his lip and screwing up his eyes, and then turned from it to scan with particular anxiety the flats on the right between Boveney and Eton Wick. Here it was, he hoped, that the enemy would concentrate his troops. Here, with luck, his masses might be caught in the open and broken up by the guns, while the Speaker’s men remained safe in cover behind the ruins of the viaduct.
In spite of his doubts and the frequent monitions of his judgment Jeremy retained somewhere in his mind an obscure belief that the fear of the guns would, after all, hold the Welshmen in check and enfeeble their advance. All the time, as he stood beside the Speaker, something was drawing him towards the shallow gun-pit which he had established, close to the line, between Chalvey and the old disused railway-cutting. But the hugeness of the moment, the release of his tension, and the incessant rattling outbursts of noise combined in an odd way to exhilarate him. He grew so restless that at last, with a muttered excuse to the Speaker, he mounted his horse and trotted off to look at the guns.
He found Jabez and his ancients standing in a strained attitude of readiness. Their faces were absurdly grave, and Jabez greeted him with what he thought a ludicrous solemnity. He rallied the withered old creature, with exaggerated heartiness, on his anxious air.
“Let ’em come, master!” Jabez replied with a menacing expression, “and we’ll see to ’em. Let ’em just put their heads out —”
Jeremy laughed loudly at this, clapped Jabez on the back, and directed his tattered opera-glasses towards the little church of Boveney. But no considerable body of troops answered the invitation. Still restless, Jeremy rode back to his headquarters.
He found that the Speaker had given orders for his armchair to be brought out for him from the farmhouse, and he was sitting in it, his elbow on the arm and his chin in his hand, regarding the unshifting line of smoke with an immobile but somber countenance. Like Xerxes, Jeremy suddenly thought, with a shiver for the omen, over the bay of Salamis!
“You are trembling,” the old man said, without looking around, as Jeremy reached him.
“I’m excited,” Jeremy explained. “It’s all right. I’m quite cool.” He was indeed so cool that he could sit down on the dry, short grass beside the Speaker, light a cigar, and consider quite calmly what course of action he ought to take. The only thing he found lacking was an indication of any one course as better than another. The enemy might be, and very likely was, concealing troops among the houses of Boveney, Dorney, and Cippenham — it was impossible to tell which. The battle seemed to be hung in a state of miraculous suspension. The enemy’s advance had been brought to a standstill, and neither of the lines moved or wavered. From the bank of the river to Stoke Place there stretched a thick woolly bar of smoke as though a giant hand had smudged ink with its thumb across the landscape. Jeremy searched vainly through the whole of the country before him for some mark, on which the guns might expend their few shells, and especially for the Welsh transport; but he could find nothing. It was only as the minutes drifted by and the fighting continued that Jeremy began to realize his own vagueness and impotence, to understand that, in spite of his protestations, he had been relying hopelessly on some such stroke of luck as had served him at Barnet.
The first half-conscious realization was like a cold draught, an imperceptible movement of chilly air, blowing upon his resolution and high spirits. In a moment full comprehension followed and gripped him, and he awoke as though out of a dream, alive to the danger and yet incapable of action. Nothing had changed: the line of smoke was as before, the sounds of the fighting had grown not louder or more terrible. But what had been to Jeremy a picture had become a real thing, a vast and menacing event, in the path of which he was an insignificant insect. Not a muscle of his face stirred under the shock. The Speaker, above him, mumbled deeply:
“What are you going to do, Jeremy?”
“We must wait a little, sir,” Jeremy answered confidently, but with a trace of impatience in his voice. He wanted desperately to gain time. Under his mask he felt like a man who is about to be detected in an imposture, whom the turning of the next page will bring to utter ruin. He gazed here and there over the field, wondering how long he could control his expression. Perhaps the next minute his muscles would betray him and he would burst into tears. But suddenly the seizure was relaxed and he rose with a jerk to his feet.
“Time to bring the guns in,” he exclaimed with an air of authority which surprised himself. As he cantered down the slope one voice was whispering in his ear: “Throw your hand down! Confess that you’re stuck,” and another was answering, “You can’t do that. One doesn’t do that sort of thing!”
In the gun-pit he was greeted this time with enthusiasm, and Jabez accepted delightedly the order to drop a couple of shells on Dorney and see what would happen. The first shell did not explode. The second burst clean in the middle of the village, and, though they could not see that it had discovered a concentration, it seemed to have acted as a cue for the climax of the battle. The rifle-fire on the river-bank doubled in volume, and a line of black dots appeared out of Boveney, rushed forward, and was succeeded by another wave. But by the time the guns were trained in that direction the movement had ceased, and two or three shells thrown into the houses whence it had come produced no visible effect. Jeremy ordered the guns to cease firing.
On the right the noise of the combat had suddenly grown irregular and spasmodic. Jeremy was puzzled and worried, and racked his sluggish brain to guess what this might portend. Was it the moment to order Thomas Wells to advance the right wing and begin the encircling movement? He had had no messenger nor any news from the Canadian since the battle had begun. His plan now seemed to him at once wooden and fantastic, drawn up by an amateur on the map, dependent on an accommodating enemy. Should he wait a little longer until the Welsh army had shown its hand more plainly? In his agony of indecision he gripped the gun-wheel at his side, as though he had been in need of physical support. If he had been left to himself he would have collapsed on the trodden earth of the pit and let the battle and the fortunes of the world roll over him as they would. He felt himself a poor waif beaten down by circumstance, a child called on to carry an unsupportable load. Only some kind of irrational obstinacy, a sort of momentum of the spirit, kept him upright. But things, both mental and physical, began to be blurred and to lose their outlines, and anxiety shed on him a sort of intoxication.
When he moved away towards his horse he was swaying in his walk and preserving his balance with the solemn care of drunkenness.
“Fire — fire on any advance you see!” he said unsteadily to Jabez, and he thought the old gunner looked at him queerly as he touched his hat in acknowledgment of the order.
“I’ve lost control of myself,” Jeremy muttered under his breath, very seriously and carefully, as he rode back to rejoin the Speaker. “I’ve lost control of myself… I must be calm… I’ve lost control of myself… I must…” Nothing more seemed to matter but this: the battle came second to the struggle between his will and his nerves. He thought hazily that by one prodigious effort he might clear his brain again and see an answer to questions which now looked insoluble. He mechanically urged his horse up the rise; but the beast, fat, lazy, and sulky, did not respond, and Jeremy forgot it. When he dismounted he saw the old man still motionless in his chair gazing across the field, while behind him were the attendants, motionless, too, as though what was going on did not at all concern them. Jeremy half glanced at these men, and thought that they whispered to one another as he passed. He went on and stood silently beside the Speaker’s chair. His lips were still moving as he muttered to himself, and some moments passed before he became aware that the old man had turned and was looking up at him dubiously.
“I’m all right,” he began; and then suddenly a bullet whistled past their heads. It was as though the shrill sound had cleared away a thickening fog.
“Come out of this, sir,” Jeremy cried violently. “They’re too close. Some of them must have got into Chalk Hill. It’s not safe for you up here.” As he cried out, clutching at the Speaker with a convulsive hand, his self-possession and his resolution returned, and in that fraction of an instant he began to survey the field again with a new eye. The reserves were behind him in the village of Slough. He would bring them up, on the right, and make his push forward while the guns fired over the heads of the attacking wing. All these thoughts passed, sharp and distinct, through his mind, while he was frantically endeavoring to drag the Speaker into safety. But the old man resisted, foolishly obstinate it seemed to Jeremy, without giving any reason for doing so. He was staring open-mouthed towards the right flank of the army towards Stoke Park, and his face was contorted, crumbling, ravaged by the effects of astonishment and horror. It was a grotesque face, not that of an old man but of a man incredibly ancient: it might have been a thousand years old.
Jeremy ceased the effort to pull him away and followed with his eyes the direction of the extended, helplessly shaking finger. There, on the right, all firing had stopped, and the last clouds of smoke were drifting heavily to the north, leaving the fields quite clear. It took Jeremy a moment to realize what it was that he saw. Then he understood that, between the railway and the woods, the opposing forces had left their shelter in ditches and behind hedges and were mixing together, running, it seemed, in groups across the intervening meadows to unite. And among the moving crowds little rags of white danced and fluttered up and down.
“What!” he cried stupidly. “They can’t have surrendered?”
“No!” the Speaker wailed in a thin and inhuman voice. “No! Those white flags are ours: I saw them raised. Thomas Wells has betrayed us. He has sold us to the Welsh.” He let his arms fall by his sides and stood there limp, lax, shrunken, hopeless.
“It can’t be —” But as Jeremy began to speak he saw the masses swarming in the meadows turn and move tumultuously towards them, cheering and waving their rifles in the air. He leapt to the emergency. “Come on down!” he shouted hoarsely. “We’ll turn the guns on them! Come on to the guns!”
As they ran to their horses, Jeremy dragging the spent and stumbling Speaker after him, the firing on the river-bank rose sharply to a crescendo, and Jeremy guessed that a final attack was being made there. But he disregarded it, shoved the unresisting body of the old man into the saddle of one horse, leapt on to another himself, and galloped heavily down the slope to the battery. He found Jabez and his men working like demons, their faces black from the powder, bleared and puddled with sweat. They were firing in the direction of Boveney, and staring at the spot where their shells were bursting, he saw a regiment advancing to the attack of the village. They must have crept up in small parties and taken shelter in the houses. Now the rifle fire against them was weak and hesitating, and the guns, soon worn out, were shooting inaccurately and could not score a hit.
Jeremy abandoned that disaster. “Turn — turn them to the right!” he stuttered fiercely; but Jabez, with a blank look of incomprehension, pointed to his ears to signify that the noise had deafened him. Jeremy, made him understand by gestures what he wanted, but knew not how to tell him the reason. The guns were only just shifted when the mixed mob of soldiers, Welshmen and Speaker’s men together, came pouring over the edge of the low hill.
“Fire on them!” he bawled at the top of his voice. Jabez trained one gun, quietly and coolly, on the advancing mass, while Jeremy trained the other. When they fired, the shells went over the leading ranks and burst beyond the hill. Shouts of anger were mixed with yells of pain, and after wavering for a moment the mob came on again. With no more concern than if they had been at the lathes in the workshop, with the same awkward antic gestures, the devoted old gunners loaded once more; but they had hardly closed the breeches when the first wave was upon them. Jeremy desperately snatched at the lanyard of his gun, and, as he did so, saw fleetingly the Speaker beside him, arms folded, shoulders sagging, head apathetically bowed. He pulled, and, with the crash, the nearest assailants vanished in a yellow, reeking cloud. The next thing Jeremy knew was that a breaker of human bodies had surged over the edge of the shallow pit and had fallen on him. He saw Jabez sinking grotesquely forward upon the pike that killed him, saw the still unstirring Speaker thrown down by a reeling man. Then he was on the ground, the lowest of a mass of struggling creatures, and some one, by kicking him painfully in the ear, had destroyed his transient sense of a pathetic end to a noble tragedy. He struck out wildly, but his arms and legs were held, and the struggle grew fiercer above him, choking him, weighing on his chest. Slowly, intolerably slowly and painfully, darkness descended about him. His last thought was a surprised, childish exclamation of the mind, “Why, this must be death…”
NEXT WEEK: “He alone in the gun-pit seemed to be alive, though bodies sprawled everywhere in twisted and horrible attitudes. A few yards away lay Jabez, stabbed and dead, clinging round the trail of a gun, his nutcracker face grinning fixedly in a hideous counterfeit of life.”
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