Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221
The patrons at The Radford Arms pub are astonished to see an old man suddenly leap on one of the tables and begin to dance. Everyone looks at the man’s feet, expecting him to fall down. Some continue to find the performance amusing, but others start to ignore him, more interested in consuming their last drinks because it is near closing time. The man still hops around and, at the same time in a sort of singsong voice, talks about a murder he committed a half century ago. The dancer, crushed by guilt and fear, wants to confess publicly, now that his life is near its end. Few people are listening, however, and those who listen hear nothing that makes much sense. Had they been able to figure out what the old man was saying, they would have heard how he killed his wife’s lover in 1914.
The story is told in flashback. Nevill, suspecting that his spouse is unfaithful, lies in wait for her in the woods, where he believes she and her fancyman will have their rendezvous. From his hiding place, he watches Amy follow her lover into the shelter of the trees. Nevill waits while the two make love, considering that it might be best to go home, but his compulsion for retribution is strong. When her passion is spent, Nevill’s wife leaves to return home, but her lover remains behind to smoke a cigarette. Nevill stalks him and batters his neck with the butt of a shotgun, giving him the coup de grace, when he is on the ground, by smashing his temple. Nevill then hides the body.
Before Nevill leaves the wood, he kills a rabbit and sells the dead animal at a local bar; he then drinks a beer with the proceeds and listens to some other patrons talk about the war. Nevill thinks that they do not know what life is all about. The next day, he returns to the woods and buries the body, making sure that he disguises the grave with dead twigs and rotting leaves. Afterward, he goes down to the recruiting office and enlists, believing “that the army would be as good a place to hide as any.” Amy is so distraught at the prospect of her husband’s departure that for a moment Nevill regrets having joined the army, but he puts this out of his mind.
He leaves to fight in France, but the memory of the murder follows him. Ironically, his fear that he might be apprehended at any moment contributes to his proficiency as a soldier, “for he did not live from day to day like most of the platoon. . . . [H]e existed by the minute because every one contained the possibility of him being taken off and hanged.” He becomes a lance corporal and, because of his superior marksmanship, is made a sniper, a job that obliges him to remain concealed, quietly scanning the enemy lines for quarry, “letting his body into complete repose so as to make no move,” picking off those careless enough to show their heads around a parapet in an unguarded moment. He remains like this throughout the day, trying to remain undetected. After nightfall, a new sniper’s post will be built, and tomorrow he will “be in a different position and, corked face invisible, could start all over again.” The memory of his past continues to haunt him. Each morning, when he awakes, he realizes that he has not yet been “taken up” for the one he has killed in Nottingham. Sometimes he sees the murdered man’s likeness in the opposite trenches.
Nevill’s sniping days come to an end through a fluke. He is behind the lines with his company at the communal bathhouse, where the water is only a few degrees above freezing. The men are complaining bitterly about the icy spray, but Nevill makes light of this and begins to shout, “It’s too hot! It’s scalding me to death. Turn it off! I’m broiled alive. Put some cold in, for Christ’s sake.” The men begin laughing, and the tension breaks. Nevill has no idea what prompted him to act as he did, but his captain admires his performance, thinking that this is a man who can control men through firmness and display of wit. The captain promotes Nevill to sergeant.
Becoming a noncommissioned officer makes Nevill’s life more dangerous. Now he will fight with his platoon in the front ranks in the forthcoming big assault. When the day arrives, Nevill tries to give his men courage, walking along the trench asking them if they have drunk their allotment of rum. Before they go over the top, Nevill’s lieutenant tells him that he is wanted at Battalion Headquarters. The reason, unknown to the lieutenant and Nevill, is to ask Nevill why he applied for so many ration allotments the previous week, but Nevill automatically assumes that this is his long-awaited summons to be arrested for the murder he committed in Nottingham, and he begs the lieutenant to allow him to participate in the attack with his men. He says he will go to Battalion Headquarters afterward. The lieutenant agrees.
The attack is a debacle. Most of the platoon is cut to pieces, the survivors dispersed all over the battlefield. Nevill finds himself isolated in a shell-hole with a man called Jack Clifford. In trying to knock out a German machine-gun nest that has them pinned down, Clifford is mortally wounded. With the bullets and shrapnel flying overhead, Nevill tells the blood-soaked Clifford about how he murdered his wife’s lover. “It’s on’y one you killed, sarge. Don’t much matter,” says the dying man. Nevill tries to carry Clifford to safety, “thinking that as long as he hung on to him he need never consider the hangman again.” He manages to bring him in, but he is not rewarded for his bravery, because the wounded man is already dead.
Nevill is demobilized in 1919, and he returns to Nottingham to find Amy, who welcomes him back. During the war, Amy has been a munitions worker, filling shells in a factory at Chilwell. She wrote him letters in which she said that she loved him and would always love him. She told him that she was having a baby. However, Nevill realized that the child could hardly be his. Nevertheless, when he returns, he pretends to be the child’s father. Amy and Nevill have two sons of their own. Nevill is never brave enough to tell her what he told Jack Clifford in that shell-hole in France. He senses that if he does, it would mean the end of their relationship.
Now, years later and nearly eighty, Nevill tries to tell the strangers at The Radford Arms pub. Even those who hear his words refuse to believe him and think that he is senile. Several good souls drive him back home to his wife. He does not live long after that. Amy finds him dead one morning, sitting fully dressed by the fireplace. Some of his neighbors, who come to the funeral, are not surprised. They have heard about his dancing on the table and assume that after that, the end could not have been far away.
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