Our morning turn-out is sleepy. Few hear the long reveille floating through the camp in the black restlessness of nature before dawn. But Corporal Abner, old soldier and older man, has been stirring some while in the darkness, pulling on his clothes. With the first trumpet note he is stamping into his boots. 'Out now, lads' he yells harshly, the long menace of him lunging at the switches down our aisle this side of the bar, and up the other. We roll over heavy with sleep and paw blindly for yesterday's socks by the bedside. If our noses were not as sleep-filled as our eyes we should easily find these socks, clotted as they are with the wear of several yesterdays.
However, we have them on at last and reluctantly we lower our legs over the bedside and grope them into the clammy trousers. Out of bed now: we tightly stuff in the ample shirt-tails, tie our braces round our waists, slip on shoes. We roll our mattresses and crown them with an ornamental sandwich of the layered blankets and sheets: - unless it's a Saturday, as today, when one clean sheet is issued each man in exchange for the more soiled of his pair. The first twenty minutes of morning pass in a constrained rush. Only those few loosen their voices who have run over to the wash-house for a sluice. One of these, today, against the hut's chilly discouragement tried to sing a verse of the sad little insect which had been his honey bee. But Dickson, with puckered painful forehead, begged him to put a sock in it. P.T., after a wet-bar night, is not a joke.
However, this morning we were lucky. Normally the early exercise is more torment than training; the pimple-faced Gym Instructors, beef-fed to bursting point with strutting muscles all alive oh, jangle us like frightened sheep round and round the square under the baleful eye of the crippled Commandant, till all are breathless and the faint-hearted fall out. Today our basilisk was absent and it was in free air that the chief instructor, a dapper sergeant, took us. He knew the real, not the showy exercises, and we deep-breathed and chest-expanded and at his word bent and twisted and turned, carefully but quickly. Before us on a high table he stood, his thin-vested body our exemplar. He did his own exercises, wholeheartedly, and when we followed well he smiled at us and cried, 'Good.'
The surprise of this, our first praise in the Depot, stiffened us so that we worked twice as hard, pumping ourselves dry with too-painstaking a copy of his movements. Seeing it he laughed and broke us into two bands which played tig and subdivided by trick orders, given to deceive us. So had done the other instructors: who when their tricks caught us would rave with anger against our crime. This sergeant laughed at his score off us when we miscarried and so heartened us to match ourselves against his next turn.
Half an hour passed in a long twinkling till the dismiss and the scurry back to the huts, where we fell on our beds to snatch wind. Our willingness had worked us out more than the daily fear: but the first use of our new breath was to make the long roof sound with praise of Sergeant Cunninghame. Only the unfit lay yet silent, panting through distressed mouths against their load of strain. Am I to class myself among these? Till this year my insignificant body has met life's demands. If it fails me now I shall break it; but I hope it may scrape through. I try to excuse its inadequacy by remembering that I am eight years older than the next, and fifteen years older than many in the hut: but there is poor consolation in the first onset of age.
Yet today, despite my pumping chest, I managed the breakfast and was swaggering back from it when my eyes were held by the zinc roofs of the camp which slatted down the opposing slope of the valley from its tree-crest to the bank of the Pinne. The night-chill had beaded dew heavily upon them: and when the sun topped the ridge and vibrated between the fringing trees along the flat angle of the roofs, it silvered their wet steps into a cascade. Just for two minutes M. Section was very beautiful.
The half-hour after breakfast belongs to cleaning and tidying and is consecrated to song. Fifty of the fifty-four men in the hut chant continuously, each his fancied tune. Yet it might easily be worse: for there are no more than three songs in great vogue and their airs are short. 'Peggy O'Neil', 'Sally', 'The Beautiful City of Tears'; sentimental, sobbing things, whose dear girls die or go away for ever. If Sailor or Dickson begins such a song generally it will dominate, for there is an infective loveliness in the voices of these two men. The others then play their helpful parts whether in unison or in variety: the floor-broom sweeps, the boot-brushes brush, even the polishing rag polishes to and fro, in time with the choiring air. For the moment our hut and all of us thrum to a collective rhythm.