FICTION

The KING’S TRUMPETER

ALLAN SWINTON November 1 1931
FICTION

The KING’S TRUMPETER

ALLAN SWINTON November 1 1931

The KING’S TRUMPETER

ALLAN SWINTON

I HAD dropped into a movie to kill an idle hour. There was an orchestral performance between the films, and at the first selection I became aware of the superlative skill of one of the comet players whose notes licked through the others’ jaded efforts like flame among the timbers of a rotten barn.

At the end the conductor turned.

“Our next offering, ladies and gentlemen, will be a trumpet solo by Mr. Peter Lovell, late of the Royal Horse Guards and at one time one of the King’s trumpeters.”

An erect and grizzled man whose shabby clothes drooped from the angles of a wasted frame, rose and stood glowering at the audience like some tired old bull at bay. An accompaniment started with drums and cymbals. He squared his shoulders, put to his lips a battered silver trumpet, and through the dingy theatre soared a fanfare such as might herald the coming of the Lord of Hosts. It was a heady wine to pie. Banners flew, squadrons thundered . . .

All too short, that ringing, golden music. Then he sat down, and the glory he had shed departed. I smelt again the sour vapors of the place. The tawdry gilding leered.

VJLTINTER passed before I saw him again. Things were »V bad with me. It was a year since I had seen the green woods, five since I rode a horse, seven since I tasted the salt wind of the sea. And editors looked sourly at my writings, though my very soul was in them. Not that their favors would have meant much to me then. The click of a typewriter is a sorry substitute for the drum of hoofs or of driven spray, the smell of new paper for the perfume of the

moughrra or the gorse in June, and a polite acceptance of a manuscript for the laughter of the gentlemen of the seas and the open road. I was heartsick and leg weary, and the world was grey and dank.

Outside the theatre a huge-lettered sign arrested me.

“Mons. Official British war film. Permission of the

Army Council.”

The words and the style were so familiar that even their cold officialdom warmed my heart, and involuntarily I went in.

It was the film’s first day in the city. I took the seat to which a red-lipped houri led me, between a peroxide blonde of four chins chewing gum noisily and a cadaverous pale youth much redolent of garlic. Nauseous company. I almost fled, but something held me. And then it started, and I forgot the garlic and the chewing gum, forgot Canada, forgot even myself.

'“PHEY were so like they used to be in the brave days before the war—those Tommies crowding down the gangways, with their homely faces, their uncouth gestures, so familiar and beloved. Till then I had not truly realized that where I now lived, half the faces passing on the streets were alien to my blood. But now I knew how utterly lonely I had been. To me came crowding back memories and visions of days long, long ago when I strove together with those men, when I knew their laughter and their sadness, their agonies and their glories, and when they taught me how pure a thing is the essential soul of every man. I saw them march and fight again. And with the grim memories

came others—the bright spots, the gaieties of those five years. And the brave days before the war, when soldiering was bright and merry and we swung down bosky English lanes to the high blare of brass, the skirl of pipes or the rhythmic tuck of drum. As they marched past my hungry eyes across the screen, the orchestra played the marches of the Old Army. One after another they sounded, the old familiar tunes, and the memories crowded ever faster through my brain.

It was then I heard it—that clarion bray among the tamed notes of the orchestra, and I knew my trumpeter was there. Just when he threw down his comet for the trumpet I don’t know. I only know that suddenly the leadership of that orchestra passed from the conductor with his violin to a gaunt grey man with a silver trumpet. The humdrum rhythm of men who played music day in and day out took on virile life. The silver trumpet notes took hold and led them, striking that lilt which only the Army knows.

Ah, memories—those swinging tunes, each regiment’s own with its own particular swagger. All around me I heard the feet go tapping. The dewlapped blonde had long ceased chewing. Her mouth hung open and her eyes stared. The pale youth’s face was set. And the trumpeter played on. He had stood up now. I saw him, defiant and erect, his elbow high and the silver trumpet higher, putting his soul into the battered horn.

A lump grew in my throat, and the pent hungers of the lean years since the war gnawed at me past endurance. And on the screen the pageant swung along, to the shrill call of the trumpet. I saw old comrades—happy they who died and did not live to see the bitterness that followed victory. The girls were there, too. Those who had nursed us, loved us, spent our money, laughed with us, feared with

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us, poured out the youth of bodies and of souls in a rapt flood to mingle with the blood that flowed in France. I felt again the thing the years and alien skies were stealing from me—the glory of our ancient England.

THEN suddenly it was done. The screen was blank, the lights went up and voices buzzed. The change was like a blow in the face. I could not bear it, and I rose and thrust out of the auditorium. At the end of the aisle I stopped to put on my coat, and saw a pallid fellow in bell-bottomed trousers stroll on to the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen: Our next will be a peppy dance by the Johnson sisters to a medley of those tunes that led our glorious soldiers on to victory, jazzed up to dance time by Mr. Otto Finkel, the gifted leader of the orchestra.”

The band struck up a tortured version of

“The British Grenadiers” and two stripped and gewgawed trollops capered out. After the memories that had crowded me, my heart sickened, but as I turned away a swift gleam of brass in the orchestra attracted me. The trumpeter was on his feet, with the battered trumpet under his arm. His comet was in his hand. His hollow eyes took in the audience, swept the orchestra, dwelt a moment on the flashy dancing women. Then he hurled the trumpet to the floor, turned and stalked out of the theatre.

AS 1 waited for my street car I saw my ■4*trumpeter for the last time. With his shoulders very square and his head high, he strode past me. I saw his grim mouth set, with a little upturn at one corner—I could not say if from bitterness or sorrow. I saw that there were tears in his eyes. Then the crowd swallowed him.