The Towers had never realized, or regretted, their lack of the French as deeply as they came to do now. Hitherto dealings in the language had been entirely with the women in the villages and billets of the reserve lines, where there was plenty of time to find means of expressing the two things that for the most part were all they had to express—their wants and their thanks. And because by now they had no slightest difficulty in making these billet inhabitants understand what they required—a fire for cooking, stretching space on a floor, the location of the nearest estaminets, whether eggs, butter, and bread were obtainable, and how much was the price—they had fondly imagined in their hearts, and boasted loudly in their home letters, that they were quite satisfactorily conversant with the French language. Now they were to discover that their knowledge was not quite so extensive as they had imagined, although it never occurred to them that the French women in the billets were learning English a great deal more rapidly and efficiently than they were learning French, that it was not altogether their mastery of the language which instantly produced soap and water, for instance, when they made motions of washing their hands and said slowly and loudly: “Soap—you compree, soap and l’eau; you savvy—l’eau, wa-ter.” But now, when it came to the technicalities of their professional business, they found their command of the language completely inadequate. There were many of them who could ask, “What is the time?” but that helped them little to discover at what time the Germans made a practice of shelling the trenches; they could have asked with ease, “Have you any eggs?” but they could not twist this into a sentence to ask whether there were any egg-selling farms in the vicinity; could have asked “how much” was the bread, but not how many yards it was to the German trench.
A few Frenchmen, who spoke more or less English, found themselves in enormous French and English demand, while Private ’Enery Irving, who had hitherto borne some reputation as a French speaker—a reputation, it may be mentioned, largely due to his artful knack of helping out spoken words by imitation and explanatory acting—found his bubble reputation suddenly and disastrously pricked. He made some attempt to clutch at its remains by listening to the remarks addressed to him by a Frenchman, with a most potently intelligent and understanding expression, by ejaculating “Nong, nong!” and a profoundly understanding “Ah, wee!” at intervals in the one-sided conversation. He tried this method when called upon by a puzzled private to interpret the torrential speech of a Frenchman, who wished to know whether the Towers had any jam to spare, or whether they would exchange a rum ration for some French wine. ’Enery interjected a few “Ah, wee’s!” and then at the finish explained to the private.