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A man named Robert Ross is introduced as squatting in a tattered Canadian military uniform, with his hands between his legs while holding a pistol. A nearby building is on fire, and a train is stopped. There is evidence of war, and Ross is shown to be in the company of a black horse and a dog. Robert, the horse, and the dog seem to have been together for a while, as they understand each other. He decides to free a herd of horses from the train, and the prologue ends with the horses, rider, and dog all running as a herd.
Robert Ross has enlisted in the army after the death of his sister which he feels guilty about. His sister, Rowena, has recently died from falling out of her wheelchair in their barn while playing with her rabbits. Robert feels guilty because he was unable to save her since he was making love to his pillows in his locked room. He then joins the army to distance himself from the pain. Rowena was in a wheelchair and Robert watched over her. She had rabbits and loved to play with them. When she died, Robert's mother wanted him to kill the rabbits but Robert refused. Instead, Mr. Ross called someone else to kill the rabbits. In an attempt to stop the rabbit-killing by Teddy Budge, Robert was beaten up, covered in bruises. Robert's mother came to talk to him as he soaked his bruises in the bathtub. She was drunk and smoking a cigarette when she confronted him, and said there was nothing she could do to stop him from going to war.
He meets Eugene Taffler, a war hero while in training. Eugene Taffler is very big and strong. Robert's first encounter with him occurs while he is looking for some lost horses. He then goes with his soldiers-in-training to a brothel named Wet Goods and when the prostitute (Ella) finds that he has ejaculated in his pants, she shows him a way to see into the next room. This is where he sees his hero, Taffler, having sex with the large man from reception. Upon seeing this, he starts throwing stones at the bottles and scares Ella in an imitation of the violence he has just witnessed.
While on the S.S. Massanabie to England, Ross has to kill a horse that broke its leg during a storm. Robert struggles a lot trying to kill the horse, firing and missing many times before landing his shots.
Robert is now in France and in charge of a convoy. He went ahead in the fog. He falls into a muddy sinkhole and nearly drowns. After 'saving himself' he is met by Poole and Levitt, two of his men. Robert eventually reaches the dugout with Levitt. Devlin, Bonnycastle, and Rodwell are there. Rodwell cares for injured animals he finds and has birds, rabbits, toads, and hedgehogs. The rabbits remind Robert painfully of Rowena, because she loved to play with her own rabbits back at home. Robert builds a bond with Rodwell, and begins to love him. Rodwell is the only other civil soldier who cares and respects animals. Harris dies two days before Robert was scheduled to leave for France. Trying to figure out what to do with Harris and wanting a proper funeral by the army for his friend, Robert discovers when he goes back that Harris is already cremated. Disappointed by the way his friend is buried Robert says to Taffler "This is not a military funeral. This is just a burial at sea. May we take off our caps?" pg. 107. Feb 28th - the Germans set of a string of land mines, strategically placed along the St.Eloi Salient. The whole country side goes up in flames. This was the second half of the battle the Canadians thought was already over. 30,000 men would die and not an inch of land would be won.
Robert is now experiencing trench warfare at its worst. Following a shelling of the dugout, his fellow soldier Levitt loses his mind, and Robert finds himself close to the brink. Ordered to place guns in a location sure to be a deathtrap, Robert and his men find themselves on the wrong end of a gas attack in the middle of a freezing cold winter. Robert is instructed to place the guns in a crater that is formed by the shelling attacks because these provide the best strategical advantage. As he approaches the crater Robert tells the rest of the men to stay back while he tests it to see if it is safe. He begins climbing across the slide of the crater when he slips down but smashes his knees on a rifle sticking out of the wall of the crater. The rifle has at least stopped his fall but has injured Robert's knees pretty badly. As the rest of the men start climbing down and landing on the rifle to set up the guns but there is a sudden gas attack. The bottom of the crater is full of freezing water and many begin jumping into it. Robert takes control with his pistol and instructs the men what to do. He saves the men by telling them to urinate on clothes and hold them over their faces. One man is scared to urinate and Robert must do it for him. After pretending to be dead for hours, Robert finds that they are being watched by an enemy German soldier. Rather than shooting the soldiers, the German allows all of Robert's men to leave the area. Just as Robert is leaving, however, the German makes a quick motion, and Robert turns around and shoots the German. Robert thinks that the German was reaching for his rifle when he was actually reaching for a pair of binoculars to look at the bird flying overhead, and is even more horrified to see that the German has a sniper rifle right beside him, meaning he could have killed Robert and the rest of the soldiers if he had wanted to. Robert hears a bird chirping above him and is then haunted by the sound of the bird from then on.
Robert receives an invitation to Barbara d'Orsey's home. The majority of this section is told through transcripts via Juliet d'Orsey. Juliet relays through diary entries when she is with them. What she does not tell Robert is that Taffler had both his arms cut off in the war and is just laying on a bed in a room. When Robert sees this he is devastated.
Juliet also tells of Eugene Taffler's attempted suicide. One day she decides to pick some flowers and bring them to Taffler. As she walks in she is faced with a man head first into the floor and bloody streaks all over the walls. Taffler had rubbed his raw stumps where his arms had been against the walls so he could bleed to death. But since Juliet walks in on him she screams and people come and end up saving Taffler.
Juliet has told Robert that the room he had been given had a ghost (Lady Sorrel) who came to it every night to light the candles. And one night Juliet sees Barbara sneak into Robert's room without even knocking. So she thinks it would be a neat prank to dress up as Lady Sorrel carrying a candle and walk into Robert's room to light the candles and leave. As Juliet puts on her costume and walks up to the door she opens a crack and accidentally sees Barbara and Robert Ross make love prior to leaving, which she at first thinks is Robert hurting Barbara. By the end of the chapter, Juliet gives Robert a candle and a box of matches.
Robert leaves Barbara d'Orsey's home and heads back to battle on a small train. He gets hopelessly lost on the way and loses his pack, after many weeks of travelling in circles he arrives at Désolé, a mental institution. Shortly after reaching the bath house, he is brutally raped by thirteen number of his fellow soldiers. When he returns to his room, he finally receives his lost pack, and burns his picture of Rowena as an act of charity, reasoning that it would be horrible for something so innocent to exist in such a messed up world.
Robert then moves back out to the front. The Germans begin firing shells that set everything ablaze. Robert goes to speak to Captain Leather to request that the horses be let out of the barn because if the barn is hit they will all die. Captain Leather refuses Robert's request. Once back at the barn Robert asks his friend Devlin if he would help him release the horses. Devlin contemplates whether or not he should let all the horses die or face the wrath of Captain Leather. Devlin decides to help Robert and runs out to open the gate for the horses. At that moment Captain Leather gets up from hiding beneath a table and looks out the window to see Devlin disobeying his orders. He runs out screaming at him to stop, and calls treason and traitor. Leather pulls out his gun and fires at Devlin killing him. Then he sees Robert and takes aim at him and starts firing but misses because Robert hides between the horses as they are running out. At that moment three shells land and set the barn ablaze, the building where the Captain was and other soldiers were still in, and the field where all the horses had run to ablaze. And soon everything is burning around Robert, even the horses are slowly burning alive. Robert sees Captain Leather struggling to get him, walks over and shoots him in between the eyes.
Robert runs away as he knows he will be court-martialed for disobeying orders. He finds a black horse and a black dog beside it, as he is about to ride the horse down the track he realizes there are horses in the abandoned train and frees a hundred and thirty horses and flees the area. As Robert is riding with all the horses a soldier stops him and tries to force him to return the horses, Robert pulls out his Webley and shoots him. He is a fugitive for some time before finally being caught in a barn with the horses. The soldiers surrounding Robert set the barn on fire in order to force him out. But because it had not rained for days the roof of the barn was extremely dry and lit up in seconds. Before Robert could open the barn doors the roof collapsed on him and the horses, setting them all on fire. Robert is saved but badly burned, and all the horses and the dog are killed. Robert turns down an offer of euthanasia from a nurse before being sent to England and tried in absentia. Since he could not be kept in prison, he was given leave to stay in St. Aubyn's for longterm treatment. Juliet d'Orsey rarely left Robert's side until his death in 1922. Mr. Ross was the only member of his family to come see Robert buried.
- Plot overview
- Influences and style
- Introduction by Guy Vanderhaeghe
- Plot summary
- In other media