Title: The Return of the Soldier.
Author: Rebecca West (illustrated by Norman Price).
Genre: Literature, fiction.
Publication Date: 1918.
Summary: Set during World War I on an isolated country estate just outside London, the novel follows Chris Baldry, a shell-shocked captain suffering from amnesia, as he makes a bittersweet homecoming to the three women who have helped shape his life. Will the devoted wife he can no longer recollect, the favourite cousin he remembers only as a childhood friend, and the poor innkeeper's daughter he once loved many years ago but is his last memory now, leave Chris to languish in a safe, dreamy past—or will they help him rediscover his memory so that he can return to the front? The answer is revealed through a heart-wrenching, unexpected sacrifice.
My rating: 8.5/10
"Come here, Jenny. I'm going to dry my hair." And when I looked again I saw that her golden hair was all about her shoulders and that she wore over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds. She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large "15 cents" somewhere attached to her person. She had taken Nanny's big basket-chair from its place by the highchair, and was pushing it over to the middle window. "I always come in here when Emery has washed my hair. It's the sunniest room in the house. I wish Chris wouldn't have it kept as a nursery when there's no chance—" She sat down, swept her hair over the back of the chair into the sunlight, and held out to me her tortoiseshell hair-brush. "Give it a brush now and then, like a good soul; but be careful! Tortoise snaps so!"
♥ That day its beauty was an affront to me, because, like most Englishwomen of my time, I was wishing for the return of a soldier. Disregarding the national interest and everything else except the keen prehensile gesture of our hearts toward him, I wanted to snatch my Cousin Christopher from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness his wife and I now looked upon.
♥ Then he got into the car, put on his Tommy air, and said: "So long! I'll write you from Berlin!" and as he spoke his head dropped back, and he set a hard stare on the house. That meant, I knew, that he loved the life he had lived with us and desired to carry with him to the dreary place of death and dirt the complete memory of everything about his home, on which his mind could brush when things were at their worst, as a man might finger an amulet through his shirt. This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.
&heart; It was important that he should have been happy, for, you see, he was not like other city men. When we had played together as children in that wood he had always shown great faith in the immense of the improbable. He thought that the birch-tree would really stir and shrink and quicken into an enchanted princess, that he really was a red Indian, and that his disguise would suddenly fall form him at the right sundown, that at any moment a tiger might lift red fangs through the bracken, and he expected these things with a stronger motion of the imagination than the ordinary child's make-believe. And from a thousand intimations, from his occasional clear fixity of gaze on good things as though they were about to dissolve into better, from the passionate anticipation with which he went to new countries or met new people, I was aware that this faith had persisted into his adult life. It was his hopeless hope that some time he would have an experience that would act on his life like alchemy, turning to gold all the dark metals of events, and from that revelation he would go on his way rich with an inextinguishable joy. There had been, of course, no chance of his ever getting it. Literally there wasn't room to swing a revelation in his crowded life. First of all, at his father's death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with gold-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. Then there had been the difficult task of learning to live after the death of his little son. It had lain upon us, the responsibility, which gave us dignity, to compensate him fro his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life. But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage!
♥ "Last year's fashion," she commented, "but I fancy it'll do for a person with that sort of address." She stood up, and threw her little silk dressing-jacket over the rocking-horse. "I'm seeing her because she may need something, and I specially want to be kind to people while Chris is away. One wants to deserve well of heaven." For a minute she was aloof in radiance, but as we linked arms and went out into the corridor she became more mortal, with a pout. "The people that come breaking into one's nice, quiet day!" she moaned reproachfully..
♥ Her body was long and round and shapely, and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her gray eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender, there was something about her of the wholesome, endearing heaviness of the ox or the trusted big dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.
♥ I pushed the purse away form me with my toe, and hated her as the rich hate the poor as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home and introduce ugliness to the light of day.
♥ I was so ashamed that such a scene should spring from Chris's peril at the front that I wanted to go out into the garden and sit by the pond until the poor thing had removed her deplorable umbrella, her unpardonable raincoat, her poor frustrated fraud.
♥ "When at last I followed her she said:
"Do you believe her?"
I started. I had forgotten that we had ever disbelieved her.
♥ "But Chris is ill!" I cried.
She stared at me.
"You're saying what she said."
Indeed, there seemed no better words than those Mrs. Grey had used. I repeated:
"But he is ill!"
She laid her face against her arms again.
"What does that matter?" she wailed. "If he could send that telegram, he is no longer ours."
♥ The face that looked out of the dimness to him was very white, and her upper lip was lifted over her teeth in a distressed grimace. It was immediately as plain as though he had shouted it that this sad mask meant nothing to him. He knew not because memory had given him any insight into her heart, but because there is an instinctive kindliness in him which makes him wise about all suffering, that it would hurt her if he asked if this was his wife; but his body involuntarily began a gesture of inquiry before he realized that that, too, would hurt her, and he checked it half-way. So, through a silence, he stood before her slightly bent, as though he had been maimed.
"I am your wife." There was a weak, wailing anger behind the words.
"Kitty," he said softly and kindly. He looked around for some graciousness to make the scene less wounding, and stooped to kiss her; but he could not. The thought of another woman made him unable to breathe, sent the blood running under his skin.
♥ But he did not see her. He was looking along the corridor and saying, "This house is different." If the soul has to stay in its coffin till the lead is struck asunder, in its captivity it speaks with such a voice.
&Hearts; ..I was left alone with the dusk and the familiar things. The dusk flowed in wet and cool from the garden, as if to put out the fire of confusion lighted on our hearthstone, and the furniture, very visible through that soft evening opacity with the observant brightness of old, well-polished wood, seemed terribly aware. Strangeness had come into the house, and everything was appalled by it, even time. For the moments dragged. It seemed to me, half an hour later, that I had been standing for an infinite period in the drawing-room, remembering that in the old days the blinds had never been drawn in this room because old Mrs. Baldry had liked to see the night gathering like a pool in the valley while the day lingered as a white streak above the farthest hills, and perceiving in pain that the heavy blue blinds that shroud the nine windows because a lost Zeppelin sometimes clanks like a skeleton across the sky above us would make this home seem even more like prison.
♥ She frowned to see that the high lights on the satin shone scarlet from the fire, that her flesh flowed like a rose, and she changed her seat for a high-backed chair beneath the farthest candle-sconce. There were green curtains close by, and now the lights on her satin gown were green like cleft ice. She looked as cold as moonlight, as virginity, but precious; the falling candle-light struck her hair to bright, pure gold. So she waited for him.
♥ "Griffiths will know," Chris said cheerily, and swung round on his seart to ask the butler, and found him osseous, where Griffiths was rotund; dark, where Griffiths had been merrily mottled; strange, where Griffiths had been a part of home, a condition of life. He sat back in his chair as though his heart had stopped.
When the butler who is not Griffiths had left the room he spoke gruffly.
"Stupid of me, I know; but where is Griffiths?
"Dead seven years ago," said Kitty, her eyes on her plate.
He sighed deeply in a shuddering horror.
"I'm sorry. He was a good man."
I cleared my throat.
"There are new people here, Chris, but they love you as the old ones did."
He forced himself to smile at us both, to a gay response:
"As if I didn't know that to-night!"
But he did not know it. Even to me he would give no trust, because it was Jenny the girl who had been his friend and not Jenny the woman. All the inhabitants at this new tract of time were his enemies, all its circumstances his prison-bars.
♥ I went to the piano. Through this evening of sentences cut short because their completed meaning was always sorrow, of normal life dissolved to tears, the chords of Beethoven sounded serenely.
♥ So I began a saraband by Purcell, a jolly thing that makes one see a plump, sound woman dancing on a sanded floor in some old inn, with casks of good ale all about her and a world of sunshine and May lanes without. As I played I wondered if things like this happened when Purcell wrote such music, empty of everything except laughter and simple greeds and satisfactions and at worst the wail of unrequited love. Why had modern life brought forth these horrors, which made the old tragedies seem no more than nursery-shows? And the sky also is different. Behind Chris's head, as he halted at the open window, a search-light turned all ways in the night, like a sword brandished among the stars.
♥ We smiled sadly at each other as we sat down by the fire, and I perceived that, perhaps because I was flushed and looked younger, he felt more intimate with me than he had yet done since his return. Indeed, in the warm, friendly silence that followed he was like a patient when tiring visitors have gone and he is left alone with his trusted nurse, smiled under drooped lids and then paid me the high compliment of disregard. His limbs relaxed, he sank back into his chair. I watched him vigilantly, and was ready at that moment when thought intruded into his drowsings and his face began to twitch.
♥ "Tell me what seems real to you," I begged. "Chris, be a pal. I'll never tell."
"M-m-m," he said. His elbows were on his knees, and his hands stroked his thick tarnished hair. I could not see his face, but I know that his skin was red and that his gray eyes were wet and bright. Then suddenly he lifted his chin and laughed, like a happy swimmer breaking through a wave that has swept him far inshore. He flowed with a radiance that illuminated the moment till my blood tingled and I began to rub my hands together and laugh, too.
♥ In the liquefaction of colors which happens on a summer evening, when the green grass seemed like a precious fluid poured out on the earth and dripping over to the river, and the chestnut candles were no longer proud flowers, but just wet, white lights in the humid mass of the tree, when the brown earth seemed just a little denser than the water, Margaret also participated.
Chris explained this part of his story stumblingly; but I, too, have watched people I loved in the dusk, and I know what he meant. As she sat in the pint while he ferried himself across it was no longer visible that her fair hair curled differently and that its rather wandering parting was a little on one side; that her straight brows, which were a little darker than her hair, were nearly always contracted in a frown of conscientious speculation; that her mouth and chin were noble, yet as delicate as flowers; that her shoulders were slightly hunched because her young body, like a lily-stem, found it difficult to manage its own tallness. She was then just a girl in white who lifted a white face or drooped a dull-gold head. Then she was nearer to him than at any other time. That he loved her in this twilight, which obscured all the physical details which he adored, seemed to him a guarantee that theirs was a changeless love which would persist if she were old or maimed or disfigured.
He stood beside the crazy post where the bell hung and watched the white figure take the pint over the black waters, mount the gray steps, and assume some of their grayness, become a green shade in the green darkness of the foliage-darkened lawn, and he exulted in that guarantee.
How long this went on he had forgotten; but it continued for some time before there came the end of his life, the last day he could remember.
♥ She wanted to go back across thew lawn and walk around the inn, which looked mournful, as unlit houses do by dusk. They passed beside the green-and-white stucco barrier of the veranda and stood on the three-cornered lawn that shelved high over the stream at the island's end, regarding the river, which was now something more wonderful than water, because it had taken to its bosom the rose and amber glories of the summer smoldering behind the elms and Bray church-tower. Birds sat on the telegraph wires that spanned the river as the black notes sit on a staff of music. Then she went to the window of the parlor and rested her cheek against the glass, looking in. The little room was sad with twilight, and there was nothing to be seen but Margaret's sewing-machine on the table and the enlarged photograph of Margaret's mother over the mantelpiece, and the views of Tintern Abbey framed in red plush, and on the floor, the marigold pattern making itself felt through the dusk, Mr. Allington's carpet slippers. "Think of me sitting in there," she whispered, "not knowing you loved me."
♥ On this stood a small Greek temple, looking very lovely in the moonlight. He had never brought Margaret here before, because Mr. Allington had once told him, spatulate forefinger at his nose, that it had been built for the "dook" for his excesses, and it was in the quality of his love for her that he could not bear to think of her in association with anything base. But to-night there was nothing anywhere but beauty. He lifted her in his arms and carried her within the columns, and made her stand in a niche above the altar. A strong stream of moonlight rushed upon her there; by its light he could not tell if her hair was white as silver or yellow as gold, and again he was filled with exaltation because he knew that it would not have mattered if it had been white. His love was changeless. Lifting her down from the niche, he told her so.
And as he spoke, her warm body melted to nothingness in his arms. The columns that had stood so hard and black against the quivering tide of moonlight and starlight seemed to totter and dissolve. He was lying in a hateful world where barbed-wire entanglements showed impish knots against a livid sky full of blooming noise and splashes of fire and wails for water, and his back was hurting intolerably.
♥ We gripped hands, and he brought down on our conversation the finality of darkness.
♥ But all the streets are long and red and freely articulated with railway arches, and factories spoil the skyline with red, angular chimneys, and in front of the shops stood little women with backs ridged by cheap stays, who tapped their upper lips with their forefingers and made other feeble, doubtful gestures, as though they wanted to buy something and knew that if they did they would have to starve some other appetite. When we asked them the way they turned to us faces sour with thrift. It was a town of people who could not do as they liked.
♥ There was the enlarged photograph of Margaret's mother over the mantelpiece, on the walls were the views of Tintern Abbey framed in red plush, between the rickety legs of the china cupboard was the sewing-machine, and tucked into the corner between my chair and the fender were a pair of carpet slippers. All her life long Margaret, who in her time had partaken of the supreme dignity of a requited love, had lived with men who wore carpet slippers in the house. I turned my eyes away again..
♥ I do not know what she said to him, but her voice was soft and comforting and occasionally girlish and interrupted by laughter, and I perceived from its sound that with characteristic gravity she had accepted it as her mission to keep loveliness and excitement alive in his life.
♥ I first defensively clenched my hands. It would have been such agony to the fingerprints to touch any part of her apparel. And then I thought of Chris, to whom a second before I had hoped to bring a serene comforter. I perceived clearly that that ecstatic woman lifting her eyes and her hands to the benediction of love was Margaret as she existed in eternity; but this was Margaret as she existed in time, as the fifteen years between Monkey Island and this damp day in Ladysmith Road had irreparably made her. Well, I had promised to bring her to him.
"I'm ready," and against that simple view of her condition I had no argument.
♥ It's a horrid little house, isn't it?" she asked. She evidently desired sanction for a long-suppressed discontent.
♥ He was wonderful when he was young; he possessed in great measure the liveliness of young men, which is like the loveliness of the spry foal or the sapling, but in him it was vexed into a serious and moving beauty by the inhabiting soul. When the sunlight lay on him, disclosing the gold hairs on his brown head, or when he was subject to any other physical pleasure, there was always reserve in his response to it. From his eyes, which, though gray, were somehow dark with speculation, one perceived that he was distracted by participation in some spiritual dramas. To see him was to desire intimacy with him, so that one might interfere between this body, which was formed for happiness, and this soul, which cherished so deep a faith in tragedy.
♥ I was more afraid that I should feel envy or any base passion in the presence of this woman than I have even been of anything else in my life.
♥ It was an appalling admission, like the groan of an old ship as her timbers shiver, from a man who doubted the capacity of his son, as fathers always doubt the capacity of the children born of their old age.
♥ ..I met Chris coming up the drive. Through the blue twilight his white face had had a drowned look. I remembered it well, because my surprise that he passed me without seeing me had made me perceive for the first time that he had never seen me at all save in the most cursory fashion. On the eye of his mind, I realized thenceforward, I had hardly impinged. That night he talked till late with his father, and in the morning he had started for Mexico to keep the mines going, to keep the firm's head above water and Baldry Court sleek and hospitable—to keep everything bright and splendid save only his youth, which ever after that was dulled by care.
♥ She looked out at the strip of turf, so bright that one would think it wet, and lighted here and there with snowdrops and scillas and crocuses, that runs between the drive and the tangle of silver birch and bramble and fern. There is no esthetic reason for that border; the common outside looks lovelier where it fringes the road with dark gorse and rough amber grasses. Its use is purely philosophic. It proclaims that here we esteem only controlled beauty, that the wild will not have its way without our gates, that it must be made delicate and decorated into felicity. Surely, she must see that this was no place for beauty that had been not mellowed, but lacerated, by time, that no one accustomed to live here could help wincing at such external dinginess as hers. But instead she said: "It's a big place. Chris must have worked hard to keep all this up." The pity of this woman was like a flaming sword. No one had ever before pitied Chris for the magnificence of Baldry Court. It had been out pretense that by wearing costly clothes and organizing a costly life we had been the servants of his desire. But she revealed the truth that, although he did indeed desire a magnificent house, it was a house not built with hands.
But that she was wise, that the angels would of a certainty be on her side, did not make her any the less physically offensive to our atmosphere.
♥ She hovered with her back to the oak table, fumbling with her thread gloves, winking her tear-red eyes, rapping with her foot on the carpet, throwing her weight from one leg to the other, and I constantly contrasted her appearance by some clumsiness with the new acquisition of Kitty's decorative genius that stood so close behind her on the table that I was afraid it might be upset by one of her spasmodic movements. This was a shallow black bowl in the center of which crouched on all fours a white, naked nymph, her small head intently drooped to the white flowers that floated on the black waters all around her. Beside the pure black of the bowl her rusty plumes looked horrible; beside that white nymph, eternally innocent of all but the contemplation of beauty, her opaque skin and her suffering were offensive; beside its air of being the coolly conceived and leisurely executed production of a hand and brain lifted by their rare quality to the service of the not absolutely necessary, her appearance of having only for the moment ceased to cope with a vexed and needy environment struck me as a cancerous blot on the fair world. Perhaps it was absurd to pay attention to this indictment of a noble woman by a potter's toy, but that toy happened to be also a little image of Chris's conception of women. Exquisite we were according to our equipment, unflushed by appetite or passion, even noble passion, our small heads bent intently on the white flowers of luxury floating on the black waters of life, he had known none other than us.
♥ As I went up-stairs I became aware that I was near to a bodily collapse; I suppose the truth is that I was physically so jealous of Margaret that it was making me ill. But suddenly, like a tired person dropping a weight that they know to be precious, but cannot carry for another minute, my mind refused to consider the situation any longer and turned to the perception of material things. I leaned over the balustrade and looked down at the fineness of the hall: the deliberate figure of the nymph in her circle of black waters, the clear pink-and-white of Kitty's chintz, the limpid surface of the oak, the broken burning of all the gay reflected colors in the paneled walls. I said to myself, "If everything else goes, there is always this to fall back on," and I went on, pleased that I was wearing delicate stuffs and that I had a smooth skin, pleased that the walls of the corridor were so soft a twilight blue, pleased that through a far-off open door there came a stream of light that made the carpet blaze its stronger blue.
♥ How her near presence had been known by Chris I do not understand, but there he was, running across the lawn as night after night I had seen him in my dreams running across No-Man's-Land. I knew that so he would close his eyes as he ran; I knew that so he would pitch on his knees when he reached safety. I assumed naturally that at Margaret's feet lay safety even before I saw her arms brace him under the armpits with a gesture that was not passionate, but rather the movement of one carrying a wounded man from under fire. But even when she had raised his head to the level of her lips, the central issue was not decided. I covered my eyes and said aloud, "In a minute he will see her face, her hands." But although it was a long time before I looked again, they were still clinging breast to breast. It was as though her embrace fed him, he looked so strong as he broke away. They stood with clasped hands looking at one another. They looked straight, they looked delightedly! And then, as if resuming a conversation tiresomely interrupted by some social obligation, they drew together again, and passed under the tossing branches of the cedar to the wood beyond. I reflected, while Kitty shrilly wept, how entirely right Chris had been in his assertion that to lovers innumerable things do not matter.
♥ Her irony was as faintly acrid as a caraway-seed, and never afterward did she reach even that low pitch of violence; for from that mild, forward droop of the head with which he received the mental lunge she realized suddenly that this was no pretense and that something as impassable as death lay between them. Thereafter his proceedings evoked no comment but suffering.
♥ ..I tried to make my permanent wear that mood which had mitigated the end of my journey with Margaret—a mood of intense perception in which my strained mind settled on every vivid object that came under my eyes and tried to identify myself with its brightness and its lack of human passion. This does not mean that I passed my day in a state of joyous appreciation; it means that many times in the lanes of Harrowweald I have stood for long looking up at a fine tracery of bare boughs against the hard, high spring sky while the cold wind rushed through my skirts and chilled me to the bone, because I was afraid that when I moved my body and my attention I might begin to think. Indeed, grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth, and food is of the substance of the sand; one snarls at one's company; thoughts prick one through sleep like mosquitoes.
♥ The pale-lavender hurdles and gold-strewn straw were new gay notes on the opaque winter green of the slope, and the apprehensive bleatings of the ewes wound about the hill like a river of sound as they were driven up a lane hidden by the hedge. The lines of bare elms darkening the plains below made it seem as though the tide of winter had fallen and left this bare and sparkling in the spring. I liked it so much that I opened the gate and went and sat down on a tree which had been torn up by the roots in the great gale last year, but had not yet resigned itself to death, and was bravely decking its boughs with purple elm-flowers.
♥ I was now utterly cut off from Chris. Before, when I looked at him, I knew an instant ease in the sight of the short golden down on his cheeks, the ridge of bronze flesh above his thick, fair eyebrows. But now I was too busy reassuring him by showing a steady, undistorted profile crowned by a neat, proud sweep of hair instead of the tear-darkened mask he always feared ever to have enough vitality left over to enjoy his presence. I spoke in a calm voice full from the chest, quite unfluted with agony; I read "Country Life" with ponderous interest; I kept my hands, which I desired to wring, in doeskin gloves for most of the day; I played with the dogs a great deal and wore my thickest tweeds; I pretended that the slight heaviness of my features is a correct indication of my temperament. The only occasion when I could safely let the sense of him saturate me as it used to was when I met Margaret in the hall as she came or went. She was very different now; she had a little smile in her eyes, as though she were listening to a familiar air played far away. Her awkwardness seemed indecision as to whether she should walk or dance to that distant music; her shabbiness was no more repulsive than the untidiness of a child who had been so eager to get to the party that it has not let its nurse finish fastening its frock.
♥ Then, as our hands touched, he was with us, invoked by our common adoration. I felt his rough male texture and saw the clear warmth of his brown and gold coloring; I thought of him with the passion of evil.
♥ Nothing could mitigate the harshness of our dejection. You may think we were attaching an altogether fictitious importance to what was merely the delusion of a madman. But every minute of the day, particularly at those trying times when he strolled about the house and grounds with the doctors, smiling courteously, but without joy, and answering their questions with the crisp politeness of a man shaking off an inquisitive commercial traveler in a hotel smoking-room, it became plain that if madness means a liability to wild error about the world Chris was not mad. It was our peculiar shame that he had rejected us when he had attained to something saner than sanity. His very loss of memory was a triumph over the limitations of language which prevent the mass of men from making explicit statements about their spiritual relationships. If he had said to Kitty and me, "I do not know you," we would have gaped; if he had explained his meaning and said, "You are nothing to me; my heart is separate from your hearts," we would have wept at an unkindness he had not intended. But by the blankness of those eyes which saw me only as a disregarded playmate and Kitty not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals he let us know completely where we were. Even though I lay weeping at it on the dead leaves I was sensible of the bitter rapture which attends the discovery of any truth. I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the unessential and the irritating. I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality out of all the appearances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit recovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him. But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.
I could not think clearly about it. I suppose that the subject of our tragedy, written in spiritual terms, was that in Kitty he had turned from the type of woman that makes the body conqueror of the soul and in me the type that mediates between the soul and the body and makes them run even and unhasty like a well-matched pair of carriage horses, and had given himself to a woman whose bleak habit it was to champion the soul against the body. But I saw it just as a fantastic act of cruelty that I could think of only as a conjunction of calamitous images. I think of it happening somewhere behind the front, at the end of a straight road that runs by a line of ragged poplars between mud flats made steel-bright with floods pitted by the soft, slow rain. There, past a church that lacks its tower, stand a score of houses, each hideous with patches of bare bricks that show like sores through the ripped-off plaster and uncovered rafters that stuck out like broken bones. There are people still living here. A slouchy woman sits at the door of a filthy cottage, counting some dirty linen and waving her bare arm at some passing soldiers. And at another house there is a general store with strings of orange onions and bunches of herbs hanging from the roof, a brown gloom rich with garlic and humming with the flies that live all the year round in French village shops, a black cat rubbing her sleepiness against the lintel. It is in there that Chris is standing, facing across the counter an old man in a blouse, with a scar running white into the gray thickets of his beard, an old man with a smile at once lewd and benevolent, repulsive with dirt and yet magnificent by reason of the Olympian structure of his body. I think he is the soul of the universe, equally cognizant and disregardful of every living thing, to whom I am not more dear than the bare-armed slouchy woman at the neighboring door. And Chris is leaning on the counter, his eyes glazed. (This is his spirit; his body lies out there in the drizzle, at the other end of the road.) He is looking down on the two crystal balls that the old man's foul, strong hands have rolled across to him. In one he sees Margaret, not in her raincoat and her nodding plumes, but as she is transfigured in the light of eternity. Long he looks there; then drops a glance to the other, just long enough to see that in its depths Kitty and I walk in bright dresses through our glowing gardens. We had suffered no transfiguration, for we are as we are, and there is nothing more to us. The whole truth about us lies in our material seeming. He sighs a deep sigh of delight and puts out his hand to the ball where Margaret shines. His sleeve catches the other one and sends it down to crash in a thousand pieces on the floor. The old man's smile continues to be lewd and benevolent; he is still not more interested in me than in the bare-armed woman. Chris is wholly inclosed in his intentness on his chosen crystal. No one weeps for this shattering of our world.
♥ There had been a hardening of the light while I slept that made the dear, familiar woods rich and sinister, and to the eye, tropical. The jewel-bright buds on the soot-black boughs, the blue valley distances, smudged here and there with the pink enamel of villa-roofs, and seen between the black-and-white intricacies of the birch-trunks and the luminous gray pillars of the beeches, hurt my wet eyes as might beauty blazing under an equatorial sun. There was a tropical sense of danger, too, for I walked as apprehensively as though a snake coiled under every leaf, because I feared to come on them when he was speaking to her without looking at her or thinking in silence while he played with her hand. Embraces do not matter; they merely indicate the will to love, and may as well be followed by defeat as victory. But disregard means that now there needs to be no straining of the eyes, no stretching forth of the hands, no pressing of the lips, because theirs is such a union that they are no longer aware of the division of their flesh. I know it must be so; a lonely life gives one opportunities of thinking these things out.
..It was not utter dullness not to have anticipated the beauty that I saw. No one could have told. They had taken the mackintosh rug out of the dinghy and spread it on this little space of clear grass, I think so that they could look at a scattering of early primroses in a pool of white anemones at an oak-tree's foot. She had run her hands over the rug so that it lay quite smooth and comfortable under him when at last he felt drowsy and turned on his side to sleep. He lay there in the confiding relaxation of a sleeping child, his hands unclenched, and his head thrown back so that the bare throat showed defenselessly. Now he was asleep and his face undarkened by thought, one saw how very fair he really was. And she, her mournfully vigilant face pinkened by the cold river of air sent by the advancing evening through the screen of rusted-gold bracken behind her, was sitting by him, just watching.
I have often seen people grouped like that on the common outside our gates on Bank holidays. Most often the man has a handkerchief over his face to shade him from the sun, and the woman squats beside him and peers through the undergrowth to see that the children come to no harm as they play. It has sometimes seemed to me that there was a significance about it. You know when one goes into the damp, odorous coolness of a church in a Catholic country and sees the kneeling worshipers, their bodies bent stiffly and reluctantly, and yet with abandonment as though to represent the inevitable bending of the will to a purpose outside the individual person, or when under any sky one sees a mother with her child in her arms, something turns in one's heart like a sword, and one says to oneself, "If humanity forgets these attitudes there is an end to the world." But people like me, who are not artists, are never sure about people they don't know. So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends, when it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere, that I knew it was the most significant, as it was the loveliest, attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do. I know there are things at least as great for those women, whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside the home park of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us. What we desire is greatness such as this, which had given sleep to the beloved. I had known that he was having bad nights at Baldry Court in that new room with the jade-green painted walls and the lapis-lazuli fireplace, which he found with surprise to be his instead of the remembered little room with the fishing-rods; but I had not been able to do anything about it.
It was not fair that by the exercise of a generosity which seemed as fortuitous a possession as a beautiful voice a woman should be able to do such wonderful things for a man. For sleep was the least of her gifts to him. What she had done in leading him into the quiet magic circle out of our life, out of the splendid house which was not so much a house as a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent, out of the garden where the flowers took thought as to how they should grow and the wood made as formal as a pillared aisle by forestry, may be judged from my anguish in being left there alone. Indeed she had been generous to us all, for at her touch our lives had at last fallen into a pattern; she was the sober thread the interweaving of which with our scattered magnificences had somewhat achieved the design that otherwise would not appear. Perhaps even her dinginess was part of her generosity, for in order to fit into the pattern one has sometimes to forego something of one's individual beauty. That is why women like us do not wear such obviously lovely dresses as cocottes, but clothe ourselves in garments that by their slight neglect of the possibilities of beauty declare that there are such things as thrift and restraint and care for the future. And so I could believe of Margaret that her determined dwelling in places where there was not enough of anything, her continued exposure of herself to the grime of squalid living, was unconsciously deliberate. The deep internal thing that had guided Chris to forgetfulness had guided her to poverty, so that when the time came for her meeting with her lover there should be not one intimation of the beauty of suave flesh to distract him from the message of her soul. I looked upward at this serene act of sacrifice and glowed at her private gift to me. My sleep, though short, was now dreamless. ..They could not take him back to the army as he was. Only that morning as I went through the library he had raised an appalled face from the pages of a history of the war.
"Jenny, it can't be true that they did that Belgium? Those funny, quiet, stingy people!" And his soldierly knowledge was as deeply buried as this memory of that awful August. While her spell endured they could not send him back into the hell of war. This wonderful, kind woman held his body as safely as she held his soul.
♥ It was part of her loveliness that even if she did not understand an act she could accept it.
♥ There was a noise above us like the fluttering of doves. Kitty was coming downstairs in a white serge dress against which her hands were rosy; a woman with such lovely little hands never needed to wear flowers. BY her kind of physical discipline she had reduced her grief to no more than a slight darkening under the eyes, and for this moment she was glowing. I knew it was because she was going to meet a new man and anticipated the kindling of admiration in his eyes, and I smiled, contrasting her probably prefiguring of Dr. Anderson with the amiable rotundity we had just encountered. Not that it would have made any difference if she had seen him. Beautiful women of her type lose, in this matter of admiration alone, their otherwise tremendous sense of class distinction; they are obscurely aware that it is their civilizing mission to flash the jewel of their beauty before all men, so that they shall desire it and work to get the wealth to buy it, and thus be seduced by a present appetite to a tilling of the earth that serves the future. There is, you know, really room for all of us, we each have our peculiar use.
♥ I found, though the occasion was a little grim, some entertainment in the two women's faces, so mutually intent, so differently fair, the one a polished surface that reflected light, like a mirror hung opposite a window, the other a lamp grimed by the smoke of careless use, but still giving out radiance from its burning oil.
♥ She enjoyed the feeling of the thick carpet underfoot; she looked lingeringly at the pictures on the wall; occasionally she put a finger to touch a vase as if by that she made its preciousness more her own. Her spirit, I could see, was as deeply concerned about Chris as was mine; but she had such faith in life that she retained serenity enough to enjoy what beauty she came across in her period of waiting. Even her enjoyment was indirectly generous. When she came into my room the backward flinging of her head and her deep "Oh!" recalled to me what I had long forgotten, how fine were its proportions, how clever the grooved arch above the window, how like the evening sky my blue curtains.
♥ "And the lovely things you have on your dressing-table," she commented. "You must have very good taste." The charity that changed my riches to a merit!
♥ "It's—it's as if," she stammered, "they each had half a life."
I felt the usual instinct to treat her as though she were ill, because it was evident that she was sustained by a mystic interpretation of life. But she had already taught me something, so I stood aside while she fell on her knees, and wondered why she did not look at the child's photograph, but pressed it to her bosom, as though to staunch a wound. I thought, as I have often thought before, that the childless have the greatest joy in children, for to us they are just slips of immaturity lovelier than the flowers and with the power over the heart, but to mothers they are fleshy cables binding one down to such profundities of feeling as the awful agony that now possessed her. For although I knew I would have accepted it with rapture because it was the result of intimacy with Chris, its awfulness appalled me. Not only did it make my body hurt with sympathy; it shook the ground beneath my feet. For that her serenity, which a moment before had seemed as steady as the earth and as all-enveloping as the sky, should be so utterly dispelled made me aware that I had of late been underestimating the cruelty of the order of things. Lovers are frustrated; children are not begotten that should have had the loveliest life; the pale usurpers of their birth die young. Such a world will not suffer magic circles to endure.
♥ "A complete case of amnesia," he was saying as Margaret, white-lipped, yet less shy than I had ever seen her, went to a seat by the window, and I sank down on the sofa. "His unconscious self is refusing to let him resume his relations with his normal life, and so we get this loss of memory."
"I've always said," declared Kitty, with an air of good sense, "that if he would make an effort—"
"Effort!" He jerked his round head about. "The mental life that can be controlled by effort isn't the mental life that matters. You've been stuffed up when you were young with talk about a thing called self-control, a sort of barmaid of the soul that says, "Time's up, gentlemen," and "Here, you've have enough." There's no such thing. There's a deep self in one, the essential self, that has its wishes. And if those wishes are suppressed by the superficial self,—the self that makes, as you say, efforts, and usually makes them with the sole idea of putting up a good show before the neighbors,—it takes its revenge. Into the house of conduct erected by the superficial self it sends an obsession, which doesn't, owing to a twist that the superficial self, which isn't candid, gives it, seem to bear any relation to the suppressed wish. A man who really wants to leave his wife develops a hatred for pickled cabbage which may find vent in performances that lead straight to the asylum. But that's all technical," he finished bluffly. "My business to understand it, not yours. The point is, Mr. Baldry's obsession is that he can't remember the latter years of his life. Well,"—his winking blue eyes drew us all into a community we hardly felt,—"what's the suppressed wish of which it's the manifestation?"
"He wished for nothing," said Kitty. "He was fond of us, and he had a lot of money."
"Ah, but he did!" countered the doctor, gleefully. He seemed to be enjoying it all. "Quite obviously he has forgotten his life here because he is discontented with it. What clearer proof could you need than the fact you were just telling me when these ladies came in—that the reason the War Office didn't wire to you when he was wounded was that he had forgotten to register his address? Don't you see what that means?"
"Forgetfulness," shrugged Kitty. "He isn't businesslike." She had always nourished a doubt as to whether Chris was really, as she put it, practical, and his income and his international reputation weighed nothing as against his evident inability to pick up pieces at sales.
"One forgets only those things that one wants to forget. It's our business to find out why he wanted to forget this life."
♥ "You, Miss Baldry, you've known him longest."
"Nothing and everything was wrong," I said at last. "I've always felt it."
♥ "Doctor," she said, he mild voice roughened, "what's the use of talking? You can't cure him,"—she caught her lower lip with her teeth and fought back from the brink of tears,—"make him happy, I mean. All you can do is to make him ordinary."
"I grant you that's all I do," he said. It queerly seemed as though he was experiencing the relief one feels on meeting an intellectual equal. "It's my profession to bring people from various outlying districts of the mind to the normal. There seems to be a general feeling it's the place where they ought to be. Sometimes I don't see the urgency myself."
&Hearts; Yet as I walked beside her up the stairs I knew this compliance was not the indication of any melting of this new steely sternness. The very breathing that I heard as I knelt beside her at the nursery door and eased the disused lock seemed to come from a different and a harsher body than had been hers before. I did not wonder that she was feeling bleak, since in a few moments she was to go out and say the words that would end all her happiness, that would destroy all the gifts her generosity had so difficultly amassed. Well, that is the kind of thing one has to do in this life.
♥ But hardly had the door opened and disclosed the empty, sunny spaces swimming with motes before her old sweetness flowered again. She moved forward slowly, tremulous and responsive and pleased, as though the room's liveliness was a gift to her. She stretched out her hands to the clear sapphire walls and the bright fresco of birds and animals with a young delight. So, I thought, might a bride go about the house her husband secretly prepared for her. Yet when she reached the hearth and stood with her hands behind her on the fireguard, looking about her at all the exquisite devices of our nursery to rivet health and amusement on our reluctant little visitor, it was so apparent that she was a mother that I could not imagine how it was that I had not always known it. It has sometimes happened that painters who have kept close enough to earth to see a heavenly vision have made pictures of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin which do indeed show women who could bring God into the world by the passion of their motherhood. "Let there be life," their suspended bodies seem to cry out to the universe about them, and the very clouds under their feet change into cherubim. As Margaret stood there, her hands pressed palm to palm beneath her chin and a blind smile on her face, she looked even so.
♥ "Either I never should have come," she pleaded, "or you should let him be." She was arguing not with me, but with the whole hostile, reasonable world. "Mind you, I wasn't sure if I ought to come the second time, seeing we both were married and that. I prayed and read the Bible, but I couldn't get any help. You don't notice how little there is in the Bible really till you go to it for help. But I've lived a hard life and I've always done my best for William, and I know nothing in the world matters so much as happiness. If anybody's happy, you ought to let them be. So I came again. Let him be. If you know how happy he was just pottering round the garden. Men do love a garden. He could just go on. It can go on so easily." But there was a shade of doubt in her voice; she was pleading not only with me, but with fate. "You wouldn't let them take him away to the asylum. You wouldn't stop me coming. The other one might, but you'd see she didn't. Oh, do just let him be!
"Put it like this." She made such explanatory gestures as I have seen cabmen make over their saucers of tea round a shelter. "If my boy had been a cripple,—he wasn't; he had the loveliest limbs,—and the doctors had said to me, "We'll straighten your boy's legs for you, but he will be in pain all the rest of his life," I'd not have let them touch him.
"I seemed to have to tell them that I knew a way. I suppose it would have been sly to sit there and not tell them. I told them, anyhow. But, oh, I can't do it! Go out and put an end to the poor love's happiness. After the time he's had, the war and all. And then he'll have to go back there! I can't! I can't!"
I felt an ecstatic sense of ease. Everything was going to be right. Chris was to live in the interminable enjoyment of his youth and love. There was to be a finality about his happiness which usually belongs only to loss and calamity; he was to be as happy as a ring cast into the sea is lost, as a man whose coffin has lain for centuries beneath the sod is dead. Yet Margaret continued to say, and irritated me by the implication that the matter was not settled:
"I oughtn't to do it, ought I?"
"Of course not! Of course not!" I cried heartily, but the attention died in her eyes. She stared over my shoulder at the open door, where Kitty stood.
The poise of her head had lost its pride, the shadows under her eyes were black like the marks of blows, and all her loveliness was diverted to the expression of grief. She had in her arms her Chinese sleeve dog, a once-prized pet that had fallen from favor and was now only to be met whining upward for a little love at every passer in the corridors, and it sprawled leaf-brown across her white frock, wriggling for joy at the unaccustomed embrace. That she should at last have stooped to lift the lonely little dog was a sign of her deep unhappiness. Why she had come up I do not know, nor why her face puckered with tears as she looked in on us. It was not that she had the slightest intimation of our decision, for she could not have conceived that we could follow any course but that which was obviously to her advantage. It was simply that she hated to see this strange, ugly woman moving about among her things. She swallowed her tears and passed on, to drift, like a dog, about the corridors.
Now, why did Kitty, who was the falsest thing on earth, who was in tune with every kind of falsity, by merely suffering somehow remind us of reality? Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human? I knew that one must know the truth. I knew quite well that when one is adult one must raise to one's lips the wine of the truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. Thirst for this sacrament had made Chris strike away the cup of lies about life that Kitty's white hands held to him and turn to Margaret with this vast trustful gesture of his loss of memory. And helped by me, she had forgotten that it is the first concern of love to safeguard the dignity of the beloved, so that neither God in his skies nor the boy peering through the hedge should find in all time one possibility for contempt, and had handed him the trivial toy of happiness. We had been utterly negligent of his future, blasphemously careless of the divine essential of his soul. For if we left him in his magic circle there would come a time when his delusion turned to a senile idiocy; when his joy at the sight of Margaret disgusted the flesh because his smiling mouth was slack with age; when one's eyes no longer followed him caressingly as he went down to look for the first primroses in the wood, but flitted here and there defensively to see that nobody was noticing the doddering old man. Gamekeepers would chat kindly with him, and tap their foreheads as they passed through the copse; callers would be tactful and dangle bright talk before him. He who was as a flag flying from our tower would become a queer-shaped patch of eccentricity on the country-side, the full-mannered music of his being would become a witless piping in the bushes. He would not be quite a man.
♥ "The truth's the truth," she said, "and he must know it."
I looked up at her, gasping, yet not truly amazed; for I had always known she could not leave her throne of righteousness for long, and she repeated, "The truth's the truth," smiling sadly at the strange order of this earth.
♥ There had fallen a twilight which was a wistfulness of the earth. Under the cedar-boughs I dimply saw a figure mothering something in her arms. Almost had she dissolved into the shadows; in another moment the night would have her. With his back turned on this fading unhappiness Chris walked across the lawn. He was looking up under his brows at the over-arching house as though it were a hated place to which, against all his hopes, business had forced him to return. He stepped aside to avoid a patch of brightness cast by a lighted window on the grass; lights in our house were worse than darkness, affection worse than hate elsewhere. He wore a dreadful, decent smile; I knew how his voice would resolutely lift in greeting us. He walked not loose-limbed like a boy, as he had done that very afternoon, but with the solder's hard tread upon the heel. It recalled to me that, bad as we were, we were yet not the worst circumstance of his return. When we had lifted the yoke of our embraces from his shoulders he would go back to that flooded trench in Flanders, under that sky more full of flying death than clouds, to that No-Man's-Land where bullets fall like rain on the rotting faces of the dead.