Coming Home by Edith Wharton
By Edith Wharton
Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons
The young men of our American Relief Corps are beginning to come
back from the front with stories.
There was no time to pick them up during the first monthsthe whole
business was too wild and grim. The horror has not decreased, but
nerves and sight are beginning to be disciplined to it. In the earlier
days, moreover, such fragments of experience as one got were torn from
their setting like bits of flesh scattered by shrapnel. Now things that
seemed disjointed are beginning to link themselves together, and the
broken bones of history are rising from the battle-fields.
I can't say that, in this respect, all the members of the Relief
Corps have made the most of their opportunity. Some are unobservant, or
perhaps simply inarticulate; others, when going beyond the bald
statistics of their job, tend to drop into sentiment and cinema scenes;
and none but H. Macy Greer has the gift of making the thing told seem
as true as if one had seen it. So it is on H. Macy Greer that I depend,
and when his motor dashes him back to Paris for supplies I never fail
to hunt him down and coax him to my rooms for dinner and a long cigar.
Greer is a small hard-muscled youth, with pleasant manners, a sallow
face, straight hemp-coloured hair and grey eyes of unexpected
inwardness. He has a voice like thick soup, and speaks with the
slovenly drawl of the new generation of Americans, dragging his words
along like reluctant dogs on a string, and depriving his narrative of
every shade of expression that intelligent intonation gives. But his
eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice
Some of his tales are dark and dreadful, some are unutterably sad,
and some end in a huge laugh of irony. I am not sure how I ought to
classify the one I have written down here.
ON my first dash to the Northern fighting lineGreer told me the
other nightI carried supplies to an ambulance where the surgeon asked
me to have a talk with an officer who was badly wounded and fretting
for news of his people in the east of France.
He was a young Frenchman, a cavalry lieutenant, trim and slim, with
a pleasant smile and obstinate blue eyes that I liked. He looked as if
he could hold on tight when it was worth his while. He had had a leg
smashed, poor devil, in the first fighting in Flanders, and had been
dragging on for weeks in the squalid camp-hospital where I found him.
He didn't waste any words on himself, but began at once about his
family. They were living, when the war broke out, at their
country-place in the Vosges; his father and mother, his sister, just
eighteen, and his brother Alain, two years younger. His father, the
Comte de Réchamp, had married late in life, and was over seventy: his
mother, a good deal younger, was crippled with rheumatism; and there
was, besidesto round off the groupa helpless but intensely alive
and domineering old grandmother about whom all the others revolved. You
know how French families hang together, and throw out branches that
make new roots but keep hold of the central trunk, like that
treewhat's it called?that they give pictures of in books about the
Jean de Réchampthat was my lieutenant's nametold me his family
was a typical case. We're very province, he said. My people
live at Réchamp all the year. We have a house at Nancyrather a fine
old hôtelbut my parents go there only once in two or three years, for
a few weeks. That's our 'season.'...Imagine the point of view! Or
rather don't, because you couldn't.... (He had been about the world a
good deal, and known something of other angles of vision.)
Well, of this helpless exposed little knot of people he had had no
wordsimply nothingsince the first of August. He was at home,
staying with them at Réchamp, when war broke out. He was mobilised the
first day, and had only time to throw his traps into a cart and dash to
the station. His depot was on the other side of France, and
communications with the East by mail and telegraph were completely
interrupted during the first weeks. His regiment was sent at once to
the fighting line, and the first news he got came to him in October,
from a communiqué in a Paris paper a month old, saying: The enemy
yesterday retook Réchamp. After that, dead silence: and the poor devil
left in the trenches to digest that retook!
There are thousands and thousands of just such cases; and men
bearing them, and cracking jokes, and hitting out as hard as they can.
Jean de Réchamp knew this, and tried to crack jokes toobut he got his
leg smashed just afterward, and ever since he'd been lying on a straw
pallet under a horse-blanket, saying to himself: Réchamp retaken.
Of course, he explained with a weary smile, as long as you can
tot up your daily bag in the trenches it's a sort of
satisfactionthough I don't quite know why; anyhow, you're so
dead-beat at night that no dreams come. But lying here staring at the
ceiling one goes through the whole business once an hour, at the least:
the attack, the slaughter, the ruins...and worse.... Haven't I seen and
heard things enough on this side to know what's been happening
on the other? Don't try to sugar the dose. I like it bitter.
I was three days in the neighbourhood, and I went back every day to
see him. He liked to talk to me because he had a faint hope of my
getting news of his family when I returned to Paris. I hadn't much
myself, but there was no use telling him so. Besides, things change
from day to day, and when we parted I promised to get word to him as
soon as I could find out anything. We both knew, of course, that that
would not be till Réchamp was taken a third timeby his own troops;
and perhaps soon after that, I should be able to get there, or near
there, and make enquiries myself. To make sure that I should forget
nothing, he drew the family photographs from under his pillow, and
handed them over: the little witch-grandmother, with a face like a
withered walnut, the father, a fine broken-looking old boy with a Roman
nose and a weak chin, the mother, in crape, simple, serious and
provincial, the little sister ditto, and Alain, the young brotherjust
the age the brutes have been carrying off to German prisonsan
over-grown thread-paper boy with too much forehead and eyes, and not a
muscle in his body. A charming-looking family, distinguished and
amiable; but all, except the grandmother, rather usual. The kind of
people who come in sets.
As I pocketed the photographs I noticed that another lay face down
by his pillow. Is that for me too? I asked.
He coloured and shook his head, and I felt I had blundered. But
after a moment he turned the photograph over and held it out.
It's the young girl I am engaged to. She was at Réchamp visiting my
parents when war was declared; but she was to leave the day after I
did.... He hesitated. There may have been some difficulty about her
going.... I should like to be sure she got away.... Her name is Yvonne
He did not offer me the photograph, and I did not need it. That girl
had a face of her own! Dark and keen and splendid: a type so different
from the others that I found myself staring. If he had not said ma
fiancée I should have understood better. After another pause he
went on: I will give you her address in Paris. She has no family: she
lives aloneshe is a musician. Perhaps you may find her there. His
colour deepened again as he added: But I know nothingI have had no
news of her either.
To ease the silence that followed I suggested: But if she has no
family, wouldn't she have been likely to stay with your people, and
wouldn't that be the reason of your not hearing from her?
Oh, noI don't think she stayed. He seemed about to add: If she
could help it, but shut his lips and slid the picture out of sight.
As soon as I got back to Paris I made enquiries, but without result.
The Germans had been pushed back from that particular spot after a
fortnight's intermittent occupation; but their lines were close by,
across the valley, and Réchamp was still in a net of trenches. No one
could get to it, and apparently no news could come from it. For the
moment, at any rate, I found it impossible to get in touch with the
My enquiries about Mlle. Malo were equally unfruitful. I went to the
address Réchamp had given me, somewhere off in Passy, among gardens, in
what they call a Square, no doubt because it's oblong: a kind of long
narrow court with aesthetic-looking studio buildings round it. Mlle.
Malo lived in one of them, on the top floor, the concierge said, and I
looked up and saw a big studio window, and a roof-terrace with dead
gourds dangling from a pergola. But she wasn't there, she hadn't been
there, and they had no news of her. I wrote to Réchamp of my double
failure, he sent me back a line of thanks; and after that for a long
while I heard no more of him.
By the beginning of November the enemy's hold had begun to loosen in
the Argonne and along the Vosges, and one day we were sent off to the
East with a couple of ambulances. Of course we had to have military
chauffeurs, and the one attached to my ambulance happened to be a
fellow I knew. The day before we started, in talking over our route
with him, I said: I suppose we can manage to get to Réchamp now? He
looked puzzledit was such a little place that he'd forgotten the
name. Why do you want to get there? he wondered. I told him, and he
gave an exclamation. Good God! Of coursebut how extraordinary! Jean
de Réchamp's here now, in Paris, too lame for the front, and driving a
motor. We stared at each other, and he went on: He must take my
placehe must go with you. I don't know how it can be done; but done
it shall be.
Done it was, and the next morning at daylight I found Jean de
Réchamp at the wheel of my car. He looked another fellow from the wreck
I had left in the Flemish hospital; all made over, and burning with
activity, but older, and with lines about his eyes. He had had news
from his people in the interval, and had learned that they were still
at Réchamp, and well. What was more surprising was that Mlle. Malo was
with themhad never left. Alain had been got away to England, where he
remained; but none of the others had budged. They had fitted up an
ambulance in the château, and Mlle. Malo and the little sister were
nursing the wounded. There were not many details in the letters, and
they had been a long time on the way; but their tone was so reassuring
that Jean could give himself up to unclouded anticipation. You may
fancy if he was grateful for the chance I was giving him; for of course
he couldn't have seen his people in any other way.
Our permits, as you know, don't as a rule let us into the
firing-line: we only take supplies to second-line ambulances, and carry
back the badly wounded in need of delicate operations. So I wasn't in
the least sure we should be allowed to go to Réchampthough I had made
up my mind to get there, anyhow.
We were about a fortnight on the way, coming and going in Champagne
and the Argonne, and that gave us time to get to know each other. It
was bitter cold, and after our long runs over the lonely frozen hills
we used to crawl into the café of the innif there was oneand talk
and talk. We put up in fairly rough places, generally in a farm house
or a cottage packed with soldiers; for the villages have all remained
empty since the autumn, except when troops are quartered in them.
Usually, to keep warm, we had to go up after supper to the room we
shared, and get under the blankets with our clothes on. Once some jolly
Sisters of Charity took us in at their Hospice, and we slept two nights
in an ice-cold whitewashed cellbut what tales we heard around their
kitchen-fire! The Sisters had stayed alone to face the Germans, had
seen the town burn, and had made the Teutons turn the hose on the
singed roof of their Hospice and beat the fire back from it. It's a
pity those Sisters of Charity can't marry....
Réchamp told me a lot in those days. I don't believe he was
talkative before the war, but his long weeks in hospital, starving for
news, had unstrung him. And then he was mad with excitement at getting
back to his own place. In the interval he'd heard how other people
caught in their country-houses had faredyou know the stories we all
refused to believe at first, and that we now prefer not to think
about.... Well, he'd been thinking about those stories pretty steadily
for some months; and he kept repeating: My people say they're all
rightbut they give no details.
You see, he explained, there never were such helpless beings.
Even if there had been time to leave, they couldn't have done it. My
mother had been having one of her worst attacks of rheumatismshe was
in bed, helpless, when I left. And my grandmother, who is a demon of
activity in the house, won't stir out of it. We haven't been able to
coax her into the garden for years. She says it's draughty; and you
know how we all feel about draughts! As for my father, he hasn't had to
decide anything since the Comte de Chambord refused to adopt the
tricolour. My father decided that he was right, and since then there
has been nothing particular for him to take a stand about. But I know
how he behaved just as well as if I'd been therehe kept saying: 'One
must actone must act!' and sitting in his chair and doing nothing.
Oh, I'm not disrespectful: they were like that in his
generation! Besidesit's better to laugh at things, isn't it? And
suddenly his face would darken....
On the whole, however, his spirits were good till we began to
traverse the line of ruined towns between Sainte Menehould and
Bar-le-Duc. This is the way the devils came, he kept saying to me;
and I saw he was hard at work picturing the work they must have done in
his own neighbourhood.
But since your sister writes that your people are safe!
They may have made her write that to reassure me. They'd heard I
was badly wounded. And, mind you, there's never been a line from my
But you say your mother's hands are so lame that she can't hold a
pen. And wouldn't Mlle. Malo have written you the truth?
At that his frown would lift. Oh, yes. She would despise any
attempt at concealment.
Well, thenwhat the deuce is the matter?
It's when I see these devils' traces he could only mutter.
One day, when we had passed through a particularly devastated little
place, and had got from the curé some more than usually abominable
details of things done there, Réchamp broke out to me over the
kitchen-fire of our night's lodging. When I hear things like that I
don't believe anybody who tells me my people are all right!
But you know well enough, I insisted, that the Germans are not
all alikethat it all depends on the particular officer....
Yes, yes, I know, he assented, with a visible effort at
impartiality. Only, you seeas one gets nearer.... He went on to say
that, when he had been sent from the ambulance at the front to a
hospital at Moulins, he had been for a day or two in a ward next to
some wounded German soldiersbad cases, they wereand had heard them
talking. They didn't know he knew German, and he had heard things....
There was one name always coming back in their talk, von Scharlach,
Oberst von Scharlach. One of them, a young fellow, said: I wish now
I'd cut my hand off rather than do what he told us to that night....
Every time the fever comes I see it all again. I wish I'd been struck
dead first. They all said Scharlach with a kind of terror in their
voices, as if he might hear them even there, and come down on them
horribly. Réchamp had asked where their regiment came from, and had
been told: From the Vosges. That had set his brain working, and
whenever he saw a ruined village, or heard a tale of savagery, the
Scharlach nerve began to quiver. At such times it was no use reminding
him that the Germans had had at least three hundred thousand men in the
East in August. He simply didn't listen....
The day before we started for Réchamp his spirits flew up again, and
that night he became confidential. You've been such a friend to me
that there are certain thingsseeing what's ahead of usthat I should
like to explain; and, noticing my surprise, he went on: I mean about
my people. The state of mind in my milieu must be so remote from
anything you're used to in your happy country.... But perhaps I can
make you understand....
I saw that what he wanted was to talk to me of the girl he was
engaged to. Mlle. Malo, left an orphan at ten, had been the ward of a
neighbour of the Réchamps', a chap with an old name and a starred
château, who had lost almost everything else at baccarat before he was
forty, and had repented, had the gout and studied agriculture for the
rest of his life. The girl's father was a rather brilliant painter, who
died young, and her mother, who followed him in a year or two, was a
Pole: you may fancy that, with such antecedents, the girl was just the
mixture to shake down quietly into French country life with a gouty and
repentant guardian. The Marquis de Corvenairethat was his
namebrought her down to his place, got an old maid sister to come and
stay, and really, as far as one knows, brought his ward up rather
Now and then she used to be driven over to play with the young
Réchamps, and Jean remembered her as an ugly little girl in a plaid
frock, who used to invent wonderful games and get tired of playing them
just as the other children were beginning to learn how. But her
domineering ways and searching questions did not meet with his mother's
approval, and her visits were not encouraged. When she was seventeen
her guardian died and left her a little money. The maiden sister had
gone dotty, there was nobody to look after Yvonne, and she went to
Paris, to an aunt, broke loose from the aunt when she came of age, set
up her studio, travelled, painted, played the violin, knew lots of
people; and never laid eyes on Jean de Réchamp till about a year before
the war, when her guardian's place was sold, and she had to go down
there to see about her interest in the property.
The old Réchamps heard she was coming, but didn't ask her to stay.
Jean drove over to the shut-up chateau, however, and found Mlle. Malo
lunching on a corner of the kitchen table. She exclaimed: My little
Jean! flew to him with a kiss for each cheek, and made him sit down
and share her omelet.... The ugly little girl had shed her
chrysalisand you may fancy if he went back once or twice!
Mlle. Malo was staying at the chateau all alone, with the farmer's
wife to come in and cook her dinner: not a soul in the house at night
but herself and her brindled sheep dog. She had to be there a week, and
Jean suggested to his people to ask her to Réchamp. But at Réchamp they
hesitated, coughed, looked away, said the sparerooms were all upside
down, and the valet-de-chambre laid up with the mumps, and the cook
short-handedtill finally the irrepressible grandmother broke out: A
young girl who chooses to live aloneprobably prefers to live alone!
There was a deadly silence, and Jean did not raise the question
again; but I can imagine his blue eyes getting obstinate.
Soon after Mlle. Malo's return to Paris he followed her and began to
frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had
ever seenor conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had
sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of
the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the
artistic-emancipated. I don't know much about that set myself, but from
his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent
Americans, except that they don't seem to keep art and life in such
water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl.
Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type,
which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me,
in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes
and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what
she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married
womanand yet has kept the Diana-freshnessthink how she must have
shaken up such a man's inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far
more than make Réchamp fall in love with her: she turned his world
topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his
little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.
Before long they confessed their lovejust like any young couple of
Anglo-Saxonsand Jean went down to Réchamp to ask permission to marry
her. Neither you nor I can quite enter into the state of mind of a
young man of twenty-seven who has knocked about all over the globe, and
been in and out of the usual sentimental coilsand who has to ask his
parents' leave to get married! Don't let us try: it's no use. We should
only end by picturing him as an incorrigible ninny. But there isn't a
man in France who wouldn't feel it his duty to take that step, as Jean
de Réchamp did. All we can do is to accept the premise and pass on.
WellJean went down and asked his father and his mother and his old
grandmother if they would permit him to marry Mlle. Malo; and they all
with one voice said they wouldn't. There was an uproar, in fact; and
the old grandmother contributed the most piercing note to the concert.
Marry Mlle. Malo! A young girl who lived alone! Travelled! Spent her
time with foreignerswith musicians and painters! A young girl!
Of course, if she had been a married womanthat is, a widowmuch as
they would have preferred a young girl for Jean, or even, if widow it
had to be, a widow of another typestill, it was conceivable that, out
of affection for him, they might have resigned themselves to his
choice. But a young girlbring such a young girl to Réchamp! Ask them
to receive her under the same roof with their little Simone, their
He had a bad hour of it; but he held his own, keeping silent while
they screamed, and stiffening as they began to wobble from exhaustion.
Finally he took his mother apart, and tried to reason with her. His
arguments were not much use, but his resolution impressed her, and he
saw it. As for his father, nobody was afraid of Monsieur de Réchamp.
When he said: Nevernever while I live, and there is a roof on
Réchamp! they all knew he had collapsed inside. But the grandmother
was terrible. She was terrible because she was so old, and so clever at
taking advantage of it. She could bring on a valvular heart attack by
just sitting still and holding her breath, as Jean and his mother had
long since found out; and she always treated them to one when things
weren't going as she liked. Madame de Réchamp promised Jean that she
would intercede with her mother-in-law; but she hadn't much faith in
the result, and when she came out of the old lady's room she whispered:
She's just sitting there holding her breath.
The next day Jean himself advanced to the attack. His grandmother
was the most intelligent member of the family, and she knew he knew it,
and liked him for having found it out; so when he had her alone she
listened to him without resorting to any valvular tricks. Of course,
he explained, you're much too clever not to understand that the times
have changed, and manners with them, and that what a woman was
criticised for doing yesterday she is ridiculed for not doing to-day.
Nearly all the old social thou-shalt-nots have gone: intelligent people
nowadays don't give a fig for them, and that simple fact has abolished
them. They only existed as long as there was some one left for them to
scare. His grandmother listened with a sparkle of admiration in her
ancient eyes. And of course, Jean pursued, that can't be the real
reason for your opposing my marriagea marriage with a young girl
you've always known, who has been received here
Ah, that's itwe've always known her! the old lady snapped him
What of that? I don't see
Of course you don't. You're here so little: you don't hear
Things in the air... that blow about.... You were doing your
military service at the time....
At what time?
She leaned forward and laid a warning hand on his arm. Why did
Corvenaire leave her all that moneywhy?
But why notwhy shouldn't he? Jean stammered, indignant. Then she
unpacked her baga heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures,
village tattle, all, at the last analysis, based, as he succeeded in
proving, and making her own, on a word launched at random by a
discharged maid-servant who had retailed her grievance to the cure's
housekeeper. Oh, she does what she likes with Monsieur le Marquis, the
young miss! She knows how.... On that single phrase the
neighbourhood had raised a slander built of adamant.
Well, I'll give you an idea of what a determined fellow Réchamp is,
when I tell you he pulled it downor thought he did. He kept his
temper, hunted up the servant's record, proved her a liar and
dishonest, cast grave doubts on the discretion of the cure's
housekeeper, and poured such a flood of ridicule over the whole flimsy
fable, and those who had believed in it, that in sheer shamefacedness
at having based her objection on such grounds, his grandmother gave
way, and brought his parents toppling down with her.
All this happened a few weeks before the war, and soon afterward
Mlle. Malo came down to Réchamp. Jean had insisted on her coming: he
wanted her presence there, as his betrothed, to be known to the
neighbourhood. As for her, she seemed delighted to come. I could see
from Rechamp's tone, when he reached this part of his story, that he
rather thought I should expect its heroine to have shown a becoming
reluctanceto have stood on her dignity. He was distinctly relieved
when he found I expected no such thing.
She's simplicity itselfit's her great quality. Vain complications
don't exist for her, because she doesn't see them... that's what my
people can't be made to understand....
I gathered from the last phrase that the visit had not been a
complete success, and this explained his having let out, when he first
told me of his fears for his family, that he was sure Mlle. Malo would
not have remained at Réchamp if she could help it. Oh, no, decidedly,
the visit was not a success....
You see, he explained with a half-embarrassed smile, it was
partly her fault. Other girls as clever, but lesshow shall I
say?less proud, would have adapted themselves, arranged things,
avoided startling allusions. She wouldn't stoop to that; she talked to
my family as naturally as she did to me. You can imagine for instance,
the effect of her saying: 'One night, after a supper at Montmartre, I
was walking home with two or three pals'. It was her way of affirming
her convictions, and I adored her for itbut I wished she wouldn't!
And he depicted, to my joy, the neighbours rumbling over to call in
heraldic barouches (the mothers alonewith embarrassed excuses for not
bringing their daughters), and the agony of not knowing, till they were
in the room, if Yvonne would receive them with lowered lids and folded
hands, sitting by in a pose de fiancée while the elders talked;
or if she would take the opportunity to air her views on the separation
of Church and State, or the necessity of making divorce easier. It's
not, he explained, that she really takes much interest in such
questions: she's much more absorbed in her music and painting. But
anything her eye lights on sets her mind dancingas she said to me
once: 'It's your mother's friends' bonnets that make me stand up for
divorce!' He broke off abruptly to add: Good God, how far off all
that nonsense seems!
The next day we started for Réchamp, not sure if we could get
through, but bound to, anyhow! It was the coldest day we'd had, the sky
steel, the earth iron, and a snow-wind howling down on us from the
north. The Vosges are splendid in winter. In summer they are just plump
puddingy hills; when the wind strips them they turn to mountains. And
we seemed to have the whole country to ourselvesthe black firs, the
blue shadows, the beech-woods cracking and groaning like rigging, the
bursts of snowy sunlight from cold clouds. Not a soul in sight except
the sentinels guarding the railways, muffled to the eyes, or peering
out of their huts of pine-boughs at the cross-roads. Every now and then
we passed a long string of seventy-fives, or a train of supply waggons
or army ambulances, and at intervals a cavalryman cantered by, his
cloak bellied out by the gale; but of ordinary people about the common
jobs of life, not a sign.
The sense of loneliness and remoteness that the absence of the civil
population produces everywhere in eastern France is increased by the
fact that all the names and distances on the mile-stones have been
scratched out and the sign-posts at the cross-roads thrown down. It was
done, presumably, to throw the enemy off the track in September: and
the signs have never been put back. The result is that one is forever
losing one's way, for the soldiers quartered in the district know only
the names of their particular villages, and those on the march can tell
you nothing about the places they are passing through. We had got badly
off our road several times during the trip, but on the last day's run
Réchamp was in his own country, and knew every yard of the wayor
thought he did. We had turned off the main road, and were running along
between rather featureless fields and woods, crossed by a good many
wood-roads with nothing to distinguish them; but he continued to push
We don't turn till we get to a manor-house on a stream, with a big
paper-mill across the road. He went on to tell me that the mill-owners
lived in the manor, and were old friends of his people: good old local
stock, who had lived there for generations and done a lot for the
It's queer I don't see their village-steeple from this rise. The
village is just beyond the house. How the devil could I have missed the
turn? We ran on a little farther, and suddenly he stopped the motor
with a jerk. We were at a cross-road, with a stream running under the
bank on our right. The place looked like an abandoned stoneyard. I
never saw completer ruin. To the left, a fortified gate gaped on
emptiness; to the right, a mill-wheel hung in the stream. Everything
else was as flat as your dinner-table.
Was this what you were trying to see from that rise? I asked; and
I saw a tear or two running down his face.
They were the kindest people: their only son got himself shot the
first month in Champagne
He had jumped out of the car and was standing staring at the level
waste. The house was therethere was a splendid lime in the court. I
used to sit under it and have a glass of vin cris de Lorraine
with the old people.... Over there, where that cinder-heap is, all
their children are buried. He walked across to the grave-yard under a
blackened walla bit of the apse of the vanished churchand sat down
on a grave-stone. If the devils have done this hereso close
to us, he burst out, and covered his face.
An old woman walked toward us down the road. Réchamp jumped up and
ran to meet her. Why, Marie Jeanne, what are you doing in these
ruins? The old woman looked at him with unastonished eyes. She seemed
incapable of any surprise. They left my house standing. I'm glad to
see Monsieur, she simply said. We followed her to the one house left
in the waste of stones. It was a two-roomed cottage, propped against a
cow-stable, but fairly decent, with a curtain in the window and a cat
on the sill. Réchamp caught me by the arm and pointed to the
door-panel. Oberst von Scharlach was scrawled on it. He turned as
white as your table-cloth, and hung on to me a minute; then he spoke to
the old woman. The officers were quartered here: that was the reason
they spared your house?
She nodded. Yes: I was lucky. But the gentlemen must come in and
have a mouthful.
Réchamp's finger was on the name. And this onethis was their
I suppose so. Is it somebody's name? She had evidently never
speculated on the meaning of the scrawl that had saved her.
You remember himtheir captain? Was his name Scharlach? Réchamp
Under its rich weathering the old woman's face grew as pale as his.
Yes, that was his nameI heard it often enough.
Describe him, then. What was he like? Tall and fair? They're all
thatbut what else? What in particular?
She hesitated, and then said: This one wasn't fair. He was dark,
and had a scar that drew up the left corner of his mouth.
Réchamp turned to me. It's the same. I heard the men describing him
We followed the old woman into the house, and while she gave us some
bread and wine she told us about the wrecking of the village and the
factory. It was one of the most damnable stories I've heard yet. Put
together the worst of the typical horrors and you'll have a fair idea
of it. Murder, outrage, torture: Scharlach's programme seemed to be
fairly comprehensive. She ended off by saying: His orderly showed me a
silver-mounted flute he always travelled with, and a beautiful
paint-box mounted in silver too. Before he left he sat down on my
door-step and made a painting of the ruins....
Soon after leaving this place of death we got to the second lines
and our troubles began. We had to do a lot of talking to get through
the lines, but what Réchamp had just seen had made him eloquent.
Luckily, too, the ambulance doctor, a charming fellow, was short of
tetanus-serum, and I had some left; and while I went over with him to
the pine-branch hut where he hid his wounded I explained Réchamp's
case, and implored him to get us through. Finally it was settled that
we should leave the ambulance therefor in the lines the ban against
motors is absoluteand drive the remaining twelve miles. A sergeant
fished out of a farmhouse a toothless old woman with a furry horse
harnessed to a two-wheeled trap, and we started off by round-about
wood-tracks. The horse was in no hurry, nor the old lady either; for
there were bits of road that were pretty steadily currycombed by shell,
and it was to everybody's interest not to cross them before twilight.
Jean de Réchamp's excitement seemed to have dropped: he sat beside me
dumb as a fish, staring straight ahead of him. I didn't feel talkative
either, for a word the doctor had let drop had left me thinking. That
poor old granny mind the shells? Not she! he had said when our crazy
chariot drove up. She doesn't know them from snow-flakes any more.
Nothing matters to her now, except trying to outwit a German. They're
all like that where Scharlach's beenyou've heard of him? She had only
one boyhalf-witted: he cocked a broomhandle at them, and they burnt
him. Oh, she'll take you to Réchamp safe enough.
Where Scharlach's beenso he had been as close as this to
Réchamp! I was wondering if Jean knew it, and if that had sealed his
lips and given him that flinty profile. The old horse's woolly flanks
jogged on under the bare branches and the old woman's bent back jogged
in time with it She never once spoke or looked around at us. It isn't
the noise we make that'll give us away, I said at last; and just then
the old woman turned her head and pointed silently with the osier-twig
she used as a whip. Just ahead of us lay a heap of ruins: the wreck,
apparently, of a great château and its dependencies. Lermont! Réchamp
exclaimed, turning white. He made a motion to jump out and then dropped
back into the seat. What's the use? he muttered. He leaned forward
and touched the old woman's shoulder.
I hadn't heard of thiswhen did it happen?
They did it?
Yes. Our wounded were there. It's like this everywhere in our
I saw Jean stiffening himself for the next question. At Réchamp,
She relapsed into indifference. I haven't been as far as Réchamp.
But you must have seen people who'd been thereyou must have
I've heard the masters were still thereso there must be something
standing. Maybe though, she reflected, they're in the cellars....
We continued to jog on through the dusk.
There's the steeple! Réchamp burst out.
Through the dimness I couldn't tell which way to look; but I suppose
in the thickest midnight he would have known where he was. He jumped
from the trap and took the old horse by the bridle. I made out that he
was guiding us into a long village street edged by houses in which
every light was extinguished. The snow on the ground sent up a pale
reflection, and I began to see the gabled outline of the houses and the
steeple at the head of the street. The place seemed as calm and
unchanged as if the sound of war had never reached it. In the open
space at the end of the village Réchamp checked the horse.
The elmthere's the old elm in front of the church! he shouted in
a voice like a boy's. He ran back and caught me by both hands. It was
true, thennothing's touched! The old woman asked: Is this Réchamp?
and he went back to the horse's head and turned the trap toward a tall
gate between park walls. The gate was barred and padlocked, and not a
gleam showed through the shutters of the porter's lodge; but Réchamp,
after listening a minute or two, gave a low call twice repeated, and
presently the lodge door opened, and an old man peered out. WellI
leave you to brush in the rest. Old family servant, tears and hugs and
so on. I know you affect to scorn the cinema, and this was it, tremolo
and all. Hang it! This war's going to teach us not to be afraid of the
We piled into the trap and drove down a long avenue to the house.
Black as the grave, of course; but in another minute the door opened,
and there, in the hall, was another servant, screening a lightand
then more doors opened on another cinema-scene: fine old drawing-room
with family portraits, shaded lamp, domestic group about the fire. They
evidently thought it was the servant coming to announce dinner, and not
a head turned at our approach. I could see them all over Jean's
shoulder: a grey-haired lady knitting with stiff fingers, an old
gentleman with a high nose and a weak chin sitting in a big carved
armchair and looking more like a portrait than the portraits; a pretty
girl at his feet, with a dog's head in her lap, and another girl, who
had a Red Cross on her sleeve, at the table with a book. She had been
reading aloud in a rich veiled voice, and broke off her last phrase to
say: Dinner.... Then she looked up and saw Jean. Her dark face
remained perfectly calm, but she lifted her hand in a just perceptible
gesture of warning, and instantly understanding he drew back and pushed
the servant forward in his place.
Madame la Comtesseit is some one outside asking for
The dark girl jumped up and ran out into the hall. I remember
wondering: Is it because she wants to have him to herself firstor
because she's afraid of their being startled? I wished myself out of
the way, but she took no notice of me, and going straight to Jean flung
her arms about him. I was behind him and could see her hands about his
neck, and her brown fingers tightly locked. There wasn't much doubt
about those two....
The next minute she caught sight of me, and I was being rapidly
tested by a pair of the finest eyes I ever sawI don't apply the term
to their setting, though that was fine too, but to the look itself, a
look at once warm and resolute, all-promising and all-penetrating. I
really can't do with fewer adjectives....
Réchamp explained me, and she was full of thanks and welcome; not
excessive, butwell, I don't knoweloquent! She gave every intonation
all it could carry, and without the least emphasis: that's the wonder.
She went back to prepare the parents, as they say in melodrama;
and in a minute or two we followed. What struck me first was that these
insignificant and inadequate people had the command of the grand
gesturehad la ligne. The mother had laid aside her knitting
not dropped itand stood waiting with open arms. But even in
clasping her son she seemed to include me in her welcome. I don't know
how to describe it; but they never let me feel I was in the way. I
suppose that's part of what you call distinction; knowing instinctively
how to deal with unusual moments.
All the while, I was looking about me at the fine secure old room,
in which nothing seemed altered or disturbed, the portraits smiling
from the walls, the servants beaming in the doorwayand wondering how
such things could have survived in the trail of death and havoc we had
The same thought had evidently struck Jean, for he dropped his
sister's hand and turned to gaze about him too.
Then nothing's touchednothing? I don't understand, he stammered.
Monsieur de Réchamp raised himself majestically from his chair,
crossed the room and lifted Yvonne Malo's hand to his lips. Nothing is
touchedthanks to this hand and this brain.
Madame de Réchamp was shining on her son through tears. Ah, yeswe
owe it all to Yvonne.
All, all! Grandmamma will tell you! Simone chimed in; and Yvonne,
brushing aside their praise with a half-impatient laugh, said to her
betrothed: But your grandmother! You must go up to her at once.
A wonderful specimen, that grandmother: I was taken to see her after
dinner. She sat by the fire in a bare panelled bedroom, bolt upright in
an armchair with ears, a knitting-table at her elbow with a shaded
candle on it.
She was even more withered and ancient than she looked in her
photograph, and I judge she'd never been pretty; but she somehow made
me feel as if I'd got through with prettiness. I don't know exactly
what she reminded me of: a dried bouquet, or something rich and clovy
that had turned brittle through long keeping in a sandal-wood box. I
suppose her sandal-wood box had been Good Society. Well, I had a rare
evening with her. Jean and his parents were called down to see the
curé, who had hurried over to the château when he heard of the young
man's arrival; and the old lady asked me to stay on and chat with her.
She related their experiences with uncanny detachment, seeming chiefly
to resent the indignity of having been made to descend into the
cellarto avoid French shells, if you'll believe it: the Germans had
the decency not to bombard us, she observed impartially. I was so
struck by the absence of rancour in her tone that finally, out of sheer
curiosity, I made an allusion to the horror of having the enemy under
one's roof. Oh, I might almost say I didn't see them, she returned.
I never go downstairs any longer; and they didn't do me the honour of
coming beyond my door. A glance sufficed theman old woman like me!
she added with a phosphorescent gleam of coquetry.
But they searched the château, surely? Oh, a mere form; they were
very decentvery decent, she almost snapped at me. There was a first
moment, of course, when we feared it might be hard to get Monsieur de
Réchamp away with my young grandson; but Mlle. Malo managed that very
cleverly. They slipped off while the officers were dining. She looked
at me with the smile of some arch old lady in a Louis XV pastel. My
grandson Jean's fiancée is a very clever young woman: in my time no
young girl would have been so sure of herself, so cool and quick. After
all, there is something to be said for the new way of bringing up
girls. My poor daughter-in-law, at Yvonne's age, was a bleating baby:
she is so still, at times. The convent doesn't develop character. I'm
glad Yvonne was not brought up in a convent. And this champion of
tradition smiled on me more intensely.
Little by little I got from her the story of the German approach:
the distracted fugitives pouring in from the villages north of Réchamp,
the sound of distant cannonading, and suddenly, the next afternoon,
after a reassuring lull, the sight of a single spiked helmet at the end
of the drive. In a few minutes a dozen followed: mostly officers; then
all at once the place hummed with them. There were supply waggons and
motors in the court, bundles of hay, stacks of rifles, artillery-men
unharnessing and rubbing down their horses. The crowd was hot and
thirsty, and in a moment the old lady, to her amazement, saw wine and
cider being handed about by the Réchamp servants. Or so at least I was
told, she added, correcting herself, for it's not my habit to look
out of the window. I simply sat here and waited. Her seat, as she
spoke, might have been a curule chair.
Downstairs, it appeared, Mlle. Malo had instantly taken her
measures. She didn't sit and wait. Surprised in the garden with
Simone, she had made the girl walk quietly back to the house and
receive the officers with her on the doorstep. The officer in
commandcaptain, or whatever he washad arrived in a bad temper,
cursing and swearing, and growling out menaces about spies. The day was
intensely hot, and possibly he had had too much wine. At any rate Mlle.
Malo had known how to put him in his place; and when he and the other
officers entered they found the dining-table set out with refreshing
drinks and cigars, melons, strawberries and iced coffee. The clever
creature! She even remembered that they liked whipped cream with their
The effect had been miraculous. The captainwhat was his name? Yes,
Chariot, ChariotCaptain Chariot had been specially complimentary on
the subject of the whipped cream and the cigars. Then he asked to see
the other members of the family, and Mlle. Malo told him there were
only twotwo old women! He made a face at that, and said all the
same he should like to meet them; and she answered: 'One is your
hostess, the Comtesse de Réchamp, who is ill in bed'for my poor
daughter-in-law was lying in bed paralyzed with rheumatism'and the
other her mother-in-law, a very old lady who never leaves her room.'
But aren't there any men in the family? he had then asked; and she
had said: Oh yestwo. The Comte de Réchamp and his son.
And where are they?
In England. Monsieur de Réchamp went a month ago to take his son on
The officer said: I was told they were here to-day; and Mlle. Malo
replied: You had better have the house searched and satisfy yourself.
He laughed and said: The idea had occurred to me. She
laughed also, and sitting down at the piano struck a few chords.
Captain Chariot, who had his foot on the threshold, turned backSimone
had described the scene to her grandmother afterward. Some of the
brutes, it seems, are musical, the old lady explained; and this was
one of them. While he was listening, some soldiers appeared in the
court carrying another who seemed to be wounded. It turned out
afterward that he'd been climbing a garden wall after fruit, and cut
himself on the broken glass at the top; but the blood was enoughthey
raised the usual dreadful outcry about an ambush, and a lieutenant
clattered into the room where Mlle. Malo sat playing Stravinsky. The
old lady paused for her effect, and I was conscious of giving her all
Will you believe it? It seems she looked at her watch-bracelet and
said: 'Do you gentlemen dress for dinner? I dobut we've still
time for a little Moussorgsky'or whatever wild names they call
themselves'if you'll make those people outside hold their tongues.'
Our captain looked at her again, laughed, gave an order that sent the
lieutenant right about, and sat down beside her at the piano. Imagine
my stupour, dear sir: the drawing-room is directly under this room, and
in a moment I heard two voices coming up to me. Well, I won't conceal
from you that his was the finest. But then I always adored a barytone.
She folded her shrivelled hands among their laces. After that, the
Germans were très bientrès bien. They stayed two days, and
there was nothing to complain of. Indeed, when the second detachment
came, a week later, they never even entered the gates. Orders had been
left that they should be quartered elsewhere. Of course we were lucky
in happening on a man of the world like Captain Chariot.
Yes, very lucky. It's odd, though, his having a French name.
Very. It probably accounts for his breeding, she answered
placidly; and left me marvelling at the happy remoteness of old age.
The next morning early Jean de Réchamp came to my room. I was struck
at once by the change in him: he had lost his first glow, and seemed
nervous and hesitating. I knew what he had come for: to ask me to
postpone our departure for another twenty-four hours. By rights we
should have been off that morning; but there had been a sharp brush a
few kilometres away, and a couple of poor devils had been brought to
the château whom it would have been death to carry farther that day and
criminal not to hurry to a base hospital the next morning. We've
simply got to stay till to-morrow: you're in luck, I said
He laughed back, but with a frown that made me feel I had been a
brute to speak in that way of a respite due to such a cause.
The men will pull through, you knowtrust Mlle. Malo for that! I
His frown did not lift. He went to the window and drummed on the
Do you see that breach in the wall, down there behind the trees?
It's the only scratch the place has got. And think of Lennont! It's
But it's like that everywhere, isn't it? Everything depends on the
officer in command.
Yes: that's it, I suppose. I haven't had time to get a consecutive
account of what happened: they're all too excited. Mlle. Malo is the
only person who can tell me exactly how things went. He swung about on
me. Look here, it sounds absurd, what I'm asking; but try to get me an
hour alone with her, will you?
I stared at the request, and he went on, still half-laughing: You
see, they all hang on me; my father and mother, Simone, the curé, the
servants. The whole village is coming up presently: they want to stuff
their eyes full of me. It's natural enough, after living here all these
long months cut off from everything. But the result is I haven't said
two words to her yet.
Well, you shall, I declared; and with an easier smile he turned to
hurry down to a mass of thanksgiving which the curé was to celebrate in
the private chapel. My parents wanted it, he explained; and after
that the whole village will be upon us. But later
Later I'll effect a diversion; I swear I will, I assured him.
By daylight, decidedly, Mlle. Malo was less handsome than in the
evening. It was my first thought as she came toward me, that afternoon,
under the limes. Jean was still indoors, with his people, receiving the
village; I rather wondered she hadn't stayed there with him.
Theoretically, her place was at his side; but I knew she was a young
woman who didn't live by rule, and she had already struck me as having
a distaste for superfluous expenditures of feeling.
Yes, she was less effective by day. She looked older for one thing;
her face was pinched, and a little sallow and for the first time I
noticed that her cheek-bones were too high. Her eyes, too, had lost
their velvet depth: fine eyes still, but not unfathomable. But the
smile with which she greeted me was charming: it ran over her tired
face like a lamp-lighter kindling flames as he runs.
I was looking for you, she said. Shall we have a little talk? The
reception is sure to last another hour: every one of the villagers is
going to tell just what happened to him or her when the Germans came.
And you've run away from the ceremony?
I'm a trifle tired of hearing the same adventures retold, she
said, still smiling.
But I thought there were no adventuresthat that was the
wonder of it?
She shrugged. It makes their stories a little dull, at any rate;
we've not a hero or a martyr to show. She had strolled farther from
the house as we talked, leading me in the direction of a bare
horse-chestnut walk that led toward the park.
Of course Jean's got to listen to it all, poor boy; but I needn't,
I didn't know exactly what to answer and we walked on a little way
in silence; then she said: If you'd carried him off this morning he
would have escaped all this fuss. After a pause she added slowly: On
the whole, it might have been as well.
To carry him off?
Yes. She stopped and looked at me. I wish you would.
Yes, now: as soon as you can. He's really not strong yethe's
drawn and nervous. (So are you, I thought.) And the excitement is
greater than you can perhaps imagine
I gave her back her look. Why, I think I can imagine....
She coloured up through her sallow skin and then laughed away her
blush. Oh, I don't mean the excitement of seeing me! But his
parents, his grandmother, the curé, all the old associations
I considered for a moment; then I said: As a matter of fact, you're
about the only person he hasn't seen.
She checked a quick answer on her lips, and for a moment or two we
faced each other silently. A sudden sense of intimacy, of complicity
almost, came over me. What was it that the girl's silence was crying
out to me?
If I take him away now he won't have seen you at all, I continued.
She stood under the bare trees, keeping her eyes on me. Then take
him away now! she retorted; and as she spoke I saw her face change,
decompose into deadly apprehension and as quickly regain its usual
calm. From where she stood she faced the courtyard, and glancing in the
same direction I saw the throng of villagers coming out of the château.
Take him awaytake him away at once! she passionately commanded; and
the next minute Jean de Réchamp detached himself from the group and
began to limp down the walk in our direction.
What was I to do? I can't exaggerate the sense of urgency Mlle.
Malo's appeal gave me, or my faith in her sincerity. No one who had
seen her meeting with Réchamp the night before could have doubted her
feeling for him: if she wanted him away it was not because she did not
delight in his presence. Even now, as he approached, I saw her face
veiled by a faint mist of emotion: it was like watching a fruit ripen
under a midsummer sun. But she turned sharply from the house and began
to walk on.
Can't you give me a hint of your reason? I suggested as I
My reason? I've given it! I suppose I looked incredulous, for she
added in a lower voice: I don't want him to hearyetabout all the
The horrors? I thought there had been none here.
All around us Her voice became a whisper. Our friends... our
neighbours... every one....
He can hardly avoid hearing of that, can he? And besides, since
you're all safe and happy.... Look here, I broke off, he's coming
after us. Don't we look as if we were running away?
She turned around, suddenly paler; and in a stride or two Réchamp
was at our side. He was pale too; and before I could find a pretext for
slipping away he had begun to speak. But I saw at once that he didn't
know or care if I was there.
What was the name of the officer in command who was quartered
here? he asked, looking straight at the girl.
She raised her eye-brows slightly. Do you mean to say that after
listening for three hours to every inhabitant of Béchamp you haven't
found that out?
They all call him something different. My grandmother says he had a
French name: she calls him Chariot.
Your grandmother was never taught German: his name was the Oberst
von Scharlach. She did not remember my presence either: the two were
still looking straight in each other's eyes.
Béchamp had grown white to the lips: he was rigid with the effort to
Why didn't you tell me it was Scharlach who was here? he brought
out at last in a low voice.
She turned her eyes in my direction. I was just explaining to Mr.
To Mr. Greer? He looked at me too, half-angrily.
I know the stories that are about, she continued quietly; and I
was saying to your friend that, since we had been so happy as to be
spared, it seemed useless to dwell on what has happened elsewhere.
Damn what happened elsewhere! I don't yet know what happened here.
I put a hand on his arm. Mlle. Malo was looking hard at me, but I
wouldn't let her see I knew it. I'm going to leave you to hear the
whole story now, I said to Réchamp.
But there isn't any story for him to hear! she broke in. She
pointed at the serene front of the château, looking out across its
gardens to the unscarred fields. We're safe; the place is untouched.
Why brood on other horrorshorrors we were powerless to help?
Réchamp held his ground doggedly. But the man's name is a curse and
an abomination. Wherever he went he spread ruin.
So they say. Mayn't there be a mistake? Legends grow up so quickly
in these dreadful times. Here she looked about her again at the
peaceful scenehere he behaved as you see. For heaven's sake be
content with that!
Content? He passed his hand across his forehead. I'm blind with
joy...or should be, if only...
She looked at me entreatingly, almost desperately, and I took hold
of Réchamp's arm with a warning pressure.
My dear fellow, don't you see that Mlle. Malo has been under a
great strain? La joie fait peurthat's the trouble with both of
He lowered his head. Yes, I suppose it is. He took her hand And
kissed it. I beg your pardon. Greer's right: we're both on edge.
Yes: I'll leave you for a little while, if you and Mr Greer will
excuse me. She included us both in a quiet look that seemed to me
extremely noble, and walked lowly away toward the château. Réchamp
stood gazing after her for a moment; then he dropped down on one of
benches at the edge of the path. He covered his face with his hands.
ScharlachScharlach! I heard him say.
We sat there side by side for ten minutes or more without speaking.
Finally I said: Look here, Réchampshe's right and you're wrong. I
shall be sorry I brought you here if you don't see it before it's too
His face was still hidden; but presently he dropped his hands and
answered me. I do see. She's saved everything for memy, people and
my house, and the ground we're standing on. And I worship it because
she walks on it!
And so do your people: the war's done that for you, anyhow, I
The morning after we were off before dawn. Our time allowance was
up, and it was thought advisable, on account of our wounded, to slip
across the exposed bit of road in the dark.
Mlle. Malo was downstairs when we started, pale in her white dress,
but calm and active. We had borrowed a farmer's cart in which our two
men could be laid on a mattress, and she had stocked our trap with food
and remedies. Nothing seemed to have been forgotten. While I was
settling the men I suppose Réchamp turned back into the hall to bid her
good-bye; anyhow, when she followed him out a moment later he looked
quieter and less strained. He had taken leave of his parents and his
sister upstairs, and Yvonne Malo stood alone in the dark driveway,
watching us as we drove away.
There was not much talk between us during our slow drive back to the
lines. We had to go it a snail's pace, for the roads were rough; and
there was time for meditation. I knew well enough what my companion was
thinking about and my own thoughts ran on the same lines. Though the
story of the German occupation of Réchamp had been retold to us a dozen
times the main facts did not vary. There were little discrepancies of
detail, and gaps in the narrative here and there; but all the
household, from the astute ancestress to the last bewildered
pantry-boy, were at one in saying that Mlle. Malo's coolness and
courage had saved the chateau and the village. The officer in command
had arrived full of threats and insolence: Mlle. Malo had placated and
disarmed him, turned his suspicions to ridicule, entertained him and
his comrades at dinner, and contrived during that timeor rather while
they were making music afterward (which they did for half the night, it
seemed)that Monsieur de Réchamp and Alain should slip out of the
cellar in which they had been hidden, gain the end of the gardens
through an old hidden passage, and get off in the darkness. Meanwhile
Simone had been safe upstairs with her mother and grandmother, and none
of the officers lodged in the château hadafter a first hasty
inspectionset foot in any part of the house but the wing assigned to
them. On the third morning they had left, and Scharlach, before going,
had put in Mlle. Malo's hands a letter requesting whatever officer
should follow him to show every consideration to the family of the
Comte de Réchamp, and if possibleowing to the grave illness of the
Countessavoid taking up quarters in the château: a request which had
been scrupulously observed.
Such were the amazing but undisputed facts over which Réchamp and I,
in our different ways, were now pondering. He hardly spoke, and when he
did it was only to make some casual reference to the road or to our
wounded soldiers; but all the while I sat at his side I kept hearing
the echo of the question he was inwardly asking himself, and hoping to
God he wouldn't put it to me....
It was nearly noon when we finally reached the lines, and the men
had to have a rest before we could start again; but a couple of hours
later we landed them safely at the base hospital. From there we had
intended to go back to Paris; but as we were starting there came an
unexpected summons to another point of the front, where there had been
a successful night-attack, and a lot of Germans taken in a blown-up
trench. The place was fifty miles away, and off my beat, but the number
of wounded on both sides was exceptionally heavy, and all the available
ambulances had already started. An urgent call had come for more, and
there was nothing for it but to go; so we went.
We found things in a bad mess at the second line shanty-hospital
where they were dumping the wounded as fast as they could bring them
in. At first we were told that none were fit to be carried farther that
night; and after we had done what we could we went off to hunt up a
shake-down in the village. But a few minutes later an orderly overtook
us with a message from the surgeon. There was a German with an
abdominal wound who was in a bad way, but might be saved by an
operation if he could be got back to the base before midnight.
Would we take him at once and then come back for others?
There is only one answer to such requests, and a few minutes later
we were back at the hospital, and the wounded man was being carried out
on a stretcher. In the shaky lantern gleam I caught a glimpse of a
livid face and a torn uniform, and saw that he was an officer, and
nearly done for. Réchamp had climbed to the box, and seemed not to be
noticing what was going on at the back of the motor. I understood that
he loathed the job, and wanted not to see the face of the man we were
carrying; so when we had got him settled I jumped into the ambulance
beside him and called out to Béchamp that we were ready. A second later
an infirmier ran up with a little packet and pushed it into my
hand. His papers, he explained. I pocketed them and pulled the door
shut, and we were off.
The man lay motionless on his back, conscious, but desperately weak.
Once I turned my pocket-lamp on him and saw that he was youngabout
thirtywith damp dark hair and a thin face. He had received a
flesh-wound above the eyes, and his forehead was bandaged, but the rest
of the face uncovered. As the light fell on him he lifted his eyelids
and looked at me: his look was inscrutable.
For half an hour or so I sat there in the dark, the sense of that
face pressing close on me. It was a damnable facemeanly handsome,
basely proud. In my one glimpse of it I had seen that the man was
suffering atrociously, but as we slid along through the night he made
no sound. At length the motor stopped with a violent jerk that drew a
single moan from him. I turned the light on him, but he lay perfectly
still, lips and lids shut, making no sign; and I jumped out and ran
round to the front to see what had happened.
The motor had stopped for lack of gasolene and was stock still in
the deep mud. Réchamp muttered something about a leak in his tank. As
he bent over it, the lantern flame struck up into his face, which was
set and businesslike. It struck me vaguely that he showed no particular
What's to be done? I asked.
I think I can tinker it up; but we've got to have more essence to
go on with.
I stared at him in despair: it was a good hour's walk back to the
lines, and we weren't so sure of getting any gasolene when we got
there! But there was no help for it; and as Réchamp was dead lame, no
alternative but for me to go.
I opened the ambulance door, gave another look at the motionless man
inside and took out a remedy which I handed over to Réchamp with a word
of explanation. You know how to give a hypo? Keep a close eye on him
and pop this in if you see a changenot otherwise.
He nodded. Do you suppose he'll die? he asked below his breath.
No, I don't. If we get him to the hospital before morning I think
he'll pull through.
Oh, all right. He unhooked one of the motor lanterns and handed it
over to me. I'll do my best, he said as I turned away.
Getting back to the lines through that pitch-black forest, and
finding somebody to bring the gasolene back for me was about the
weariest job I ever tackled. I couldn't imagine why it wasn't daylight
when we finally got to the place where I had left the motor. It seemed
to me as if I had been gone twelve hours when I finally caught sight of
the grey bulk of the car through the thinning darkness.
Réchamp came forward to meet us, and took hold of my arm as I was
opening the door of the car. The man's dead, he said.
I had lifted up my pocket-lamp, and its light fell on Réchamp's
face, which was perfectly composed, and seemed less gaunt and drawn
than at any time since we had started on our trip.
Dead? Whyhow? What happened? Did you give him the hypodermic? I
stammered, taken aback.
No time to. He died in a minute.
How do you know he did? Were you with him?
Of course I was with him, Réchamp retorted, with a sudden
harshness which made me aware that I had grown harsh myself. But I had
been almost sure the man wasn't anywhere near death when I left him. I
opened the door of the ambulance and climbed in with my lantern. He
didn't appear to have moved, but he was dead sure enoughhad been for
two or three hours, by the feel of him. It must have happened not long
after I left.... Well, I'm not a doctor, anyhow....
I don't think Réchamp and I exchanged a word during the rest of that
run. But it was my fault and not his if we didn't. By the mere rub of
his sleeve against mine as we sat side by side on the motor I knew he
was conscious of no bar between us: he had somehow got back, in the
night's interval, to a state of wholesome stolidity, while I, on the
contrary, was tingling all over with exposed nerves.
I was glad enough when we got back to the base at last, and the grim
load we carried was lifted out and taken into the hospital. Réchamp
waited in the courtyard beside his car, lighting a cigarette in the
cold early sunlight; but I followed the bearers and the surgeon into
the whitewashed room where the dead man was laid out to be undressed. I
had a burning spot at the pit of my stomach while his clothes were
ripped off him and the bandages undone: I couldn't take my eyes from
the surgeon's face. But the surgeon, with a big batch of wounded on his
hands, was probably thinking more of the living than the dead; and
besides, we were near the front, and the body before him was an
He finished his examination and scribbled something in a note-book.
Death must have taken place nearly five hours ago, he merely
remarked: it was the conclusion I had already come to myself.
And how about the papers? the surgeon continued. You have them, I
suppose? This way, please.
We left the half-stripped body on the blood-stained oil-cloth, and
he led me into an office where a functionary sat behind a littered
The papers? Thank you. You haven't examined them? Let us see,
I handed over the leather note-case I had thrust into my pocket the
evening before, and saw for the first time its silver-edged corners and
the coronet in one of them. The official took out the papers and spread
them on the desk between us. I watched him absently while he did so.
Suddenly he uttered an exclamation. Ahthat's a haul! he said,
and pushed a bit of paper toward me. On it was engraved the name:
Oberst Graf Benno von Scharlach....
A good riddance, said the surgeon over my shoulder.
I went back to the courtyard and saw Réchamp still smoking his
cigarette in the cold sunlight. I don't suppose I'd been in the
hospital ten minutes; but I felt as old as Methuselah.
My friend greeted me with a smile. Ready for breakfast? he said,
and a little chill ran down my spine.... But I said: Oh, all
For, after all, I knew there wasn't a paper of any sort on
that man when he was lifted into my ambulance the night before: the
French officials attend to their business too carefully for me not to
have been sure of that. And there wasn't the least shred of evidence to
prove that he hadn't died of his wounds during the unlucky delay in the
forest; or that Réchamp had known his tank was leaking when we started
out from the lines.
I could do with a café complet, couldn't you? Réchamp
suggested, looking straight at me with his good blue eyes; and arm in
arm we started off to hunt for the inn....