Coming Home, by Edith Wharton

II

ON my first dash to the Northern fighting line — Greer told me the other night — I 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, besides — to round off the group — a 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 tree — what’s it called? — that they give pictures of in books about the East.

Jean de Réchamp — that was my lieutenant’s name — told 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 Nancy — rather a fine old hôtel — but 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 word — simply nothing — since 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 too — but 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 satisfaction — though 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 time — by 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 brother — just the age the brutes have been carrying off to German prisons — an 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 Malo.”

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 alone — she is a musician. Perhaps you may find her there.” His colour deepened again as he added: “But I know nothing — I 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, no — I 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 place.

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 puzzled — it 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 course — but 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 place — he 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 them — had 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 Réchamp — though 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 inn — if there was one — and 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 cell — but 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 fared — you 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 right — but 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 rheumatism — she 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 there — he kept saying: ‘One must act — one must act!’ and sitting in his chair and doing nothing. Oh, I’m not disrespectful: they were like that in his generation! Besides — it’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 mother.”

“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, then — what 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 alike — that it all depends on the particular officer. . . . ”

“Yes, yes, I know,” he assented, with a visible effort at impartiality. “Only, you see — as 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 soldiers — bad cases, they were — and 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. . . .

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30