Coming Home, by Edith Wharton

V

“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 elm — there’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, then — nothing’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. Well — I 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 obvious.

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 light — and 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 Comtesse — it is some one outside asking for Mademoiselle.”

The dark girl jumped up and ran out into the hall. I remember wondering: “Is it because she wants to have him to herself first — or 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 saw — I 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, but — well, I don’t know — eloquent! 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 gesture — had la ligne. The mother had laid aside her knitting — not dropped it — and 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 doorway — and wondering how such things could have survived in the trail of death and havoc we had been following.

The same thought had evidently struck Jean, for he dropped his sister’s hand and turned to gaze about him too.

“Then nothing’s touched — nothing? 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 touched — thanks to this hand and this brain.”

Madame de Réchamp was shining on her son through tears. “Ah, yes — we 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 cellar — “to 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 them — an 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 decent — very 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 command — captain, or whatever he was — had 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 coffee!”

The effect had been miraculous. The captain — what was his name? Yes, Chariot, Chariot — Captain 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 two — “two 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 yes — two. 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 a trip.”

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 back — Simone 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 enough — they 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 she wanted.

“Well —?”

“Will you believe it? It seems she looked at her watch-bracelet and said: ‘Do you gentlemen dress for dinner? I do — but 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 bien — très 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.

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