Coming Home, by Edith Wharton

VI

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 laughing.

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 know — trust Mlle. Malo for that!” I said.

His frown did not lift. He went to the window and drummed on the pane.

“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 incredible — simply incredible!”

“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 adventures — that 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,” she explained.

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.”

“Would? — Now?”

“Yes, now: as soon as you can. He’s really not strong yet — he’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 away — take 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 followed.

“My reason? I’ve given it!” I suppose I looked incredulous, for she added in a lower voice: “I don’t want him to hear — yet — about all the horrors.”

“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 control himself.

“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. Greer — ”

“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 horrors — horrors 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 scene — “here 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 peur — that’s the trouble with both of you!”

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. “Scharlach — Scharlach!” I heard him say.

We sat there side by side for ten minutes or more without speaking. Finally I said: “Look here, Réchamp — she’s right and you’re wrong. I shall be sorry I brought you here if you don’t see it before it’s too late.”

His face was still hidden; but presently he dropped his hands and answered me. “I do see. She’s saved everything for me — my, 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 reminded him.

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