There is something that mankind can never destroy in spite of an unreasoning will to destruction, and this is its own idealism, that integral part of its very being. The ageing and the cynical may make wars, but the young and the idealistic must fight them, and thus there are bound to come quick reactions, blind impulses not always comprehended. Men will curse as they kill, yet accomplish deeds of self-sacrifice, giving their lives for others; poets will write with their pens dipped in blood, yet will write not of death but of life eternal; strong and courteous friendships will be born, to endure in the face of enmity and destruction. And so persistent is this urge to the ideal, above all in the presence of great disaster, that mankind, the wilful destroyer of beauty, must immediately strive to create new beauties, lest it perish from a sense of its own desolation; and this urge touched the Celtic soul of Mary.
For the Celtic soul is the stronghold of dreams, of longings come down the dim paths of the ages; and within it there dwells a vague discontent, so that it must for ever go questing. And now as though drawn by some hidden attraction, as though stirred by some irresistible impulse, quite beyond the realms of her own understanding, Mary turned in all faith and all innocence to Stephen. Who can pretend to interpret fate, either his own fate or that of another? Why should this girl have crossed Stephen’s path, or indeed Stephen hers, if it came to that matter? Was not the world large enough for them both? Perhaps not — or perhaps the event of their meeting had already been written upon tablets of stone by some wise if relentless recording finger.
An orphan from the days of her earliest childhood, Mary had lived with a married cousin in the wilds of Wales; an unwanted member of a none too prosperous household. She had little education beyond that obtained from a small private school in a neighbouring village. She knew nothing of life or of men and women; and even less did she know of herself, of her ardent, courageous, impulsive nature. Thanks to the fact that her cousin was a doctor, forced to motor over a widely spread practice, she had learnt to drive and look after his car by filling the post of an unpaid chauffeur — she was, in her small way, a good mechanic. But the war had made her much less contented with her narrow life, and although at its outbreak Mary had been not quite eighteen, she had felt a great longing to be independent, in which she had met with no opposition. However, a Welsh village is no field for endeavour, and thus nothing had happened until by a fluke she had suddenly heard of the Breakspeare Unit via the local parson, an old friend of its founder — he himself had written to recommend Mary. And so, straight from the quiet seclusion of Wales, this girl had managed the complicated journey that had finally got her over to France, then across a war-ravaged, dislocated country. Mary was neither so frail nor so timid as Mrs. Breakspeare had thought her.
Stephen had felt rather bored just at first at the prospect of teaching the new member her duties, but after a while it came to pass that she missed the girl when she was not with her. And after a while she would find herself observing the way Mary’s hair grew, low on the forehead, the wide setting of her slightly oblique grey eyes, the abrupt sweep back of their heavy lashes; and these things would move Stephen, so that she must touch the girl’s hair for a moment with her fingers. Fate was throwing them continually together, in moments of rest as in moments of danger; they could not have escaped this even had they wished to, and indeed they did not wish to escape it. They were pawns in the ruthless and complicated game of existence, moved hither and thither on the board by an unseen hand, yet moved side by side, so that they grew to expect each other.
‘Mary, are you there?’
A superfluous question — the reply would be always the same. ‘I’m here, Stephen.’
Sometimes Mary would talk of her plans for the future while Stephen listened, smiling as she did so.
‘I’ll go into an office, I want to be free.’
‘You’re so little, you’d get mislaid in an office.’
‘I’m five foot five!’
Are you really, Mary? You feel little somehow.’
That’s because you’re so tall. I do wish I could grow a bit!’
‘No, don’t wish that, you’re all right as you are — it’s you, Mary.’
Mary would want to be told about Morton, she was never tired of hearing about Morton. She would make Stephen get out the photographs of her father, of her mother whom Mary thought lovely, of Puddle, and above all of Raftery. Then Stephen must tell her of the life in London, and afterwards of the new house in Paris; must talk of her own career and ambitions, though Mary had not read either of her novels — there had never been a library subscription.
But at moments Stephen’s face would grow clouded because of the things that she could not tell her; because of the little untruths and evasions that must fill up the gaps in her strange life-history. Looking down into Mary’s clear, grey eyes, she would suddenly flush through her tan, and feel guilty; and that feeling would reach the girl and disturb her, so that she must hold Stephen’s hand for a moment.
One day she said suddenly: ‘Are you unhappy?’
‘Why on earth should I be unhappy?’ smiled Stephen.
All the same there were nights now when Stephen lay awake even after her arduous hours of service, hearing the guns that were coming nearer, yet not thinking of them, but always of Mary. A great gentleness would gradually engulf her like a soft sea mist, veiling reef and headland. She would seem to be drifting quietly, serenely towards some blessed and peaceful harbour. Stretching out a hand she would stroke the girl’s shoulder where she lay, but carefully in case she should wake her. Then the mist would lift: ‘Good God! What am I doing?’ She would sit up abruptly, disturbing the sleeper.
‘Is that you, Stephen?’
Yes, my dear, go to sleep.’
Then a cross, aggrieved voice: ‘Do shut up, you two. It’s rotten of you, I was just getting off! Why must you always persist in talking!’
Stephen would lie down again and would think: ‘I’m a fool, I go out of my way to find trouble. Of course I’ve grown fond of the child, she’s so plucky, almost anyone would grow fond of Mary. Why should I have affection and friendship? Why should I have a real human interest? I can help her to find her feet after the war if we both come through — I might buy her a business.’ That gentle mist, hiding both reef and headland; it would gather again blurring all perception, robbing the past of its crude, ugly outlines. ‘After all, what harm can it do the child to be fond of me?’ It was so good a thing to have won the affection of this young creature.
The Germans got perilously near to Compiegne, and the Breakspeare Unit was ordered to retire. Its base was now at a ruined chateau on the outskirts of an insignificant village, yet not so very insignificant either — it was stuffed to the neck with ammunition. Nearly all the hours that were spent off duty must be passed in the gloomy, damp-smelling dug-outs which consisted of cellars, partly destroyed but protected by sandbags on heavy timbers. Like foxes creeping out of their holes, the members of the Unit would creep into the daylight, their uniforms covered with mould and rubble, their eyes blinking, their hands cold and numb from the dampness — so cold and so numb that the starting up of motors would often present a real problem.
At this time there occurred one or two small mishaps; Bless broke her wrist while cranking her engine; Blakeney and three others at a Poste de Secours, were met by a truly terrific bombardment and took cover in what had once been a brick-field, crawling into the disused furnace. There they squatted for something over eight hours, while the German gunners played hit as hit can with the tall and conspicuous chimney. When at last they emerged, half stifled by brick-dust, Blakeney had got something into her eye, which she rubbed; the result was acute inflammation.
Howard had begun to be irritating, with her passion for tending her beautiful hair. She would sit in the corner of her dug-out as calmly as though she were sitting at a Bond Street hairdresser’s; and having completed the ritual brushing, she would gaze at herself in a pocket mirror. With a bandage over her unfortunate eye, Blakeney looked more like a monkey than ever, a sick monkey, and her strictly curtailed conversation was not calculated to enliven the Unit. She seemed almost entirely bereft of speech these days, as though reverting to species. Her one comment on life was: Oh, I dunno . . . ’ always said with a jaunty rising inflexion. It meant everything or nothing as you chose to take it, and had long been her panacea for the ills of what she considered a stupid Creation. ‘Oh, I dunno . . . ’ And indeed she did not; poor, old, sensitive, monosyllabic Blakeney. The Poilu who served out the Unit’s rations — cold meat, sardines, bread and sour red Pinard — was discovered by Stephen in the very act of attempting to unload an aerial bomb. He explained with a smile that the Germans were sly in their methods of loading: ‘I cannot discover just how it is done.’ Then he showed his left hand — it was minus one of the fingers: ‘That,’ he told her, still smiling, ‘was caused by a shell, a quite little shell, which I was also unloading.’ And when she remonstrated none too gently, he sulked: ‘But I wish to give this one to Maman!’
Everyone had begun to feel the nerve strain, except perhaps Blakeney, who had done with all feeling. Shorthanded by two, the remaining members of the Unit must now work like veritable niggers — on one occasion Stephen and Mary worked for seventy hours with scarcely a respite. Strained nerves are invariably followed by strained tempers, and sudden, hot quarrels would break out over nothing. Bless and Howard loathed each other for two days, then palled up again, because of a grievance that had recently been evolved against Stephen. For everyone knew that Stephen and Blakeney were by far the best drivers in the Breakspeare Unit, and as such should be shared by all the members in turn; but poor Blakeney was nursing a very sore eye, while Stephen still continued to drive only with Mary. They were splendidly courageous and great-hearted women, every one of them, glad enough as a rule to help one another to shoulder burdens, to be tolerant and kind when it came to friendships. They petted and admired their youngest recruit, and most of them liked and respected Stephen, all the same they had now grown childishly jealous, and this jealousy reached the sharp ears of Mrs. Breakspeare.
Mrs. Breakspeare sent for Stephen one morning; she was sitting at a Louis Quinze writing-table which had somehow survived the wreck of the château and was now in her gloomy, official dug-out. Her right band reposed on an ordnance, map, she looked like a very maternal general. The widow of an officer killed in the war, and the mother of two large sons and three daughters, she had led the narrow, conventional life that is common to women in military stations. Yet all the while she must have been filling her subconscious reservoir with knowledge, for she suddenly blossomed forth as leader with a fine understanding of human nature. So now she looked over her ample bosom not unkindly, but rather thoughtfully at Stephen.
Sit down, Miss Gordon. It’s about Llewellyn, whom I asked you to take on as second driver. I think the time has now arrived when she ought to stand more on her own in the Unit. She must take her chance like everyone else, and not cling quite so close — don’t misunderstand me, I’m most grateful for all you’ve done for the girl — but of course you are one of our finest drivers, and fine driving counts for a great deal these days, it may mean life or death, as you yourself know. And — well — it seems scarcely fair to the others that Mary should always go out with you. No, it certainly is not quite fair to the others.’
Stephen said: ‘Do you mean that she’s to go out with every one in turn — with Thurloe for instance?’ And do what she would to appear indifferent, she could not quite keep her voice from trembling.
Mrs. Breakspeare nodded: ‘That’s what I do mean.’ Then she said rather slowly: ‘These are strenuous times, and such times are apt to breed many emotions which are purely fictitious, purely mushroom growths that spring up in a night and have no roots at all, except in our imaginations. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me, Miss Gordon, in thinking it our duty to discourage anything in the nature of an emotional friendship, such as I fancy Mary Llewellyn is on the verge of feeling for you. It’s quite natural of course, a kind of reaction, but not wise — no, I cannot think it wise. It savours a little too much of the schoolroom and might lead to ridicule in the Unit. Your position is far too important for that; I look upon you as my second in command.’
Stephen said quietly: ‘I quite understand. I’ll go at once and speak to Blakeney about altering Mary Llewellyn’s time-sheet.’
‘Yes, do, if you will,’ agreed Mrs. Breakspeare; then she stooped and studied her ordnance map, without looking again at Stephen.
If Stephen had been fearful for Mary’s safety before, she was now ten times more so. The front was in a condition of flux and the Postes de Secours were continually shifting. An Allied ambulance driver had been fired on by the Germans, after having arrived at the spot where his Poste had been only the previous evening. There was very dose fighting on every sector; it seemed truly amazing that no grave casualties had so far occurred in the Unit. For now the Allies had begun to creep forward, yard by yard, mile by mile, very slowly but surely; refreshed by a splendid transfusion of blood from the youthful veins of a great child-nation.
Of all the anxieties on Mary’s account that now beset Stephen, Thurloe was the gravest; for Thurloe was one of those irritating drivers who stake all on their own inadequate judgment. She was brave to a fault, but inclined to show off when it came to a matter of actual danger. For long hours Stephen would not know what had happened, and must often leave the base before Mary had returned, still in doubt regarding her safety.
Grimly, yet with unfailing courage and devotion, Stephen now went about her duties. Every day the risks that they all took grew graver, for the enemy, nearing the verge of defeat, was less than ever a respecter of persons. Stephen’s only moments of comparative peace would be when she herself drove Mary. And as though the girl missed some vitalizing force, some strength that had been hitherto hers to draw on, she flagged and Stephen would watch her flagging during their brief spell together off duty, and would know that nothing but her Celtic pluck kept Mary Llewellyn from a breakdown. And now, because they were so often parted, even chance meetings became of importance. They might meet while preparing their cars in the morning, and if this should happen they would draw close together for a moment, as though finding comfort in nearness.
Letters from home would arrive for Stephen, and these she would want to read to Mary. In addition to writing, Puddle sent food, even luxuries sometimes of a prewar nature. To obtain them she must have used bribery and corruption, for food of all kinds had grown scarce in England. Puddle, it seemed, had a mammoth war map into which she stuck pins with gay little pennants. Every time the lines moved by so much as a yard, out would come Puddle’s pins to go in at fresh places; for since Stephen had left her to go to the front, the war had become very personal to Puddle.
Anna also wrote, and from her Stephen learnt of the death of Roger Antrim. He had been shot down while winning his V.C. Through saving the life of a wounded captain. All alone he had gone over to no-man’s-land and had rescued his friend where he lay unconscious; receiving a bullet through the head at the moment of flinging the wounded man into safety. Roger — so lacking in understanding, so crude, so cruel and remorseless a bully — Roger had been changed in the twinkling of an eye into something superb because utterly selfless. Thus it was that the undying urge of mankind towards the ideal had come upon Roger. And Stephen as she sat there and read of his passing, suddenly knew that she wished him well, that his courage had wiped one great bitterness out of her heart and her life for ever. And so by dying as he had died, Roger, all unknowing, had fulfilled the law that must be extended to enemy and friend alike — the immutable law of service.
Events gathered momentum. By the June of that year 700,000 United States soldiers, strong and comely men plucked from their native prairies, from their fields of tall corn, from their farms and their cities, were giving their lives in defence of freedom on the blood-soaked battlefields of France. They had little to gain and much to lose; it was not their war, yet they helped to fight it because they were young and their nation was young, and the ideals of youth are eternally hopeful.
In July came the Allied counter-offensive, and now in her moment of approaching triumph France knew to the full her great desolation, as it lay revealed by the retreating armies. For not only had there been a holocaust of homesteads, but the country was strewn with murdered trees, cut down in their hour of most perfect leafing; orchards struck to the ground, an orgy of destruction, as the mighty forces rolled back like a tide, to recoil on themselves — incredulous, amazed, maddened by the outrage of coming disaster. For mad they must surely have been, since no man is a more faithful lover of trees than the German.
Stephen as she drove through that devastated country would find herself thinking of Martin Hallam — Martin who had touched the old thorns on the hills with such respectful and pitiful fingers: ‘Have you ever thought about the enormous courage of trees? I have and it seems to me amazing. The Lord dumps them down and they’ve just got to stick it, no matter what happens — that must need some courage.’ Martin had believed in a heaven for trees, a forest heaven for all the faithful; and looking at those pitiful, leafy corpses, Stephen would want to believe in that heaven. Until lately she had not thought of Martin for years, he belonged to a past that was better forgotten, but now she would sometimes wonder about him. Perhaps he was dead, smitten down where she stood, for many had perished where they stood, like the orchards. It was strange to think that he might have been here in France, have been fighting and have died quite near her. But perhaps he had not been killed after all — she had never told Mary about Martin Hallam.
All roads of thought seemed to lead back to Mary; and these days, in addition to fears for her safety, came a growing distress at what she must see — far more terrible sights than the patient wounded. For everywhere now lay the wreckage of war, sea-wrack spewed up by a poisonous ocean — putrefying, festering in the sun; breeding curruption to man’s seed of folly. Twice lately, while they had been driving together, they had come upon sights that Stephen would have spared her. There had been that shattered German gun-carriage with its stiff, dead horses and its three dead gunners — horrible death, the men’s faces had been black like the faces of negroes, black and swollen from gas, or was it from putrefaction? There had been the deserted and wounded charger with its fore-leg hanging as though by a rag. Near by had been lying a dead young Uhlan, and Stephen had shot the beast with his revolver, but Mary had suddenly started sobbing: Oh, God! Oh, God! It was dumb — it couldn’t speak. It’s so awful somehow to see a thing suffer when it can’t ask you why!’ She had sobbed a long time, and Stephen had not known how to console her.
And now the Unit was creeping forward in the wake of the steadily advancing Allies. Billets would be changed as the base moved on slowly from devastated village to village. There seldom seemed to be a house left with a roof, or with anything much beyond its four walls, and quite often they must lie staring up at the stars, which would stare back again, aloof and untroubled. At about this time they grew very short of water, for most of the wells were said to have been poisoned; and this shortage of water was a very real torment, since it strictly curtailed the luxury of washing. Then what must Bless do but get herself hit while locating the position of a Poste de Secours which had most inconsiderately vanished. Like the Allied ambulance driver she was shot at, but in her case she happened to stop a bullet — it was only a flesh wound high up in the arm, yet enough to render her useless for a moment. She had had to be sent back to hospital, so once again the Unit was short-handed.
It turned hot, and in place of the dampness and the cold, came days and nights that seemed almost breathless; days when the wounded must lie out in the sun, tormented by flies as they waited their turn to be lifted into the ambulances. And as though misfortunes attracted each other, as though indeed they were hunting in couples, Stephen’s face was struck by a splinter of shell, and her right cheek cut open rather badly. It was neatly stitched up by the little French doctor at the Poste de Secours, and when he had finished with his needle and dressings, he bowed very gravely: ‘Mademoiselle will carry an honourable scar as a mark of her courage,’ and he bowed yet again, so that in the end Stephen must also bow gravely. Fortunately, however, she could still do her job, which was all to the good for the short-handed Unit.
On an autumn afternoon of blue sky and sunshine, Stephen had the Croix de Guerre pinned on her breast by a white-haired and white-moustached general. First came the motherly Mrs. Claude Breakspeare, whose tunic looked much too tight for her bosom, then Stephen and one or two other members of that valiant and untiring Unit. The general kissed each one in turn on both cheeks, while overhead hovered a fleet of Aces; troops presented arms, veteran troops tried in battle, and having the set look of war in their eyes — for the French have a very nice taste in such matters. And presently Stephen’s bronze Croix de Guerre would carry three miniature stars on its ribbon and, each star would stand for a mention in despatches.
That evening she and Mary walked over the fields to a little town not very far from their billets. They paused for a moment to watch the sunset, and Mary stroked the new Croix de Guerre; then she looked straight up into Stephen’s eyes, her mouth shook, and Stephen saw that she was crying. After this they must walk hand in hand for a while. Why not? There was no one just then to see them.
Mary said: ‘All my life I’ve been waiting for something.’
‘What was it, my dear?’ Stephen asked her gently.
And Mary answered: ‘I’ve been waiting for you, and it’s seemed such a dreadful long time, Stephen.’
The barely healed wound across Stephen’s cheek flushed darlky, for what could she find to answer?
‘For me?’ she stammered.
Mary nodded gravely: ‘Yes, for you. I’ve always been waiting for you; and after the war you’ll send me away.’ Then she suddenly caught hold of Stephen’s sleeve: ‘Let me come with you — don’t send me away, I want to be near you . . . I can’t explain . . . but I only want to be near you, Stephen. Stephen — say you won’t send me away . . .
Stephen’s hand closed over the Croix de Guerre, but the metal of valour felt cold to her fingers; dead and cold it felt at that moment, as the courage that had set it upon her breast. She stared straight ahead of her into the sunset, trembling because of what she would answer.
Then she said very slowly: ‘After the war — no, I won’t send you away from me, Mary.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55