Coming Home, by Edith Wharton


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 ourselves — the 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 way — or 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 ahead, saying:

“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 neighbourhood.

“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 there — there 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 wall — a bit of the apse of the vanished church — and sat down on a grave-stone. “If the devils have done this here — so 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 one — this was their commanding officer?”

“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 him — their captain? Was his name Scharlach?” Réchamp persisted.

Under its rich weathering the old woman’s face grew as pale as his. “Yes, that was his name — I heard it often enough.”

“Describe him, then. What was he like? Tall and fair? They’re all that — but 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 at Moulins.”

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 there — for in the lines the ban against motors is absolute — and 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 been — you’ve heard of him? She had only one boy — half-witted: he cocked a broomhandle at them, and they burnt him. Oh, she’ll take you to Réchamp safe enough.”

“Where Scharlach’s been” — so 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 this — when did it happen?”

“In September.”

They did it?”

“Yes. Our wounded were there. It’s like this everywhere in our country.”

I saw Jean stiffening himself for the next question. “At Réchamp, too?”

She relapsed into indifference. “I haven’t been as far as Réchamp.”

“But you must have seen people who’d been there — you must have heard.”

“I’ve heard the masters were still there — so there must be something standing. Maybe though,” she reflected, “they’re in the cellars. . . . ”

We continued to jog on through the dusk.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02