Coming Home, by Edith Wharton


The morning after we were off before dawn. Our time allowance was up, and it was thought advisable, on account of our wounded, to slip across the exposed bit of road in the dark.

Mlle. Malo was downstairs when we started, pale in her white dress, but calm and active. We had borrowed a farmer’s cart in which our two men could be laid on a mattress, and she had stocked our trap with food and remedies. Nothing seemed to have been forgotten. While I was settling the men I suppose Réchamp turned back into the hall to bid her good-bye; anyhow, when she followed him out a moment later he looked quieter and less strained. He had taken leave of his parents and his sister upstairs, and Yvonne Malo stood alone in the dark driveway, watching us as we drove away.

There was not much talk between us during our slow drive back to the lines. We had to go it a snail’s pace, for the roads were rough; and there was time for meditation. I knew well enough what my companion was thinking about and my own thoughts ran on the same lines. Though the story of the German occupation of Réchamp had been retold to us a dozen times the main facts did not vary. There were little discrepancies of detail, and gaps in the narrative here and there; but all the household, from the astute ancestress to the last bewildered pantry-boy, were at one in saying that Mlle. Malo’s coolness and courage had saved the chateau and the village. The officer in command had arrived full of threats and insolence: Mlle. Malo had placated and disarmed him, turned his suspicions to ridicule, entertained him and his comrades at dinner, and contrived during that time — or rather while they were making music afterward (which they did for half the night, it seemed) — that Monsieur de Réchamp and Alain should slip out of the cellar in which they had been hidden, gain the end of the gardens through an old hidden passage, and get off in the darkness. Meanwhile Simone had been safe upstairs with her mother and grandmother, and none of the officers lodged in the château had — after a first hasty inspection — set foot in any part of the house but the wing assigned to them. On the third morning they had left, and Scharlach, before going, had put in Mlle. Malo’s hands a letter requesting whatever officer should follow him to show every consideration to the family of the Comte de Réchamp, and if possible — owing to the grave illness of the Countess — avoid taking up quarters in the château: a request which had been scrupulously observed.

Such were the amazing but undisputed facts over which Réchamp and I, in our different ways, were now pondering. He hardly spoke, and when he did it was only to make some casual reference to the road or to our wounded soldiers; but all the while I sat at his side I kept hearing the echo of the question he was inwardly asking himself, and hoping to God he wouldn’t put it to me. . . .

It was nearly noon when we finally reached the lines, and the men had to have a rest before we could start again; but a couple of hours later we landed them safely at the base hospital. From there we had intended to go back to Paris; but as we were starting there came an unexpected summons to another point of the front, where there had been a successful night-attack, and a lot of Germans taken in a blown-up trench. The place was fifty miles away, and off my beat, but the number of wounded on both sides was exceptionally heavy, and all the available ambulances had already started. An urgent call had come for more, and there was nothing for it but to go; so we went.

We found things in a bad mess at the second line shanty-hospital where they were dumping the wounded as fast as they could bring them in. At first we were told that none were fit to be carried farther that night; and after we had done what we could we went off to hunt up a shake-down in the village. But a few minutes later an orderly overtook us with a message from the surgeon. There was a German with an abdominal wound who was in a bad way, but might be saved by an operation if he could be got back to the base before midnight.

Would we take him at once and then come back for others?

There is only one answer to such requests, and a few minutes later we were back at the hospital, and the wounded man was being carried out on a stretcher. In the shaky lantern gleam I caught a glimpse of a livid face and a torn uniform, and saw that he was an officer, and nearly done for. Réchamp had climbed to the box, and seemed not to be noticing what was going on at the back of the motor. I understood that he loathed the job, and wanted not to see the face of the man we were carrying; so when we had got him settled I jumped into the ambulance beside him and called out to Béchamp that we were ready. A second later an infirmier ran up with a little packet and pushed it into my hand. “His papers,” he explained. I pocketed them and pulled the door shut, and we were off.

The man lay motionless on his back, conscious, but desperately weak. Once I turned my pocket-lamp on him and saw that he was young — about thirty — with damp dark hair and a thin face. He had received a flesh-wound above the eyes, and his forehead was bandaged, but the rest of the face uncovered. As the light fell on him he lifted his eyelids and looked at me: his look was inscrutable.

For half an hour or so I sat there in the dark, the sense of that face pressing close on me. It was a damnable face — meanly handsome, basely proud. In my one glimpse of it I had seen that the man was suffering atrociously, but as we slid along through the night he made no sound. At length the motor stopped with a violent jerk that drew a single moan from him. I turned the light on him, but he lay perfectly still, lips and lids shut, making no sign; and I jumped out and ran round to the front to see what had happened.

The motor had stopped for lack of gasolene and was stock still in the deep mud. Réchamp muttered something about a leak in his tank. As he bent over it, the lantern flame struck up into his face, which was set and businesslike. It struck me vaguely that he showed no particular surprise.

“What’s to be done?” I asked.

“I think I can tinker it up; but we’ve got to have more essence to go on with.”

I stared at him in despair: it was a good hour’s walk back to the lines, and we weren’t so sure of getting any gasolene when we got there! But there was no help for it; and as Réchamp was dead lame, no alternative but for me to go.

I opened the ambulance door, gave another look at the motionless man inside and took out a remedy which I handed over to Réchamp with a word of explanation. “You know how to give a hypo? Keep a close eye on him and pop this in if you see a change — not otherwise.”

He nodded. “Do you suppose he’ll die?” he asked below his breath.

“No, I don’t. If we get him to the hospital before morning I think he’ll pull through.”

“Oh, all right.” He unhooked one of the motor lanterns and handed it over to me. “I’ll do my best,” he said as I turned away.

Getting back to the lines through that pitch-black forest, and finding somebody to bring the gasolene back for me was about the weariest job I ever tackled. I couldn’t imagine why it wasn’t daylight when we finally got to the place where I had left the motor. It seemed to me as if I had been gone twelve hours when I finally caught sight of the grey bulk of the car through the thinning darkness.

Réchamp came forward to meet us, and took hold of my arm as I was opening the door of the car. “The man’s dead,” he said.

I had lifted up my pocket-lamp, and its light fell on Réchamp’s face, which was perfectly composed, and seemed less gaunt and drawn than at any time since we had started on our trip.

“Dead? Why — how? What happened? Did you give him the hypodermic?” I stammered, taken aback.

“No time to. He died in a minute.”

“How do you know he did? Were you with him?”

“Of course I was with him,” Réchamp retorted, with a sudden harshness which made me aware that I had grown harsh myself. But I had been almost sure the man wasn’t anywhere near death when I left him. I opened the door of the ambulance and climbed in with my lantern. He didn’t appear to have moved, but he was dead sure enough — had been for two or three hours, by the feel of him. It must have happened not long after I left. . . . Well, I’m not a doctor, anyhow. . . .

I don’t think Réchamp and I exchanged a word during the rest of that run. But it was my fault and not his if we didn’t. By the mere rub of his sleeve against mine as we sat side by side on the motor I knew he was conscious of no bar between us: he had somehow got back, in the night’s interval, to a state of wholesome stolidity, while I, on the contrary, was tingling all over with exposed nerves.

I was glad enough when we got back to the base at last, and the grim load we carried was lifted out and taken into the hospital. Réchamp waited in the courtyard beside his car, lighting a cigarette in the cold early sunlight; but I followed the bearers and the surgeon into the whitewashed room where the dead man was laid out to be undressed. I had a burning spot at the pit of my stomach while his clothes were ripped off him and the bandages undone: I couldn’t take my eyes from the surgeon’s face. But the surgeon, with a big batch of wounded on his hands, was probably thinking more of the living than the dead; and besides, we were near the front, and the body before him was an enemy’s.

He finished his examination and scribbled something in a note-book. “Death must have taken place nearly five hours ago,” he merely remarked: it was the conclusion I had already come to myself.

“And how about the papers?” the surgeon continued. “You have them, I suppose? This way, please.”

We left the half-stripped body on the blood-stained oil-cloth, and he led me into an office where a functionary sat behind a littered desk.

“The papers? Thank you. You haven’t examined them? Let us see, then.”

I handed over the leather note-case I had thrust into my pocket the evening before, and saw for the first time its silver-edged corners and the coronet in one of them. The official took out the papers and spread them on the desk between us. I watched him absently while he did so.

Suddenly he uttered an exclamation. “Ah — that’s a haul!” he said, and pushed a bit of paper toward me. On it was engraved the name: Oberst Graf Benno von Scharlach. . . .

“A good riddance,” said the surgeon over my shoulder.

I went back to the courtyard and saw Réchamp still smoking his cigarette in the cold sunlight. I don’t suppose I’d been in the hospital ten minutes; but I felt as old as Methuselah.

My friend greeted me with a smile. “Ready for breakfast?” he said, and a little chill ran down my spine. . . . But I said: “Oh, all right — come along. . . . ”

For, after all, I knew there wasn’t a paper of any sort on that man when he was lifted into my ambulance the night before: the French officials attend to their business too carefully for me not to have been sure of that. And there wasn’t the least shred of evidence to prove that he hadn’t died of his wounds during the unlucky delay in the forest; or that Réchamp had known his tank was leaking when we started out from the lines.

“I could do with a café complet, couldn’t you?” Réchamp suggested, looking straight at me with his good blue eyes; and arm in arm we started off to hunt for the inn. . . .

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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