Part 6 out of 6
that his face was near his mother's. He felt in his heart that the
moment he had so longed for was to be granted him, that she had
come back to him, not only as he had known her during the weeks
that they had lived alone together, when his presence made her so
content, but in a manner infinitely more real and more embracing.
"Have you been sitting here all the time while I slept, dear?" she
asked. "Have you been waiting for me to come back to you?"
"Yes, and you have come," he said.
She looked at him, and the mother-love, which before had been
veiled and clouded, came out with all the tender radiance of
evening sun, with the clear shining after rain.
"I knew you wouldn't fail me, my darling," she said. "You were so
patient with me in the trouble I have been through. It was a
nightmare, but it has gone."
Michael bent forward and kissed her.
"Yes, mother," he said, "it has all gone."
She was silent a moment.
"Is your father here?" she said.
"No; but he will come at once, if you would like to see him."
"Yes, send for him, dear, if it would not vex him to come," she
said; "or get somebody else to send; I don't want you to leave me."
"I'm not going to," said he.
The nurse went to the door, gave some message, and presently
returned to the other side of the bed. Then Lady Ashbridge spoke
"Is this death?" she asked.
Michael raised his eyes to the figure standing by the bed. She
nodded to him.
He bent forward again.
"Yes, dear mother," he said.
For a moment her eyes dilated, then grew quiet again, and the smile
returned to her mouth.
"I'm not frightened, Michael," she said, "with you there. It isn't
lonely or terrible."
She raised her head.
"My son!" she said in a voice loud and triumphant. Then her head
fell back again, and she lay with face close to his, and her
eyelids quivered and shut. Her breath came slow and regular, as if
she slept. Then he heard that she missed a breath, and soon after
another. Then, without struggle at all, her breathing ceased. . . .
And outside on the lawn close by the open window the thrush
It was an hour later when Michael left, having waited for his
father's arrival, and drove to town through the clear, falling
dusk. He was conscious of no feeling of grief at all, only of a
complete pervading happiness. He could not have imagined so
perfect a close, nor could he have desired anything different from
that imperishable moment when his mother, all trouble past, had
come back to him in the serene calm of love. . . .
As he entered London he saw the newsboards all placarded with one
fact: England had declared war on Germany.
He went, not to his own flat, but straight to Maidstone Crescent.
With those few minutes in which his mother had known him, the
stupor that had beset his emotions all day passed off, and he felt
himself longing, as he had never longed before, for Sylvia's
presence. Long ago he had given her all that he knew of as
himself; now there was a fresh gift. He had to give her all that
those moments had taught him. Even as already they were knitted
into him, made part of him, so must they be to her. . . . And when
they had shared that, when, like water gushing from a spring she
flooded him, there was that other news which he had seen on the
newsboards that they had to share together.
Sylvia had been alone all day with her mother; but, before Michael
arrived, Mrs. Falbe (after a few more encouraging remarks about war
in general, to the effect that Germany would soon beat France, and
what a blessing it was that England was an island) had taken her
book up to her room, and Sylvia was sitting alone in the deep dusk
of the evening. She did not even trouble to turn on the light, for
she felt unable to apply herself to any practical task, and she
could think and take hold of herself better in the dark. All day
she had longed for Michael to come to her, though she had not cared
to see anybody else, and several times she had rung him up, only to
find that he was still out, supposedly with his mother, for he had
been summoned to her early that morning, and since then no news had
come of him. Just before dinner had arrived the announcement of
the declaration of war, and Sylvia sat now trying to find some
escape from the encompassing nightmare. She felt confused and
distracted with it; she could not think consecutively, but only
contemplate shudderingly the series of pictures that presented
themselves to her mind. Somewhere now, in the hosts of the
Fatherland, which was hers also, was Hermann, the brother who was
part of herself. When she thought of him, she seemed to be with
him, to see the glint of his rifle, to feel her heart on his heart,
big with passionate patriotism. She had no doubt that patriotism
formed the essence of his consciousness, and yet by now probably he
knew that the land beloved by him, where he had made his home, was
at war with his own. She could not but know how often his thoughts
dwelled here in the dark quiet studio where she sat, and where so
many days of happiness had been passed. She knew what she was to
him, she and her mother and Michael, and the hosts of friends in
this land which had become his foe. Would he have gone, she asked
herself, if he had guessed that there would be war between the two?
She thought he would, though she knew that for herself she would
have made it as hard as possible for him to do so. She would have
used every argument she could think of to dissuade him, and yet she
felt that her entreaties would have beaten in vain against the
granite of his and her nationality. Dimly she had foreseen this
contingency when, a few days ago, she had asked Michael what he
would do if England went to war, and now that contingency was
realised, and Hermann was even now perhaps on his way to violate
the neutrality of the country for the sake of which England had
gone to war. On the other side was Michael, into whose keeping she
had given herself and her love, and on which side was she? It was
then that the nightmare came close to her; she could not tell, she
was utterly unable to decide. Her heart was Michael's; her heart
was her brother's also. The one personified Germany for her, the
other England. It was as if she saw Hermann and Michael with
bayonet and rifle stalking each other across some land of sand-
dunes and hollows, creeping closer to each other, always closer.
She felt as if she would have gladly given herself over to an
eternity of torment, if only they could have had one hour more, all
three of them, together here, as on that night of stars and peace
when first there came the news which for the moment had disquieted
She longed as with thirst for Michael to come, and as her solitude
became more and more intolerable, a hundred hideous fancies
obsessed her. What if some accident had happened to Michael, or
what, if in this tremendous breaking of ties that the war entailed,
he felt that he could not see her? She knew that was an
impossibility; but the whole world had become impossible. And
there was no escape. Somehow she had to adjust herself to the
unthinkable; somehow her relations both with Hermann and Michael
had to remain absolutely unshaken. Even that was not enough: they
had to be strengthened, made impregnable.
Then came a knock on the side door of the studio that led into the
street: Michael often came that way without passing through the
house, and with a sense of relief she ran to it and unlocked it.
And even as he stepped in, before any word of greeting had been
exchanged, she flung herself on him, with fingers eager for the
touch of his solidity. . . .
"Oh, my dear," she said. "I have longed for you, just longed for
you. I never wanted you so much. I have been sitting in the dark
desolate--desolate. And oh! my darling, what a beast I am to think
of nothing but myself. I am ashamed. What of your mother,
She turned on the light as they walked back across the studio, and
Michael saw that her eyes, which were a little dazzled by the
change from the dark into the light, were dim with unshed tears,
and her hands clung to him as never before had they clung. She
needed him now with that imperative need which in trouble can only
turn to love for comfort. She wanted that only; the fact of him
with her, in this land in which she had suddenly become an alien,
an enemy, though all her friends except Hermann were here. And
instantaneously, as a baby at the breast, she found that all his
strength and serenity were hers.
They sat down on the sofa by the piano, side by side, with hands
intertwined before Michael answered. He looked up at her as he
spoke, and in his eyes was the quiet of love and death.
"My mother died an hour ago," he said. "I was with her, and as I
had longed might happen, she came back to me before she died. For
two or three minutes she was herself. And then she said to me, 'My
son,' and soon she ceased breathing."
"Oh, Michael," she said, and for a little while there was silence,
and in turn it was her presence that he clung to. Presently he
"Sylvia, I'm so frightfully hungry," he said. "I don't think I've
eaten anything since breakfast. May we go and forage?"
"Oh, you poor thing!" she cried. "Yes, let's go and see what there
Instantly she busied herself.
"Hermann left the cellar key on the chimney-piece, Michael," she
said. "Get some wine out, dear. Mother and I don't drink any.
And there's some ham, I know. While you are getting wine, I'll
broil some. And there were some strawberries. I shall have some
supper with you. What a good thought! And you must be famished."
As they ate they talked perfectly simply and naturally of the
hundred associations which this studio meal at the end of the
evening called up concerning the Sunday night parties. There was
an occasion on which Hermann tried to recollect how to mull beer,
with results that smelled like a brickfield; there was another when
a poached egg had fallen, exploding softly as it fell into the
piano. There was the occasion, the first on which Michael had been
present, when two eminent actors imitated each other; another when
Francis came and made himself so immensely agreeable. It was after
that one that Sylvia and Hermann had sat and talked in front of the
stove, discussing, as Sylvia laughed to remember, what she would
say when Michael proposed to her. Then had come the break in
Michael's attendances and, as Sylvia allowed, a certain falling-off
"But it was really Hermann and I who made you gay originally," she
said. "We take a wonderful deal of credit for that."
All this was as completely natural for them as was the impromptu
meal, and soon without effort Michael spoke of his mother again,
and presently afterwards of the news of war. But with him by her
side Sylvia found her courage come back to her; the news itself,
all that it certainly implied, and all the horror that it held, no
longer filled her with the sense that it was impossibly terrible.
Michael did not diminish the awfulness of it, but he gave her the
power of looking out bravely at it. Nor did he shrink from
speaking of all that had been to her so grim a nightmare.
"You haven't heard from Hermann?" he asked.
"No. And I suppose we can't hear now. He is with his regiment,
that's all; nor shall we hear of him till there is peace again."
She came a little closer to him.
"Michael, I have to face it, that I may never see Hermann again,"
she said. "Mother doesn't fear it, you know. She--the darling--
she lives in a sort of dream. I don't want her to wake from it.
But how can I get accustomed to the thought that perhaps I shan't
see Hermann again? I must get accustomed to it: I've got to live
with it, and not quarrel with it."
He took up her hand, enclosing it in his.
"But, one doesn't quarrel with the big things of life," he said.
"Isn't it so? We haven't any quarrel with things like death and
duty. Dear me, I'm afraid I'm preaching."
"Preach, then," she said.
"Well, it's just that. We don't quarrel with them: they manage
themselves. Hermann's going managed itself. It had to be."
Her voice quivered as she spoke now.
"Are you going?" she asked. "Will that have to be?"
Michael looked at her a moment with infinite tenderness.
"Oh, my dear, of course it will," he said. "Of course, one doesn't
know yet what the War Office will do about the Army. I suppose
it's possible that they will send troops to France. All that
concerns me is that I shall rejoin again if they call up the
"And they will?"
"Yes, I should think that is inevitable. And you know there's
something big about it. I'm not warlike, you know, but I could not
fail to be a soldier under these new conditions, any more than I
could continue being a soldier when all it meant was to be
ornamental. Hermann in bursts of pride and patriotism used to call
us toy-soldiers. But he's wrong now; we're not going to be toy-
soldiers any more."
She did not answer him, but he felt her hand press close in the
palm of his.
"I can't tell you how I dreaded we shouldn't go to war," he said.
"That has been a nightmare, if you like. It would have been the
end of us if we had stood aside and seen Germany violate a solemn
Even with Michael close to her, the call of her blood made itself
audible to Sylvia. Instinctively she withdrew her hand from his.
"Ah, you don't understand Germany at all," she said. "Hermann
always felt that too. He told me he felt he was talking gibberish
to you when he spoke of it. It is clearly life and death to
Germany to move against France as quickly as possible."
"But there's a direct frontier between the two," said he.
"No doubt, but an impossible one."
Michael frowned, drawing his big eyebrows together.
"But nothing can justify the violation of a national oath," he
said. "That's the basis of civilisation, a thing like that."
"But if it's a necessity? If a nation's existence depends on it?"
she asked. "Oh, Michael, I don't know! I don't know! For a
little I am entirely English, and then something calls to me from
beyond the Rhine! There's the hopelessness of it for me and such
as me. You are English; there's no question about it for you. But
for us! I love England: I needn't tell you that. But can one ever
forget the land of one's birth? Can I help feeling the necessity
Germany is under? I can't believe that she has wantonly provoked
war with you."
"But consider--" said he.
She got up suddenly.
"I can't argue about it," she said. "I am English and I am German.
You must make the best of me as I am. But do be sorry for me, and
never, never forget that I love you entirely. That's the root fact
between us. I can't go deeper than that, because that reaches to
the very bottom of my soul. Shall we leave it so, Michael, and not
ever talk of it again? Wouldn't that be best?"
There was no question of choice for Michael in accepting that
appeal. He knew with the inmost fibre of his being that, Sylvia
being Sylvia, nothing that she could say or do or feel could
possibly part him from her. When he looked at it directly and
simply like that, there was nothing that could blur the verity of
it. But the truth of what she said, the reality of that call of
the blood, seemed to cast a shadow over it. He knew beyond all
other knowledge that it was there: only it looked out at him with a
shadow, faint, but unmistakable, fallen across it. But the sense
of that made him the more eagerly accept her suggestion.
"Yes, darling, we'll never speak of it again," he said. "That
would be much wisest."
Lady Ashbridge's funeral took place three days afterwards, down in
Suffolk, and those hours detached themselves in Michael's mind from
all that had gone before, and all that might follow, like a little
piece of blue sky in the midst of storm clouds. The limitations of
man's consciousness, which forbid him to think poignantly about two
things at once, hedged that day in with an impenetrable barrier, so
that while it lasted, and afterwards for ever in memory, it was
unflecked by trouble or anxiety, and hung between heaven and earth
in a serenity of its own.
The coffin lay that night in his mother's bedroom, which was next
to Michael's, and when he went up to bed he found himself listening
for any sound that came from there. It seemed but yesterday when
he had gone rather early upstairs, and after sitting a minute or
two in front of his fire, had heard that timid knock on the door,
which had meant the opening of a mother's heart to him. He felt it
would scarcely be strange if that knock came again, and if she
entered once more to be with him. From the moment he came
upstairs, the rest of the world was shut down to him; he entered
his bedroom as if he entered a sanctuary that was scented with the
incense of her love. He knew exactly how her knock had sounded
when she came in here that night when first it burned for him: his
ears were alert for it to come again. Once his blind tapped
against the frame of his open window, and, though knowing it was
that, he heard himself whisper--for she could hear his whisper--
"Come in, mother," and sat up in his deep chair, looking towards
the door. But only the blind tapped again, and outside in the
moonlit dusk an owl hooted.
He remembered she liked owls. Once, when they lived alone in
Curzon Street, some noise outside reminded her of the owls that
hooted at Ashbridge--she had imitated their note, saying it sounded
like sleep. . . . She had sat in a chintz-covered chair close to
him when at Christmas she paid him that visit, and now he again
drew it close to his own, and laid his hand on its arm. Petsy II.
had come in with her, and she had hoped that he would not annoy
There were steps in the passage outside his room, and he heard a
little shrill bark. He opened his door and found his mother's maid
there, trying to entice Petsy away from the room next to his. The
little dog was curled up against it, and now and then he turned
round scratching at it, asking to enter. "He won't come away, my
lord," said the maid; "he's gone back a dozen times to the door."
Michael bent down.
"Come, Petsy," he said, "come to bed in my room."
The dog looked at him for a moment as if weighing his trustworthiness.
Then he got up and, with grotesque Chinese high-stepping walk,
came to him.
"He'll be all right with me," he said to the maid.
He took Petsy into his room next door, and laid him on the chair in
which his mother had sat. The dog moved round in a circle once or
twice, and then settled himself down to sleep. Michael went to bed
also, and lay awake about a couple of minutes, not thinking, but
only being, while the owls hooted outside.
He awoke into complete consciousness, knowing that something had
aroused him, even as three days ago when the telephone rang to
summon him to his mother's deathbed. Then he did not know what had
awakened him, but now he was sure that there had been a tapping on
his door. And after he had sat up in bed completely awake, he
heard Petsy give a little welcoming bark. Then came the noise of
his small, soft tail beating against the cushion in the chair.
Michael had no feeling of fright at all, only of longing for
something that physically could not be. And longing, only longing,
once more he said:
"Come in, mother."
He believed he heard the door whisper on the carpet, but he saw
nothing. Only, the room was full of his mother's presence. It
seemed to him that, in obedience to her, he lay down completely
satisfied. . . . He felt no curiosity to see or hear more. She
was there, and that was enough.
He woke again a little after dawn. Petsy between the window and
the door had jumped on to his bed to get out of the draught of the
morning wind. For the door was opened.
That morning the coffin was carried down the long winding path
above the deep-water reach, where Michael and Francis at Christmas
had heard the sound of stealthy rowing, and on to the boat that
awaited it to ferry it across to the church. There was high tide,
and, as they passed over the estuary, the stillness of supreme noon
bore to them the tolling of the bell. The mourners from the house
followed, just three of them, Lord Ashbridge, Michael, and Aunt
Barbara, for the rest were to assemble at the church. But of all
that, one moment stood out for Michael above all others, when, as
they entered the graveyard, someone whom he could not see said: "I
am the Resurrection and the Life," and he heard that his father, by
whom he walked, suddenly caught his breath in a sob.
All that day there persisted that sense of complete detachment from
all but her whose body they had laid to rest on the windy hill
overlooking the broad water. His father, Aunt Barbara, the cousins
and relations who thronged the church were no more than inanimate
shadows compared with her whose presence had come last night into
his room, and had not left him since. The affairs of the world,
drums and the torch of war, had passed for those hours from his
knowledge, as at the centre of a cyclone there was a windless calm.
To-morrow he knew he would pass out into the tumult again, and the
minutes slipped like pearls from a string, dropping into the dim
gulf where the tempest raged. . . .
He went back to town next morning, after a short interview with his
father, who was coming up later in the day, when he told him that
he intended to go back to his regiment as soon as possible. But,
knowing that he meant to go by the slow midday train, his father
proposed to stop the express for him that went through a few
minutes before. Michael could hardly believe his ears. . . .
It was but a day or two after the outbreak of the war that it was
believed that an expeditionary force was to be sent to France, to
help in arresting the Teutonic tide that was now breaking over
Belgium; but no public and authoritative news came till after the
first draft of the force had actually set foot on French soil.
From the regiment of the Guards which Michael had rejoined, Francis
was among the first batch of officers to go, and that evening
Michael took down the news to Sylvia. Already stories of German
barbarity were rife, of women violated, of defenceless civilians
being shot down for no object except to terrorise, and to bring
home to the Belgians the unwisdom of presuming to cross the will of
the sovereign people. To-night, in the evening papers, there had
been a fresh batch of these revolting stories, and when Michael
entered the studio where Sylvia and her mother were sitting, he saw
the girl let drop behind the sofa the paper she had been reading.
He guessed what she must have found there, for he had already seen
the paper himself, and her silence, her distraction, and the misery
of her face confirmed his conjecture.
"I've brought you a little news to-night," he said. "The first
draft from the regiment went off to-day."
Mrs. Falbe put down her book, marking the place.
"Well, that does look like business, then," she said, "though I
must say I should feel safer if they didn't send our soldiers away.
Where have they gone to?"
"Destination unknown," said Michael. "But it's France. My cousin
"Francis?" asked Sylvia. "Oh, how wicked to send boys like that."
Michael saw that her nerves were sharply on edge. She had given
him no greeting, and now as he sat down she moved a little away
from him. She seemed utterly unlike herself.
"Mother has been told that every Englishman is as brave as two
Germans," she said. "She likes that."
"Yes, dear," observed Mrs. Falbe placidly. "It makes one feel
safer. I saw it in the paper, though; I read it."
Sylvia turned on Michael.
"Have you seen the evening paper?" she asked.
Michael knew what was in her mind.
"I just looked at it," he said. "There didn't seem to be much
"No, only reports, rumours, lies," said Sylvia.
Mrs. Falbe got up. It was her habit to leave the two alone
together, since she was sure they preferred that; incidentally,
also, she got on better with her book, for she found conversation
rather distracting. But to-night Sylvia stopped her.
"Oh, don't go yet, mother," she said. "It is very early."
It was clear that for some reason she did not want to be left alone
with Michael, for never had she done this before. Nor did it avail
anything now, for Mrs. Falbe, who was quite determined to pursue
her reading without delay, moved towards the door.
"But I am sure Michael wants to talk to you, dear," she said, "and
you have not seen him all day. I think I shall go up to bed."
Sylvia made no further effort to detain her, but when she had gone,
the silence in which they had so often sat together had taken on a
perfectly different quality.
"And what have you been doing?" she said. "Tell me about your day.
No, don't. I know it has all been concerned with war, and I don't
want to hear about it."
"I dined with Aunt Barbara," said Michael. "She sent you her love.
She also wondered why you hadn't been to see her for so long."
Sylvia gave a short laugh, which had no touch of merriment in it.
"Did she really?" she asked. "I should have thought she could have
guessed. She set every nerve in my body jangling last time I saw
her by the way she talked about Germans. And then suddenly she
pulled herself up and apologised, saying she had forgotten. That
made it worse! Michael, when you are unhappy, kindness is even
more intolerable than unkindness. I would sooner have Lady Barbara
abusing my people than saying how sorry she is for me. Don't let's
talk about it! Let's do something. Will you play, or shall I
sing? Let's employ ourselves."
Michael followed her lead.
"Ah, do sing," he said. "It's weeks since I have heard you sing."
She went quickly over to the bookcase of music by the piano.
"Come, then, let's sing and forget," she said. "Hermann always
said the artist was of no nationality. Let's begin quick. These
are all German songs: don't let's have those. Ah, and these, too!
What's to be done? All our songs seem to be German."
"But we've just settled that artists have no nationality, so I
suppose art hasn't either," he said.
Sylvia pulled herself together, conscious of a want of control, and
laid her hand on Michael's shoulder.
"Oh, Michael, what should I do without you?" she said. "And yet--
well, let me sing."
She had placed a volume of Schubert on the music-stand, and opening
it at random he found "Du Bist die Ruhe." She sang the first
verse, but in the middle of the second she stopped.
"I can't," she said. "It's no use."
He turned round to her.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," he said. "But you know that."
She moved away from him, and walked down to the empty fireplace.
"I can't keep silence," she said, "though I know we settled not to
talk of those things when necessarily we cannot feel absolutely at
one. But, just before you came in, I was reading the evening
paper. Michael, how can the English be so wicked as to print, and
I suppose to believe, those awful things I find there? You told me
you had glanced at it. Well, did you glance at the lies they tell
about German atrocities?"
"Yes, I saw them," said Michael. "But it's no use talking about
"But aren't you indignant?" she said. "Doesn't your blood boil to
read of such infamous falsehoods? You don't know Germans, but I
do, and it is impossible that such things can have happened."
Michael felt profoundly uncomfortable. Some of these stories which
Sylvia called lies were vouched for, apparently, by respectable
"Why talk about them?" he said. "I'm sure we were wise when we
settled not to."
She shook her head.
"Well, I can't live up to that wisdom," she said. "When I think of
this war day and night and night and day, how can I prevent talking
to you about it? And those lies! Germans couldn't do such things.
It's a campaign of hate against us, set up by the English Press."
"I daresay the German Press is no better," said Michael.
"If that is so, I should be just as indignant about the German
Press," said she. "But it is only your guess that it is so."
Suddenly she stopped, and came a couple of steps nearer him.
"Michael, it isn't possible that you believe those things of us?"
He got up.
"Ah, do leave it alone, Sylvia," he said. "I know no more of the
truth or falsity of it than you. I have seen just what you have
seen in the papers."
"You don't feel the impossibility of it, then?" she asked.
"No, I don't. There seems to have been sworn testimony. War is a
cruel thing; I hate it as much as you. When men are maddened with
war, you can't tell what they would do. They are not the Germans
you know, nor the Germans I know, who did such things--not the
people I saw when I was with Hermann in Baireuth and Munich a year
ago. They are no more the same than a drunken man is the same as
that man when he is sober. They are two different people; drink
has made them different. And war has done the same for Germany."
He held out his hand to her. She moved a step back from him.
"Then you think, I suppose, that Hermann may be concerned in those
atrocities," she said.
Michael looked at her in amazement.
"You are talking sheer nonsense, Sylvia," he said.
"Not at all. It is a logical inference, just an application of the
principle you have stated."
Michael's instinct was just to take her in his arms and make the
final appeal, saying, "We love each other, that's all," but his
reason prevented him. Sylvia had said a monstrous thing in cold
blood, when she suggested that he thought Hermann might be
concerned in these deeds, and in cold blood, not by appealing to
her emotions, must she withdraw that.
"I'm not going to argue about it," he said. "I want you to tell me
at once that I am right, that it was sheer nonsense, to put no
other name to it, when you suggested that I thought that of
"Oh, pray put another name to it," she said.
"Very well. It was a wanton falsehood," said Michael, "and you
Truly this hellish nightmare of war and hate which had arisen
brought with it a brood not less terrible. A day ago, an hour ago
he would have merely laughed at the possibility of such a situation
between Sylvia and himself. Yet here it was: they were in the
middle of it now.
She looked up at him flashing with indignation, and a retort as
stinging as his rose to her lips. And then quite suddenly, all her
anger went from her, as her, heart told her, in a voice that would
not be silenced, the complete justice of what he had said, and the
appeal that Michael refrained from making was made by her to
herself. Remorse held her on its spikes for her abominable
suggestion, and with it came a sense of utter desolation and
misery, of hatred for herself in having thus quietly and
deliberately said what she had said. She could not account for it,
nor excuse herself on the plea that she had spoken in passion, for
she had spoken, as he felt, in cold blood. Hence came the misery
in the knowledge that she must have wounded Michael intolerably.
Her lips so quivered that when she first tried to speak no words
would come. That she was truly ashamed brought no relief, no ease
to her surrender, for she knew that it was her real self who had
spoken thus incredibly. But she could at least disown that part of
"I beg your pardon, Michael," she said. "I was atrocious. Will
you forgive me? Because I am so miserable."
He had nothing but love for her, love and its kinsman pity.
"Oh, my dear, fancy you asking that!" he said.
Just for the moment of their reconciliation, it seemed to both that
they came closer to each other than they had ever been before, and
the chance of the need of any such another reconciliation was
impossible to the verge of laughableness, so that before five
minutes were past he could make the smile break through her tears
at the absurdity of the moment that now seemed quite unreal. Yet
that which was at the root of their temporary antagonism was not
removed by the reconciliation; at most they had succeeded in
cutting off the poisonous shoot that had suddenly sprouted from it.
The truth of this in the days that followed was horribly
It was not that they ever again came to the spoken bitterness of
words, for the sharpness of them, once experienced, was shunned by
each of them, but times without number they had to sheer off, and
not approach the ground where these poisoned tendrils trailed. And
in that sense of having to take care, to be watchful lest a chance
word should bring the peril close to them, the atmosphere of
complete ease and confidence, in which alone love can flourish, was
tainted. Love was there, but its flowers could not expand, it
could not grow in the midst of this bitter air. And what made the
situation more and increasingly difficult was the fact that, next
to their love for each other, the emotion that most filled the mind
of each was this sense of race-antagonism. It was impossible that
the news of the war should not be mentioned, for that would have
created an intolerable unreality, and all that was in their power
was to avoid all discussion, to suppress from speech all the
feelings with which the news filled them. Every day, too, there
came fresh stories of German abominations committed on the
Belgians, and each knew that the other had seen them, and yet
neither could mention them. For while Sylvia could not believe
them, Michael could not help doing so, and thus there was no common
ground on which they could speak of them. Often Mrs. Falbe, in
whose blood, it would seem, no sense of race beat at all, would add
to the embarrassment by childlike comments, saying at one time in
reference to such things that she made a point of not believing all
she saw in the newspapers, or at another ejaculating, "Well, the
Germans do seem to have behaved very cruelly again!" But no
emotion appeared to colour these speeches, while all the emotion of
the world surged and bubbled behind the silence of the other two.
Then followed the darkest days that England perhaps had ever known,
when the German armies, having overcome the resistance of Belgium,
suddenly swept forward again across France, pushing before them
like the jetsam and flotsam on the rim of the advancing tide the
allied armies. Often in these appalling weeks, Michael would
hesitate as to whether he should go to see Sylvia or not, so
unbearable seemed the fact that she did not and could not feel or
understand what England was going through. So far from blaming her
for it, he knew that it could not be otherwise, for her blood
called to her, even as his to him, while somewhere in the onrush of
those advancing and devouring waves was her brother, with whom, so
it had often seemed to him, she was one soul. Thus, while in that
his whole sympathy and whole comprehension of her love was with
him, there was as well all that deep, silent English patriotism of
which till now he had scarcely been conscious, praying with mute
entreaty that disaster and destruction and defeat might overwhelm
those advancing hordes. Once, when the anxiety and peril were at
their height, he made up his mind not to see her that day, and
spent the evening by himself. But later, when he was actually on
his way to bed, he knew he could not keep away from her, and though
it was already midnight, he drove down to Chelsea, and found her
sitting up, waiting for the chance of his coming.
For a moment, as she greeted him and he kissed her silently, they
escaped from the encompassing horror.
"Ah, you have come," she said. "I thought perhaps you might. I
have wanted you dreadfully."
The roar of artillery, the internecine strife were still. Just for
a few seconds there was nothing in the world for him but her, nor
for her anything but him.
"I couldn't go to bed without just seeing you," he said. "I won't
keep you up."
They stood with hands clasped.
"But if you hadn't come, Michael," she said, "I should have
And then the roar and the horror began again. Her words were the
simplest, the most directly spoken to him, yet could not but evoke
the spectres that for the moment had vanished. She had meant to
let her love for him speak; it had spoken, and instantly through
the momentary sunlight of it, there loomed the fierce and enormous
shadow. It could not be banished from their most secret hearts;
even when the doors were shut and they were alone together thus, it
made its entrance, ghost-like, terrible, and all love's bolts and
bars could not keep it out. Here was the tragedy of it, that they
could not stand embraced with clasped hands and look at it together
and so rob it of its terrors, for, at the sight of it, their hands
were loosened from each other's, and in its presence they were
forced to stand apart. In his heart, as surely as he knew her
love, Michael knew that this great shadow under which England lay
was shot with sunlight for Sylvia, that the anxiety, the awful
suspense that made his fingers cold as he opened the daily papers,
brought into it to her an echo of victorious music that beat to the
tramp of advancing feet that marched ever forward leaving the
glittering Rhine leagues upon leagues in their rear. The Bavarian
corps in which Hermann served was known to be somewhere on the
Western front, for the Emperor had addressed them ten days before
on their departure from Munich, and Sylvia and Michael were both
aware of that. But they who loved Hermann best could not speak of
it to each other, and the knowledge of it had to be hidden in
silence, as if it had been some guilty secret in which they were
the terrified accomplices, instead of its being a bond of love
which bound them both to Hermann.
In addition to the national anxiety, there was the suspense of
those whose sons and husbands and fathers were in the fighting
line. Columns of casualty lists were published, and each name
appearing there was a sword that pierced a home. One such list,
published early in September, was seen by Michael as he drove down
on Sunday morning to spend the rest of the day with Sylvia, and the
first name that he read there was that of Francis. For a moment,
as he remembered afterwards, the print had danced before his eyes,
as if seen through the quiver of hot air. Then it settled down and
he saw it clearly.
He turned and drove back to his rooms in Half Moon Street, feeling
that strange craving for loneliness that shuns any companionship.
He must, for a little, sit alone with the fact, face it, adjust
himself to it. Till that moment when the dancing print grew still
again he had not, in all the anxiety and suspense of those days,
thought of Francis's death as a possibility even. He had heard
from him only two mornings before, in a letter thoroughly
characteristic that saw, as Francis always saw, the pleasant and
agreeable side of things. Washing, he had announced, was a
delusion; after a week without it you began to wonder why you had
ever made a habit of it. . . . They had had a lot of marching,
always in the wrong direction, but everyone knew that would soon be
over. . . . Wasn't London very beastly in August? . . . Would
Michael see if he could get some proper cigarettes out to him?
Here there was nothing but little black French affairs (and not
many of them) which tied a knot in the throat of the smoker. . . .
And now Francis, with all his gaiety and his affection, and his
light pleasant dealings with life, lay dead somewhere on the sunny
plains of France, killed in action by shell or bullet in the midst
of his youth and strength and joy in life, to gratify the damned
dreams of the man who had been the honoured guest at Ashbridge, and
those who had advised and flattered and at the end perhaps just
used him as their dupe. To their insensate greed and swollen-
headed lust for world-power was this hecatomb of sweet and pleasant
lives offered, and in their onward course through the vines and
corn of France they waded through the blood of the slain whose only
crime was that they had dared to oppose the will of Germany, as
voiced by the War Lord. And as milestones along the way they had
come were set the records of their infamy, in rapine and ruthless
slaughter of the innocent. Just at first, as he sat alone in his
room, Michael but contemplated images that seemed to form in his
mind without his volition, and, emotion-numb from the shock, they
seemed external to him. Sometimes he had a vision of Francis lying
without mark or wound or violence on him in some vineyard on the
hill-side, with face as quiet as in sleep turned towards a moonlit
sky. Then came another picture, and Francis was walking across the
terrace at Ashbridge with his gun over his shoulder, towards Lord
Ashbridge and the Emperor, who stood together, just as Michael had
seen the three of them when they came in from the shooting-party.
As Francis came near, the Emperor put a cartridge into his gun and
shot him. . . . Yes, that was it: that was what had happened. The
marvellous peacemaker of Europe, the fire-engine who, as Hermann
had said, was ready to put out all conflagrations, the fatuous
mountebank who pretended to be a friend to England, who conducted
his own balderdash which he called music, had changed his role and
shown his black heart and was out to kill.
Wild panoramas like these streamed through Michael's head, as if
projected there by some magic lantern, and while they lasted he was
conscious of no grief at all, but only of a devouring hate for the
mad, lawless butchers who had caused Francis's death, and willingly
at that moment if he could have gone out into the night and killed
a German, and met his death himself in the doing of it, he would
have gone to his doom as to a bridal-bed. But by degrees, as the
stress of these unsought imaginings abated, his thoughts turned to
Francis himself again, who, through all his boyhood and early
manhood, had been to him a sort of ideal and inspiration. How he
had loved and admired him, yet never with a touch of jealousy! And
Francis, whose letter lay open by him on the table, lay dead on the
battlefields of France. There was the envelope, with the red
square mark of the censor upon it, and the sheet with its gay
scrawl in pencil, asking for proper cigarettes. And, with a pang
of remorse, all the more vivid because it concerned so trivial a
thing, Michael recollected that he had not sent them. He had meant
to do so yesterday afternoon but something had put it out of his
head. Never again would Francis ask him to send out cigarettes.
Michael laid his head on his arms, so that his face was close to
that pencilled note, and the relief of tears came to him.
Soon he raised himself again, not ashamed of his sorrow, but
somehow ashamed of the black hate that before had filled him. That
was gone for the present, anyhow, and Michael was glad to find it
vanished. Instead there was an aching pity, not for Francis alone
nor for himself, but for all those concerned in this hideous
business. A hundred and a thousand homes, thrown suddenly to-day
into mourning, were there: no doubt there were houses in that
Bavarian village in the pine woods above which he and Hermann had
spent the day when there was no opera at Baireuth where a son or a
brother or a father were mourned, and in the kinship of sorrow he
found himself at peace with all who had suffered loss, with all who
were living through days of deadly suspense. There was nothing
effeminate or sentimental about it; he had never been manlier than
in this moment when he claimed his right to be one with them. It
was right to pause like this, with his hand clasped in the hands of
friends and foes alike. But without disowning that, he knew that
Francis's death, which had brought that home to him, had made him
eager also for his own turn to come, when he would go out to help
in the grim work that lay in front of him. He was perfectly ready
to die if necessary, and if not, to kill as many Germans as
possible. And somehow the two aspects of it all, the pity and the
desire to kill, existed side by side, neither overlapping nor
contradicting one another.
His servant came into the room with a pencilled note, which he
opened. It was from Sylvia.
"Oh, Michael, I have just called and am waiting to know if you will
see me. I have seen the news, and I want to tell you how sorry I
am. But if you don't care to see me I know you will say so, won't
Though an hour before he had turned back on his way to go to
Sylvia, he did not hesitate now.
"Yes, ask Miss Falbe to come up," he said.
She came up immediately, and once again as they met, the world and
the war stood apart from them.
"I did not expect you to come, Michael," she said, "when I saw the
news. I did not mean to come here myself. But--but I had to. I
had just to find out whether you wouldn't see me, and let me tell
you how sorry I am."
He smiled at her as they stood facing each other.
"Thank you for coming," he said; "I'm so glad you came. But I had
to be alone just a little."
"I didn't do wrong?" she asked.
"Indeed you didn't. I did wrong not to come to you. I loved
Francis, you see."
Already the shadow threatened again. It was just the fact that he
loved Francis that had made it impossible for him to go to her, and
he could not explain that. And as the shadow began to fall she
gave a little shudder.
"Oh, Michael, I know you did," she said. "It's just that which
concerns us, that and my sympathy for you. He was such a dear. I
only saw him, I know, once or twice, but from that I can guess what
he was to you. He was a brother to you--a--a--Hermann."
Michael felt, with Sylvia's hand in his, they were both running
desperately away from the shadow that pursued them. Desperately he
tried with her to evade it. But every word spoken between them
seemed but to bring it nearer to them.
"I only came to say that," she said. "I had to tell you myself, to
see you as I told you, so that you could know how sincere, how
She stopped suddenly.
"That's all, my dearest," she added. "I will go away again now."
Across that shadow that had again fallen between them they looked
and yearned for each other.
"No, don't go--don't go," he said. "I want you more than ever. We
are here, here and now, you and I, and what else matters in
comparison of that? I loved Francis, as you know, and I love
Hermann, but there is our love, the greatest thing of all. We've
got it--it's here. Oh, Sylvia, we must be wise and simple, we must
separate things, sort them out, not let them get mixed with one
another. We can do it; I know we can. There's nothing outside us;
nothing matters--nothing matters."
There was just that ray of sun peering over the black cloud that
illumined their faces to each other, while already the sharp peaked
shadow of it had come between them. For that second, while he
spoke, it seemed possible that, in the middle of welter and chaos
and death and enmity, these two souls could stand apart, in the
passionate serene of love, and the moment lasted for just as long
as she flung herself into his arms. And then, even while her face
was pressed to his, and while the riotous blood of their pressed
lips sang to them, the shadow fell across them. Even as he
asserted the inviolability of the sanctuary in which they stood, he
knew it to be an impossible Utopia--that he should find with her
the peace that should secure them from the raging storm, the cold
shadow--and the loosening of her arms about his neck but endorsed
the message of his own heart. For such heavenly security cannot
come except to those who have been through the ultimate bitterness
that the world can bring; it is not arrived at but through complete
surrender to the trial of fire, and as yet, in spite of their
opposed patriotism, in spite of her sincerest sympathy with
Michael's loss, the assault on the most intimate lines of the
fortress had not yet been delivered. Before they could reach the
peace that passed understanding, a fiercer attack had to be
repulsed, they had to stand and look at each other unembittered
across waves and billows of a salter Marah than this.
But still they clung, while in their eyes there passed backwards
and forwards the message that said, "It is not yet; it is not
thus!" They had been like two children springing together at the
report of some thunder-clap, not knowing in the presence of what
elemental outpouring of force they hid their faces together. As
yet it but boomed on the horizon, though messages of its havoc
reached them, and the test would come when it roared and lightened
overhead. Already the tension of the approaching tempest had so
wrought on them that for a month past they had been unreal to each
other, wanting ease, wanting confidence; and now, when the first
real shock had come, though for a moment it threw them into each
other's arms, this was not, as they knew, the real, the final
reconciliation, the touchstone that proved the gold. Francis's
death, the cousin whom Michael loved, at the hands of one of the
nation to whom Sylvia belonged, had momentarily made them feel that
all else but their love was but external circumstance; and, even in
the moment of their feeling this, the shadow fell again, and left
them chilly and shivering.
For a moment they still held each other round the neck and
shoulder, then the hold slipped to the elbow, and soon their hands
parted. As yet no word had been said since Michael asserted that
nothing else mattered, and in the silence of their gradual
estrangement the sanguine falsity of that grew and grew and grew.
"I know what you feel," she said at length, "and I feel it also."
Her voice broke, and her hands felt for his again.
"Michael, where are you?" she cried. "No, don't touch me; I didn't
mean that. Let's face it. For all we know, Hermann might have
killed Francis. . . . Whether he did or not, doesn't matter. it
might have been. It's like that."
A minute before Michael, in soul and blood and mind and bones, had
said that nothing but Sylvia and himself had any real existence.
He had clung to her, even as she to him, hoping that this
individual love would prove itself capable of overriding all else
that existed. But it had not needed that she should speak to show
him how pathetically he had erred. Before she had made a concrete
instance he knew how hopeless his wish had been: the silence, the
loosening of hands had told him that. And when she spoke there was
a brutality in what she said, and worse than the brutality there
was a plain, unvarnished truth.
There was no question now of her going away at once, as she had
proposed, any more than a boat in the rapids, roared round by
breakers, can propose to start again. They were in the middle of
it, and so short a way ahead was the cataract that ran with blood.
On each side at present were fine, green landing-places; he at the
oar, she at the tiller, could, if they were of one mind, still put
ashore, could run their boat in, declining the passage of the
cataract with all its risks, its river of blood. There was but a
stroke of the oar to be made, a pull on a rope of the rudder, and a
step ashore. Here was a way out of the storm and the rapids.
A moment before, when, by their physical parting they had realised
the strength of the bonds that held them apart this solution had
not occurred to Sylvia. Now, critically and forlornly hopeful, it
flashed on her. She felt, she almost felt--for the ultimate
decision rested with him--that with him she would throw everything
else aside, and escape, just escape, if so he willed it, into some
haven of neutrality, where he and she would be together, leaving
the rest of the world, her country and his, to fight over these
irreconcilable quarrels. It did not seem to matter what happened
to anybody else, provided only she and Michael were together, out
of risk, out of harm. Other lives might be precious, other ideals
and patriotisms might be at stake, but she wanted to be with him
and nothing else at all. No tie counted compared to that; there
was but one life given to man and woman, and now that her
individual happiness, the individual joy of her love, was at stake,
she felt, even as Michael had said, that nothing else mattered,
that they would be right to realise themselves at any cost.
She took his hands again.
"Listen to me, Michael," she said. "I can't bear any longer that
these horrors should keep rising up between us, and, while we are
here in the middle of it all, it can't be otherwise. I ask you,
then, to come away with me, to leave it all behind. It is not our
quarrel. Already Hermann has gone; I can't lose you too."
She looked up at him for a moment, and then quickly away again, for
she felt her case, which seemed to her just now so imperative,
slipping away from her in that glance she got of his eyes, that,
for all the love that burned there, were blank with astonishment.
She must convince him; but her own convictions were weak when she
looked at him.
"Don't answer me yet," she said. "Hear what I have to say. Don't
you see that while we are like this we are lost to each other? And
as you yourself said just now, nothing matters in comparison to our
love. I want you to take me away, out of it all, so that we can
find each other again. These horrors thwart and warp us; they
spoil the best thing that the world holds for us. My patriotism is
just as sound as yours, but I throw it away to get you. Do the
same, then. You can get out of your service somehow. . . ."
And then her voice began to falter.
"If you loved me, you would do it," she said. "If--"
And then suddenly she found she could say no more at all. She had
hoped that when she stated these things she would convince him,
and, behold, all she had done was to shake her own convictions so
that they fell clattering round her like an unstable card-house.
Desperately she looked again at him, wondering if she had convinced
him at all, and then again she looked, wondering if she should see
contempt in his eyes. After that she stood still and silent, and
her face flamed.
"Do you despise me, Michael?" she said.
He gave a little sigh of utter content.
"Oh, my dear, how I love you for suggesting such a sweet
impossibility," he said. "But how you would despise me if I
She did not answer.
"Wouldn't you?" he repeated.
She gave a sorrowful semblance of a laugh.
"I suppose I should," she said.
"And I know you would. You would contrast me in your mind, whether
you wished to or not, with Hermann, with poor Francis, sorely to my
They sat silent a little, but there was another question Sylvia had
to ask for which she had to collect her courage. At last it came.
"Have they told you yet when you are going?" she said.
"Not for certain. But--it will be before many days are passed.
And the question arises--will you marry me before I go?"
She hid her face on his shoulder.
"I will do what you wish," she said.
"But I want to know your wish."
She clung closer to him.
"Michael, I don't think I could bear to part with you if we were
married," she said. "It would be worse, I think, than it's going
to be. But I intend to do exactly what you wish. You must tell
me. I'm going to obey you before I am your wife as well as after."
Michael had long debated this in his mind. It seemed to him that
if he came back, as might easily happen, hopelessly crippled,
incurably invalid, it would be placing Sylvia in an unfairly
difficult position, if she was already his wife. He might be
hideously disfigured; she would be bound to but a wreck of a man;
he might be utterly unfit to be her husband, and yet she would be
tied to him. He had already talked the question over with his
father, who, with that curious posthumous anxiety to have a further
direct heir, had urged that the marriage should take place at once;
but with his own feeling on the subject, as well as Sylvia's, he at
once made up his mind.
"I agree with you," he said. "We will settle it so, then."
She smiled at him.
"How dreadfully business-like," she said, with an attempt at
"I know. It's rather a good thing one has got to be business-like,
That failed also, and he drew her to him and kissed her.
Michael was sitting in the kitchen of a French farm-house just
outside the village of Laires, some three miles behind the English
front. The kitchen door was open, and on the flagged floor was
cast an oblong of primrose-coloured November sunshine, warm and
pleasant, so that the bluebottle flies buzzed hopefully about it,
settling occasionally on the cracked green door, where they cleaned
their wings, and generally furbished themselves up, as if the
warmth was that of a spring day that promised summer to follow.
They were there in considerable numbers, for just outside in the
cobbled yard was a heap of manure, where they hungrily congregated.
Against the white-washed wall of the house there lay a fat sow,
basking contentedly, and snorting in her dreams. The yard, bounded
on two sides by the house walls, was shut in on the third by a row
of farm-sheds, and the fourth was open. Just outside it stood a
small copse half flooded with the brimming water of a sluggish
stream that meandered by the side of the farm-road leading out of
the yard, which turned to the left, and soon joined the highway.
This farm-road was partly under water, though not deeply, so that
by skirting along its raised banks it was possible to go dry-shod
to the highway underneath which the stream passed in a brick
Through the kitchen window, set opposite the door, could be seen a
broad stretch of country of the fenland type, flat and bare, and
intersected with dykes, where sedges stirred slightly in the
southerly breeze. Here and there were pools of overflowed
rivulets, and here and there were plantations of stunted hornbeam,
the russet leaves of which still clung thickly to them. But in the
main it was a bare and empty land, featureless and stolid.
Just below the kitchen window there was a plot of cultivated
ground, thriftily and economically used for the growing of
vegetables. Concession, however, was made to the sense of
brightness and beauty, for on each side of the path leading up to
the door ran a row of Michaelmas daisies, rather battered by the
fortnight of rain which had preceded this day of still warm sun,
but struggling bravely to shake off the effect of the adverse
conditions under which they had laboured.
The kitchen itself was extremely clean and orderly. Its flagged
floor was still damp and brown in patches from the washing it had
received two hours before; but the draught between open window and
open door was fast drying it. Down the centre of the room was a
deal table without a cloth, on which were laid some half-dozen
places, each marked with a knife and fork and spoon and a thick
glass, ready for the serving of the midday meal. On the white-
washed walls hung two photographs of family groups, in one of which
appeared the father and mother and three little children, in the
other the same personages some ten years later, and a lithograph of
the Blessed Virgin. On each side of the table was a deal bench, at
the head and foot two wooden armchairs. A dresser stood against
the wall, on the floor by the oven was a frayed rug, and most
important of all, to Michael's mind, was a big stewpot that stood
on the top of the oven. From time to time a fat, comfortable
Frenchwoman bustled in, and took off the lid of this to stir it, or
placed on the dresser a plate of cheese, or a loaf of freshly
cooked brown bread. Two or three of Michael's brother-officers
were there, one sitting in the patch of sunlight with his back
against the green door, another on the step outside. The post had
come in not long before, and all of them, Michael included, were
occupied with letters and papers.
To-day there happened to be no letters for Michael, and the paper
which he glanced at seemed a very feeble effort in the way of
entertainment. There was no news in it, except news about the war,
which here, out at the front, did not interest him in the least.
Perhaps in England people liked to know that a hundred yards of
trenches had been taken at one place, and that three German attacks
had failed at another; but when you were actually engaged (or had
been or would soon again be) in taking part in those things, it
seemed a waste of paper and compositor's time to record them.
There was a column of letters also from indignant Britons, using
violent language about the crimes and treachery of Germany. That
also was uninteresting and far-fetched. Nothing that Germany had
done mattered the least. There was no use in arguing and slinging
wild expressions about; it was a stale subject altogether when you
were within earshot of that incessant booming of guns. All the
morning that had gone on without break, and no doubt they would get
news of what had happened before they set out again that evening
for another spell in the trenches. But in all probability nothing
particular had happened. Probably the London papers would record
it next day, a further tediousness on their part. It would be much
more interesting to hear what was going on there, whether there
were any new plays, whether there had been any fresh concerts, what
the weather was like, or even who had been lunching at Prince's, or
dining at the Carlton.
He put down his uninteresting paper, and strolled out into the
farmyard, stepping over the legs of the junior officer who blocked
the doorway, and did not attempt to move. On the doorstep was
sitting a major of his regiment, who, more politely, shifted his
place a little so that Michael should pass. Outside the smell of
manure was acrid but not unpleasant, the old sow grunted in her
sleep, and one of the green shutters outside the upper windows
slowly blew to. There was someone inside the room apparently, for
the moment after a hand and arm bare to the elbow were protruded,
and fastened the latch of the shutter, so that it should not move
A little further on was a rail that separated the copse from the
roadway, and here out of the wind Michael sat down, and lit a
cigarette to stop his yearning for the bubbling stewpot, which
would not be broached for half an hour yet. The day, he believed,
was Wednesday, but the whole quiet of the place, apart from that
drowsy booming on the eastern horizon, made it feel like Sunday.
Nobody but the fat Frenchwoman who bustled about had anything to
do; there was a Sabbath leisure about everything, about the dozing
sow, the buzzing flies, the lounging figures that read letters and
papers. When last they were here, it is true, there were rather
more of them. Eight officers had been billeted here last week,
before they had been in the trenches and now there were but six.
This evening they would set out again for another forty-eight hours
in that hellish inferno, but to-morrow a fresh draft was arriving,
so that when next they foregathered here, whatever had happened in
the interval, there would probably be at least six of them.
It did not seem to matter much what six there would be, or whether
there would be more than six or less. All that mattered at this
moment, as he inhaled the first incense of his cigarette, was that
the rain was over for the present, that the sun shone from a blue
sky, that he felt extraordinarily well and tranquil, and that
dinner would soon be ready. But of all these agreeable things what
pleased him most was the tranquillity; to be alive here with the
manure heap steaming in the sun, and the sow asleep by the house
wall, and swallows settling on the eaves, was "Paradise enow."
Somewhere deep down in him were streams of yearning and of horror,
flowing like an underground river in the dark. He yearned for
Sylvia, he thought with horror of the two days in the trenches that
had preceded this rest in the white-washed farm-house, and with
horror he thought of the days and nights that would succeed it.
But both horror and yearnings were stupefied by the content that
flooded the present moment. No doubt it was reaction from what had
gone before, but the reaction was complete. Just now he asked for
nothing but to sit in the sun and smoke his cigarette, and wait for
dinner. As far as he knew he did not think of anything particular;
he just existed in the sun.
The wind must have shifted a little, for before long it came round
the corner of the house, and slightly spoiled the mellow warmth of
the sunshine. This would never do. The Epicurean in him revolted
at the idea of losing a moment of this complete well-being, and
arguing that if the wind blew here, it must be dead calm below the
kitchen window on the other side of the house, he got off his rail
and walked along the slippery bank at the edge of the flooded road
in order to go there. It was hard to keep his footing here, and
his progress was slow, but he felt he would take any amount of
trouble to avoid getting his feet wet in the flooded road. Then
there was a patch of kitchen-garden to cross, where the mud clung
rather annoyingly to his instep, and, having gained the garden
path, he very carefully wiped his boots and with a fallen twig dug
away the clots of soil that stuck to the instep.
He found that he had been quite right in supposing that the air
would be windless here, and full of great content he sat down with
his back to the house wall. A tortoise-shell butterfly, encouraged
by the warmth, was flitting about among the Michaelmas daisies that
bordered the path and settling on them, opening its wings to the
genial sun. Two or three bees buzzed there also; the summer-like
tranquillity inserted into the middle of November squalls and rain,
deluded them as well as Michael into living completely in the
present hour. Gnats hovered about. One settled on Michael's hand,
where he instantly killed it, and was sorry he had done so. For
the time the booming of guns which had sounded incessantly all the
morning to the east, stopped altogether, and absolute quiet
reigned. Had he not been so hungry, and so unable to get the idea
of the stewpot out of his head, Michael would have been content to
sit with his back to the sun-warmed wall for ever.
The high-road, raised and embanked above the low-lying fields, ran
eastwards in an undeviating straight line. Just opposite the farm
were the last outlying huts of the village, and from there onwards
it lay untenanted. But before many minutes were passed, the quiet
of the autumn noon began to be overscored by distant humming, faint
at first, and then quickly growing louder, and he saw far away a
little brown speck coming swiftly towards him. It turned out to be
a dispatch-rider, mounted on a motor-bicycle, who with a hoot of
his horn roared westward through the village. Immediately
afterwards another humming, steadier and more sonorous, grew
louder, and Michael, recognising it, looked up instinctively into
the blue sky overhead, as an English aeroplane, flying low, came
from somewhere behind, and passed directly over him, going
eastwards. Before long it stopped its direct course, and began to
mount in spirals, and when at a sufficient height, it resumed its
onward journey towards the German lines. Then three or four
privates, billeted in the village, and now resting after duty in
the trenches, strolled along the road, laughing and talking. They
sat down not a hundred yards from Michael and one began to whistle
"Tipperary." Another and another took it up until all four were
engaged on it. It was not precisely in tune nor were the
performers in unison, but it produced a vaguely pleasant effect,
and if not in tune with the notes as the composer wrote them, the
sight and sound of those four whistling and idle soldiers was in
tune with the air of security of Sunday morning.
Something far down the road caught Michael's eye, some moving line
of brown wagons. As they came nearer he saw that they were the
motor-ambulances of the Red Cross, moving slowly along the ruts and
holes which the traffic had worn, so that the occupants should
suffer as little jolting as was possible. They carried no doubt
the wounded who had been taken from the trenches last night, and
now, after calling for them at the first dressing station in the
rear of the lines, were removing them to hospital. As they passed
the four men sitting by the roadside, one of them shouted, "Cheer,
oh, mates!" and then they fell to whistling "Tipperary" again.
Then, oh, blessed moment! the fat Frenchwoman looked out of the
kitchen window just above his head.
"Diner, m'sieu," she said, and Michael, without another thought of
ambulance or aeroplane, scrambled to his feet. Somewhere in the
middle distance of his mind he was sorry that this tranquil morning
was over, just as below in the darkness of it there ran those
streams of yearning and of horror, but all his ordinary work-a-day
self was occupied with the immediate prospect of the stewpot. It
was some sort of a ragout, he knew, and he lusted for it. Red wine
of the country would be there, and cheese and new brown bread. . . .
It surprised him to find how completely his bodily needs and the
pleasure of their gratification had possession of him.
They were under orders to go back to the trenches shortly after
sunset, and when their meal was over there remained but an hour or
two before they had to start. The warmth and glory of the day was
already gone, and streamers of cloud were beginning to form over
the open sky. All afternoon these thickened till a dull layer of
grey had thickly overspread the heavens and below that arch of
vapour that cut off the sun the wind was blowing chilly. With that
change in the weather, Michael's mood changed also, and the horror
of the return to the trenches began to come to the surface. He was
not as yet aware of any physical fear of death or of wound, rather,
the feeling was one of some mental and spiritual shrinking from the
whole of this vast business of murder, where hundreds and thousands
of men along the battle front that stretched half-way across
Europe, were employed, day and night, without having any quarrel
with each other, in the unsleeping vigilant work of killing. Most
of them in all probability, were quite decent fellows, like those
four who had whistled "Tipperary" together, and yet they were
spending months of young, sweet life up to the knees in water, in
foul and ill-smelling trenches in order to kill others whom they
had never seen except as specks on the sights of their rifles.
Somewhere behind that gruesome business, as he knew, there stood
the Cause, calm and serene, like some great statue, which made this
insensate murdering necessary; but just for an hour to-day, as he
waited till they had to be on the move again, he found himself
unable to make real to his own mind the existence of that cause,
and could not see beyond the bloody and hideous things that
resulted from it.
Then, in this inaction of waiting, an attack of mere physical
cowardice seized him, and he found himself imagining the mutilation
and torture that perhaps awaited him personally in those deathly
ditches. He tried to busy himself with the preparation of the few
things that he would take with him, he tried to encourage himself
by remembering that in his previous experiences there he had not
been conscious of any fear, by telling himself that these were only
the unreal anticipations that were always ready to pounce on one
even before such mildly alarming affairs as a visit to the dentist;
but in spite of his efforts, he found his hands growing clammy and
cold at the thoughts which beset his brain. What if there happened
to him what had happened to another junior officer who was close to
him at the moment, when a fragment of shell turned him from a big
gay boy into a writhing bundle at the bottom of the trench! He had
lived for a couple of hours like that, moaning and crying out, "For
God's sake kill me!" What if, more mercifully, he was killed
outright, so that he would lie there in peace till next night they
removed his body, or perhaps had to bury him in the trench itself,
with a dozen handfuls of soil cast over him! At that he suddenly
realised how passionately he wanted to live, to escape from this
infernal butchery, to be safe again, gloriously or ingloriously, it
mattered not which, to be with Sylvia once more. He told himself
that he had been an utter fool ever to re-enter the army again like
this. He could certainly have got some appointment as dispatch-
carrier or had himself attached to the headquarters staff, or even
have shuffled out of it altogether. . . . But, above all, he
wanted Sylvia; he wanted to be allowed to lead the ordinary human
life, safely and securely, with the girl he loved, and with the
musical pursuits that were his passion. He had hated soldiering in
times of peace; he found now that he was terrified of it in times
of war. He felt physically sick, as with cold hands and trembling
knees he stood and waited, lighting cigarettes and throwing them
away, in front of the kitchen fire, where the stewpot was already
bubbling again for those lucky devils who would return here to-
The Major of his company was sitting in the window watching him,
though Michael was unaware of it. Suddenly he got up, and came
across to the fire, and put his hand on his shoulder.
"Don't mind it, Comber," he said quietly. "We all get a touch of
it sometimes. But you'll find it will pass all right. It's the
waiting doing nothing that does it."
That touched Michael absolutely in the right place.
"Thanks awfully, sir," he said.
"Not a bit. But it's damned beastly while it lasts. You'll be all
right when we move. Don't forget to take your fur coat up if
you've got one. We shall have a cold night."
Just after sunset they set out, marching in the gathering dusk down
the road eastwards, where in a mile or two they would strike the
huge rabbit warren of trenches that joined the French line to the
north and south. Once or twice they had to open out and go by the
margin of the road to let ambulances or commissariat wagon go by,
but there was but little traffic here, as the main lines of
communication lay on other roads. High above them, scarcely
visible in the dusk, an English aeroplane droned back from its
reconnaissance, and once there was the order given to scatter over
the fields as a German Taube passed across them. This caused much
laughter and chaff among the men, and Michael heard one say, "Dove
they call it, do they? I'd like to make a pigeon-pie of them
doves." Soon they scrambled back on to the road again, and the
interminable "Tipperary" was resumed, in whistle and song. Michael
remembered how Aunt Barbara had heard it at a music-hall, and had
spoken of it as a new and catchy tune which you could carry away
with you. Nowadays, it carried you away. It had become the
audible soul of the British army.
The trench which Michael's company were to occupy for the next
forty-eight hours was in the first firing-line, and to reach it
they had to pass in single file up a mile of communication
trenches, from which on all sides, like a vast rabbit warren, there
opened out other galleries and passages that led to different parts
of this net-work of the lines. It ran not in a straight line but
in short sections with angles intervening, so under no
circumstances could any considerable length of it be enfiladed, and
was lit here and there by little oil lamps placed in embrasures in
one or other wall of it, or for some distance at a time it was dark
except for the vague twilight of the cloudy sky overhead. Then
again, as they approached the firing-line, it would suddenly become
intensely bright, when from the English lines, or from those of the
Germans which lay not more than two hundred yards in front of them,
a fireball or star-shell was sent up, that caused everything it
shone upon to leap into vivid illumination. Usually, when this
happened, there came from one side or the other a volley of rifle
shots, that sounded like the crack of stock-whips, and once or
twice a bullet passed over their heads with the buzz as of some
vicious stinging insect. Here and there, where the bottom lay in
soft and clayey soil, they walked through mud that came half-way up
to the knee, and each foot had to be lifted with an effort, and was
set free with a smacking suck. Elsewhere, if the ground was
gravelly, the rain which for two days previously had been
incessant, had drained off, and the going was easy. But whether
the path lay over dry or soft places the air was sick with some
stale odour which the breeze that swept across the lines from the
south-east could not carry away. There was a perpetual pervading
reek that flowed along from the entrance of trenches to right and
left, that reminded Michael of the smell of a football scrimmage on
a wet day, laden with the odours of sweat and dripping clothes, and
something deadlier and more acrid. Sometimes they passed under a
section covered in with boards, over which the earth and clods of
turf had been replaced, so that reconnoitring aeroplanes should not
so easily spy it out, and here from dark excavations the smell hung
overpoweringly. Now and then the ground over which they passed
yielded uneasily to the foot, where lay, only lightly covered over,
some corpse which it had been impossible to remove, and from time
to time they passed a huddled bundle of khaki not yet taken away.
But except for the artillery duel that day they had heard going on
that morning, the last day or two had been quiet, and the wounded
had all been got out, and for the most part the dead also.
After a long tramp in this communication trench they made a sharp
turn to the right, and entered that which they were going to hold
for the next forty-eight hours. Here they relieved the regiment
that had occupied it till now, who filed out as they came in.
Along it at intervals were excavations dug out in the side, some
propped up with boards and posts, others, where the ground was of
sufficiently holding character, just scooped out. In front,
towards the German lines ran a parapet of excavated earth, with
occasional peep-holes bored in it, so that the sentry going his
rounds could look out and see if there was any sign of movement
from opposite without showing his head above the entrenchment. But
even this was a matter of some risk, since the enemy had located
these peep-holes, and from time to time fired a shot from a fixed
rifle that came straight through them and buried its bullet in the
hinder wall of the trench. Other spy-holes were therefore being
made, but these were not yet finished, and for the present till
they were dug, it was necessary to use the old ones. The trench,
like all the others, was excavated in short, zigzag lengths, so
that no point, either to right or left, commanded more than a score
of yards of it.
In front, from just outside the parapet to a depth of some twenty
yards, stretched the spider-web of wire entanglements, and a little
farther down on the right there had been a copse of horn-beam
saplings. An attempt had been made by the enemy during the morning
to capture and entrench this, thus advancing their lines, but the
movement had been seen, and the artillery fire, which had been so
incessant all the morning, denoted the searching of this and the
rendering of it untenable. How thorough that searching had been
was clear, for that which had been an acre of wood was now but a
heap of timber fit only for faggots. Scarcely a tree was left
standing, and Michael, looking out of one of the peep-holes by the
light of a star-shell saw that the wire entanglements were thick
with leaves that the wind and the firing had detached from the
broken branches. In turn, the wire entanglements had come in for
some shelling by the enemy, and a squad of men were out now under
cover of the darkness repairing these. There was a slight dip in
the ground here, and by crouching and lying they were out of sight
of the trenches opposite; but there were some snipers in that which
had been a wood, from whom there came occasional shots. Then, from
lower down to the right, there came a fusillade from the English
lines suddenly breaking out, and after a few minutes as suddenly
stopping again. But the sniping from the wood had ceased.
Michael did not come on duty till six in the morning, and for the
present he had nothing to do except eat his rations and sleep as
well as he could in his dug-out. He had plenty of room to stretch
his legs if he sat half upright, and having taken his Major's
advice in the matter of bringing his fur coat with him, he found
himself warm enough, in spite of the rather bitter wind that,
striking an angle in the trench wall, eddied sharply into his
retreat, to sleep. But not less justified than the advice to bring
his fur coat was his Major's assurance that the attack of the
horrors which had seized him after dinner that day, would pass off
when the waiting was over. Throughout the evening his nerves had
been perfectly steady, and, when in their progress up the
communication trench they had passed a man half disembowelled by a
fragment of a shell, and screaming, or when, as he trod on one of
the uneasy places an arm had stirred and jerked up suddenly through
the handful of earth that covered it, he had no first-hand sense of
horror: he felt rather as if those things were happening not to him
but to someone else, and that, at the most, they were strange and
odd, but no longer horrible. But now, when reinforced by food
again and comfortable beneath his fur cloak he let his mind do what
it would, not checking it, but allowing it its natural internal
activity, he found that a mood transcending any he had known yet
was his. So far from these experiences being terrifying, so far
from their being strange and unreal, they suddenly became intensely
real and shone with a splendour that he had never suspected.
Originally he had been pitchforked by his father into the army, and
had left it to seek music. Sense of duty had made it easy for him
to return to it at a time of national peril; but during all the
bitter anxiety of that he had never, as in the light of the
perception that came to him now, as the wind whistled round him in
the dim lit darkness, had a glimpse of the glory of service to his
country. Here, out in this small, evil-smelling cavern, with the
whole grim business of war going on round him, he for the first
time fully realised the reality of it all. He had been in the
trenches before, but until now that had seemed some vague, evil
dream, of which he was incredulous. Now in the darkness the
darkness cleared, and the knowledge that this was the very thing
itself, that a couple of hundred yards away were the lines of the
enemy, whose power, for the honour of England and for the freedom
of Europe, had to be broken utterly, filled him with a sense of
firm, indescribable joy. The minor problems which had worried him,
the fact of millions of treasure that might have fed the poor and
needy over all Britain for a score of years, being outpoured in
fire and steel, the fact of thousands of useful and happy lives
being sacrificed, of widows and orphans and childless mothers
growing ever a greater company--all these things, terrible to look
at, if you looked at them alone, sank quietly into their sad
appointed places when you looked at the thing entire. His own case
sank there, too; music and life and love for which he would so
rapturously have lived, were covered up now, and at this moment he
would as rapturously have died, if, by his death, he could have
served in his own infinitesimal degree, the cause he fought for.
The hours went on, whether swiftly or slowly he did not consider.
The wind fell, and for some minutes a heavy shower of rain plumped
vertically into the trench. Once during it a sudden illumination
blazed in the sky, and he saw the pebbles in the wall opposite
shining with the fresh-falling drops. There were a dozen rifle-
shots and he saw the sentry who had just passed brushing the edge
of his coat against Michael's hand, pause, and look out through the
spy-hole close by, and say something to himself. Occasionally he
dozed for a little, and woke again from dreaming of Sylvia, into
complete consciousness of where he was, and of that superb joy that
pervaded him. By and by these dozings grew longer, and the
intervals of wakefulness less, and for a couple of hours before he
was roused he slept solidly and dreamlessly.
His spell of duty began before dawn, and he got up to go his
rounds, rather stiff and numb, and his sleep seemed to have wearied
rather than refreshed him. In that hour of early morning, when
vitality burns lowest, and the dying part their hold on life, the
thrill that had possessed him during the earlier hours of the
night, had died down. He knew, having once felt it, that it was
there, and believed that it would come when called upon; but it had
drowsed as he slept, and was overlaid by the sense of the grim,
inexorable side of the whole business. A disconcerting bullet was
plugged through a spy-hole the second after he had passed it; it
sounded not angry, but merely business-like, and Michael found
himself thinking that shots "fired in anger," as the phrase went,
were much more likely to go wide than shots fired calmly. . . .
That, in his sleepy brain, did not sound nonsense: it seemed to
contain some great truth, if he could bother to think it out.
But for that, all was quiet again, and he had returned to his dug-
out, just noticing that the dawn was beginning to break, for the
clouds overhead were becoming visible in outline with the light
that filtered through them, and on their thinner margin turning
rose-grey, when the alarm of an attack came down the line.
Instantly the huddled, sleeping bodies that lay at the side of the
trench started into being, and in the moment's pause that followed,
Michael found himself fumbling at the butt of his revolver, which
he had drawn out of its case. For that one moment he heard his
heart thumping in his throat, and felt his mouth grow dry with some
sudden panic fear that came from he knew not where, and invaded
him. A qualm of sickness took him, something gurgled in his
throat, and he spat on the floor of the trench. All this passed in
one second, for at once he was master of himself again, though not
master of a savage joy that thrilled him--the joy of this chance of
killing those who fought against the peace and prosperity of the
world. There was an attack coming out of the dark, and thank God,
he was among those who had to meet it.
He gave the order that had been passed to him, and on the word,
this section of the trench was lined with men ready to pour a
volley over the low parapet. He was there, too, wildly excited,
close to the spy-hole that now showed as a luminous disc against
the blackness of the trench. He looked out of this, and in the
breaking dawn he saw nothing but the dark ground of the dip in
front, and the level lines of the German trenches opposite. Then
suddenly the grey emptiness was peopled; there sprang from the
earth the advance line of the surprise, who began hewing a way
through the entanglements, while behind the silhouette of the
trenches was broken into a huddled, heaving line of men. Then came
the order to fire, and he saw men dropping and falling out of
sight, and others coming on, and yet again others. These, again,
fell, but others (and now he could see the gleam of bayonets) came
nearer, bursting and cutting their way through the wires. Then,
from opposite to right and left sounded the crack of rifles, and
the man next to Michael gave one grunt, and fell back into the
trench, moving no more.
Just immediately opposite were the few dozen men whose part it was
to cut through the entanglements. They kept falling and passing
out of sight, while others took their places. And then, for some
reason, Michael found himself singling out just one of these, much
in advance of the others, who was now close to the parapet. He was
coming straight on him, and with a leap he cleared the last line of
wire and towered above him. Michael shot him with his revolver as
he stood but three yards from him, and he fell right across the
parapet with head and shoulders inside the trench. And, as he
dropped, Michael shouted, "Got him!" and then he looked. It was
Next moment he had scaled the side of the trench and, exerting all
his strength, was dragging him over into safety. The advance of
this section, who were to rush the trench, had been stopped, and
again from right and left the rifle-fire poured out on the heads
that appeared above the parapet. That did not seem to concern him;
all he had to do that moment was to get Hermann out of fire, and
just as he dragged his legs over the parapet, so that his weight
fell firm and solid on to him, he felt what seemed a sharp tap on
his right arm, and could not understand why it had become suddenly
powerless. It dangled loosely from somewhere above the elbow, and
when he tried to move his hand he found he could not.
Then came a stab of hideous pain, which was over almost as soon as
he had felt it, and he heard a man close to him say, "Are you hit,
It was evident that this surprise attack had failed, for five
minutes afterwards all was quiet again. Out of the grey of dawn it
had come, and before dawn was rosy it was over, and Michael with
his right arm numb but for an occasional twinge of violent agony
that seemed to him more like a scream or a colour than pain, was
leaning over Hermann, who lay on his back quite still, while on his
tunic a splash of blood slowly grew larger. Dawn was already rosy
when he moved slightly and opened his eyes.
"Lieber Gott, Michael!" he whispered, his breath whistling in his
throat. "Good morning, old boy!"
Three weeks later, Michael was sitting in his rooms in Half Moon
Street, where he had arrived last night, expecting Sylvia. Since
that attack at dawn in the trenches, he had been in hospital in
France while his arm was mending. The bone had not been broken,
but the muscles had been so badly torn that it was doubtful whether
he would ever recover more than a very feeble power in it again.
In any case, it would take many months before he recovered even the
most elementary use of it.
Those weeks had been a long-drawn continuous nightmare, not from
the effect of the injury he had undergone, nor from any nervous
breakdown, but from the sense of that which inevitably hung over
him. For he knew, by an inward compulsion of his mind that
admitted of no argument, that he had to tell Sylvia all that had
happened in those ten minutes while the grey morning grew rosy.
This sense of compulsion was deaf to all reasoning, however
plausible. He knew perfectly well that unless he told Sylvia who
it was whom he had shot at point-blank range, as he leaped the last
wire entanglement, no one else ever could. Hermann was buried now
in the same grave as others who had fallen that morning: his name
would be given out as missing from the Bavarian corps to which he
belonged, and in time, after the war was over, she would grow to
believe that she would never see him again.
But the sheer impossibility of letting this happen, though it
entailed nothing on him except the mere abstention from speech,
took away the slightest temptation that silence offered. He knew
that again and again Sylvia would refer to Hermann, wondering where
he was, praying for his safety, hoping perhaps even that, like
Michael, he would be wounded and thus escape from the inferno at
the front, and it was so absolutely out of the question that he
should listen to this, try to offer little encouragements, wonder
with her whether he was not safe, that even in his most depressed
and shrinking hours he never for a moment contemplated silence.
Certainly he had to tell her that Hermann was dead, and to account
for the fact that he knew him to be dead. And in the long watches
of the wakeful night, when his mind moved in the twilight of
drowsiness and fever and pain, it was here that a certain
temptation entered. For it was easy to say (and no one could ever
contradict him) that some man near him, that one perhaps who had
fallen back with a grunt, had killed Hermann on the edge of the
trench. Humanly speaking, there was no chance at all of that
innocent falsehood being disproved. In the scurry and wild
confusion of the attack none but he would remember exactly what had
happened, and as he thought of that tossing and turning, it seemed
to one part of his mind that the innocence of that falsehood would
even be laudable, be heroic. It would save Sylvia the horrible
shock of knowing that her lover had killed her brother; it would
save her all that piercing of the iron into her soul that must
inevitably be suffered by her if she knew the truth. And who could
tell what effect the knowledge of the truth would have on her?
Michael felt that it was at the least possible that she could never
bear to see him again, still less sleep in the arms of the one who
had killed her brother. That knowledge, even if she could put it
out of mind in pity and sorrow for Michael, would surely return and
return again, and tear her from him sobbing and trembling. There
was all to risk in telling her the truth; sorrow and bitterness for
her and for him separation and a lifelong regret were piled up in
the balance against the unknown weight of her love. Indeed, there
was love on both sides of that balance. Who could tell how the
gold weighed against the gold?
Yet, after those drowsy, pain-streaked nights, when the sober light
of dawn crept in at the windows, then, morning after morning,
Michael knew that the inward compulsion was in no way weakened by
all the reasons that he had urged. It remained ruthless and
tender, a still small voice that was heard after the whirlwind and
the fire. For the very reason why he longed to spare Sylvia this
knowledge, namely, that they loved each other, was precisely the
reason why he could not spare her. Yet it seemed so wanton, so
useless, so unreasonable to tell her, so laden with a risk both for
him and her that no standard could measure. But he no more
contemplated--except in vain imagination--making up some ingenious
story of this kind which would account for his knowledge of
Hermann's death than he contemplated keeping silence altogether.
It was not possible for him not to tell her everything, though,
when he pictured himself doing so, he found himself faced by what
seemed an inevitable impossibility. Though he did not see how his
lips could frame the words, he knew they had to. Yet he could not
but remember how mere reports in the paper, stories of German
cruelty and what not, had overclouded the serenity of their love.
What would happen when this news, no report or hearsay, came to
He had not heard her foot on the stairs, nor did she wait for his
servant to announce her; but, a little before her appointed time,
she burst in upon him midway between smiles and tears, all
"Michael, my dear, my dear," she cried, "what a morning for me!
For the first time to-day when I woke, I forgot about the war. And
your poor arm? How goes it? Oh, I will take care, but I must and
will have you in my arms."
He had risen to greet her, and softly and gently she put her arms
round his neck, drawing his head to her.
"Oh, my Michael!" she whispered. "You've come back to me. Lieber
Gott, how I have longed for you!"
"Lieber Gott!" When last had he heard those words? He had to tell
her. He would tell her in a minute or two. Perhaps she would
never hold him like that again. He could not part with her at the
very moment he had got her.
"You look ever so well, Michael," she said, "in spite of your
wound. You're so brown and lean and strong. And oh, how I have
wanted you! I never knew how much till you went away."
Looking at her, feeling her arms round him, Michael felt that what
he had to say was beyond the power of his lips to utter. And yet,
here in her presence, the absolute necessity of telling her climbed
like some peak into the ample sunrise far above the darkness and
the mists that hung low about it.
"And what lots you must have to tell me," she said. "I want to
Suddenly Michael put up his left hand and took away from his neck
the arm that encircled it. But he did not let go of it. He held
it in his hand.
"I have to tell you one thing at once," he said. She looked at
him, and the smile that burned in her eyes was extinguished. From
his gesture, from his tone, she knew that he spoke of something as
serious as their love.
"What is it?" she said. "Tell me, then."
He did not falter, but looked her full in the face. There was no
breaking it to her, or letting her go through the gathering
suspense of guessing.
"It concerns Hermann," he said. "It concerns Hermann and me. The
last morning that I was in the trenches, there was an attack at
dawn from the German lines. They tried to rush our trench in the
dark. Hermann led them. He got right up to the trench. And I
shot him. I did not know, thank God!"
Suddenly Michael could not bear to look at her any more. He put
his arm on the table by him and, leaning his head on it, covering
his eyes he went on. But his voice, up till now quite steady,
faltered and failed, as the sobs gathered in his throat.
"He fell across the parapet close to me, "he said. . . . "I lifted
him somehow into our trench. . . . I was wounded, then. . . . He
lay at the bottom of the trench, Sylvia. . . . And I would to God
it had been I who lay there. . . . Because I loved him. . . .
Just at the end he opened his eyes, and saw me, and knew me. And
he said--oh, Sylvia, Sylvia!--he said 'Lieber Gott, Michael. Good
morning, old boy.' And then he died. . . . I have told you."
And at that Michael broke down utterly and completely for the first
time since the morning of which he spoke, and sobbed his heart out,
while, unseen to him, Sylvia sat with hands clasped together and
stretched towards him. Just for a little she let him weep his
fill, but her yearning for him would not be withstood. She knew
why he had told her, her whole heart spoke of the hugeness of it.
Then once more she laid her arm on his neck.
"Michael, my heart!" she said.