DigiCat Publishing presents to you this special edition of "Coming Home" (1916) by Edith Wharton. DigiCat Publishing considers every written word to be a legacy of humankind. Every DigiCat book has been carefully reproduced for republishing in a new modern format. The books are available in print, as well as ebooks. DigiCat hopes you will treat this work with the acknowledgment and passion it deserves as a classic of world literature.
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The young men of our American Relief Corps are beginning to come back from the front with stories.
There was no time to pick them up during the first months—the whole business was too wild and grim. The horror has not decreased, but nerves and sight are beginning to be disciplined to it. In the earlier days, moreover, such fragments of experience as one got were torn from their setting like bits of flesh scattered by shrapnel. Now things that seemed disjointed are beginning to link themselves together, and the broken bones of history are rising from the battle-fields.
I can’t say that, in this respect, all the members of the Relief Corps have made the most of their opportunity. Some are unobservant, or perhaps simply inarticulate; others, when going beyond the bald statistics of their job, tend to drop into sentiment and cinema scenes; and none but H. Macy Greer has the gift of making the thing told seem as true as if one had seen it. So it is on H. Macy Greer that I depend, and when his motor dashes him back to Paris for supplies I never fail to hunt him down and coax him to my rooms for dinner and a long cigar.
Greer is a small hard-muscled youth, with pleasant manners, a sallow face, straight hemp-coloured hair and grey eyes of unexpected inwardness. He has a voice like thick soup, and speaks with the slovenly drawl of the new generation of Americans, dragging his words along like reluctant dogs on a string, and depriving his narrative of every shade of expression that intelligent intonation gives. But his eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice obscures.
Some of his tales are dark and dreadful, some are unutterably sad, and some end in a huge laugh of irony. I am not sure how I ought to classify the one I have written down here.
ON my first dash to the Northern fighting line—Greer told me the other night—I carried supplies to an ambulance where the surgeon asked me to have a talk with an officer who was badly wounded and fretting for news of his people in the east of France.
He was a young Frenchman, a cavalry lieutenant, trim and slim, with a pleasant smile and obstinate blue eyes that I liked. He looked as if he could hold on tight when it was worth his while. He had had a leg smashed, poor devil, in the first fighting in Flanders, and had been dragging on for weeks in the squalid camp-hospital where I found him. He didn’t waste any words on himself, but began at once about his family. They were living, when the war broke out, at their country-place in the Vosges; his father and mother, his sister, just eighteen, and his brother Alain, two years younger. His father, the Comte de Réchamp, had married late in life, and was over seventy: his mother, a good deal younger, was crippled with rheumatism; and there was, besides—to round off the group—a helpless but intensely alive and domineering old grandmother about whom all the others revolved. You know how French families hang together, and throw out branches that make new roots but keep hold of the central trunk, like that tree—what’s it called?—that they give pictures of in books about the East.
Jean de Réchamp—that was my lieutenant’s name—told me his family was a typical case. “We’re very province,” he said. “My people live at Réchamp all the year. We have a house at Nancy—rather a fine old hôtel—but my parents go there only once in two or three years, for a few weeks. That’s our ‘season.’...Imagine the point of view! Or rather don’t, because you couldn’t....” (He had been about the world a good deal, and known something of other angles of vision.)
Well, of this helpless exposed little knot of people he had had no word—simply nothing—since the first of August. He was at home, staying with them at Réchamp, when war broke out. He was mobilised the first day, and had only time to throw his traps into a cart and dash to the station. His depot was on the other side of France, and communications with the East by mail and telegraph were completely interrupted during the first weeks. His regiment was sent at once to the fighting line, and the first news he got came to him in October, from a communiqué in a Paris paper a month old, saying: “The enemy yesterday retook Réchamp.” After that, dead silence: and the poor devil left in the trenches to digest that “retook”!
There are thousands and thousands of just such cases; and men bearing them, and cracking jokes, and hitting out as hard as they can. Jean de Réchamp knew this, and tried to crack jokes too—but he got his leg smashed just afterward, and ever since he’d been lying on a straw pallet under a horse-blanket, saying to himself: “Réchamp retaken.”
“Of course,” he explained with a weary smile, “as long as you can tot up your daily bag in the trenches it’s a sort of satisfaction—though I don’t quite know why; anyhow, you’re so dead-beat at night that no dreams come. But lying here staring at the ceiling one goes through the whole business once an hour, at the least: the attack, the slaughter, the ruins...and worse.... Haven’t I seen and heard things enough on this side to know what’s been happening on the other? Don’t try to sugar the dose. I like it bitter.”
I was three days in the neighbourhood, and I went back every day to see him. He liked to talk to me because he had a faint hope of my getting news of his family when I returned to Paris. I hadn’t much myself, but there was no use telling him so. Besides, things change from day to day, and when we parted I promised to get word to him as soon as I could find out anything. We both knew, of course, that that would not be till Réchamp was taken a third time—by his own troops; and perhaps soon after that, I should be able to get there, or near there, and make enquiries myself. To make sure that I should forget nothing, he drew the family photographs from under his pillow, and handed them over: the little witch-grandmother, with a face like a withered walnut, the father, a fine broken-looking old boy with a Roman nose and a weak chin, the mother, in crape, simple, serious and provincial, the little sister ditto, and Alain, the young brother—just the age the brutes have been carrying off to German prisons—an over-grown thread-paper boy with too much forehead and eyes, and not a muscle in his body. A charming-looking family, distinguished and amiable; but all, except the grandmother, rather usual. The kind of people who come in sets.
As I pocketed the photographs I noticed that another lay face down by his pillow. “Is that for me too?” I asked.
He coloured and shook his head, and I felt I had blundered. But after a moment he turned the photograph over and held it out.
“It’s the young girl I am engaged to. She was at Réchamp visiting my parents when war was declared; but she was to leave the day after I did....” He hesitated. “There may have been some difficulty about her going.... I should like to be sure she got away.... Her name is Yvonne Malo.”
He did not offer me the photograph, and I did not need it. That girl had a face of her own! Dark and keen and splendid: a type so different from the others that I found myself staring. If he had not said “ma fiancée” I should have understood better. After another pause he went on: “I will give you her address in Paris. She has no family: she lives alone—she is a musician. Perhaps you may find her there.” His colour deepened again as he added: “But I know nothing—I have had no news of her either.”
To ease the silence that followed I suggested: “But if she has no family, wouldn’t she have been likely to stay with your people, and wouldn’t that be the reason of your not hearing from her?”
“Oh, no—I don’t think she stayed.” He seemed about to add: “If she could help it,” but shut his lips and slid the picture out of sight.
As soon as I got back to Paris I made enquiries, but without result. The Germans had been pushed back from that particular spot after a fortnight’s intermittent occupation; but their lines were close by, across the valley, and Réchamp was still in a net of trenches. No one could get to it, and apparently no news could come from it. For the moment, at any rate, I found it impossible to get in touch with the place.
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