The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West

Ah, don’t begin to fuss!” wailed Kitty. “If a woman began to worry in these days because her husband hadn’t written to her for a fortnight! Besides, if he’d been anywhere interesting, anywhere where the fighting was really hot, he’d have found some way of telling me instead of just leaving it as ‘Somewhere in France.’ He’ll be all right.”

We were sitting in the nursery. I had not meant to enter it again, now that the child was dead; but I had come suddenly on Kitty as she slipped the key into the lock, and I had lingered to look in at the high room, so full of whiteness and clear colors, so unendurably gay and familiar, which is kept in all respects as though there were still a child in the house. It was the first lavish day of spring, and the sunlight was pouring through the tall, arched windows and the flowered curtains so brightly that in the old days a fat fist would certainly have been raised to point out the new, translucent glories of the rosebud. Sunlight was lying in great pools on the blue cork floor and the soft rugs, patterned with strange beasts, and threw dancing beams, which should have been gravely watched for hours, on the white paint and the blue distempered walls. It fell on the rocking-horse, which had been Chris’s idea of an appropriate present for his year-old son, and showed what a fine fellow he was and how tremendously dappled; it picked out Mary and her little lamb on the chintz ottoman. And along the mantelpiece, under the loved print of the snarling tiger, in attitudes that were at once angular and relaxed, as though they were ready for play at their master’s pleasure, but found it hard to keep from drowsing in this warm weather, sat the Teddy Bear and the chimpanzee and the woolly white dog and the black cat with eyes that roll. Everything was there except Oliver. I turned away so that I might not spy on Kitty revisiting her dead. But she called after me:

“Come here, Jenny. I’m going to dry my hair.” And when I looked again I saw that her golden hair was all about her shoulders and that she wore over her frock a little silken jacket trimmed with rosebuds. She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large “15 cents” somewhere attached to her person. She had taken Nanny’s big basket-chair from its place by the high-chair, and was pushing it over to the middle window. “I always come in here when Emery has washed my hair. It’s the sunniest room in the house. I wish Chris wouldn’t have it kept as a nursery when there’s no chance—” She sat down, swept her hair over the back of the chair into the sunlight, and held out to me her tortoiseshell hair-brush. “Give it a brush now and then, like a good soul; but be careful. Tortoise snaps so!”

I took the brush and turned to the window, leaning my forehead against the glass and staring unobservantly at the view. You probably know the beauty of that view; for when Chris rebuilt Baldry Court after his marriage he handed it over to architects who had not so much the wild eye of the artist as the knowing wink of the manicurist, and between them they massaged the dear old place into matter for innumerable photographs in the illustrated papers. The house lies on the crest of Harrowweald, and from its windows the eye drops to miles of emerald pasture-land lying wet and brilliant under a westward line of sleek hills; blue with distance and distant woods, while nearer it range the suave decorum of the lawn and the Lebanon cedar, the branches of which are like darkness made palpable, and the minatory gauntnesses of the topmost pines in the wood that breaks downward, its bare boughs a close texture of browns and purples, from the pond on the edge of the hill.

“Give it a brush now and then, like a good soul”

That day its beauty was an affront to me, because, like most Englishwomen of my time, I was wishing for the return of a soldier. Disregarding the national interest and everything else except the keen prehensile gesture of our hearts toward him, I wanted to snatch my Cousin Christopher from the wars and seal him in this green pleasantness his wife and I now looked upon. Of late I had had bad dreams about him. By nights I saw Chris running across the brown rottenness of No-Man’s-Land, starting back here because he trod upon a hand, not even looking there because of the awfulness of an unburied head, and not till my dream was packed full of horror did I see him pitch forward on his knees as he reached safety, if it was that. For on the war-films I have seen men slip down as softly from the trench-parapet, and none but the grimmer philosophers could say that they had reached safety by their fall. And when I escaped into wakefulness it was only to lie stiff and think of stories I had heard in the boyish voice of the modern subaltern, which rings indomitable, yet has most of its gay notes flattened: “We were all of us in a barn one night, and a shell came along. My pal sang out, ‘Help me, old man; I’ve got no legs!’ and I had to answer, ‘I can’t, old man; I’ve got no hands!'” Well, such are the dreams of Englishwomen to-day. I could not complain, but I wished for the return of our soldier. So I said:

“I wish we could hear from Chris. It is a fortnight since he wrote.”

And then it was that Kitty wailed, “Ah, don’t begin to fuss!” and bent over her image in a hand-mirror as one might bend for refreshment over scented flowers.

I tried to build about me such a little globe of ease as always ensphered her, and thought of all that remained good in our lives though Chris was gone. I was sure that we were preserved from the reproach of luxury, because we had made a fine place for Chris, one little part of the world that was, so far as surfaces could make it so, good enough for his amazing goodness. Here we had nourished that surpassing amiability which was so habitual that one took it as one of his physical characteristics, and regarded any lapse into bad temper as a calamity as startling as the breaking of a leg; here we had made happiness inevitable for him. I could shut my eyes and think of innumerable proofs of how well we had succeeded, for there never was so visibly contented a man. And I recalled all that he did one morning just a year ago when he went to the front.

First he had sat in the morning-room and talked and stared out on the lawns that already had the desolation of an empty stage, although he had not yet gone; then broke off suddenly and went about the house, looking into many rooms. He went to the stables and looked at the horses and had the dogs brought out; he refrained from touching them or speaking to them, as though he felt himself already infected with the squalor of war and did not want to contaminate their bright physical well-being. Then he went to the edge of the wood and stood staring down into the clumps of dark-leaved rhododendrons and the yellow tangle of last year’s bracken and the cold winter black of the trees. (From this very window I had spied on him.) Then he moved broodingly back to the house to be with his wife until the moment of his going, when Kitty and I stood on the steps to see him motor off to Waterloo. He kissed us both. As he bent over me I noticed once again how his hair was of two colors, brown and gold. Then he got into the car, put on his Tommy air, and said: “So long! I’ll write you from Berlin!” and as he spoke his head dropped back, and he set a hard stare on the house. That meant, I knew, that he loved the life he had lived with us and desired to carry with him to the dreary place of death and dirt the complete memory of everything about his home, on which his mind could brush when things were at their worst, as a man might finger an amulet through his shirt. This house, this life with us, was the core of his heart.

“If he could come back!” I said. “He was so happy here!”

And Kitty answered:

“He could not have been happier.”

It was important that he should have been happy, for, you see, he was not like other city men. When we had played together as children in that wood he had always shown great faith in the imminence of the improbable. He thought that the birch-tree would really stir and shrink and quicken into an enchanted princess, that he really was a red Indian, and that his disguise would suddenly fall from him at the right sundown, that at any moment a tiger might lift red fangs through the bracken, and he expected these things with a stronger motion of the imagination than the ordinary child’s make-believe. And from a thousand intimations, from his occasional clear fixity of gaze on good things as though they were about to dissolve into better, from the passionate anticipation with which he went to new countries or met new people, I was aware that this faith had persisted into his adult life. He had exchanged his expectation of becoming a red Indian for the equally wistful aspiration of becoming completely reconciled to life. It was his hopeless hope that some time he would have an experience that would act on his life like alchemy, turning to gold all the dark metals of events, and from that revelation he would go on his way rich with an inextinguishable joy. There had been, of course, no chance of his ever getting it. Literally there wasn’t room to swing a revelation in his crowded life. First of all, at his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with golf-clubs; then Kitty had come along and picked up his conception of normal expenditure, and carelessly stretched it as a woman stretches a new glove on her hand. Then there had been the difficult task of learning to live after the death of his little son. It had lain on us, the responsibility, which gave us dignity, to compensate him for his lack of free adventure by arranging him a gracious life. But now, just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage!

We were not, perhaps, specially contemptible women, because nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris’s attention. I remember thinking, as the parlor-maid came in with a card on the tray, how little it mattered who had called and what flag of prettiness or wit she flew, since there was no chance that Chris would come in and stand over her, his fairness red in the firelight, and show her that detached attention, such as an unmusical man pays to good music, which men of anchored affections give to attractive women.

Kitty read from the card:

“‘Mrs. William Grey, Mariposa, Ladysmith Road, Wealdstone,’ I don’t know anybody in Wealdstone.” That is the name of the red suburban stain which fouls the fields three miles nearer London than Harrowweald. One cannot now protect one’s environment as one once could. “Do I know her, Ward? Has she been here before?”

“Oh, no, ma’am.” The parlor-maid smiled superciliously. “She said she had news for you.” From her tone one could deduce an over-confiding explanation made by a shabby visitor while using the door-mat almost too zealously.

Kitty pondered, then said:

“I’ll come down.” As the girl went, Kitty took up the amber hair-pins from her lap and began swathing her hair about her head. “Last year’s fashion,” she commented; “but I fancy it’ll do for a person with that sort of address.” She stood up, and threw her little silk dressing-jacket over the rocking-horse. “I’m seeing her because she may need something, and I specially want to be kind to people while Chris is away. One wants to deserve well of heaven.” For a minute she was aloof in radiance, but as we linked arms and went out into the corridor she became more mortal, with a pout. “The people that come breaking into one’s nice, quiet day!” she moaned reproachfully, and as we came to the head of the broad stair-case she leaned over the white balustrade to peer down on the hall, and squeezed my arm. “Look!” she whispered.

Just beneath us, in one of Kitty’s prettiest chintz arm-chairs, sat a middle-aged woman. She wore a yellowish raincoat and a black hat with plumes. The sticky straw hat had only lately been renovated by something out of a little bottle bought at the chemist’s. She had rolled her black thread gloves into a ball on her lap, so that she could turn her gray alpaca skirt well above her muddy boots and adjust its brush-braid with a seamed red hand that looked even more worn when she presently raised it to touch the glistening flowers of the pink azalea that stood on a table beside her. Kitty shivered, then muttered:

“Let’s get this over,” and ran down the stairs. On the last step she paused and said with conscientious sweetness, “Mrs. Grey!”

“Yes,” answered the visitor. She lifted to Kitty a sallow and relaxed face the expression of which gave me a sharp, pitying pang of prepossession in her favor: it was beautiful that so plain a woman should so ardently rejoice in another’s loveliness. “Are you Mrs. Baldry?” she asked, almost as if she were glad about it, and stood up. The bones of her bad stays clicked as she moved. Well, she was not so bad. Her body was long and round and shapely, and with a noble squareness of the shoulders; her fair hair curled diffidently about a good brow; her gray eyes, though they were remote, as if anything worth looking at in her life had kept a long way off, were full of tenderness; and though she was slender, there was something about her of the wholesome, endearing heaviness of the ox or the trusted big dog. Yet she was bad enough. She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

She flung at us as we sat down:

“My general maid is sister to your second housemaid.”

It left us at a loss.

“You’ve come about a reference?” asked Kitty.

“Oh, no. I’ve had Gladys two years now, and I’ve always found her a very good girl. I want no reference.” With her finger-nail she followed the burst seam of the dark pigskin purse that slid about on her shiny alpaca lap. “But girls talk, you know. You mustn’t blame them.” She seemed to be caught in a thicket of embarrassment, and sat staring up at the azalea.

With the hardness of a woman who sees before her the curse of women’s lives, a domestic row, Kitty said that she took no interest in servants’ gossip.

“Oh, it isn’t—” her eyes brimmed as though we had been unkind—”servants’ gossip that I wanted to talk about. I only mentioned Gladys”—she continued to trace the burst seam of her purse—”because that’s how I heard you didn’t know.”

“What don’t I know?”

Her head drooped a little.

“About Mr. Baldry. Forgive me, I don’t know his rank.”

“Captain Baldry,” supplied Kitty, wonderingly. “What is it that I don’t know?”

She looked far away from us, to the open door and its view of dark pines and pale March sunshine, and appeared to swallow something.

“Why, that he’s hurt,” she gently said.

“Wounded, you mean?” asked Kitty.

Her rusty plumes oscillated as she moved her mild face about with an air of perplexity.

“Yes,” she said, “he’s wounded.”

Kitty’s bright eyes met mine, and we obeyed that mysterious human impulse to smile triumphantly at the spectacle of a fellow-creature occupied in baseness. For this news was not true. It could not possibly be true. The War Office would have wired to us immediately if Chris had been wounded. This was such a fraud as one sees recorded in the papers that meticulously record squalor in paragraphs headed, “Heartless Fraud on Soldier’s Wife.” Presently she would say that she had gone to some expense to come here with her news and that she was poor, and at the first generous look on our faces there would come some tale of trouble that would disgust the imagination by pictures of yellow-wood furniture that a landlord oddly desired to seize and a pallid child with bandages round its throat. I cast down my eyes and shivered at the horror. Yet there was something about the physical quality of the woman, unlovely though she was, which preserved the occasion from utter baseness. I felt sure that had it not been for the tyrannous emptiness of that evil, shiny pigskin purse that jerked about on her trembling knees the poor driven creature would have chosen ways of candor and gentleness. It was, strangely enough, only when I looked at Kitty and marked how her brightly colored prettiness arched over this plain criminal as though she were a splendid bird of prey and this her sluggish insect food that I felt the moment degrading.

Kitty was, I felt, being a little too clever over it.

“How is he wounded?” she asked.

The caller traced a pattern on the carpet with her blunt toe.

“I don’t know how to put it; he’s not exactly wounded. A shell burst—”

“Concussion?” suggested Kitty.

She answered with an odd glibness and humility, as though tendering us a term she had long brooded over without arriving at comprehension, and hoping that our superior intelligences would make something of it:

“Shell-shock.” Our faces did not illumine, so she dragged on lamely, “Anyway, he’s not well.” Again she played with her purse. Her face was visibly damp.

“Not well? Is he dangerously ill?”

“Oh, no.” She was too kind to harrow us. “Not dangerously ill.”

Kitty brutally permitted a silence to fall. Our caller could not bear it, and broke it in a voice that nervousness had turned to a funny, diffident croak.

“He’s in the Queen Mary Hospital at Boulogne.” We did not speak, and she began to flush and wriggle on her seat, and stooped forward to fumble under the legs of her chair for her umbrella. The sight of its green seams and unveracious tortoiseshell handle disgusted Kitty into speech.

“How do you know all this?”

Our visitor met her eyes. This was evidently a moment for which she had steeled herself, and she rose to it with a catch of her breath. “A man who used to be a clerk along with my husband is in Mr. Baldry’s regiment.” Her voice croaked even more piteously, and her eyes begged: “Leave it at that! Leave it at that! If you only knew—”

“And what regiment is that?” pursued Kitty.

The poor sallow face shone with sweat.

“I never thought to ask,” she said.

“Well, your friend’s name—”

Mrs. Grey moved on her seat so suddenly and violently that the pigskin purse fell from her lap and lay at my feet. I supposed that she cast it from her purposely because its emptiness had brought her to this humiliation, and that the scene would close presently in a few quiet tears.

I hoped that Kitty would let her go without scarring her too much with words and would not mind if I gave her a little money. There was no doubt in my mind but that this queer, ugly episode in which this woman butted like a clumsy animal at a gate she was not intelligent enough to open would dissolve and be replaced by some more pleasing composition in which we would take our proper parts; in which, that is, she would turn from our rightness ashamed. Yet she cried:

“But Chris is ill!”

It took only a second for the compact insolence of the moment to penetrate, the amazing impertinence of the use of his name, the accusation of callousness she brought against us whose passion for Chris was our point of honor, because we would not shriek at her false news, the impudently bright, indignant gaze she flung at us, the lift of her voice that pretended she could not understand our coolness and irrelevance. I pushed the purse away from me with my toe, and hated her as the rich hate the poor as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home and introduce ugliness to the light of day. And Kitty said in a voice shaken with pitilessness:

“You are impertinent. I know exactly what you are doing. You have read in the ‘Harrow Observer’ or somewhere that my husband is at the front, and you come to tell this story because you think that you will get some money. I’ve read of such cases in the papers. You forget that if anything had happened to my husband the War Office would have told me. You should think yourself very lucky that I don’t hand you over to the police.” She shrilled a little before she came to the end. “Please go!”

“Kitty!” I breathed. I was so ashamed that such a scene should spring from Chris’s peril at the front that I wanted to go out into the garden and sit by the pond until the poor thing had removed her deplorable umbrella, her unpardonable raincoat, her poor frustrated fraud. But Mrs. Grey, who had begun childishly and deliberately, “It’s you who are being—” and had desisted simply because she realized that there were no harsh notes on her lyre, and that she could not strike these chords that others found so easy, had fixed me with a certain wet, clear, patient gaze. It is the gift of animals and those of peasant stock. From the least regarded, from an old horse nosing over a gate, or a drab in a work-house ward, it wrings the heart. From this woman—I said checkingly:

“Kitty!” and reconciled her in an undertone. “There’s some mistake. Got the name wrong, perhaps. Please tell us all about it.”

Mrs. Grey began a forward movement like a curtsy. She was groveling after that purse. When she rose, her face was pink from stooping, and her dignity swam uncertainly in a sea of half-shed tears. She said:

“I’m sorry I’ve upset you. But when you know a thing like that it isn’t in flesh and blood to keep it from his wife. I am a married woman myself, and I know. I knew Mr. Baldry fifteen years ago.” Her voice freely confessed that she had taken a liberty. “Quite a friend of the family he was.” She had added that touch to soften the crude surprisingness of her announcement. It hardly did. “We lost sight of each other. It’s fifteen years since we last met. I had never seen nor heard of him nor thought to do again till I got this a week ago.”

She undid the purse and took out a telegram. I knew suddenly that all she said was true; for that was why her hands had clasped that purse.

“He isn’t well! He isn’t well!” she said pleadingly. “He’s lost his memory, and thinks—thinks he still knows me.”

She passed the telegram to Kitty, who read it, and laid it on her knee.

“See,” said Mrs. Grey, “it’s addressed to Margaret Allington, my maiden name, and I’ve been married these ten years. And it was sent to my old home, Monkey Island, at Bray. Father kept the inn there. It’s fifteen years since we left it. I never should have got this telegram if me and my husband hadn’t been down there last September and told the folks who keep it now who I was.”

Kitty folded up the telegram and said in a little voice:

“This is a likely story.”

Again Mrs. Grey’s eyes brimmed. “People are rude to one,” she visibly said, but surely not nice people like this. She simply continued to sit.

Kitty cried out, as though arguing:

“There’s nothing about shell-shock in this wire.”

Our visitor melted into a trembling shyness.

“There was a letter, too.”

Kitty held out her hand.

She gasped:

“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that!”

“I must have it,” said Kitty.

The caller’s eyes grew great. She rose and dived clumsily for her umbrella, which had again slipped under the chair.

“I can’t,” she cried, and scurried to the open door like a pelted dog. She would have run down the steps at once had not some tender thought arrested her. She turned to me trustfully and stammered, “He is at that hospital I said,” as if, since I had dealt her no direct blow, I might be able to salve the news she brought from the general wreck of manners. And then Kitty’s stiff pallor struck to her heart, and cried comfortingly across the distance, “I tell you, I haven’t seen him for fifteen years.” She faced about, pushed down her hat on her head, and ran down the steps to the gravel. “They won’t understand!” we heard her sob.

For a long time we watched her as she went along the drive, her yellowish raincoat looking sick and bright in the sharp sunshine, her black plumes nodding like the pines above, her cheap boots making her walk on her heels, a spreading stain on the fabric of our life. When she was quite hidden by the dark clump of rhododendrons at the corner, Kitty turned and went to the fireplace. She laid her arms against the oak mantel-piece and cooled her face against her arms.

When at last I followed her she said:

“Do you believe her?”

I started. I had forgotten that we had ever disbelieved her.

“Yes,” I replied.

“What can it mean?” She dropped her arms and stared at me imploringly. “Think, think, of something it can mean which isn’t detestable!”

“It’s all a mystery,” I said; and added madly, because nobody had ever been cross with Kitty, “You didn’t help to clear it up.”

“Oh, I know you think I was rude,” she petulantly moaned; “but you’re so slow you don’t see what it means. Either it means that he’s mad, our Chris, our splendid, sane Chris, all broken and queer, not knowing us—I can’t bear to think of that. It can’t be true. But if he isn’t—Jenny, there was nothing in that telegram to show he’d lost his memory. It was just affection—a name that might have been a pet name, things that it was a little common to put in a telegram. It’s queer he should have written such a message, queer that he shouldn’t have told me about knowing her, queer that he ever should have known such a woman. It shows there are bits of him we don’t know. Things may be awfully wrong. It’s all such a breach of trust! I resent it.”

I was appalled by these stiff, dignified gestures that seemed to be plucking Chris’s soul from his body, tormented though it was by this unknown calamity.

“But Chris is ill!” I cried.

She stared at me.

“You’re saying what she said.”

Indeed, there seemed no better words than those Mrs. Grey had used. I repeated:

“But he is ill!”

She laid her face against her arms again.

“What does that matter?” she wailed. “If he could send that telegram, he is no longer ours.”


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The Return of the Soldier

by Rebecca West, 1918