IT was before the war, and women of the British Empire did not take their young sons as seriously as they do now.
Edwin was seventeen years old. His voice had changed, and he had reached an age when he was a mystery to his mother. His manner was aloof; he behaved like an alien in his own home and toward his own family — a curious alien in a far-away country, lonely and rejoicing in his loneliness. From a rude and boisterous lad who had filled the house with jarring, joyous noise, he became suddenly taciturn and silent for days. When his mother scolded or cajoled him, a little wistfully or fretfully, as the case might be, he looked down at her from his strange new height, and said, as if it cost him a physical effort to say so many words, —
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
He seemed so embarrassed at being asked questions or talked to about himself that she took pity and tried to let him alone. She felt instinctively that he was preoccupied by some inward process, so marvelous, so delicate, so absorbing, that to be asked questions was like interrupting a painter before his unfinished canvas, or an inventor at his engine. The eyes he turned toward her had the same harsh look of absorbed devotion suddenly disturbed. ‘Let me alone,’ they said.
She became quite plaintive about it, wondered if he did n’t love her any more; and when she asked he bantered her. Bantering was his defense, and with it he parried any sentiment or attempts to get at the real him.
Silent and gruff to the point of surliness, except for irritating fits of rough puppy play, he stood quite aloof from the world about him. He read with avidity books of adventure and travel, and was mad about machinery, and would spend hours in a sort of blissful coma or grouch, oblivious, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, over a broken-down automobile, or tinkering in the blistering sun the engine of his motor-boat. He was fond of music, and went passionately to the theatre, always with other youths of his own age, where, fortified by a row on each side of him, he blushed and grinned at the antics of the chorus girls.
His hair was always rumpled; he wore a soft shirt, a despicable tie, an old Norfolk jacket, and looked too uncouth for words.
‘Edwin Byrne, what can I do to make you look like a gentleman? ’ his mother would say at least three times a day.
Naturally, therefore, she was greatly surprised one afternoon at the theatre, when, as she scanned the house with her opera-glasses, she spied Edwin in a seat at the back, in the orchestra pit — faultlessly dressed, his blond hair soaked with water, and wearing a suit which she did not even know that he possessed.
He was staring straight ahead of him. ‘He’s not afraid to show how much he loves music, because he has no idea that any one is watching him,’ thought the mother, astutely; and from this point of vantage, therefore, she watched. She saw Edwin get up and of his own free will speak to a middleaged lady a few rows in front of him. The lady seemed well acquainted with him, and he sat down beside her and conversed with perfect ease and cordiality. His mother watched him, agape. She had chronically worried about his manners when she was not present to remind and prompt him, as she had done since he was six years old; to whisper, ‘Don’t forget to be very polite to Mrs. S—.’ If she had only known, it was this very admonition that made his manner toward Mrs. S— positively adamantine in its abject frigidity.
A little girl who was seated on the other side of her mother poked a vivacious word into the conversation occasionally, and then drew back, twisting her hands with embarrassment. Edwin hated little girls, especially pert little girls with grown-up manners — at least so his mother had always supposed. Yet he sat beside the strange lady during the rest of the opera.
After the curtain went down, as Mrs. Byrne was getting into her carriage, she saw her son helping the other lady into hers. The girl’s smart dress came only to the top of her boots, and her hair was tied up in two great childish bows. She was talking in the same affectedly grown-up manner. ‘Why, she’s not such a child after all,’ thought the mother; ‘ she might be fifteen!' It had not occurred to her before that a girl who reached only to her tall son’s shoulder could be his contemporary. She tried to signal from her carriage, but the boy had disappeared. On her way home she stopped at a friend’s house for tea, and burst out about her son.
‘Edwin’s got a girl! It’s that fearfully common Mrs. Gilbert’s daughter. I recognized them at the play; is n’t it too delicious!’
And her hostess, Mrs. Betts, an invalid, who took an eager interest in all young people’s affairs, laughed, and said archly, —
‘He’s such a dear, handsome boy! I suppose he will have a hundred affairs before he’s through; but the first is always so amusing!’
When Mrs. Byrne came home she found Edwin, again in his old Norfolk coat, his hair rumpled, sitting in the back drawing-room, reading the newspaper, his feet on the damask sofa.
‘I saw you at the opera this afternoon, but you did n’t see me,’ she said archly, frowning at his muddy shoes.
He gave her a startled, terrible look.
‘Who was the nice-looking lady and the pretty girl you were talking to? Was it Mrs. Thomas Gilbert?’ continued his mother pleasantly, trying to account for the horror in the boy’s eyes.
‘What girl? I don’t know. Guess her name’s Gilbert. Met ’em — somewhere. Don’t know ’em at all,’ stammered Edwin.
‘Mrs. Thomas Gilbert,’ continued the mother cordially; ‘ I never met her, but I know who she is.’
‘Don’t they live on Albert Square?’ Mrs. Byrne pursued. ‘Did n’t the father make his money in bath-tubs?’
‘Guess so. Don’t know anything about ’em,’ almost shouted Edwin.
‘ Why, I dare say they are nice enough people.’
Mrs. Byrne remembered a little book she had read, called Adolescent Boys, in which the writer advised mothers to ask nice girls of their own choice to their houses, rather than let boys seek companionship at random. And after all, bath-tubs are perfectly respectable! So, after a pause, she said. —
‘Would n’t you like to ask that little girl here, or go to the theatre?’
But this natural suggestion was met by a look of such positive hatred and agony that she was really frightened and hastened to change the subject.
‘What do you think of the news?’ she asked, reading over Edwin’s shoulder the staring headlines of his paper: ‘Austria’s ultimatum to Servia? Every one was talking about it where I went for tea.’
‘It looks like a mix-up,’ said Edwin, enormously relieved by the change of subject.
‘Not war!’ murmured his mother, and scolded him for putting his muddy shoes on the damask sofa. Her thought of the mix-up was, ‘Nothing will come of this,’ meaning, ‘Nothing that will remotely affect Edwin or me personally.’
Other mothers, reading the headlines that same evening in quiet homes throughout Canada, were asking the same thing: ‘Will this affect us?’ ‘Not
war,’ was their startled opinion; and while with Mrs. Byrne they voiced the general conviction and waited with the almost pleasurable horror and awe which perverse human nature experiences on the brink of a cataclysm, within the week their homes across the sea felt and were stirred by the strange vibration that arose, swaying, gaining in impetus, as on the highways, under the windows of Germany, the mightiest army in the world marched by.
But when, in its time, came the invasion of Belgium and the declaration of war by Great Britain, then instantly the panicky thought of mothers throughout Britain’s great dominion
was, ‘Who is to fight this war?’
‘Thank Heaven, Edwin is only seventeen!’ thought one Canadian mother to herself.
Edwin, in those first days of war, was thrilled out of his usual silence, and his voice became hoarse with excitement. It rang through the house, and his leaping footsteps shook the stairs whenever a newsboy was heard at the street-corner. It was he who came bursting in to give the first news, calling, —
‘ Mother! Mother! ’
‘ I’m here, ’ she called back. She was sewing in her room.
‘ Canada calls for volunteers, mother; see, for volunteers.’ He held a newspaper in his hand.
‘Oh!’ she said. At that moment all over the country women were saying, ‘Oh!’ The cry was echoed in the pantry, and in the nursery, and across the vast plains from the ranchmen’s homes.
Down the street a newsboy went shouting, —
‘ Canada calls for volunteers for the mother country! ’
‘Hear that!’ said Edwin.
He threw his arms round his mother’s neck and hugged her with all his brutal young strength. His face was aglow as if with rapture.
Mrs. Byrne, looking up at him, was listening.
‘Thank goodness, he’s only seventeen!’ she comforted herself. ‘They surely won’t take boys as young as he.’
She kept saying it in Edw in’s hearing.
‘Oh, I think mothers are so brave nowadays; they don’t think of themselves at all. I don’t know how I’d bear it; but I am so lucky, for they can’t want boys as young as seventeen!’
Silently she reckoned up the young men she knew, whose death would be a personal loss to her or her friends, and she sighed with relief. She had none to give.
Five weeks later — just four months before Edwin’s eighteenth birthday — he came into the room where his mother was waiting for tea. He kicked the wood-fire for five minutes, whistled, spilled the matches, swore under his breath, and kicked them into the ashes.
‘I’ve enlisted,’ he said.
He looked guilty and ashamed, and he kicked the matches steadily and uneasily, his eyes bent on the floor.
His mother continued fussing with the tea-cups. Presently she said, ‘ I expected it.’ Her hand did not tremble, but for some reason she blushed like a young girl.
Instead of shopping and doing errands that afternoon, as she usually did, she walked. She walked in an unaccustomed part of the town. She went into a little park — an island of dusty green among shabby old houses — and sat down. The sun was very hot, in the later afternoon, slanting through the trees and zigzagging dazzling patterns on the walks and iron benches. She had forgotten her parasol, but she did not take the trouble to move into the shade. She sat motionless; her face was flushed from the heat, and its refined and delicate lines sagged with weariness, showing the innocent sadness and quiet pathos that we see sometimes on the faces of middle-aged, quite conventional women, when they are asleep or quite alone and off-guard, or after they are dead and laid out in their caskets.
In the distance a hurdy-gurdy was playing war-tunes. People passed to and fro on the gravel walks. The air was sweet and drowsy, with the chirping of sparrows and the high, sweet voices of children and the incessant purring and calling of the city.
There were three figures which sat silently on the benches that hazy October afternoon. A heavy, sodden woman in the corner, who was talking to herself and crying in a luxurious drunken stupor, dizzy and lulled from her misery; a young fellow with a consumptive’s cough, who was reading a stray page of a newspaper which the wind had been blowing about for days in the dirt; and the lady in lilac and black, sitting in the full glare of the sun, without a parasol.
A boy and a girl walked by and saw nothing. The boy was tall and slender; the girl reached only to his shoulder; but she was doing all the talking, in a shrill, very young voice, with a little grown-up emphasis, and she twisted her hands nervously and excitedly as she talked.
The mother watched them; she watched Edwin every time the piquant, sharp face, the soft mouth with its incessant flow of words, was turned upward in his direction. Impossible not to follow the expression in Edward’s eyes as he looked down at the top of her head, with its big bows bobbing. They walked side by side in the checkered sunlight, and the birds chirped, and the children called in their high, sweet voices, and the Vesper bells tolled the hour.
The mother stared after the retreating figures. She was aware of a sense of consternation. Her eyes clung to Edwin’s slight figure disappearing under the trees beside that of the girl. It brought a choking feeling into her throat, and she was reminded quite suddenly that she had had Edwin in this very spot sixteen years ago, being wheeled in his perambulator — a big, handsome, placid baby. She remembered how she had smiled to herself at the majestic and austere gait of the nurse — ’Just as if,’ she had thought indulgently, ‘she were pushing royalty! ’
The sun was very hot; she felt withered and close to tears. She got up abruptly and walked away.
The intoxicated woman watched her, grunting and murmuring to herself. The girl and boy came walking back slowly and sat down on the bench the lady had vacated.
‘I like you best of anybody I know,’ he said.
His voice trembled, and his eyes, sustained by some hidden energy, gazed steadily ahead. It was as if a shy animal had come suddenly out of his cave because he was hungry.
‘I think I love you,’ he said.
The girl sat motionless and silent, but the big bows fluttered like a butterfly poised on the chalice of a flower.
‘I think it is time to go home,’ said she, with a grown-up manner of acute propriety; her thin face, her little, thin, vivacious face was unable and too young to conceal its ecstasy. For a moment her head brushed his sleeve. ‘I like you,’ she said, in a little sharp voice. ‘I like you a hundred times better than mother or father,’ she added, with a frightened look at the sacrilegious thing she was saying. Her eyes were on a level with Edwin’s shoulder. She could smell the dry-grass odor of his rough tweed jacket. She sat silent and immovable as a statue, and so did he. ‘I love you,’ she said.
Edwin went into training. He came home only occasionally. He looked as gawky and boyish as ever, but his uniform gave him prestige in his home. The servants showed at once that they recognized the change. As they waited at table, they watched the glittering word inscribed across his shoulder-straps: ‘Canada.’ His mother’s attitude underwent a change, too. It reflected some of the tenderness and the infinite pride which she felt underneath, and was not tinged as formerly with much of a parent’s patronizing, possessive, and slightly contemptuous authority. Edwin squirmed a little under the new deference of her manner.
When he came home from the training-camp on his hasty visits, he was always out at tea-time. His mother wondered, and guessed shrewdly where he had been. At a bazaar where she was serving tea to soldiers, she noticed a girl who glanced often in her direction. Mrs. Byrne was immediately and subtly aware that she was an object of exciting interest to this girl, with a thin face framed in the big bows on the back of her hair. She went up to speak to her. The girl blushed, twisted her hands with embarrassment, and looked at her with very bright, shrewd eyes.
‘I want to talk to you,’ Mrs. Byrne said, pleasantly, ‘because I have seen you twice before, and because you know Edwin.’
The girl’s eyes devoured her when she said, ‘Edwin.’ With him she was a grown-up young lady, but with his mother she was a child on the rack before a stranger.
Beyond the most ordinary courtesies she had nothing to say. Mrs. Byrne smiled at her and she squirmed bashfully.
‘What children they are!’ the mother thought; ‘what children! what children! ’
A hint of amused condescension lurked in her smile, the polite surface reflection of an inner jealousy.
Nevertheless, when her son came home for a night, she intended to say to him, ‘Edwin, dear, don’t you think it would be nice? I’d so enjoy meeting the little Gilbert girl. She and I worked together at the bazaar. Could n’t we have her here to dinner? We could go to the theatre afterwards.’
She had thought this all out carefully. She meant to say it in a matterof-fact way that would not ruffle her son’s new dignity, for she had not forgotten the horror in his eyes the night after the opera, when she had suggested this same thing. She plucked up courage to make her little speech as he was drinking tea, although she was conscious that Edwin was preoccupied and not listening to her mild chatter. Absent-mindedly he pulled her little dog’s ears. Suddenly he said, —
‘Oh, by the way, mother.’
‘Hum, by the way,’ he said again; then, stumblingly, — ‘Er — Doris Gilbert told me she met you at some bazaar or something. They’ve been very nice to me, and I thought it would be only decent to ask her here to dinner, you know, and then go to the theatre, I suppose. There’s a ripping show in town now; I’d rather like to see it. You could send a note around by Jameson, could n’t you? ’
Mrs. Byrne’s tone was suitably cordial, yet matter-of-fact.
‘Why, yes; I think that would be a good idea. If they’ve been polite to you, you must be cordial in return.
Edwin seemed reassured, but he continued to pull Jackie’s ears without looking at his mother. He could guess that hateful amusement in her eyes bent cautiously on the tea-table.
‘She would n’t be allowed to go to the theatre without an older person, I suppose,’ he said hesitatingly; ‘so won’t you come with us?’
‘Why, certainly; I ’d love it,’ declared Mrs. Byrne enthusiastically.
She sat down and wrote the note, and Edwin took it and gave it to the errand boy. He returned to the library and, without looking at his mother, he lay down on the sofa and picked up a magazine.
‘Edwin, dear, don’t put your feet on the sofa.’
‘I’m sorry, mother.’
He realized helplessly that the tenseness of his anticipation was being communicated to his mother. He felt suddenly unable to endure her presence, and lounged out of the room, whistling. He wandered uncertainly all over the house, loitering at the windows and staring out, and finally up to the fourth floor, which was not used now. The big room at the corner had been his nursery before he went to school. The air was parched and motionless. He opened a window from which the iron bars had never been removed, and stood looking out. The evening wind blew past him. It tasted curiously and faintly of the sea. He stood there, twisting his hands like a nervous girl and staring out over the crouching roofs. It was sombre late afternoon, and the deep-tinted sky had absorbed all the warmth from the streets, leaving them dreary and windblown except for shafts of sunlight which glittered coldly on iron gateposts and window-panes. Carriages passed in a preoccupied procession, and a solemn hubbub arose from the city.
The boy at the window leaned his curly head against the iron bars. He felt remote and deliciously concealed in the darkness. His eyes were full of an almost painful preoccupation and avidity, and he sighed helplessly from the intensity and burden of his mood, his inability to cope with the fierce raptures and melancholy of his first love. Beneath it all there lurked a foreboding that made the wistfulness of it terrible.
‘At this time next year I’ll probably be dead,’ he said to himself.
He had enlisted, he was going to the war, and yet, until that moment death had seemed immeasurably remote. It had always been remote, except once when he was a small boy, when, for some reason, it had seemed near. He had cried of nights before going to sleep, and his mother had sat by his bed, and he had told her that he was sick, just because he felt too terribly ashamed to tell her that he was afraid. It was in this very corner room — in that little iron bed, now shrouded and pushed into a shadowy corner — that he had felt this fear. How it all came back, that agony of dread, clutching at his heart! Edwin smiled compassionately, and a little tremulously, at the small boy that he had been, with rumpled hair and scared eyes, sitting up in bed and crying to his mother and his nurse that he was sick. Now he closed his eyes and patently throttled this self-same fear. When he opened them again, a lamplighter was coming down the street, touching the lamps, which flared up faintly in the pale twilight. A grocer’s boy swung himself whistling on to his team and the horse trotted off contentedly, with no one holding the reins.
‘They ’ll go, too,’ thought Edwin, leaning out and seeing that the lamplighter and the grocer were youngsters. The fear began rapidly to abate. ‘ We’ll all go, all the boys together,’ thought Edwin; and he felt suddenly quite comforted and happy again. ‘All together,’ he repeated to himself. ‘Just for a moment we’ll be alone, and then all together.’
The grocer’s boy was whistling on his team, and a newsboy took up the tune. ‘All together — all together—all together,’ the refrain seemed to be. The boy at the window felt such a flood of comradeship surging through him that it carried away the fear. No thought of religion, none of the conventional religious and patriotic sermons which had been dealt out to Edwin and his friends at training-camps by fervid ministers, came back into his head.
Now, at the window in his old nursery, it was just this feeling that gave him almighty comfort. ‘We’ll all go together.’ And although he could not put his emotion into words, his pulse raced and he rejoiced to be part of that glorious company of boys — all together, and reckless in their desire to do a big share, surging, yelling, racing down to die.
An errand boy was coming down the street with a note, and Edwin saw him away off, and his heart gave a great, joyful bound and immediately he knew that he hated the thought of death, and all his boundless, boyish optimism rose and assured him that he, at any rate, would not be killed.
Doris arrived. Hair crimped, bows immense, her face radiant and anxious with the effort of appearing quite sophisticated and at ease.
‘Overdressed,’ Mrs. Byrne decided, as she welcomed her warmly, a vague superciliousness stealing into her manner.
It was not a very gay party, and Mrs. Byrne wandered if it were her fault. Edwin and the girl with the grown-up manners baffled her. They were so terribly polite to her, and addressed all their conversation to her, instead of to each other.
After dinner she kept saying, ‘Now don’t mind me; I’m an old lady and don’t expect any attention.’
But instead of putting them at their ease, everything she said in a playful or laughing manner made them more polite toward her, and more formal and more distant toward each other.
But at the theatre she sat one seat away, because they had not been able to get three seats together, and suddenly those two had a great deal to say. ‘What do they talk about?’ she wondered. All through the rest of the performance Mrs. Byrne asked herself if they could be engaged. No; the idea was too absurd. She only a baby — and Edwin! Why, he was a child, too, of course. She watched his big hand on the back of the seat, the strong blue veins running to the finger-tips, and the square set of his shoulders. ‘He’s only a child,’ she thought, stubbornly.
The ‘children’s’ low tones reached her occasionally.
‘You’ll forget me.’
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Yes, you will.'
‘No; you don’t know.’
‘Don’t know what?’
‘I’ll tell you some day.’
And so on —a duet, meaningless and stupid except for the two who understood it; the love-language of the race.
It was the language that Edwin was to carry in his speechless heart for two years. After the evening at the theatre his mother saw little of him. He seldom got home now. His regiment was awaiting orders to proceed secretly to France. Although she was expecting it momentarily, when the summons came it of course seemed sudden. Coming home from a walk, on one of those interminable autumn afternoons, the door was opened by her housemaid who explained in French, —
‘Mr. Edwin’s home from camp. He’s leaving in an hour. We tried to get hold of you. He’s leaving for the other side. He’s up on the fourth floor.’
As Mrs. Byrne brushed by her, the woman tried to compose her face to conceal that extraordinary excitement, almost pleasurable, partly nervous, which we see on the faces of people under the stimulus of a tragedy.
His mother sped up to the fourth floor, that part of the house which was never used now. She went up the stairs carpeted with sheeting, which had been laid down to keep the dust out. The stairs were still barred by a little white gate that had been put up to keep Edwin from falling when he was a baby. The blinds were drawn. A streak of light fell across a door ajar.
Edwin was standing in the dismantled room. He loomed up very big, a giant against the dwarfed child’s furniture that was stored there, shrouded in sheets like shriveled ghosts. Once he had not been able to reach his head above the table. He stood motionless in the middle of the room, the streak of sunlight striking him full in the eyes. What was he doing in that deserted nursery? Why was he there? At the rustle of his mother’s dress he started, and his face lost its dreamy expression.
‘It’s you,’ he said.
She went up to him and leaned against him.
‘So you have to go at once, Edwin,’ she said. She stroked his arm.
They sat down on two little children’s chairs in the middle of the shrouded room. They seemed to have nothing to say to each other. No; they were strangers so far as communion went, with the strange, terrible shyness which exists between members of the same family.
She held his hand, and leaned harder against him. It reminded her of an incident long ago, when she had sat just like this — with Edwin’s father. He was only a few years older than Edwin was now, when he married her, and he had seemed grown up to her! Oh, yes, entirely so, grandly grown up! She continued to lean against Edwin. For, after all, he might not confide in her, he might not tell her all his innermost thoughts as he probably did that little silly Doris, but he was flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone, just the same, — hers more than he could ever be anybody else’s, — and he loved her. He had nothing to say to her but what he would say to a stranger; but he had come from her body, she had suckled him at her breast, his first look of recognition had been for her. The first time he had held out his arms, it had been to her. The first word he had spoken had been, ‘Mother.’ Every memory and impression, every tendency of his childhood which would be the background upon which the remainder of his life would rest, was built upon her. She leaned against him and willed him to put his arm around her.
‘My only one — my only one!’ she moaned to herself. Aloud she said, ‘Edwin, dear, don’t forget to write to your Aunt Louisa from France. She’s so sensitive — she’ll be heartbroken. Now don’t forget to send a card or something, and don’t forget about writing me very often, darling; and remember about boiled drinking water, and all the little things like that. Be careful and sensible; there’s no use in running any more risk — ’
But Edwin was not listening. He withdrew his hand.
‘Mother,’ he said, abruptly, with a sort of desperation, ‘I suppose I’m too young to get married?’
Mrs. Byrne was taken aback.
Afterwards, in going over and over it in her mind, what he had said and what she had said, she feared that she had not been sympathetic enough. Of course, it was too absurd — married at seventeen! But it was not easy to tell him so, poor child. You see he felt that way, leaving for the front. This war made all such little affairs so poignant, which normally would have passed with a shrug.
‘It really would n’t be fair to yourself or to her,’ she said, in her reasonable voice, the voice which she had used toward him as a child, and which intimated, ‘ You ’re old enough to know better.’ ‘It would n’t do at all, dear; in four or five years, if you feel the same way — ’
‘But,’ said Edwin, coloring horribly, his eyes on the floor, ‘ but supposing I should get killed—of course I won’t,’ he added, grinning.
‘Oh, you won’t!’ cried his mother. But his words and his sheepish smile made her feel almost giddy. Beneath the terror cowered another sensation. How ridiculous that he should think that he cared seriously for that little common chit; that his mind should be on her now!
‘ You must n’t take it so seriously, Edwin,’ she said. ‘You’ll know dozens of girls before you find the right, one. Just because this is your first —’
Instantly she felt Edwin harden. It was the tone of patronage in her voice; the insinuation that he was too young to know the real thing.
The clock was striking downstairs — six. They went down together into Edwin’s room, and he showed her some of the things he had bought for his outfit. It was getting nearer to quarter past, six; she felt herself beginning to tremble. She watched Edwin put on his overcoat. Was it possible that he was going! The taxi was churning outside. What an incessant, impertinent noise it made! She wanted to scream it down. Thoughts whirled through her brain with the swiftness of a dream. What did he mean by going up to that forsaken nursery? How hard he had tried to say, ‘Supposing I am killed,’ when he had pleaded with her in his dumb way to find him old enough, and she had refused to admit the dignity of his childish love! By her patronizing attitude she had scoffed at it. After all, perhaps he was just reaching out his hand to grasp it alive, to fulfill it. Did he have a premonition that he would never know fulfillment?
Edwin reached for his hat. He put his arm around her and looked away. She longed to throw her whole weight against him, to let him see how she was trembling, how he was taking her life away, and the life of this waiting, breathless house with him. He was so dumb, so far away, even when he kissed her! But all of a sudden, looking up at him, she saw that Edwin was struggling with tears. Yes, he was almost crying — Edwin, who had not cried since he was twelve years old! who would rather die than have his mother see him cry!
‘O Edwin!’ she said; and there was a mixture of triumph in the despair of her cry.
He broke away from her, ran down the steps, lifted his cap, got into the taxi — and was gone!
That night she heard the sound of marching feet in the distant street. She sat up in bed and listened to that sound. It seemed as elemental and eternal as thunder or the beating of waves. The window was open, and the city was very still. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Presently it grew fainter and ceased. She shut the window and lay down and slept, but all night they marched with her in her dreams, and sometimes they passed close to her and their faces were averted — but she knew them. They were all — every one of them — Edwin’s.
Soldier boy, soldier boy, where are you going?
That rollicking air she had sung to Edwin, that small, placid boy sitting in her lap. Her nurse had sung it to her. Just a nursery song, with its sinister question, ‘Where are you going?’ It ran through her head night and day, and whenever she heard marching men, they marched for her to that tune. Now, after two years, she still found herself humming it unconsciously when she was alone. It was with her as she read Edwin’s letter.
It was autumn when Edwin left. The last of the year came round once more and passed into winter. Edwin was still in France. The second autumn of his absence was interminable. The atmosphere seemed to be waiting quietly, hopelessly, as a prisoner in his cell waits for death.
Mrs. Byrne’s house was quiet. It seemed to be waiting, too. It had been waiting silently these two years. Mrs. Byrne could hear the sound of her own breathing as she sat in the library, reading Edwin’s letters. She read his latest one, received that morning, and she sighed. For months he had been talking of leave, and always it was delayed. His letters were not very satisfactory. They were stilted and were like the required letters which boys write home on Sundays from boardingschool. Edwin’s letters were dumb and immature, like himself. They evoked tenderness because of their self-consciousness and inadequacy, but they were not the spontaneous and precocious accounts of impressions of the war which could be read aloud, with tremulous, surreptitious pride and a fluttering heart, to a little circle of admiring friends.
Mrs. Byrne had a friend who made a collection of such letters. She was the invalid Mrs. Brett, the eager confidant of many young people in town; also of their mothers, from whom she begged these letters from the front.
‘I don’t care what the graybeards and writers who’ve never been there have to say about it,’ she said to Mrs. Byrne. ‘The men over thirty-five talk too much. I want to hear what the boys, who are doing it, say. It’s their war, you know.’
There was one letter which struck Mrs. Byrne’s fancy. She kept looking at it.
‘That was given me by a little girl friend of mine. She would n’t tell me his name — but she had reams from him, so I guess it was her very best friend. Such fine, interesting letters, too. She only gave me parts. Read it,’ she said to Mrs. Byrne, who could not take her eyes from its closely written pages.
‘You ask me,’ said the young writer, ‘what the war is like. Sometimes it’s all right; but when I think about it, it reminds me of an incident when I was a little boy. Some one gave me a glass jar with a cover, and I went out into the garden and collected all the insects I could find. At first I thought it was fun to see them go spinning desperately round and round, the big ones racing over the little ones, and all so anxious. It gave me a kind of pleasure to watch them, because they could n’t escape; but afterwards I felt kind of sick and I buried them in a corner of the garden where I never played; but always I had the feeling that it was still there, and at night I dreamed I was one of them, just a speck running desperately in circles, too, and all of them on top of me, and trampling me, and no way out, just to keep on running hideously.’
Mrs. Byrne was so much touched by this letter that she asked her friend to give it to her.
‘Edwin used to collect insects like that and torture them,’ she said. ‘It was a phase he went through when he was little.’
‘ We all go through phases, as we develop. The world is going through a phase like that now,’ said Mrs. Brett. ‘Presently it will feel sick, too, and we grown-ups will have that guilty feeling that “it” is still there. All these young bodies under the earth,’ she murmured to herself.
Mrs. Byrne took the letter home and put it away among Edwin’s. The handwriting on all the letters was the same. Wistfully, Mrs. Byrne, sitting in her library that autumnal afternoon, reread Edwin’s short prosaic letters to herself. The postscript of the last one was more encouraging.
‘I surely expect to get leave soon, for six weeks — any time now.’
So he wrote to Doris ‘reams,’ her friend had said, and he told her everything, and when he came back he would want to marry her — or at least be formally engaged. He was twenty now. Mrs. Byrne knew that she would not oppose it. Could she still tell him he was too young, when for these two years he had been enduring the things which only the very young have the fortitude to bear?
She read the postscript again, in which he spoke so confidently of a ‘ furlough.’ Blithely he would come sailing home over the sea within whose treacherous gelatine heart lurked the enemy waiting with patience. The house would ring with his voice. The cadence of his laughter would break the spell of these silent halls and rooms. He would come back, familiar and amazing; but — the mother smiled tenderly and very queerly — but only to be out all the time with some one else, in some one else’s house. Hers was the biggest and the grandest house in town, but she was sure it was the quietest. Its stillness was intense, as if the rooms were waiting, holding their breath to listen. The shadows were deepening and reaching out shaggy arms up the white stairway.
Gradually it seemed to Mrs. Byrne that some one was calling from the fourth floor, ‘Mother! Mother!’ It was only her imagination, but it recalled something of long ago which had slipped from her memory — how Edwin used to call to her at one time, when he was little, and had fits of being afraid at night.
‘Mother, mother, I’m sick!’ She could all but hear him now, like that. She had known that he was not sick, but afraid; but she had said nothing, and had sat night after night by his bedside till he dropped off to sleep again.
French-Canadian mothers hold to a superstition that when their sons fall in battle they can hear them calling, ‘ Mother, mother!' Mrs. Byrne thought of this and she listened; but only the wind moved restlessly through the fog on the banks, and the sea strained at the aching pebbles and whispered to the impassive shore.
The same surly waters. An untidy, hurrying seaport town on the channel. A bleak park rustling with filthy papers and débris. Some overturned benches, and the tossing sea, and a soldier’s form silhouetted against it. A very young soldier, one could tell by the solid boyishness of his shoulders, and by that particularly naïve and youthful look at the back of the head.
A woman sat watching him, but the soldier did not see her. He was looking out to sea. She approached him and spoke to him, holding out her hands with the gesture of a beggar. He regarded her with pity and aversion, not unmixed with fright. He walked away, pretending not to see her, and entered the hotel. He was ragged and dirty and emaciated; his long, straight hair fell over his forehead, and his eyes looked through it like an unkempt dog’s. This gave him a shaggy, almost ferocious expression.
He lounged into the hotel and bought a box of cigarettes from the woman at the desk. She smiled at him uncertainly. She was a middle-aged woman, with a big, motherly breast.
‘Monsieur part chez lui en permission?’ she asked.
He smiled at her shyly, a smile on his lean face which always appealed to women.
‘Qu’il est jeune, qu’il est beau!’ thought the woman. She watched him go upstairs, smoking a cigarette.
Upstairs, in the dreary vastness of the hotel bedroom, with the lace curtains and plush furniture heavy and grim with dust, he overhauled his kit. He took out some of his filthy clothes and, putting them in the grate, he lit a match and burned them. His face wore the same look of aversion with which he had regarded the woman.
He stretched himself on the bed and went to sleep. His long, fair hair came over his eyes, and gave him that shaggy, half-ferocious aspect, and he slept with a frown on his face — the pathetic, innocent frown that we see on the faces of children in slumber.
There came a knock on the door, and a telegram was pushed in from underneath. There came three knocks, but the boy did not waken. Soldiers who have been on the firing-line do not waken easily; but the rustle of the paper under the door worried the sleeper. Once he started, shouting in his sleep; then he smiled, started up, and saw the yellow square of paper lying on the floor. It seemed to be blinking at him.
Fifteen minutes later, the woman at the desk saw him come downstairs and pass out through the door. He had his kit in his hand.
‘ Le bateau ne part que ce soir, monsieur,’ she called after him.
‘I am not going home; I’m going back,’ he said, pointing in the opposite direction. He showed her his telegram, which was a summons back to the front. His senior officer had been killed, and his furlough had been postponed indefinitely. Edwin smiled, for fear she should fathom the depth of his disappointment; and she was touched by the appeal of that smile, with the infinite sadness of its youthfulness.
Outside, the bleak wind whistled over the dreary park. The ocean tossed and sifted, sobbing softly. The soldier walked away in the direction he had pointed.
Soldier boy, soldier boy, where are you going?
Back went Edwin, of course, to the noise of modern warfare, and, through the noise, suffocated and stunned to nothingness by the screaming of the shells, the rasping voices of young men calling hoarsely to one another.
They were making a trench-attack.
With startling suddenness, from one of the countless intersecting, criss-cross ditches which looked like excavations in a desert, yelling, kicking against the mud, came a company of brown-clad figures.
‘One, two, three, four, charge!’
The brown line struggled forward, heads down, running, feet kicking against the grip of the mud. The faces and the bodies of the men were contorted with the effort of running ankledeep in mud, like men drowning. They ploughed forward, held back by something, like men passing through a bog. The atmosphere was full of specks and masses, as if seen through dirty spectacles. Against this tornado of black hail, the line wavered. Some fell back in somersaults, and rolled over and over with hideous suddenness. It gave the line the appearance of a child’s toy attached to a string which was being bobbed forward and backward without ever getting there — or of insects struggling out of a disrupted home.
One slim, brown-clad figure forged ahead with marvelous safety, head down, straight, fair hair tossing in his eyes, which had the expression of eyes held open under water. He waved his arms and called hoarsely. His human voice was stifled to emptiness under the crying of the shells, but it was wonderful to see him running safely amid the hailstorm of bullets, and the greenand-blue flare of the trench-fuses, and the explosions of the shells devouring and burrowing into the dumb, shuddering earth. The mud was whipped like the sea under the rain of the bullets all about him, and he kept on running.
The brown line moved forward with horrible slowness. It was made jagged by the dozens who fell rolling over and over. The leader, panting desperately, and gathering all his strength for the leap, was struck down a few yards away from the opposing trench, where, against the shadow of the rampart, was silhouetted a grim row of helmets.
The brown line passed over the leader, trampling him into the soft mud, and jumped into the trench. One comrade stopped for the breath of a second.
‘That you, Edwin?’ he called to the crumpled body, choking blood.
Queer that that huddled, writhing figure in the mud, four yards before the enemy’s trench, could still think; but his head was full of fancies and thoughts which seemed to fill the whole world, like insects, innumerable countless insects which swarmed. They swarmed inside of a glass jar, they ran ten deep over each other, and he felt sorry for them to the point of sickness, because of their eagerness to live. His whole being crawled with utter repulsion, and he tried to rouse himself and shake them off in a frenzy of disgust and horror, for they were treading upon him — he could feel them treading him hideously to death.
He screamed to his mother and nurse that he was sick, and his mother came and sat by his bedside, and he was ashamed to tell her that he was afraid. The world was full of troubled, noisy darkness. It traveled a long way off. His mother was a long way off, too, but some one was there with him. Strange, and stranger still that those big bows of ribbon pressing against his shoulder could hurt him so much.
Mrs. Byrne took Edwin’s death quietly. She was outwardly contained and, as usual, an attitude of crushed, desperate bravado appealed to her friends as wonderful. ‘No one would know,’ people said, admiringly; and no one did know. Only her face betrayed her. It became old and curiously small and withered, and when her friends comforted her a little too persistently and tried to penetrate the frozen armor of her grief, she said simply, —
‘I never loved any one but Edwin.'
Her pent-up despair was physically painful, and she felt no desire to relieve herself by sharing it. She was afraid she would ‘break down,’ as she expressed it. She did not feel the necessity of crying except, overwhelmingly, in the presence of people — boys especially, tanned square-shouldered boys in khaki.
One sat in front of her with his sister, in church. The clergyman read the lesson — from the thirteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’ The boy sat erect and decorous, and his untroubled glance roamed the church; but Mrs. Byrne, sitting behind him, suddenly wanted to cry out and beat her breast as savages do in an ecstasy of religious fervor. ‘ Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’ Above all, ‘Hopeth all things’ — yes, that was like Edwin. It was like all the boys in this war. She was so overcome with emotion that she had to leave the church.
She was at a dressmaker’s only five days after the official news of Edwin’s death. Many people were ordering mourning, it seemed. Two war-widows were ahead of her. She was put into a fitting-room and politely requested to wait. A discussion was going on on the other side of the partition. A girlish, high-pitched voice, contending, and the worried, low tones of an older woman.
‘Darling, it would n’t do.’
‘Why not?’ in a hard, sharp staccato.
‘Because, dear, you’re too young; it would make a very wrong impression.'
‘What impression?’ ‘Why, that you were engaged, or something. It would be absurd, dear. I’m older; take my word for it.’ And then, in gentle remonstrance, ‘ There was nothing serious between you.’
Mrs. Byrne listened. There was dead silence on the other side of the partition; then the curtain trembled; some one was crying. Between the curtain and the door Mrs. Byrne could see a girl with her head in her mother’s lap: an incongruous picture, draped in a long, black garment of imposing mourning. The mother, horrified, was trying to calm her, but she would not be calmed. The big black bows on the small head shook convulsively.
‘I — don’t see—why I can’t wear it! I — will, too — wear it. I will — have crêpe on — me. Stop — saying — “ hush! ” If — he — was old — enough — to fight this — war — I’m old enough — We were — we were the next thing to engaged.’
She raised her tear-stained face, and, still crying, her head on her arm, she drew the mourning more closely about her thin shoulders; choking desperately, as she rose she tripped all over the absurd garment.
‘How can you say it was n’t serious, when I ’ll never forget him or be happy again — never — never — never!’ she cried to her mother, who cringed and with a horrified face continued to say, ‘Sh —sh!’
But it was too late; some one had heard — the little lady in the next fitting-room, whose dress was half unbuttoned, and whose mild face as she drew aside the curtains looked scared as only mild faces can look.
‘Don’t,’ said Mrs. Byrne; ‘don’t say “sh!” Oh, Mrs. Gilbert, let her wear it. He did like her. He loved her — the best; but I thought just what you did — that he was — too young; but you understand.’ She choked, and her face became quite queer. ‘We found them old enough to send them out there to the horror.’ She fumbled with palsied hands at her unbuttoned waist; she tried helplessly to control her voice. ‘She’s right; this is her sorrow. Let it be black, all black. It’s all black for them.’
Just then the dressmaker came in. She found the two ladies staring hysterically at each other, and a little girl half-dressed in a mourning gown which had been designed for a stately widow.
‘Mrs. Byrne, I’m ready for you,’ she said. ‘That’s a stunning dress your daughter has on, Mrs. Gilbert; but I could give her something more suitable.’
‘We’ll order this,’ said her customer.
‘With crêpe on it, and like this,’ said the girl, with cheeks aflame. Mrs. Byrne tried on her gown and went home. She hurried all the way as if she were afraid of being too late for an engagement. She opened the front door with her latchkey and stole stealthily up the four flights to the sheeted room at the corner. A little white gate stood open expectantly. Two stubby little children’s chairs were drawn up amicably together in the middle of the room. Over by the window a chair looked as if it had been placed there for her by some one. Alone amid the whispering memories of this shrouded room, Mrs. Byrne allowed herself the luxury of thinking of nothing but Edwin.
At the dressmaker’s, a very young girl, self-important but painstaking, as a bride should be, was still selecting and fussing over her mourning.