The Void of Fear

TAKE two ordinary Tommies coming down the lane. Some people would see them only as a brutal and besotted soldiery, — or at best, as no-account creatures, who drop their aitches, — not interesting or notable in any way. And when I see them, it is the Immortality of the Soul, and the Vision of the Future, and the Glory of England, and the Marvelousness of Man, and the Great Renunciation, and the Great Attainment — a whole nebula of capital letters. And they are just two ordinary Tommies all the time. But what is there that’s ordinary in the world?

As we sat overlooking Lens and Vimy the other day, the captain and I, there came up to us an ugly little Canadian Tommy, astray from the camp below. Without the least regard to decencies, disciplines,‘circles, spheres, lines, ranks, everything,’ he came up to us as bold as brass and entered quite cheerfully into conversation.

The captain was staggered, and tried to strike a mien between acquiescence and a due repressiveness. For it was such preposterous impudence — or it would have been, if the lad had had the slightest idea that it was impudence at all, or what august proprieties he was violating. But it was immediately clear that he was perfectly innocent and naïf: it Was like a little new boy cheerily engaging the captain of the eleven in chat, without the slightest notion of the enormity he was committing. Of course, had this not been so, and, of course, had he been English, he would not have been allowed to go on another minute. As it was, we tried cold, short answers, unresponsive without being positively crushing. It was not the least use: he babbled on at us, quite unchilled. We then tried flight, but he pursued us; we scattered across the face of the moorland, but he would not be detached. Finally, we gave up and collapsed under a grassy trench-ridge, in front of the view. And he came with us, and sat down gayly at our side, and prattled along undaunted.

And then, at last, I began to understand the hectic fever of his speech, and his hungry, undefeatable cordiality. That poor little soul was face to face with the extremity of mortal terror. This was his very first day up at the front, it appeared; he did not know a single soul, had not a single friend or even an acquaintance to talk to — everything was utterly strange to him, filled with the void of fear. For there before him was Vimy Ridge, on which his only brother had been killed a few months earlier, and now lay namelessly buried; and down in front of him was Lens, a smashed-up skeleton of anguish and death: and all that fearful landscape empty of everything but waste and murder and martyrdom. It was out into that that he himself was to go, at any moment. He was frantic to hold on to the light and warmth of life a little longer while it lasted.

He knew, and we knew ourselves, that in a few days he would almost certainly be dead. We were human beings like himself, and he did not care who or what: he merely craved the warm-bloodedness of our presence, and the sound of human speech going on continually to drown his own thoughts.

It is a dreadful thing, that high extremity of suffering which feverishly hides behind a curtain of prattle. One hears the silence inside, and the deadly cold. Yet what can one do? Uttermost loneliness is the place where we all live, when the big things come along.

We bore with him, in a dull, useless ache, realizing impotently the clutching agony of his need to stay linked on; in face of which, one could only be inarticulate at the best. And at last he got up with a wrench, and said that ’a man down there’ (the only person, it seemed, he had spoken to out here yet, and he had no notion more of him, or who he was) had said that he ought to be back in camp at such a time.

It was a relief at last to have something we could say. We all wished him good luck, as he went. ‘ Good luck, you fellows,’ he answered breezily; and vanished over the brow of the hill, dark against the glare of the west.

We, ourselves, went down soon after.