by LT. LAURENCE CRITCHELL
IT WAS still raining outside. It was so wet that even the crows had ceased their arguments from tree to tree. The only sounds in the whole local English world were the dripping of water on the tent walls and a lonesome fragment of music now and then from the direction of the area where the enlisted men lived. Lieutenant Stack wholeheartedly missed his wife. He had been in England for so long now that sometimes the memory of her grew a little dim, like the memory of so many things at home. Missing her, she seemed very close. She was standing at the door of the tent in the dim wet gloom, wearing a white dress. He got up and shook himself. He’d do something. He’d have to do something. Walk to town, maybe. Any change at all, even town, was better than this somberness, those dripping trees, that far-off music.
He felt a little sorry for himself. An hour ago the other officers — all of them except the O.D. — had gone to a dance at the club, seven miles away. He had stayed behind because of classes for Monday. On the retraction of the bolt, the driving spring is compressed on the driving spring rod, cushioning the force of the recoil. The remainder of this force is absorbed in the buffer plates, which, when adjusted in tension, vary the cyclic rate of fire. He was heartily sick of that gun.
The latrine was cold. There was no hot water; the enlisted men who were detailed as firemen had gone to a Red Cross dance in town several hours before. He cursed a little under his breath. It was nine days since the rain had started; now everything was damp — the boards, the floor, the walls, even the two mirrors. He studied his face critically in the glass. Thinner and older. There were small crow’sfeet around his eyes. He wondered what his wife would think of him when he got back. He remembered what she had looked like that afternoon when he had come home and told her he had to go overseas. She had sat and looked at him and smiled, as she had promised to do, but slow tears came in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. Even after all these months, his memory of that moment was vivid. It warmed him inwardly as he shaved.
To be married and in love and overseas was, he reflected, a mixed blessing. At home he scarcely ever looked at other women. But over here it was different. He envied the single officers’ freedom of mind. At the party tonight some Army nurses were coming down from the near-by evacuation hospital; everybody would have Scotch, brought from London, and when they returned they would have had enough excitement to keep them quiet for the week to follow — or reasonably quiet. War did funny things to men and women. If you were married and in love with your wife you could go for quite a while with just the memory of the things you did together for company. But there were other times when that solace failed, home grew very far away, the remembered intimacies dim.
Rain and work did it sometimes. He felt it strongly tonight. As he changed his parachute wings from the shirt to the blouse he wondered if when he got to town he would stay by himself. It was fairly easy to find a girl in town. The English civilian girls were friendly and the WAFS and the ATS were just as lonely as all soldiers. When he swung on his raincoat a stray passage from Charlotte Bronte came back to him out of the English gloom and the rain — something from Jane Eyre: that principles were only for the times when the senses ruled. Then he laughed at himself and swung out into the rain.
It was a long walk to town. He was lucky. A jeep on its way out of the area had been stopped at the gate by the sentry.
“Going to town?” he asked the driver.
The man nodded. Lieutenant Stack climbed into the front seat. They went very fast once they were clear of the gate. The driver said he was going to the railroad station to pick up an officer. Stack lit a cigarette. He leaned in out of the wind to smoke it.
The countryside looked sodden after so much rain. The haystacks, piled only the week before, had settled down to half their former size and now were dull yellow. Save for a single woman on a bicycle, who pulled her skirts over her knees as they passed, no one was abroad. The jeep swept up onto an overpass above some railroad tracks and then for a little space ran parallel with a train, which clicked along quietly not far from them. Its smoke was whiter than the sober clouds. Hedgerows flickered by. A few houses, cobblestones, a pub. And then suddenly they were in town.
“Where are you going, sir?”
Stack named the better of the two movie houses. “You can let me off at the station,” he said. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
But the driver drove all the way to the theater. “Damn!” Stack said as they came up. “I’ve seen it.”
The people waiting to get inside looked at them curiously as they went away. On another bridge along the road a small blonde girl was talking to a soldier. She caught Stack’s eye as he went past. He smiled at her. That was harmless, at any rate. But he went on thinking about her — and he was still thinking about her when the driver let him off at the Regal. Lifeboat was playing. He did not tell the man that he had seen this one too. He returned the salute and walked down the street.
BEDOINGFORD on busy weekdays looked a little like a French fishertown. It had the same bustle, the same smallness, the same kind of smells. The meat shops had the old familiar odors of raw meat and marble, the bread shops smelled like French bread shops, and one sometimes looked to see people carrying long rolls. But the queues of women lined up to get their rations of food on weekdays w’ere not the sort of thing Stack remembered of pre-war France.
Nor were the powdered eggs in the store windows, the pitiful emptiness of the restaurants, which were almost always too cold, the ration stamp notations on the suits in the clothing stores. In the stationery places you could buy writing paper with the insignia of the ATS or the WRENS on it, but the plain writing pads were only scratch paper and the books were almost all old ones.
The people who shopped looked shabby. The women wore no stockings. Only the younger girls had any lipstick — American soldiers had given it to them. They were cheery people but they were hard pressed for the necessities of life, and sometimes you got the impression that they looked a little weathered, like their old brown houses, the worndown cobblestones, the eternal gray sky.
This night was Saturday. Everyone was out. As Stack walked towards the Quarter Arms Hotel, where there was a bar, he looked at the girls who passed him. His flesh was hungry. He had lost the vivid awareness of his wife. The war seemed utterly meaningless. One girl, passing, brushed against him. He jumped. Well, he thought, it served him right. He should have gone to the party, got high, forgotten everything retractions of bolts, absorption of recoil, Monday’s commitments, his wife - everything.
The bar of the Quarter Arms Hotel was paneled in wood, like the smoking room of an English club. Despite this luxury, it was still considered a pub by the men of the town, who came into it in their working clothes and stood about smoking and talking. For some reason, few women came into the place. On this evening an American WAC, a second lieutenant, blonde, plump, and rather pretty, was standing at the doorway talking to some glider pilots. She was the only woman. The room was thick with tobacco smoke. Stack pushed his way through the knots of men to the bar, saying “Thank you,” as was the English custom.
A captain of his acquaintance was standing there. “Going to the dance?” asked the man.
Stack paused. “Too late, isn’t it?”
“There’s another bus supposed to come by in ten minutes. It’s the last one.”
Stack shook his head slowly. “I’ll think it over,” he said. Then, to the girl: “Bitters, please. She was thin and tall and not pretty.
“One, three and a half,” she said, bringing him the glass. He gave her a half crown and waited for the change, swallowing the bitters in large mouthfuls. It was served in a smaller glass than the ales and had a sharper flavor; it was the only English drink he cared for. When the girl gave him the change, he moved into the center of the room. This was his last chance, he reflected. He could catch the bus and go out to the dance and that would be the end of that. He stood by a table and drank the bitters, wondering what to do. A staff sergeant beside him lifted his glass to someone across the room. Fragments of conversation came to him: “. . . doing all right, you know . . .” and “Birdy was the jockey for the Duke of Westminster. . .”
He wondered what his wife would want him to do. She was unselfish — she’d tell him to go. She told him that when he left. She trusted him. And that was the whole trouble: he wished he trusted himself. He knew what happened to him over here when there were women around. The war had made it that way. Friends killed, death something to be checked off on a roster, youngsters with the fuzz scarcely off their cheeks machine-gunning other men. On the retraction of the bolt. ... It put you off your balance. You wanted to go out and drink and raise hell and kiss all the girls in the world and make it up somehow — you wore not quite sure how. Principles were for the times — But what were principles in a world where youngsters out of high school, who should have been making love and growing up and learning a job, were busy machinegunning other men?
He took the unfinished bitters and joined the captain. But the bus never came.
In the next half-hour he visited the other three pubs in town. They were dark little places full of smoke and conversation, where drinks were served through a little window like a cashier’s cage and where American soldiers stood around and joked with the villagers. Well-behaved, quiet soldiers, looking neatly dressed. But he could not find anyone to talk to. He wandered for a while through t he back streets of town where the poor people lived and he crossed the bridge by the railroad where he had seen the girl with blonde hair. But she was gone. In desperation at last he took a place in the queue of people waiting to see the second showing of Lifeboat. He would go home after that.
As he joined the line, someone came up and stood beside him. It was a girl.
She wore a neat tweed suit. The collar of her blouse under her raincoat was clean and starched. Her hair was clean, too, and it had been recently waved. She wore no stockings, but that was common enough in England; her shoes were neat. He looked at her face. She was not unattractive, he thought. She looked intelligent. She had her profile to him, but he could see that, her eyes were blue. She was frowning a little. He looked away. The queue of people moved up and as he followed she moved with him.
He wondered about her. She didn’t seem to be the kind of person you spoke to easily. But he liked her looks and he could tell that she was conscious of him. His wife was vague in his mind. If he had wanted someone to talk to in the early part of the evening, now, after walking through the rainy streets of town alone, he was desperate for it. He was too far gone for argument. The right or wrong of it could come later. As he moved towards the booth he thought of how he would do it. It was simple enough. He would buy two tickets and look at her as he stepped aside, and if she followed him that would be that.
There were only two more couples to go. It was now or not at all. He fumbled in his wallet for a tenshilling note and glanced once again at the girl. He was ashamed to realize that his heart was pounding. The last couple had gone. The girl stepped aside for him and he understood then that she would go with him if he wished. He did not think of his wife. She was far away in the background of the war, no part of this world of rain, of queues of people, of soldiers far from home.
“Two, please,” he said, looking at the girl. This time their eyes met. He looked back at the cashier. “Two and nine.” Then he stepped aside with the tickets, and the girl, after a moment of hesitation, followed him into the theater.
BY American standards it was dark inside the theater. There were no half-lights and the exit lamps were only small bulbs. He and the girl waited in the darkness for the usher to come back. They could see nothing. He was wondering what to say to her, when she broke the silence first.
“I’ve seen this before,” she said. “In London.”
“So have I,” he answered. “In New York.” She laughed. He was pleased by her voice. It was low and rather toneless but it sounded sensible. They stumbled down the aisle in the wake of the bobbing flashlight.
Of the two cinemas in Beddingford, the Regal was the more modest. Upstairs, where there was a restaurant, you could sit in comparative grandeur, helped to your seat by a girl with a very bright flashlight. Tickets for the balcony cost as much as four and six, where downstairs they cost only two and nine. But the downstairs seats were better. The air was cooler there and — since people could smoke anywhere in the theater— clearer.
Little by little as his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could make out the audience sitting around them —two English officers of the Royal Engineers directly in front, one wearing hornrimmed spectacles; two girls at his side and, beyond them, a very fat woman who was alone. The fat woman looked over once and smiled at them. He was pleasantly conscious of being a couple.
“Do you like her?” asked the girl, leaning close to him to whisper.
“I do,” said the girl, straightening up. He looked at her once and met her eyes. He could feel his blood mount a little. He was surprised how hungry he had been for the touch of a woman. Even the sight of her sitting beside him in the dimness was pleasing. Her whispered comments were critical and sensible, he decided. And he liked the fragrance of her hair when she leaned close. He tried to think of things to whisper back to her. It made him feel a little like a schoolboy. He realized that the war had done this; he was accustomed to living in the field. With the girl he felt young, inexperienced. It made him smile. When the picture ended he was so lost in thoughts that he forgot to stand still at the first bars of “God Save the King.”
“ It was better the second time,” she said when they were outside. She refused the cigarette he offered her.
“Where would you like to go?” he asked, lighting one himself.
“There really isn’t any place, you know. The pubs are closed by now,” — she looked at her watch, — “and they don’t have any clubs here as they do in London.”
“Let’s just walk, then.”
“All right,” cheerfully. “We can walk to where I live, if you like. There’s an RAF field out there, you know.”
HE COULD think of few things he cared less about, that moment, than the Royal Air Force. But he nodded and took her arm and they started out. It was ten o’clock, yet the sky was still bright. She was a good walker. She had the firm, independent stride of the young English girl. For the first time that evening the cold rainy wind in his face was pleasurable.
“I never know whether I like England or hate it,” he said aloud, smiling.
“Why should you hate it?”
“It’s the first foreign country I’ve ever been in that I can’t leave when I want to.”
“That sounds rather spoiled.”
“Don’t the English think all Americans are spoiled?”
“Yes,” she said candidly. “Don’t you?”
He nodded. They both laughed at that. He told her his name. Hers was Leslie Bean. She was mairied. Her husband was a maritime lawyer in London. They had been separated for half a year. She worked for the Food Administration Bureau in Beddingford and lived with her sister and was trying to save enough money for a divorce. “It’ll be a bit of a pull, I’m afraid,” she said ruefully. “I make five pounds a week and that has to do for everything.”
Ashamed of his own income of a hundred pounds a month, after what they had just said about Americans, he said nothing. They crossed a canal bridge and came into that part of town where the houses thinned out and gave way to trees and hedgerows. Shortly they passed the RAF airdrome, where it was noisy with motors and gusts of wind. He thought of where the pilots would be in a little while and grimaced. A few WAFS on bicycles, their stockings black, went by them with a ting-a-ling. This made the girl smile.
“You know,” she said amusedly, “it’s going to be hard for a lot of English girls when the war is over.”
“How do you mean?”
“ I mean that a lot of them have got used to the American soldiers. You people— I don’t know — you all seem so well built, physically.” She looked at him appreciatively and laughed. “Then you’re more direct and you talk more. Our men are so quiet. It takes ages and ages to get to know them; and even when you do get to know them, they don’t say very much.”
“They’re talkative enough when they’re together,” he said, thinking of the pubs.
“They’re at home among themselves.”
“One thing I’ve found out about you,” he said. “I thought the English were shy. That’s not true.”
“It’s because of the war. The war has done a lot of things for us.”
For a while after that their footsteps on the wet road were the only sound. The rain had turned to a light drizzle. In the prolonged twilight of that time of year in England the small hills, the small fields, the great trees, looked oddly precise. It was lonesome once they were past the airdrome. He began to be conscious of her physically again. He wondered what had happened between her and her husband.
“My husband is living with another woman, she said unexpectedly. “At least I think he is.
“Oh.” He was silent again. The tone of her voice made him feel a little sorry for her.
“Tell me about your wife,” she urged.
“How can a man tell anybody else about his wife?”
“She’s the sort of woman who looks at home in a field in summer, in a white dress, waiting for the children to catch up with her.”
“I do envy her.”
“D’you suppose she’d mind your being with me?”
“I guess she would,” he said. “But I think she’d understand.”
“You’re happily married.”
“Marriage is funny.” She was quiet for a moment, thinking. “When you get married you think it’s the end of everything — everything you did before and the kind of person you were, everything. And you’re glad. And for a while it’s that way. But when you get used to it —” She sighed. “Well, you start becoming the person you were beforehand. Which you don’t want. And presently, if things don’t work out too well, you wonder if you wore ever married at all. It feels like a dream.”
He was struck by the wretchedness in her voice. He put his arm around her waist. She seemed not to have noticed. They walked along quietly, saying nothing. The forest ended in a row of fields, ambushed behind hedges. “This way,” she said, turning into a narrow country lane. Once under the trees the tardy night closed around them. There was a smell of wet flowers. The trees arched overhead, making a shelter, and in the gloom he could just barely see her moving beside him. But he was conscious of her body moving as they walked.
“How much farther?” he asked.
“To the next bend.”
When they came to a rotted log set back off the road near the hedge he stopped. “Let’s sit here for a few minutes,” he said.
They found a flat space on the log where the rot had weathered down into a natural seat. He offered her a cigarette and for a little while they smoked and said nothing. The world of town had withdrawn. Somewhere out of sight in the fields beyond the hedgerow a cowbell clanked now and then. There was no other sound. A few gnats found them; then a breeze that sent a shower of drops down from the leaves overhead blew the gnats away. She shivered a little. He put his arm around her. They talked for a space and were silent again, musing, and finally she turned up her head.
“Funny, isn’t it?” she said a moment later. She had a stick in her hand and was turning over the leaves underfoot, one by one.
He listened attentively. He didn’t feel like talking.
“I mean this sort of thing,” she said. “Dees it seem wrong?”
“It doesn’t to me, either. And yet it should be. It should be all wrong. Then sometimes you do the right thing and get married properly, just as everything should be, and everything goes all wrong.” She poked a hole through a sodden leaf. “I don’t understand.”
“Perhaps you think too much,” he ventured.
“You do, too,” indignantly. He grinned and was silent. The rain had stopped. The last light of the day had not yet died outside the trees, but in the forest it was wholly dark. They smoked another cigarette and after a while she put her head on his shoulder, wearily and simply. The smell of her hair was clean and rich. “Perhaps it’s the war,” she said dreamily. “If the war hurts you, you get to needing someone. If marriage hurts you, you get to needing someone, too.”
“I guess you’ve hit it,” he said.
“You’re an odd sort of person to be a paratrooper.”
“It was a case of getting out of an ivory tower by jumping.”
“Have you done it?”
“Let’s not talk,” he said.
They had come to the deep center of the night. In the sheltered lane under the heavy trees there was no light, no sound, no movement. Even the lonely clank of the cowbell had ceased. He had stopped wondering about anything. At other times in his life there had been things like this. It was wrong and yet it was right. He bent down to her again.
“Do you think I’m cheap?” she asked at length.
“I’m not, you know. It’s just that—” She waited and shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t understand.”
“None of us do, these days,” he said.
She buried her head on his shoulder. Somewhere out of sight a crow made a funny wailing sound, like a lost dog. Off towards London, very far away, there was a faint whisper of an explosion. He turned and took her into his arms.
IF YOU hated the war enough, he thought as he tramped back along the wet road to camp, it made you love people. If you saw enough death, the love — or the desire — was just as ready and sudden as the death was. You loved the women and the men equally — those who were involved in it. You loved those you were responsible for, even if they rejected it. You read their mail because you had to, and it broke you sometimes, the pitiful letters they wrote. You put them in the guardhouse when they got wild and did crazy things, and they looked bewildered and wretched because the whole thing from start to finish was beyond their comprehension — beyond anybody’s comprehension. They were just kids, kids from home, and you didn’t understand them but you loved them. And presently you had to take them across that stretch of water, and then some of them were scratched off the roll by a clerk at Personnel and afterwards you had to send their effects home. . . . Some people got hardened to war, he reflected. He didn’t.
A solitary cyclist honked at him from behind. When the whickering of the tires had died out on the road the only sound was the wind in the telephone wires. So that was how it was — you loved the people who were in it with you, men and women equally. And if you needed a woman sometimes, that was because there was a deficiency in war that got into your bones, and the deficiency was simply life itself. War was just as far removed from the ordinary things of home as violence was. He remembered a young man of his platoon who had been wounded in the stomach on the morning of D plus three and who was still conscious when he undid the boy’s clothing and looked at the horror of what had happened to him. The other men had torn a door off a wrecked house to use as a stretcher; and all the boy had asked for while he waited was a cigarette, He died on the way to the aid station, and when they set him down on the ground the cigarette in his hand was still smoking.
“Got any goom, mister?” It was a group of children, up late. He shook his head, smiling at them. “Got any coppers then?” they demanded. Fishing up the coppers the girl had given him in change at the hotel, he presented one to each of the smallest.
“You’re a sergeant, you are,” said the smallest girl with immense decision.
“He is not,” said one of the others indignantly. “He’s a lootenant.”
“You’re a lootenant,” reclassified the smallest girl gravely. She fingered her penny. “You got a long ways to go to get home.”
“How do you know?” he asked, grinning.
“We was in your tent,” the small girl announced defiantly. “Wasn’t we, Joy? In his tent?”
“It’s time you youngsters were in bed,” he said, looking at his watch.
“We’ve been in an air raid,” announced one of them. “In London.”
“What time is it?” asked the oldest girl.
“Ten minutes after twelve,” he said.
“Lum!” She was startled. “Come along, you.” She shepherded the youngsters before her. “Here comes a jeep!” screamed the small one. “You can get a ride!”
But the jeep was full of soldiers who passed him with a laughing shout, “Got any gum, chum?” He turned on his way alone.
The O.D. was in the enlisted men’s kitchen, cooking himself a pot of coffee. To save himself the trouble of blacking-out the windows, he had left the lights off. Stack saw the flashlight. “Help yourself,” said the man as he went in. “ You’ll find sugar and cream over there on the shelf.”
Stumbling through the room, Stack helped himself. He felt suddenly cheerful. The coffee was strong and hot and it tasted better than the coffee they cooked for the daily meals. He stood by the open door and drank it gratefully.
“ Where’ve you been?” asked the O.D.
“Not a thing.”
He lit a cigarette and inhaled it deeply. He felt more at peace than he had felt in months. He did not understand it, but it was so. He had done what he had promised himself never to do again, as long as he lived, and yet he felt at peace. The balance had been restored. What was stranger still, he had found his wife again. Already the incident of the evening was going back into that part of his mind where he kept the memory of the flesh and the blood, the quick and the dead — those things that would never be wholly understood by him and never understood at all by the people back home. In their place had come his wife. He had her back.
Outside, a dark wind stirred through the branches. But beyond the trees, where the shower of drops set the crows to a sleepy murmuring of protest among themselves, the sky had begun to clear. A few stars were out.