COMING out of Victoria Station into of London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know. It is a surprising and providential wakening into a world which long ago went dark. That world is strangely loud, bright, and alive. Plainly it did not stop when, somehow, it vanished once upon a time. There its vivid circulation moves, and the buses are so usual, the people so brisk and intent on their own concerns, the signs so startlingly familiar, that the man who is home again begins to doubt that he has been absent, that he has been dead. But his uniform must surely mean something, and its stains something more!
And there can be no doubt about it, as you stand there a trifle dizzy in London once more. You really have come back from another world; and you have the curious idea that you may be invisible in this old world. In a sense you know you are unseen. These people will never know what you know. There they gossip in the hall, and leisurely survey the bookstall, and they would never guess it, but you have just returned from hell. What could they say if you told them? They would be embarrassed, polite, forbearing, kindly, and smiling, and they would mention the matter afterwards as a queer adventure with a poor devil who was evidently a little overwrought; shell shock, of course. Beastly thing, shell shock. Seems to affect the nerves.
They would not understand. They will never understand. What is the use of standing in veritable daylight, and telling the living, who have never been dead, of the other place?
I know now how Rip Van Winkle felt about it. But his was a minor trouble. All he lost was some years. He had not changed, except that his beard was longer. But the man who comes back from the line has lost more than years. He has lost his original self. People failed to recognise Rip because they did not know his beard. Our friends do recognise us when they greet us on our return from the front, but they do not know us because we are not the men they remember. They are the same as ever; but when they address us, they talk to a mind which is not there, though the eyes betray nothing of the difference. They talk to those who have come back to life to see them again, but who cannot tell them what has happened, and dare not try.
Between that old self and the man they see, there is an abyss of dread. He has passed through it. To them the war is official communiqués, the amplifying dispatches of war correspondents, the silence of absent friends in danger, the shock of a telegram, and rather interesting food-rationing. They think it is the same war which the leave-man knows. He will tell them all about it, and they will learn the truth at last.
All about it! If an apparition of the battle-line in eruption were to form over London, over Paris, over Berlin, a sinister mirage, near, unfading, and admonitory, with spectral figures moving in its reflected fires and its gloom, and the echoes of their cries were heard, and murmurs of convulsive shocks, and the wind over the roofs brought ghostly and abominable smells into our streets; and if that were to haunt us by day and night, a phantom from which there was no escape, to remain till the sins of Europe were expiated, we should soon forget politics and arguments, and be in sackcloth and ashes, positive no longer, but down on our knees before Heaven in awe at this revelation of social guilt, asking simply what we must do to be saved.
Your revival at home, when on leave, is full of wonderful commonplaces, especially now, with summer ripening. The yellow-hammer is heard on the telegraph wire, and the voices of children in the wood, and the dust of white English country roads is smelled at evening. All that is a delight which is miraculous in its intensity. But it is very lonesome and far. It is curious to feel that you are really there, delighting in the vividness of this recollection of the past, and yet balked by the knowledge that you are, nevertheless, outside this world of home, though it looks and smells and sounds so close; and that you may never enter it again. It is like the landscape in a mirror, the luminous projection of what is behind you. But you are not there. It is recognised, but viewed now apart and aloof, a chance glimpse at the secure and enduring place from which you came, vouchsafed to one who must soon return to the secret darkness in his mind.
The home folk do not know this, and may not be told--I mean they may not be told why it is so. The youngster who is home on leave, though he may not have reasoned it out, knows that what he wants to say, often prompted by indignation, cannot be said. He feels intuitively that this is beyond his power to express. Besides, if he were to begin, where would he end? He cannot trust himself. What would happen if he uncovered, in a sunny and innocent breakfast-room, the horror he knows.? If he spoke out? His people would not understand him. They would think he was mad. They would be sorry, dammit. Sorry for him! Why, he is not sorry for himself. He can stand it now he knows what it is like. He can stand it--if they can. And he realises they can stand it, and are merely anxious about his welfare, the welfare which does not trouble him in the least, for he has looked into the depth of evil, and for him the earth has changed; and he rather despises it. He has seen all he wants to see of it. Let it go, dammit. If they don't mind the change, and don't kick, why should he? What a hell of a world to be born into and once it did look so jolly good, too! He is shy, cheery, but inexorably silent on what he knows. Some old fool said to him once, "It must be pretty bad out there?" Pretty bad! What a lark!
But for his senior, who also knows, though the feeling is the same, the nature of the combative adult male is less shy, and not merely negatively contemptuous, but aggressive. It is difficult for him to endure hearing the home folk speak with the confidence of special revelation of the war they have not seen, when he, who has been in it, has contradictory minds about it. They are so assured that they think there can be no other view; and they bear out their mathematical arguments with maps and figures. It might be a chess tournament. He feels at last his anger beginning to smoulder. He feels a bleak and impalpable alienation from those who are all the world to him. He understands at last that they also are in the mirror, projected from his world that was, and that now he cannot come near them. Yet though he knows it, they do not. The greatest evil of war--this is what staggers you when you come home, feeling you know the worst of it--is the unconscious indifference to war's obscene blasphemy against life of the men and women who have the assurance that they will never be called on to experience it. Out there, comrades in a common and unlightened affliction shake, a fist humorously at the disregarding stars, and mock them. Let the Fates do their worst. The sooner it is over, the better and, while waiting, they will take it out of Old Jerry. He is the only one out of whom they can take it. They are to throw away their world and die, so they must take it out of somebody. Therefore Jerry "gets it in the neck." Men under the irrefragable compulsion of a common spell, who are selected for sacrifice in the fervour of a general obsession, but who are coolly awake to the unreason which locks the minds of their fellows, will burst into fury at the bond they feel. The obvious obstruction is the obstinate "blighter" with a machine-gun in front of them. At least, they are free to "strafe" him.
But what is the matter with London? The men on leave, when they meet each other, always ask that question without hope, in the seclusion of their confidence and special knowledge. They feel perversely they would sooner be amid the hated filth and smells of the battle-ground than at home. Out there, though possibly mischance may suddenly extinguish the day for them, they will be with those who understand, with comrades who rarely discuss the war except obliquely and with quiet and bitter jesting. Seeing the world has gone wrong, how much better and easier it is to take the likelihood of extinction with men who have the same mental disgust as your own, and can endure it till they die, but who, while they live in the same torment with you, have the unspoken but certain conviction that Europe is a decadent old beast eating her young with insatiable appetite, than to sit in sunny breakfast-rooms with the newspaper maps and positive arguments of the unsaved!