A Division on the March
WE passed a division on the march the other day. Though the British occupy this country, it is not often one sees them as a multitude. When in the trenches, you are concerned with but a handful of your fellows. But just then an interminable river of steel helmets poured along in regular waves.
It is something to be able to say you have seen a British army moving down the straight leagues of a French road through its guarding avenue of trees. My own brother may have been in that host. . . . Yet I never thought of him. A torrent of sounds swamped and submerged my thoughts the clangour of chains, the rumbling of wheels, the deep growling of guns; and that most ominous and subduing sound in war, the ceaseless rhythmic tramp of armed men marching without music or song, men who, except the menace of their measured progress, that intimation of destiny and fate irresistible, are but a multitude of expressionless masks that glance at you, and pass.
These men are all dressed alike; they are a tide of men. They all look alike. Their mouths are set. They move together with the common, irresistible, uncritical urge of migratory animals. Their eyes fix you in a single ceaseless interrogation. About what?
There is no knowing. Don't ask me what the men are thinking in Flanders; I don't know, and I have been with them since the beginning. And I don't think anyone else does.
But once, as this division was passing, one of those little go-carts on perambulator wheels in which the men, holding drag-ropes, transport their own personal belongings, upset a few books. You would have recognised their popular covers; and the anxiety, instantly shown, to recover those treasures, broke up the formation there for a few moments into something human and understandable. The wind took a few escaped leaves and blew them to me. The Pickwick Papers!
It was as though the inscrutable eye of the army had tipped me a wink.
I got the hint that I was, in the right sense, on the same road as these men. My brother was certainly there. For sometimes, you know, one has a bleak sense of doubt about that, a feeling of extreme isolation and polar loneliness. You wonder, at times, mixed up here in the mysterious complexities of that elemental impulse which is visible as ceaseless clouds of fire on the Somme, whether you are the last man, witnessing in helpless and mute horror the motiveless upheaval of earth in final ruin.
So that, even as I write this, and glance, safe for to-night, at the strangeness of this French house, I see everything about me with astonishment, and feel I may wake at any moment to the familiar things of that home in which I fell asleep to dream of calamity.
Moving about this dubious and unauthentic scene of war, an atom of a fortuitous host, each one of the host glancing at me with inscrutable eyes which seem to show in passing--if they show anything at all--a faint hint of reproach, the interruption of war by the page of a familiar book, and the sudden anxious effort by one of the uniformed phantoms to recover words which you remember well enough were once worth hearing, was like momentary recovery. An unexpected revelation. For a moment I saw the same old enduring earth under us. All was well.
I often doubt here the existence of a man who is talking to me. He seems altogether incredible. He might be talking across the Styx; and I am not sure at the moment on which side of that river I stand. Is he on the right side or am I? Which of us has got the place where a daily sun still rises? Yes, it is the living men here who are the uncanny spectres.
I have come in a lonely spot upon a little cross by the wayside, and have been stopped by a familiar name on it. Dead? No. There, right enough, is my veritable friend, as I knew and admired him. He cannot be dead. But those men in muddy clothes who sometimes consort with me round the burning logs on the hearth of an old château at night, I look across the floor at them as across countless ages, and listen to their voices till they sound unintelligibly from a remote and alien past. I do not know what they say to me. I am encompassed by dark and insoluble magic, and have forgotten the Open Sesame, though I try hard to remember it; for these present circumstances and the beings who move in them are of a world unreal and unreasonable.
I get up from the talk of war by that fireside of an old château built on a still more ancient field where English archers fought a famous battle six hundred years ago. A candle stands on a bracket beneath a portrait of a lady. The lady is in the dress of the days of the French Revolution. She is young, dark, and vivid, and looks down at me under lowered eyelids in amused and enticing scrutiny. Her little mouth has the faintest trace of a contemplative smile; and as I look at her I could swear the corners of her mouth twitch, as if in the restraint of complete understanding.
She is long gone. She was executed at Arras. But I know her well. The château is less cold and lonely than it was.
Old stairs wind upwards to a long corridor, the distant ends of which are unseen. A few candles gutter in the draughts. The shadows leap. The place is so still that I can hear the antique timbers talking. But something is without which is not the noise of the wind. I listen, and hear it again, the darkness throbbing; the badly adjusted horizon of outer night thudding on the earth--the incessant guns of the great war.
And I come, for this night at least, to my room. On the wall is a tiny silver Christ on a crucifix; and above that the portrait of a child, who fixes me in the surprise of innocence, questioning and loveable, the very look of warm April and timid but confiding light. I sleep with the knowledge of that over me, an assurance greater than that of all the guns of all the hosts. It is a promise. I may wake to the earth I used to know in the morning.