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Writing a War Story

Edith Wharton

  Writing a War Story

  Pretty Miss Ivy Spang, author of "Vibrations," dips into literature--and life



  MISS IVY SPANG of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war.

  It was called "Vibrations," and was preceded by a "Foreword" in which the author stated that she had yielded to the urgent request of "friends" in exposing her first-born to the public gaze. The public had not gazed very hard or very long, but the Cornwall- on-Hudson "News-Dispatch" had a flattering notice by the wife of the rector of St. Dunstan's (signed "Asterisk"), in which, while the somewhat unconventional sentiment of the poems was gently deprecated, a graceful and lady-like tribute was paid to the "brilliant daughter of one of our most prominent and influential citizens, who has voluntarily abandoned the primrose way of pleasure to scale the rugged heights of Parnassus."

  Also, after sitting one evening next to him at a bohemian dinner in New York, Miss Spang was honored by an article by the editor of "Zig-zag," the new "Weekly Journal of Defiance," in which that gentleman hinted that there was more than she knew in Ivy Spang's poems, and that their esoteric significance showed that she was a vers-librist in thought as well as in technique. He added that they would "gain incommensurably in meaning" when she abandoned the superannuated habit of beginning each line with a capital letter.

  The editor sent a heavily-marked copy to Miss Spang, who was immensely flattered, and felt that at last she had been understood. But nobody she knew read "Zig-zag," and nobody who read "Zig-zag" seemed to care to know her. So nothing in particular resulted from this tribute to her genius.

  Then the war came, and she forgot all about writing poetry.

  THE war was two years old, and she had been pouring tea once a week for a whole winter in a big Anglo-American hospital in Paris, when one day, as she was passing through a flower-edged court on her way to her ward, she heard one of the doctors say to a pale gentleman in civilian clothes and spectacles, "But I believe that pretty Miss Spang writes. If you want an American contributor, why not ask her?" And the next moment the pale gentleman had been introduced and, beaming anxiously at her through his spectacles, was urging her to contribute a rattling war story to "The Man-at-Arms," a monthly publication that was to bring joy to the wounded and disabled in British hospitals.

  "A good rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I'm sure you catch my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending--that's about the idea. But I leave it to you; with your large experience of hospital work of course you know just what hits the poor fellows' taste. Do you think you could have it ready for our first number? And have you a portrait--if possible in nurse's dress--to publish with it? The Queen of Norromania has promised us a poem, with a picture of herself giving the baby Crown Prince his morning tub. We want the first number to be an 'actuality,' as the French say; all the articles written by people who've done the thing themselves, or seen it done. You've been at the front, I suppose? As far as Rheims, once? That's capital! Give us a good stirring trench story, with a Coming-Home scene to close with . . . a Christmas scene, if you can manage it, as we hope to be out in November. Yes--that's the very thing; and I'll try to get Sargent to do us the wounded V. C. coming back to the old home on Christmas Eve-- snow effect."

  It was lucky that Ivy Spang's leave was due about that time, for, devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.

  Was it any wonder that she took it seriously?

  She, Ivy Spang, of Cornwall-on-Hudson, had been asked to write a war story for the opening number of "The Man-at-Arms," to which Queens and Archbishops and Field Marshals were to contribute poetry and photographs and patriotic sentiment in autograph! And her full-length photograph in nurse's dress was to precede her prose; and in the table of contents she was to figure as "Ivy Spang, author of Vibrations: A Book of Verse."

  She was dizzy with triumph, and went off to hide her exultation in a quiet corner of Brittany, where she happened to have an old governess, who took her in and promised to defend at all costs the sacredness of her mornings--for Ivy knew that the morning hours of great authors were always "sacred."

  She shut herself up in her room with a ream of mauve paper, and began to think.

  At first the process was less exhilarating than she had expected. She knew so much about the war that she hardly knew where to begin; she found herself suffering from a plethora of impressions.

  Moreover, the more she thought of the matter, the less she seemed to understand how a war story--or any story, for that matter--was written. Why did stories ever begin, and why did they ever leave off? Life didn't--it just went on and on.

  This unforeseen problem troubled her exceedingly, and on the second morning she stealthily broke from her seclusion and slipped out for a walk on the beach. She had been ashamed to make known her projected escapade, and went alone, leaving her faithful governess to mount guard on her threshold while she sneaked out by a back way.

  There were plenty of people on the beach, and among them some whom she knew; but she dared not join them lest they should frighten away her "Inspiration." She knew that "Inspirations" were fussy and contrarious, and she felt rather as if she were dragging along a reluctant dog on a string.

  "If you wanted to stay indoors, why didn't you say so?" she grumbled to it. But the inspiration continued to sulk.

  She wandered about under the cliff till she came to an empty bench, where she sat down and gazed at the sea. After a while her eyes were dazzled by the light, and she turned them toward the bench and saw lying on it a battered magazine--the midsummer "All- Story" number of "Fact and Fiction." Ivy pounced upon it.

  She had heard a good deal about not allowing one's self to be "influenced," about jealously guarding one's originality, and so forth; the editor of "Zig-zag" had been particularly strong on that theme. But her story had to be written, and she didn't know how to begin it; so she decided just to glance casually at a few beginnings.

  The first tale in the magazine was signed by a name great in fiction, one of the most famous names of the past generation of novelists. "The opening sentence ran: "In the month of October, 1914--" and Ivy turned the page impatiently. She may not have known much about story-writing, but she did know that that kind of a beginning was played out. She turned to the next.

  "'My God!' roared the engineer, tightening his grasp on the lever, while the white, sneering face under the red lamp . . ."

  No; that was beginning to be out of date, too.

  "They sat there and stared at it in silence. Neither spoke; but the woman's heart ticked like a watch."

  That was better; but best of all she liked: "Lee Lorimer leaned to him across the flowers. She had always known that this was coming . . ." Ivy could imagine tying a story on to that.

  But she had promised to write a war story; and in a war story the flowers must be at the end and not at the beginning.

  At any rate, there was one clear conclusion to be drawn from the successive study of all these opening paragraphs; and that was that you must begin in the middle, and take for granted that your reader knew what you were talking about. [illustration omitted]

  Yes; but where was the middle, and how could your reader know what you were talking about when you didn't know yourself?

  After some reflection, and more furtive scrutiny of "Fact and Fiction," the puzzled authoress decided that perhaps, if you pretended hard enough that you knew what your story was about, you might end by finding out toward the last page. "After all, if the reader can pretend, the author ought to be able to," she reflected. And she de
cided (after a cautious glance over her shoulder) to steal the magazine and take it home with her for private dissection.

  On the threshold she met her governess, who beamed on her tenderly.

  "Cherie, I saw you slip off, but I didn't follow. I knew you wanted to be alone with your inspiration." Mademoiselle lowered her voice to add: "Have you found your plot?"

  Ivy tapped her gently on the wrinkled cheek. "Dear old Madsy! People don't bother with plots nowadays."

  "Oh, don't they, darling? Then it must be very much easier," said Mademoiselle. But Ivy was not so sure--

  After a day's brooding over "Fact and Fiction," she decided to begin on the empiric system. ("It's sure to come to me as I go along," she thought.) So she sat down before the mauve paper and wrote "A shot rang out--"

  But just as she was appealing to her Inspiration to suggest the next phrase a horrible doubt assailed her, and she got up and turned to "Fact and Fiction." Yes, it was just as she had feared, the last story in "Fact and Fiction" began: "A shot rang out--"

  Its place on the list showed what the editor and his public thought of that kind of an opening, and her contempt for it was increased by reading the author's name. The story was signed "Edda Clubber Hump." Poor thing!

  Ivy sat down and gazed at the page which she had polluted with that silly sentence.

  And now (as they often said in "Fact and Fiction") a strange thing happened. The sentence was there--she had written it--it was the first sentence on the first page of her story, it was the first sentence of her story. It was there, it had gone out of her, got away from her, and she seemed to have no further control of it. She could imagine no other way of beginning, now that she had made the effort of beginning in that way.

  She supposed that was what authors meant when they talked about being "mastered by their Inspiration." She began to hate her Inspiration.

  ON THE fifth day an abased and dejected Ivy confided to her old governess that she didn't believe she knew how to write a short story.

  "If they'd only asked me for poetry!" she wailed.

  She wrote to the editor of "The Man-at-Arms," begging for permission to substitute a sonnet; but he replied firmly, if flatteringly, that they counted on a story, and had measured their space accordingly--adding that they already had rather more poetry than the first number could hold. He concluded by reminding her that he counted on receiving her contribution not later than September first; and it was now the tenth of August.

  "It's all so sudden," she murmured to Mademoiselle, as if she were announcing her engagement.

  "Of course, dearest--of course! I quite understand. How could the editor expect you to be tied to a date? But so few people know what the artistic temperament is; they seem to think one can dash off a story as easily as one makes an omelet."

  Ivy smiled in spite of herself. "Dear Madsy, what an unlucky simile! So few people make good omelets."

  "Not in France," said Mademoiselle firmly.

  Her former pupil reflected. "In France a good many people have written good short stories, too--but I'm sure they were given more than three weeks to learn how. Oh, what shall I do?" she groaned.

  The two pondered long and anxiously; and at last the governess modestly suggested: "Supposing you were to begin by thinking of a subject?"

  "Oh, my dear, the subject's nothing!" exclaimed Ivy, remembering some contemptuous statement to that effect by the editor of "Zig-zag."

  "Still--in writing a story, one has to have a subject. Of course I know it's only the treatment that really matters; but the treatment, naturally, would be yours, quite yours. . . ."

  The authoress lifted a troubled gaze upon her Mentor. "What are you driving at, Madsy?"

  "Only that during my year's work in the hospital here I picked up a good many stories--pathetic, thrilling, moving stories of our poor poilus; and in the evening sometimes I used to jot them down, just as the soldiers told them to me--oh, without any art at all . . . simply for myself, you understand. . . ."

  Ivy was on her feet in an instant. Since even Mademoiselle admitted that "only the treatment really mattered," why should she not seize on one of these artless tales and transform it into Literature? The more she considered the idea, the more it appealed to her; she remembered Shakespeare and Moliere, and said gayly to her governess: "You darling Madsy! Do lend me your book to look over--and we'll be collaborators!"

  "Oh--collaborators!" blushed the governess, overcome. But she finally yielded to her charge's affectionate insistence, and brought out her shabby copybook, which began with lecture notes on Mr. Bergson's course at the Sorbonne in 1913, and suddenly switched off to "Military Hospital No. 13. November, 1914. Long talk with the Chasseur Alpin Emile Durand, wounded through the knee and the left lung at the Hautes Chaumes. I have decided to write down his story. . . ."

  Ivy carried the little book off to bed with her, inwardly smiling at the fact that the narrative, written in a close, tremulous hand, covered each side of the page, and poured on and on without a paragraph--a good deal like life. Decidedly, poor Mademoiselle did not even know the rudiments of literature!

  THE story, not without effort, gradually built itself up about the adventures of Emile Durand. Notwithstanding her protests, Mademoiselle, after a day or two, found herself called upon in an advisory capacity, and finally as a collaborator. She gave the tale a certain consecutiveness, and kept Ivy to the main point when her pupil showed a tendency to wander; but she carefully revised and polished the rustic speech in which she had originally transcribed the tale, so that it finally issued forth in the language that a young lady writing a composition on the Battle of Hastings would have used in Mademoiselle's school days.

  Ivy decided to add a touch of sentiment to the anecdote, which was purely military, both because she knew the reader was entitled to a certain proportion of "heart interest," and because she wished to make the subject her own by this original addition. The revisions and transpositions which these changes necessitated made the work one of uncommon difficulty; and one day, in a fit of discouragement, Ivy privately decided to notify the editor of "The Man-at-Arms" that she was ill and could not fulfill her engagement.

  But that very afternoon the "artistic" photographer to whom she had posed for her portrait sent home the proofs; and she saw herself, exceedingly long, narrow and sinuous, robed in white and monastically veiled, holding out a refreshing beverage to an invisible sufferer with a gesture half way between Melisande lowering her braid over the balcony and Florence Nightingale advancing with the lamp.

  The photograph was really too charming to be wasted, and Ivy, feeling herself forced onward by an inexorable fate, sat down again to battle with the art of fiction. Her perseverance was rewarded, and after a while the fellow authors (though Mademoiselle disclaimed any right to the honors of literary partnership) arrived at what seemed to both a satisfactory result.

  "You've written a very beautiful story, my dear," Mademoiselle sighed with moist eyes; and Ivy modestly agreed that she had.

  The task was finished on the last day of her leave; and the next morning she traveled back to Paris, clutching the manuscript to her bosom, and forgetting to keep an eye on the bag that contained her passport and money, in her terror lest the precious pages should be stolen.

  As soon as the tale was typed she did it up in a heavily- sealed envelope (she knew that only silly girls used blue ribbon for the purpose), and dispatched it to the pale gentleman in spectacles, accompanied by the Melisande-Nightingale photograph. The receipt of both was acknowledged by a courteous note (she had secretly hoped for more enthusiasm), and thereafter life became a desert waste of suspense. The very globe seemed to cease to turn on its axis while she waited for "The Man-at-Arms" to appear.

  Finally one day a thick packet bearing an English publisher's name was brought to her: she undid it with trembling fingers, and there, beautifully printed on the large rough pages, her story stood out before her.

  At first, in that heavy text, on those
heavy pages, it seemed to her a pitifully small thing, hopelessly insignificant and yet pitilessly conspicuous. It was as though words meant to be murmured to sympathetic friends were being megaphoned into the ear of a heedless universe.

  Then she began to turn the pages of the review: she analyzed the poems, she read the Queen of Norromania's domestic confidences, and she looked at the portraits of the authors. The latter experience was peculiarly comforting. The Queen was rather good- looking--for a Queen--but her hair was drawn back from the temples as if it were wound round a windlass, and stuck out over her forehead in the good old-fashioned Royal Highness fuzz; and her prose was oddly built out of London drawing-room phrases grafted onto German genitives and datives. It was evident that neither Ivy's portrait nor her story would suffer by comparison with the royal contribution.

  But most of all was she comforted by the poems. They were nearly all written on Kipling rhythms that broke down after two or three wheezy attempts to "carry on," and their knowing mixture of slang and pathos seemed oddly old-fashioned to the author of "Vibrations." Altogether, it struck her that "The Man-at-Arms" was made up in equal parts of tired compositions by people who knew how to write, and artless prattle by people who didn't. Against such a background "His Letter Home" began to loom up rather large.

  At any rate, it took such a place in her consciousness for the next day or two that it was bewildering to find that no one about her seemed to have heard of it. "The Man-at-Arms" was conspicuously shown in the windows of the principal English and American book shops, but she failed to see it lying on her friends' tables, and finally, when her tea-pouring day came round, she bought a dozen copies and took them up to the English ward of her hospital, which happened to be full at the time.

  IT WAS not long before Christmas, and the men and officers were rather busy with home correspondence and the undoing and doing-up of seasonable parcels; but they all received "The Man-at-Arms" with an appreciative smile, and were most awfully pleased to know that Miss Spang had written something in it. After the distribution of her tale Miss Spang became suddenly hot and shy, and slipped away before they had begun to read her.