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Coming Home, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  The old Rechamps heard she was coming, but didn’t ask her to stay. Jean drove over to the shut-up chateau, however, and found Mlle. Malo lunching on a corner of the kitchen table. She exclaimed: “My little Jean!” flew to him with a kiss for each cheek, and made him sit down and share her omelet…. The ugly little girl had shed her chrysalis—and you may fancy if he went back once or twice!

  Mlle. Malo was staying at the chateau all alone, with the farmer’s wife to come in and cook her dinner: not a soul in the house at night but herself and her brindled sheep dog. She had to be there a week, and Jean suggested to his people to ask her to Rechamp. But at Rechamp they hesitated, coughed, looked away, said the sparerooms were all upside down, and the valet-de-chambre laid up with the mumps, and the cook short-handed—till finally the irrepressible grandmother broke out: “A young girl who chooses to live alone—probably prefers to live alone!”

  There was a deadly silence, and Jean did not raise the question again; but I can imagine his blue eyes getting obstinate.

  Soon after Mlle. Malo’s return to Paris he followed her and began to frequent the Passy studio. The life there was unlike anything he had ever seen—or conceived as possible, short of the prairies. He had sampled the usual varieties of French womankind, and explored most of the social layers; but he had missed the newest, that of the artistic-emancipated. I don’t know much about that set myself, but from his descriptions I should say they were a good deal like intelligent Americans, except that they don’t seem to keep art and life in such water-tight compartments. But his great discovery was the new girl. Apparently he had never before known any but the traditional type, which predominates in the provinces, and still persists, he tells me, in the last fastnesses of the Faubourg St. Germain. The girl who comes and goes as she pleases, reads what she likes, has opinions about what she reads, who talks, looks, behaves with the independence of a married woman—and yet has kept the Diana-freshness—think how she must have shaken up such a man’s inherited view of things! Mlle. Malo did far more than make Rechamp fall in love with her: she turned his world topsy-turvey, and prevented his ever again squeezing himself into his little old pigeon-hole of prejudices.

  Before long they confessed their love—just like any young couple of Anglo-Saxons—and Jean went down to Rechamp to ask permission to marry her. Neither you nor I can quite enter into the state of mind of a young man of twenty-seven who has knocked about all over the globe, and been in and out of the usual sentimental coils—and who has to ask his parents’ leave to get married! Don’t let us try: it’s no use. We should only end by picturing him as an incorrigible ninny. But there isn’t a man in France who wouldn’t feel it his duty to take that step, as Jean de Rechamp did. All we can do is to accept the premise and pass on.

  Well—Jean went down and asked his father and his mother and his old grandmother if they would permit him to marry Mlle. Malo; and they all with one voice said they wouldn’t. There was an uproar, in fact; and the old grandmother contributed the most piercing note to the concert. Marry Mlle. Malo! A young girl who lived alone! Travelled! Spent her time with foreigners—with musicians and painters! A young girl! Of course, if she had been a married woman—that is, a widow—much as they would have preferred a young girl for Jean, or even, if widow it had to be, a widow of another type—still, it was conceivable that, out of affection for him, they might have resigned themselves to his choice. But a young girl—bring such a young girl to Rechamp! Ask them to receive her under the same roof with their little Simone, their innocent Alain….

  He had a bad hour of it; but he held his own, keeping silent while they screamed, and stiffening as they began to wobble from exhaustion. Finally he took his mother apart, and tried to reason with her. His arguments were not much use, but his resolution impressed her, and he saw it. As for his father, nobody was afraid of Monsieur de Rechamp. When he said: “Never—never while I live, and there is a roof on Rechamp!” they all knew he had collapsed inside. But the grandmother was terrible. She was terrible because she was so old, and so clever at taking advantage of it. She could bring on a valvular heart attack by just sitting still and holding her breath, as Jean and his mother had long since found out; and she always treated them to one when things weren’t going as she liked. Madame de Rechamp promised Jean that she would intercede with her mother-in-law; but she hadn’t much faith in the result, and when she came out of the old lady’s room she whispered: “She’s just sitting there holding her breath.”

  The next day Jean himself advanced to the attack. His grandmother was the most intelligent member of the family, and she knew he knew it, and liked him for having found it out; so when he had her alone she listened to him without resorting to any valvular tricks. “Of course,” he explained, “you’re much too clever not to understand that the times have changed, and manners with them, and that what a woman was criticised for doing yesterday she is ridiculed for not doing to-day. Nearly all the old social thou-shalt-nots have gone: intelligent people nowadays don’t give a fig for them, and that simple fact has abolished them. They only existed as long as there was some one left for them to scare.” His grandmother listened with a sparkle of admiration in her ancient eyes. “And of course,” Jean pursued, “that can’t be the real reason for your opposing my marriage—a marriage with a young girl you’ve always known, who has been received here—”

  “Ah, that’s it—we’ve always known her!” the old lady snapped him up.

  “What of that? I don’t see—”

  “Of course you don’t. You’re here so little: you don’t hear things….”

  “What things?”

  “Things in the air… that blow about…. You were doing your military service at the time….”

  “At what time?”

  She leaned forward and laid a warning hand on his arm. “Why did Corvenaire leave her all that money—_why?_”

  “But why not—why shouldn’t he?” Jean stammered, indignant. Then she unpacked her bag—a heap of vague insinuations, baseless conjectures, village tattle, all, at the last analysis, based, as he succeeded in proving, and making her own, on a word launched at random by a discharged maid-servant who had retailed her grievance to the cure’s housekeeper. “Oh, she does what she likes with Monsieur le Marquis, the young miss! She knows how….” On that single phrase the neighbourhood had raised a slander built of adamant.

  Well, I’ll give you an idea of what a determined fellow Rechamp is, when I tell you he pulled it down—or thought he did. He kept his temper, hunted up the servant’s record, proved her a liar and dishonest, cast grave doubts on the discretion of the cure’s housekeeper, and poured such a flood of ridicule over the whole flimsy fable, and those who had believed in it, that in sheer shamefacedness at having based her objection on such grounds, his grandmother gave way, and brought his parents toppling down with her.

  All this happened a few weeks before the war, and soon afterward Mlle. Malo came down to Rechamp. Jean had insisted on her coming: he wanted her presence there, as his betrothed, to be known to the neighbourhood. As for her, she seemed delighted to come. I could see from Rechamp’s tone, when he reached this part of his story, that he rather thought I should expect its heroine to have shown a becoming reluctance—to have stood on her dignity. He was distinctly relieved when he found I expected no such thing.

  “She’s simplicity itself—it’s her great quality. Vain complications don’t exist for her, because she doesn’t see them… that’s what my people can’t be made to understand….”

  I gathered from the last phrase that the visit had not been a complete success, and this explained his having let out, when he first told me of his fears for his family, that he was sure Mlle. Malo would not have remained at Rechamp if she could help it. Oh, no, decidedly, the visit was not a success….

  “You see,” he explained with a half-embarrassed smile, “it was partly her fault. Other girls as clever, but less—how shall I say?—less proud, would have adapted themselves,
arranged things, avoided startling allusions. She wouldn’t stoop to that; she talked to my family as naturally as she did to me. You can imagine for instance, the effect of her saying: ‘One night, after a supper at Montmartre, I was walking home with two or three pals’—. It was her way of affirming her convictions, and I adored her for it—but I wished she wouldn’t!”

  And he depicted, to my joy, the neighbours rumbling over to call in heraldic barouches (the mothers alone—with embarrassed excuses for not bringing their daughters), and the agony of not knowing, till they were in the room, if Yvonne would receive them with lowered lids and folded hands, sitting by in a pose de fiancee while the elders talked; or if she would take the opportunity to air her views on the separation of Church and State, or the necessity of making divorce easier. “It’s not,” he explained, “that she really takes much interest in such questions: she’s much more absorbed in her music and painting. But anything her eye lights on sets her mind dancing—as she said to me once: ‘It’s your mother’s friends’ bonnets that make me stand up for divorce!’” He broke off abruptly to add: “Good God, how far off all that nonsense seems!”


  The next day we started for Rechamp, not sure if we could get through, but bound to, anyhow! It was the coldest day we’d had, the sky steel, the earth iron, and a snow-wind howling down on us from the north. The Vosges are splendid in winter. In summer they are just plump puddingy hills; when the wind strips them they turn to mountains. And we seemed to have the whole country to ourselves—the black firs, the blue shadows, the beech-woods cracking and groaning like rigging, the bursts of snowy sunlight from cold clouds. Not a soul in sight except the sentinels guarding the railways, muffled to the eyes, or peering out of their huts of pine-boughs at the cross-roads. Every now and then we passed a long string of seventy-fives, or a train of supply waggons or army ambulances, and at intervals a cavalryman cantered by, his cloak bellied out by the gale; but of ordinary people about the common jobs of life, not a sign.

  The sense of loneliness and remoteness that the absence of the civil population produces everywhere in eastern France is increased by the fact that all the names and distances on the mile-stones have been scratched out and the sign-posts at the cross-roads thrown down. It was done, presumably, to throw the enemy off the track in September: and the signs have never been put back. The result is that one is forever losing one’s way, for the soldiers quartered in the district know only the names of their particular villages, and those on the march can tell you nothing about the places they are passing through. We had got badly off our road several times during the trip, but on the last day’s run Rechamp was in his own country, and knew every yard of the way—or thought he did. We had turned off the main road, and were running along between rather featureless fields and woods, crossed by a good many wood-roads with nothing to distinguish them; but he continued to push ahead, saying:

  “We don’t turn till we get to a manor-house on a stream, with a big paper-mill across the road.” He went on to tell me that the mill-owners lived in the manor, and were old friends of his people: good old local stock, who had lived there for generations and done a lot for the neighbourhood.

  “It’s queer I don’t see their village-steeple from this rise. The village is just beyond the house. How the devil could I have missed the turn?” We ran on a little farther, and suddenly he stopped the motor with a jerk. We were at a cross-road, with a stream running under the bank on our right. The place looked like an abandoned stoneyard. I never saw completer ruin. To the left, a fortified gate gaped on emptiness; to the right, a mill-wheel hung in the stream. Everything else was as flat as your dinner-table.

  “Was this what you were trying to see from that rise?” I asked; and I saw a tear or two running down his face.

  “They were the kindest people: their only son got himself shot the first month in Champagne—”

  He had jumped out of the car and was standing staring at the level waste. “The house was there—there was a splendid lime in the court. I used to sit under it and have a glass of vin cris de Lorraine with the old people…. Over there, where that cinder-heap is, all their children are buried.” He walked across to the grave-yard under a blackened wall—a bit of the apse of the vanished church—and sat down on a grave-stone. “If the devils have done this here—so close to us,” he burst out, and covered his face.

  An old woman walked toward us down the road. Rechamp jumped up and ran to meet her. “Why, Marie Jeanne, what are you doing in these ruins?” The old woman looked at him with unastonished eyes. She seemed incapable of any surprise. “They left my house standing. I’m glad to see Monsieur,” she simply said. We followed her to the one house left in the waste of stones. It was a two-roomed cottage, propped against a cow-stable, but fairly decent, with a curtain in the window and a cat on the sill. Rechamp caught me by the arm and pointed to the door-panel. “Oberst von Scharlach” was scrawled on it. He turned as white as your table-cloth, and hung on to me a minute; then he spoke to the old woman. “The officers were quartered here: that was the reason they spared your house?”

  She nodded. “Yes: I was lucky. But the gentlemen must come in and have a mouthful.”

  Rechamp’s finger was on the name. “And this one—this was their commanding officer?”

  “I suppose so. Is it somebody’s name?” She had evidently never speculated on the meaning of the scrawl that had saved her.

  “You remember him—their captain? Was his name Scharlach?” Rechamp persisted.

  Under its rich weathering the old woman’s face grew as pale as his. “Yes, that was his name—I heard it often enough.”

  “Describe him, then. What was he like? Tall and fair? They’re all that—but what else? What in particular?”

  She hesitated, and then said: “This one wasn’t fair. He was dark, and had a scar that drew up the left corner of his mouth.”

  Rechamp turned to me. “It’s the same. I heard the men describing him at Moulins.”

  We followed the old woman into the house, and while she gave us some bread and wine she told us about the wrecking of the village and the factory. It was one of the most damnable stories I’ve heard yet. Put together the worst of the typical horrors and you’ll have a fair idea of it. Murder, outrage, torture: Scharlach’s programme seemed to be fairly comprehensive. She ended off by saying: “His orderly showed me a silver-mounted flute he always travelled with, and a beautiful paint-box mounted in silver too. Before he left he sat down on my doorstep and made a painting of the ruins….”

  Soon after leaving this place of death we got to the second lines and our troubles began. We had to do a lot of talking to get through the lines, but what Rechamp had just seen had made him eloquent. Luckily, too, the ambulance doctor, a charming fellow, was short of tetanus-serum, and I had some left; and while I went over with him to the pine-branch hut where he hid his wounded I explained Rechamp’s case, and implored him to get us through. Finally it was settled that we should leave the ambulance there—for in the lines the ban against motors is absolute—and drive the remaining twelve miles. A sergeant fished out of a farmhouse a toothless old woman with a furry horse harnessed to a two-wheeled trap, and we started off by round-about wood-tracks. The horse was in no hurry, nor the old lady either; for there were bits of road that were pretty steadily currycombed by shell, and it was to everybody’s interest not to cross them before twilight. Jean de Rechamp’s excitement seemed to have dropped: he sat beside me dumb as a fish, staring straight ahead of him. I didn’t feel talkative either, for a word the doctor had let drop had left me thinking. “That poor old granny mind the shells? Not she!” he had said when our crazy chariot drove up. “She doesn’t know them from snow-flakes any more. Nothing matters to her now, except trying to outwit a German. They’re all like that where Scharlach’s been—you’ve heard of him? She had only one boy—half-witted: he cocked a broomhandle at them, and they burnt him. Oh, she’ll take you to Rechamp safe enough.”
/>   “Where Scharlach’s been”—so he had been as close as this to Rechamp! I was wondering if Jean knew it, and if that had sealed his lips and given him that flinty profile. The old horse’s woolly flanks jogged on under the bare branches and the old woman’s bent back jogged in time with it She never once spoke or looked around at us. “It isn’t the noise we make that’ll give us away,” I said at last; and just then the old woman turned her head and pointed silently with the osier-twig she used as a whip. Just ahead of us lay a heap of ruins: the wreck, apparently, of a great chateau and its dependencies. “Lermont!” Rechamp exclaimed, turning white. He made a motion to jump out and then dropped back into the seat. “What’s the use?” he muttered. He leaned forward and touched the old woman’s shoulder.

  “I hadn’t heard of this—when did it happen?”

  “In September.”

  “They did it?”

  “Yes. Our wounded were there. It’s like this everywhere in our country.”

  I saw Jean stiffening himself for the next question. “At Rechamp, too?”

  She relapsed into indifference. “I haven’t been as far as Rechamp.”

  “But you must have seen people who’d been there—you must have heard.”

  “I’ve heard the masters were still there—so there must be something standing. Maybe though,” she reflected, “they’re in the cellars….”

  We continued to jog on through the dusk.


  “There’s the steeple!” Rechamp burst out.

  Through the dimness I couldn’t tell which way to look; but I suppose in the thickest midnight he would have known where he was. He jumped from the trap and took the old horse by the bridle. I made out that he was guiding us into a long village street edged by houses in which every light was extinguished. The snow on the ground sent up a pale reflection, and I began to see the gabled outline of the houses and the steeple at the head of the street. The place seemed as calm and unchanged as if the sound of war had never reached it. In the open space at the end of the village Rechamp checked the horse.