Every one in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and were not surprised to be told that, after many fresh starts given and thrown away he, an Inspector of Indian Police, had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died of a fall from a horse a few weeks before his child was born.
Mercifully, George’s father and mother were both dead, and though Helen, thirty-five and independent, might well have washed her hands of the whole disgraceful affair, she most nobly took charge, though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France. She arranged for the passage of the child and a nurse from Bombay, met them at Marseilles, nursed the baby through an attack of infantile dysentery due the carelessness of the nurse, whom she had had to dismiss, and at last, thin and worn but triumphant, brought the boy late in the autumn, wholly restored, to her Hampshire home.
All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing then up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money, and, as George had always turned to her in his scrapes, she felt herself justified – her friends agreed with her – in cutting the whole non-commissioned officer connection, and giving the child every advantage. A christening, by the Rector, under the name of Michael, was the first step. So far as she knew herself, she was not, she said, a child-lover, but, for all her faults, she had been very fond of George, and she pointed out that little Michael had his father’s mouth to a line; which made something to build upon.
As a matter of fact, it was the Turrell forehead, broad, low, and well-shaped, with the widely spaces eyes beneath it, that Michael had most faithfully reproduced. His mouth was somewhat better cut than the family type. But Helen, who would concede nothing good to his mother’s side, vowed he was a Turrell all over, and, there being no one to contradict, the likeness was established.
In a few years Michael took his place, as accepted as Helen had always been – fearless, philosophical, and fairly good-looking. At six, he wished to know why he could not call her ‘Mummy’, as other boys called their mothers. She explained that she was only his auntie, and that aunties were not quite the same as mummies, but that, if it gave him pleasure, he might call her ‘Mummy’ at bedtime, for a pet-name between themselves.
Michael kept his secret most loyally, but Helen, as usual, explained the fact to her friends; which when Michael heard, he raged.
“Why did you tell? Why did you tell?” came at the end of the storm.
“Because it’s always best to tell the truth”, Helen answered, her arm round him as he shook in his cot.
“All right, but when the troof’s ugly I don’t think it’s nice.”
“Don’t you, dear?”
“No, I don’t and” – she felt the small body stiffen – “now you’ve told, I won’t call you ‘Mummy’ any more – not even at bedtimes.”
“But isn’t that rather unkind?” said Helen softly.
“I don’t care! I don’t care! You have hurted me in my insides and I’ll hurt you back. I’ll hurt you as long as I live!”
“Don’t, oh, don’t talk like that, dear! You don’t know what – “
“I will! And when I’m dead I’ll hurt you worse!”
“Thank goodness, I shall be dead long before you, darling.”
“Huh! Emma says, ‘Never know your luck’.” (Michael had been talking to Helen’s elderly, flat-faced maid.) “Lots of little boys die quite soon. So’ll I. Then you’ll see!”
Helen caught her breath and moved towards the door, but the wail of ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ drew her back again, and the two wept together.
At ten years old, after two terms at a prep. school, something or somebody gave him the idea that his civil status was not quite regular. He attacked Helen on the subject, breaking down her stammered defences with the family directness.
“Don’t believe a word of it”, he said, cheerily, at the end. “People wouldn’t have talked like they did if my people had been married. But don’t you bother, Auntie. I’ve found out all about my sort in English Hist’ry and the Shakespeare bits. There was William the Conqueror to begin with, and – oh, heaps more, and they all got on first-rate. ‘Twon’t make any difference to you, by being that – will it?”
“As if anything could – “ she began.
“All right. We won’t talk about it any more if it makes you cry”. He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skillfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up to the appointed one hundred and four he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make any difference between them.
The terms at his public school and the wonderful Christmas, Easter, and Summer holidays followed each other, variegated and glorious as jewels on a string; and as jewels Helen treasured them. In due time Michael developed his own interests, which ran their courses and gave way to others; but his interest in Helen was constant and increasing throughout. She repaid it with all that she had of affection or could command of counsel and money; and since Michael was no fool, the War took him just before what was like to have been a most promising career.
He was to have gone up to Oxford, with a scholarship, in October. At the end of August he was on the edge of joining the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line; but the captain of his O.T.C., where he had been sergeant for nearly a year, headed him off and steered him directly to a commission in a battalion so new that half of it still wore the old Army red, and the other half was breeding meningitis through living overcrowdedly in damp tents. Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.
“But it’s in the family”, Michael laughed.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that story all this time?” said Helen. (Emma, her maid, had been dead now several years.) “I gave you my word of honour – and I give it again – that – that it’s all right. It is indeed.”
“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did”, he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the show earlier if I’d enlisted – like my grandfather.”
“Don’t talk like that! Are you afraid of its ending so soon, then?”
“No such luck. You know what K. says.”
“Yes. But my banker told me last Monday it couldn’t possibly last beyond Christmas – for financial reasons.”
“I hope he’s right, but our Colonel – and he’s a Regular – say it’s going to be a long job.”
Michael’s battalion was fortunate in that, by some chance which meant several ‘leaves’, it was used for coast-defence among shallow trenches on the Norfolk coast; thence sent north to watch the mouth of a Scotch estuary, and, lastly, held for weeks on a baseless rumour of distant service. But, the very day that Michael was to have met Helen for four whole hours at a railway-junction up the line, it was hurled out, to help make good the wastage of Loos, and he had only just time to send her a wire of farewell.
In France luck again helped the battalion. It was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured; and enjoyed the peace of the Armentières and Laventie sectors when that battle began. Finding that it had sound views on protecting its own flanks and could dig, a prudent Commander stole it out of its own Division, under pretence of helping to lay telegraphs, and used it round Ypres at large.
A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was noting special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.
By this time the village was old in experience of war, and, English fashion, had evolved a ritual to meet it. When the postmistress handed her seven-year-old daughter the official telegram to take to Miss Turrell, she observed to the Rector’s gardener: “It’s Miss Helen’s turn now”. He replied, thinking of his own son: “Well, he’s lasted longer than some”. The child herself came to the front-door weeping aloud, because Master Michael had often given her sweets. Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after one with great care, and saying earnestly to each: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through an inevitable series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope and prophesied word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends, too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored. Other people urged her to communicate with infallible Secretaries of organizations who could communicate with benevolent neutrals, who could extract accurate information from the most secretive of Hun commandants. Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her.
Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to the all but finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin”, she told herself, as she prepared her documents.
In due course, when all the organizations had deeply or sincerely regretted their inability to trace, etc, something gave way within her and all sensations – save of thankfulness for the release – came to an end in blessed passivity. Michael had died and her world had stood still and she had been one with the full shock of that arrest. Now she was standing still and the world was going forward, but it did not concern her – in no way or relation did it touch her. She knew this by the ease with which she could slip Michael’s name into talk and incline her head to the proper angle, at the proper murmur of sympathy.
In the blessed realization of that relief, the Armistice with all its bells broke over her and passed unheeded. At the end of another year she had overcome her physical loathing of the living and returned young, so that she could take them by the hand and almost sincerely wish them well. She had no interest in any aftermath, national or personal, of the war, but, moving at an immense distance, she sat on various relief committees and held strong views – she heard herself delivering them – about the site of the proposed village War Memorial.
Then there came to her, as next of kin, an official intimation, backed by a page of a letter to her in indelible pencil, a silver identity-disc and a watch, to the effect that the body of Lieutenant Michael Turrell had been found, identified, and re-interred in Hagenzeele Third Military Cemetery – the letter of the row and the grave’s number in that row duly given.
So Helen found herself moved on to another process of the manufacture – to a world full of exultant or broken relatives, now strong in the certainty that there was an altar upon earth where they might lay their love. These soon told her, and by means of time-tables made clear, how easy it was and how little it interfered with life’s affairs to go and see one’s grave.
“So different”, as the Rector’s wife said, “if he’d been killed in Mesopotamia, or even Gallipoli.”
The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometres from Hagenzeele itself, where one could spend quite a comfortable night and see one’s grave next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a board and tar-paper shed on the skirts of a razed city of whirling lime-dust and blown papers.
“By the way”, said he, “you know your grave, of course?”
“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and showed its row and number typed on Michael’s own little typewriter. The officer would have checked it, out of one of his many books; but a large Lancashire woman thrust between them and bade him tell her where she might find her son, who had been corporal in the A.S.C. His proper name, she sobbed, was Anderson, but, coming of respectable folk, he had of course enlisted under the name of Smith; and had been killed at Dickiebush, in early ‘Fifteen. She had not his number nor did she know which of his two Christian names she might have used with his alias; but her Cook’s tourist ticket expired at the end of Easter week, and if by then she could not find her child she should go mad. Whereupon she fell forward on Helen’s breast; but the officer’s wife came out quickly from a little bedroom behind the office, and the three of them lifted the woman on to the cot.
“They are often like this”, said the officer’s wife, loosening the tight bonnet-strings. “Yesterday she said he’d been killed at Hooge. Are you sure you know your grave? It makes such a difference.”
“Yes, thank you”, said Helen, and hurried out before the woman on the bed should begin to lament again.
Tea in a crowded mauve and blue striped wooden structure, with a false front, carried her still further into the nightmare. She paid her bill beside a stolid, plain-featured Englishwoman, who, hearing her inquire about the train to Hagenzeele, volunteered to come with her.
“I’m going to Hagenzeele myself”, she explained. “Not to Hagenzeele Third; mine is Sugar Factory, but they call it La Rosière now. It’s just south of Hagenzeele Three. Have you got your room at the hotel there?”
“Oh yes, thank you, I’ve wired.”
“That’s better. Sometimes the place is quite full, and at others there’s hardly a soul. But they’ve put bathrooms into the old Lion d’Or – that’s the hotel on the west side of Sugar Factory – and it draws off a lot of people, luckily.”
“It’s all new to me. This is the first time I’ve been over.”
“Indeed! This is my ninth time since the Armistice. Not on my own account. I haven’t lost anyone, thank God – but, like everyone else, I’ve lot of friends at home who have. Coming over as often as I do, I find it helps them to have someone just look at the – place and tell them about it afterwards. And one can take photos for them, too. I get quite a list of commissions to execute.” She laughed nervously and tapped her slung Kodak. “There are two or three to see at Sugar Factory this time, and plenty of others in the cemeteries all about. My system is to save them up, and arrange them, you know. And when I’ve got enough commissions for one area to make it worth while, I pop over and execute them. It does comfort people.”
“I suppose so”, Helen answered, shivering as they entered the little train.
“Of course it does. (Isn’t it lucky we’ve got windows-seats?) It must do or they wouldn’t ask one to do it, would they? I’ve a list of quite twelve or fifteen commissions here” – she tapped the Kodak again – “I must sort them out tonight. Oh, I forgot to ask you. What’s yours?”
“My nephew”, said Helen. “But I was very fond of him”.
“Ah, yes! I sometimes wonder whether they know after death? What do you think?”
“Oh, I don’t – I haven’t dared to think much about that sort of thing”, said Helen, almost lifting her hands to keep her off.
“Perhaps that’s better”, the woman answered. “The sense of loss must be enough, I expect. Well I won’t worry you any more.”
Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs Scarsworth (they had exchanged names) insisted on dining at the same table with her, and after the meal, in the little, hideous salon full of low-voiced relatives, took Helen through her ‘commissions’ with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room.
Almost at one there was a knock at her door and Mrs Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.
“Yes – yes – I know”, she began. “You’re sick of me, but I want to tell you something. You – you aren’t married, are you? Then perhaps you won’t… But it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to tell someone. I can’t go on any longer like this.”
“But please -” Mrs Scarsworth had backed against the shut door, and her mouth worked dryly.
“In a minute”, she said. “You – you know about these graves of mine I was telling you about downstairs, just now? They really are commissions. At least several of them are.” Her eye wandered round the room. “What extraordinary wall-papers they have in Belgium, don’t you think? … Yes. I swear they are commissions. But there’s one, d’you see, and – and he was more to me than anything else in the world. Do you understand?”
“More than anyone else. And, of course, he oughtn’t to have been. He ought to have been nothing to me. But he was. He is. That’s why I do the commissions, you see. That’s all.”
“But why do you tell me?” Helen asked desperately.
“Because I’m so tired of lying. Tired of lying – always lying – year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ‘em and I’ve got to think ‘em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t to have been – the real thing – the only thing that ever happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word I said, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!”
“How many years?” Helen asked.
“Six years and four months before, and two and three-quarters after. I’ve gone to him eight times, since. Tomorrow I’ll make the ninth, and – and I can’t – I can’t go to him again with nobody in the world knowing. I want to be honest with someone before I go. Do you understand? It doesn’t matter about me. I was never truthful, even as a girl. But it isn’t worthy of him. So – so I – I had to tell you. I can’t keep it up any longer. Oh, I can’t!”
Next morning Mrs Scarsworth left early on her round of commissions, and Helen walked alone to Hagenzeele Third. The place was still in the making, and stood some five or six feet above the metalled road, which it flanked for hundreds of yards. Culverts across a deep ditch served for entrances through the unfinished boundary wall. She climbed a few woodenfaced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her. She went forward, moved to the left and the right hopelessly, wondering by what guidance she should ever come to her own. A great distance away there was a line of whiteness. It proved to be a block of some two or three hundred graves whose headstones had already been set, whose flowers were planted out, and whose new-sown grass showed green. Here she could see clear-cut letters at the ends of the rows, and, referring to her slip, realized that it was not here she must look.
A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener.