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Coming Home 1916   By: (1862-1937)

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COMING HOME

By Edith Wharton

Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons

I

The young men of our American Relief Corps are beginning to come back from the front with stories.

There was no time to pick them up during the first months the whole business was too wild and grim. The horror has not decreased, but nerves and sight are beginning to be disciplined to it. In the earlier days, moreover, such fragments of experience as one got were torn from their setting like bits of flesh scattered by shrapnel. Now things that seemed disjointed are beginning to link themselves together, and the broken bones of history are rising from the battle fields.

I can't say that, in this respect, all the members of the Relief Corps have made the most of their opportunity. Some are unobservant, or perhaps simply inarticulate; others, when going beyond the bald statistics of their job, tend to drop into sentiment and cinema scenes; and none but H. Macy Greer has the gift of making the thing told seem as true as if one had seen it. So it is on H. Macy Greer that I depend, and when his motor dashes him back to Paris for supplies I never fail to hunt him down and coax him to my rooms for dinner and a long cigar.

Greer is a small hard muscled youth, with pleasant manners, a sallow face, straight hemp coloured hair and grey eyes of unexpected inwardness. He has a voice like thick soup, and speaks with the slovenly drawl of the new generation of Americans, dragging his words along like reluctant dogs on a string, and depriving his narrative of every shade of expression that intelligent intonation gives. But his eyes see so much that they make one see even what his foggy voice obscures.

Some of his tales are dark and dreadful, some are unutterably sad, and some end in a huge laugh of irony. I am not sure how I ought to classify the one I have written down here.

II

ON my first dash to the Northern fighting line Greer told me the other night I carried supplies to an ambulance where the surgeon asked me to have a talk with an officer who was badly wounded and fretting for news of his people in the east of France.

He was a young Frenchman, a cavalry lieutenant, trim and slim, with a pleasant smile and obstinate blue eyes that I liked. He looked as if he could hold on tight when it was worth his while. He had had a leg smashed, poor devil, in the first fighting in Flanders, and had been dragging on for weeks in the squalid camp hospital where I found him. He didn't waste any words on himself, but began at once about his family. They were living, when the war broke out, at their country place in the Vosges; his father and mother, his sister, just eighteen, and his brother Alain, two years younger. His father, the Comte de Réchamp, had married late in life, and was over seventy: his mother, a good deal younger, was crippled with rheumatism; and there was, besides to round off the group a helpless but intensely alive and domineering old grandmother about whom all the others revolved. You know how French families hang together, and throw out branches that make new roots but keep hold of the central trunk, like that tree what's it called? that they give pictures of in books about the East.

Jean de Réchamp that was my lieutenant's name told me his family was a typical case. "We're very province ," he said. "My people live at Réchamp all the year. We have a house at Nancy rather a fine old hôtel but my parents go there only once in two or three years, for a few weeks. That's our 'season.'...Imagine the point of view! Or rather don't, because you couldn't...." (He had been about the world a good deal, and known something of other angles of vision.)

Well, of this helpless exposed little knot of people he had had no word simply nothing since the first of August. He was at home, staying with them at Réchamp, when war broke out. He was mobilised the first day, and had only time to throw his traps into a cart and dash to the station... Continue reading book >>




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