Signs of Spring
February 16, 1918. A catalogue of secondhand books was sent to me yesterday. A raid warning, news of the destruction of Parliament House, or a whisper of the authentic ascent of Mr. Lloyd George in a fiery chariot and of the flight of God, would do no more to us than another kick does to the dead. But that catalogue had to be handled to be believed. It was an incredible survival from the days before the light went out. Those minor gratifications have gone. I had even forgotten they were ever ours. Sometimes now one wakes to a morning when the window is a golden square, a fine greeting to a good earth, and the whistle of a starling in the apple tree just outside is as tenuous as a thread of silver; the smell of coffee brings one up blithe as a boy about to begin play again. Yet something we feel to be wrong--a foggy memory of an ugly dream--ah, yes; the War, the War. The damned remembrance of things as they are drops its pall. The morning paper, too, I see, has the information that our men are again cheerfully waiting for the spring offensive.
Cheerfully! But, of course, the editor knows. And the spring offensive! I have seen that kind of vernal gladness. What an advent! When you find the first blue egg in the shrubbery behind your billet in Artois; when the G.S.O.2 comes into the mess with a violet in his fingers, and shows it to every doubter, then you know the time has come for the testing of the gas cylinders, and you wonder whether this is the last time you will be noteworthy because you had the earliest news of the chiffchaff. The spring offensive! Guns are now converging by leagues of roads to a new part of the Front, to try to do there what they failed to do elsewhere. The men, as all important editors know, are happily waiting for the great brutes to begin bellowing again in infernal concert. So there accumulates at breakfast in these spring days all that evidence which makes one proud to share with one's fellows the divine gift of reason, instead of a blind and miserable animal instinct. No wonder the cuckoo has a merry note!
That is the way we idle and hapless civilians now begin our day. I look up to the sky, and wonder whether this inopportune spell of fine weather means that some London children will be killed in bed to-night. As I pass the queues of women who have been waiting for hours for potatoes, and probably won't get any, though the earth doubtless is still abundant, if we had but the sense and opportunity to try it, I cannot help wondering whether it would not have been better for us to have refused the gift of reason from which could be devised the edifying wonders of civilization, and have remained in the treetops instead, so ignorant that we were unaware we were lucky.
Another grave statement by a great statesman, and, when we are fortunate, a field post card, are to-day our full literary deserts. Is it surprising that catalogues of old books do not come our way? We do not deserve them. Hope faintly revives, when the postman cheers us with an overdue field post card, of a morning to dawn when the abstraction we name the "average intelligence" and the "great heart of the public" and the "herd mind," will not only regret that it made a ruinous fool of itself the night before, but solemnly resolve to end all disruptive and dirty habits. This wild hope was born in me of such a post card (all right so far!) coinciding with the arrival of the list of old books. It seemed at that moment that things could be different and better. Then, when closing the front door that morning--very gently--not slamming it on the run--I saw something else. The door noiselessly closed, an easy launch into a tranquil day, as though I had come down through the night with the natural process of the hours, and so had commenced the day at the right moment, I noticed the twig of a lilac bush had intruded into the porch. It directly indicated me with a black finger. What did it want? I looked intently, sure that an omen was here. Aha! So that was it! The twig was showing me that it had a green nail.
Four young officers of the Flying Corps passed me, going ahead briskly, and I thought that an elm under which they walked had kindling in it a suggestion of coloured light. But it was too delicate to be more than a hope. It must be confessed that the men who fight in the air were more distinct than that light. Then the four officers parted, two to either side, when marching past another figure. They went beyond it swiftly, taking no notice of it, turned into the future, and vanished. I drew near the bowed and leisurely being, which had a spade over its shoulder.
It stopped to light a pipe, and I caught up to it. The edge of the spade was like silver with use, and the big hand which grasped it was brown with dry earth. The lean neck of this figure was tinctured with many summers, and cross-hatched by the weather and mature maleness. I caught a smell of newly turned earth. The figure moved as though time were nothing. It turned its face as I drew level, and said it was a good morning. The morning was better than good; and somehow this object in an old hat and clothes as rough as bark, with a face which probably had the same expression when William was momentous at Hastings, and when Pitt solemnly ordered the map of Europe to be rolled up, was in accord with the light in the elm, and the superior and convincing insolence of the blackbirds. They all suggested the tantalizing idea that solid ground is near us, in this unreasonable world of anxious change, if only we had intelligence enough to know where to look for it.