Waiting for Daylight
November 9, 1918. I read again my friend's last field service post card, brief and enigmatic, and now six weeks old. I could find in it no more than when it first came. Midnight struck, and I went to the outer gate. The midnight had nothing to tell me. Not that it was silent; we would not call it mere silence, that brooding and impenetrable darkness charged with doom unrevealed, which is now our silent night, unrelenting to lonely watchers.
Near my gate is a laburnum tree. Once upon a time, on nights of rain such as this, the shower caught in it would turn to stars, and somehow from the brightness of that transient constellation I could get my bearings. I knew where I was. One noticed those small matters in the past, and was innocently thankful for them. Those lights sufficed us. There was something companionable even in the street lamp. But what it? You see it, when you are accustomed to the midnight gloom of war, shrouded, a funereal smear of purple in a black world. No bearing can be got from it now. What one looks into is the lightless unknown. I peer into the night and rain for some familiar and reasonable shape to loom--I am permitted to do this, for so far the police do not object to a citizen cherishing a hopeful though fatuous disposition--but my usual reward is but the sound of unseen drainage, as though I were listening to my old landmarks in dissolution. I feel I should not be surprised, when daylight came, to find that the appearance of my neighbourhood had become like Spitzbergen's.
That is why I soon retreat now from my gate, no wiser, bringing in with me on these nights of rain little more than the certainty that we need expect no maroons or bombs; and then, because the act is most unpatriotic in a time of shortage, put on more coal with my fingers, as this makes less noise than a shovel. I choose a pipe, the one I bought in a hurry at Amiens. I choose it for that reason, and because it holds more tobacco than the others; watch the flames, and take stock.
In the winter, as we know, it never rams. It is merely wet weather. Still, that means only a retirement into winter quarters, into those long evenings against which we have hoarded our books, light and warmth in store. Perhaps in the case of the more idle there may be the consideration, pleasant and prolonged, of that other book, known to no other man, not yet written, and perhaps destined to perish, a secret dream. But what are now these books? What now is even that book which is perfect and unwritten? It, too, has lost its light. I am left staring into the fire. The newspapers tell us of a common joy at the coming of Peace. Peace? If she is coming, then we are much obliged to her. I remember during an earlier and wasted joy at a word in France of the coming of Peace agreeing with several young soldiers that Brussels would be the place to meet, to hail there with flagons the arrival of the Dove. But I do not want to be reminded of what has happened since that day. That festival could now have but one celebrant. Then, in another year of the War, in a mood of contrition and dismay, some people began to feel that on the day Peace arrived it would be seemly if she found them on their knees in church. Since that day, too, much has happened; and when Peace does come I suppose most of us will make reasonably certain the bird resembles a dove, and go to bed early--taking another look at the long-lost creature next morning, in the presence of a competent witness, to confirm that we have not been deceived again by another turkey buzzard; and, if that is certain, then let the matter drop.
For in these years, when heavy weather obscures the fixed lights, and we are not certain about our bearings, it is useless to pretend that the darkness which once made us content with a book is now a worse kind of darkness only because intensified by a private shadow. The shadow of a personal grief does not wholly explain its sinister intensity. The night itself is different. It hides a world unknown. If a sun is to rise on that world, then not even a false dawn yet shows. When we stand peering into our night, where the sound of rain and wind is like nothing the memory knows, and may be even the dark tumult portending a day of wrath, we may turn again in solitude to what is left to us, to our books; but not with quiet content. To-morrow we may pull ourselves together. Curiosity about our new world may awaken. We may become adventurous, and make an effort towards greeting the unknown with a cheer, to show it there is no settled ill-feeling. But it has been my experience that when leaving port in dark weather, though the voyage to come was to be novel and interesting, one heard very little cheering from the glum figures working about the deck. The ship is seaworthy, but she is bleak and foreign. In a week all will be well. We shall have cleared these icy latitudes. The sky will be fairer. We shall have more sun. We shall have become accustomed to our shipmates' unfamiliar faces and ways. It is only the start that is sullen and unpropitious.
And here is Peace coming, and a new world, and there are my books; yet though this pipe after midnight is nearly done, and the fire too, I have not been able to settle on a book. The books are like the ashes on the hearth. And listen to the wind, with its unpromising sounds from the wide and empty desert places! What does any of these old books know about me, in the midst of those portents of a new age? We are all outward bound, and this is the first night of a long voyage, its port unknown.
Even my bookshelves seem strange to-night. They look remarkably like a library I saw once in a house in Richbourg S. Vaast, which, you may remember, was a village near Neuve Chapelle. Those French volumes also survived from circumstances that had passed. They were litter. They had been left behind. I doubted whether, if I tried, I could touch them. They were not within my time. That was on a day more than three years ago--it was July, 1915--and Richbourg then had just left this world. There was a road without a sign of life; not a movement, except in one house. The front of that house had gone, exposing the hollow inside, the collapsed floors and hanging beams, and showing also a doll with a foolish smirk caught in a wire and dangling from a rafter. The doll danced in hysteric merriment whenever hidden guns were fired. That was the only movement in Richbourg S. Vaast, and the guns made the only sound. I was a survivor from the past, venturing at peril among the wreckage and hardly remembered relics of what used to be familiar. Richbourg was possessed by the power which had overwhelmed it, and which was re-forming it in a changing world. To what was the world changing? There was no clue, except the oppression of my mind, the shock of the guns, and the ecstatic mockery of mirth over ruin by that little idiot doll.
Beyond the sloughing and leprous tower of Richbourg Church, where the ancient dead in the graveyard had been brought to light again, there was a house which seemed in being. I entered it, for I was told by a soldier companion that from a displaced tile in its roof I might see La Bassée I looked through that gap, and saw La Bassée It was very near. It was a terra-cotta smudge. It might have been a brickfield. But it was the Enemy.
What I chiefly remember to-day is only the floor of that upper room from which, through a gap in its wall, I saw the ambush of the enemy. On the floor were scattered, mixed with lumps of plaster, a child's alphabetical blocks. A shoe of the child was among them. There was a window where we dared not show ourselves, though the day was fair without, and by it was an old bureau, open, with its pad of blotting-paper, and some letters, all smothered with fragments of glass and new dust. A few drawers of the desk were open, and the contents had been spilled. Round the walls of the room were bookcases with leaded diamond panes. Whoever was last in the room had left sections of the bookcases open, and there were gaps in the rows of books. Volumes had been taken out, had been dropped on the floor, put on the mantelpiece, or, as I had noticed when coming up to the room, left on the stairs. One volume, still open face upwards, was on the bureau.
I barely glanced at those books. What could they tell me? What did they know about it? Just as they were, open on the floor, tumbled on the stairs, they were telling me all they could. Was there more to be said? Sitting on a bracket in the shadow of a corner, a little bust of Rousseau overlooked the scene with me. In such a place, at such a time, you must make your own interpretation of the change, receiving out of the silence, which is not altered in nature by occasional abominable noises, just whatever you wish to take. There the books are, and the dust on them is of an era which abruptly fell; is still falling.