July 19, 1919. It has come. This is the great day of the English. Many have doubted whether we should ever have it, for faith had been weak and the mind weary while the enemy was still fixed in his fanatic resolution. But here it is, half my window-blind already bright with its first light. To-day we celebrate our return to peace, to an earth made the fairer for children, fit for the habitation of free men, safe for quiet folk. . . the day that once had seemed as remote as truth, as inaccessible as good fortune; a day, so we used to think in France, more distant even than those incredible years of the past that were undervalued by us, when we were happy in our ignorance of the glory men could distil from misery and filth; when we had not guessed what wealth could be got from the needs of a public anxious for its life; nor that sleeping children could be bombed at midnight in a noble cause. Yes, it had seemed to us even farther off than our memories of the happy past. Yet here it is, its coffee-cups tinkling below, and I welcome its early shafts of gold like the fortune they are. The fortune seems innocent and unaware of its nature. It does not know what it means to us. I had often been with soldier friends across the water when with mock rapture they had planned an itinerary for this day. They spoke of it where their surroundings made the thought of secure leisure or unremarkable toil only a painful reminder of what was beatific, but might never be. This day had not come to them. But it had come to me.
I was luckier than they. Yet when luck comes to us, does it ever look quite as we had imagined it when it was not ours? I lift the curtain on this luck, and look out. From an upper window of the house opposite the national emblem of the American Republic is hanging like an apron. Next door to it a man is decorating his window-sills with fairy lamps, and from his demeanour he might be devising a taboo against evil. I see no other sign that the new and better place of our planet was being acknowledged. The street is as the milkman and the postman have always known it on a quiet morning.
A cock crowed. It was then I knew that, though the morning was like all good sunrises, which are the same for the unjust and the righteous, I, somehow, was different. Chanticleer was quite near, but his confident and defiant voice, I recognized with a start, was a call from some other morning. It was the remembered voice of life at sunrise, as old as the jungle, alert, glad, and brave. Then why did it not sound as if it were meant for me? Why did it not accord, as once it did, with the coming of a new day, when the renewed and waiting earth was veritably waiting for us? Yet the morning seemed the same, its sounds the familiar confidences, its light the virgin innocence of a right beginning. Was this new light ours? While looking at it I thought that perhaps there is another light, an aura of something early and rare, which, once it is doused, cannot be rekindled, even by the sun which rises to shine on a great victory.
I began to feel that this early confusion of thought, over even so plain a cause for joy as morning, might be a private hint that it would be as hard to tell the truth about peace as it used to be about battle. And how difficult it is to tell the truth about war, and even how improper, some of us know. For what a base traitor even truth may be to good patriots, when she insists that her mirror cannot help reflecting what is there Why should the best instincts of loyal folk be thus embarrassed? If they do not wish to know what is there, when that is what it is like, is it right, is it gentlemanly, to show them?
How easy it would be to write of peace in the Capital, where the old highways have been decorated for many kings, marshals, and admirals, and the flags have been hung for victories since England first bore arms. So why should one be dubious of a few unimportant suburban byways, where the truth is plain, and is not charged with many emotions through the presence of an emperor and his statesmen and soldiers, all of them great, all of them ready for our superlatives to add to their splendour?
But perhaps the more you know of a place, the greater is your perplexity. That old vicarage wall, lower down my street, is merely attractive in the sun of Peace Day. A stranger, if he noticed it, might at the most admire its warm tones, and the tufts of hawkweed and snapdragon which are scattered on its ledges. But from this same window, on a winter morning, when affairs were urgent in France, I have seen youth assembled by that wall. Youth was silent. There was only a sergeant's voice in all the street. I think I hear now the diminishing trampling of quick feet marching away; and see a boy's face as he turned near the top of the rise to wave his hand. But look now, and say where are the shades on a bright morning!
I went out, a dutiful citizen, to celebrate. No joy can be truthfully reported till just this side of the High Street, where there were three girls with linked arms dancing in lax and cheerful oblivion, one of them quite drunk. Near them stood a cart with a man, a woman, and a monkey in it. The superior animals were clothed in red, white, and blue, and the monkey was wearing a Union Jack for a ruff. The ape was humping himself on the tail-board, and from his expression he might have been wondering how long all this would last. His gay companions were rosily chanting that if they caught someone bending it would be of no advantage to him. The main thoroughfare was sanded, and was waiting for the official procession. Quiet citizens were strolling about with their children, and what they were thinking is as great a mystery as what the populace at Memphis thought when the completion of the Great Pyramid was celebrated by the order of Cheops. In a room of an upper storey near the town hall a choir was singing the Hallelujah Chorus, and below, on the pavement, a hospital nurse, in a red wig, stood gravely listening, swaying to and fro, holding her skirts high, so that we saw beneath the broad slacks of an able seaman.
The chorus ceased, and in gratitude for the music the nurse embraced a Highland soldier, who was standing near and who was secretly amused, I believe, by the nurse's trousers. Then we heard the bands of the military procession in the distance, and it was in that moment I saw a young officer I knew, who was out as early as Neuve Chapelle, gazing, like everybody else, in the direction of the martial sounds. Before I could reach him through the press he had turned, and was walking hurriedly down a side street, as though in flight. I could not follow him. I wanted to see the soldiers. My reason was no better than some sentimental emotion; for I saw the original Contemptibles march off for Mons; and was with a battalion of the 9th Division, the first of Kitchener's men to go into the line; and saw the Derby men come out and begin; and at the last discovered that the conscripts were as good as the rest. Some of the survivors were marching towards me.
But I did not recognize them. Many were elderly men who were displaying proud tunics of volunteer regiments as old as Hyde Park Parades by Queen Victoria. One looked then for the sections from the local lodges of the Druids, Oddfellows, Buffaloes, and the He-Goats. There was the band of the local, cadets, spontaneous in its enthusiasm, its zest for martial music no different, of course. Just behind these lads a strange figure walked in the procession, a bent and misshapen old man, whose face had no expression but a fixed and hypnotic stare. He was keeping time to the measure of the boys' music by snapping the spring of a mouse-trap which he held aloft. I could not find him in the program. Was he also drunk? Or was he a terrible jest? Most of our triumphant display followed this figure. If our illusions go, what is left to us? Ah, our memories of the Somme! That young officer who turned away when he saw Triumph approaching acted on a right instinct.
There is a hilltop near us. It looks to other hills over a great space of southern England, and at night on the far promontories of the Downs bonfires were to be lighted. I have no doubt signals flared from them when the Romans were baffled. Again to-night they would signal that the latest enemy had been vanquished.
It was raining gently, and from our own crest the lower and outer night was void. A touch of distant phosphorescence that waned, and intensified again to a strong white glow, presently gave the void one far and lonely hilltop. A cloud elsewhere appeared out of nothing, and persisted, a lenticular spectre of dull fire. These aerial spectres became a host; some were so far away that they were faint smears of orange, and others so near and great that they pulsed and revealed the shapes of the clouds. It was all impersonal, it was England itself that was reflected, the hills that had awakened. It was the emanation of a worthy tradition, older than ourselves, that was rekindled and was glowing, and that would be here when we are not. It was so receptive, it was so spacious, that our gravest memories could abide there, as if night were kind to the secrets we dare not voice, and understood folly and remorse, and could protect our better visions, and had sanctuary and consolation for that grief which looks to what might have been, but now can never be.
A spark glittered near, a spark that towered and hovered overhead, and burst into coiling volumes of lurid smoke with a moving heart of flame. Light broke on a neighbouring hill that had been unseen and forgotten; the hill was crowned with fantastic trees that danced, and a wavering tower. From our own valley below there came a vicious tearing that gave me a momentary chill (so sounds a stream of machine-gun lead, going over), and a group of coloured stars expanded over us. Their bright light showed the night reticulated with thin lines of smoke, like veins of calcite in a canopy of black marble. Our immediate country, pallid and tremulous, faded again, but in that brief prospect of a shadow land I glimpsed a road, the presentment of the long road to Bapaume. So the Bapaume road showed at night by inconsequential and unexpected lights. That hill-crest of leaping trees could be the ridge of Loupart with its wood, and Achete in flames beyond. The notion gave me enough of our hill-top. I descended from it.
There is a public-house at the foot of the hill, and a lane of harsh noises and a beam of light projected together from its open door across the road. Beyond it I turned into a house, for I knew I should find there an aged and solitary man who would have his own thoughts on such a night as this; for he had a son, and the spectre of the Bapaume road had reminded me where that boy was celebrating whatever peace he knew. His father was not communicative; and what could I say? He sat, answering me distantly and austerely, and he might have been a bearded sage seeing in retrospect a world he had long known, and who at last had made up his mind about it, though he would not tell me what that was. Outside we could hear revellers approaching. They paused at our door; their feet began to shuffle, and they sang:"If I catch you bending,
I'll turn you upside down,
Knees up, knees up,
Knees up, knees up,
Knees up, Father Brown."