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Coming Home
by [?]

Rechamp told me a lot in those days. I don’t believe he was talkative before the war, but his long weeks in hospital, starving for news, had unstrung him. And then he was mad with excitement at getting back to his own place. In the interval he’d heard how other people caught in their country-houses had fared–you know the stories we all refused to believe at first, and that we now prefer not to think about…. Well, he’d been thinking about those stories pretty steadily for some months; and he kept repeating: “My people say they’re all right–but they give no details.”

“You see,” he explained, “there never were such helpless beings. Even if there had been time to leave, they couldn’t have done it. My mother had been having one of her worst attacks of rheumatism–she was in bed, helpless, when I left. And my grandmother, who is a demon of activity in the house, won’t stir out of it. We haven’t been able to coax her into the garden for years. She says it’s draughty; and you know how we all feel about draughts! As for my father, he hasn’t had to decide anything since the Comte de Chambord refused to adopt the tricolour. My father decided that he was right, and since then there has been nothing particular for him to take a stand about. But I know how he behaved just as well as if I’d been there–he kept saying: ‘One must act–one must act!’ and sitting in his chair and doing nothing. Oh, I’m not disrespectful: they were like that in his generation! Besides–it’s better to laugh at things, isn’t it?” And suddenly his face would darken….

On the whole, however, his spirits were good till we began to traverse the line of ruined towns between Sainte Menehould and Bar-le-Duc. “This is the way the devils came,” he kept saying to me; and I saw he was hard at work picturing the work they must have done in his own neighbourhood.

“But since your sister writes that your people are safe!”

“They may have made her write that to reassure me. They’d heard I was badly wounded. And, mind you, there’s never been a line from my mother.”

“But you say your mother’s hands are so lame that she can’t hold a pen. And wouldn’t Mlle. Malo have written you the truth?”

At that his frown would lift. “Oh, yes. She would despise any attempt at concealment.”

“Well, then–what the deuce is the matter?”

“It’s when I see these devils’ traces–” he could only mutter.

One day, when we had passed through a particularly devastated little place, and had got from the cure some more than usually abominable details of things done there, Rechamp broke out to me over the kitchen-fire of our night’s lodging. “When I hear things like that I don’t believe anybody who tells me my people are all right!”

“But you know well enough,” I insisted, “that the Germans are not all alike–that it all depends on the particular officer….”

“Yes, yes, I know,” he assented, with a visible effort at impartiality. “Only, you see–as one gets nearer….” He went on to say that, when he had been sent from the ambulance at the front to a hospital at Moulins, he had been for a day or two in a ward next to some wounded German soldiers–bad cases, they were–and had heard them talking. They didn’t know he knew German, and he had heard things…. There was one name always coming back in their talk, von Scharlach, Oberst von Scharlach. One of them, a young fellow, said: “I wish now I’d cut my hand off rather than do what he told us to that night…. Every time the fever comes I see it all again. I wish I’d been struck dead first.” They all said “Scharlach” with a kind of terror in their voices, as if he might hear them even there, and come down on them horribly. Rechamp had asked where their regiment came from, and had been told: From the Vosges. That had set his brain working, and whenever he saw a ruined village, or heard a tale of savagery, the Scharlach nerve began to quiver. At such times it was no use reminding him that the Germans had had at least three hundred thousand men in the East in August. He simply didn’t listen….