The story of a man's struggle with a terror that rode on wings, and his finding of the woman
CHARLES NICHOLS watched his fellow passengers of the three weeks Baltic cruise to the northern capitals of Europe file down the gangway into Hamburg.
Many of them, particularly the women, saw him looking over the port side rail of B deck and called out to him cheerfully.
He was easily the most attractive, interesting, bestlooking and best-tailored man on board.
He was so attractive that at the end of the tour he had ceased to be even an emotional possibility and became invested with all the permanent, wistful charm of a definitely lost opportunity.
“What are you all doing?”
And the answer floated back in many voices, chiefly high and feminine, “Berlin—Travemünde—Flying! Airplane! Air! Flying! First time Berlin! Quicker! Scared stiff! Flying! Come too! Be a sport! Flying! First time! Be air minded!”
The voices faded as the passengers tripped down the gangway. They were blown up to him at different strengths, some very faint, some strong, some suddenly jerked away at the end by space, as if the speakers were on invisible wires being hoisted sharply away from him.
The chief purser came and stood by his side for a minute and looked at the well-dressed, dull mob surging through for brief customs examination.
“I was in the R. N. A. S., 1915,” he said. “I know what I think of people who go up when they could stay on land . . . and they have to print it in asterisks!” He paused, “Going on shore, colonel?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Been to Hamburg before?”
“Lots of times.”
He thought how true that was getting of places, of people, of emotion. Life was becoming a dull smudge of similarity. Most places were like other places. Most people were like other people. All books were strangely like other books. Nothing was challengingly stereoscopic. Nothing now leapt living from its dead background and challenged his concentration and joyful healthy absorption. Nothing at all anv more.
A passenger came dashing up to him, a trim, bedizened little chit who had tried to make the running hard ever since they had left Immingham nearly three weeks previously. She said, cozening— and there was no other word that quite described her technique:
"I’ve just seen Cook’s man, colonel. There’s one seat vacant in the third plane. Do come. One must be air minded these days.”
“Who invented that ghastly phrase? He ought to be shot. Air minded !”
He spluttered the word, his jaw working.
The girl said airily, her brown eyes popping a little with intense surprise rather like a rabbit caught in the glare of headlights, “O.K., O king! Don’t be sore at me. Only if you are not air minded these days you are nothing.”
The colonel’s big chest heaved. His face was grey.
The corners of his mouth came down in a hard ugly crescent. Two little cold runnels of perspiration travelled from under his Homburg and ran like insects down the sides of his face. His hands gripped the rail.
He thought, “I will have to go and be psychoanalyzed after all.”
He was nearly sick at the thought. Sitting in a room with another fellow and unwrapping the sticky cocoon of his own mind. Not to be thought of !
Air minded !
It was awful the way that phrase brought it back ! Terrible the way one remembered. The way everything slid back instantaneously; all one had piled on since in a tremendous effort to forget, simply evaporating before it.
One’s mind became automatically a dark sky of cloud, and noise and airplane and blinding, shrinking, sickening
Three times he’d crashed during the war. Once, two months in hospital and they’d sent him up again. Twice, six months night bombing, night after night from Dunkirk. Third time, one engine shot clean through and a bullet in his shoulder.
Nights, weeks, months, years of nightmare! Not shell shock. Air shock from which he’d never recovered. Air
shock which haunted and possessed him and was liable to take possession of him at the mere sound of an airplane droning in a summer sky over a quiet summer landscape anywhere.
Sheer, blind, animal terror that made him break out in an agony of sweat. Terror that made him want to bury his face in the ground like an animal, and writhe, and scream.
And he daren’t tell anybody! He daren’t let anybody know. It rode him day and night. An invisible old man of the sea ! It corroded all his life, this fear that the old terror might come upon him at any moment and unman him. The fear that his mind would be nothing but a red hot slide of blind terror and screaming anguish, of hideous deafening noise, of hell let loose; and he himself, the real man, would be somewhere crouched behind it all; a small shrinking human figure faced by the whole panorama of an inferno in full blast.
He looked at his trembling hands and he fought for self-
control. His hands were sweaty, too. The hairs on the wrist were beaded with tiny, minute globes of moisture, as if dew had sprung from the sudden ice coldness of them as from the earth.
Air minded! If they knew!
He closed his eyes and the crashing, rocking machinery inside him stopped. The air cleared and there was peace like unconsciousness, and as deadly.
The quay below was deserted now except for a few officials. The decks were practically empty.
He walked to the other side of the ship and saw all the churning, fascinating busy-ness of one of the most fascinating and busiest harbors in the world.
It was a vivid, violently blue and gold day.
Perhaps if he’d gone with the other passengers, perhaps if he had got in a plane with some post-war crew, he'd be free of it !
Air minded ! If they knew, those babbling thrill seekers of this peacetime azure and gold day in a foreign port !
HE SAW a girl standing beside him, a stranger to his eyes. He’d not noticed her previously. There were four hundred people on board and he was always seeing faces he had not remarked before.
She stood tremendously still and stared out at the water, at the big Blue Star liner moored a few furlongs away, at an old windjammer moored farther out, at the tugs and ferryboats that went lashing noisily, cheerfully up and down.
Her face was like a deep bowl of cream, colorless and placid and rather sweet.
He spoke to her out of his dire sudden necessity for human intercourse.
“They wanted me to fly. Most of them are flying to Berlin. What do you feel about flying?”
His voice was reassuring to himself. It was like another voice calling aloud to him in his secret darkness.
He did not care what she answered. But she said with that same, strange, utter calmness, “I should like to fly.”
“I haven’t seen you before.”
‘‘Where did you
“Have you had a good time?”
“Yes. I’m with Lady Gedge-Frossil, Viscount Frossil's eldest daughter. I am her secretarycompanion.”
“Have you been on shore at all?”
“Yes, I went to Tivoli in Copenhagen and to the Exhibition in Stockholm. Lady Gedge-Frossil is very conservative. She does not care for her secretary to mix with the passengers. We have a private suite and I spend most of my time arranging her notes for a travel book.” “Oh, yes.”
“I went alone for an hour or two on shore at Danzig and saw the Casino atZoppot.”
“I suppose you don’t get an opportunity to see much?” “No, not really. But I have been abroad before with Lady Gedge-Frossil but she is always writing a book. My passport makes me feel like a valise or portmanteau sometimes. I am just stamped with the name of the place and on I go again without seeing anything of it. I’m nothing but labels really.”
“That is rather an amusing way to put it.”
“It is true,” she said. “It wasn’t meant to be amusing.” “You cannot be very old.”
“I’m older than you'd think.”
“Older than you’d think,” she replied quietly, evenly, and without smiling.
He looked at her. She had dark and lustrous brown eyes set like brilliant, licked brandy-balls in the creaminess of her round face. There was a curious blankness in them, as if she held the blind down against his scrutiny almost by
“Lady Gedge-Frossil has gone to Berlin?”
“Yes, she won’t be back until tomorrow evening, just before we sail.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I expect I shall have a look at Hamburg this afternoon. Isn’t there a very good Zoo here?”
“Yes. Do you like Zoos?”
He looked at her again. She was so stolid. She seemed so unetched upon by life; the most unused female, pictorially, emotionally and intellectually, that he had ever encountered. Her very tranquillity and emptiness seemed founded on lack of experience and a curious, bland, childish ignorance.
“So you want to fly?”
She turned the small white, attractive mask of her face to him and the curious, brilliant, blankness of her truly marvellous eyes. He saw that her mouth was singularly
sweet, singularly beautiful, and set in trusting, unresisting “I certainly want to fly.”
Perhaps if he could try a flight with someone so guileless, so virginal, so inexperienced, so untried that it would be like taking the hand of an angel; perhaps if he could do it he could get rid of his obsession, his terror, his inhibition.
It was at least an idea. He toyed with it. It might be an inspiration to fly with someone who knew nothing about one’s previous background of flying. Someone to whom flying was a brand-new experience in a new world.
To fly with such colossal ignorance, such divine lack of imagination and absence of all preconceived notions about flying and oneself might be a cure. One couldn’t let go of oneself before such abysmal incomprehension, such utter inability to understand.
He said, “Will you fly with me?”
“No, not as far as that. That is over two hours flight. It is a bit long for a novice, you know. No, I don’t think we will try that. Say to Travemünde and then we’ll take a car to Lubeck. It is the most marvellous old German city.”
“Do we get back tonight?”
He said: “No. Tomorrow morning. Look here, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. I’m not trying to, in the language of the present day, ‘get off.’ It’s far from my mind, my dear, as anything in this world. It does not interest me, quite frankly. I should like to share your emotion flying for the first time, to give you the experience, to watch your reactions.”
“Have you flown before?”
“Yes. Yes, I have flown before. I've done everything before. That is my trouble. One of the few things left to me in life is doing things with people who are doing them for the first time.”
“I wonder if you really do see and comprehend!”
“No, I don’t; quite frankly. But I’m turning it over in my mind as an opportunity. If you lead the kind of life I do and you’re as old as I am, you pick up an opportunity when it comes along and examine it well before you throw it away.”
“Lubeck is the most enchanting old town. It is a thing you might never have the opportunity of ever seeing again, and although I have never flown there I should think it is marvellous from the air. To begin with, it is surrounded by water and it is old rose color; so you can imagine what it looks like ! An enchanted fairy-tale city ; and to see it from the air for the first time ! I can think of no place that you have been and know that would be more marvellous from the air, not even Stockholm. Think it over. Only you haven't very long. The plane goes about 12.30 and we drive out to the station. It is on the outskirts of Hamburg. I mean, the German air stations alone are a tremendous experience. You see, Germany is not allowed an air force and so the civil aviation is subsidized by the State. Everything is very super. Super-efficiency, too, everywhere. You couldn’t fly in a safer country than Germany.”
“Quite frankly, I am tempted. You say it is an experience I may never have again. Forgive me, please, if I’m perfectly straight. I have to be. There is no funny business at the back of your mind?”
‘ ‘ A bsol utel y none. I want Continued on page 15
Continued from page 7
a companion for an amusing little adventure, a companion whose reactions to an entirely new experience it will be stimulating and intensely interesting to watch.”
“I see. And it is useless to pretend that I quite understand. But I do see it as a chance.”
“And you believe in taking chances?” “Yes, I do.”
“Splendid. Shall we then?”
“But it is quite clearly understood—” “Absolutely. I give you my word of
“Thank you. That was nice of you. It is unusual, that is all. I have been perfectly honest with you. You know exactly who I am—Lady Gedge-Frossil’s secretary. My father was a schoolmaster in a Midland town until his small private school failed last year.”
"I like your honesty. Shall we call it a deal, then? You will only need just night things, a small portmanteau.”
“I have an attache case.”
“That’ll do admirably. As long as you are here when her ladyship returns, it’s no one’s business, is it? Just tell your bedroom steward you have friends in Hamburg and will not be back tonight. They have to keep a tally of their own passengers, you know, when we are in port.”
“Very good. I’ll join you in a quarter of an hour.”
“We might have a look at Hamburg first if it would amuse you and we’ll go to the American Express Company and book our seats by telephone. Why are you shivering?” “Was I?” she said quietly. “I hadn’t noticed. I’ll meet you here in a quarter of an
' I 'HE man at the American Express Company at Alsterdamm, whose English was perfect, was very calm about it all.
By telephone he reserved two seats for them in a plane that carried six. As he stood at the counter and again as he changed money at the exchange in the comer of the big office, Charles Nichols wanted to turn and ran, suddenly throw in his hand and run screaming out into the dancing swirl of yellow sunshine in the Alsterdamm outside —across the road and, if necessary, into the dancing sheet of water on the other side.
First time up since he had been shot down in 1917.
Thirty-nine miles of airway stretched in front of him. How would he react? How much would he remember by that dreadful black magic that had lodged itself in his brain. That awful mental alchemy that was his affliction.
Would the sky darken and become full of scarlet, stabbing fire, of screaming, battering, ramming noise?
The girl stood by his side very quietly, strangely withdrawn from him. Oddly like a little peasant Madonna. So unutterably, so oddly incurious.
“The bus for the aerodrome will pick you up outside the station.”
“All right,” he said. “It is easier to go by that.”
No Hamburgian ever lives long enough to learn his way in and out of the infinitude of basins and harbors. But they saw the background of water and rather delightful houses.
But always water and ships and yet more ships aind more water.
Later they drove by taxi through the outskirts of Hamburg. Past square houses with most imposing window-boxes, glorious window-boxes hanging everywhere, like colored fringes and adding an air of gala, of carnival. Flowers you never see used in a like manner in England. The swollen purple of petunia stuck on to the grey faces of the houses like colored eyelashes.
“Now for the great adventure,” said Colonel Charles Nichols, D.S.O., M.C., late of the British Expeditionary Force, 19141918.
“I wouldn’t have missed this,” said the girl. “Not for anything !”
They went into the Deutsche Luft Hansa. It was the very newest architecture. A long low building, all windows with a restaurant, a hairdresser’s shop, a newspaper stand.
Facing them they could see the flying ground. A colossal great plane and smaller ones. They were going on regular daily and hourly services, just like trains, to France, Holland, and all over Germany and the Scandinavian towns.
There were men with little shiny black attache cases under their arms, hurrying about as if they were on a station. Their luggage was examined by the customs and marked. Their plane was not ready and they were not allowed out on the flying ground.
They walked up and down the great corridors, looking at the papers, the postcard stands. He bought a lot of postcards for her.
It was like the enormous corridor of a hospital. Bare. Intensely hygienic. You almost expected the surgeon in his white coat to come bustling out of the hairdresser’s or down the winding stairs from the upstairs restaurant.
The colonel walked up and down solidly, ringingly, because he wanted the sound and the feel of his own feet on earth. The black wings of his old terror were stirring automatically.
“Sure you wouldn't prefer not to go. It’s not too late now.”
“No, I’d like to go. Thank you.”
An official in military-looking uniform smiled and beckoned them. They went out into the breezy blue gold and green glitter of the actual flying field. A great plane going to Rotterdam took off as they stepped outside. They watched it run along and lift gracefully and effortlessly as a vast bird.
“This is really exciting,” she said.
They climbed in the plane. The pilot’s seat was outside and one man had already taken the passenger’s seat beside him.
The wind freshened. It seemed to blow in blue and white feathers all over them. The whole airplane was lost in a swirl of air feathers. Blue, gold and white.
“You sit in front,” he said. “You’ll see better. Fasten that belt thing round your
“Where are you going to sit?”
“At the back. I will be just behind you. I will have my hand on your shoulder.”
Two more passengers got in, a man and a woman. The woman sat next to the girl. The man sat next to Colonel Nichols.
He said suddenly, “Do you know, I don’t know your name?”
"Doris Fawcus.” "Thank you,” he said.
'“THE pilot climbed into his seat. One of the officials in smart uniform dashed up and gave him a piece of paper, probably with the time of starting written on.
The little machine started forward and travelled swiftly on the ground.
They were shut in. It was too late to do anything.
He looked through the windows down on the black asphalt. It turned to green grass. The green grass grew dimmer as the airplane took off.
It was as if the increasing space that now separated them from the earth were water flowing all over it and condemning them to some dreadful existence apart from all that was familiar.
He was bathed in a hot bath of perspiration.
He turned his face away from the man next to him because he was afraid he would see the naked terror leaping over it in nervous grimaces.
All the blue sky turned black as it did in his nightmare. It became the sky of his war-blistered memory. Black with death. Hideous and vile with inexplicable noise that shattered his ear drums. Up in this timeless, inky void of persecution, of torture, of pursuit, he hung obsessed.
He wanted to scream, to yell. He’d been crazy to come.
Air minded ! Air soaked. Air obsessed. Air possessed.
The girl in front turned round.
She held one clutching little hand out behind her. He took it and again the black beating wings of his secret fear stilled. Failed at the crucial moment to carry him up in writhings and screams and utter self-abandon.
They had given them a little packet before starting. It contained chewing gum, cotton wool for the ears, and a little gilt tie-pin of a flying-bird —the trademark of the air service.
He ripped his packet open and handed her a piece of chewing gum. She nodded and put it in her mouth.
The other two, the man and woman, grinned.
He pointed down and was most surprised at himself, at his extraordinary delivery from himself at that moment.
“Look,” he motioned imperiously.
He had heard an air-minded enthusiast in London say a million times that the people of the future would go up just to see cloud scenery; that it would become a vogue.
He had never seen anything more marvellous than the clouds above which the plane hovered. Great peaks of dazzling white and at their base glorious shapes like snowcovered villages. Range upon range of white mountains against the blue sky. And yet not white, but of a dovelike softness and a celestial brilliance. And through these clouds seen suddenly, like valleys millions of miles below, the jewelled brilliance of the lovely earth smiling like spring seen from the top of the snow-clad mountain; full, rich, and tender with promise; the wide blue rivers like tiny Cambridge ribbons; the green smiling land.
And then Lubeck itself, a city of shining rose-colored brick; lovely and faintly luminous as if illuminated by firelight; water surrounded ; exquisite and toylike.
She squeezed his hand. He squeezed back.
Gently the plane dropped, left the cloud sitting above them, dropped lower and came to land almost without bumping at the aerodrome of Travemünde.
He helped her out.
“Like it?” he said.
Here, too, at this aerodrome they got the impression of air, space, sunlight. It was the immense windows giving out on the flying ground.
Like the aerodrome in Hamburg, it seemed almost like a place built with solid
They went into the restaurant and he ordered cognac.
“I wouldn’t have missed this,” she said, "for anything.”
Again a blonde and courteous giant spoke to them in English.
“The car is waiting outside to take you to Lubeck. It is about fifteen miles. Oh, no! That is included in the fare. There is no landing-ground at Lubeck.”
They got in. They drove along roads rather like English country lanes, except that they seemed more brilliantly, sparklingly air washed.
She did not speak at all. He liked the white intensity with which she took everything in. He also liked the intensity with which she gave nothing out.
She was locked away from him in some secret world of her own. He liked to feel he was feeding that strange unknown world. It gave him a strange satisfaction.
He relished exceedingly her calm acceptance, her entire absence of futile comment, that violent desire to express herself over everything that afflicted the bulk of his acquaintances and friends.
He found her infinitely restful.
rT'HEY entered a small hotel with a slightly raised outdoor restaurant abutting on the pavement. Hidden yourself, you looked over brilliantly filled flower-boxes into the quaint, provincial life of Lubeck. And Lubeck is a paradise for the lover of medieval and Renaissance architecture.
It was too late for lunch. They had tea. Marvellous jam and hot toast, and afterward they wandered round the town.
They were probably the only English people in it and the only tourists.
They hardly spoke. Its magic sat peacefully upon them.
They stopped outside the Dom-Kirche and the Marien-Kirche. They stared up at the Holsten-Tor and Burg-Tor, the two finest old town gates in Germany. They leaned queerly and beautifully. They were like Arthur Rackham drawings.
Sometimes the lovely rosiness of the old brick was broken by houses of black and gold of infinite antiquity. Lovely places that had fallen asleep in a sombre and eternal living death.
They walked through the little park. Grass so green. Trees so old. And always the gentle flow of water.
He said, “You must be tired, my dear.”
She answered, “Then if I am I do not Know it.”
He thought, “I must walk and walk and walk, and then I’ll keep down this fear that is gathering in me like pus, like uncleanliness that will presently burst and cover me in shame, ignominy and terror.
He felt his whole body, his whole soul and all his thoughts were clutched up over it like a cloak with which he sought to hide his spiritual disfigurement.
There lurked in his mind crazily this one thought, “When night comes I shall have to be by myself. I shall have to be alone, and then I shall think. Then it will all come flooding back. Walk. Walk.”
The sun sank. The sky was softly, sublimely green. Stars shone in it like silver flowers strangely blooming on Elysian fields.
Still he could not talk. Still they walked. Still he held that rigid cloak of self-control on all his thoughts and still increasingly he feared the night.
They went back to the hotel. The balcony was like a houseboat on the Thames at Henley in England. It was wreathed in flowers and squares, and the lights on the tables gleamed very softly and palely like casual welcome.
They had dinner out of doors. They had a wonderful dinner and a marvellous Liebfraumilch better than champagne. Like golden liquid sunlight it winked in their glasses.
She talked quietly and un-selfconsciously.
She had taken off her hat and her hair was palest gold like the Liebfraumilch, like the lights across the street, of a pale gentleness like her face.
She had never had a love affair. That surprised him.
She talked of love almost in phrases of friendship and housekeeping and service. That surprised him.
No orchidaceous dream of self-fulfillment, but as something in self-advancement and widening horizon that had never happened to herself.
She was the sanest, sweetest thing that he had ever known. Not stupid. Curiously intelligent. She saw life barely and without illusion, but what she had seen she had catalogued and knew. Little had passed
He thought how white she was, even her lips; how dark the stare of her marvellous
She seemed to him to dwindle in the soft yellow light of the table lamp, to become littler and frailer.
He said, "You’re not very strong.”
She said, “I was before.”
She did not finish her sentence and he did not pursue it. Perhaps some painful illness, some essential female operation.
They both drew back as if from the verge of indelicacy and yet she said trailingly,
“I was very strong before ...”
A FTER supper he made an excuse. He wanted to see the old town by moonlight. So friendly and yet so remote. Brightly written with legend. Pregnant with fairytale.
They walked down the shadowy, empty streets between the black velvet houses. How lovely the roofs were and the trees like lace knitting them together here and there ! Trees spread across the breaks in the houses like lovely lace over rents.
He said, "This is the Germany of Handel, of Mendelssohn. This is the Germany of Der Liebe Augustin, of Goethe.”
She said, “I ought to know who they all are? Please go on. They sound so nice and other worldly.”
He said, “Yes, otherworldly, you charming thing. This is where time stops.”
But by and by they must turn back. She looked like a tired child.
She protested her unweariness in a way that touched him oddly.
Her little face under her simple hat was pale as the moon itself, and under her eyes were dark shadows.
There was no one in the scarlet carpeted hall but a night porter to wish them good night.
They climbed to the first floor, up red carpeted stairs. Their rooms were next to each other with enormous double doors between.
He bade her good night at the door of No. 18 and saw her safely in, then he went himself to No. 17.
He looked out of his window. He saw a garden and the silver shape of a huge full moon above the lacy tops of dreaming trees.
He thought, “I shall be all right. I must be all right.”
But he was trembling and nauseated. It was when he was alone that he was snatched up into the black, bullet-ridden inferno of the heavens. Always when he was alone.
He took off his coat and slipped on his dressing gown.
Maybe if he watched things very intensely! But there was nothing to watch but the impassive silver face of the moon and the trees lying across it thinly, like a tom mosquito net.
He thought of Doris Fawcus asleep next door, worn out with the violent novelty of her day’s experience, and worn out with the hours of merciless walking to which he had subjected her. A charming little person, and something more than charming. Solid and real, and that sweet gravity of those who have missed their playtime and dealt faithfully, kindly and truly with life’s realities.
In her and with her was a strange peace.
They had been together all day and they had hardly spoken. And he had been aware of her. Not as a woman but just as a companion.
For her sake he must hold the room steady. Keep it from breaking and transforming itself into a black sky in which he whirled defenseless in that awful clutching hell-like terror of the mind.
He began to pace the room. His heart beat more and more swiftly. The thin shell
of him covered insecurely that terrible, crashing beating.
He knew that trick, too, and had no control of it. The beating of his heart would presently become the rhythmic zip-zip of machine-gun fire. Machine-gun fire levelled at himself.
His mind, his uncontrolled imagination, would flee panic-stricken before it.
Oh, God ! Not tonight ! Not tonight with that child next door exhausted by her tour and, for her, her unique experiences.
He knelt down humbly by the bed. He buried his head in his outstretched arms. Surely if there was a God, a God of war !
Kipling and his toy soldiers and his lovely jingle songs flashed for a minute through his mind.
“Don’t let me make a fool of myself, for Christ’s sake,” he prayed. And then “Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon r little child.”
It was absurd.
But it was a desperate bid for sanity in the blackness and terror that was closing down on him, furling themselves round him like a tent.
An hour slipped by while he fought and grew cold and rigid. He dared not open his eyes. He dared not let go for one minute.
The Thing had him again.
He cringed under it. He must go to her. It did not matter what she thought. She was salvation and self-preservation.
Perhaps she would understand. She had depths of understanding, possibilities of comprehension greater than any woman he had ever known.
He must go to her.
In another moment he’d burst open the doors and hurl himself into her arms.
Then he heard her scream.
He knelt there alert; as if shot dead by that sound in some terrible effort of concentration.
She screamed again.
T-TE FLUNG open the dividing doors and
-*• crashed through.
She stood there in her nightgown in the moonlight, and there was on her white distraught face a piteous look of agony.
It was no human face. It was a mask, a white tent she strove desperately to wrap round herself as he had striven to wrap round himself with prayers and sweat the mantle of his own manhood.
“I shouldn’t have flown today. I shouldn’t have risked it. I’m older than you think. I’m thirty-four. I was a V.A.D. in a Field Hospital and the Germans bombed us. I was the only one left alive. Everything else, everybody else, pieces—just pieces and bits of iron and wood.” Her voice rose, rocked and rose. “I’m sorry. I can’t hold it down. I can’t hold it down any more. I’m going to scream and scream like I did then.”
He went to her and put his arms round her.
She beat on his chest with her tiny hands.
“No, no. You mustn’t scream. Hold on ! Holdon! Holdon!”
“You don’t understand. I can see it all again. All the mess and the wreck. I tell you it was nothing. It was like a cardboard box with bits of people sticking to it when they had finished. As if a cat had eaten something! And those things in the air above me !”
“There, there. Hush.”
“I thought if I flew with you today it might cure it. It might kill it. But nothing kills it. It comes back and it comes back and it comes back.”
He put her back on the bed. He covered her with the many coverlets.
He sat behind her and put his arm round her, holding her in a viselike grip.
She was like some small frantic animal beside itself with unreasoning terror. She seemed to have no more bones than a terrified cat.
“I thought it would put me right. All day I have been fighting it, fighting it; afraid it would come down on me again. I didn’t want you to come in, only I was afraid you’d be so tired. I wanted you to walk and walk all night to keep it back. I was crazy to fly
today. I’ve never flown before. But when they come over . . .Yes, even when the airplanes came over on those pleasure trips when we were in Sweden—even at home when they fly from Manchester to London —I run and hide myself. They’re throwing things at me again. The sky is full of them and all round me people are shrieking. And I can do nothing for them ! That was what was so terrible! That was what got me down! I’ve tried praying and counting sheep. I’ve counted fifty million sheep while you have been asleep in there. And I couldn’t keep it off. It had to come. Only it is worse this time because of this flying. That has brought it back bigger than life.” He beean to use for her, speaking so gently, so gravely, all the arguments he had used for himself.
And for the first time they seemed true ! For the first time they were a cure.
As he spoke them, so gently, so peaceably, these tenets of faith that had been without reality for himself, they became alive and glowing. Turned into consolation for another in his mind, they came out of his mouth as healing, as a miracle of healing.
He wrought a miracle for himself.
“It is just that there’s no one who understands.”
She was crying in his arms. The dreadful crying of one who has averted death by a hairbreadth. The dreadful reaction of one who has come safely through a terrible accident; the sobbing of a survivor.
“You don’t understand.”
“If I understood, my darling girl, I shouldn't be able to help you like this. It is just because I know how real it seems to you, and yet how wrong, how stupid, how powerless it really is, that I can help you.” “But it is real.”
"It is not real. It has no actuality.”
“You mean that?”
“I swear it. A bit of bad dream that you can pull out now, that has no place in your life. No real place. It was, my dear, and it is not.”
She said, “But it will come back again.” “But when it comes back, it will have no power if you say to yourself it is not real. It is a thing that happened yesterday.”
“I have never been able to talk to anybody else about it. They just called it war nerves. I never mentioned it until today and then it had to out. Do you understand? It simply had to out. That airplane today ! All day my nerves have been on edge and I have been fighting and fighting. How I have fought. You don’t see that, either. You just don’t know. If I could have got drunk tonight or walk all night—Wouldn’t I just !” He said, “You know there are bits of shrapnel in our souls, in the souls of our generation—yours and mine. We ought to
keep together, my dear. We alone belong. The others don’t. Not even those who stayed at home—not even they belong.” She said, in this stark moment of entire simplicity, “If I could only stay with you always I should be all right.”
And he said with an equally stark simplicity, “My dear, you shall stay with me always. I’ve made up my mind about that tonight. I want you. And you want me.” She made little futile spent motions with her hand, almost like a child or a dying person.
She leaned against him wearily.
“I would be safe with you.”
The curtains were slightly parted. He looked through the aperture out at the swollen face of the moon.
And he said, “You would be safe with me.” He knew, too, that it was true. It was in the nature of a miracle. But it was true.
What he had not been able to do for himself she had done for him. His tenderness, his pity for her had exorcised the demon within himself. He stood free, no longer its slave.
She said, “I am so tired, so tired. I have been walking up and down and walking up and down.”
He wouldn’t tell her he had been walking up and down, too, on the other side of the double folding-doors. He would never tell
She should never know that he had been a slave, too. She should think of him as something that walked splendidly free, strong to succour. Something on which she could lean, from which she could draw strength and normality; and he knew he had it for her. That was what was so strange. He just
“We will be married very simply,” he said, “as soon as we reach Southampton and then if ever it comes again—and I don’t think it will ever come again—we shall be together to fight it.”
She lay in his arms like something that has swum a long way, and by and by she spoke.
“I do want to fight it. I do want to be brave. I could if you were there. Let’s fly back to the boat tomorrow morning.”
He said steadily, “Of course we will. That’s the stuff. Of course we will.”
He had never felt so utterly at peace.
It was as if, after great inner tumult, terrible indecision, he had at last surrendered himself.
She whimpered a little in his arms.
He looked down at her, at the pale gold of her hair, the paler ethereal gold of her face.
She said faintly, “I think you said you had flown before?”
He answered firmly, casually, out of his new-born self, the free man, “Yes. I have flown once or twice before.”