Costume For Victory
Working a miracle for a small girl is maybe routine for a returned man.. But miracles have a way of becoming personal
THE first few days home Captain Bill Webster kept close to the old familiar house. His sister, Louise, and her middle-aged husband, Professor Charles Sears, left him pretty much alone when they saw that was what he wanted. Even Susan, who was 11 and who, of course, adored her tall, black-haired uncle, didn’t prod him with questions, joining in the pretense that the two years he had been away were just—years, and that everything was pretty much the same.
Around noon Labor Day Monday Bill drove his brother-in-law into the village. Susan came along. Having seen Prof. Sears onto the Montreal train they went about household errands together, Susan talking a streak. They had chocolate sodas in the drugstore, bought groceries at the Red and White. Waiting in the post office Mill saw Eleanor Hall go across the street and get into her COUJH*, which was parked in front of the Legion Hall. She seemed pale and tired yes, older though the proud graceful walk was the same. They had been madly in love once, engaged, but that was long ago, before every thing happened. 'Lime had turned them into two other people. Strangers. And that was all right too.
Susan was saying that it was a lovely wonderful day, wasn’t it ? and Rill said “Um,” not committing himself, going on with his own thoughts. Funny how his memories, even those about Eleanor, seemed to belong to somebody else. The village might, have had its points once but now he saw it clearly for what it really was, a dismal empty street, bare trees, disillusioned and indifferent under a grey sky. The houses, he remembered everyone of them, of course, had lost something vital their souls, so to speak; they wert? just houses. The antiquity of the few old habitant cottages didn’t mean anything to him now, and the newer houses wert? misshapen and ugly. Bill, who had traveil«! a good many thousands of miles to get home, wondered what the hell all the rush had been about.
They got into the station wagon and started back. After a while he noticed how silent Susan had become. “What’s the matter?”
“Well,” she said, “I tried a lot of subjects. I brought irp the island-hopping strategy, and I told you about a book called ‘Thunderhead,’ and then I talked about the patriotic rally tonight at the Legion Hall, but you just said ‘Uh-huh,’ and ‘Oh,’ and things like that, so 1 decided maybe* you didn’t want to converse.”
The bookish word made him laugh.
“I’d just as soon shut up.” she said.
“What about this rally?”
“It’s going to be wonderful!”
Wonderful? He turned to look at her. Susan was a long little girl with straight brown hair, not very tidy, and she was wearing blue corduroy overalls, the straps over an old yellow sweater. She had dark eves, darker
now with the dream she was making. “There was a sign on the post office about, it,” Susan said. “It, said prizes for costumes for people under 16. I’ve got a wonderful idea for a costume.”
“What is it?”
“I guess I’ll let you see it first,. It’s a good idea it’s original.” She added after a thoughtful moment. “It would help the war effort . . . Bill?”
“Mother will want to go, don’t you think?” “Maybe,” he said, not thinking much about, it. “The town’s pretty empty now, isn’t it?” “Oh, there are tons of people,” she said, surprised. She named over some of her friends, “and then there’s Eleanor Hall. She hasn’t much t ime, being visiting nurse now and only Doctor Freeman left, but sometimes I bike over to her place. She lends me books and we talk. When mother got one of your letters I’d tell Eleanor what you said. Although,” Susan added carefully, “Eleanor never seemed to ask about you.” He didn’t say anything and they drove out, beyond the tree-lined valley road to the wide salt meadows, all brown and, he thought, peculiarly desolate.
“But I’m sure she was interested to hear about the wonderful victories you were winning.”
“Did I write about any wonderful victories?”
“We could read between the lines.”
“No,” he said, “you couldn’t,” but he spoke only to himself.
“Bill . . . Would you ask mother if she would take me tonight?”
“Why, sure,” vaguely, for he had forgotten about t hat rally. “Why, sure I will.”
BILL’S sister, Louise, six years older than he, was an efficient, cheerful sort of woman. Orphans since long ago -he remembered his mother but not his father—they had been pretty good friends, though they had quarrelled furiously from time to time. They had always been very different, she diffident and rather solitary, he easy in the world, something of a hell-raiser; and now their roles seemed reversed for she was all right, busy, liking people, while he was certainly outside, his past snipped off, isolated.
'The moment Louise saw her daughter’s glowing little face she said: “Heavens! now
what’s up?” Susan put her hands into her mother’s: “Don’t make me tell now, please,
Mum,” and then she ran upstairs.
Big maple logs were burning in the fireplace.
It was a nice house — too big, of course, now
that there could be no “couple,” and Louise had to do it all herself. 11 was funny how familiar and unchanged it was and at the same time so empty and dead. Bill had thought a good deal about it these last two years, longed for it. Well, here he was, back home (safe enough, “lucky,” though his fighting days were over) and more homesick than ever. He couldn’t figure it out. I le went out into the white-panelled dining room. As he sat down by t he fire Louise glanced at him. She was putting ration books and the day’s mail into the old Winthrop desk by the window. “Did you see anybody in town?” she asked.
“Not to speak to, except ‘how are you?’ and ‘certainly is wonderful to be back.’
“1 wish you’d try to see people—you’d want to if you got started.”
“ I ’m all right this way,” he said.
“Eleanor is still here.”
He grinned at her. “Cut it out, Louise!”
“Well, you could be friends.”
“No,” he said. “Too far away and long ago. All over. Was it me who was so crazy jealous? Seems highly improbable. And she was such a damned manager.”
“Somebody’s got to manage you.”
“No,” he said again, putting a period to it.
She closed the desk. “Susan talk your ear off? She’s so full of big literary words—we don’t know what to do about it.”
“We’re pals,” he said. Talking about Susan made him feel better. “And she knows when to pipe down.” He remembered Susan’s request. “Look, Louise, there’s some sort of patriotic rally in the Legion Hall tonight—and Susan asked me to ask you, in my most irresistible manner, will you take her?”
She looked distressed. “Oh, Bill, I can’t possibly — there’s just too much to do here. Now 1 wonder what she’s up to all this time. She’s too quiet.” She hurried out and he heard her call from the foot of the stairs; heardSusan’s high voice in quick eager response, “I’m making something, mother. Please don’t come up. It’s a secret . . . It’s going to be wonderful!"
“I think I’d better come up all the same,” Louise said, practically.
He waited, looking out at the naked elms—the swing was still there, after all these years, and beyond were the giant lilacs, tall as trees. That was where he had built his hut years ago—about the last kid thing he had done—a wonderful hut that didn’t leak at all, except when it rained.
Louise, downstairs again, stood in the door, troubled, but wanting to laugh, too. “It’s so like her,” she said. “I had to say ‘no,’ Bill; I couldn’t let her make a scarecrow of herself.” And then, arguing with herself, “She’ll forget it in a little while; they always do.” She hurried away toward the kitchen.
rT WAS hard though to know what a kid would forget. He hadn’t forgotten about his hut; he could see it now in his memory, as glamorous, as important as ever. And if he’d failed at it—that would have stuck too—forever. After a while he went
upstairs and knocked on Susan’s door.
“Bill? You can come in.” There was a spool bed near a peaked dormer window, a desk, a couple of square little chairs, bright roses in the wallpaper—a pleasant room, but just at this moment it was in a dreadful mess, the floor covered with scraps of cardboard, colored paper, old white cloth. The air was thick with the all-out wretchedness of childish disappointment. There was a smell of glue. Susan was sitting on the bed, long legs dangling, her hands listless in her lap.
“I’m a moron,” she told him quietly.
She managed a twisted, cynical smile, but there were still tears in her eyes. “You see it was my idea,” she told him. poking bitter fun at herself, “to go as—you’d never guess—as the Spirit of Victory. That’s pretty funny, isn’t it?”
Bill didn’t feel like laughing. “Sounds okay to me,” he said.
“Oh. no. don’t you see! There’ll be a dozen other little girls all dressed up like Victory. Of course! It isn’t original at all.”
The word—Louise’s, he was sure—made him sore. “Oh. heck! neither is war original. And what is?” He looked at that deplorable floor. “Kids aren’t the only
ones that make messes,” he said. He knew that now.
“But you can’t make Victory out of kids’ makebelieve and a torn sheet and some old cardboard. It stands to reason. I can see that now,” she said dismally. “Bill? When you think about a thing a lot beforehand, make a dream about it, does it always turn out not to be wonderful?”
That, Bill Webster said to himself, was a wonderful question to ask him. His answer, the only one he had this day, was It certainly does! but he couldn’t say that to Susan, so he didn’t say anything. Instead he picked up a great sheet of cardboard from the desk, leaned it against the wall. Half as tall as Susan, it was Britannia’s shield, pasted over with bright metallic paper. All at once he saw it as she had seen it— glorious.
“Good job,” he said, “but it’s a little lopsided.” The shears were on the desk, sticky with glue. Working carefully, tongue out of the corner of his mouth, he clipped off a curved, inch-wide segment. “There, now it’s perfect.” He was in it now, but he didn’t know it. “Look, Susan, we’ll find somebody who’s going and will take you.”
But she shook her head. She didn’t want to go without a costume.
“I can’t make it for you,” he said, protecting himself by being irritated—“I’m no dressmaker—but we’ll go find one. You know somebody, surely.”
“But, no, she didn’t. Then hope dawning, doubti fully, “Maybe I do.”
He might have guessed who it was, but she had run to tell her mother, wriggled into her coat, and they
were driving away in the station wagon before he asked her where they were going.
“To Eleanor Hall’s.”
Oh, no, that was out! That was impossible. He drove on, working out a compromise. He would drive her over but he wouldn’t go in . . .
IT WAS three miles, the other side of town, the lake side. There were lights in the Hall cottage, which looked low and small beside the big blue spruce that grew beside it. From beyond the round dark hills came the sound of waves. Bill lit a cigarette, sitting there in the station wagon, trying not to think about the last time he’d come—more than two years ago. They must have been working up to that quarrel for a long time, pretending all the time that everything was perfect—anyway it was a wonder—a smashing hateful finale. Period. That was all, there wasn’t any more.
The door opened after a while, closed, and Eleanor came down the shell path. “Hello, Bill. Won’t you come in? Susan wants you to help.”
He got out of the car. “I suppose I shouldn’t have come,” he said, leaning back against the car door, “but all at once it didn’t seem silly''—it seemed important that—well, you see, she’s dreamed up something that’s going to be wonderful, and 1 couldn’t . . Surprise that he could talk so coolly to her stopped him.
After a moment she said, “Of course.”
“I’ve been back a week,” he said, “but I’m not back yet. It’s not very far—in time, 1 mean—from
Caen to here, but—it’s far.” She didn’t say anything. “Anybody else in there?”
“No, nobody else except Sue and me. Mother’s away. You’re thin, Bill. But you’re going to be all right?”
“That’s what they say. Sure, I’ll be all right. I’ll be an old veteran and make speeches and draw battle maps on the tablecloth just as if I’d really known what the hell was going on. And get plastered. 1 am an old veteran already,” he said.
“By the calendar. I’m telling you how 1 feel. How’s Doc Freeman?” The odious name popped out before he knew lie was going to say it. But he said it calmly, and that was strange too.
“He’s fine, thank you.”
“I thought you two would be married long before now. There’s some dividend—isn’t there?—in having things over and done, and dead. You can be calm like this because it doesn’t make any difference. But I wanted to kill him, only that was long, long ago, wasn’t it? Happened in Carthage, I guess. I was young and I didn’t know the score.”
“Do you now?”
“I do,” he said. “That’s my trouble.” It sounded wrong in his own ears—defiant or self-pitying, and he wasn’t either. “I’m not kicking,” he explained. “I was lucky. The hell with it,” he said, thinking of buddies who were still out there in hell, or dead, thinking of things it was no use trying to get over to a civilian. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said. “It hasn’t
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Costume For Victory
Continued from page 9
anything to do with nice glorious words like Victory. Look, Eleanor, how about you taking Susan? I don’t want to see people.”
Her hand was on the doorknob. “You’ll have to go,” she said calmly, in that “managing” tone that had always rubbed him the wrong way. “Besides you ought to take Victory to our party, nobody’s got as much right to.”
“Skip it,” he said.
“And anyway I can’t go down till later—I’ve a call to make.”
IT WAS dark in the hall. Her hand lightly touched his arm, guiding him toward the living room door. A thin, anxious, very incomplete Victory was standing there waiting. She was
wearing some plain white silk thing that, armless, went from a round neckline to her feet in appropriate, sculpturesque folds. She was tying a gold cord around her waist, or where her waist would be when she was a couple of years older.
“Still it isn’t finished,” Eleanor said. “It needs a final crowning touch.”
“You’ve said it—a crown. A golden crown with points. Where do you keep your crown?”
“If I ever had one I’m afraid I lost it. Could we make one?”
So they worked at it together, Bill and Eleanor, which was better than trying to talk anyway, snipping the cardboard, pasting on the gilt paper, fitting, refitting it, as intent and earnest (he thought sardonically) as two ancient goldsmiths—forming with their own hands the very symbol of majesty they must themselves bow down to afterward. When it was finished
! Eleanor put her hands behind her back, j “You put it on,” she said, with a strange smile, and he did.
“Your Majesty,” Eleanor said.
And “Okay,” Bill agreed, saluting.
IT WAS black dark when they set out after hastily eating sandwiches in Eleanor’s kitchen. There was only time for that. Driving alone with the Spirit of Victory, Bill’s chilling doubt returned. Susan was silent. He hoped she wasn’t dreaming up too much glory over what would prove the shabby little fact of a sparsely attended, hastilyput-together amateur “entertainment.” Brixton was only a village and half emptied by the war, not that its entertainments had ever had much lustre.
Susan had slipped away. He found her before a booth where doughnuts and chocolate were being sold, one of a group of strange creatures. One, a boy evidently, wore paper boxes daubed with aluminum paint, one over his head, the other covering his thin torso, all except the arms. He was, Susan said, The Mechanical Man; and another, with a patch of fur around his middle, was Tarzan, of course. Among the little girls Bill saw China, a Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc. Their costumes, he noted, with the sinking anxiety of a rival producer, were elaborate and impressive.
Then the lights went out, except on the stage, and Bill found a seat. The local minister, bald head gleaming, was up there explaining, apologizing for the slight delay. Mr. Nickerson, who was to have been master of ceremonies, had been taken ill suddenly and couldn’t come. The Sea Cadets, the main feature of the evening, had been delayed by bus trouble on their way. They’d be along, however—he hoped, and in the meantime . . .
It wasn’t as bad as lying in a foxhole, maybe, but it made Bill sweat; the trouble was you could see what the organizers had hoped all this might add up to. The contrasting of fact was hard to take. As a party it was dying on its feet. Bill saw he had to take action and he decided what it was to be. He still had Susan’s coat; he’d go and put it on her and together they would get away home, he making what comforting explanations he might contrive.
He got up and then he sat down again, for suddenly there was Eleanor Hall on the stage. She was wearing a white blouse with flowing sleeves and a plain dark skirt. She was calm, smiling, and as she started to speak Bill relaxed a little. So did the audience. You could feel it. Looking at her from the dark, just one of her audience, Bill saw that she was beautiful. And for once he was only grateful for her assurance, her confidence that she could manage if others couldn’t.
“The next on the program, ladies and gentlemen, will be a parade of young ladies and gentlemen in strange and wonderful costumes.”
They straggled onto the stage from the wings at the left—China and Joan, The Mechanical Man, who had lost the shoe box that had been his right foot, Tarzan, a bit more naked than he had planned to be—all of them, Susan came last, making a delayed and uncertain entrance, her shield all but dragging. Bill, impresario in spite of himself, wanted to call out to her. A spurt of applause called instead. Up there the golden glint of the pasteboard crown, the glorious bright shield, the straight white folds and blue cape were not tawdry makeshift—they were bright enough for the stage, they stood out, and the applause grew. It was for Susan, but mostly for Victory, and especially—maybe—for Victory seen
as a wondering, beautiful child, who knew things were going to be wonderful again; and Susan straightened, stood without moving, the shield before her, unsmiling but happy. Just by the set of her head Bill knew how for her the little audience was a vast multitude, millions of people—and she wasn’t Susan, she was Victory ! He felt foolishly, intensely pleased and relieved, and suddenly he felt close to that “vast multitude,” one of them again.
Now at last the Sea Cadets were tramping in. They filled the stage, raised the roof with “Anchors Aweigh” and other songs; their leader easily persuaded the audience to join in singing; and he asked that they stand while the cadets softly sang “O Canada.” “But wait—I see down there in the front row Victory herself, if you will come up again, Miss Victory? . . .” So she stood, the centre and symbol of the whole ceremony, while the soft singing filled the hall.
WELL?” Bill asked Susan as he started driving her and Eleanor homeward.
“Oh, Rill!” Susan sighed.
So it had been wonderful. They stopped first at the Webster house and Susan ran in, bursting with news for her mother. “You coming in, Eleanor?” Bill asked, just as he might have in the old days. “Or would Doctor Freeman not like that?”
She got out of the car. He opened the gate. They could hear Susan’s voice inside, high, excited, happy.
“We’re friends,” Eleanor said, meaning her and Freeman. “That’s all.” “Since when?”
“A long time, Bill. You see I learned the score myself.”
He closed the gate after them. “It seemed that I didn’t have any past any more, as if it had been cut clean off, and when you haven’t any, who are you? How can you have any future?”
He had heard what she had said about Dr. Freeman but hardly understood. He had to go on talking, it came gradually. “It was sort of safe, being cut off. I’ll have to think about a lot of things I was just getting under control. Maybe . . .’* he paused.
Their voices were oddly hushed, intense.
“I don’t know . . He laughed.
“Well, we crowned Victory, didn’t we? You make a miracle, then believe it yourself. That’s a miracle too. Maybe it’s going to be wonderful again. Mind, I don’t believe it! Yet just to be able to say ‘maybe’—that makes all the difference, doesn’t it? You’re pretty wonderful yourself; but I’m a sort of mental cripple. I have dreams and yell out in the dark. While It goes on I’ll go on thinking of fellows I know who are still out there taking it, and that isn’t all I’ll have to think about. Perhaps It won’t last forever. What do you say?”
“The war? No.”
“Of course, the war—do you think anything else can last forever?”
“Yes, I do.”
They started up the steps. “Of course you know I’m still in love with you,” he said, almost casually. “Can I see you sometime again . . . soon?”
She laughed a little. “What a funny question, Bill!”
Should he open the door? He knew now he could take her in his arms and kiss her and it was strange that he didn’t, but she was not surprised. He opened the door and their future with it. It would be long and spacious; the future always is, and they were all right now.