The Girl and the Malingerer
IT HAD become noticeable as soon as they got off the train, this change in the atmosphere. It was early fall, and already the accents of winter had struck the air with a sharp force. The streets of Montreal hung in the balance of the seasons, with a bleak hint of cold promise touching the buildings. But it was not only that. There was a certain other bleakness that only soldiers back from a war can know and try to understand. The bleakness that accompanies a stranger into a new world.
Captain Martin and Lieutenant Conway were in a cab going to a hotel. They had left the troop train at Montreal for a brief stopover before returning to Toronto. They had not expected to be so silent when they again struck the big city, but a strange, restless pall hung over them as they rode. Captain IVIartin was of medium height, with sharp keen eyes, that had a tendency to hrood at times and then again to flash with humor that reflected in his lips. His nose was straight and his eyes handsome, and in them now was a struggle bet ween nervousness and joy at being back and able to start living life again. Lieutenant Conway was inclined to talk too little; his hair was red and he was short and bandy-legged. His attitude suggested readiness to fight when the occasion demanded, and there was a certain truculence about the set of his lips. Now those lips were field in a rigid line. Out of nowhere, he said, “Well. What did you expect? Band concerts?”
“Let’s find the nearest drink.”
“Let’s get cleaned up first. Is your wife going to be
at the hotel?”
“No.” He tried to sound as if it did not matter. “She won’t be there. She was very busy in Toronto.” “You’ll see her tomorrow', the next day.”
“Yes. It won’t belong.”
But when he spoke there w'as a reserve in his tone that was not lost on Conway. He hunched down in his seat and stared out at the streets. The cab turned right and went down a few blocks to the hotel. A bellhop took their bags into the lobby.
While Conway was using the shower Martin called for room service. Then Martin took his shower. It was surprising what a difference a shower made after the long days of the transport.
Conw'ay was brooding by the window. “I thought I’d want to go out and meet a girl and paint the town.” “We’ve got to learn to walk all over again,” said Martin. “Let’s just rest up, and before long we’ll be ready to start.”
“It seems so quiet. I don’t mean guns and things!” He paused, frowning. “I guess I don’t know what I mean.”
Martin was not listening. He was hearing only the last words Beth had said before he went away. She had said, “Only one thing can matter. The fact that you are coming back, and that I’ll be waiting.” But she hadn’t been waiting.
Aloud, he said, “I wonder what could be so important in Toronto?”
“Forget it,” said Conway, “and call room service.” The train, too, was different when they boarded it that night. Not so many uniforms as there had been.
A soldier back from the wars doesn’t expect a brass band —but he can’t help feeling a wife should think more of her man than of a career
And the people in uniform and the people without seemed to be thinking about different things entirely. In the club car the soldiers were left alone; they had no more stories to tell—all had been told, and the book was closed. The people without uniforms were the ones at the front. The soldiers were green; they were only raw recruits. Tiring of the club car Martin and Conway drifted back to the smoking compartment in their own car and sat there silently. Presently Conway said, “Remember Ortona? That fellow Green could sure handle those 25 pounders. He lobbed those shells right smack into that house.”
Martin’s eyes brightened. “Ortona!” he said with awe. “I thought that was the end.”
“It would have been without Green and his mortars.”
Now they knew what to talk about, and except for sleeping they talked all the way to Toronto, about Ortona, Sicily, England, and many other places. They felt better the next morning when the train pulled into the station at Toronto.
“Come home with me and meet Beth?”
“Nothing of the kind. I have work of my own cut out for me.”
“We’ve got to keep in touch,” said Martin.
“Don’t be afraid of that!”
MARTIN left the cab and stood before the apartment house. It seemed much more impressive than he had remembered it. Beth had insisted on staying there alone rather than going to Hamilton with her family, “i’ll keep the home fires burning,” she had said. “I’ll find a way.” At first it had been difficult, and then she had explained in her letters that she was working for an advertising agency. “We expect this kind of business to boom after the war. It’s interesting, really, and quite a lot of fun. I seem to have a flair for it.” Martin entered the roomy lobby. 11 was warm and dim after the wind of the street. The great mirror beside the elevator showed him walking slowly over the red carpet, slightly bent to one side by the weight of his bag. His face looked lined and tired to him as he came close to the mirror. “Need a rest,” he admonished. “That’s all. Been a hard session.”
The key had been his lucky piece. He had not lost it. But when it was only halfway in the lock the door opened. Beth was standing there in a dressing gown. They said nothing, but stood and stared, as if they were strangers suddenly met around a strange corner of the world. Then warm fingers clasped his; her eyes were bright and seemed to say, “But remember me? Well, here I am!”
Then the feeling of strangeness broke, and he pulled her close to him. It was much different than he had expected. It was almost too wonderful, and he had a moment of fear. “All this can’t be true. I’m outside Ortona, only dreaming.” But the warmth of her was no dream, and the way she clung to him, and the swift tears that began to fall uncontrollably from her eyes. None of this was a dream. He kicked the door shut behind him and dropped his bag beside the hall table. Holding each other close they walked into the living
room, where the morning sun of fall made patterns on the floor.
They were sitting on the couch and he had kissed her often. It still was hard to believe. Beth had her head on his shoulder, and she was smoking a cigarette, the smoke curling by his cheek and being lost in the ceiling overhead. It was a time of real peace, when the things of importance were trying to assert themselves again. Slowly Martin looked around the room that should be so familiar. It was. Yet a feeling of having been taken from this life, never to return, persisted. He drove his thoughts away.
Beth was looking at him. They looked into each other’s eyes a long time and it was odd how much he had forgotten about her, or how much they both had changed. It gave him a feeling of insecurity.
“It was awful that I couldn’t get to Montreal to meet you, darling,” she said. “But there was no one else to do my work, and it’s been too good to me all the time you’ve been gone. I couldn’t just throw it overboard and let it go hang!”
“Of course not,” he said. “This advertising, or whatever it is, means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”
She was still looking at him, but in a new way. Appraising, searching. He moved restlessly. She said, “It does mean a lot. It’s the kind of thing I always wanted to do. You—won’t mind, will you, darling?”
He chose his words; he was careful. “No,” he said, “I won’t mind.”
Beth made breakfast and Martin stood in the kitchenette watching her. Presently he drifted out into the living room to get a cigarette. Martin stood there, looking out the window. He could hear Beth behind him in the kitchen, rustling around. He thought about her.
He had gone away leaving a young, very young, girl behind him. She had been naïve quite often, but he had only loved her the more for it. Now he returned to the same apartment, in the same city, but he found a mature woman waiting there for him. A trim lovely woman, who had knowledge in her eyes that he did not understand, who had thoughts and ideas that he knew nothing about. But perhaps he too had changed. Perhaps it was as hard for her to accept change as it was for him.
“Darling!” she called.
She was warm and rosy in the glowing heat of the kitchen; her smile warm, and meant for him, because he was hers. It was not the smile he knew. It was as if he were having breakfast in an apartment with a very charming woman for the first time. “Hmmmm. Looks good.”
“It is good. I’m dying of hunger. Come on, our first meal together in so long ...” She said it lightly, and he could not understand.
After breakfast they cleaned up the kitchenette, then, full, they went back to the living room.
Beth slowly put her arms around her husband’s neck.
“I’ve been so afraid,” she said. “Afraid that you had changed. But you haven’t. Oh, darling, how hard it is to see you again and not cry or have hysterics of joy. I’ll be all right in a few days.”
Her eyes were misty. Touched by a sudden contri-
tion he kissed away the mist, and kissed her lips. Her fingers outlined his face.
“You are older,” she said thoughtfully. “But I am older. You are more firm, but then you are no longer a child.” Her eyes were as bright as unearthly lights upon his face, almost too bright to bear. “You have been hurt,” she said, “but you come back to me whole. I—love you!”
PEACE, contentment, good food and love had brought Martin eventually to the deepest, most quieting sleep he had had in three years. The grinding reminder of the alarm clock had not figured in his enchantment, and when its bell pierced the room he sat up suddenly in bed, as if the hell of battle had broken once more over his head. Easily, stretching like a silky young panther, Beth reached out and shut off the alarm, and then raised her bare round arms, stretching, to the ceiling. She tossed her glossy hair to one side and grinned down at him. She waved one arm toward the light. “Workaday world,” she said. “Beth!”
“Darling, you can sleep!” She looked puzzled at his tone.
“You’re right I can sleep, and I intend to sleep; but I don’t want you barging out into the world in the middle of the night.”
“Yes, but I have a job,” she chided. “Remember?” “Remember?” He threw off the covers and knelt on the bed before her, his face twisted. “You ask me if I remember? What do you think I remember? Where do you think I’ve been all this time, to a picnic?” “Please ...”
“No, I won’t jilease. I’ve been working, working with blood, for three years. I want to sleep, yes, and—and to play. To learn to walk again in this kind of a world, like a child must learn.”
“The world can hear you, you’re shouting so.” “Devil take the world.”
“I still have to get up.” And she did. Martin had the impulse to grab her and throw her down on the bed, but she turned and suddenly his courage left him. This morning it was different. Not like yesterday morning. This morning, she had a cool, determined face, only reminiscent of that naive laughing face that he had left behind. This girl was a woman, and a
woman who didn’t need him, for she had a world of her own and she was going to it, and nothing he could do would stop her.
“Darling,” she said; she was dressed and ready to go. She was alert, fashionable, and a pert hat was wedged somehow in her hair. “I’m arranging all my work. As soon as possible we’ll take off to the country and play to your heart’s content. All right?” He felt he was pouting like a child. “All right.” When she went a feeling came over him that he had not known since the day at Varsity he got word that his father had died. He remembered the bereft numb sense of loss, then, swiftly following, the tiger of fear —to be alone in the world with his mother, to be responsible, to have no longer the kind, just hand, the ready smile, the firm ever-present refuge of his father. Now he had that feeling, the feeling of a child who meets strangeness and fears it. “Curse you, Martin,” he said, “you’re a soldier from the war, a commander of men.” That did not seem to matter in this sunny bedroom of early fall in Toronto, when his wife—a woman now—had left him alone.
He would sleep. How important sleep had become in the minds of men in the war! And he lay back, with a secure feeling of time having lost importance. Then his eyes came open, he looked quickly around the
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room, as if he had forgotten something, as if it were dangerous to linger here, asleep. Then he went to the bookshelf and thumbed the volumes. There were some there that excited him merely to touch. Martin had always been a great reader. He picked up “Crime and Punishment” and started to read. Words, images, once more gripped him, as they used to. He finished the first chapter, and a bell struck, tolling, distant. It made cold sensation run up his spine. The words of the book were musty and dead when he tried to read again. He paced the apartment like a lion. He felt suddenly as though he was going to roar like a lion. The jar of the ringing phone made him jump.
“Mart? This is Conway. I’m at loose ends.”
“Let’s have lunch.”
“Be at the restaurant in half an hour.”
They were not very hungry, and the waiter raised his eyes at all that went untouched. Then they rested their eyes and thoughts in the unpretentious dimness of the basement restaurant. The truculence of Conway’s mouth was more pronounced than ever. “It’s tough,” he said. “It’s like joining a new outfit.”
“Remember that kid in your platoon? The one that was yellow until that bust-up at Mount Etna?”
“How could I forget? Listen, Mart, that kid made the best soldier I ever had. He was tops ...”
“That Etna deal,” said Mart, “why I remember ...”
The men talked all afternoon of the war. The restaurant was in the basement of a big office building. From the building a man came, walking into the restaurant for a cup of coffee. The man limped and there was the sign of pain in his eyes. When he saw the soldiers he listened to their talk awhile, then hurriedly drank his coffee and went out into the street. “Well,” he said to himself, as he looked up at the big office building, “I’m back. But it was hard for me too.” Then the man walked away, going home in the dusk that was cold and deep.
Lights in the restaurant went on, and, looking in, you could see the two soldiers in a circle of light, leaning toward each other over the table.
HE WAS to buy his clothes and then meet Beth for lunch. Martin enjoyed the luxury of sleep only till nine o’clock, then got up and poured himself a cup of coffee. The day of fall had reverted, and there was a passing warmth everywhere that put a bloom to thoughts as well as to the world. Showered, shaved and with strong coffee under his belt, Martin felt ready to bring the world to its knees. He decided that civvies would be quite a sensation and he looked forward to the selecting of them.
On King Street he found the establishment of the tailor he had gone to before the war. Yes, still in business. And when he went up the steep, smelly stair to the second floor of the building he found the same woebegone door at the top. A door that timidly proclaimed, “May You Be the Tailored Man—by Max Shone.” And inside, as he opened the door, a feeble bell tinkled the advent of a customer into the steamy recess that served Max as a workroom. Max had once been a prosperous tailor, doing work for Martin’s father, but fate, in the form of an evil wife, had descended upon him and had d-'ven him back here. But
still his fingers were as crafty as ever, and his cloth as honest.
“Martin!” he exclaimed. “You’re back! You’re back!” He came forward, peering with his blinky little eyes, anxious under fuzzy comie brows. “How does it feel?”
“I’ll know more about that dressed in civvies.”
“But your old clothes, before the war,” said Max, thinking thriftily. “I could alter them.” He noted that Martin was not built the same as he had been. It wasn’t exactly a question of thinner or fatter—he was just different.
Martin shook his head. “I gave them all away. Why not? It seemed a waste, and besides I wanted to start over again.”
Mumbling, Max went to his racks, his practiced eye scuttling over his wares, pausing, rejecting. “Start over again! Always the same thing. Build, break down. Start over again. Like children play with toy blocks. Ah, here is the thing!”
It was fine up there in the dim workroom of Max Shone to become a civilian again, to be dressed in cloth whose texture, color and shape he chose himself. He had Max alter the length of one pair of trousers right on the spot. “I want to surprise my wife at lunch,” he said. “I’ll pick the rest up at the end of the week.”
“Tomorrow already I’ll have them done.”
“All right. Keep this war lord’s costume for me, Maxie, old boy. I feel great; you’ll never know.”
Max watched his customer descend the stairs. He felt of the Army cloth in his hands and mumbled to himself, “All the time. Start over, start over. Like a game.”
Beth was standing under the canopy when his cab pulled up. She had a portfolio under her arm. When Martin stepped from the cab he felt singularly nude. He was crossing to Beth when a soldier came swiftly along the street between them. The soldier’s young eyes crossed him, unseeing, and it seemed odd and a little sad to Martin.
Then he grinned and took Beth’s arm. “Is my career woman hungry?”
“If you didn’t look so handsome in those clothes your career woman would be furious with you. Women aren’t supposed to wait for men, especially under canopies.”
“The first and last offense,” he said. “That is a promise.”
Martin was conscious of two things as they walked into the dining room; that Beth was regal and breath-taking, that something, some sense of being in costume, unreal, was costing him his poise. A major at a nearby table looked up as they passed, and Martin felt himself blushing under the impersonal scrutiny. Beth watched him as he spoke to the waiter, her two black curved brows raised slightly, as if in surprise.
She laughed when the waiter had gone. “Darling, are you shy suddenly?” “Not at all.” He spoke gruffly.
“Oh, pardon me for offending you,” she laughed, “you little boy, you.”
“Do you like me in these?”
“I like you in anything. As a matter of fact, darling, there is a small matter of love between us.”
They had fried chicken. He was amazed at her deftness with fried chicken. Trying to slip the meat from the bones had always made him feel a clumsy fool. She grinned at him. “Want wife to cut up meat for poor little husband?”
He was furious. “Don’t talk like that. It’s sickening.”
A film of hurt came over her eyes, and he saw her fork tremble. She would not look at him but kept her head bent over the plate. Their coffee came and then Martin lighted two cigarettes and handed her one. She raised smiling eyes to his, already forgiving him. She reached across the table with one white, well-cared-for hand, touching his fingers.
“I know how you must feel,” she said. “You need rest, and lots of it. And that,” she said emphatically, “you shall have.”
“No, I couldn’t. I thought—all the
time I was over there—that rest was the thing I wanted most of all. Now I know it isn’t. I can’t sit still, wait around for something to happen. It’s like being at a station that no train will ever come to. I’ve got to get started, get going!”
His intense ambition drove across the table at her, and met in comradely fashion with that driving force that had been born in her while he was gone. Her eyes lighted and he saw pride in their brilliance.
“Nothing,” she said, “could ever keep you down, could it, darling?” “There’s no reason to be down.” “No,” she said. “Of course not.” She lifted her cup and drank her coffee. Lazy smoke from her cigarette drifted over the table and vanished.
His intense desire found itself hand in hand with uncertainty. “I don’t quite know where to begin. I don’t want to go back into auditing. It would drive me mad. I must work with people, from here on, as I have in the past three years.”
“You’ll find your place easily enough,” she assured. Her ready confidence inspired him. Certainly he should be able to place himself easily enough. He had youth, willingness, experience in leading men, initiative. What more was needed?
“I have to run, husband,” she said. “I’m going to be bored to death without you.”
He held her hand. “Beth!”
Again those thin brows raised; again the woman of the world looked out from the face that had been completely his, content to live in the life he had made.
“Beth,” he said, “I know it was necessary; I know how it was. But”— how soft his voice, soft his hand—“I’m back, I’m back now, honey. You can stop carving your life from stone.” Cloudy thoughts in her eyes, a barrier that he could not understand nor penetrate. Then her warm fingers being pulled away, until his were left limp and alone on the cloth. But only her voice entered the softness that he had intended.
“Honey,” she said. “There is time. Do not be afraid ...”
And Beth left him there.
MARTIN paid his check, left a tip, and walked out to the windy street. The sky was lit with strong sunlight, flinging gold in one last extravagance before winter. Everywhere there was life.
The soldiers that passed, few in number, did not salute him; and a certain comradeship was gone—that knowing of each other as men dedicated to a cause that demanded the most of them all. Martin knew suddenly that he was not even walking like a soldier; he was shuffling along in his tweed sports clothes. He straightened himself up and his heels clipped the sidewalk, but he did not feel the confidence he showed. He had no command function here. This was a new show.
The next morning when the alarm went off, it was his alarm too. Sleepily he threw his legs over the side of the bed. He heard Beth splashing water into the basin in the bathroom. Laughing at a sudden inward joke or sense of the humor of life he dashed through the door and caught her up in his arms.
“You can wait for me to wash,” he said. “The wife is still the subservient creature.”
“Never!” she said, in tones mock theatrical. “I have gained my rights, sir, and be it known that I shall defend them to the last ounce of my strength, sir!” Whereupon she bit him and he let her go quickly and then she began to wash her face in the basin. Martin rolled up the sleeves of his pyjamas, caught her by the hair and dragged her
backward, not with extreme gentleness.
“Ohhh, darling!” she protested, coming close to him, an ardent look of pleading in her face. “Please . . .’’and she slipped warm arms around his neck. “You don’t want to be a mean cruel husband, do you?”
“You’re trying woman’s tricks!”
She kissed him, softly, then hard. She led him to the basin, and said, “We’ll both use it. See?”
“It’s a trick,” he murmured fondly. “But I shall permit it.”
“After all,” she said, “we’re in this world together.”
Martin started off for the Selective Service office with an extreme feeling of exaltation. He knew that no matter what ideas Beth had accumulated while he was gone she still loved him. All he had to do was find his place in this world of ours and perhaps Beth would discover again what it meant to be a woman and not a stone.
He was given some pretty good prospects at Selective Service. He grinned disarmingly at the receptionist at the first office and gained immediate entrance to the office of the general manager. “Ours,” said the general manager after deliberation, “is a business that necessitates accurate knowledge of the current popular mind. Our marketing is based on appeal to that existing mind. You—eh—have been away quite some time ...”
The next place sounded good, but was in fact a grubby office, attended by all forms of battered-looking employees and presided over by a gentleman who would have no trouble gaining a free ticket on a train to purgatory.
The third place was a newspaper office, but they explained carefully that the job had been filled earlier in the day. In the fourth place Martin hit a man.
This is how it happened.
He entered a luxurious office, great rich rugs on the floor. He was offered a cigar.
“You were an accountant?” said the man behind the desk. He had vague eyes, a coarse large neck and a mousy mustache.
“I am an accountant,” stated Martin.
“We do have the job filled, of course,” the man said. “Regrettably.” He toyed with a letter opener on his desk. He lifted his vague eyes to Martin’s face. “We had particular difficulty filling this spot, but at last found a man. However, you seem equally qualified. It’s just that this other soldier happened to beat you back across the pond.” He laughed, and dropped the paper knife.
“Well,” said Martin, rising, “more power to him.”
The man behind the desk raised his hand. “Wait. We’re open for a bid on this thing. We imagine we’re reasonable people—and—a good product for less money . . .” he shrugged his shoulders expressively.
Martin reached across the desk, took the man by the collar and hit him. He went over, chair and all. “There won’t be anything like that,” he said. His voice was not loud but it was hard enough. “That isn’t going to start.”
He walked out.
Late in the afternoon it was a different Martin than the one who had started out so proudly in the morning. He went to a phone booth and called Conway but got no answer. Martin looked at his watch; it was after five— he had nothing to show for his first day.
THE next three days passed in the same fashion, some prospects seeming to be good at first and then proving deficient in one way or another. Most of them, however, were not the kind of
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jobs he wanted to come back from the war to. He began to think that the world held no niche for him, that his place had been filled forever by someone else.
“Just don’t worry about it,” Beth said. “We have enough money, and you have plenty of time. Why, you’ve hardly tried yet.”
“It isn’t that!” he protested. “It isn’t waiting, or trying—it’s the atmosphere of the whole thing! I don’t like it! 1 don’t like it at all!”
Her wise woman’s eyes looked at him, and through him, with a clearness that he knew came from the way she felt and not the way things were. “Did you ever think,” she said, in a changed voice, showing exasperation for the first time, “that it might be you? The way you think about things, the way you imagine they should be?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
In that moment a barrier rose between them, and it was strong, built between the two worlds.
Martin told himself later, “Perhaps she is right. Perhaps I am being belligerent; perhaps I am looking at things in the wrong light.” But when he approached a job he could not forget that he was a commander of men, a soldier from the war. He was used to giving orders, not asking for things. He knew there was a solemn path of animosity that he walked upon, and anyone that came near him realized this also.
One day, about three o’clock, he was in the employment office of a large firm. The day held the dark cold that spoke of the heavy winter days to come, and he was chilled from hours of weary walking in the streets. Lights were on already in the office, accenting the tired shadows in men’s faces. A brisk woman ushered men in and out, with dispatch and enough courtesy to make them feel ill at ease. There was a group of easy chairs against one wall, a few reading lamps and a stack of magazines. Conway, slumped down so that the tails of his overcoat touched the floor, was desultorily turning the pages of a weekly. Martin looked at him, felt his cheeks grow hot, and something cheap, small and ugly rise in his system. Here he was, waiting to apply, and there was Conway. He had been Conway’s superior officer in a score of battles. They had known what to do when it meant life or death, and they had done it. Now here they were.
Conway tossed the magazine aside and saw Martin. The sullen quiet of his face broke into a grin that tried to be like the battle grin of old. It was a hurt parody that Martin wished he had not seen.
“I’m tired,” said Conway. “Let’s get out of here.”
Inevitably they ended up in a tavern. At first their talk was of the old days, the hundreds of days of the war; and then gradually this conversation lost its old soothing magic, and they began to look angrily about them. They began to talk too loudly, and the bartender told them to leave. They laughed at him, and he did not like it. After awhile they found themselves in the cold five o’clock streets, slightly the worse for wear. Martin’s nose had been bleeding, not badly, but enough to soil his shirt and tie. The sense of cheapness and shame was so great now that he could not bear being with Conway. Something fine had been degraded.
Silently the two men went in opposite directions, and neither looked around at the departing back of the other.
The cheap ugly sensation rose to a height as Martin approached his own door along the corridor. His fingers trembled as he put the key in the lock.
In the living room he slipped off his coat and threw it on the couch. The light was on in the bedroom, and Beth called from there—“Darling, is that you?”
“The one and only,” he said.
Her voice was cajoling. “You sound tired, you poor dear.” There was a hesitation that let him know she had something else to say, and was anxious about it. Her voice was falsely gay as she said, “Listen, pet, I have good news for you! You’re going to be rid of me for a few hours tonight. Now, see, you’ll just appreciate me all the more when I get back. I have your supper on,” she said. “Come in here, you, I want to talk while 1 put my hair up.”
She was sitting at the dressing table opposite the door, brushing her hair back, tipping her head against the tug of the brush. The table lights fell on her cheeks and lived in her eyes. Martin stood wordlessly in the doorway, and when she saw his reflection in the mirror the smile drained from her face and an involuntary start of horror came there instead. Dropping the brush she turned quickly. Her eyes took him in from head to foot, and when they again lifted to his he knew that she knew it had been his attitude, nothing else. But still she said, “What happened? Were you robbed? What happened?”
He felt the cruel streak lift from his fingers and he knew it was because he had failed. Yet he could not help himself. He wanted to see what she would say. “I was thrown out of a beverage room,” he said. “What’s this good news you’ve got?”
Her lips were compressed; her unspoken thoughts written there. “I have some business to attend to. I’ll be out till 10 or later.”
The mean streak persisted; failure and shame rose up in him like a sickness.
He said, “This career stuff has to cease. That’s what’s been the trouble with me ever since I got back. If you leave here tonight it’s because you think more of an account than you do of a husband.”
She was standing before him, no compromise in her face. “If you only knew how I waited for you, how slow and cold the days were. But you wouldn’t know that, would you? You wouldn’t know how I felt the day you walked in here!”
“Yes,” he hissed, “I can imagine. And that’s why you met me in Montreal. That’s why you’re going out tonight. Where do you think you’re going tonight?” He was standing very close to her, his fists clenched. The shame kept lifting within him, lifting, saying over and over in his mind, “You fool, you’re going in deeper and deeper; this isn’t the way out. This is the way to kill everything. Oh, Lord, you fool!”
“I am going out with a man,” she hissed back at him. “It is only business, but that is my fault, not his. Do you understand? But I am going, and nothing you can say will stop me. Oh, hit me, you, with your fists clenched! But what would we be doing now if I didn’t have my work, and where would this apartment be?”
“You’re not going!” His voice had to cut through his tight lips.
She laughed in his face, a forced hurt laugh that came from all that anger and pain and love within her. But the laugh was like a fool’s crown on the monster of shame he felt, and, looking at it, feeling it shaking within him, he took his wife by the arm, drew her in, and with his other brutal palm slapped her across the face.
REMORSE in the morning! What else could it be called? Beth would not have been the woman she was, if she
had stayed with him. She had not been able to take all her things, but the ones that were still there had a look of deserted emptiness that added to his ] pain. He lay in bed; the hours marched across the face of the clock. He knew that there would be no way back over the path he had chosen for himself the night before. He knew that the war had taken too much from him, and that he had been a soldier too long to change. He told himself that he no longer cared. Today he would not leave the apartment; there was no use in it. He knew now how things were, and the devil himself could take them all.
My work is done, he told himself. Why should I be forced to start over?
I did my work. I did three years of it. I can’t start over again. My work is done.
He closed his eyes and tried to lose himself in sleep. Sleep would not come; it was stolen from him by an endless refrain in his head, that kept repeating over, over, over—Your work is done, is done, is done, is done, is . . .
He jumped up from bed and paced around thé room. He walked into the bathroom to get a drink of water; his mouth felt like a dusty cloth. The cold water splashed down into the basin and he rinsed the glass. When he raised it to drink he saw his face. He saw something horrible there!
At the front there are good fighters, and then there are men who are called malingerers. They suffer false ailments, inspired by fear; they wear sullen tired anger on their faces, and try with all their might to keep away from the front. Captain Martin had held malingerers in the greatest contempt. He had had no pity when the military police took them away.
When Martin looked into his bathroom mirror he saw his face; the expression of a malingerer.
He knew that kind of face; he knew that it was what he saw now. His fingers grew loose and the glass fell into the basin and shattered. The sound woke him to himself, and in disgust he drew away from the mirror. “That can’t be, Martin,” he told himself. “That won’t be!”
Martin shaved and dressed and went into the cold streets.
THAT idea of his seemed to have been in his mind all the while, somewhere hidden, waiting for him to seek it. He had gone about the execution of his idea in the same purposeful manner that had always accompanied his method in the field. It was surprising how easy it had been. It was surprising how different the world looked to him that afternoon; a world with a purpose, with a wealth of ideas in mind, with a battle front of social and economic life to conquer, and a will to do it.
The man sitting behind the desk across from him was a large amiable fellow who had been a colonel in the 48th. He had the face of a rogue but the smile of an angel. The office was filled with cigar smoke. “Martin,” he said, “I’m glad to have met you; I’m glad you came to me. You’re the man that was needed to make the setup complete.” Vaguely, through the heavy walls of the office, filtered the sounds of mighty machinery, turning to the machines and tools of reconstruction with the same vehement energy it had shown when Bren guns were tooled on all the floors of the plant.
“This isn’t like the situation after the last war,” said Martin. “Today we have a host of trained men, Armytrained. We can use their training. We’ve got hundreds of young men who have the initiative and the knowledge to
do big things. We’ve got to get the best of them before somebody else does.”
Reilley blew a long train of cigar smoke into the air. “Precisely,” he said. He was silent, listening to the distant, powerful roll of the machines. “I’m not a poetic man,” he went on, “but there is poetry here. Great cities, great industries, a purpose! We’ve got to build, Martin, build!”
Martin, too, was listening; and in the sounds he heard his own destiny.
“You,” said Reilley, “are to have full charge of a Public Relations department. We realize what power these men coming back are to wield. But do they?”
Martin did not smile, but a thought went quickly across his mind. It was possible here, too, in this world, to be a captain, or a malingerer. It was the same as on any front that man had ever faced.
“It’s a big job,” said Reilley.
That phrase was singing in Martin’s head as he went home. But it was a song that could not be sung alone, and his triumph became shadowy and less important as he came near the apartment that would be empty of all but hopeless recrimination. His steps slowed, heavy once more, as he walked to his door.
The radio was going in the apartment. Beth was sitting on the couch, smoking. She did not look at him when he came in. There was a strange and elusive quality about her manner. Martin stood before her; and then her stiffness broke, and, jumping up, she held him close to her.
“I’ve been dying all morning,” she
said. “Darling—I can’t wait three years for you and then walk out! I don’t care what happens,” she went on quickly, not giving him a chance to speak. “We’ll fight it out together—■ anywhere ...”
And then Martin told her; and he told her that he had been wrong. The shame he had felt the night before grew small and misty, and broke like a figure of smoke, and flowed away. Beth was warm in his arms, and life lay around them, a plain on which there was no darkness.
Her lips came closer, uplifted. Thought was blotted out, all but the face of Beth.
The phone rang. The discord a ringing phone can be!
It was Conway, very excited. It seems he had the proposition of all propositions on the fire. “Terrific!” he said, “wonderful. Martin, my boy, I am counting you in!”
“Conway,” said Martin, looking ruefully across the room at Beth who stood there in mock petulance, “I thank you, gratefully. But I too am all set, and it’s also wonderful. Now listen ...” he interrupted, as Conway tried to talk again . . . “I’m in conference. It won’t wait. Call me tomorrow night, or I’ll call you ...”
When he went back to her, Beth said, “Who was that, honey?”
“That,” he said, enfolding her in his arms, “was the guy who’s going to live next door, in that little suburb.”
“Then I like him,” she said. “But I like you better.”
And she proceeded to go into that subject more completely.