ARMISTICE DAY. And a memory leaps as clear as the bugle's lament—a memory of a girl named Joan, a long-ago war and an old man who needed a light in his loneliness
Stand to your bugle, soldier, so that the thing may be finished, and let us go away now and be done with remembering for another year. We are old men; we are not the gigantic figures you summon out of the years with cadences of words, beat of drum and clatter of arms, and the rustle of the November wind among the leaves. For a little while we were the comrades of the heroes to whom you dedicate this hour, but now we are chilled and stiff of limb and could do with a drop of spirits. For us, it is not reality you recall. All this was in our youth, long ago, and the strings are broken on which you would have us pluck out a music in tune with yours.
“Forget it not,” your parson said, “there be things such as love and honor and the soul of man, which cannot be bought with a price, and do not die with death."
It is a verse for the young, for those who are young enough to understand its truth, young enough not to care whether it is true or not. Something like it was said to us on the afterdeck of a transport come to anchor on the Mersey tiile, off Birkenhead, when we waited to disembark before the winter on Salisbury Plain forty-five years ago. Now we are not sure what is true any more, except the need for comfort and warmth, for a little learning to make up for our failing comprehension — and yes. by liod. the need for a drink. Let your bugle play out its keening song! Dismiss this sorry party of veterans. and let us go away!
“Forget it not,” eh? I am put in mind of another parson, our own Mr. Adams in Trafalgar Township, him I listened to as a boy so often I could repeat a half dozen of his sermons to this day, speaking in the very accent he brought with him from his native 'Argyll.
“Beware a false tongue!” That was a favorite.
“Beware a tongue!” “To every man comes a lime to lie; see to it that it be not for gain or in fear or boast that ye abase your tongue. If ye must, lie for a man's cause, that ye may one day acknowledge it without shame!”
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Put away your bugle, soldier
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“He didn’t know the kind of war that killed his son; I invented a brave assault with pipe music”
He was a hell-fire preacher, Mr.
Adams, when I was a boy. but a lonely old man, widower and childless, when I got home from the war at the time of the spring seeding in 1919. 1 went over to see him before I had been back a week, knowing I would have to talk to
him about Tom, who was two years dead, who was killed on the swampy ground to the west of Passchcndaele in the 1917 Battles of Ypres—Tom Adams, in the twentieth year of his age. as they said when they buried him.
Mr. Adams and I walked out of manse house and along the road, and i¡ the talk between us a time came to to lie, but whether it was for a man': cause I do not know, or if it was just j spiteful lie, born of a bitterness that ha gone.
The old man was speaking as if noth ing had changed, as if Tom might along any minute, and the two of us sr down in Mrs. Adams’ kitchen the wa; we used to. And I thought: he will wan to know about the manner of Tom’: death, about how it was with Tom. Ant there is nothing to tell him, because will not understand what war in trenches was like. Well, I thought, will make it a little easier for him. will have a charge, a brave assault, with a pipe band playing, and Tom with rifle and bayonet in his hands, killed with a bullet, cleanly.
Why speak of the dreary day, a day like a hundred others, of desultory artillery fire in misty rain, and of Tom killed with a bucket of potatoes in his hand, torn up with shrapnel, screaming out his life in the mud? Give the old man something to cleave to, something worthy of all the things that w'ere being said — the love and honor and the soul of man sort of thing that comes so much easier when you are dry shod and fed and standing upright. That would have been a lie within the meaning of a man’s cause, I guess. But I had no occasion, as it turned out. to tell it. It was a question I could not have anticipated that came in the end.
”1 count it a pity, Robert, that Tom’s marriage was hindered. I am grieved for that.”
His head was down; he was suffering some unknown sorrow. He did not see my face. It is as well, for I was staring at him in astonishment. Tom had had no girl he wanted to marry. It was only when Mr. Adams spoke again that I perceived what he had in his mind and the curious misapprehension it was.
“He did not refer to it in his letters to me. It was a rumor that reached us here about him and the granddaughter of James O'Rourke. It was said they wanted to get married, and found . . . alas . .. an impediment arising out of their different faiths.”
It was my turn to lower my head and suffer my own private sorrow. Indeed, we must have walked a half mile before either of us said more. And beside me was the ghost of Joan O'Rourke, come back out of the depths of the sea, out of the torpedoed hull of the Londonderry Castle, Joan, who never knew poor Toni Adams, Joan, lithe and fair, with tears on her cheeks, Joan in the murky light of Huston Station crying farewell, farewell!
I said at last: “1 didn’t know you knew about Joan O'Rourke, sir.” Why could I not have told him at once it was a mistake. that it had nothing to do with Tom? Was it a harshness in me, or some instinctive compassion for a grief whose nature I only began to discern long afterwards?”
“Tell me about her, Robert.”
God help me, I told him.
"They met at a house in Surrey, near the military hospital at Reigate. They were guests at dinner. It was a house called The Minches. That was in April.” The deception, once begun, ran on easily enough. “They never found out what minches were. She was a granddaughter of the James O'Rourke who farmed here once. She was born in Vermont herself, and joined up in Montreal. But she used to come here to visit her grandmother when she was small, so they had something in common, the young nursing sister and the convalescing soldier.“
I guess I kept the old man waiting a good" while again. I was remembering that dinner table, the shine of glass and silver and linen, and us two, chosen by the hospital adjutant at random to be that week's guests, looking at each other in wonder, discovering that the house I was born in was the same her grandfather had built in '69 and named Starof-the-Sea, which it is called to this day. Ah, and a coal fire burning, and the soft lilt of the airs you sang with your fingers just touching the keys of the piano, lifting the heart out of the body of the soldier, and of the lady who was our hostess, too. who begged you through her tears to go on and on. while she dreamed of the girl her son might one day have brought home to sing to her, her son who would never come home again. Oh, Joan, Joan!
"They saw a good deal of each other in the next three weeks, before he was fit to go back to France," I said.
Is there memory, Joan, in the sea’s graves, or note of music, or sound of voice, or ray of the light of the sun that shone upon us that April? Will ever spring be like that spring, that English spring of 1916? Or is there one such for every man. to light all the span of his years to come w;ith the memory of it, one season of days of wine and roses, as some old poet says? Can the cold sea have taken it all from you, Joan, whose feet trod the new grass, whose hands touched the young flowers, who shared the wonder and magic of love?
"I guess it was during that time he proposed marriage to her."
It was in that time. No guns shouted across the Surrey fields, no yellow gas scoured off the sweetness of the land. Life sang in the hedgerows, not death. In that time I asked her to marry me, we two sitting on a slope at Hindhcad with the sun warm upon us. She kissed me solemnly and she answered yes, and forever, and at once, for each of us knew you did not have long engagements in wartime because you might not live long. It was thus the impediment arose of which Mr. Adams had heard, for in that respect the garbled story that had come across the sea was accurate enough. Between us, there in the sunshine between Joan and me, there fell the shadow of the ancient difference our forebears carried with them out of Ireland into America, the manner of the worship of God. Aye, it was so. It was as if, in the stillness of the day. the echo came to us of an Orange drum beating through the streets of an Irish town, of an answering cry ringing down across three hundred years: Drogheda, in the name of God!
"It's true, sir, they couldn't agree on religious grounds. She wanted to be married by the priest, and he would have none of it. There didn't seem to be any half way ground.”
Old Mr. Adams bowed his head. “It is a sad thing. He never saw her again?”
Joan. Joan, my love, my love! No, I never saw you again. You managed twenty-four hours' leave and came up in the train to London with me the day I was ordered to the embarkation port, came up to Charing Cross, where we had a hurried dinner at the restaurant
off the platform. Rain had come; it had turned cold, and the darkness was growing about us. so that we seemed to cling to each other at every step, waifs in a wind we could not comprehend, that blew us where it would. We took a bus for Euston. changing somewhere along the way, and we rode the top alone in that sombre, menacing world, sodden with rain, still with hand clasped in hand. And there at last we made our promises, and compromised the issue we should have compromised while time remained with us, but time did not remain. So
little remains. The gloom of the Euston Station, the silent crowd. A child screaming after a man who pushes blindly away toward the train, and the sobbing of women. Steam blowing out of a safety valve. The queer peep-peep of an English locomotive. Oxo. Pears Soap. The Esterbrook Pen. A rail transport officer shouting. And you. Joan, the small figure of you with a handkerchief waving, and a voice crying what I could not hear as the train gathered way. Farewell! Farewell!
I had forgotten Mr. Adams.
“Did they never meet again. Robert?"
“She went up to London with him. They said good-bye there.”
Then the lie rose in my throat, the lie direct, that had no purpose of which I could ever be certain, that need not have been part of this gentle deception of an old man, and I spat it out.
"She had twenty-four hours' leave, and they spent that night together at a hotel. After that they said good-bye. They never met again.”
You will have forgiven me long since, Joan, for what I said that day, for the words that I have come to believe w'ere placed on my tongue in a curious manifestation of God’s concern for an old man. Hut I had no such idea at the time, only a sort of anger, for I thought: how will he know the like of that London darkness, the misery of that separation, the heartbreak of the night beyond, the loneliness into which each of us was hound? There is nothing in him hut righteousness, the Book and the Law, good or evil, heaven or hell. Let him shout his wrath; let him make w-hat he will of what I have told him.
The old minister drew himself erect and turned full face to me. I saw the old fire in his eyes that were locked with mine. “God forgive them the sin!” he cried. Then, after a moment of tense silence: “God forgive them! And for the girl O’Rourke, for what she did that night, may He go with her all the days of her life, may He count her sin as virtue, may He keep her heart high and sustain her, and in His good time take her to Himself.”
Then he walked away from me. back toward his empty manse, leaving me on the road. And I turned and walked back to our place.
Put away your bugle, soldier. Your Last Post is played. It is over now. Let us have done with it. We have remembered. ir
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