Authors: Phillip Rock
For Charlotte Wolfers
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Death is a sleep.
With leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse and the mole
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And, when gay tombs are robbed, sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far hence, that's foe to men;
Or with his nails he'll dig them up again.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â âJ
E DROVE UP
to Flanders in the early summer of 1921 knowing that it would be for the last time. He had finally, after nearly four years, reconciled himself to the unalterable fact that she was dead.
He drove slowly from Paris along the dusty, poplar-lined road to Amiens. All of his belongings had been shipped the week before to London and he carried nothing but a few clean shirts, some underwear and socks in a battered leather bag. He felt a peculiar sense of freedom, as though the past had finally been left behind and all the ghosts that had haunted him for so long had been laid to rest. In Amiens, there were tourist buses lined up in front of the Cafe Flor waiting to take sightseers out to the old trenches along the Somme. He stopped for a sandwich and a glass of wine and watched the peopleâmostly middle-aged Americans and Englishâboard the buses with their cameras and binoculars. He felt dispassionate about the sight. It had bothered him greatly in the past, but now it didn't matter. It was just a tourist attraction they were off to visit. No different, in a way, from any other ruin or relic of history.
different, few people knew better than himself. He had witnessed the war almost from the first day, a lowly twenty-three-year-old theater reviewer for the Chicago
, picked to be their war correspondent because fate had placed him in Europe when the German Army crossed into Belgium in the summer of 1914. The editor of the
could have sent a more experienced man, but he believed the war would be over in six weeksâthree months at the outsideâand vacationing Martin Rilke was on the spot, and could speak French and German besides.
He took the road to Albert and then on to Arras and over the Vimy Ridge to Bethune. There were still belts of rusted barbed wire to be seen, and here and there the burned-out hull of a tank entombed in a grassy mound that had once been putrid mud. Woods of shell-splintered stumps were growing again. A greenness had crept over the land, a blanket of grass and vine, sapling and leaf, to hide the places where a generation had been butchered.
He was known at the Hotel Gaillard in Hazebrouck as a man who came at least three times a year to stay for a few days. It was not the most popular of towns, Hazebrouck. A place to stop on the road to Dunkerque, or Calais. No more than that. The little town had escaped the shells, but a million soldiers had tramped through its streets on the way from Saint Omer to the front.
“Boots and cannon wheels ground us down,”
the mayor would say as he puttered helplessly in the ruined garden of his hotel, not to mention the vast dumps of shells and mountains of supplies, or the five thousand cavalry horses. The dumps and the horses were gone now, but their imprint remained on a bleak and trampled landscape.
From Hazebrouck the road went north over the slopes of Messines into Belgium and the Great Salient, past tortured earth still rank with rusted iron and death. Past the blasted sites of villages with names that rang like a dirgeâWytschaete and Hollebeke, Langemarck and Passchendaele. The lunar rubble of Ypres.
He had brought flowers, which he placed at the base of her cross, than ran a hand over her name, wiping dust from the black painted lettering. Ivy Thaxton Rilkeâof the Imperial Military Nursing Service. Killed at the age of twenty by a shell.
“You knew her, then?”
Martin looked up. An elderly Englishman in well-tailored tweeds stood on the gravel path leaning on his walking stick.
“Ah,” the man said with a sigh, as though a great mystery had been solved to his satisfaction. “I've passed often and wondered about her. There are so few women reposing here, you know. My sons are down the path a ways. John and Hubert.”
“It's very lovely here this time of year. The trees are growing wondrously well. Do you come often?”
“Several times a year.”
“Really? Odd that we haven't met before. I try to come over once a month. I live near Dover.”
Martin turned away from the grave and stepped off the well-clipped grass onto the path.
“This is my last visit,” he said. “I realize now that she's gone.”
The Englishman smiled slightly. “Totally, you mean? I've talked to others who feel the same way and no longer come. I can't share that belief. Death is a sleep, Swinburne said. My sons are in slumber.”
No, Martin thought as he walked back to the car, they are dead as Ivy is dead. Not sleep but death. Death, not sweet repose. He had faced the reality of the war and cut the knot that bound him to the past.
He left the wheezing Renault with a friend in Saint Pol-sur-Mer, telling him to keep it, or sell it, and then took the channel steamer from Dunkerque to Folkestone. Standing in the stern of the little ship, he watched the coast of France blend into the sea haze and slowly faded from view. A part of his life fading with it. A moment in time over. Sailing toward another.
E WAS THIRTY,
a man of average height and sturdy build. His hair was flaxen and parted loosely in the middle. His oval, square-jawed face just missed being handsomeâthe mouth a trifle too wide; the thin, high-bridged nose a shade too long. His most arresting feature was his eyes, which were blue and merry, a paradox for someone who had seen so much of the world's horrors.
He had a whiskey and soda in the station saloon and then took the 3:15 to London. It was an uncrowded train and there were only two other passengers in the first-class carriage. One of them, an elderly curate, went immediately to sleep, and the other, a large woman wearing a fox fur, sat as far from Martin as possible, as though she smelled the whiskey on his breath. He had forgotten to buy a newspaper, so there was nothing to do other than look out the window or write in his journal. The view was certainly worthwhile. England in June. The North Downs and the Kentish Weald. Soft, patchy sun on fields and woodland. Rain clouds to the east drifting slowly inland from the sea. He had seen England for the first time on just such a day. Both he and the world had changed drastically since that summer in 1914, but the English countryside appeared to have drowsed on, untouched by the past seven years. Heath and common, copse and hedgerows. Sheep, placid in the fields. Children gathering blackberries, waving at the train. But the pastorals of England, like the pastorals of France and Germany, were deceptive. Trees and pastures, gabled towns and thatched villages, implied an innocence and serenity that no longer existed.
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
The woman looked at him and stroked the black-button-eyed head of a silver fox.
“Not an odious cigarette, surely.”
“Cigar,” Martin said. “Havana, and very mild.”
The woman nodded her approval. “I find nothing objectionable about a fine cigar.” She continued to look at him, fondling the tiny, grinning head. “I took you for a German. You have that coloring.”
He managed a polite smile. “I'm an American, of German ancestry.”
“Oh,” the woman said, and looked away.