SCENE: a simple bourgeois room on the ground floor, neat and plainly furnished. A door, left. Two windows at back looking on the village street. It is a spring day and sunlit pear-trees in blossom are seen above the white wall opposite.
From time to time people pass along the street outside during the following action:
First . . . a squad of Tommies on their way to join their regiment, gaily singing to the tune of an old music-hall song.
Then . . . coming from the opposite direction, two young peasant women: one has her handkerchief to her eyes, and the other, her arm about her shoulder, is whispering to her as if trying to comfort her.
Later on . . . the village Cure passes, reading a letter to an old peasant woman, who holds the envelope against her breast and gazes up anxiously into his face.
Then . . . a Poilu, holding a child by the hand. Then . . . two Red Cross nurses walking rapidly with grave, determined faces.
These people pass swiftly and quietly, all except the Tommies, the Cure and the old woman, the Poilu and the child, who walk more slowly. Jim Brown is sitting listlessly with his back to the windows. His chin is propped on his hands, his elbows on his knees. His face is bent toward the floor between his feet. There is a white bandage over his eyes. What can be seen of his face is pale and thin. He is a young fellow of about twenty-four and wears the uniform of a British aviator. His hair above the bandage is a light brown. He has a sensitive, rather secretive mouth and a nice ordinary nose. As he sits there the squad of Tommies goes by. Soldiers (singing as they march):
The bells of Hell go ting a-ling a-ling
For you, but not for me, For me the angels sing a-ling a-ling They’ve got the goods for me. O Death, where is thy sting a-ling a-ling?
O Grave, thy victoree? The bells of Hell go ting a-ling a-ling
For you, but not for me!
(Jim sits up and turns in his chair towards the window listening till the tramp of feet and the singing have passed out of earshot. Then he mutters the refrain of the song meditatively and rather bitterly.)
Jim: “The bells of Hell go ting a-ling a-ling For you, but not for me. . . .” (He gives a short exclamation half sad, half derisive) Mphl . . . (Then slouches down into his chair again and drops his chin on his hands as at first.)
(The door opens and Madame Perrin comes in. She is a stout, kindly, energetic woman of forty. As he hears the door open, Jim gets to his feet and stands facing it nervously.)
Jim: Is that you, Madame Perrin?
Mme. Perrin: Oui . . . it is me, monsieur le lieutenant . . . J’apporte de bonnes nouvelles . . . the good newses. . . .
Jim (quickly): A letter?
Mme. Perrin: Oui . . . mais mieux que 9a. . . . much more better. . . .
Jim (reaching out his hand, in a controlled voice): Where is it?
Mme. Perrin (giving it to him): La voila . . . But do you not ask to me zee ozaire thing what is better?
Jim (with suppressed agitation feeling the letter as if he would see it with his fingers): Where is it from? Is the writing on it in English or . . . or . . . (he fumbles for the French words) Est-ce-que . . . est-ce-que . . . de l’Angleterre?
Mme. Perrin : Non, monsieur. C’est de la Suisse . . . from Switzerland.
Mme. Perrin : Oui, monsieur. It have zee stamp of zee Suisse Comite International de la Croix Rouge . . . Zee International . . . com-mit-tee . . . of zee Red Cross. . . .
Jim (catching his breath in spite of himself): Ah . . . (He bites his under lip, and feeling for the chair in which he has been sitting, grasps the back of it with a hand that trembles. )
Mme. Perrin (hurrying to him): Asseyez-vous, monsieur, je vous prie! Vous etes tout pale! (He yields and sinks down on the chair under her kindly insistence.) Ah! que j’ai du remords! I have think to bring you a plaisir, and I bring you pain! . . . Is it perhaps monsieur fears zee bad newses from a friend what is prisonier of zee Boches?
Jim: No . . . Yes . . . that is, I’m afraid it’s not exactly good news . . . pas exactement, you know . . . but please don’t worry . . . Je l’attendais . . . I rather expected it, you know. . . .
Mme. Perrin: Ah, mon Dieu! Que je suis desolee! . . . navree! (Her face lightens suddenly.) Mais! I had forget! Zee ozaire news! . . . Zee best friend of monsieur wait in zee ozaire room!
Jim: Eh? Plait-il?
Mme. Perrin (dramatically): Monsieur le Capitaine Brooks have return from England! Jim : What! He’s here ?
Mme. Perrin: Oui! Oui! (she raises her voice, calling toward room left): Monsieur! Monsieur le Capitaine Brooks!
(Dick looks in at door left. He is a slight dark young fellow, about twenty-seven, with grey eyes and a charming smile. He also is in the uniform of an aviator.)
Dick: Hallo, old chap! Can I come in? Has Madame prepared you enough for the gorgeous shock?
Jim (taking a few uncertain steps in Dick’s direction): Come in, come in, you old idiot! . . . (Mme. Perrin. with a benevolent smile and gesture, leaves the room. Dick hurries to him and Jim grabs his hand, holding on to it.) Damn! It’s beastly good to get hold of your old paw again. Are you quite fit now ?
Dick: Fit as forty fiddles. I say, though . . . I wish you looked fitter. A bit off your feed, ain’t you?
Jim: Oh, I’m all right. There’ll be a week more of this, though. (He touches his bandages.)
Dick: I know. The Padre gave me your news first thing. I’m fearfully glad you’re going to pull through, old man.
Jim: Thanks. I’m rather glad myself. When did you get here?
Dick: This morning. Wriggled through the red-tape entanglements and did a bunk for you. I’ve been waiting about a fat ten minutes. The old lady said you must be prepare . . . (Looking at him concernedly): Had a bit of a hard time, eh, old fellow?
Jim (evasively): Well, it’s not been exactly a funny experience. But the Padre’s a brick. Comes and bucks me up whenever he has a spare minute. When’ll you get at it again?
Dick: I’m off for the front tomorrow. Wish I wasn’t . . almost. . . . Jim: Eh?
Dick (shyly)Sounds like tommy-rot, I know, but I’d like beastly well to spend a few days here helping to buck you up.
Jim (affectionately): Old slacker!
Dick: i don’t like your looks at all, my good man, and that’s flat. You’re thin as a wire and peaky as a Boche helmet. I believe you’ve got blue devils in your cosmos!
Jim: Why the deuce do you think that?
Dick: Why do you know when you’ve gone off on the wing? It’s highly apparent. Pity you couldn’t have stuck it out in hospital this last week . . . Misery and company, you know. . . .
Jim: Oh, I’d have stuck it out all right. They had to chuck me. Need every bed, you know. I’m jolly lucky to be here. The old lady’s a good sort. She’s looking after two other fellows besides me.
(Dick, who has been filling a new briar pipe while Jim talks and watching him keenly, now puts it into his hand.)
Jim: Hallo! What’s this?
Dick: A little cadeau from old Blighty. Here’s some baccy to keep it going. (Sets tin of tobacco on table beside Jim. Lights match.) And here’s a light . . . (He holds it to the pipe bowl while Jim puffs.)
Jim : Dicky, you’re not half a bad sort . . . are you? Thanks awfully. (He takes a puff or two, then sighs involuntarily, removing the pipe.)
Dick: What’s the matter? Don’t it draw well?
Jim: Oh, it’s A-One! . . . Couldn’t draw better . . . Just this queer thing of not seeing the smoke. . .
Dick: Well, a week will set that right . . . (Drawing up a chair.) By George! It will be good to see your old mug with that husk off, careering in the sky again. (Afraid of sentiment.) Anything I can do for you while I’m here? . . . Letters to write? I’ve got my stylo along.
Jim (starting and making a motion towards the pocket where he has put the letter, then recovering himself and speaking rather shortly): No, thanks. I haven’t got any people, you know. (Dick gazes at him for a second in surprise. Then adopts a cheerful, matter-of-fact tone.)
Dick (rattling of his words): Well, there’s a bright side to that affliction, I can tell you. I’ve two old uncles that I’d swap with you for nothing. Regular old blighters, they are, and I’m bound to spend hours with each of ‘em whenever I’m on leave. . . . Then I’ve an aunt. . . . My eye! . . . What a holy terror of a female my Aunt Matilda is! I consider you deuced lucky in a way, old chap.
Jim (laying down his pipe and turning his face toward the sound of Dick’s voice, speaking rather slowly): I say, Dick . . . there’s something I’ve often thought I ought to tell you since we’ve both been pals . . . I’m a Charity boy.
Dick (not understanding): Eh?
Jim : i know it’s rotten bad form, spilling my private history over you like this. But I had to . . . (banging his hand on the table in sudden excitement): Damn it! I had to . . . Every time you’ve jawed to me about your mother and your sisters and the old vicarage in Surrey . . . and how you want me to go there some day . . . and . . . and know them all . . . I’ve felt like a dirty sneak . . . a . . .
Dick (jumping to his feet and coming round to him): Shut up, Jim! What the deuce do I care whether you came out of a cabbage or a duke’s cradle? . . . You’re a nice sort of friend, ain’t you? Making me out a howling snob! . . . I like your delicate, painted cheek, by George, I do!
Jim: I had to let you know. There was an old chap who took a fancy to me and had me educated. I never saw him but a few times. He died while I was at school. That’s all the family I’ve ever had.
Dick (breaking in): Shut up, will you?
Jim (his voice falling into a pleading tone): Look here, old man, let me go on for a bit . . . It’s a relief . . . You were right . . . I have got blue devils in my cosmos . . . I’m not going to grouse, but I . . . I . . .
(He breaks off.) Lord! But it’s hard to say things.
Dick (in a sober, different voice): Take your time, old Jim. Let’s have it any way it happens to come.
Jim : i didn’t mean to begin this . . . on my honour I didn’t . . . and yet, I suppose something in me did mean to begin it, too, from the minute you came in . . . , I’m fed up with keeping it to myself. . . . And there’s not another chap living I could tell it to. . . .
Dick: Let’s have it, Jim.
Jim: I’ve been through a queer little hell since the day I brought down that Taube at Serigny.
Dick (surprised): But you didn’t have your smash-up that time?
Jim: No . . . not the sort of smash-up you mean . . . I got it hard and plenty though, all the same. Dick: You did?
Jim: I wonder if I can make you see it, Dick . . . It’s a rummy yarn to put into words . . . (With a gesture of discouragement) I don’t believe words can do it. . . . It was the feeling I had . . . the feeling. . . .
Dick: Have a go at it anyhow. I’ve had feelings myself when I had brought down a Taube. . . . It isn’t exactly a pretty sight when ^they crumple up and catch fire. Maybe I’ll get your meaning without such a lot of words. . . . Did your Taube burn up?
Jim: No. . . .
Dick: Then what?
Jim: Did you ever bring down a . . . young chap . . . younger than yourself?
Dick: Don’t think so. My Boches were all seasoned birds, as I recall it . . . Why? Did you?
(Jim gets to his feet and begins to move about the room feeling his way by bits of furniture. Dick goes to him.)
Jim (putting Dick’s hand aside): Just let me bungle about a bit . . . I know this bally room by heart. (He stops suddenly and says): The Boche I brought down that time . . . my first, you know . . . was just a lad . When I got to him he was dead. . . His eyes were open . . . and . . . and . . . they looked so . . . so damned surprised . . . I can’t get away from that look somehow . . . I’ve been as good as blind for two months, but no one ever saw anything plainer than I’ve seen those eyes . . . all the time . . . and now. Dick: Go easy, old man.
Jim: Oh, i know you’re going to think me a soft, piffling muff . . . but I’ve got to tell it all the same . . . There’s something I want you to do for me. Nothing much for you, but it means, well . . . a lot to me . . .
Dick: Just say what, Jim.
Jim: Wait a bit. I’ve got to tell you first. The fact is . . . the fact is . . . (He turns and blurts it out desperately. ) It’s no good . . . I can’t tone it down. . . . What I felt like when I looked at that boy was a murderer. . . . Doesn’t sound very British, that, does it? What? (He laughs nervously.)
Dick (protesting): i say now! You mustn’t go glooming about it, old chap. It’s only the . . .
Jim (cutting him short): I know all that. You can’t tell me anything I haven’t told myself. It’s no use. Something queer happened to me. I’d been seeing and feeling lies, and all at once, bang! like that . . . I saw and felt the truth. . . . It was murder . . . I was a murderer. . . .
Dick: Now, Jim, . . . you’ve got to listen to me. Lots of fellows go through this sort of thing. It’s only nerve shock. It’s . . .
Jim (doggedly)-. It’s God’s truth. If there is a God . . and there is truth . . . that’s what it is.
Dick: My dear old boy, if it does you any good to jaw at me, jaw away, but just remember I don’t agree with one thing you’re saying.
Jim: Of course you don’t. How could you, when it hasn’t happened to you? It’s one of the things must happen to a man before he can understand it. . . .
Dick: But i do understand . . . in a way, Jim. Only I don’t want you to go queer about it. . . . Chaps do, you know, sometimes.
Jim : You see you’ve got your people. It couldn’t mean the same to you it does to me anyhow. . . . A bit of cardboard drove the whole thing home to me . . . a little, cheap photograph. . . .
Dick: Eh? How? When?
Jim (in a smothered voice): I was looking for his papers. . . . It slipped out. . . . A photo of his mother. . . . He had written the words on it. . . . “Meine Mutter”. . . .
Dick: Poor devil!
Jim : It wasn’t a beautiful face . . . but the look on it was. . . . Smiling, too . . . I dare say they had gone together to get it taken, and she’d put on that smile for him. . . . And I’d killed him . . . Lord God, Dick! . . . Can’t you get it? I’d wiped that smile off her face forever . . . just as brutally as if I had bashed it in with my fist. . . .
Dick: Yes, I get it. I’m rather keen on my own mater, you know. War’s damned hard on women.
Jim: I couldn’t stand it . . . I had to do something. First I thought I’d just blow out my own brains . . . I was pretty well off my head for a bit. . . . Then I got hold of myself. . . . P’raps I prayed. . . . I don’t remember . . . but it came to me in a flash. . . . What I had to do, you know . . . I must let her know he hadn’t suffered . . . or . . . or been hacked about. . . . How he looked . . . peaceful . . . that sort of thing.
. . . Then I told her I wished it had been me instead of him. . . . And . . . and . . . I told her it was partly because I didn’t have . . . well, anyone to care particularly if i went out . . . no mother, in fact. . . . And . . . And . . . I asked her to forgive me . . . I wrote it all down, there beside him. . . . Then I made a parcel of his watch and trinkets for her . . . and slipped in my letter . . . and dropped it over the German lines. (There is a pause.)
Dick (speaking with some difficulty): Old chap. . , . Jim: Well?
Dick: i . . . quite understand. . . . Jim: Thanks, old man, . . . there’s a bit more of it. . . . Dick: All right. . . .
Jim (stumbling a good deal over his words): You see . . . I was daffy enough to hope. . . . Well, I couldn’t help thinking how it would be . . . if I got an answer to that letter. . . . Wanted to see it down in black and white . . . if . . . she did forgive me, you know . . . (hesitating, his hand going again towards the pocket where the letter is) Well . . . today . . . a letter came through the Swiss International Red Cross.
Dick: And . . . er . . . did she?
Jim: I don’t know . . . I haven’t had it read to me. . . . It’s got to be someone who could translate it anyway, you see. I’m pretty sure it’s from Germany, and I know so little German. I thought. . . . (He takes it out slowly) if you would? . . .
Dick: Rather! . . . Only you know I’m not much of a dab at German myself. . . . If you won’t mind my fumbling it a bit. . . .
Jim (in a low voice): I don’t think I could let anyone but you read it. . . . Not even the Padre . . . I . . . I was going to wait till you got back anyhow. . . .
Dick: Good Old Jim! (He puts out his hand for the letter and says shyly): Well—let’s have it.
(Jim holds out the letter, his hand shaking. Dick takes it and opens it carefully and slowly, looking at Jim with a rather anxious expression.) Jim: It is from Germany, isn’t it?
Dick: Yes . . . from a place on the Rhine. . . .
Jim : Go on, then.
Dick (hesitating, with the open letter in his hand): I say, Jim . . . suppose . . . suppose . . . it . . . er . . . isn’t what you . . . want?
Jim: Read it any way. I’m game. Read it. . . . Read
Dick (puzzling it out rather slowly aloud): “Mein armer, lieber Junge . . . Ich begreife . . . ich verstehe . . .” My poor, dear boy . . . I comprehend, I understand. (Jim puts his hands over his face. Dick continues muttering over the German words quick and low.) “Die Gabe zum Schreiben habe ich nicht, doch konnte ich mit dir sprechen. . . .” I have not the gift of writing, but if I could speak with you . . . “ich wiirde dir mein Herz ausschiitten . . .” I would show you my heart. . . . (As Dick continues, he can scarcely utter the words distinctly at times.) “Ich danke dir, danke dir und segne dich . . . dass du mir von meinem Karlchen geschrieben hast.” I thank you . . . thank you . . . and bless you for writing me of my . . . Karlchen. “Ich glaube dir wohl du hattest lieber dein eignes Leben gegeben als das seine genommen. . . .” I believe you truly that you would rather have given your life . . . than taken his. “Aber es war der Feind den du totetest, dein Bruder nicht . . .” But it was the enemy you killed . . . not your brother. . . . “Mein armer Junge . . . du hast keine Mutter . . ., ich habe keinen Sohn. . . .” My poor boy, you have no mother, I, no son . . . “Aber wenn dieser grau-same Krieg endlich voruber ist.” But when this cruel War is over. . . “Komm zu mir” . . . Come to me . . . “komm zu mir, und das wird nicht mehr wahr sein, denn ich werde . . .” (He pauses, then clearing his throat continues:) Come to me and that will no more be true.
. . . For I will . . . be . . . “Deine Mutter” . . (Dick’s voice shakes over the last two words and he is abruptly silent.)
Jim: What was that? What were those last words?
Dick (clearing his throat again and speaking firmly but low): “Deine Mutter” . . . thy mother.
Jim (bewildered): Thy mother? (With sudden excitement he starts up.) Look at the envelope . . . the address! The letter isn’t for me! Quick! . . . It’s a mistake! . . . Quick! . . .
Dick: No . . . there’s no mistake, old man. It’s addressed to you, all right . . . Your name’s at the head of the page, too.
(Jim stands as if stupefied for a second or two, then speaks in a suffocated voice.)
Jim: She signed herself that . . . to me? Oh my God! (He breaks down all at once, and flinging him arms on the table drops his head on them and sobs. Dick starts to put his hand on his shoulder, withdraws it, and stands, silent, looking down at the letter in his hand as the Curtain falls quickly.)
Copyright, 1926, by Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy.