Autumn 1919

February 15, 2007 at 8:24 am (Borjes Society)

J.T.N.


He came back in autumn of 1919, one month before Rose’s 28th birthday. The orchards were ripe with apples on the long paved walk that led to the estate house. The hired workers would pick them in the following week, taking away the only color left on the landscape, the trees having lost their leaves in the weeks before. She had received notice that he was coming, and had pictured his return ever since she had received the telegram from Cairo saying he was no longer missing in action, that he had been found.

When the door rang Jacob stood dutifully by, his tired hands resting on one of the shined brass handles, knowing that Rose would want to be the first thing her husband saw when the door was opened. Rose came down the stairs wearing the same blue dress that she had on when he first made love to her, eight years ago by the fishing pond on her parents’ estate. It had been autumn then too but she liked to remember it as a spring day, with a field of flowers to lie on instead of the dry, dead leaves that had actually been her mattress. Rose had her hair down, as she knew he liked, and it ran in waves to her waist; it had been golden-tan once but now showed strands of gray. Rose felt giddy in a way she hadn’t known for some time.

It took a moment for the recognition to set in. Physically, the man standing in the doorway looked every bit like the man who left three years ago, except perhaps for a scar on his forehead. He was still tall, smartly dressed, with thin sandy hair that covered his head in sporadic peaks and valleys. Rose rationally identified the man, who stood in front of her, but it wasn’t her husband, and she couldn’t explain why. There was something changed, and Rose’s emotions did not accept this altered form which presented itself as her husband. The man looked at Rose with passive, empty eyes. There was no indication of whether or not he was surprised by his wife’s apprehension. Breaking the mood, Jacob coughed audibly.

“Master, a pleasure to see you safely returned.”

At Jacob’s voice the moment was broken, and Rose grabbed her husband around his neck and hugged him, saying his name over and over while her tears poured into his chest. The man dropped the small leather satchel he was carrying and put an arm around his wife. His other arm held onto his crutch, which he balanced against.

That night they ate their first meal together in three years. Rose wanted to ask her husband about what had happened since his letters to her had stopped. How he had gone down, how he escaped the Sopwith which had still not been found, how he had survived in the desert, how he had got back. Restraining herself, she only asked about his leg. He said he would be able to get off the crutch in a few weeks, that the doctors had to reset the bone but it would be right soon. He asked about the house and grounds, about how Rose had been faring. She had little to complain about; her family had helped her quite a bit and she regularly took weekend train trips with her sisters into Kent for shopping. She had been lonely, yes, but she had always had others around. Jacob of course had taken good care of her. Her husband nodded toward his head butler appreciatively and Jacob turned modestly away.

Later Rose tried to make love to her husband, but he didn’t seem to notice her touches. He stared at the ceiling above him, his eyes glinting eerily as they reflected moonlight from the open window. When he had undressed for bed, Rose had noticed that the skin across his chest and shoulders was discolored, as if from a burn.

In the weeks that followed, Rose tried to return the estate to how it was before the war. It was difficult. While Rose oversaw the tending of the grounds, the orchards, and the vineyards, her husband kept mostly to himself. He stayed in his study looking through old albums of photos and would only occasionally leave to wander around the surrounding countryside. Rose wanted to encourage him to be sociable, but whom would he see? Neither Arthur nor Brian had returned from France. Her husband’s best friend before the war, Arthur had commanded men in Somme and was killed by a machine gun in the battle of Saint-Quentin while his friend Brian received a wound from shrapnel in Ypres that got infected before he could be taken off the line. Helping their widows, whom Rose had known since preparatory school, had almost broken her, especially while her own husband was missing.

Meals were eaten almost entirely in silence, and Rose kept having to remind herself that this was at least in some way still the same easy-going, chronically likable, and perpetually humorous man she remembered. In the years he was away Rose had dwelled every day on the memories she had of him. She would replay her favorite memories in her mind over and over, changing and altering them as the real image of him started to fade. Now she questioned herself; had she changed her recollections so much that she was remembering someone completely different than how her husband really was? Had he always been like he was now? Did she just not notice the emptiness before? A lot could change in three years, over the channel or at home.

One night Rose awoke to find her husband wasn’t lying next to her. In the moonlight she slipped on her robe and was about to go looking for him when she noticed something out the window. Opening the window and looking out, Rose saw clearly in the blue half light of the early morning a figure standing on a small hill that overlooked the work shed on the east side and the vineyards on the north side. The figure was not looking at anything particular, but standing in the stillness of the night, as if it were absorbing the soft light. Rose closed the window quietly and pretended to go back to sleep. An hour or so before she would normally have awoken her husband returned to bed and lay still, but Rose could tell by his breathing that he was awake.

The next day, while her husband was out taking a walk, Rose found herself in the study. She immensely wanted to understand what had happened to her husband, or what was happening to him still. He had not spoken of the war at all; he didn’t even acknowledge that it had existed. There, resting against the Italian leather armchair which Arthur had given her husband on his 27th birthday was the small brown satchel which was the only relic her husband had brought back from his three years in Europe and Africa. She imagined it must contain photos or correspondences of some sort; he must have made friends with the rest of the pilots. Did he have a copilot? In his letters home, before he was lost, he had mentioned the other pilots only abstractly. Perhaps he didn’t want to have to inform Rose of their deaths when, later on, she would ask how they were. Rose was reaching for the satchel when she heard the door of the study opening behind her. Startled, she whirled around to find Jacob.

“Is everything alright, ma’am?”

“Jacob,” Rose recovered quickly, “have you… noticed anything about the master since he’s been back? I mean anything unusual?”

Jacob looked uncomfortable; discretion was a principle part of a well-trained servant’s duties. “I’m not certain I understand you, ma’am.”
“I feel something’s not right with him. Do you remember how he used to be?”

“I’m sorry ma’am, but my memory is perhaps not as good these days.”

Rose nodded. After being her pillar for so long, the last thing Rose wanted was to torture the old servant. “Jacob, I have my husband’s well-being at heart and…” Rose trailed off, not knowing how to explain herself.

“We all care for the master’s well-being.” As Jacob closed the door behind him, he said in an offhand fashion “oh, and the master is returning from his walk.”

Rose left the satchel alone for the time being; she would have to return to it later. That night Rose pretended to be asleep. She felt her husband, on the other side of the bed, wait for her breathing to become steady and measured. Then, when it seemed she was asleep, he left. Rose didn’t notice that he was gone for quite some time, as he made no noise at all. Moreover than not making any sound, Rose was surprised that there was no difference in the atmosphere of the room from when her husband had entered and when he exited. She realized almost with a start that he had no presence which she could feel. As in his eyes, all surrounding him was emptiness

Rose waited for ten, fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes. When she could wait no longer she went to the window and looked out. There had been brief showers earlier in the day, however, and the moon was obscured. Not being able to see anything, Rose went to bed. She forced herself to stay awake as long as she could, waiting for her husband to return. Strange paranoid thoughts arose about what her husband might be doing out in the darkness, and about what might have happened to him. A singular question kept forcing itself to the surface of Rose’s consciousness; what if he never sleeps? Fighting against dwelling on this question strained Rose, and a feeling of dread starting to rise up inside her. She began to wish that he had never come home at all, and she feared his return to her room. She had no sanctuary now. Eventually these queries drifted into fatigue and Rose felt herself finally drifting into the dark black sea.

Rose awoke to a methodical knocking sound that took her a moment to realize was a hammer. It was still dark outside, and Rose had to fumble for a flint to light the gaslight by her bedside. Rose walked out into the hallway in a daze, not sure if she was dreaming. In the hallway stood Jacob with an electric lamp. He was dressed as usual, yet it was obvious by his demeanor that he too had been roughly awakened by the noise. His voice was weary.

“It’s coming from the shed.”

“What is it?” Rose asked.

“The master,” Jacob replied.

Without another word Rose stormed down the hall and threw open the door to the study. She needed to know immediately what her husband had brought back, and hopefully what had happened to him. She grabbed the leather satchel from the armchair and heaved it onto the large oak desk, fumbled with the clasps, then finally tore open the top. And froze.

“Not what one would expect, is it?” Jacob walked up from behind Rose, closed the satchel, and calmly placed it back on the armchair. “To be in the army five years and bring back nothing but a pack filled with-”

“Desert sand,” Rose murmured, still staring at the open satchel in her mind. “It’s desert sand.”

Rose left early the next morning to visit her sisters in Kent. She hastily packed a few belongings, wrote a letter for her husband about feeling ill and needing to see a physician, and caught the train. Jacob took her to the station without question. Before she boarded, Rose turned to Jacob, who was standing by the auto.

“If anything happens, let me know immediately by wire.”

Jacob nodded.

Rose’s sisters lived together in a large duplex on Whistler Street, just North of Liston avenue. The duplex was one of a number of real estate holdings owned by Rose’s brother-in-law Frank, whose investment in an ammunitions plant during the war had made him even wealthier than Rose’s husband. Rose always sensed that her husband inadvertently inspired Frank’s competitiveness to the point of hostility, and that Frank was not entirely upset when the former went missing. Rose was glad to find only her sister Margaret at home.

There was no excuse that Rose could find for why she needed to leave her estate on such short notice, especially following the much awaited return of her husband. All Rose could do was try to explain the truth as best she could.

“He’s not the same as when he left. I know he would have changed but… but not this much.”

Margaret set down her tea to lean across the sofa and hold Rose’s hand. They sat in the upstairs parlor, which overlooked the park behind the house. The sunlight cast the room in pale yellow.

“It’s dreadful to think about,” Margaret began, carefully picking her words, “but if it provides you with the slightest consolation, I’ve heard the same from many of the women whose husbands have returned. The men have trouble sleeping, they wake up screaming, during daytime they’re either too violent or too somber. It’s a mess. The war was a mess and the mess it produced is still with them.”

Rose shook her head, “It… it’s deeper than that. I can’t explain, but it’s not as if he changed even, it’s as if… oh I don’t know how to explain.”

“Now he went missing, what, six months? Something could have happened- something horrific- in that desert and your husband is still carrying it with him. Give him time Rosie. He’ll change back.”

Rose sipped her tea and looked out the parlor’s bay window. Below two nannies were pushing strollers and talking, an old man was sitting by himself, and several young boys were playing with a model airplane.

Rose settled down at Margaret’s as she had several times during the war, when the mansion became lonely and foreboding. She had a room to herself, and split most of her days between reading and excursions to the shops downtown with her sister, who had always believed most problems could be solved by buying new things. Rose didn’t want to go back to the mansion, and with Frank rarely free from business Margo was delighted to have her. Each day Rose distracted herself from thinking of her husband, but at night she was haunted by the image of him out in the shed, oblivious to the hour, never sleeping, building something. What is he building in there? The more Rose thought about him the more anxious she became, and her dreams were usually frightening. Nevertheless, with the coming of morning scones and coffee would distract from the darkness of the nighttime and Rose would push unpleasant thoughts to the back of her mind. Then one afternoon, when Rose and Margo were coming back from a café, one of the staff stopped them.

“Telegraph for you ma’am, arrived this morning,” the young maid thrust out a piece of paper towards Rose.

“For me?” Rose asked, “but who would-“

Rose stopped as she noticed the sender.

Rose and Jacob rode home in silence from the train station. There was a tension in the air, a strain that grew as they approached the mansion. They passed the orchards, which Rose had strolled when the indoors became stifling. Without their fruit the trees seemed sullen and brooding. As the mansion sprawled out ahead of them, Rose turned to Jacob.

“You’ve seen it then?”

Jacob only nodded.

Rose didn’t know what her husband had built in that barn, but according to Jacob he had worked every night. The sounds from the shed had been constant, and Jacob had almost grown accustomed to them. Then early that morning when Jacob had awakened he felt something was amiss. It wasn’t until after breakfast that Jacob realized the sounds had stopped.

Everything seemed unnaturally quite to Rose as she walked to the shed. Every step she took would crush leaves under her feet, and the sound was deafening. There were no birds; there was no sign of wildlife. The autumn breeze turned the blood in Rose’s pale arms into cold, muddy water. As the shed approached, Rose’s breathing became heavy and her heart beat rapidly. Everything inside her was pulling Rose away.

“You’ve seen it then?”

But Jacob had only nodded. As Rose reached the shed’s door, she almost became sick, and she leaned against the door for support, the cold mud pulsing in her hands, in her head. Suddenly there was a tremendous creak that shot through the silence like a streak of lightning through night, and the door swung wide under Rose’s weight. Rose fell onto the floor of the shed, and looked up before she could stop herself. The mud froze. A plane. He’s been building a plane!

Rose got to her feet and dusted herself off, transfixed on the aircraft. Rose subconsciously began walking around plane, her eyes scanning it over and over. She quickly realized that her first thought hadn’t been correct- it was not a plane in the true sense as even a child could see that it could never fly. Instead it was a life-sized model of the plane her husbands’ squadron had flown during the war, the Sopwith Camel. The frame seemed to have been made out of whatever wood had been available and the wheels Rose recognized from one of the horse carts. The fuselage and long tail had been wrapped in tan sheets, and the tip of the tail had been painted red. The expansive bi-wings likewise had been covered in sheets, though white ones this time. He had taken the propeller off their sailboat, which was in storage, and Rose noticed that it was far too small for flight. The cockpit had been taken from the drivers’ seat of their coach, which had been in storage as well since Rose bought the auto. On both sides of the plane and on the wings was painted the blue and red bulls-eye of the British air force. As she completed her loop around the giant model aircraft, Rose suddenly realized that her husband was nowhere around.

Back at the house, Jacob met her look with a nod towards the study. Rose noticed that the old butler had forgotten to shave, and his clothes looked like they had been worn for days. Complacently, no longer acting on curiosity or hope but out of an obligation to herself to see things through, Rose entered the study. Her husband stood by his desk, and was carrying the satchel he had brought back with him from the war. He was dressed in full flight gear, exactly as he appeared in the photo he had sent Rose early in the war. His goggles hung loosely around his neck, and when he saw Rose he smiled boyishly.

“Right- should be a nice run, no worries. Just scouting today.”

“Don’t… don’t…” Rose’s voiced trailed away. She didn’t know what she had been trying to say.

“Besides, no use being a hero this late in the game, eh? No, the mechanic says she’s sound, don’t know what the trouble was last time.”

Rose’s husband left the study, satchel in hand. Rose didn’t move. A minute later she heard the opening and closing of the back door of the mansion. Rose didn’t feel strained anymore. She didn’t feel tired, or anxious, or frightened. All of her feeling was gone, it had exhausted itself. The entire scope of the war, every nervous day and distressing night she had lived through over the last five years, over her husband leaving, over his disappearance, over his rescue and over his return had finally used up all that was left of her.

Rose didn’t know how much time passed before Jacob ran in. It must have been almost half an hour but it didn’t seem more than a moment or two. Jacob’s clothes and face were smeared with ash and he smelled strongly of kerosene and something else. Rose couldn’t identify the second scent but it was repulsive. Jacob breathed heavily as he tried to speak.

“The shed—it’s all afire… from the inside… he was lying there… the master… lying under the plane,” Jacob coughed heavily, “lying on the sand. couldn’t… couldn’t reach…” Jacob shook his head, “I… I’m sorry Rose I couldn’t reach him in time. The master… he’s gone.”

“I know,” said Rose, glancing out the window at the charcoal sky. “It was mechanical failure.”


 

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