Everyone in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honorably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and […] after many fresh starts given and thrown away, he […] had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died […] a few weeks before his child was born.
All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing them up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but that things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money.
In a few years Michael took his place, as accepted as Helen—fearless, philosophical, and fairly good-looking. At six he wished to know why he could not call her “Mummy,” as other boys called their mothers. She explained that she was only his auntie, and that aunties were not quite the same as mummies, but that, if it gave him pleasure, he might call her “Mummy” at bedtime, for a pet name between themselves.
At ten years old, after two terms at prep. school, something or somebody gave him the idea that his civil status was not quite regular. He attacked Helen on the subject, breaking down her stammered defenses with the “family directness.”
“Don’t believe a word of it,” he said cheerily, at the end. “People wouldn’t have talked like that if my people had been married. But don’t you bother, Auntie. I’ve found out all about my sort in English Hist’ry […] There was William the Conqueror to begin with, and—oh, heaps more, and they all got on first-rate. ‘T’wont make any difference to you, my being that – will it?”
“All right. We won’t talk about it anymore if it makes you cry.” He never mentioned the thing again of his own will, but when, two years later, he skillfully managed to have measles in the holidays, as his temperature went up to the appointed one hundred and four, he muttered of nothing else, till Helen’s voice, piercing at last his delirium, reached him with the assurance that nothing on earth or beyond could make a difference between them.
Since Michael was no fool, the War took him just before what was like to have been a most promising career. He was to have gone up to Oxford, with a scholarship, in October. At the end of August, he was on the edge of joining the first holocaust of public-school boys who threw themselves into the Line.
Helen had been shocked at the idea of direct enlistment.
“But it’s in the family,” Michael laughed.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you believed that old story all this time?” Helen said […] “I gave you my word of honor—and I give it again—that—that—it’s alright. It is indeed.”
“Oh, that doesn’t worry me. It never did,” he replied valiantly. “What I meant was, I should have got into the thing sooner if I’d enlisted—like my grandfather.”
In France luck again helped the battalion. It was put down near the Salient, where it led a meritorious and unexacting life, while the Somme was being manufactured; and enjoyed the peace of Armentières and Laventie sectors when the battle began.
A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was nothing special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.
Helen, presently, found herself pulling down the house-blinds one after another with great care, and saying earnestly to each one: “Missing always means dead.” Then she took her place in the dreary procession that was impelled to go through a series of unprofitable emotions. The Rector, of course, preached hope and prophesized word, very soon, from a prison camp. Several friends too, told her perfectly truthful tales, but always about other women, to whom, after months and months of silence, their missing had been miraculously restored.
Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her. Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to all but the finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin,” she told herself, as she prepared her documents.
The agony of being waked up to some sort of second life drove Helen across the Channel, where, in a new world of abbreviated titles, she learnt that Hagenzeele Third could be comfortably reached by an afternoon train which fitted in with the morning boat, and that there was a comfortable little hotel not three kilometers from Hagenzeele itself where one could spend quite a comfortable night, and go to see one’s grave the next morning. All this she had from a Central Authority who lived in a tar and paper shed on the skirt of a razed city full of whirling lime-dust and blowing papers.
Helen was grateful, but when they reached the hotel Mrs. Scarsworth […] insisted on dining at the same table with her and, after the meal […] took Helen through her “commissions” with biographies of the dead, where she happened to know them, and sketches of their next of kin. Helen endured this till nearly half-past nine, ere she fled to her room. Almost at once there was a knock on the door and Mrs. Scarsworth entered; her hands, holding the dreadful list, clasped before her.
Because I’m so tired of lying […] year in and year out. When I don’t tell lies I’ve got to act ‘em and I’ve got to think ‘em, always. You don’t know what that means. He was everything to me that he oughtn’t have been—the only real thing—the only thing that happened to me in all my life; and I’ve had to pretend he wasn’t. I’ve had to watch every word, and think out what lie I’d tell next, for years and years!
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell—my nephew,” said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life. The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown toward the naked black crosses. “Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”