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HOME > Short Stories > Ten Degrees Backward > CHAPTER XXI THE GREAT WAR
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Isabel Chayford came over to see me in the early spring, and immediately after Easter, Annabel, Arthur and I went for a short trip to the Canary Isles. Now that she was Dean and Chapter of Lowchester, Annabel had not as much time as formerly to stand between me and the East wind: but she still did what she could; and on this particular occasion hid me in the shelter of the Canary Isles until the tyranny of my traditional enemy was overpast.

Nothing particular happened during the early part of the summer. My longing for Fay and my hatred of Frank were as great as they had ever been: neither feeling seemed to diminish in intensity: and I felt that forgiveness of Frank was as far from me as ever.

I was still very unhappy: but I had now been unhappy for so long that I was fast coming to regard it as my normal state.

I did not see much of the new Rector, though what I did see I liked, and he was most popular in the parish: but I was at war with the King, whose ambassador he was, and I felt that, therefore, his embassage meant nothing to me.

So the long, dreary, sunny days dragged on until the beginning of August: and then suddenly the incredible happened, and the world as we had known it was turned upside down.

It is not for me to attempt to tell the story of the Great War: that is already written in blood and tears on the heart of the civilised world; and likewise on the pages of those books which shall be opened before the Great White Throne, when the earth and the heaven shall flee away and there shall be found no place for them. Germany ruthlessly broke the laws of God and of Man, and England upheld them and defended them even to the death. Hell was let loose with all its furies, but the hosts of Heaven were also in the field.

And whilst on the continent of Europe the awful battle raged between Right and Might, between Righteousness and Unrighteousness, between the Prince of Peace and the Lust of Power, we at home saw our old world tumbling about our ears, and a new one rising phoenix-like from its ashes.

Suddenly the whole scale of values was changed. In the old days before the War, the important people were the middle-aged, wealthy, intellectual people, the brains and backbone of the nation. Now those people had ceased to matter at all. The only people that mattered were the young and the strong and the fearless, the blood and the sinews of the nation. The wisdom of the wise had become a thing of no moment compared with the strength and the courage of the brave. It was the boys that counted now: not the mature man of weight and position. The old standards had passed away and new ones were set up in their place. County magnates and landed proprietors sank into abysmal insignificance beside the village lads in their new khaki: rank and wealth became worthless, except in so far as they could be adapted to serve the soldiers fighting at the front.

The world which had hitherto bowed down before us middle-aged, influential, well-to-do people, simply because we were middle-aged and influential and well-to-do, suddenly found it had no use for us, and so cast us ruthlessly aside. It had heavier work on hand—work that was beyond our over-ripe powers. And the strange thing was that this casting aside did not hurt our pride as it would have done at another time, for the reason that our personal pride was dead, and in its place had come a newer and a better feeling, the sense of a corporate unity. The boys who were preferred before us were no rivals, but part of ourselves, because we were all part of one great and united Empire. For the first time in the memory of living men we knew experimentally what it meant to be members one of another.

At the coming of the Great War old things passed away and all things were made new, and life was suddenly charged with a terrible and yet glorious meaning. Our very prayers were changed. For the first time for a century we comprehended the Litany, and offered it up with understanding hearts. The "hands of our enemies," which had for so long been merely figurative dangers, were now an actual and hideous menace: and because we believed we were fighting not for greed of gain nor for lust of power, but for love of abstract righteousness, we dared to raise from our hearts that solemn and compelling plea: "O Lord, arise, help us and deliver us for Thine honour."

Naturally I passionately wanted to enlist, and equally naturally my age and short-sightedness rendered me unable to respond to my country\'s need: but for the first time in my life, failure had lost the power to hurt me. What mattered it that I was worthless, if there were younger and better men ready to take my place? The individual unit had ceased to signify.

Time also had changed its values. Everything that had happened before the war was almost lost in the haze of a half-forgotten past: the trifling events of the last week of July seemed as far off as the happenings of my boyhood. A new era had begun on that fateful Fourth of August, nineteen hundred and fourteen.

It was only a few weeks according to the old reckoning of time, though it seemed as if a long stretch of years had elapsed since the setting of the sun of peace, that another crushing blow fell, and I received the following letter from Isabel Chayford—


"I have terrible news to tell you—the very worst—and trying to break it gently is no good at all. I have seen Frank Wildacre, who has just come over from Belgium with a lot of Belgian refugees and he tells me that Fay is dead—killed by a shell at Louvain."

I put the letter down as I could not see to read any more. A thick red mist was before my eyes, and my brain reeled.

Fay dead—my beautiful, light-hearted little Fay! The thought was unthinkable.

Yet though it was unthinkable, the certainty of it crushed me to the earth. I could not believe—I felt I never could believe—that Fay was dead: yet on the other hand I felt as if she had been dead for years and years, and that I had always known it. Sorrow is always so old. The moment that its shadow touches us we feel that it has enshrouded us for ages.

As long as I live I shall never forget the agony of that moment. The sun shone through the dining-room window as I sat at the breakfast-table, and I hated it for shining. It seemed as if it ought never to shine again now that Fay was dead. And all the familiar objects around me—the furniture and the flowers and the breakfast-things—suddenly became charged with a terrible and sinister meaning, as if they were all part of a grotesque and unspeakably horrible dream.

I sat for what seemed an eternity trying to realise, though in vain, that Fay was dead; and yet feeling that I had realised it, from the foundation of the world, in every fibre of my being.

So it was all over, the joy and the pain of my married life! The breach between Fay and myself could never now be healed. There was now no longer any hope of her coming back to me, and asking me to let bygones be bygones and to begin our life together afresh. The bygones were bygones indeed, and there was no beginning again for my darling and me. Everything was over and past, and there was nothing left—not even a happy memory. She could never again weigh me in her balance, and this time more mercifully; nor could she ever cross out that Tekel she had written against my name. It must stand for ever to my eternal undoing. The anguish of this thought was almost more than I could bear, and yet live!

And across the intolerable anguish there came another feeling—an intensity of hatred against him who had destroyed the happiness of my life; and who now came back to complete the havoc he had wrought, by the news of my darling\'s death. If I had found it impossible to forgive Frank while Fay was alive, I found it still more impossible now!

After an eternity of such agony as I trust never to go through again, it occurred to me to finish reading Isabel\'s letter. There was nothing in it that could matter: nothing could ever matter any more now that Fay was dead: but I felt I might as well read it. I had a dim feeling that Isabel sympathised and was sorry, but I did not care whether she was sorry or not. Neither she nor anybody else could ever help me any more. Still she meant to be kind; and though her kindness was of no use to me, I thought I might as well finish her letter. I owed that much to her. So I went on with the reading of the letter that I had begun to read ages ago, in that dim, far-off past before I knew that Fay was dead.

"It appears," the letter continued, "that Fay and Frank had come over for a trip through Belgium when the war began, as Fay was rather overdone by acting and wanted a thorough rest and change: and instead of trying to get away at once, they stayed on at Louvain ............
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