Margaret Vail’s Entire Chapter from her Unfinished Book
(Note: At the request of a reader [see one of my Blogs dated August 28] I am copying here Vail’s chapter in its entirety which I only excerpted for you earlier. As some of you know, I hunt and peck at a keyboard (I opted for Latin rather than typing in high school with no regrets). Add to my typing skill my recently worsened eyesight, and the fact that, like Margaret Vail, I have suffered a stroke. However, my stroke was not nearly so severe as hers. It is now 4:18 p. m., and I will tell you that other than doing the necessities, such as eating lunch and walking out in the sunshine to check for mail, I have been at this computer since about 8:30 a. m., checking and rechecking, with a really strong magnifying glass, to make a correct copy for you. I consider it a labor of love for all those who appreciated Margaret Vail. I will read all of this later on its blue background and make corrections if there are any. There must be. I’m only human. Enjoy!) ♥
The Complete “Prisoner’s Return” from Margaret Vail’s Unfinished Novel
In early May, we awaited news from Robert, of whom nothing had been heard. Every day, we would learn of the return of one or more of Serigne prisoners of war; those of us who were waiting for news would congratulate the wives and mothers who had their loved ones with them once more; without a trace of resentment in our hearts that others should be favored while we still had no cause for rejoicing.
On the morning of May 16, our telephone rang. “Un telegram, Madame.” And it was read to me: “RETURNED FRANCE GOOD HEALTH WAIT IMMINENT ARRIVAL ROBERT”
Down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen I ran, headlong, to fling myself, into Veronique’s arms. “Oh, Veronique, he is coming, Monsieur Robert; he is alive, he is well, he is in France, he is on his way home, he will soon be here, he . . . I . . . we . . .”
Veronique, hysterical too, began rushing around the kitchen, tears streaming down her cheeks. “We must have all kinds of good things to eat for him,” she sobbed, picking up one thing here, casting it down there, searching frantically for she knew not what.
Rose-Helene, less excited, of course, was happy all the same to know that she would soon have a Papa after living most of her life without one. All the rest of that day we waited for news which did not come. We studied maps and time tables, trying to imagine where he might be at that moment, and at what time, on that day, he could arrive.
No one cared much about eating that day nor about sleep that evening as I discovered when I went up to bed around eleven o’clock. I tried for a while, to read, but soon found that, too, was impossible. I decided then to wash my hair, the great feminine resource in times of stress. That would help the time to pass and I would look more attractive for Robert if he should arrive the next day.
It was 1:00 a. m. I was pinning the last curl – and the telephone rang! Our service is always shut from 7 p. m. until 7 a.m., it can never be used during those hours, so I knew, even before I scrambled to answer the telephone that it was something urgent, something out of the ordinary – something to do with Robert.
The local telephone operator (whose husband, also a war prisoner not yet returned) was calling to say that the Mairie of St. Emilion had telephoned to ask whether Madame deVigney could come to get her husband who had just arrived there.
Could I come! During the past years, long years, lonely years, the conviction that, one day, this moment would arrive was what had given me courage to carry on. How many thousands of times had I asked myself when, when, when would he return? How many times had I wondered where our first meeting would take place? Now I had my answer. When? In the time it would take to tie a gay scarf around my wet head, get the car and drive the eight miles which separated us. Where? St. Emilion where, five years before, I had had my first sight of German troops arriving to occupy our region. Now it was a French officer who awaited me there.
To the severe thunderstorm I gave little heed as I drove towards Montigny, as fast as I dared drive through the torrential rain. The vivid flashes of lightning and sharp claps of thunder would have frightened me, normally, but now the thunder was only the echo of my own heartbeat, and the lightning a mere reflection of the blaze of my excitement.
I had supposed that I was the only person in the village awake at that hour, except the telephone operator, but mine was not the only call she had made, I soon saw for, when I arrived at Montigny, the outline of several figures appeared at the front of my car. One or two of these signaled to me to stop, a command I was tempted not to heed untill I saw M. le Cure was at the head of the group of men.
Slowing down the car, I leaned out of the window to hear what M. le cure was saying: “. . . so I am sending Georges, here, with you to show you where the prisoners are assembled.”
As though I could get lost in a tiny village like St. Emilion! As though I wouldn’t be able to find, without anyone’s help, my husband wherever he might be! And, naturally, I did not want to share with anyone, Robert’s and my first meeting. “You are so kind, M. le Cure, so thoughtful, but, truly, I do not want to impose on Georges. There is no reason for him to take that long drive to St, Emilion in this pouring rain. I assure you that I can find M. Robert by myself.”
But the Cure was insistent; as awkward in his kind intentions as so many well-meaning people too often are. Besides, a Cure could not be expected to understand wives’ and husbands’ wanting to be alone together at such a time. So, to avoid wasting precious minutes in futile argument, I told Georges to hop into the car beside me and off we drove to St. Emilion.
That town, usually so placid and quiet, was in an uproar. The noise and confusion was centered on the Place in front of the Mairie. There, the two big buses, loaded to capacity, had deposited men who had returned from five years’ captivity. Some of them had already been found by wives and mothers; some were holding sleepy, bewildered children who had never known or could not remember the men in whose arms they now were. In a group apart stood those who were still waiting to be called for.
The little square was illuminated only by the lights which shone from the windows of the Mairie and by those of my car, which shimmered through the rain. This gave the scene an unearthly quality, the people were phantoms; shadowy forms without identity. Only the noise – of sobs which were laughter, of laughter which tore at one’s heart, of gay music (to which some were dancing) – only this noise gave evidence that this was, indeed, real, and not a dream or a product of one’s imagination. The scene was sublime, transcending the ghostlike figures moving about in it. One could not fail to realize the deep spiritual significance of the human drama and feel a grateful humility at being privileged to witness and take part in it. Nor could one fail to give thanks to Him who had brought us all to safely to this place, to this moment, Who had made possible all that was happening there that night.
I remained in the car, unable to do more than stare at the scene I knew would remain forever engraved on my memory. Georges had served a useful purpose, after all; he had gone off to find the person I now saw coming towards the car.
It was not necessary to see my husband’s face to know that this was he. The touch of his hand on mine was the same; the voice was his. Of me he could see little, huddled behind the wheel of the car; the dim light revealed only the bright scarf around my head and the fact that my face was wet, whether from the rain or from tears, he could not know.
Georges remained off at a distance until we called to him and told him to squeeze into the little car beside us. He was lucky that we did not forget him, leaving him to spend the rest of the night there in St. Emilion.
It was difficult to concentrate on keeping the tiny car on the slippery road in the face of the torrent of rain and flaws of wind which shook it; what I wanted to do was give all my attention to Robert and what he was saying.
He had been traveling, he said, for eight days and nights in one of those forty-men-and-eight-horses affairs, he told us (us! Poor Georges had not been more de trop in all his life); there had been only a brief stop in Paris where certain formalities had to be gone through before the men could continue their journeys. One of the volunteer workers at the center to which Robert was assigned, had been a friend in those days, oh so many years ago, when young men went to dances and teas in Paris. He told her he had been without news of me for several months, but the last he had heard from me I was living in Washington with our little girl. He wondered whether he might find us at L’Ormeau when he got back—it was with this hope that he had sent me a telegram from the frontier.
Oh no, the lady said, it was not possible that Robert’s wife and child could have returned because Americans were not yet allowed to return to France. The lady feared it might be several months before he would see us.
Robert was inclined to doubt this. “You don’t know Margot,” he told her. “She promised me, you see, if ever she should be obliged to leave France, she would manage to get back in time to welcome me home. Margot usually finds a way to keep her promises.” We smiled at each other there in the darkness of the car. Smiled at the absurdity of his confidence in Margot, at the absurdity of Margot’s promising such a thing. Smiled because he and Margot had been right and the lady was wrong.
I told Robert I was glad he could not see me because I had just put my hair up in pin curls and I looked awful. Robert told me he was glad I could not see him for he had not been able to shave or wash for more than a week and he had never looked nor felt so repellant.
It was nearly two o’clock when we arrived at our little village where we intended to ease Georges out of the car and go on to L’Ormeau. But, in the middle of the road there was a large crowd, obviously waiting for us, waiting to welcome Monsieur Robert back to Montigny—quite unmindful of the rain which had already drenched them. We had to get out of the car, shake hands all around, acknowledge congratulations. Robert answered questions and even made an impromptu speech when he was presented with an enormous bouquet which had been prepared for him while we were in St. Emilion. Bon soir was finally said and we were free to go home. Before the chateau, we found Veronique, Charles and Marie waiting for us. I took the flowers from Robert that Veronique might take their place in his arms. She stood on tiptoe to kiss her beloved master for whose safe return she had prayed night and morning during all these past years. Affectionate greetings for old Charles, Marie was presented and at last we went into the house.
As we stood looking at each other in the big hall, a sudden bolt of lightning put out all the lights in the house! Groping, we found candles which lighted our way upstairs to our room. Then I heard a sleepy little voice murmuring, “Mama, what is everybody talking about in the middle of the night?”
I went in to Rose-Helene. “It is papa, darling. He is here, your papa. He has come home.”
Robert stepped forward to take the nightgowned figure (already standing up in bed) in his arms. Quietly, I set the candle on a table and softly went back into our room, letting father and daughter have their moment.