The Return

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Woman's Home Companion Vol. XLVIII No. 8 (August, 1921)

She was so young that she was as yet unable to see the ineffable horizons beyond the morasses of sorrow. The melancholy that is born with all the children of men still lingered with her. Her conception of eternity was much clearer than that of time. She could easily believe in endless joy and endless woe, but not in the time which heals woe and dulls joy.

She was stealing around the side of the Hale house — she was Ellen Hale — to reach the corner of the east piazza and not have her mother accost her. Her mother sat, as usual on fine evenings, on the front piazza under the electric light, knitting. Ellen had been keeping a secret from her mother for some days, and she avoided her, when she could do so undetected.

Ellen was all in white and carried a little white silk bag on her arm. She moved through a tall growth of grass and weeds. White disks of daisies gleamed from it, and there was a strong fragrance of lilies blown from the garden. Swarms of fireflies were about. A soft curl of mist rose; the moon had a silvery and golden halo; the stars were pale as through a veil.

It was a night of delicate, elusive beauty, and Ellen ordinarily would have been thrilled by it. Now she was so sad that she felt pained and insulted by beauty which persisted in the face of her own sorrow. She brushed between the grasses, swaying to meet before her, impatiently, and gave a sigh of relief when she reached the corner of the east piazza.

Ellen switched on the light, seated herself in the hammock, and took a letter from her silk bag and began to read. She was tired to death, frightened to death, of the letter, yet she had to read it over and over and over.

The letter was in this wise:

Dear Ellen: I am here in France in a base hospital. I am rapidly recovering, but I am wounded — my face. The surgeons, one especially, with a terrible courage of his young convictions, have had a try at me. The result is remarkable. When the surgeons regarded their own handiwork, they were pale with restrained emotion.

Afterward I heard roars of laughter, of which they are heartily ashamed. They are a decent lot, but they can't usurp the work of the Creator with perfect success. The nurse who saw my face first, had hysterics. Then she fainted.

I asked for a glass. I nearly repeated the hysterics, but did not faint. I simply had the bandage replaced, and then did some thinking. I wondered at first, if my face had been a horror, if I could not have borne it with more grace. I might have been considered by some sentimentalists as a hero, but no one can make a hero of a clown.

My dear, my face is inexpressibly funny. It is the most awful tragedy in the world, that of comedy; I shall keep it covered while I live. I may be a moral coward, but I prefer kicks to ridicule.

And the pity which follows such ridicule is a shame. However, I am not now in the least disturbed. I am happy with a happiness of which I had never dreamed. I suppose it is the result of renunciation. Perhaps there is a heaven of sorts for every renunciation.

I have the honor of renunciation for my Country, and my Country is for the first time an entity to me. I feel toward her as the Greeks felt about their divinities.

There is still much left dignifiedly intact. I have my two good eyes for instance, my hands, and my legs. All useful. As you know I have plenty of money, I have my beautiful home in the mountains back of the village. I have there, to live with me, my uncle Bill Lester and my aunt Ann, who will not care a tinker's fiddle how I look, and have no sense of the ludicrous. My relatives will raise me in my self-esteem until I wander around the fields hunting a trout pool, for a looking glass, like what's his name? Narcissus. Then I shall regard my blemish as such beauty that I shall swoon from self-adoration, and drown in the pool, and become a beautiful flower, which you may find perhaps, and wear at your waist.

That makes me remember that you and I were to have been married on my return. That is, of course, over. I am in another dimension, where no wife can follow me. Lost hope, frankly, disturbs me no longer. It will not disturb you, when you have passed the surface shock of realization.

Be happy as you read this. I am happy. I long for my home, my uncle, my aunt, my books, my music, my artist's kit, my dogs, my horses, my motor. But I shall drive like the devil and pass everybody in a lovely blur of camouflage.

Eat your honey. I eat mine.         Dick.

Ellen still held the letter when Lee Abbott came. She heard him greet her mother on the front piazza, smelled his cigar, heard him laugh when he was directed to her corner. Then he stood before her, a tall figure in his white flannels and held out a hand.

She took it limply. He tossed his cigar out among the grass and fireflies, and sat down opposite her.

“Well!” said Lee finally, with a curious sigh of interrogation.

Ellen looked at him and nodded.

“Of course you have heard. I only got home from New York an hour ago. It was in the papers this morning. You have seen them?”

“I did not need to. I had a letter three days ago.”

“From Dick?”

Ellen nodded. She tossed the letter to the man.

“You mean for me to read it?”

“Why not? It is not a love letter.”

Lee stood under the light and read it. He looked at Ellen with a bewildered expression after he had finished. He handed it back, then he sat down. Finally he spoke. “A mighty brave letter. Rotten luck.” He stammered a little.

“Yes,” agreed Ellen.

Lee looked at her. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.

“I wonder,” Ellen said calmly, “how soon he will wish to be married.”

Lee was very white, but he responded quickly: “Why, at once, of course, poor chap. My God! Ellen, to think we might have been married, and had him coming home like this —”

Ellen nodded. “Yes, that would have been dreadful,” she said.

Again Lee regarded her in a puzzled, bewildered way, as if he had a mind to say something, but was uncertain.

Ellen spoke again. “Of course, we were both sure he was dead,” she said lifelessly, almost indifferently. The sense of an eternity of misery was upon her, and she was limp before it.

“Of course. I couldn't have been such a cur as to have said a word to you, otherwise. But the news came so straight it seemed impossible to doubt it. We were sure he was dead, and I had always loved you.”

“I never knew it.” Ellen's lips hardly moved.

“I couldn't speak before I went to Europe. You were too young!”

“I think I was old enough to know my own mind,” said the girl. She flashed with momentary indignation.

Lee started. “Ellen!”

“After you went to Europe, I knew, of course, that it had been only a girl's fancy,” Ellen said proudly.

“Ellen —”

“Then Dick came. And I was two years older. A girl like me does not wait unless she is asked.”

“How could I ask you? You were so young when I went away.”

“Yes, I was; and girls are always such fools.”

“I don't mean that, Ellen. It simply did not seem fair, to me. Why, you were not through school.”

“I am now.”

“Yes; and Dick is coming back; and, Ellen, perhaps —”

“Perhaps what?”

“Perhaps poor Dick is unduly sensitive. Perhaps he is not so disfigured as he thinks. He may be regarding himself as he fears you will.”

“I don't care how disfigured he is, except on his own account,” Ellen said harshly. “I am ready and glad to keep my promise to marry him when he comes back.”

Lee sat still, with studying eyes upon her.

“What do you mean by looking at me like that, Lee?”

“What way?”

“You look exactly as if you knew something, but were not sure you ought to tell me. What is it?”

Lee's face suddenly stiffened. “Nonsense,” he said, and tried to laugh. He rose. “I must be going. I promised Mother I wouldn't be late. Well, Ellen, it is good-by in one sense, not in another. I hope you will be happy. I know you will. Dick is a splendid fellow.”

“I know he is. I shall be happy.”

Lee laughed quite successfully. “Of course you will. Well, now the second fiddle leaves the orchestra. He really never had any business there. Exit second, enter first fiddle. Good-by, Ellen. I have been happy while it lasted, and shall be happy enough now it is over.”

Ellen started and regarded him curiously. “I thought it was always very easy for men to get over — things.”

“It is, very easy. I am glad it went no further. Why, I have never even kissed you, Ellen.”

Ellen's face suddenly grew pitiful, then stiffened. “No, you never did.”

“It did not seem decent, somehow, to say anything definite — to make love so soon after — we heard. But I was almost sure — you understood.”

“There is no use talking about understanding, or not understanding, now.” Ellen's voice rang harshly.

“I love you, all right. I will say that, for the sake of my self-respect. I can say it now I am going, and feel honorable. Good-by, Ellen, I know you will be happy.”

“Oh, yes, I'll be happy. Don't worry, Lee.”

“My only thought now is for you.”

“Thank you.”

“We shall be very good friends always.”

“Thank you. I hope you will have a happy life, Lee.”

“I shall be happy enough, if you are.” His voice rang tenderly.

The girl's face quivered, then became firm again. Lee turned. “Oh, by the way,” he said. “Dick doesn't mention it in his letter, didn't know, I suppose; but his ship has sailed. It was in the night papers. She docks next Saturday. Of course, Dick will have to go to camp first before he comes home. Good night, Ellen.”

“Good night, Lee.”

They shook hands. The man went. Ellen returned to her hammock.

She lay face downward, and shook with dry sobs. She did not comprehend existence outside of eternity. She was an integral part of it. She would never cease to live and suffer.

After a while she rose, and went around to the front piazza where her mother sat knitting. Ann Hale was a small, keen-eyed, pretty woman.

“Lee went early,” she remarked.

“Yes. … I ought to tell you, Mother. There has been an understanding between Lee and me, but we had never said anything.”

“You could not, so soon.”

“There is something else. I had a letter from Dick, Thursday. He was not dead, after all.”

“I knew it, dear. Your father and I saw it in the paper, but we waited for you to speak first. I saw the letter on the hall table.”

“He is coming home. His ship has sailed.”


“Here is his letter. I will leave it for you and Father to read. Where is Father?”

“Gone for a game of chess with the rector.”

“Dick was badly wounded. He has entirely recovered. He writes he is much disfigured. He very nobly says he does not expect me to keep my engagement.”

“But you will?”

“Of course, Mother. What kind of a girl do you think I am?”

“But Lee,” her mother whispered hesitatingly.

“The men who did not fight expect to make way for those who did. Lee is like that,” said Ellen. She went out with a swirl of white skirts.

Her mother looked after her with a troubled face. Then she adjusted her glasses, and read the letter. When her husband came in, she showed it to him. “What do you make of it?” said she when he had finished, and the two regarded each other.

Ellen's father looked sober; but he laughed a little whimsically.

“Only that we must not try to play the rôle of Divine Providence to our daughter, dear,” said he. “I think from this letter that there is not much cause for worry.”

“You think?”

“I think there are heights beyond human ties for human souls.”


“Perhaps poor Dick has reached them. If he has, no daughter of ours, not even our precious Ellen, is good enough for him.”

A piteous little sound reached their ears. “Poor child, she is crying,” said her mother pitifully.

Lee, going home, met his mother. She knew about Dick. She had strolled down the road in order to walk with her son and comfort him. She was a handsome woman, high-figured and compact, in rich attire. She listened to what Lee told her. He repeated the substance of the letter.

“Then Ellen is going to marry him?” she said.

“Of course.”

“Does he want her to?”


“Listen, Lee, before you become explosive. I saw Dick's aunt Ann this afternoon. She and his uncle have a letter from Dick. She says he writes as if he were happier than mortal man, does not allude to Ellen, but his Country. It sounded incredibly idealistic to me.”

“Dick is an idealist; but, Mother, Ellen!”

“How does she feel?”

“Could I insult her, Mother? She is happy and honored, of course.”

They reached the porch of the Abbott house, mounted the steps, and sat down opposite each other. Lee's mother sat rather stiffly. She was highly corseted and majestic.

“You don't really believe what you say about Dick?” Lee asked, and his voice was impatient.

“No, I suppose not. After all, as you say, the girl is Ellen, and she is lovely. I don't suppose any man could have been expected to do such a thing before the war. Perhaps the war may do away with the work of the ages in some respects, and produce diamonds among the characters of men.”

“Perhaps,” Lee agreed absently. “I wasn't thinking entirely of that.”

“What is it, Lee? You are not telling me something.”

“I don't know if I ought, Mother; still, I suppose I might as well; only, don't repeat it until Dick gets home, and we really know the truth. There are so many rumors. Well, I saw Jim Sawyer on the train coming out to-night, and he had a letter from a man he knows in Dick's regiment, and this man, he is a Maine man, nobody we know, wrote something about Dick that sounds mighty queer.

“He wrote that Dick's face isn't really badly disfigured at all. It seems it was something rather terrible at first, in a grotesque fashion that was worse than any other. Now, he declares, it is healed, and the scars have faded, so there is no need of covering it, but Dick insists upon doing so. Nobody can convince him, it seems, that it isn't just as bad as it was at first.”

“Doesn't he look at his face in a glass, I wonder?”

“Yes, Jim says he does, but seems to see wrong. The surgeons think it a persistent delusion from shock, and that he will never get over it. Jim says they think he might; but he is so settled in his mind over the whole matter, so contented, and even happy!”

“Didn't he mind about Ellen?”

“Jim says he has given that sort of thing up so completely that his old conception of life no longer exists for him, says he is a sort of fanatic over patriotism. Of course Jim got all that impression from his friend's letter. Jim says his friend writes he could understand it better if Dick were French, but it seems a queer turn for a New Englander's mind to take, such a rapture of idealism.”

“Jim and his friend don't know what they are talking about,” said the woman. “I belong to an older generation, and I know. New England out-Latins all the Latin races when it comes to raptures of idealism. It is nothing extraordinary for a man of pure New England lineage to turn to any ideal, especially that of Country and Patriotism, as a girl disappointed in love turns to religion. Dick might have done that, too. All that strikes me as unusual is the patriotism as regards this country in this war. It would seem to me to call for a World patriotism as far as this country is concerned; but I suppose Dick was simply compelled to fall back upon the personal element.”

“But, Mother, it looks a little as if his brain were twisted.”

“Everybody has a twisted brain, my son, and especially now. The war has attended to that for at least three generations to come. No wonder, if Dick's is twisted, too.”

“But, Mother, what of Ellen?”

“Why, it seems to me very simple, and very fortunate. Ellen, of course, never really cared for anyone but you, and now her course is not only the happy one for her, but the only one.”

“I can't believe it. I mean I can't believe that about Dick.”

Lee's mother rose. She bent over her son, silks rustled, laces fluttered, and a perfume as from a great flower was exhaled. “That is the wisest attitude for you, son,” she assented. “Good night. Whatever happens, I am glad you have the strength of mind to face it.”

After she had gone, Lee sat smoking and thinking. He dwelt upon what he had heard of the wounded man's attitude of mind, and a great calm came over him. He had a conviction that it was true.

As the time drew near for Dick's return from the camp whither he had gone on landing, the excitement in the village grew. Lee heard no more of the rumors that the disfigurement had disappeared. In fact, he saw Jim Sawyer a few days later and he said he thought his friend must be mistaken. “I have seen another fellow who was in the same hospital,” he said, “and he declares that nothing short of the Resurrection Day could ever make poor Dick's face anything but a horror. He says he thinks Ellen Hale is a heroine.”

That night Lee Abbott understood renunciation, and with no enthusiasm of idealism to assuage the agony. He did not see Ellen again. He did not dream of what she contemplated doing. Ellen had heard the rumor that Dick's scars had healed, but placed no reliance upon it.

An innovation was planned for the returning soldiers. People were wild with delight over them, and especially over Dick.

“We are going to carry that man on our shoulders up the mountain to his home,” one boy, too young for war, cried. “No automobile and no horse shall carry that man, but the arms of the men for whom he has fought!” He tossed his curly blond head as he spoke, and waved his arms.

Lee was in the crowd when the boy spoke. “I wonder if the poor chap will like all the fuss and feathers,” he said to an older man by his side.

The man laughed. “No man ever lived who did not like an ovation,” he returned.

Lee shook his head doubtfully; but he suddenly realized what the village opinion had been about himself and Dick's sweetheart, and was silent.

Lee planned heroically within his own mind, where Dick and Ellen would meet. “It is moonlight again,” he thought. “They can meet in that corner of the east piazza where Ellen and I have sat. He will go there after the honors are paid. He will go in his car. They can meet in that half light of silver and shadows. It will be easier.”

The preparations were on almost a grand scale. It was a small but rich community, and the tide of sentiment swept everybody off their feet. They could not do enough. All the village was decorated, but the prosaic Main Street was the masterpiece. It flew all the flags of the allied nations; arches of flowers spanned it. What had been for men's lifetimes a street of village stores and homely dwellings was a highway for fairy princes to travel. When the commonplace undergoes such transformation it becomes far greater than the originally unique, and partakes of the beauty of spirituality.

It was a day of brilliant sunshine, and light winds which wove the flags into kaleidoscopic effects of color. The people were massed in the street, waiting. Their faces were full of love, of joyous excitement. When the flag-decked train came in, the station platform was thronged, but the crowd was kept back by ribbons held by girls in white.

Then a strange thing happened. Ellen told her mother about it, when she could remember collectedly: Somebody took her home in a car. She could never recall who. She was lying on the davenport in the living-room when Lee called up on the telephone. Her father answered.

“She is all right,” he said in response to Lee's inquiry. “Of course,” he added, when Lee stated that he had been unable to do anything except put Ellen in the car.

At the other end of the telephone, Lee's mother stood beside him.

He hung up the receiver and turned to her in a tempest of white rage. “If it had been any other man but Dick —” he gasped.

“Go slowly, my son,” advised his mother. “She has loved you all the time. It is the best thing in the world for all of you; but it must have been a shock to her, poor child.”

It had been a shock, one of the most terrible in the world, to fall from the greatest height, that of self-sacrifice; but as Ellen lay on the couch at home her expression of bewilderment was changing to one of peace.

This is what had happened: When Dick, marching with his uncle, their old colored man trailing, came abreast of the group where Ellen stood, she looked at him calmly. As a matter of fact, most people did look calmly. The little that the bandage left to the imagination was the only thing to cause a shudder, and the bandage was light, following exactly the unchanged contours of the face, all the lower part of which was covered. Above gleamed the blue eyes, almost wild with strange, inhuman rapture and triumph, and his shorn head was like a helmet of gold in the sunshine. Dick had a splendid figure, and he walked like a king and a conqueror. There was nothing shocking about him except the white bandage, and that only veiled the noble beauty of his face.

Ellen stepped from the sidewalk. She reached him. The procession halted and everybody looked. Ellen gazed up at his half-revealed face.

“Dick,” she began clearly. All those near could hear her.

Dick looked at Ellen, then looked away. He did not see her. The music blared, like a great breath caught in a sob. The procession moved on, now at a quicker pace. Dick, marching, blue eyes fixed and rapt as before some splendor visible to him alone, could see no sweetheart on earth. He saw, and would see forever, would see with his dying eyes when his time came, the great face of Columbia, of that goddess whom his wonderful unselfish love had visualized for his worship.

For it is true, that in the mind of one who sees clearly the Face of his own Country, for whom he has held himself as naught, the Composite of his own Race, of its ties of joy and earthly sorrow, and its hopes for the Hereafter, there can exist the full comprehension of no other love in life.