FOR more than two years this town could not have been more remote from us if it had been in another planet. We were but a few miles from it, but the hills hid it, and the enemy was between us and the hills. This town was but a name, a legend.
Now the enemy had left it. When going into it for the first time you had the feeling that either you or the town was bewitched. Were you really there? Were time and space abolished? Or perhaps the town itself was supernatural; it was spectral, projected by unknowable evil. And for what purpose? Suspicious of its silence, of its solitude, of all its aspects, you verified its stones by touching them, and looked about for signs that men had once been there.
Such a town, which has long been in the zone of fire, and is then uncovered by the foe, gives a wayfarer who early ventures into it the feeling that this is the day after the Last Day, and that he has been overlooked. Somehow he did not hear Gabriel's trumpet; everybody else has gone on. There is not a sound but the subdued crackling of flames hidden somewhere in the overthrown and abandoned. There is no movement but where faint smoke is wreathing slowly across the deserted streets. The unexpected collapse of a wall or cornice is frightful. So is the silence which follows. A starved kitten, which shapes out of nothing and is there complete and instantaneous at your feet--ginger stripes, and a mew which is weak, but a veritable voice of the living--is first a great surprise, and then a ridiculous comfort. It follows you about. When you miss it, you go back to look for it--to find the miserable object racing frantically to meet you. Lonely? The Poles are not more desolate. There is no place as forlorn as that where man once was established and busy, where the patient work of his hands is all round, but where silence has fallen like a secret so dense that you feel that if it were not also so desperately invisible you could grasp a corner of it, lift the dark veil, and learn a little of what was the doom of those who have vanished. What happened to them?
It cannot be guessed. House fronts have collapsed in rubble across the road. There is a smell of opened vaults. All the homes are blind. Their eyes have been put out. Many of the buildings are without roofs, and their walls have come down to raw serrations. Slates and tiles have avalanched into the street, or the roof itself is entire, but has dropped sideways over the ruin below as a drunken cap over the dissolute. The lower floors are heaps of damp mortar and bricks. Very rarely a solitary picture hangs awry on the wall of a house where there is no other sign that it was ever inhabited. I saw in such a room the portrait of a child who in some moment long ago laughed while it clasped a dog in a garden. You continue to gaze at a sign like that, you don't know why, as though something you cannot name might be divined, if you could but hit upon the key to the spell. What is the name of the evil that has fallen on mankind?
The gardens beyond are to be seen through the thin and gaping walls of the streets, and there, overturned and defaced by shell-bursts and the crude subsoil thrown out from dug-outs, a few ragged shrubs survive. A rustic bower is lumbered with empty bottles, meat tins, a bird-cage, and ugly litter and fragments. It is the flies which find these gardens pleasant. Theirs is now the only voice of Summer, as though they were loathly in the mouth of Summer's carcase. It is perplexing to find how little remains of the common things of the household a broken doll, a child's boot, a trampled bonnet. Once in such a town I found a corn-chandler's ledger.
It was lying open in the muck of the roadway, wet and discoloured. Till that moment I had not come to the point of believing the place. The town was not humane. It was not credible. It might have been, for all I could tell, a simulacrum of the work of men. Perhaps it was the patient and particular mimicry of us by an unknown power, a power which was alarmingly interested in our doings and in a frenzy over its partial failure it had attempted to demolish its laborious semblance of what we do. Was this power still observant of its work, and conscious of intruders? All this was a sinister warning of something invisible and malign, which brooded over our affairs, knew us too well, though omitting the heart of us, and it was mocking us now by defiling in an inhuman rage its own caricature of our appearance.
But there, lying in the road, was that corn-chandler's ledger. It was the first understandable thing I had seen that day. I began to believe these abandoned and silent ruins had lived and flourished, had once a warm kindred life moving in their empty chambers; enclosed a comfortable community, like placid Casterbridge. Men did stand here on sunny market days, and sorted wheat in the hollows of their hands. And with all that wide and hideous disaster of the Somme around it was suddenly understood (as when an essential light at home, but a light that has been casually valued, goes out, and leaves you to the dark) that an elderly farmer, looking for the best seed corn in the market-place, while his daughter the dairymaid is flirting with his neighbour's son, are more to us than all the Importances and the Great Ones who in all history till now have proudly and expertly tended their culture of discords.
I don't know that I ever read a book with more interest than that corn-chandler's ledger; though at one time, when it was merely a commonplace record of the common life which circulated there, testifying to its industry and the response of earth, it would have been no matter to me. Not for such successes are our flags displayed and our bells set pealing. It named customers at Thiepval, Martinpuich, Courcelette, Combles, Longueval, Contalmaison, Pozières, Guillemont, Montauban. It was not easy to understand it, my knowledge of those places being what it was. Those villages did not exist, except as corruption in a land that was tumbled into waves of glistening clay where the bodies of men were rotting disregarded like those of dogs sprawled on a midden. My knowledge of that country, got with some fatigue, anxiety, fright, and on certain days dull contempt for. the worst that could happen, because it seemed that nothing could matter any more, my idea of that country was such that the contrast of those ledger accounts was uncanny and unbelievable. Yet amid all the misery and horror of the Somme, with its shattering reminder of finality and futility at every step whichever way you turned, that ledger in the road, with none to read it, was the gospel promising that life should rise again; the suggestion of a forgotten but surviving virtue which would return, and cover the dread we knew, till a ploughman of the future would stop at rare relics, holding them up to the sun, and dimly recall ancient tales of woe.