Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Devil is Doubt - Part II

We exchanged initial pleasantries; Mrs. Frobisher, having heard that I'd served in the Boer War, was keen to talk about her husband, a captain with the Warwickshire Yeomanry. He died of dysentery fever in Cape Town; he hadn't fired a shot in anger. His contingent of replacement soldiers arrived from Britain just as the war was coming to an end. The Yeomanry stayed on for over a year to police the country; he died while awaiting transport home. And yes, their daughter Louise, papa's favourite, could not bear his loss. That was now over six years ago but she has yet to regain her full powers of speech, and her hair keeps falling out. “We have been to see a specialist in London, but to no avail,” said Mrs. Frobisher.

I was truly saddened and had no ready words to cheer the poor widow, although I was most impressed by her fortitude, strength of character and her striking features; she was a fine-looking woman indeed. There was little sense, I thought, of telling her of my own wartime experiences in South Africa, these were matters far too unpleasant to speak of under such circumstances.

As we spoke, a pair of dragonflies, larger than any I'd ever seen around these parts, their iridescence made all the more splendid by the setting sun, flitted above the reeds and the rushes, where the paved garden path gave way to a narrow muddy trail leading down to the river bank. By now the water surface glowed gold, a moor hen with its chicks making their way downstream.

"Look," I said, pointing to the sight. I could see that she too was under the spell of the evening's charm. We stood in silence for a while; I sensed a smile lighten across her face, a smile of such enchanted innocence that suddenly turned her face into the most beautiful one that I had ever gazed upon. On an instinct I reached out to grasp her hand. She let me hold it; and so we stood for an intense moment of the most sublime magic, a moment at which I'd want for nothing more. Then –

“Tell me – quickly – what are you thinking?” she asked, registering a sudden trace of sadness fleeting across my face.

At a instant of such sublime beauty, the briefest, most transcendent moment of happiness in my life, my mind had slipped away, slipped from this moment of perfection and strayed towards what had been preying on my mind ever since I left the Raj; a conviction that once again war was imminent; that Man was innately unable to cease from conflict. Beauty, love indeed, could exist here on earth, signs of God's presence among us – yet what of that dreadful instinct within us to fight; for King and Country, for Britain's dominion over other peoples? That doubt was there, once more. But it was not a doubt for me to share. Not now, not here.

I told Mrs. Frobisher of my return home to England that previous autumn. I had travelled overland from India, via Persia and across the plains of Ottoman Anatolia, through an empire clearly in the throes of decay, unstable and therefore dangerous. Then onwards, through Austro-Hungary I travelled, and then into Germany; rival empires – all rivals to our own empire. “I talked to many people along the way, educated men, and I could sense it all the while. It would not be long,” I told her. "A year, maybe three or four, and we'd be at war again, this time in Europe."

“And to finally answer your question; do you know what was going through my mind the moment you asked that question? Primarily, that I would not like to see you widowed again...”

This short story is an extended version of a dream I had on the morning of Friday 2 March this year.

This time last year:
"A helpful, friendly people"

This time two years ago:
A familiar shape in the skies

This time three years ago:
Feel like going home

This time four years ago:
Mr Hare comes to call

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