The Man Who Came Back

What Every Soldier Knows didn’t make it into Warwick Deeping’s Collected Stories – but that volume was published in 1930, when the War was no longer topical – and when perhaps the attitudes of that story would have found a less sympathetic audience. (I wonder what other interesting pieces were rejected. I shall go hunting.) The volume does, however, contain The Man Who Came Back.

One of Deeping’s key themes seems to be that of the War as unfinished business. Sorrell and Son, Kitty and Suvla John all deal with individuals coping with the after-effects of the conflict in very different ways. The Collected Stories volume does not date its contents, but The Man Who Came Back is set in 1922, so it’s a fair guess it was written about that time. It’s about Sanger, a soldier who goes back to Nibas, a French village presumably just outside the war zone.

Yes, four years ago and on such a day as this, with the young poplar leaves all gold and the young wheat very green in the fields, he had marched with the brown battalion down into Nibas village where Marie lived.

He had been prevented from returning before by “his wound, his poverty, and those bitter post-war days when the world had not wanted him.” We stray into Sorrell and Son territory with memories of six months without a job, and the loss of his illusions. But then he had found a job and prospered, and now “He could afford to marry, but he had not married. Somehow, none of those post-war girls had piqued him. They had seemed so young and bright and hard.”

His return is inspired by the memory of Marie, with whom he felt a special affinity (“She had possessed that mystical something that made her woman to his man…”) although their correspondence had dwindled away after the war.

In the village he gets a chilly welcome, as though the wartime friendliness between French and English was forgotten, Finally he plucks up courage to go to Marie’s house, and knocks.

He found himself looking up at a tall, frowsy man whose eyes had a strange sullen stare; but sanger was not looking at the man’s eyes.
For the face of the fellow was not a human face; it was a sort of mask with three holes in it, and no nose or chin.

It is Louis, Marie’s brother. As an old neighbour tells Sanger:

“He went to the war bon garcon, he came back a devil. Oh well, with only half a face like that. But it killed the old people, monsieur.”

“His disfigurement?”

“No, the change in him. He has the temper of a wild beast… And drink, monsieur, and affairs with the lowest drabs in the village whom he could buy for a few francs.”

Marie is forced to be his mistreated slave, and is terrified of him. Deeping calls Louis “a kind of post-war ogre living on the flesh of all that was beautiful and tender.”

Sanger once again becomes “the man of four years ago” and with the decisiveness of a soldier takes action. Marie agrees to come for a drive in his car. Before their death she had promised her parents she would stay with Louis, and she feels she ought to sacrifice herself to him. Sanger drives her away, permanently, despite her protests. In the end:

“Oh, no, no, it is wrong! Take me to Nibas!”

His arm held her more firmly.

“No, never again to Nibas.”

She turned her head and looked up at him. She burst into tears, but presently something shone through the wetness of her lashes. She snuggled against him; she surrendered.

Deeping describes the conquest of her conscience by his manliness in unmistakably erotic terms (It’s like the heroine of a “hot” twenties novel giving in to the power of a sheik) . It’s also the conquest of death by life, and of the war by a new life.

So this is another one for my small collection of texts in which the damaged ex-soldier is seen as dangerous, and as a burden on the living. Examples include Goldring’s A Fight for Freedom, Dane’s A Bill of Divorcement, and Smith’s Women of the Aftermath. I’m fascinated to find an example in the works of Warwick Deeping, who elsewhere presents the ex-soldier as typically an exemplar of virtue.

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