We plunge back now into Vera Brittain‘s dark nights of the harrowed soul–and of the harried nurse.
Sunday January 30th–Monday January 31st
Night-duty was particularly irksome again…
I was then informed by Miss Spurling that to-night was to be my last night of night-duty. Detestable day-duty! Night-duty is bad enough, but I loathe the thought of day, never any time to oneself, never anywhere one can go to be alone, never the right person to go out with on one’s times off!
Ack. And long days’ journeys, I suppose. Vera does not seem to have any truly close friends by her side in London, nor does she write to anyone–as far as I know–with whom she can be unguarded. It seems hardy sufficient to write to family members, Roland’s family members, and Roland’s friends.
This diary has been closer to a writer’s notebook, at many times, than a confessional, but now Vera simply needs to unburden her misery, somehow.
And somehow packing my things made me realise how utterly wretched I am–how there is no light at all, either in present or future. Last time I was on day duty was when He was still in this world. I hated it badly enough then, though nothing but His existence seemed to matter at all. But how unspeakably I shall loathe it now! And nearly two months have to pass before I am free–free to give myself for a little space to thoughts of Him–nay, to Him Himself. As I packed therefore I wept many bitter tears. I wonder if ever, ever I shall get over this feeling of blank hopelessness, of feeling it is cruel that I should have to suffer so, of wishing I had never been born at all. At present it all gets worse every day. In the utter blackness of my soul I seem to be touching the very depths of that dull lampless anguish which we call despair. And I don’t feel as if I shall ever rise out of it again. I am crushed, altogether crushed, by life–I have no power of resistance left, no courage–not even any desire for courage.
Little, sweet phrases from His letters keep coming always into my mind–& I just cry & cry.
The talk of despair is frightening, but, again, this is the diary of a young, grieving woman, a bad moment’s loneliness unloaded into ink. Hopefully, the exercise brought some relief. It would seem to, as Vera moves on to summarize her recent correspondence. Which is inadequate to her emotional needs but must help, somewhat:
I had several letters this morning. Marjorie Barber has been telling the Lorie about me & says she is very grieved, & is going to write. Clare says she thinks I idealise Him a little, whereas she treasures Him for His faults. So do I–but I see now how small they were in comparison with His essential greatness. Victor’s letter is another great consolation–he is wonderfully comforting. I know now why I felt as if I knew him well when I met him on New Year’s Eve, though really I had seen very little of him at all. For Roland used to talk to him about me; He called him the “Father Confessor” & seems to have felt he would understand even what I meant to Him. A great deal of the letter is about the dawn of His love for me. And though it hurts me terribly, partly because I did not know or realise it while He was alive, yet I must quote some of it here because it is all so infinitely precious and sweet.
“Do you remember the two Karg-Elert pieces that Sterndale Bennett played‘at the beginning of the service that afternoon? One of them, ‘Clair de Lune’, seemed to have moved Him deeply. He said it reminded Him of you in its coldness & the sense of aloofness from the world. He always used to say that He was not worthy of you…
Sweet indeed, even (especially?) at second hand.
To France, now, where John Bernard Adams continues his diary description of the exodus of the Welsh from their Montagne fastness down toward the trenches of the plain.
31st January. This evening was full of the walking tour spirit, the spirit of good company. We were billeted at a farmhouse, and the farmer showed Captain Dixon and me all round his farm…
The walking tour spirit indeed. But that’s not what we’re here for, Johnny boy. So I’ll skip the French manger scene, and go straight to the quiet vignette of the sufferings of occupation:
At 7.0 we had our dinner in the kitchen. The farmer, his wife, and the domestique (a man-servant, whose history I will tell in a few minutes) had just finished, and were going to clear off; but we asked them to stay and let us drink their health in whiskey and soda. The farmer said this was wont to make the domestique go ‘zigzag’; for himself, he would drink, not for the inherent pleasure of the whiskey, which was a strong drink to which he was unused, he being of the land of light wines, but to give us pleasure! So the usual healths were given in Old Orkney and Perrier. Then we were told the history of the domestique, which brought one very close to the spirit in which France is fighting. He had eight children in Peronne, barely ten miles the other side of the line. Called up in September, 1914, he was in the trenches until March, 1915, when he was released on account of his eight children. But by then the living line had set between them in steel and blood, and never a word yet has he heard of his wife and eight children, the youngest of whom he left nine days old! There are times when our cause seems clouded with false motives; but there seemed no doubt on this score to-night, as we watched this man in his own land, creeping up, as it were, as near as possible to his wife and children and home, and yet barred from his own village, and without the knowledge even that his own dear ones were alive. The farmer told us he had gone half crazed. Yet he had a fine face, though furrowed with deep lines down his forehead. ‘Ten minutes in the yard with the Germans–ah! what would he do!’ And vividly he drew his hand across his throat. But the Germans would never go back: that was another of his opinions. No wonder he told us he doubted the bon Dieu: no wonder he sometimes went zigzag…
To-night we can hear the guns. There seems a considerable liveliness at several parts of the line, and strange rumors of the Germans breaking through, which I do not believe. To-morrow we shall be within the shell-zone again.
And now, to his chagrin, well out of the shell-zone, is Raymond Asquith, the newest wart in Intelligence. Ah, but there are perks:
31 January 1916
. . . I have been so bleached and blighted by the vacuum of official routine, that I have not had the spirit to write of late. It is settled that I am to go to Folkestone on Wednesday, and the present idea is that I shall stay there till Sunday and then go to London till the 12th when I return here. They tell me that the Metropole is the best place to stay in Folkestone, so I have ordered a couple of bedrooms there and hope to find you awaiting me on Wednesday–if indeed I arrive then. The channel crossing is very chancy just now owing to mines and the boats are constantly held up.
It will be a good change for you and also for me, and may help to make both of us less mopy…