About the Story ...
The war introduces an element of conflict into the marriage of a soldier and his deeply devoted wife.
This story acts a corollary to “Just Being a Woman”, in which the wife was determined to support her husband’s enlistment, despite the intense psychological pressure under which his absence placed her. The stories share structural similarities, as well: Helen’s visions of the battle-field in “Just Being a Woman” are paralleled here in Boyd Strong’s imagination.
Hesta Strong, the heroine of “The Hardest Fight”, is devastated by the realisation not only that her husband intends to enlist, but that he values his enlistment above all else in his life, including his marriage. However, readers who anticipate how the story will unfold from that point will find their expectations subverted. This is not a narrative in which the soldier submits to domestic blackmail, although the war years brought their share of those: Alice Tomholt’s 1918 story “The Reason Why” is one such example. Here, Locke continually undercuts narrative expectations, as in Hesta’s visit to her husband’s adjutant.
The story also bears purely coincidental similarities to the end of Locke’s life. While those were future events when the story was published, it does underscore the fact that her experience was not unique during the war years.
“Of course, dear, you won’t go.”
It was the assurance in the tone that made Hesta Strong so very charming at such a time and in such a situation. The dearest man in the world to her had been appointed a commission by his Majesty the King, in charge of a section of a battery in the Royal Field Artillery, and the dearest man in this instance was already fully commissioned in a life service to the dearest woman in the world.
She was very primitive in her love for her great big-hearted husband, and with the primordial instincts of a true mate she wanted to hold on to that which was the biggest part of her. She could not understand separation from him at all. The bogie of the war had not even scared her as yet. She only thought of it as something that had risen to give greatness to the great Mother Country and to offer a splendid chance to still more splendid men, who wore glittering uniforms with superfluous buttons that neither “did up” nor were intended to “undo.” The dearest man had worn a uniform at intervals for quite a few years, but the significance of it did not strike her any more than if he had worn tweed in winter and white linen in the hot months. He had also held a superior position in military matters, but they had never interfered in any way with the routine of his married life. He had, for the period of fourteen months, been able to get home in the evenings in time to change for dinner, and it was only at certain periods he absolutely discarded plain clothes and climbed in to the heavy material of drab color and went off to “Camp,” or to a certain time of gun-drill.
But now it was different. The streets were thronged with men in khaki. A man out of it was looked upon with some query. A strong man, young and well-balanced, would have been ashamed to be seen standing in the street even discussing the war situation unless he was on his way to barracks or to “sign on” or to the temporary drilling camp.
The dearest man, of course, was strong and well-balanced, and ready, and possessed of an action of mind and muscle that was a particularly good asset.
He was one of the men who was not carrying a regret about England having served Germany with an intimation that she was going to war on her, and to war to the last hour; and he was among the first to apply for a commission to get out to the fight, as an officer, right away.
It was inherent in the dearest man to remember first of all that he was hardy and able, and could at last do his little bit to help the Empire and the people of the Empire against an iniquitous race of blunderers, who could not even be relied on to play the game properly.
His commanding officer had dealt with the matter of his commission and things had reached that stage when, physically fit as he was, and with a splendid record of good work in the South African War fourteen years before, it seemed likely that the dearest man would be appointed to something higher right away. He had romped home immediately with his heart in his eyes and his soul burning with a desire to soar to the best and greatest heights of deeds that might, at least, be the means of almost entirely winning an Empire on his own.
He had told Hesta, the dearest woman, of the chance of the commission, of his possible command of a section of a battery, and having taken her into his arms, she had been quite, quite pleased all the time he had explained just what a battery was and what part of it composed a section. But when the glory of the picture, of great field guns under charge of her husband, had become familiar, and they had come down to common horse-sense about things, the dearest woman was not easy to teach. She could learn all about shrapnel shell and lyddite, and she could learn quite easily the number of men to a gun and the ones who took the range, opened the breech, saw the shell placed in position, shut the breech, worked the lever and fired the gun; but one thing nothing could make her understand why he need go away and leave her. She thought that if there were five men to each gun it was quite sufficient, and that her husband naturally ought to remain behind to teach and instruct other five men to go out and take the guns with them. She could not see why it was necessary for him to stand out in the very thickest firing with field glasses set towards the proper mark; and if there was a Divisional Artillery commander, and a battery commander as well to give orders, what would he be doing just standing there by the gun watching the men fire it off?
“Of course, you won’t go,” said, the dearest woman. “It’s awfully nice of you, dear, to have offered; and I’m sure the C.O. must be proud to know you thought about it so quickly, but it would be madness to go right — right into the firing line, dear. Madness.”
“Madness — to stay away, Hesta,” said the big, strong, dear-hearted man. “Would you like to think of all the other fellows plugging away, pumping shot into the enemy, and me stopping behind to do the staff work in the Colonel’s office. My dear —”
The dearest woman nodded several times.
“I think it would be perfectly adorable of you, dear, to do all the dry work at home. After all, pumping shot into the enemy is rather awful, isn’t it? I mean for — for a gentleman. It isn’t as bad for the men, because, of course, they aren’t educated to anything better.”
“I shouldn’t want anything better,” the dearest man was very nearly in a mental war on his own with the whole of Germany facing him … “better than their education, anyway. Oh, I feel the ground rumbling with the weight of the guns rolling behind me — the rattle of chains and harness, and — to hear the brave fellows cheering, and to join in. ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,’ that's how it goes — but no matter how long — we are going to get there — to get there — to win — oh, aren’t you proud, proud —?”
He was getting so excited, he was shouting and waving his arms. He even forgot to return the kisses she placed on his chin. She couldn’t reach any further than his chin, because he was standing up now with the inherent fighting blood in him stirred to a riot. Far over her head, he looked — looked miles away into the bitter cold of an encampment, where men crowded together to keep the chill of winter from sapping the warmth of their blood where eyes stared blankly into the foggy distance waiting the word to open fire, waiting for the first long shot of the battle. Where hunger bit and gnawed and made such weakness in a man, that almost he cursed the great War Lords, and the Commissariat who could not get forward with supplies. Right into the firing line the spirits of the dearest man was pushing a way, right furtherest from all things he loved and cherished. Over the dearest woman’s fair cluster of waving hair, he looked and fought his fight, while playfully, almost childishly, she kissed his chin. Still, seeing the advancing line of brown-bodied infantry he kept his eyes well into the distance, visioning the forming of the battery column, watching the guns draw up, each with the waggon and men in command. Then he observed mentally the Brigadier and staff take up their positions, the battery commander and the sergeant-major, then the unhooking of the limber, the reversing of the guns, and the general business of preparation for opening fire. The calling for the fuze, the setting of it, the passing of the shell into the breech, the adjusting of the range-taker, the waiting … waiting for the long roll of the boom of the exploded shell that seemed an eternity in breaking loose. The creeping, crawling cold of the death-draught that envelopes every man’s heart before the battle commences, the strained nerve tension that shivers the soul and turns man coward, or brave in the fraction of a minute. Over her head he saw and felt it all, and she, the dearest woman, put up one white, softly-clinging hand and shut first one of his eyes and then the other.
“Don’t,” she said, fretfully, “I don’t like you looking like that.” But he pulled her fingers down.
“The battery — the battery that did the business.”
“Oh, it’s great,” he went on presently, in a more normal way. “Great to be in it all. I’m itching to be away, Hesta. I’m positively jealous of the spirit in me that wants to be away so far before my real self can follow. To be in the thick of it all, to hear the rattle and the rain of bullets … the hum and the scream of the shells tearing along; to be driving, driving death forward and yet to be pushing it back …”
But the dearest woman could not take all this in. She pulled him to a sofa, sat near his side, held his hands down to her knee and leaned forward with the whole meaning of her life in her eyes.
“You really mean to go, Boyd?”
“I’ve no idea of remaining behind, Hesta.” He looked strangely at her, “Don’t you understand it’s honor in me, girlie? It’s what sent my father and his father into battles years ago. It has been seething and fermenting in our blood for generations. The bull-dog breed … the fighters for the honor of a country, for the honor of a name, to be uppermost and the strongest, to let no man conquer you, and stand fast in the world of conquerors ... Great Caesar, Hesta … if I thought that you would ask me to remain … under any conditions and let others do what I am burning to do as my duty … I’d, I’d … be ashamed to think I’d married you. …”
“You want to go so much …?”
Almost whispering the red lips paled; the eyes of the dearest woman went dull.
“I mean to go so much. There is nothing in the world I want so much. Nothing! Nothing!”
“Nothing?” Half query, half repeating his words it was, as the dearest woman played her fingers on his coat sleeve and held her breath.
He almost laughed, but he was still fearfully, vitally, serious.
“Nothing. I don’t think I ever wanted anything so much before as … as this commission to go to France. To go where the fiercest fighting is … to go … to go to Hell if need be, but to go there hitting hard.”
“You’ll be really proud and glad, dear, presently,” he said, trying to shake some life into her by smoothing her cheeks with his hands. “You’ll want to cry out of sheer joy at my promotion, at the pride in yourself for what it has been given me to do. Oh, you’ll want to cry just because the feel is so great and the service so big, and the chance so wonderful … it will be so much in my whole career … in our whole career. … Cry, Hesta. You’ll cry with positive joy, I tell you … I’ll cry myself presently. …”
The dearest woman took him at his word, and, waiting no longer, she gladly, and with some relief, cried most sincerely on his breast.
* * *
It was to the adjutant in charge that the dearest woman went one evening when the chance occurred. Long had she known Captain Branning, and many years had he watched her glow. Ripe with the fullness of womanhood and woman-love he knew her, and almost as if he had expected her he allowed her to sit down in his office looking about as unofficial as a picture hanging in a stable.
They talked of her husband’s commission without restraint. She tried to be important and easy and used to things. The adjutant congratulated her, spoke of the greatness of Boyd Strong’s mind, the fine spirit in him, the record he carried, and the chance he would be given to get out among the first.
“He is going to fight a great fight,” said Branning.
Only one regret escaped the dearest woman.
“If only … we could all go with him. If only I could fight, too.”
The adjutant smiled.
“Hesta, my dear girl — it is just what you can do. Not all the hardest fighting is done on the battle-field. Sometimes it is in being left behind … dear little woman. … That’s your fight, remember that. …” He patted her shoulder. “Sometimes the fight is hardest for those who are left behind.”
One morning she rose from her bed earlier than usual, and wandered in the little strip of garden sown in rich red geraniums and the drooped flowers of an acacia tree. She had the sweet assurance of something culled from the last few weeks’ experiences in her face, and the steady step of a woman who has learned of the deeper things that come, not understood, but borne so wisely.
Her face was pale as the lilies holding the secret of the morning breezes, and her resolute purpose was to tell him a wonderful exquisite dream. All the day before she had thought the dream out, unravelled its meaning, felt and known the depth, and there was only the great wish to express it to her husband, but like a child that clings to a precious toy, afraid to show it lest it be taken away, she had held the dream till the morning. It was now as precious to her as the secret the lilies held from the morning breezes.
She walked to the breakfast-room with an air of assurance in herself, in her husband's approval, in the whole of the future now, with the dream story on her lips.
“Boyd, my dear — I want to tell you. I have —”
The dearest man caught her round the waist, and brought her to his knee, and kissed her lips, so that they said nothing. The dream story was killed before it had birth, and the dearest woman listened instead of saying anything further.
“I want to tell you something also. Here are my orders. I’m to go into camp — to join immediately, I have been appointed to a battery — I don’t know where as yet, but —”
“You have been so brave, dear. It has been a great help to me. Don’t let go, dear, will you? It doesn’t mean that I’m for the ‘front’ and the firing line yet. I’ll be able to see you when I’m off duty if they don’t send me too far away. Hesta — say you’ll try, dear. There is nothing keeping back my great happiness now, but the thought of leaving you —”
The dearest, palest woman in the world began to glow under his caresses. She could say nothing, but with her eyes she tried to tell him so much — but he was the strong man of the fighting breed, with the scent of the battle in his nostrils and the hum of bullet and shell surging round his ears. He could only understand that she must not give way — must not weep. It was a weakness, and a point against him every time. At such a time sentiment was a wrong, it was an inconvenient thing.
“Think,” he said, quietly, looking into her bright, sweet eyes. “Suppose we had had a child, to fight your little fight for that child. If I had had to go and leave you to — to perhaps support others as well as for yourself. But there isn’t any such tie, thank God. I don’t know, Hesta what — I — would have done — if — I had — to leave you with — a young — child —”
Long he looked into the depth of glowing eyes before him, then he kissed her tenderly, slowly, and did it again. “I can go away relieved dear, to think you’ll be watching and waiting for me, with no responsibilities, nothing to think of but … me …”
“Nothing … but … you …” She said the words as if they were part of the dream-story she had come in to tell him earlier.
“I’d have fretted fearfully if there had been a boy to bring up. You see dear … if it were my lot to go under … I know that someone will look after you. It would have been simply awful for both of us, if there had been a very young child.”
Paler than the lilies in the garden now, the dearest woman only answered with her eyes.
And later on the dearest man got his call for the front. The dearest woman stood looking as long as she could while he saw his men aboard a train for the ship, and took his place in another compartment. Then she went slowly home and sat down in the little garden among the rich, red geraniums and the pale lilies of the morning.
From her sewing basket she took a flimsy roll of cream flannel, sewing silks and the paper pattern of a child’s first short robe. Her fingers were cold, her eyes burning. Somewhere in the rumble of the train, taking the men to the south there was the beating rattle of the words of the adjutant.
“The hardest fighting is not always done on the battlefield.”