The next night, because Diana had luck as well as influence, we had tickets for Chu-Chin-Chow at His Majesty’s, and this was a great experience too, in quite a different way, for I had never seen any theatre more elaborate than a troop show. On one of my two very brief leaves in Paris I had sought out the site of Robert-Houdin’s theatre, but it was no longer there. I must have been an odd young man to have supposed that it might still be in existence. But my historical sense developed later.
I see that I have been so muddle-headed as to put my sexual initiation in direct conjunction with a visit to a musical show, which suggests some lack of balance perhaps. But, looking back from my present age, the two, though very different, are not so unlike in psychological weight as you might suppose. Both were wonders, strange lands revealed to me in circumstances of great excitement. I suppose I was still in rather delicate health, mentally as well as physically.
The next great moment in my life was the reception of my Victoria Cross, from the King himself. Dr. Houneen had established that I was really alive, and so the award that had been published as posthumous was repeated on one of the lists, and in due course I went to Buckingham Palace in a taxi on a December morning, and got it. Diana was with me, for I was allowed to invite one guest, and she was the obvious choice. We were looked at with sentimental friendliness by the other people in the room, and I suppose an obviously wounded soldier, accompanied by a very pretty nurse, was about as popular a sight as the time afforded.
Most of the details are vague, but a few remain. A military band, in an adjoining room, played Gems from The Maid of the Mountains (it was Diana who told me), and we all stood around the walls until the King and some aides entered and took a place in the centre. When my turn came I stumped forward on my latest metal leg, making rather a noisy progress, and got myself into the right position, directly in front of the King. Somebody handed him the medal, and he pinned it on my tunic, then shook my hand and said, “I am glad you were able to get here after all.”
I can still remember what a deep and rather gruff voice he had, and also the splendid neatness of his Navy beard. He was a good deal shorter than I, so I was looking down into his very blue, rather glittering eyes, and I thought I had better smile at the royal joke, so I did, and retreated in good order.
There was a moment, however, when the King and I were looking directly into each other’s eyes, and in that instant I had a revelation that takes much longer to explain than to experience. Here am I, I reflected, being decorated as a hero, and in the eyes of everybody here I am indeed a hero; but I know that my heroic act was rather a dirty job I did when I was dreadfully frightened; I could just as easily have muddled it and been ingloriously killed. But it doesn’t much matter, because people seem to need heroes; so long as I don’t lose sight of the truth, it might as well be me as anyone else. And here before me stands a marvellously groomed little man who is pinning a hero’s medal on me because some of his forebears were Alfred the Great, and Charles the First, and even King Arthur, for anything I know to the contrary. But I shouldn’t be surprised if inside he feels as puzzled about the fate that brings him here as I. We are public icons, we two: he an icon of kingship, and I an icon of heroism, unreal yet very necessary; we have obligations above what is merely personal, and to let personal feelings obscure the obligations would be failing in one’s duty.
This was clearer still afterward, at lunch at the Savoy, when the Canon and the Honourable gave us a gay time, with champagne; they all seemed to accept me as a genuine hero, and I did my best to behave decently, neither believing in it too obviously, nor yet protesting that I was just a simple chap who had done his duty when he saw it — a pose that has always disgusted me. Ever since, I have tried to think charitably of people in prominent positions of one kind or another; we cast them in roles, and it is only right to consider them as players, without trying to discredit them with knowledge of their off-stage life — unless they drag it into the middle of the stage themselves.
The business of getting used to myself as a hero was only part of the work I had on hand during my long stay in the hospital. When first I returned to this world — I will not say to consciousness because it seemed to me that I had been conscious on a different level during what they called my coma — I had to get used to being a man with one leg and a decidedly weakened left arm. I was not so clever at managing these handicaps as were some of the men in that hospital who had lost limbs; I have always been clumsy, and though Diana and the doctor assured me that I would soon walk as well as if I had a real leg, I had no belief in it, and indeed I have never managed to walk without a limp and feel much happier with a cane. I was very weak physically, to begin with, and although I was perfectly sane I was a little light-headed for several months, and all my recollections of that period are confused by this quality of light-headedness. But I had to get used to being a hero — that is, not to believe it myself but not to be insulting to those who did so — and I also had to make up my mind about Diana.
There was an unreality about our relationship that had its roots in something more lasting than my light headedness. I will say nothing against her, and I shall always be grateful to her for teaching me what the physical side of love was; after the squalor of the trenches her beauty and high spirits were the best medicine I got. But I could not be blind to the fact that she regarded me as her own creation. And why not? Hadn’t she fed me and washed me and lured me back into this world when I was far away? Didn’t she teach me to walk, showing the greatest patience when I was most clumsy? Was she not anxious to retrain me about habits of eating and behaviour? But even as I write it down I know how clear it is that what was wrong between Diana and me was that she was too much a mother to me, and as I had had one mother, and lost her, I was not in a hurry to acquire another — not even a young and beautiful one with whom I could play Oedipus to both our hearts’ content. If I could manage it, I had no intention of being anybody’s own dear laddie, ever again.
That decision, made at that time, has shaped my life and doubtless in some ways it has warped it, but I still think I knew what was best for me. In the long periods of rest in the hospital, I thought as carefully as I could about my situation, and what emerged was this: I had made a substantial payment to society for anything society had given me or would give me in future; a leg and much of one arm are hard coin. Society had decided to regard me as a hero, and though I knew that I was no more a hero than many other men I had fought with, and less than some who had been killed doing what I could not have done, I determined to let society regard me as it pleased; I would not trade on it, but I would not put it aside either. I would get a pension in due time, and my Victoria Cross carried a resounding fifty dollars a year with it: I would take these rewards and be grateful. But I wanted my life to be my own; I would live henceforth for my own satisfaction.
That did not include Diana. She seemed to assume that it did, and perhaps I was unfair to her in not checking her assumptions as soon as I became aware of them. But, to be frank, I liked having her in love with me; it fed my spirit, which was at a low ebb. I liked going to bed with her, and as she liked it too, I thought this a fair exchange. But a life with Diana was simply not for me. As girls do, she assumed that we were drifting towards an engagement and marriage; though she never said so in plain words it was clear she thought that when I was strong enough we would go to Canada, and if I did not mistake her utterly, she had in her mind’s eye a fine big wheat farm in the West, for she had the English delusion that farming was a great way to live I knew enough about farming to be sure it was not a life for amateurs or wounded men. Every two weeks Diana would appear, looking remote and beautiful, and hand me a letter from Leola Cruikshank. These were always difficult occasions because the letters embarrassed me; they were so barren of content, so ill-expressed, so utterly unlike the Leola, all curls and soft lips and whispers, that I remembered. How, I wondered had I been so stupid as to get myself mixed up with such a pinhead? Diana knew the letters were from a girl, for Leola’s guileless writing could not have belonged to any other section of humanity, and intuition told her that, as they were almost the only letters I received, the girl was a special one. I could not have told her how special, for I could no longer remember precisely what pledges I had made to Leola; was I engaged to her or was I not? The letters I wrote in reply, and painstakingly smuggled into the post so Diana should not see them were as noncommittal as I had the heart to make them; I tried to write in such a way as to evoke from Leola some indication of what she believed our relationship to be, without committing myself. This meant subtlety of a kind that was far outside Leola’s scope; she was no hand with the pen, and her flat little letters gave Deptford gossip (with all the spice left out) and usually ended, “Everybody looks forward to your coming home and it will be lovely to see you again. Love. Leola ” Was this coolness or maidenly reserve? Sometimes I broke out in a sweat, wondering.