Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Helen Turrell, “thirty-five and independent,” takes charge of the rearing of the supposed child of her brother, George, who dies from a fall from a horse a few weeks before the boy’s birth. George, serving as a police officer in India, “had entangled himself” with the daughter of a noncommissioned officer. Helen, in the South of France because of lung trouble, has the infant brought to her and takes him home to Hampshire, England.

Helen explains all the details involving her nephew, Michael, to her friends in the village because “scandals are only increased by hushing them up.” As for Michael’s mother, she does not insist on her right to the child: “Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money.” Because George has always sought his sister’s help when he got into “scrapes,” Helen feels justified in “cutting the whole non-commissioned officer connection” and rearing the boy by herself even though she is not, as “far as she knew herself,” a lover of children.

When Michael is six, Helen refuses to allow him to call her “Mummy” at any time but bedtime. When he discovers that she has told her friends of this practice, he feels betrayed and swears to hurt her for her disloyalty. He promises as well to die “quite soon” and to continue hurting her after his death.

When he goes away to school at ten, Michael endures taunts for being a bastard but learns to take defiant pride in his irregular “civil status” because William the Conqueror and others born illegitimately “got on first-rate.” However, two years later, in delirium from a fever, he speaks of nothing but the disgrace of his birth.

Michael wins a scholarship to Oxford but enlists in the army instead when the Great War breaks out. After some time in France, Michael writes that “there was nothing special doing and therefore no need to worry,” only to have a splinter of a shell kill him soon afterward.

After the war, Helen is notified of the location of Michael’s grave in Flanders and goes to visit it. On the way to Hagenzeele, she meets an English woman making her ninth such trip. Mrs. Scarsworth claims not to have lost anyone but simply visits the graves of the loved ones of friends, sometimes taking photographs. Later, Mrs. Scarsworth reveals the truth to Helen, that she has lost someone, her lover.

At the military cemetery, with its twenty-one thousand graves, Helen does not know how to begin looking for Michael, and a man she takes to be a gardener offers his help. The gardener says, “Come with me, and I will show you where your son lies.”

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access