The Return Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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Late one September evening, Arthur Lawford, who is recovering from an attack of influenza, is walking in an ancient churchyard. There he finds the grave of a man named Nicholas Sabathier, who killed himself in 1739. Suddenly tired, Lawford stops to rest and falls asleep. When he awakes, he feels very strange and quite recovered from his illness. He feels so well that he practically runs home.

Going to his room to dress for dinner, Lawford lights a candle and prepares to shave. He stops in horror when he sees in the mirror that his whole physical being has changed; he is now lean faced and dark, an entirely different person. The only thing that could have happened, he thinks, is that his nap in the churchyard changed him into someone else, perhaps the occupant of the grave, Sabathier. Still thankful that he retains his own mind, Lawford tries to think what to do. As he stands undecided, his wife comes to call him to dinner. When she enters the room, she is horrified. She refuses at first to believe that the person she sees is her husband, but in the end she is convinced.

The Lawfords call in the rector, the Reverend Bethany, who is also horrified. He is willing to believe, however, that something has happened to Lawford, and that the person he sees is not an impostor. The three decide to wait until a week has passed before doing anything drastic. Sheila Lawford refuses to stay with her husband at night; he seems too much a stranger to her in his new shape. She tries to get him to remain in his room, but he finds it necessary to go out in the evening. On one of his rambles at dusk, he meets an old woman who had been a school friend of his mother. She fails to recognize him in his new shape, even though he prompts her by telling her where she had known his mother. She does say that he looks somewhat like the late Mrs. Lawford.

On another of his rambles, this time back to the same churchyard, Lawford meets a strange man named Herbert Herbert. They talk over the grave of Nicholas Sabathier, and Lawford hints at his own history. Herbert seems interested and asks Lawford to come to tea the following day. When they shake hands to part, light falls on Lawford’s face for the first time. As it does, Herbert is obviously startled by what he sees.

Lawford joins Herbert for tea the next day; the tea is served by Grisel Herbert, the host’s sister. Herbert tells Lawford that his is the face of Nicholas Sabathier, whose picture is in a book that Herbert owns. The book also contains an autobiography of Sabathier, which reveals him as a man very fond of women. Grisel Herbert, seeing the look of fear on Lawford’s face as he is leaving, runs after him with the book her brother mentioned. The two go for a walk, during which Lawford feels that he is wrestling with an alien spirit and winning out over it.

When Alice Lawford, Arthur and Sheila’s daughter, returns home from school, she accidentally meets her father, and the shock of his appearance causes her to faint. Her mother tries to make her believe that the man she saw was someone else, a doctor, but Alice goes to her father in secret and tells him that she knows him and hopes all will turn out well in the end.

After several arguments with her changed husband, Sheila finally decides to go away for a few days, leaving Lawford alone in their big house to wrestle with his problem. Although he hopes to throw off the spirit that has taken possession of him, he fears that it might conquer him entirely.

Lonely after his wife has gone, Lawford turns to the Herberts, of whom neither the rector nor anyone else has previously heard. He spends several days and nights with his new friends, and he feels that he is getting better, that he is conquering whatever has taken hold of him. Grisel seems especially helpful.

One night, Lawford goes back to his house alone. There he has fearful dreams and once again has a spiritual battle with something he cannot name. The following day, he goes to see the Herberts, who take him on a picnic. The three walk many miles until, as they come over a hill, Lawford sees a village. The sight of the village awakens strange, horrible memories in him. He turns to Grisel and tells her that she knows what memories they are, and she makes no denial.

The next day, Grisel and Lawford go out together for a long walk, during which they reveal their mutual feeling that they had come to love each other in another life. It seems as if Nicholas Sabathier and a woman he loved are talking to each other through them. At last, Grisel tells Lawford that he is pursuing a dream that can never reach reality. They return to the Herberts’ house, where Grisel tells her brother, who seems not in the least surprised, that Nicholas Sabathier has come to say good-bye for a while. They make their farewells, and Lawford, somewhat returning to himself, remarks that he never appreciated life before his strange adventure.

Lawford goes back to his own house and finds it locked. He lets himself in quietly and, standing in the hall, overhears a conversation that his wife is having with some friends she has entrusted with the secret of his change. The friends refuse to believe what has happened, in spite of what Sheila has seen, which one of them has also seen, plus the picture and account of Sabathier, which Sheila has found in the house. They advise her to have her husband placed in an asylum as mad or else put into prison as an impostor. When Sheila and her friends leave, Lawford remains, still silent, in the house.

That evening is the eve of St. Michael and All Angels, the same night on which Nicholas Sabathier killed himself in 1739. As he sits in the quiet house, Lawford feels himself returning to his original condition. Unexpectedly, he is visited by the old lady whom he had met on his walk, the woman who had known his mother at school. She has come to see him in order to assure herself that the man she met was not Lawford. This evening she immediately recognizes him as her school friend’s son; he has almost no resemblance to the stranger who accosted her. As she is leaving, she makes some ambiguous remarks that lead Lawford to wonder if she has not, in some fashion, learned more than she has revealed. Nevertheless, he decides that he is sufficiently himself once more to write to his wife and let her know of the change. He sits down to write, but because of what he overheard earlier in the evening, he is unable to put into words what he wants to say. Fatigued, he falls asleep at the table.

As Lawford sleeps, the rector comes into the room, recognizes him as his own parishioner again, and sits down to watch over the sleeping man. Before long, the rector is also sound asleep.