"The Face of the Master" by Alfred Noyes (from Walking Shadows: Sea Tales and Others, 1918)
Jonathan Martin is a talented portrait artist who is able to capture not only the likeness of his subjects, but their essence. He has the ability to see beyond the surface and to reveal undrlying truths that others may have missed. This talent is not reseved only for his artwork but for his entire approach to the world. To listen to Martin speak is to discover the hidden, often obvious, depths of the subject.
The time is Christmas Day, 1914. The narrator has just received a letter from Martin in which he relates "the most haunting and dramatic episode I have encountered durong these years of war" -- something "so slight it is difficult to put into words."
It's the early days of the war, and Martin is riding on top of an omnibus through crowded London streets. He spots a theatrical poster of a serpentine woman ("a kind of Aubrey Beardsley vampire") which has been half obliterated by words written in red: "Kitchener wants a hundred thousand men." He half believes that it is the "great scibble of the Hand that writes history," signifying a regeneration of art and life in London.
Later the day, he sees a blind man, walking assuredly and carrying a sign. On one side of the sign are the words "Venez a moi, vous tous qui etes travailles et charges, et je vous soulagerai." The same was written on the other side, only in English: "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." The blind man carried the sign proudly. It had no advertisement for a church and he did not ask for alms. He walked lkike a soldier. Perhaaps he waas wounded kin a previous war, perhaps his mind was affected, perhaps he ws a religious fanatic. No matter, Martin soon forgot the incident.
Later that day, Martin was walking by the Strand, pausing to take in Nelson's Column, when he noticed a large crowd gathering outside Charing Cross Station. He asked what was happening, but no one really knew. The police had blocked off entrance to the station. Soon ambulances appeared and ambulance personnel entered the station. Now it seemed obvious. The war had hit home and the first of the wounded have arrived in London.
Firsst came the sitting-up cases, four soldiers to a cab, many with bandages on their heads. Then came the officers, folowed by a smiling, japing soldier who prnced about and stuck his tongue out at the crowd. Another soldier told the crowd that the man was shell-shocked. Suddenly the crowd began to realize the horror that had faced these men and became silent. As the wounded men passed then came "a motley stream of civilians, the Belgian refugees. They came out of the station like a flock of sheep, and the fear of the wolf was still in their eyes." They came with few possessions. The women were weeping. Some families had been separated in their flight. Then some faces lifted and a radiant light seemed to come from them as they looked off in the distance. At the foot of the Nelson Column was the blind man's sign, with the French inscription facing the station. Why he had placed it there, Martin could not tell. Perhaps it was by accident or perhaps by human or superhuman design. It did not matter. The refugees looked and, with the sign, saw a friend. And hope.
Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) is best known for his poen "The Highwayman" (1906), which was voted englnd's fifteenth favorite poem in 1965. He attended Exeter College, Oxford, but did not graduate because on the day of his finals he instead was arranging the publication of his first volume of poems with his publisher. In 1907, he married the youngest daughter of a former Civil War veteran and the U.S. Consul in Hull. Six years later he began his first tour of America, in part to appease his wife and in part to lecture on world peace and disarmament. The trip was successful and he returned to America later that year for a six month stay. there, he was asked by Princeton university to become a visiting professor in modern English Literature. For the next nine yearss, he and his wife divided tehir time between england and America. His wife passed away in 1926 while they were visiting fiends in France.
A year after his wife's death, Noyes married the widow of a lieutenant from an old Catholic family who had been killed in the can be read online.war. Later that year, Noyes converted to Catholicism. Seven years later he described his journey from agnoticism to the Cathlic faith in The Unknown God, which became a popular work of Christian apologetics.
Noyes was a pacifist who felt that a nation should not fight unless it was facing an agressive and unreasoning enemy. He opposed the Boer War for the reason, but supported Britain during both world Wars. Because of poor eyesight, Noyes could not serve at the front during World War I. He did his militrary service working for the Foreign Office, while also publishing short stories, odes, and lyrics designed to boost British morale. During the second World War, he comtinued to write patriotic poems, but with more depth.
Noyes published at least fifteen books of poetry. His famous poem "The Victory Ball" came about afetr attending a ball after the armitice in which he saw the thoughtless friviolity of the dancers and wondered what the ghosts of slain solfdiers would think of them. The title poem in his 1952 collection Daddy Fell into the Pond and Other Poems has become a children's favorite and was reprinted in two major poetry anthologies in 2005. Among his novels is The Devil Takes a Holiday in which the Devil, vactioning in Santa Barbara, discovers the he is redundant because humans are doing all his work for him. Noyes also published biographies, criticism, essays, a children's novel, and two collections of short stories.
He died of polio at age 77.
Walking Shadows: Sea Tales and Others can be read onlilne.