An Eternal Love
|I remember a
significant amount of details from my first meeting with Miss Bancroft.
She is not a character drawn out of a writers creative mind but one that lived many
decades in the last century. Why she still is fresh in my memories is because of a
promise she made and kept. Not a promise to me or to anyone I ever knew but a pledge
she made to a man she loved as a young woman. A love she maintained through the
many long years that followed and the vow that was never broken. The fall I met Miss
Bancroft I was sixteen and would never have been introduced to her had it not been for my
closest girlfriend at the time, Lynda Page. As I recall the circumstances Miss
Bancroft had hired Lynda as a companion on the recommendation of her cook. The cook
was one of Lynda's older married sisters. Her job was to be a companion to this lady
after school and to stay over nights when the maid was gone so that Miss Bancroft would
not be alone in the huge mansion of a house she owned.
The house alone was imposing to a young girl from a farm background. It stood well back from the street, with a iron fence that bordered the property. Hidden almost from view by many old maple trees. A Victorian four story house, complete with turrets that was home to a woman who lived in the mid-nineteen sixties with the values of the 19th century. Miss Bancroft was a small woman, almost doll-like in comparison to the two tall robust teen-age girls she was greeting at the door. I remember looking down to greet her and she looked like a museum manikin in some ways. Her dress seemed somewhat antiquated, elegant but dated, an ivory layered lace dress that was nearly ankle length, her hair was snow white and worn up as was the fashion at the turn of the twentieth century. She was tiny in frame but did not appear to be frail or ill and she had a lovely smile that put me at ease at once. At this first meeting I felt as if I were a guest of royalty, the furnishings in the room were so elegant and obviously very expensive. I remember sitting on the edge of chair, a Louis the 14th I was told later, and trying to act very ladylike and mature. I knew I had stepped out of the comfort circle of the middle class and walked smack into that of the wealthy upper class. This was not just a woman of some considerable means but obviously she was "well bred" as it was referred to in that era. She asked all the routine questions girls our age might be asked by our elders. What grade was I in? How many were in my family? What my father did? My answers she seemed genuinely interested in and went on to ask more as she had knowledge of my family. I was used to this as my family had been in the area for over a hundred years. Many were known and respected members of a number of organizations and held office in some cases including mayor of our small community.
Lynda had told me a little about Miss Bancroft before I consented to spending the night with her and this charming lady. I had been told she was a spinster, almost an evil sounding word, whereas Lynda and I were unmarried maidens by comparison. It was obvious she was well off and my eyes took in the details of the house. I admired the stain glass windows in her front door, the heavily framed portraits of bishops and cardinals, who apparently were related in someway to her. The delicate lace clothes on the dark antique furnishing. Brocade drapery and a discriminating collection of nick knacks that decorated the parlor, or sitting room. After refreshments and a friendly conversation she left Lynda and I to work on our homework. This task was intermixed with conversations about our current boyfriends and our very unique hostess. From the drawing room the music Ave Maria played on an old record player. Over and over again the haunting music drifted through the mansion. It was so soft and pleasant. I do not recall ever hearing it played before this time and as it plays now as I write I can vividly see the room and how the three of us looked over thirty years ago. It brings me back to this love story that has laid deeply embedded in my heart since I first heard it.
It was near the beginning of the First World War. Miss Bancroft then a much younger woman was deeply in love with a Canadian officer that was to take a train to Montreal and then a boat overseas to fight with other young Canadians. They had been deeply in love and pledged to be faithful to each other. During the years that her young officer was fighting she communicated with him with letters. Faithfully confirming her love and devotion and looking forward to the day when they might be together to then unite in marriage. Her officer was as dedicated as the war would permit in returning letters to her telling of the horrors that he had been witness too. Many of the young men he had been shipped overseas with were dead or so badly wounded they had been sent home. He told of life in the trenches, the cold and the mud, the stench of rotting bodies, the endless gunfire, and the deadly gases that killed so many. There was no way he could communicate of the countries he had been in, they were so war torn all he could say is that he was so glad that she was protected from all this suffering. Then there came a long spell when Miss Bancroft did not hear from her intended. She worried as the days went by and tried to assure herself that the mails were slowed because of the war or the winter weather in Canada. One day she did receive word by telegram, her young officer was alive but gravely wounded. He was in a hospital in London. The telegram implored her to come as quickly as she could to be by his side, and a postscript added by a kindly nurse emphasized the urgency if she were to see her young man alive again to come post haste.
Miss Bancroft travelled to the east coast by train, and then obtained passage on a less than elegant freighter that would dock in London before any other ship was due to arrive there from Canada. She traveled alone against the wishes of her family but insisted that the passage for one person might be possible whereas for more might prevent her from reaching her young officer in time. The winter seas of the Atlantic can be harsh and cruel but she weathered the voyage with only one thought that was to reach her intended before death took him. She wept through the nights, her heart in agony, she prayed to all the saints and God Almighty that he might be saved. The freighter finally drew into the harbor in London and she looked around, not knowing which direction to head, when she was met by an young officer of the British Navy who took her immediately to the hospital where her intended lay in a ward of many men. All were bandaged and severely injured, many missing limbs, shot, burned, gassed these men had seen the intimate side of war and death and were hovering between this world and the next.
Slowly she approached the bed where her beloved lay, so pale and frail looking, his cheeks hollow and more belonging to a skeleton than the young man she had kissed as he had headed off to fight this war. Dark circles under his eyes told of the sleepless months he had endured with poor rations while surviving in the bloody muddy trenches. She leaned forward to kiss his brow and laid her hand on his and his eyes flickered a moment as he appeared to recognize her. Days went by and each one would find Miss Bancroft sitting beside the bed of her wounded officer. Tending to his needs and often helping the others too sick or injured to get a sip of water or read a newspaper. Days turned into weeks and the young officer's wounds slowly began to heal. Miss Bancroft grew certain that her prayers would be answered when her beloved fell prey to yet another sickness, this time it was pneumonia. In his weakened condition it seemed the doctors gave him no hope, but he clung to life and repeated his undying love to her. They had again made plans to be married when they returned to Canada. Now the young soldier knew that the last battle would defeat him. He asked her to remain loyal to their love and that he would wait for her when in time she too would bid farewell to this life. Without hesitation and with a sincere commitment she pledged her faithful love to him. Vowing to wait until they would be joined again. Shortly after this promise was secured the young officer slipped into the sleep of the hereafter.
Once again Miss Bancroft was to board a ship by herself and this time return to Canada, accompanied by the coffin that held her beloved. Days at sea in seclusion with only her faith to comfort her she finally returned home. Her young officer she watched laid to rest in the family cemetery and from that day to the day she died, she waited. Her story was so moving and not like the bitter Miss Havisham, in Dickens, Great Expectations she remained in this mansion listening to the haunting sounds of Ave Maria. Remembering a happier time when her life was young and her dreams were full of the expectations of a life with her beloved who like so many were robbed of their youth.
Many would like to judge her actions and her commitment. For some it would have been a promise they would not have kept let alone made. Others might feel it was unkind of her beloved to ask her to wait for him. I never judged her decision but respected her devotion and love. She never appeared unhappy in the meetings I had with her although a bit wistful perhaps as she listened to that old forty five play its music over and over again. Perhaps to a teenager this repetitive listening to a song was a connection of sorts as I would have been guilty of the same action as my parents would attest. Maybe it was because I was so young and could picture her years before a little older than myself in love with a man that truly was in love with her. Perhaps it was that I dreamed of a love so deep and intense that it would withstand time. I wondered about the young officer, he must have felt assured in some way that she would commit to the promise and yet on the other hand if he was secure in her love why did he make the request of her? Perhaps it was the illness of the young officer as he faced death, wanting assurance that her love would be maintained until she joined him. This thought giving him peace as his eyes closed for the last time.
Is there a right or wrong decision? Can it be clearly defined? Even murder can be justified and forgiven. No it is not for us to judge one another. I look back now on the decisions I have made with my life, things I did not do because of love, or things I did do for love. These decisions are no more up for scrutiny than those of Miss Bancroft as they are unique to the individual. I listen to the unforgettable melody that I learned to love in her home and think kindly on this lady who entered my life one fall when I was sixteen. We were not to meet again after that brief period but I never have forgotten her story. To some she would have seemed eccentric but I saw a side of her that I admired. Many times I have told this story and I felt compelled to write it down so that this love story might not be forgotten. Miss Bancroft and her beloved officer I am sure were reunited, I refuse to accept anything less for the dedication that she showed. I envied her this love that was not tainted through the years and that sustained her to her death.
Cheryl C. Helynck