When the shells begin landing in the barnyard, Robert cannot stand it any longer. He asks Devlin if he will help him save the animals. Devlin is initially worried about disobeying orders but Robert tells him that Leather is insane. The animals will be killed and they will be needed. Devlin finally agrees. Robert sends Devlin to open the gates and let the animals escape. Captain Leather witnesses this and runs out to stop Devlin. Devlin, however, has made up his mind to help Robert. Leather calls for a M.P. (Military Police officer). When none appears, Leather draws his revolver and shoots Devlin before closing the gates himself. Robert witnesses this. Captain Leather is waving his gun and calling Robert a traitor. Robert begins moving toward the gate to re-open it. Shells begin landing nearby, scoring direct hits. The Signals Office is hit, bursting into flames. Three shells land and burst in the barnyard, throwing Robert off his feet. When he stands up he sees that the barnyard is completely destroyed. The barns are burning piles of rubble. The horses and mules are either dead or dying. Only Robert appears to be unscathed.
Robert draws his Webley pistol and is overcome with a rage that he fears could spill over into madness. He looks over the scene and thinks, “if an animal had done this - we would call it mad and shoot it.” At that moment Captain Leather rises to his knees. Robert shoots him between the eyes. He then takes a half hour to kill the suffering mules and horses. He tears the lapels from his uniform and leaves.
Mr. and Mrs. Ross receive news that Robert is missing in action. Mrs. Ross takes to wandering the house in her nightgown with a bottle in her hand. Stuart wonders if Robert is dead and, if he is, whether he will receive the Victoria Cross. Mrs. Ross stands at the top of the stairs and drops the bottle. It rolls down to the bottom step. She holds her hands out, finding the bannister, and makes her way to the bottom. She sits and calls for help. Mr. Ross arrives but Mrs. Ross says she cannot see him. “I’m blind," she says. He stays with her as Ms. Davenport ventures outside and watches the world go by, just as it always has. It is the sixteenth of June.
The road to Bailleul is clogged with horses and machines. It is clear now that the German forces mean to raze Bailleul to the ground. When their shells begin to reach the town there is instant panic in the narrow streets. Drums of gasoline that had been waiting to be shipped to other locations now provide fuel for rivers of fire that engulf machines, homes, and the people in them. This, too, happens on the sixteenth of June.
The novel now returns to the opening scene of the prologue. Robert is seated with his gun between his legs, watching his horse, while everything around him is burning. A black dog is with him, too. He frees horses from inside a train car and they all set out together under a red moon. From this point on, Findley writes, the mythology becomes muddled. The likely version of the story is that Robert drives the horses through the woods west of La Chodrelle, waking troops under the command of a man named Major Mickle. One of these troops, Private Cassles, is probably shot by Robert. After communicating with Bailleul, Mickle is given clearance to pursue Robert.
Mickle and his men find Robert in the abandoned barns Robert had first seen when he was walking to Bailleul. From here, the account is very clear. Mickle demands that Robert surrender, claiming that if he does not he will be taken by force. Robert refuses and takes a shot, which misses, at Mickle. Mickle tells Robert he is determined to take back the horses. Robert fires at him again, adding, “we will not be taken.” Mickle wonders if the word we means that Robert has an accomplice.
He devises a plan to get Robert out. He orders his men to set fire to the barn. When they do so, the barn goes up much faster than anticipated and a portion of the roof collapses. Robert begins to shout that he cannot open the doors. By the time Mickle and his men open them and pull Robert out he has been burned badly. The horses perish inside. Mickle later states that he is barely able to recognize Robert, but is able to understand him. “The dog. The dog," Robert says, before passing out. The dog is never found.
The point of view of the novel now switches to a transcript of an interview with Nurse Marian Turner. On June 18th, Robert is brought to Bois de Madeleine hospital. An M.P. is always nearby, even when Robert is in surgery. At one point, Marian offers to help Robert die, if that is what he wants. “Not yet," is his answer. Robert is held at the hospital for two months before being returned to England. He is tried in absentia and is sent to St. Aubyn’s for treatment. This is allowed because it is understood that there is virtually no hope that he will walk or see again. Barbara d’Orsey comes to see him once, accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Albert Rittenhouse, a decorated Australian officer. Juliet d’Orsey spends a great deal of time with Robert while he is there. He dies in 1922, almost twenty-six years old. Mr. Ross is the only family member to attend his funeral. Juliet inscribes the following on his tombstone:
EARTH AND AIR AND FIRE AND WATER
ROBERT R. ROSS
The epilogue begins with an image of Robert sitting on a keg of water. He is holding the skull of a small animal in his hands. Findley includes a quote from Irish essayist and critic Nicholas Fagan: “the spaces between the perceiver and the thing perceived can... be closed with a shout of recognition. One form of a shout is a shot. Nothing so completely verifies our perception of a thing as our killing of it.”
The archivist closes her book. She stands to tell us to go but something prevents her. It is the sound of birds beyond the windows. “It’s late," she says. You gather your research. This is the last thing you see before you put on your overcoat: Robert and Rowena with Meg the pony. Rowena is seated astride the pony and Robert is holding her in place. On the back of the photo is written: “Look! You can see our breath!” It is true.
Although Robert professes a love for life, he commits murder twice, first killing Captain Leather and then another soldier, Private Cassles. This suggests that Robert's private morals have called into question the public morals of his other officers. He serves as judge, jury, and executioner. It is debatable whether Robert has descended into madness or whether he is exacting a harsh, rational justice upon these men. Robert looks upon the barnyard after the shells have fallen and thinks to himself, "if an animal had done this - we would call it mad and shoot it." Robert's reasoning is that if such acts are deplorable when committed by animals then they are universally deplorable. Robert does not only judge Captain Leather, but the war itself.
When Mrs. Ross hears that her son is missing in action she goes blind. Scholars have a number of interpretations for this event. It can be argued that Mrs. Ross's blindness reflects a desire to no longer see the world around her. She is plagued by memories of her brother's death and the paranoia that has stemmed from it; the news of Robert's disappearance is enough to bring about blindness, as if Robert has been the source of light in her world. Another interpretation is that this news allows Mrs. Ross to see the world without a filter. Ironically, this results in blindness, which precludes the possibility of harboring any illusions. The world, instead, is replaced by darkness. Consider that the date of her falling blind coincides with the destruction of the city of Bailleul. The town and its people are consumed in rivers of fire, again invoking the power of this classical element. Symbolically, the world is destroyed and Mrs. Ross's paranoia over fire consuming her city proves to be prescient after all.
As the novel ends, Findley returns us to the scene of the prologue. Robert sits with his pistol, a horse and dog nearby. The horse and dog and both black. Some scholars see this as Findley working with a Biblical allegory, comparing Robert to the third horseman of the Apocalypse. This horseman carries a scale and generally symbolizes famine or judgment. Findley's use of Biblical allegory continues when he states that Robert sets out under a blood red moon.
Upon being cornered by Major Mickle and his men, Robert fires upon Mickle twice instead of surrendering. Mickle's reaction is questionable. He decides to light the barn on fire to draw Robert out. Findley does not mince words on this matter. He writes: "what he did next cannot be interpreted as being any less 'mad' than what Robert had done in taking the horses and deserting the battle." Ultimately it is for the reader to decide what is moral or right, but Findley's underlying point is that war is hell and madness. It can drive sane men to commit horrid atrocities. It can make rational men question all that they had once held true. Mickle's plan backfires and Robert is burned while the horses perish. When his soldiers open the barn doors they see an apocalyptic vision of Robert atop the black horse, covered in flames.
Despite all that has happened to him, Robert does not wish for death. He has been burned so badly it is decided that he will not be able to walk or live a normal life ever again. He is court martialed and sent to recover at St. Aubyn's where he is visited by Lady Barbara, who cruelly brings another man along. Taking pity on him, Marian Turner offers him a way out, euthanasia. Despite all he has lost, Robert clings to life and, symbolically, to hope. Though he has been physically broken his spirit endures. He finds some comfort in Juliet's presence until he dies at the young age of twenty-six.
Findley leaves us with two photographs of Robert. The first is of him sitting on a keg of water, again invoking a natural element. He is holding the small skull of an animal in his hands, symbolizing death as well as his connection to animals. The quote by Fagan establishes that nothing cements our acknowledgement of the existence of a thing as much as our destruction of it. This suggests that human nature drives us to both worship and destroy what is beautiful around us. It is only when we destroy that beauty that we truly are able to acknowledge it. The second photo shows Robert with Rowena atop Meg, a pony. The caption in the photo states that the breath of the subjects is visible; Findley ends on an image that evokes life instead of death. The continuance of life is, simply, the embodiment of hope. In this case it was the war that was the great antagonist of hope.