"And you will come and stay with me," persisted the little Frenchman, "when this affair is finished"—he made an impatient gesture with his hands. "My wife takes much interest. She will be delighted."
And the big German, again embracing the little Frenchman, had promised, and had sent his compliments to Madame.
The other was a young priest. He wore the regulation Red Cross uniform, but kept his cassock hanging on a peg behind his bed. He had pretty frequent occasion to take it down. These small emergency hospitals, within range of the guns, were reserved for only dangerous cases: men whose wounds would not permit of their being carried further; and there never was much more than a sporting chance of saving them. They were always glad to find there was a priest among the staff. Often it was the first question they would ask on being lifted out of the ambulance. Even those who professed to no religion seemed comforted by the idea. He went by the title of "Monsieur le Pretre:" Joan never learned his name. It was he who had laid out the little cemetery on the opposite side of the village street. It had once been an orchard, and some of the trees were still standing. In the centre, rising out of a pile of rockwork, he had placed a crucifix that had been found upon the roadside and had surrounded it with flowers. It formed the one bright spot of colour in the village; and at night time, when all other sounds were hushed, the iron wreaths upon its little crosses, swaying against one another in the wind, would make a low, clear, tinkling music. Joan would sometimes lie awake listening to it. In some way she could not explain it always brought the thought of children to her mind.
The doctor himself was a broad-shouldered, bullet-headed man, clean shaven, with close-cropped, bristly hair. He had curiously square hands, with short, squat fingers. He had been head surgeon in one of the Paris hospitals, and had been assigned his present post because of his marvellous quickness with the knife. The hospital was the nearest to a hill of great strategical importance, and the fighting in the neighbourhood was almost continuous. Often a single ambulance would bring in three or four cases, each one demanding instant attention. Dr. Poujoulet, with his hairy arms bare to the shoulder, would polish them off one after another, with hardly a moment's rest between, not allowing time even for the washing of the table. Joan would have to summon all her nerve to keep herself from collapsing. At times the need for haste was such that it was impossible to wait for the anaesthetic to take effect. The one redeeming feature was the extraordinary heroism of the men, though occasionally there was nothing for it but to call in the orderlies to hold some poor fellow down, and to deafen one's ears.
One day, after a successful operation, she was tending a young sergeant. He was a well-built, handsome man, with skin as white as a woman's. He watched her with curious indifference in his eyes as she busied herself, trying to make him comfortable, and did nothing to help her.
"Has Mam'selle ever seen a bull fight?" he asked her.
"No," she answered. "I've seen all the horror and cruelty I want to for the rest of my life."
"Ah," he said, "you would understand if you had. When one of the horses goes down gored, his entrails lying out upon the sand, you know what they do, don't you? They put a rope round him, and drag him, groaning, into the shambles behind. And once there, kind people like you and Monsieur le Medecin tend him and wash him, and put his entrails back, and sew him up again. He thinks it so kind of them—the first time. But the second! He understands. He will be sent back into the arena to be ripped up again, and again after that. This is the third time I have been wounded, and as soon as you've all patched me up and I've got my breath again, they'll send me back into it. Mam'selle will forgive my not feeling grateful to her." He gave a short laugh that brought the blood into his mouth.
The village consisted of one long straggling street, following the course of a small stream between two lines of hills. It was on one of the great lines of communication: and troops and war material passed through it, going and coming, in almost endless procession. It served also as a camp of rest. Companies from the trenches would arrive there, generally towards the evening, weary, listless, dull-eyed, many of them staggering like over-driven cattle beneath their mass of burdens. They would fling their accoutrements from them and stand in silent groups till the sergeants and corporals returned to lead them to the barns and out-houses that had been assigned to them, the houses still habitable being mostly reserved for the officers. Like those of most French villages, they were drab, plaster-covered buildings without gardens; but some of them were covered with vines, hiding their ugliness; and the village as a whole, with its groups, here and there, of fine sycamore trees and its great stone fountain in the centre, was picturesque enough. It had twice changed hands, and a part of it was in ruins. From one or two of the more solidly built houses merely the front had fallen, leaving the rooms just as they had always been: the furniture in its accustomed place, the pictures on the walls. They suggested doll's houses standing open. One wondered when the giant child would come along and close them up. The iron spire of the little church had been hit twice. It stood above the village, twisted into the form of a note of interrogation. In the churchyard many of the graves had been ripped open. Bones and skulls lay scattered about among the shattered tombstones. But, save for a couple of holes in the roof, the body was still intact, and every afternoon a faint, timid-sounding bell called a few villagers and a sprinkling of soldiers to Mass. Most of the inhabitants had fled, but the farmers and shopkeepers had remained. At intervals, the German batteries, searching round with apparent aimlessness, would drop a score or so of shells about the neighbourhood; but the peasant, with an indifference that was almost animal, would still follow his ox-drawn plough; the old, bent crone, muttering curses, still ply the hoe. The proprietors of the tiny epiceries must have been rapidly making their fortunes, considering the prices that they charged the unfortunate poilu, dreaming of some small luxury out of his five sous a day. But as one of them, a stout, smiling lady, explained to Joan, with a gesture: "It is not often that one has a war."
Joan had gone out in September, and for a while the weather was pleasant. The men, wrapped up in their great-coats, would sleep for preference under the great sycamore trees. Through open doorways she would catch glimpses of picturesque groups of eager card-players, crowded round a flickering candle. From the darkness there would steal the sound of flute or zither, of voices singing. Occasionally it would be some strident ditty of the Paris music-halls, but more often it was sad and plaintive. But early in October the rains commenced and the stream became a roaring torrent, and a clammy mist lay like a white river between the wooded hills.
Mud! that seemed to be the one word with which to describe modern war. Mud everywhere! Mud ankle-deep upon the roads; mud into which you sank up to your knees the moment you stepped off it; tents and huts to which you waded through the mud, avoiding the slimy gangways on which you slipped and fell; mud-bespattered men, mud-bespattered horses, little donkeys, looking as if they had been sculptured out of mud, struggling up and down the light railways that every now and then would disappear and be lost beneath the mud; guns and wagons groaning through the mud; lorries and ambulances, that in the darkness had swerved from the straight course, overturned and lying abandoned in the mud, motor-cyclists ploughing swift furrows through the mud, rolling it back in liquid streams each side of them; staff cars rushing screaming through the mud, followed by a rushing fountain of mud; serried ranks of muddy men stamping through the mud with steady rhythm, moving through a rain of mud, rising upward from the ground; long lines of motor-buses filled with a mass of muddy humanity packed shoulder to shoulder, rumbling ever through the endless mud.
Men sitting by the roadside in the mud, gnawing at unsavoury food; men squatting by the ditches, examining their sores, washing their bleeding feet in the muddy water, replacing the muddy rags about their wounds.
A world without colour. No other colour to be seen beneath the sky but mud. The very buttons on the men's coats painted to make them look like mud.
Mud and dirt! Dirty faces, dirty hands, dirty clothes, dirty food, dirty beds; dirty interiors, from which there was never time to wash the mud; dirty linen hanging up to dry, beneath which dirty children played, while dirty women scolded. Filth and desolation all around. Shattered farmsteads half buried in the mud; shattered gardens trampled into mud. A weary land of foulness, breeding foulness; tangled wire the only harvest of the fields; mile after mile of gaping holes, filled with muddy water; stinking carcases of dead horses; birds of prey clinging to broken fences, flapping their great wings.
A land where man died, and vermin increased and multiplied. Vermin on your body, vermin in your head, vermin in your food, vermin waiting for you in your bed; vermin the only thing that throve, the only thing that looked at you with bright eyes; vermin the only thing to which the joy of life had still been left.
Joan had found a liking gradually growing up in her for the quick-moving, curt-tongued doctor. She had dismissed him at first as a mere butcher: his brutal haste, his indifference apparently to the suffering he was causing, his great, strong, hairy hands, with their squat fingers, his cold grey eyes. But she learnt as time went by, that his callousness was a thing that he put on at the same time that he tied his white apron round his waist, and rolled up his sleeves.
She was resting, after a morning of grim work, on a bench outside the hospital, struggling with clenched, quivering hands against a craving to fling herself upon the ground and sob. And he had found her there; and had sat down beside her.
"So you wanted to see it with your own eyes," he said. He laid his hand upon her shoulder, and she had some difficulty in not catching hold of him and clinging to him. She was feeling absurdly womanish just at that moment.
"Yes," she answered. "And I'm glad that I did it," she added, defiantly.
"So am I," he said. "Tell your children what you have seen. Tell other women."
"It's you women that make war," he continued. "Oh, I don't mean that you do it on purpose, but it's in your blood. It comes from the days when to live it was needful to kill. When a man who was swift and strong to kill was the only thing that could save a woman and her brood. Every other man that crept towards them through the grass was an enemy, and her only hope was that her man might kill him, while she watched and waited. And later came the tribe; and instead of the one man creeping through the grass, the everlasting warfare was against all other tribes. So you loved only the men ever ready and willing to fight, lest you and your children should be carried into slavery: then it was the only way. You brought up your boys to be fighters. You told them stories of their gallant sires. You sang to them the songs of battle: the glory of killing and of conquering. You have never unlearnt the lesson. Man has learnt comradeship—would have travelled further but for you. But woman is still primitive. She would still have her man the hater and the killer. To the woman the world has never changed."
"Tell the other women," he said. "Open their eyes. Tell them of their sons that you have seen dead and dying in the foolish quarrel for which there was no need. Tell them of the foulness, of the cruelty, of the senselessness of it all. Set the women against War. That is the only way to end it."
It was a morning or two later that, knocking at the door of her loft, he asked her if she would care to come with him to the trenches. He had brought an outfit for her which he handed to her with a grin. She had followed Folk's advice and had cut her hair; and when she appeared before him for inspection in trousers and overcoat, the collar turned up about her neck, and reaching to her helmet, he had laughingly pronounced the experiment safe.
A motor carried them to where the road ended, and from there, a little one-horse ambulance took them on to almost the last trees of the forest. There was no life to be seen anywhere. During the last mile, they had passed through a continuous double line of graves; here and there a group of tiny crosses keeping one another company; others standing singly, looking strangely lonesome amid the torn-up earth and shattered trees. But even these had ceased. Death itself seemed to have been frightened away from this terror-haunted desert.
Looking down, she could see thin wreaths of smoke, rising from the ground. From underneath her feet there came a low, faint, ceaseless murmur.
"Quick," said the doctor. He pushed her in front of him, and she almost fell down a flight of mud-covered steps that led into the earth. She found herself in a long, low gallery, lighted by a dim oil lamp, suspended from the blackened roof. A shelf ran along one side of it, covered with straw. Three men lay there. The straw was soaked with their blood. They had been brought in the night before by the stretcher- bearers. A young surgeon was rearranging their splints and bandages, and redressing their wounds. They would lie there for another hour or so, and then start for their twenty kilometre drive over shell-ridden roads to one or another of the great hospitals at the base. While she was there, two more cases were brought in. The doctor gave but a glance at the first one and then made a sign; and the bearers passed on with him to the further end of the gallery. He seemed to understand, for he gave a low, despairing cry and the tears sprang to his eyes. He was but a boy. The other had a foot torn off. One of the orderlies gave him two round pieces of wood to hold in his hands while the young surgeon cut away the hanging flesh and bound up the stump.
The doctor had been whispering to one of the bearers. He had the face of an old man, but his shoulders were broad and he looked sturdy. He nodded, and beckoned Joan to follow him up the slippery steps.
"It is breakfast time," he explained, as they emerged into the air. "We leave each other alone for half an hour—even the snipers. But we must be careful." She followed in his footsteps, stooping so low that her hands could have touched the ground. They had to be sure that they did not step off the narrow track marked with white stones, lest they should be drowned in the mud. They passed the head of a dead horse. It looked as if it had been cut off and laid there; the body was below it in the mud.
They spoke in whispers, and Joan at first had made an effort to disguise her voice. But her conductor had smiled. "They shall be called the brothers and the sisters of the Lord," he had said. "Mademoiselle is brave for her Brothers' sake." He was a priest. There were many priests among the stretcher-bearers.
Crouching close to the ground, behind the spreading roots of a giant oak, she raised her eyes. Before her lay a sea of smooth, soft mud nearly a mile wide. From the centre rose a solitary tree, from which all had been shot away but two bare branches like outstretched arms above the silence. Beyond, the hills rose again. There was something unearthly in the silence that seemed to brood above that sea of mud. The old priest told her of the living men, French and German, who had stood there day and night sunk in it up to their waists, screaming hour after hour, and waving their arms, sinking into it lower and lower, none able to help them: until at last only their screaming heads were left, and after a time these, too, would disappear: and the silence come again.
She saw the ditches, like long graves dug for the living, where the weary, listless men stood knee-deep in mud, hoping for wounds that would relieve them from the ghastly monotony of their existence; the holes of muddy water where the dead things lay, to which they crept out in the night to wash a little of the filth from their clammy bodies and their stinking clothes; the holes dug out of the mud in which they ate and slept and lived year after year: till brain and heart and soul seemed to have died out of them, and they remembered with an effort that they once were men.
* * * * *
After a time, the care of the convalescents passed almost entirely into Joan's hands, Madame Lelanne being told off to assist her. By dint of much persistence she had succeeded in getting the leaky roof repaired, and in place of the smoky stove that had long been her despair she had one night procured a fine calorifere by the simple process of stealing it. Madame Lelanne had heard about it from the gossips. It had been brought to a lonely house at the end of the village by a major of engineers. He had returned to the trenches the day before, and the place for the time being was empty. The thieves were never discovered. The sentry was positive that no one had passed him but two women, one of them carrying a baby. Madame Lelanne had dressed it up in a child's cloak and hood, and had carried it in her arms. As it must have weighed nearly a couple of hundred-weight suspicion had not attached to them.
Space did not allow of any separation; broken Frenchmen and broken Germans would often lie side by side. Joan would wonder, with a grim smile to herself, what the patriotic Press of the different countries would have thought had they been there to have overheard the conversations. Neither France nor Germany appeared to be the enemy, but a thing called "They," a mysterious power that worked its will upon them both from a place they always spoke of as "Back there." One day the talk fell on courage. A young French soldier was holding forth when Joan entered the hut.
"It makes me laugh," he was saying, "all this newspaper talk. Every nation, properly led, fights bravely. It is the male instinct. Women go into hysterics about it, because it has not been given them. I have the Croix de Guerre with all three leaves, and I haven't half the courage of my dog, who weighs twelve kilos, and would face a regiment by himself. Why, a game cock has got more than the best of us. It's the man who doesn't think, who can't think, who has the most courage—who imagines nothing, but just goes forward with his head down, like a bull. There is, of course, a real courage. When you are by yourself, and have to do something in cold blood. But the courage required for rushing forward, shouting and yelling with a lot of other fellows—why, it would take a hundred times more pluck to turn back."
"They know that," chimed in the man lying next to him; "or they would not drug us. Why, when we stormed La Haye I knew nothing until an ugly-looking German spat a pint of blood into my face and woke me up."
A middle-aged sergeant, who had a wound in the stomach and was sitting up in his bed, looked across. "There was a line of Germans came upon us," he said, "at Bras. I thought I must be suffering from a nightmare when I saw them. They had thrown away their rifles and had all joined hands. They came dancing towards us just like a row of ballet girls. They were shrieking and laughing, and they never attempted to do anything. We just waited until they were close up and then shot them down. It was like killing a lot of kids who had come to have a game with us. The one I potted got his arms round me before he coughed himself out, calling me his 'liebe Elsa,' and wanting to kiss me. Lord! You can guess how the Boche ink-slingers spread themselves over that business: 'Sonderbar! Colossal! Unvergessliche Helden.' Poor devils!"
"They'll give us ginger before it is over," said another. He had had both his lips torn away, and appeared to be always laughing. "Stuff it into us as if we were horses at a fair. That will make us run forward, right enough."
"Oh, come," struck in a youngster who was lying perfectly flat, face downwards on his bed: it was the position in which he could breathe easiest. He raised his head a couple of inches and twisted it round so as to get his mouth free. "It isn't as bad as all that. Why, the Thirty- third swarmed into Fort Malmaison of their own accord, though 'twas like jumping into a boiling furnace, and held it for three days against pretty nearly a division. There weren't a dozen of them left when we relieved them. They had no ammunition left. They'd just been filling up the gaps with their bodies. And they wouldn't go back even then. We had to drag them away. 'They shan't pass,' 'They shan't pass!'—that's all they kept saying." His voice had sunk to a thin whisper.
A young officer was lying in a corner behind a screen. He leant forward and pushed it aside.
"Oh, give the devil his due, you fellows," he said. "War isn't a pretty game, but it does make for courage. We all know that. And things even finer than mere fighting pluck. There was a man in my company, a Jacques Decrusy. He was just a stupid peasant lad. We were crowded into one end of the trench, about a score of us. The rest of it had fallen in, and we couldn't move. And a bomb dropped into the middle of us; and the same instant that it touched the ground Decrusy threw himself flat down upon it and took the whole of it into his body. There was nothing left of him but scraps. But the rest of us got off. Nobody had drugged him to do that. There isn't one of us who was in that trench that will not be a better man to the end of his days, remembering how Jacques Decrusy gave his life for ours."
"I'll grant you all that, sir," answered the young soldier who had first spoken. He had long, delicate hands and eager, restless eyes. "War does bring out heroism. So does pestilence and famine. Read Defoe's account of the Plague of London. How men and women left their safe homes, to serve in the pest-houses, knowing that sooner or later they were doomed. Read of the mothers in India who die of slow starvation, never allowing a morsel of food to pass their lips so that they may save up their own small daily portion to add it to their children's. Why don't we pray to God not to withhold from us His precious medicine of pestilence and famine? So is shipwreck a fine school for courage. Look at the chance it gives the captain to set a fine example. And the engineers who stick to their post with the water pouring in upon them. We don't reconcile ourselves to shipwrecks as a necessary school for sailors. We do our best to lessen them. So did persecution bring out heroism. It made saints and martyrs. Why have we done away with it? If this game of killing and being killed is the fine school for virtue it is made out to be, then all our efforts towards law and order have been a mistake. We never ought to have emerged from the jungle."
He took a note-book from under his pillow and commenced to scribble.
An old-looking man spoke. He lay with his arms folded across his breast, addressing apparently the smoky rafters. He was a Russian, a teacher of languages in Paris at the outbreak of the war, and had joined the French Army.
"It is not only courage," he said, "that War brings out. It brings out vile things too. Oh, I'm not thinking merely of the Boches. That's the cant of every nation: that all the heroism is on one side and all the brutality on the other. Take men from anywhere and some of them will be devils. War gives them their opportunity, brings out the beast. Can you wonder at it? You teach a man to plunge a bayonet into the writhing flesh of a fellow human being, and twist it round and round and jamb it further in, while the blood is spurting from him like a fountain. What are you making of him but a beast? A man's got to be a beast before he can bring himself to do it. I have seen things done by our own men in cold blood, the horror of which will haunt my memory until I die. But of course, we hush it up when it happens to be our own people."
He ceased speaking. No one seemed inclined to break the silence.
They remained confused in her memory, these talks among the wounded men in the low, dimly lighted hut that had become her world. At times it was but two men speaking to one another in whispers, at others every creaking bed would be drawn into the argument.
One topic that never lost its interest was: Who made wars? Who hounded the people into them, and kept them there, tearing at one another's throats? They never settled it.
"God knows I didn't want it, speaking personally," said a German prisoner one day, with a laugh. "I had been working at a printing business sixteen hours a day for seven years. It was just beginning to pay me, and now my wife writes me that she has had to shut the place up and sell the machinery to keep them all from starving."
"But couldn't you have done anything to stop it?" demanded a Frenchman, lying next to him. "All your millions of Socialists, what were they up to? What went wrong with the Internationale, the Universal Brotherhood of Labour, and all that Tra-la-la?"
The German laughed again. "Oh, they know their business," he answered. "You have your glass of beer and go to bed, and when you wake up in the morning you find that war has been declared; and you keep your mouth shut—unless you want to be shot for a traitor. Not that it would have made much difference," he added. "I admit that. The ground had been too well prepared. England was envious of our trade. King Edward had been plotting our destruction. Our papers were full of translations from yours, talking about 'La Revanche!' We were told that you had been lending money to Russia to enable her to build railways, and that when they were complete France and Russia would fall upon us suddenly. 'The Fatherland in danger!' It may be lies or it may not; what is one to do? What would you have done—even if you could have done anything?"
"He's right," said a dreamy-eyed looking man, laying down the book he had been reading. "We should have done just the same. 'My country, right or wrong.' After all, it is an ideal."
A dark, black-bearded man raised himself painfully upon his elbow. He was a tailor in the Rue Parnesse, and prided himself on a decided resemblance to Victor Hugo.
"It's a noble ideal," he said. "La Patrie! The great Mother. Right or wrong, who shall dare to harm her? Yes, if it was she who rose up in her majesty and called to us." He laughed. "What does it mean in reality: Germania, Italia, La France, Britannia? Half a score of pompous old muddlers with their fat wives egging them on: sons of the fools before them; talkers who have wormed themselves into power by making frothy speeches and fine promises. My Country!" he laughed again. "Look at them. Can't you see their swelling paunches and their flabby faces? Half a score of ambitious politicians, gouty old financiers, bald-headed old toffs, with their waxed moustaches and false teeth. That's what we mean when we talk about 'My Country': a pack of selfish, soulless, muddle- headed old men. And whether they're right or whether they're wrong, our duty is to fight at their bidding—to bleed for them, to die for them, that they may grow more sleek and prosperous." He sank back on his pillow with another laugh.
Sometimes they agreed it was the newspapers that made war—that fanned every trivial difference into a vital question of national honour—that, whenever there was any fear of peace, re-stoked the fires of hatred with their never-failing stories of atrocities. At other times they decided it was the capitalists, the traders, scenting profit for themselves. Some held it was the politicians, dreaming of going down to history as Richelieus or as Bismarcks. A popular theory was that cause for war was always discovered by the ruling classes whenever there seemed danger that the workers were getting out of hand. In war, you put the common people back in their place, revived in them the habits of submission and obedience. Napoleon the Little, it was argued, had started the war of 1870 with that idea. Russia had welcomed the present war as an answer to the Revolution that was threatening Czardom. Others contended it was the great munition industries, aided by the military party, the officers impatient for opportunities of advancement, the strategists eager to put their theories to the test. A few of the more philosophical shrugged their shoulders. It was the thing itself that sooner or later was bound to go off of its own accord. Half every country's energy, half every country's time and money was spent in piling up explosives. In every country envy and hatred of every other country was preached as a religion. They called it patriotism. Sooner or later the spark fell.
A wizened little man had been listening to it all one day. He had a curiously rat-like face, with round, red, twinkling eyes, and a long, pointed nose that twitched as he talked.
"I'll tell you who makes all the wars," he said. "It's you and me, my dears: we make the wars. We love them. That's why we open our mouths and swallow all the twaddle that the papers give us; and cheer the fine, black-coated gentlemen when they tell us it's our sacred duty to kill Germans, or Italians, or Russians, or anybody else. We are just crazy to kill something: it doesn't matter what. If it's to be Germans, we shout 'A Berlin!'; and if it's to be Russians we cheer for Liberty. I was in Paris at the time of the Fashoda trouble. How we hissed the English in the cafes! And how they glared back at us! They were just as eager to kill us. Who makes a dog fight? Why, the dog. Anybody can do it. Who could make us fight each other, if we didn't want to? Not all the king's horses and all the King's men. No, my dears, it's we make the wars. You and me, my dears."
There came a day in early spring. All night long the guns had never ceased. It sounded like the tireless barking of ten thousand giant dogs. Behind the hills, the whole horizon, like a fiery circle, was ringed with flashing light. Shapeless forms, bent beneath burdens, passed in endless procession through the village. Masses of rushing men swept like shadowy phantoms through the fitfully-illumined darkness. Beneath that everlasting barking, Joan would hear, now the piercing wail of a child; now a clap of thunder that for the moment would drown all other sounds, followed by a faint, low, rumbling crash, like the shooting of coals into a cellar. The wounded on their beds lay with wide-open, terrified eyes, moving feverishly from side to side.
At dawn the order came that the hospital was to be evacuated. The ambulances were already waiting in the street. Joan flew up the ladder to her loft, the other side of the yard. Madame Lelanne was already there. She had thrown a few things into a bundle, and her foot was again upon the ladder, when it seemed to her that someone struck her, hurling her back upon the floor, and the house the other side of the yard rose up into the air, and then fell quite slowly, and a cloud of dust hid it from her sight.
Madame Lelanne must have carried her down the ladder. She was standing in the yard, and the dust was choking her. Across the street, beyond the ruins of the hospital, swarms of men were running about like ants when their nest has been disturbed. Some were running this way, and some that. And then they would turn and run back again, making dancing movements round one another and jostling one another. The guns had ceased; and instead, it sounded as if all the babies in the world were playing with their rattles. Suddenly Madame Lelanne reappeared out of the dust, and seizing Joan, dragged her through a dark opening and down a flight of steps, and then left her. She was in a great vaulted cellar. A faint light crept in through a grated window at the other end. There was a long table against the wall, and in front of it a bench. She staggered to it and sat down, leaning against the damp wall. The place was very silent. Suddenly she began to laugh. She tried to stop herself, but couldn't. And then she heard footsteps descending, and her memory came back to her with a rush. They were German footsteps, she felt sure by the sound: they were so slow and heavy. They should not find her in hysterics, anyhow. She fixed her teeth into the wooden table in front of her and held on to it with clenched hands. She had recovered herself before the footsteps had finished their descent. With a relief that made it difficult for her not to begin laughing again, she found it was Madame Lelanne and Monsieur Dubos. They were carrying something between them. She hardly recognized Dubos at first. His beard was gone, and a line of flaming scars had taken its place. They laid their burden on the table. It was one of the wounded men from the hut. They told her they were bringing down two more. The hut itself had not been hit, but the roof had been torn off by the force of the explosion, and the others had been killed by the falling beams. Joan wanted to return with them, but Madame Lelanne had assumed an air of authority, and told her she would be more useful where she was. From the top of the steps they threw down bundles of straw, on which they laid the wounded men, and Joan tended them, while Madame Lelanne and the little chemist went up and down continuously. Before evening the place, considering all things, was fairly habitable. Madame Lelanne brought down the great stove from the hut; and breaking a pane of glass in the barred window, they fixed it up with its chimney and lighted it. From time to time the turmoil above them would break out again: the rattling, and sometimes a dull rumbling as of rushing water. But only a faint murmur of it penetrated into the cellar. Towards night it became quiet again.
How long Joan remained there she was never quite sure. There was little difference between day and night. After it had been quiet for an hour or so, Madame Lelanne would go out, to return a little later with a wounded man upon her back; and when one died, she would throw him across her shoulder and disappear again up the steps. Sometimes it was a Frenchman and sometimes a German she brought in. One gathered that the fight for the village still continued. There was but little they could do for them beyond dressing their wounds and easing their pain. Joan and the little chemist took it in turns to relieve one another. If Madame Lelanne ever slept, it was when she would sit in the shadow behind the stove, her hands upon her knees. Dubos had been in the house when it had fallen. Madame Lelanne had discovered him pinned against a wall underneath a great oak beam that had withstood the falling debris. His beard had been burnt off, but otherwise he had been unharmed.
She seemed to be living in a dream. She could not shake from her the feeling that it was not bodies but souls that she was tending. The men themselves gave colour to this fancy of hers. Stripped of their poor, stained, tattered uniforms, they were neither French nor Germans. Friend or foe! it was already but a memory. Often, awakening out of a sleep, they would look across at one another and smile as to a comrade. A great peace seemed to have entered there. Faint murmurs as from some distant troubled world would steal at times into the silence. It brought a pang of pity, but it did not drive away the quiet that dwelt there.
Once, someone who must have known the place and had descended the steps softly, sat there among them and talked with them. Joan could not remember seeing him enter. Perhaps unknowing, she had fallen to sleep for a few minutes. Madame Lelanne was seated by the stove, her great coarse hands upon her knees, her patient, dull, slow-moving eyes fixed upon the speaker's face. Dubos was half standing, half resting against the table, his arms folded upon his breast. The wounded men had raised themselves upon the straw and were listening. Some leant upon their elbows, some sat with their hands clasped round their knees, and one, with head bent down, remained with his face hidden in his hands.
The speaker sat a little way apart. The light from the oil lamp, suspended from the ceiling, fell upon his face. He wore a peasant's blouse. It seemed to her a face she knew. Possibly she had passed him in the village street and had looked at him without remembering. It was his eyes that for long years afterwards still haunted her. She did not notice at the time what language he was speaking. But there were none who did not understand him.
"You think of God as of a great King," he said, "a Ruler who orders all things: who could change all things in the twinkling of an eye. You see the cruelty and the wrong around you. And you say to yourselves: 'He has ordered it. If He would, He could have willed it differently.' So that in your hearts you are angry with Him. How could it be otherwise? What father, loving his children, would see them suffer wrong, when by stretching out a hand he could protect them: turn their tears to gladness? What father would see his children doing evil to one another and not check them: would see them following ways leading to their destruction, and not pluck them back? If God has ordered all things, why has He created evil, making His creatures weak and sinful? Does a father lay snares for his children: leading them into temptation: delivering them unto evil?"
"There is no God, apart from Man."
"God is a spirit. His dwelling-place is in man's heart. We are His fellow-labourers. It is through man that He shall one day rule the world."
"God is knocking at your heart, but you will not open to Him. You have filled your hearts with love of self. There is no room for Him to enter in."
"God whispers to you: 'Be pitiful. Be merciful. Be just.' But you answer Him: 'If I am pitiful, I lose my time and money. If I am merciful, I forego advantage to myself. If I am just, I lessen my own profit, and another passes me in the race.'"
"And yet in your inmost thoughts you know that you are wrong: that love of self brings you no peace. Who is happier than the lover, thinking only how to serve? Who is the more joyous: he who sits alone at the table, or he who shares his meal with a friend? It is more blessed to give than to receive. How can you doubt it? For what do you toil and strive but that you may give to your children, to your loved ones, reaping the harvest of their good?"
"Who among you is the more honoured? The miser or the giver: he who heaps up riches for himself or he who labours for others?"
"Who is the true soldier? He who has put away self. His own ease and comfort, even his own needs, his own safety: they are but as a feather in the balance when weighed against his love for his comrades, for his country. The true soldier is not afraid to love. He gives his life for his friend. Do you jeer at him? Do you say he is a fool for his pains? No, it is his honour, his glory."
"God is love. Why are you afraid to let Him in? Hate knocks also at your door and to him you open wide. Why are you afraid of love? All things are created by love. Hate can but destroy. Why choose you death instead of life? God pleads to you. He is waiting for your help."
And one answered him.
"We are but poor men," he said. "What can we do? Of what use are such as we?"
The young man looked at him and smiled.
"You can ask that," he said: "you, a soldier? Does the soldier say: 'I am of no use. I am but a poor man of no account. Who has need of such as I?' God has need of all. There is none that shall not help to win the victory. It is with his life the soldier serves. Who were they whose teaching moved the world more than it has ever yet been moved by the teaching of the wisest? They were men of little knowledge, of but little learning, poor and lowly. It was with their lives they taught."
"Cast out self, and God shall enter in, and you shall be One with God. For there is none so lowly that he may not become the Temple of God: there is none so great that he shall be greater than this."
The speaker ceased. There came a faint sound at which she turned her head; and when she looked again he was gone.
The wounded men had heard it also. Dubos had moved forward. Madame Lelanne had risen. It came again, the thin, faint shrill of a distant bugle. Footsteps were descending the stairs. French soldiers, laughing, shouting, were crowding round them.
Her father met her at Waterloo. He had business in London, and they stayed on for a few days. Reading between the lines of his later letters, she had felt that all was not well with him. His old heart trouble had come back; and she noticed that he walked to meet her very slowly. It would be all right, now that she had returned, he explained: he had been worrying himself about her.
Mrs. Denton had died. She had left Joan her library, together with her wonderful collection of note books. She had brought them all up-to-date and indexed them. They would be invaluable to Francis when he started the new paper upon which they had determined. He was still in the hospital at Breganze, near to where his machine had been shot down. She had tried to get to him; but it would have meant endless delays; and she had been anxious about her father. The Italian surgeons were very proud of him, he wrote. They had had him X-rayed before and after; and beyond a slight lameness which gave him, he thought, a touch of distinction, there was no flaw that the most careful scrutiny would be likely to detect. Any day, now, he expected to be discharged. Mary had married an old sweetheart. She had grown restless in the country with nothing to do, and, at the suggestion of some friends, had gone to Bristol to help in a children's hospital; and there they had met once more.
Neil Singleton, after serving two years in a cholera hospital at Baghdad, had died of the flu in Dover twenty-fours hours after landing. Madge was in Palestine. She had been appointed secretary to a committee for the establishment of native schools. She expected to be there for some years, she wrote. The work was interesting, and appealed to her.
Flossie 'phoned her from Paddington Station, the second day, and by luck she happened to be in. Flossie had just come up from Devonshire. Sam had "got through," and she was on her way to meet him at Hull. She had heard of Joan's arrival in London from one of Carleton's illustrated dailies. She brought the paper with her. They had used the old photograph that once had adorned each week the Sunday Post. Joan hardly recognized herself in the serene, self-confident young woman who seemed to be looking down upon a world at her feet. The world was strong and cruel, she had discovered; and Joans but small and weak. One had to pretend that one was not afraid of it.
Flossie had joined every society she could hear of that was working for the League of Nations. Her hope was that it would get itself established before young Frank grew up.
"Not that I really believe it will," she confessed. "A draw might have disgusted us all with fighting. As it is, half the world is dancing at Victory balls, exhibiting captured guns on every village green, and hanging father's helmet above the mantelpiece; while the other half is nursing its revenge. Young Frank only cares for life because he is looking forward to one day driving a tank. I've made up my mind to burn Sam's uniform; but I expect it will end in my wrapping it up in lavender and hiding it away in a drawer. And then there will be all the books and plays. No self-respecting heroine, for the next ten years will dream of marrying anyone but a soldier."
Joan laughed. "Difficult to get anything else, just at present," she said. "It's the soldiers I'm looking to for help. I don't think the men who have been there will want their sons to go. It's the women I'm afraid of."
Flossie caught sight of the clock and jumped up. "Who was it said that woman would be the last thing man would civilize?" she asked.
"It sounds like Meredith," suggested Joan. "I am not quite sure."
"Well, he's wrong, anyhow," retorted Flossie. "It's no good our waiting for man. He is too much afraid of us to be of any real help to us. We shall have to do it ourselves." She gave Joan a hug and was gone.
Phillips was still abroad with the Army of Occupation. He had tried to get out of it, but had not succeeded. He held it to be gaoler's work; and the sight of the starving populace was stirring in him a fierce anger.
He would not put up again for Parliament. He was thinking of going back to his old work upon the Union. "Parliament is played out," he had written her. "Kings and Aristocracies have served their purpose and have gone, and now the Ruling Classes, as they call themselves, must be content to hear the bell toll for them also. Parliament was never anything more than an instrument in their hands, and never can be. What happens? Once in every five years you wake the people up: tell them the time has come for them to exercise their Heaven-ordained privilege of putting a cross against the names of some seven hundred gentlemen who have kindly expressed their willingness to rule over them. After that, you send the people back to sleep; and for the next five years these seven hundred gentlemen, consulting no one but themselves, rule over the country as absolutely as ever a Caesar ruled over Rome. What sort of Democracy is that? Even a Labour Government—supposing that in spite of the Press it did win through—what would be its fate? Separated from its base, imprisoned within those tradition-haunted walls, it would lose touch with the people, would become in its turn a mere oligarchy. If the people are ever to govern they must keep their hand firmly upon the machine; not remain content with pulling a lever and then being shown the door."
She had sent a note by messenger to Mary Stopperton to say she was coming. Mary had looked very fragile the last time she had seen her, just before leaving for France; and she had felt a fear. Mary had answered in her neat, thin, quavering writing, asking her to come early in the morning. Sometimes she was a little tired and had to lie down again. She had been waiting for Joan. She had a present for her.
The morning promised to be fair, and she decided to walk by way of the Embankment. The great river with its deep, strong patience had always been a friend to her. It was Sunday and the city was still sleeping. The pale December sun rose above the mist as she reached the corner of Westminster Bridge, turning the river into silver and flooding the silent streets with a soft, white, tender light.
The tower of Chelsea Church brought back to her remembrance of the wheezy old clergyman who had preached there that Sunday evening, that now seemed so long ago, when her footsteps had first taken her that way by chance. Always she had intended making inquiries and discovering his name. Why had she never done so? It would surely have been easy. He was someone she had known as a child. She had become quite convinced of that. She could see his face close to hers as if he had lifted her up in his arms and was smiling at her. But pride and power had looked out of his eyes then.
It was earlier than the time she had fixed in her own mind and, pausing with her elbows resting on the granite parapet, she watched the ceaseless waters returning to the sea, bearing their burden of impurities.
"All roads lead to Calvary." It was curious how the words had dwelt with her, till gradually they had become a part of her creed. She remembered how at first they had seemed to her a threat chilling her with fear. They had grown to be a promise, a hope held out to all. The road to Calvary! It was the road to life. By the giving up of self we gained God.
And suddenly a great peace came to her. One was not alone in the fight, God was with us: the great Comrade. The evil and the cruelty all round her: she was no longer afraid of it. God was coming. Beyond the menace of the passing day, black with the war's foul aftermath of evil dreams and hatreds, she saw the breaking of the distant dawn. The devil should not always triumph. God was gathering His labourers.
God was conquering. Unceasing through the ages, God's voice had crept round man, seeking entry. Through the long darkness of that dim beginning, when man knew no law but self, unceasing God had striven: until at last one here and there, emerging from the brute, had heard—had listened to the voice of love and pity, and in that hour, unknowing, had built to God a temple in the wilderness.
Labourers together with God. The mighty host of those who through the ages had heard the voice of God and had made answer. The men and women in all lands who had made room in their hearts for God. Still nameless, scattered, unknown to one another: still powerless as yet against the world's foul law of hate, they should continue to increase and multiply, until one day they should speak with God's voice and should be heard. And a new world should be created.
God. The tireless Spirit of eternal creation, the Spirit of Love. What else was it that out of formlessness had shaped the spheres, had planned the orbits of the suns. The law of gravity we named it. What was it but another name for Love, the yearning of like for like, the calling to one another of the stars. What else but Love had made the worlds, had gathered together the waters, had fashioned the dry land. The cohesion of elements, so we explained it. The clinging of like to like. The brotherhood of the atoms.
God. The Eternal Creator. Out of matter, lifeless void, he had moulded His worlds, had ordered His endless firmament. It was finished. The greater task remained: the Universe of mind, of soul. Out of man it should be created. God in man and man in God: made in like image: fellow labourers together with one another: together they should build it. Out of the senseless strife and discord, above the chaos and the tumult should be heard the new command: "Let there be Love."
The striking of the old church clock recalled her to herself. But she had only a few minutes' walk before her. Mary had given up her Church work. It included the cleaning, and she had found it beyond her failing strength. But she still lived in the tiny cottage behind its long strip of garden. The door yielded to Joan's touch: it was seldom fast closed. And knowing Mary's ways, she entered without knocking and pushed it to behind her, leaving it still ajar.
And as she did so, it seemed to her that someone passing breathed upon her lips a little kiss: and for a while she did not move. Then, treading softly, she looked into the room.
It welcomed her, as always, with its smile of cosy neatness. The spotless curtains that were Mary's pride: the gay flowers in the window, to which she had given children's names: the few poor pieces of furniture, polished with much loving labour: the shining grate: the foolish china dogs and the little china house between them on the mantelpiece. The fire was burning brightly, and the kettle was singing on the hob.
Mary's work was finished. She sat upright in her straight-backed chair before the table, her eyes half closed. It seemed so odd to see those little work-worn hands idle upon her lap.
Joan's present lay on the table near to her, as if she had just folded it and placed it there: the little cap and the fine robe of lawn: as if for a king's child.
Joan had never thought that Death could be so beautiful. It was as if some friend had looked in at the door, and, seeing her so tired, had taken the work gently from her hands, and had folded them upon her lap. And she had yielded with a smile.
Joan heard a faint rustle and looked up. A woman had entered. It was the girl she had met there on a Christmas Day, a Miss Ensor. Joan had met her once or twice since then. She was still in the chorus. Neither of them spoke for a few minutes.
"I have been expecting every morning to find her gone," said the girl. "I think she only waited to finish this." She gently unfolded the fine lawn robe, and they saw the delicate insertion and the wonderful, embroidery.
"I asked her once," said the girl, "why she wasted so much work on them. They were mostly only for poor people. 'One never knows, dearie,' she answered, with that childish smile of hers. 'It may be for a little Christ.'"
They would not let less loving hands come near her.
* * * * *
Her father had completed his business, and both were glad to leave London. She had a sense of something sinister, foreboding, casting its shadow on the sordid, unclean streets, the neglected buildings falling into disrepair. A lurking savagery, a half-veiled enmity seemed to be stealing among the people. The town's mad lust for pleasure: its fierce, unjoyous laughter: its desire ever to be in crowds as if afraid of itself: its orgies of eating and drinking: its animal-like indifference to the misery and death that lay but a little way beyond its own horizon! She dared not remember history. Perhaps it would pass.
The long, slow journey tried her father's strength, and assuming an authority to which he yielded obedience tempered by grumbling, Joan sent him to bed, and would not let him come down till Christmas Day. The big, square house was on the outskirts of the town where it was quiet, and in the afternoon they walked in the garden sheltered behind its high brick wall.
He told her of what had been done at the works. Arthur's plan had succeeded. It might not be the last word, but at least it was on the road to the right end. The men had been brought into it and shared the management. And the disasters predicted had proved groundless.
"You won't be able to indulge in all your mad schemes," he laughed, "but there'll be enough to help on a few. And you will be among friends. Arthur told me he had explained it to you and that you had agreed."
"Yes," she answered. "It was the last time he came to see me in London. And I could not help feeling a bit jealous. He was doing things while I was writing and talking. But I was glad he was an Allway. It will be known as the Allway scheme. New ways will date from it."
She had thought it time for him to return indoors, but he pleaded for a visit to his beloved roses. He prided himself on being always able to pick roses on Christmas Day.
"This young man of yours," he asked, "what is he like?"
"Oh, just a Christian gentleman," she answered. "You will love him when you know him."
He laughed. "And this new journal of his?" he asked. "It's got to be published in London, hasn't it?"
She gave a slight start, for in their letters to one another they had been discussing this very point.
"No," she answered, "it could be circulated just as well from, say, Birmingham or Manchester."
He was choosing his roses. They held their petals wrapped tight round them, trying to keep the cold from their brave hearts. In the warmth they would open out and be gay, until the end.
"Not Liverpool?" he suggested.
"Or even Liverpool," she laughed.
They looked at one another, and then beyond the sheltering evergreens and the wide lawns to where the great square house seemed to be listening.
"It's an ugly old thing," he said.
"No, it isn't," she contradicted. "It's simple and big and kind. I always used to feel it disapproved of me. I believe it has come to love me, in its solemn old brick way."
"It was built by Kent in seventeen-forty for your great-great grandfather," he explained. He was regarding it more affectionately. "Solid respectability was the dream, then."
"I think that's why I love it," she said: "for it's dear, old-fashioned ways. We will teach it the new dreams, too. It will be so shocked, at first."
They dined in state in the great dining-room.
"I was going to buy you a present," he grumbled. "But you wouldn't let me get up."
"I want to give you something quite expensive, Dad," she said. "I've had my eye on it for years."
She slipped her hand in his. "I want you to give me that Dream of yours; that you built for my mother, and that all went wrong. They call it Allway's Folly; and it makes me so mad. I want to make it all come true. May I try?"
* * * * *
It was there that he came to her.
She stood beneath the withered trees, beside the shattered fountain. The sad-faced ghosts peeped out at her from the broken windows of the little silent houses.
She wondered later why she had not been surprised to see him. But at the time it seemed to be in the order of things that she should look up and find him there.
She went to him with outstretched arms.
"I'm so glad you've come," she said. "I was just wanting you."
They sat on the stone step of the fountain, where they were sheltered from the wind; and she buttoned his long coat about him.
"Do you think you will go on doing it?" he asked, with a laugh.
"I'm so afraid," she answered gravely. "That I shall come to love you too much: the home, the children and you. I shall have none left over."
"There is an old Hindoo proverb," he said: "That when a man and woman love they dig a fountain down to God."
"This poor, little choked-up thing," he said, "against which we are sitting; it's for want of men and women drawing water, of children dabbling their hands in it and making themselves all wet, that it has run dry."
She took his hands in hers to keep them warm. The nursing habit seemed to have taken root in her.
"I see your argument," she said. "The more I love you, the deeper will be the fountain. So that the more Love I want to come to me, the more I must love you."
"Don't you see it for yourself?" he demanded.
She broke into a little laugh.
"Perhaps you are right," she admitted. "Perhaps that is why He made us male and female: to teach us to love."
A robin broke into a song of triumph. He had seen the sad-faced ghosts steal silently away.