I glanced hurriedly at the spot where the bullet had struck him. The small hole could hardly be seen against the brown skin, just at the point of the left buttock.
"Just wait here for us; I shall be back in a moment."
I wanted to see if to the east of the village I could note anything interesting, and I turned round towards my other troopers, whose horses were panting behind us. I was horrified to see Corporal Madelaine's face streaming with blood.
"It is nothing, sir ...; it passed in front of my nose."
He wiped his face with the back of his hand. It had indeed been grazed by a bullet. One half-inch more, and the good fellow's nose would have been carried off. Fortunately the skin was hardly broken. Madelaine went on:
"It's nothing; ... but my mare...."
He had dismounted, and with a look of distress showed me his horse's blood-stained thigh. "Attraction" was the name of his pretty and delicate little grey mare, which he loved and cared for passionately. A bullet had pierced her thigh right through, and the blood had flowed down her leg. I calmed him by saying, "Come, come; it will be nothing. Go on foot behind that wood, and get quietly under cover with Lemaitre. I will soon come and join you."
And I went off with Vercherin, Finet, and Wattrelot. I tried to get round to the right of Courgivault. But now that the first shots had been fired we were not allowed to come nearer. As soon as we appeared a violent fusillade burst from the outskirts of the village, which forced us to beat a rapid retreat. There was no longer any doubt about it; Courgivault was occupied, and occupied in strength.
Under the shelter of a bank I quickly dismounted, and Wattrelot took my horse's bridle. Whilst I knelt on one knee and on the other wrote my report for the Colonel, Vercherin and Finet, at an interval of 100 yards, kept a good look-out on the ridge for the enemy's movements. I handed my message to Wattrelot:
"Take this to the Colonel, and quickly. I will wait here for the brigade."
I then rode slowly to the corner of the wood, where Madelaine and Lemaitre were posted, whilst Wattrelot went off at a trot across the stubble. But a sad sight was awaiting me.
Lemaitre was standing in great grief over poor "Ramier," lying inert on the ground and struggling feebly with death. His eyes were already dull and his legs convulsed. Every now and then he shuddered violently.
I looked at Lemaitre, who felt as if he were losing his best friend. And, indeed, is not our horse our best friend when we are campaigning—the friend that serves us well to the very last, that saves us time and again from death, and carries us until he can carry us no longer? I dismounted and threw the reins to Lemaitre:
"Don't grieve, my good fellow; it is a fine end for your 'Ramier.' He might, like so many others, have died worn out with work or suffering under some hedgerow. He has a soldier's death. All we can do is to cut short his sufferings and send him quickly to rejoin his many good comrades in the paradise of noble animals. For they have their paradise, I am sure."
But Lemaitre hardly seemed convinced. He shook his head sadly, and said:
"Oh, mon Lieutenant! I shall never be able to replace him. Such a good animal! such a fine creature! He jumped so well.... And his coat was always so beautiful; he was so sleek and so easy to keep.... No, I shall never find another like him."
"Oh! yes, you will."
However, I must confess my hand trembled as I drew my revolver. One horse the less in a troop is somewhat the same as one child the less in a family. And, besides, it means one trooper unmounted and the loss of a sword in battle. Lemaitre was right. "Ramier" was a good old servant, one of the kind that never goes lame, can feed on anything or on nothing, and never hurts anybody. It was hard to put an end to him; but since he was done for....
I put the muzzle of my revolver into his ear. I did not wish him to feel the cold metal; but his whole body shuddered, and his eye, lighting up for a moment, seemed to reproach me. Paff! A short, sharp report, and "Ramier" quivered for a moment. Then his sufferings ceased, and his stiffening carcase added one more to the many that strewed the country.
Whilst Lemaitre slung his heavy package on his shoulders and went off to return to the regiment with Corporal Madelaine, who was leading "Attraction," I went back to my observation post, not far from Finet and Vercherin. Silence and gloom still hung over Courgivault.
Suddenly, behind me, coming out of the wood, I saw a cavalry troop in extended order, riding in our direction. They were Chasseurs d'Afrique. I recognised them by the large numbers of white horses, which made light patches upon the dark green of the thicket, and almost at the same moment a dull report resounded in the distance. A curious humming noise was heard above our heads, and a shell fell and burst at the foot of the stacks in the possession of the Prussian infantry. It came from one of our batteries of 75-millimetre guns, which was already getting the range of Courgivault.
My message had reached the Colonel. The battle of the Marne had begun.
* * * * *
Under a superbly clear sky, lit up by myriads of stars, the brigade, in a high state of delight, crossed the battlefield on returning to camp. Above our heads the last shells sent by the enemy were bursting in bouquets of fire. We paid no attention to them. Meeting some battalions of infantry on their way to reinforce the line, we were asked for news, and shouted: "Courgivault, Montceau ... taken, lost, then retaken with the bayonet by the brave infantry of the M. Division. Enemy's regiments annihilated by our artillery, which has done magnificently...."
Little by little the firing died away along the whole line. Fires, started by the shells, lit up the battlefield on every side, like torches set ablaze for our glory. All hearts were filled with joy. It hovered over the blood-stained country, from which arose a kind of intoxication that took possession of our souls.
How splendid is the evening of a first victory!
IV. THE JAULGONNE AFFAIR
On September 9, at about eight o'clock in the evening, our advanced scouts entered Montigny-les-Conde at the moment when the last dragoons of the Prussian Guard were leaving it at full speed. Our pursuit was stopped by the night, which was very dark. Large threatening clouds were moving across the sky, making it impossible to see ten paces ahead. Whilst the captains were hastily posting guards all round the village, whilst the lieutenants were erecting barricades at all the outlets and setting sentries over them, the quartermasters had all the barns and stables thrown open. With the help of the inhabitants they portioned out, as well as they could, the insufficient accommodation among the men and the horses of the squadrons. In each troop camp fires were lighted under shelter of the walls so that the enemy should not see them.
What a dinner we had that evening! It was in a large room with a low open roof supported by small beams. The walls were smoke-blackened and dirty. On a chest placed near the door I can see still a big pile of ration loaves, thrown together anyhow; and leaning over the hearth of the large fireplace, lit up by the wood fire, was an unknown man who was stirring something in a pot. Round the large table a score of hungry and jaded but merry officers were fraternally sharing some pieces of meat which the man took out of the pot.
The Captain and I ate out of the same plate and drank out of the same metal cup, for crockery was scarce. The poor woman of the house ran round the table, consumed by her eagerness to make everybody comfortable. And in the farthest corner, away from the light, a very old peasant, with a dazed look and haggard eyes, was watching the unexpected scene. The company heartily cheered Captain C. for his cleverness in finding and bringing to light, from some nook or other, a large pitcher of rough wine.
For three days we had been pursuing and fighting the German army, and we were tired out; but we had not felt it until the evening on stopping to give our poor horses a little rest. Before the last mouthful had been swallowed several of us were already snoring with their heads on their arms upon the table.
The rest were talking about the situation. The enemy was retreating rapidly on the Marne. He must have crossed it now, leaving as cover for his retreat the division of the Cavalry of the Guard which our brigade had been fighting unceasingly ever since the battle of September 6. Would they have time to blow up all the bridges behind them? Should we be obliged to wait until our sappers had built new ones before we could resume our pursuit?
We were particularly anxious about two fine officers that our Colonel had just sent out that night on a reconnaissance—F., of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, and my old friend O., of our squadron. We wondered anxiously whether they would be able to perform their task—to get at all costs as far as the Marne, and let us know by dawn whether the river could be crossed either at Mont Saint Pere, Jaulgonne, Passy-sur-Marne, or Dormans. Nothing could have been more hazardous than these expeditions, made on a dark night across a district still occupied by the enemy.
The night was short. Before day dawned the horses were saddled and the men ready to mount. And as soon as the first rays of morning filtered through, my squadron, which had been told off as advance guard of the brigade, rapidly descended the steep slopes which commanded the small town of Conde. A.'s troop led. My business was to reconnoitre the eastern part of the town with mine, whilst F., with his troop, was to see to the western quarters.
With sabres drawn, our Chasseurs distributed themselves briskly, by squads, through the streets of the old city. The horses' hoofs resounded cheerily on the paved streets between the old grey houses. The inhabitants ventured out upon their doorsteps, in spite of the early hour, with some hesitation at first, but glad indeed when they saw our light-blue uniforms; they cheered, crying: "They are gone!... they are gone!" But some old folk replied more calmly to my questions: "Monsieur l'Officier, have a care. They were here an hour ago with a large number of horses and guns. There was even a general, with his whole staff, lodged at the great house up there.... We would not swear that some of them are not there still."
I collected my troop, and then went quickly to the chateau which stood at the northern entrance of Conde. It was rather a fine building, but I had not time to notice its architectural style. Haste was necessary, for the brigade behind me was due to arrive. As far as I remember, the chateau formed a harmonious whole, and the different parts of it showed up cheerfully against the dark foliage of the park, which was still glittering after the night's rain. The building was in the form of a horseshoe, and in the centre there was a kind of courtyard bordered by two rows of orange trees in tubs.
I at once posted two guards, one on the road to provide against any surprise and the other at the park entrance to prevent egress, in case any fugitive should attempt to pass. Then, with the rest of my men, I rode through the large gilded iron gates at a trot. In the avenue which led to the house two men were standing motionless. One of them, dressed in black and clean-shaven, appeared to be some old servant of the family, the other must have been one of the gardeners. Their pale faces and red eyes showed that they had had little sleep that night.
"Well, my friend," said I to one of them, "is there anybody left at your place?"
"Sir," he answered, "I couldn't tell you; for I have not set foot in the house since they left it. What I do know is that they feasted all night and got horribly drunk. They have drunk the whole cellar dry, and I shouldn't be surprised if some of them are still under the table."
But when I asked him to come in with me, to act as guide for our visit, he refused with a look of horror. He trembled all over at the thought of seeing perchance one of the guests who had been forced upon him. As there was no time to be lost, I told my men to dismount at once, and gave orders to one corporal to search the right wing of the building, to another to reconnoitre the left wing. I myself undertook to see about the central block with the rest of my troop. We had to make haste, so I instructed my subordinates to go quickly through the different rooms and not to inspect them in detail.
The entrance door was wide open. Taking my revolver in my hand, I entered the hall, which was in indescribable disorder. Orderlies had evidently slept and had their meals there, for the stone floor was littered with straw, and empty bottles, sardine-boxes, and pieces of bread were lying about. But when I opened the door of the dining-room I could not help pausing for a moment to look at the strange sight before me. The grey light of that September morning came in through four large windows and shone dimly upon the long table. The officers of the Guard had certainly made their arrangements well. They had levied contribution upon all the silver plate that could be found, which was hardly necessary, for, as they had arrived too late to have a proper meal prepared, they had to be content with what they had brought with them. The contrast between the rich plate, some of it broken, the empty silver dishes, and the empty tins of preserved meat was strange indeed. But they had solaced themselves in the cellar. Innumerable bottles, both empty and full, were piled upon the furniture. Costly glasses of all shapes and sizes, some empty, others still half full, were standing about in every direction. The white tablecloth was soiled with large purple stains. The floor was littered with bits of smashed glass. By the table, the chairs that had been pushed back or overturned showed the number of drinkers to have been about ten. An acrid smell of tobacco and wine hung about this scene of an overnight orgy.
One thing I specially remember: the sight of an officer's cap, with a red band, hanging from one of the branches of the large chandelier in the centre of the room. And I could not help picturing to my mind the head of the man it had belonged to, some Rittmeister, with an eyeglass, fat pink cheeks and neck bulging over the collar of his tunic. What a pity he had been able to decamp! That is the kind of countenance we should so much have liked to see closer and face to face.
But I could not wait. We rushed hastily through drawing-rooms turned upside down, and bedrooms where the beds still bore traces of summary use by heavy bodies. But we found no forgotten drunkard in them.
My two corporals were already waiting for us when we returned to the courtyard. They had not found any one in their search. Quickly we mounted, and passed rapidly out by the gilded gates. The old servant and the gardener were still on the same spot, standing silent and depressed. They said not a word to us, nor did they make any sign; they seemed to be completely unhinged and incapable of understanding what had happened.
I had hardly returned to the squadron when I saw a sight I can never forget. At a turn in the road three horsemen came towards us covered with blood. I recognised F., the officer of Chasseurs d'Afrique, who had been sent out to reconnoitre the evening before. He had lost his cap, and had his head bound up with a blood-stained handkerchief. His left arm was likewise slung in an improvised bandage tied round his neck. He was followed by two men who were also covered with wounds. Their eyes shone bright and resolute in their feverish faces. One of them, having no scabbard, was still holding his sword, which was twisted and stained with blood. We pulled up instinctively and saluted.
"I haven't been able to reach the Marne," said F., with disappointment in his voice. "But, being fired upon by their outposts in the dark, we charged and got through, and then charged through two villages under a hail of bullets; and again we had to charge their outposts to get back. You see, ... I have brought back two men out of eight, and all my horses have been killed.... These horses"—pointing to his own—"are those of three Uhlans we killed so as not to have to come home on foot."
Certainly they were not riding the pretty little animals that make such excellent mounts for our Chasseurs d'Afrique, but were perched on three big mares with the heavy German equipment.
"But," F. repeated in a tone of vexation, "I wasn't able to get to the Marne.... There were too many of them for us."
We pressed his unwounded hand warmly. Poor F.! Brave fellow! Not many days afterwards he was to meet a glorious death charging once more, with three Chasseurs, to rescue one of his men who had been wounded. A more perfect type of cavalryman—I might say, of knight—was never seen. He sleeps now, riddled with lance wounds, in the plains of Champagne.
We had hardly left him when we caught sight of the reconnoitring party of my comrade O., and were overjoyed to find that he had come back unscathed with all his men. And yet he had had to face a fair number of dangers—attacks by cyclists and pursuit by cavalry. At Crezancy, where he arrived at three o'clock in the morning, he found the village occupied and strongly held. There is only one bridge over the railway there, and that is at the other end of the village. By good luck he was able to get hold of one of the inhabitants; and he forced him, by holding his revolver to his head, to guide him by all sorts of byways so as to make a circuit without attracting attention and get to the bridge. There he set forward at a gallop, and passed, in spite of being fired on by the guard. At last he reached the Marne. The only bridge he found intact for crossing the river was the bridge at Jaulgonne, a slender, fragile suspension-bridge, but one that we should be very glad to find if there was still time to use it. He then hurried back through the woods, but not without having to run the gauntlet of rifle fire several times more. He brought back information which was to guide our advance.
It was seen at once that there was not a minute to lose. The Captain detached me immediately, with my troop, to act as a flank-guard along the line of wooded crests by which the road on the right was commanded, whilst F., with his troop, crossed the Surmelin and the railway which runs alongside of it, and went to carry out the same task on the other side of the valley.
My job was difficult enough. In fact, the heights, which look down upon the course of the Surmelin to the east, consist of a series of ridges separated by narrow ravines at right angles to the river, and these we had to cross to continue our route towards the north. The enemy seemed to have withdrawn completely from this region, and the cannon fire in the distance towards the east could hardly be heard. At last, at about seven o'clock in the morning, we debouched upon the valley of the Marne.
Whilst I sent some troopers along the road which winds by the Surmelin to keep in touch with my Captain, I carefully inspected the right bank of the Marne with my glasses. The scene would have tempted a painter, and the labours of war do not prevent one from enjoying the charm of such delightful pictures. The sun was gradually dispersing the mist of the sullen morning, and was beginning to gild the wooded heights which look down upon the two banks of the river. Everywhere a calm was reigning, which seemed to promise a day of exquisite beauty. We might have fancied that we were bent on some peaceful rural work favoured by a radiant autumn morning. The Marne in this region winds in graceful curves. It flows limpid and clear through a narrow valley carpeted with green meadows and bordered, right and left, by gentle hills dotted with woods. At our feet, peeping from the poplars and beeches on the bank, we saw the white houses of dainty villages—Charteves, Jaulgonne, Varennes, and Barzy.
I directed my attention more particularly towards Jaulgonne, because it was in that direction that the attempt to cross the river would be made. The heights immediately above Jaulgonne rise steeply on the north bank, and almost stand in the river. On the other hand, to the south, on our side, the left bank of the Marne is bordered by extensive meadows crossed by the railway and the high-road to Epernay. The position therefore would have been very strong for the Germans, if they had crossed to the other side of the river, for we should have been obliged, before we could reach the bridge, to traverse a vast open expanse which they could have kept under the fire of their artillery. My Chasseurs, prompt to grasp the reason of things, scrutinised the opposite bank no less intently than I. No movement could be seen; nothing suggested the presence of troops among the russet thickets which covered the sides of the silent hill. Could they have already retired farther off? Could they have abandoned this formidable position without any attempt to defend it?
At that moment one of my Chasseurs appeared, coming by the steep path which led from the road to the wooded ridge on which we were. His horse was panting, for the declivity was stiff, and he had had to hasten. He brought me orders.
"Mon Lieutenant, the Captain has sent me to tell you to join him as quickly as possible at the other end of the bridge. The first troop has already crossed, but some of the enemy's horse have been seen on the other side of the village."
As he said these words we heard some firing in the distance, which sounded very distinct and sharp in the radiant peace of that beautiful September morning. "Come, so much the better," thought I. "We have engaged them. We shall have a good time." My men had already begun to joke and to be more alert and abrupt in their movements. It was a kind of joyous reaction which always affects troopers when they begin to hear the guns and look forward to a good hard ride in which they, like the rest of us, are always certain of getting the best of it.
In single file we went quickly down towards the plain by the stony, slippery path. We soon reached the high-road, and then turned to the left and came upon the long causeway bordered by poplars which led to the bridge. Quite close to the bank I saw a small group of dismounted cavalrymen, and soon recognised our Colonel with his Brigade Staff. He was giving his orders to the Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the Chasseurs d'Afrique. I went up to him to report, and learnt that the first squadron had already crossed the river and occupied the village on the other side. Some parties of German cavalry had been seen on the neighbouring heights.
I got ready to rejoin my comrades at once. But patience was required if the Marne was to be crossed. The bridge appeared to be a delicate sort of toy hovering over the water. How could they dream of sending thousands of men, horses, and guns over a thing so slender that it looked as though it were supported by the fragile meshes of a spider's web? Captain D. gave me the Colonel's precise orders: not to pass more than four troopers at a time, and these at walking pace.
Taking the initiative in the movement, I started with my first four Chasseurs. The bridge rang strangely under our horses' hoofs, and seemed to me to oscillate in an alarming manner. Fortunately the enemy was not on the other side; if he had been, our passage would have cost us dear.
As I was making these reflections a violent fusillade burst out from the edge of the woods overlooking Jaulgonne to the east. It must have been directed upon the village, for no bullets whistled around us, so it was probably our first squadron engaging the German cavalry. When I got to the other end of the bridge my impatience increased. It was torture to think of the time it would take to collect my thirty men and hurry forward to help the others; and I noticed the same impatience in my men's looks. Those who were on the bridge, walking slowly and gently across, seemed to implore me to let them trot; but I pretended not to understand, and the horses' feet continued to trample heavily over the echoing bridge. At last all my men were over.
We fell in and reached Jaulgonne at a trot. On passing through it we found several of the inhabitants on their doorsteps:
"Monsieur l'Officier, ... Monsieur l'Officier, will they come back again?"
"Never!" I shouted, with conviction.
I stopped an orderly, who told me that the German cavalry were firing on the exit from the town. How many of them he could not say, as they were hidden in the woods. He told me, too, that the first squadron was holding all the entrances to the north and east of the village except the one on the river bank on the road to Marcilly, where my comrade F. had posted his troop. I decided then to put myself at the disposal of the party defending the chief exit from the village, the one that opened into the road to Fismes. It was the most important one, for it was in that direction that the Germans were retiring.
The village had been prevented from spreading further to the north by the heights, which formed an abrupt barrier. It is built astride the road to Fismes, which thus becomes its principal, if not its only, street. I had then to go right through Jaulgonne before I could get out of it in the direction of the firing. I soon did this, and found the horses of the first squadron massed in the short alleys leading out of the main street. I ordered my troop to dismount in a yard much too small and very inconvenient. But the first thing to do was to clear the causeway and shelter our horses from bullets, which might enfilade the street if the fighting bore away towards the left. Then, whilst a non-commissioned officer collected the squads for the action on foot, I ran as far as the furthest houses of the village to reconnoitre the ground and get orders.
I spied Major P. in a sheltered nook, still mounted, and he told me of his anxiety about the situation. The enemy riflemen were invisible, and were riddling the outskirts of the village, while we were unable to reply; and some guns had been seen which were being got into position. He advised me to go and see the captain of the first squadron, who had been ordered to defend that entrance of the village, and to place myself at his disposal in case of need.
Whilst we were talking, my troop, led by its non-commissioned officer, came to the place where we were, edging along by the walls. The men, calm and smiling, with their carbines ready, waited in silence for the signal to advance. I signed to them to wait a little longer, and then going round the wall I found myself suddenly in the thick of the fray. I must say the reception I got startled me. The bullets came rattling in hundreds, chipping the walls and cutting branches from the trees. On our side there was absolute silence. Our men, on their knees or lying flat behind any cover they could find, did not reply, as they could see nothing, and waited stoically under the shower of bullets until their adversaries chose to advance.
I looked for Captain de L., who commanded the first squadron. There he was, standing with his face to the enemy, and his hands in his pockets, quietly giving his orders to a non-commissioned officer. On my asking him if he wanted me, he explained the situation: the enemy, numbers unknown, was occupying the woods overlooking Jaulgonne to the east. It was impossible for us to debouch just yet. The essential thing was to hold the village, and consequently the bridge, until our infantry could come up. He told me that the first troop of my squadron, led by Lieutenant d'A., had just advanced, in extended order, into the vineyards, orchards, and fields stretching between the road and the river. He was going to reconnoitre the woods and see what kind of force was holding it.
"You see, dear fellow, for the present I don't want the help of your carbines; I have my whole squadron here, and they can't get a shot. So long as the enemy sticks to the wood all we can do is to wait and keep our powder dry."
I put my troop under shelter in a small yard, and directed my non-commissioned officer to keep in touch with me, in case I might want him. Then I went back to the outskirts of the village to examine the ground. I then joined my friend S. behind a large heap of faggots: he commanded the nearest troop of the first squadron, and we could not help laughing at the curious situation—being formed up for battle, fronting the enemy, under a hail of bullets, and not able to see anything.
During the campaign S. had become a philosopher, and he deserved some credit for it; for the great moral and physical sufferings we had endured must have been even still more insupportable to him than to any of us. In the regiment, S. was considered preeminently the Society officer. He went to all the receptions, all the afternoon teas, all the bridge parties, all the dinners. He was an adept at tennis and golf and a first-rate shot. His elegance was proverbial, and the beautiful cut of his tunics, breeches, jackets, and coats was universally admired. The way his harness was kept and the shape of his high boots were a marvel. To say all this is to give some idea of the change he suddenly experienced in his habits and his tastes during those demoralising days of retreat and merciless hours of pursuit. But, in spite of all, he had kept his good humour and never lost his gay spirits. He still accompanied his talk with elaborate gestures, and seemed to be just as much at ease behind his heap of wood, bombarded with bullets, as in the best appointed drawing-room. His clothes were stained and patched, his beard had begun to grow, and yet under this rough exterior the polished man of the world could always be divined.
He explained the beginnings of the affair with perfect clearness and self-possession; how the scouts sent up to the ridge by d'A. and driven off by the Germans had fallen back upon Jaulgonne; how the first squadron had come to barricade and defend the village, and in what anxiety they were waiting to know what had become of d'A.'s troop, which had started out to reconnoitre the wood.
We hoisted ourselves to the top of the faggot-stack and peeped over carefully. The glaring white road wound up the flank of the slope between fields dotted with apple trees. At a distance of 800 yards in front of us stretched the dark border of the wood, from which the fusillade was coming. To our right, at the edge of the water, on the road leading to Marcilly, F. must have been able to see the enemy, for we could distinctly hear the crackle of his carbines.
Our attention was drawn to a man of F.'s troop running along under the wall, bending almost double to escape the attention of the sniper, and endeavouring to screen himself behind the high grass. As soon as he came near enough we called out:
"What is it?"
"The Lieutenant has sent me to say that the enemy has just placed some guns in position up there, in the opening of the wood."
Saying which, he pointed vaguely in a direction where we could see nothing. However, we knew that F. would not have warned us if he had not been quite certain of the fact, so for some unpleasant minutes we wondered what the enemy's objective was. We longed to know, at once, where the projectiles were going to burst. Would it be on F.'s troop, or on the bridge, or on the infantry, which, perhaps, were beginning to debouch, or, perhaps, on that portion of the brigade that had remained dismounted on the left bank, drawn up for action? The uncertainty was worse than the danger itself. But we were not long in doubt. Two shrieks of flying shells! Two explosions about 300 yards in front of us! Two puffs of white smoke rising above the green fields! This showed they had an objective we had not considered, namely, d'A.'s troop, for the shrapnel had burst in the direction he had just taken with his men.
Our anxiety did not last long. We soon made out our Chasseurs, coming back quietly, not running, and in good order. They took to the ditch, a fairly deep one, which ran along on the left side of the road, and covered them up to the middle. The German shells were badly aimed, and exploded either in front of them or higher up on the hillside. But our anxiety became more intense every minute. Had a shell fallen on the road or in the ditch, we should have seen those brave fellows knocked over, mown down, cut to pieces, by the hail of bullets. When we are fighting ourselves we hardly have time to think about our neighbours in this way. We have our own cares, and our first thought is the safety of the men who form our little family, the troop. But when one is safe, or fairly so, it is torture to watch comrades advancing under the enemy's fire without any protection. At that moment the Germans were concentrating their fire upon that small line of men we were looking at, 200 yards away from us. The shells succeeded one another uninterruptedly, but without any greater precision. We watched our friends coming nearer until they had almost reached our barricade, and noticed that two of the Chasseurs were being supported by their comrades. In our anxiety, we got up out of shelter, but d'A. shouted: "It's nothing; only scratches...."
At last they got in, and whilst our good and indefatigable Assistant-Surgeon P. took charge of the wounded men we pressed round the officer and questioned him as to what he had seen. "Are there many of them?" "Was there any infantry?" we asked. But his daring reconnaissance had not been very fruitful. He had had to stop when the artillery had opened fire on him, and had not been able to see how many adversaries we had to deal with.
Acting on the advice of Major P., our Captain, who had just rejoined us with the third troop, gave orders to mount. We were only in the way here, where there were too many defenders already, so recrossed the bridge to put ourselves at the Colonel's disposal. I led with my troop, and we passed through Jaulgonne by the main street. The inhabitants thought we were beating a retreat and became uneasy. Some women uttered cries, begging us not to leave them at the mercy of the enemy. We had to calm them by saying that they need not fear, that we were still holding the Germans, that our infantry would soon arrive, and that in an hour the foe would have decamped.
To tell the truth, we were not quite so sure of it ourselves. The enemy was in some force, and he had guns. Our infantry had at least 15 kilometres to march before their advance guard even could debouch on the bridge at Jaulgonne. If they had not started before dawn they would not arrive before eleven o'clock, and it was then barely nine. The German artillery was already beginning to fire upon the village.
Suddenly, as we reached the market-place, we saw a group of three dismounted Chasseurs emerging from an alley that ran down steeply to the Marne. They belonged to F.'s troop. Two of them were supporting the third, whom we at once recognised. It was Laurent, a fine fellow, and a favourite with the whole squadron. It went to our hearts to see him. His left eye was nothing but a red patch, from which blood was flowing freely, drenching his clothing. He was moaning softly and, blinded by the blood, allowed himself to be led like a child. The corporal with him explained: "A bullet went in just over his eye. I don't know if the eye itself was hit."
The Captain sprang off his horse. "Cheer up, Laurent, it shall be attended to at once. Perhaps it will be nothing, my man. Come with me, we will take you to the Red Cross ambulance close by."
Then between his groans the wounded man said a thing I shall not easily forget: "Mon Capitaine, ... haven't they taken away their guns yet?"
He still took an interest in the battle. I heard afterwards that F. had sighted the German guns, and that the fire of his troop had been directed upon them. Laurent would have liked to hear that they had been driven away. He was carried off to the ambulance. I went on towards the bridge; the cannon and rifle fire still raged fiercely, but none of the shots reached the bank where we were. We had to repeat the trying process of crossing the swaying bridge by fours at walking pace. I led off with four troopers. It was not so tedious this time, as my eyes were distracted by the view of the green meadows on the opposite side.
The Colonel had disposed the brigade in such a way that he could concentrate his fire upon the bridge and the opposite bank in case we could not maintain our position there. A squadron on our left, concealed in a sand quarry, was directing its fire upon the heights where the German artillery was posted. Both up and down stream the Chasseurs d'Afrique lined the river banks, making use of every scrap of cover. Peeping out over trunks of fallen trees, banks, and ditches inquisitive heads could be seen wearing the khaki taconnet. But my troubles were not yet over. Just as I was going to step ashore from the bridge, Captain D. brought me the Colonel's orders to recross the river with my whole squadron and occupy a clump of houses to the left of the bridge. It was evidently a wise precaution. Although no firing had come from this direction, it was quite possible that some of the enemy might have slipped through the woods that come half-way down the slopes. But I did not expect such a bad time as I was going to have.
At the very moment when I was turning back, and was beginning the hateful passage for the third time, the enemy gunners, changing their objective, aimed at the bridge, and the shrapnel bullets began their disturbing music once more. Could any situation be more execrable than ours—to be upon a bridge as thin as a thread, hanging as by a miracle over a deep river, to see this bridge enfiladed by heavy musketry fire and to be obliged to walk our horses over the 200 yards which separated one bank from the other? If we had been on foot, so that we could have run and expended our strength in getting under cover—since we could not use it to defend ourselves—we should not have complained. But to be mounted on good horses, which in a few galloping strides could have carried us behind the rampart of houses, and to be obliged to hold them back instead of spurring them on, was very unpleasant, and made us feel foolish.
I looked at the four brave Chasseurs in front of me. They instinctively put up their shoulders as high as they could as if to hide their heads between them. But not one of them increased his pace. Not one of them looked round at me to beg me to give orders for a quicker advance. And what a concert was going on all the time! Whilst the horses' hoofs were beating out low and muffled notes, the bullets flew above us and around us, with shrill cracklings and whistlings which were anything but harmonious. Happily the firing was distant and disgracefully bad, for at the pace we were travelling we must have offered a very convenient mark. Another 20 yards! Ten more! At last we were safely under cover!
I communicated the Colonel's orders to the Captain, who came to join us, and directed us to occupy the little garden of a fair-sized house situated just on the edge of the Marne and the most advanced of the small group of buildings on the left-hand side of the bridge. After lodging the horses in an alley between the house and an adjoining shanty I went to reconnoitre my ground. The house was a rustic restaurant, which in the summer no doubt afforded the inhabitants an object for a walk. On passing along the terrace leading to the river I found the disorder usual in places that have been occupied by the Germans; tables overturned, bottles broken, the musty smell of empty casks, and broken crockery.
The little garden did not offer much protection for my men. However, crouching behind a kind of breastwork of earth, which shut it off from the woods, they were able, at least, to hide themselves from view. I at once posted my sharpshooters, sent out a patrol on foot as far as the entrance to the wood, and then turned my attention to what was happening near the bridge.
Whilst I was busy carrying out the Captain's orders I had not noticed that the situation had undergone a decided change, and that our chances of being able to complete our task thoroughly had increased considerably. The German guns were no longer aiming at the village. Their fire had become more rapid, and their shrapnel flew hissing over the brigade. We could see them bursting much further off, on the other side of the water, in the direction of the woods crowning the heights whence, in the morning, I had admired the smiling landscape. I inferred then that the advance guard of our corps was debouching. In half an hour it would be there, and the German cavalry, we felt sure, would not hold out much longer.
But our fine infantry had done more than this. They had, no doubt, found good roads, or perhaps the German gunners, hypnotised by the village, had not spied them. For I had now the pleasure of witnessing one of the most exhilarating spectacles I had seen since the opening of the campaign.
From where I stood on the bank I could see the thin line of the bridge above. I did not think that any one would risk crossing it now that it was known to be a mark for the enemy's fire, but suddenly I saw five men appear and begin to cross it. I could distinguish them perfectly; they were infantry soldiers, an officer and four men. The officer walked first, calmly, with a stick under his right arm, and in his left hand a map which formed a white patch on his blue coat, and behind him the men, in single file, bending slightly under their knapsacks, their caps pushed back and holding their rifles, marched firmly and steadily. They might have been on parade. Their legs could be distinguished for a moment against the blue sky. Their step was so regular that I could not help counting: one, two; one, two, as their feet struck the bridge. But just at the moment when the little group had got half-way across, a hiss, followed by a deafening explosion, made our hearts beat, and we heard the curious noise made by innumerable bullets and pieces of shell striking the water. The Germans had seen our infantry beginning to cross the river, and they were now pouring their fire upon the bridge. I looked again at the men, and saw they were there, all five of them, still marching with the same cool, resolute step: one, two; one, two. Ah! the brave fellows! How I wanted to cheer them, to shout "Bravo!" But they were too far off, and the noise of the fusillade would have prevented them from hearing me.
No sooner had they reached the bank than another little group stepped on to the narrow bridge, and then, after them, another; and each was saluted by one or two shells, with the same heavy rain of bullets falling into the water. But Providence protected our soldiers. The outline of the bridge was very slight, and the gunners of the German cavalry divisions were sorry marksmen. Their projectiles always burst either too far or too near, too high or too low. And as soon as a hundred men had got across, and the first sharpshooters had clambered up the heights that rise sheer from the river and begun to debouch upon the plateau, there was a sudden silence. The enemy's cavalry had given way, and our corps d'armee was free to pass the Marne by the bridge of Jaulgonne.
The entire battalion of the advance guard then began to pour over the bridge on their way to the plateau. Our brigade was quickly got together, and our Chasseurs hastened to water their horses. Out came the nosebags from the saddlebags. A few minutes later no one would have suspected that fighting had taken place at this spot. The men hurriedly got their snack, for we knew the halt would not last long, and that the pursuit had to be pushed till daylight failed. Our troop was in good heart and thankful that the squadron's losses had been so small. F. had just seen Laurent, the one wounded Chasseur of his troop, and said the doctors hoped to save his eye; so we had no reason to grumble.
Saddlebags were now being buckled and horses rebridled. I was to go forward to replace the troop that had led the advance guard. The Colonel sent for me and ordered me to proceed at once along the road to Fismes, search the outskirts of the village carefully, and take up a position on the heights overlooking the valley.
My troop got away quickly, and I rejoiced again at the sight of my fellows, radiant at the thought of having a dash at the enemy. We had to hasten and get ahead of the foremost parties of infantry, which also halted now for a meal. I detached my advance scouts. Their eager little horses set off at a gallop along the white road, and I was delighted to see the ease and decision with which my Chasseurs flashed out their swords. They seemed to say, "Come along, come along ...; we are ready." As for me, I rode on in quiet confidence, knowing that I had in front of me eyes keen enough to prevent any surprise.
One squad climbed nimbly up the ridge to the left. The horses scrambled up the steep ground, dislodging stones and clods of earth. They struggled with straining hocks hard to get up, and seemed to challenge each other for a race to the top. Their riders, in extended order, showed as patches of red and blue against the grey stubble. Up they went, further and further, and then disappeared over the crest. Only one was still visible, but this one was my guarantee that I had good eyes, keen and alert, on my left. Should any danger threaten from that quarter I knew well that he would pass on to me the signal received from his corporal, and I should only have to gallop to the top to judge of the situation myself. I could see the man against the blue sky, the whole outline of his body and that of his horse; the equipment and harness, the curved sword, the graceful neck, the sinewy legs, the heavy pack. I recognised the rider and knew the name of his horse. They were both of the right sort. Yes, I felt quite easy about my left.
On the right the ground dropped sheer to a narrow valley, at the bottom of which flowed a stream of clear water. Among the green trees were glittering patches here and there, on which the sun threw metallic reflections. And on the other side rose heights covered by the forest of Riz. On the edge of this forest I could see the stately ruins of a splendid country mansion. I questioned a boy who was standing on the side of the road, looking at us half timidly, half gladly.
"Tell me, child, who burnt that chateau over there?"
"M'sieur, they did; and they took everything away—all the beautiful things. They even carried everything off on big carts, and then they set fire to the house. But everything isn't burnt, and a lot of them came back again this morning with some horses, and they went on looking for things."
I sent off another squad towards the chateau, telling them first to follow the edge of the wood and to be careful how they approached it. The men got into the wood by the spaces in the bank along the road and scattered in the thickets that dotted the side of the spur we were turning. I was thus protected on my right.
I went up at a trot to the place where the road reached the plateau, and just as I was on the point of reaching it we were met by a crowd of village folk—men, women, and children—coming along, looking radiant. I saw some of them questioning my advance scouts and pointing in the direction of the north-east. It was the whole population of Le Charmel that had come out to meet us.
Le Charmel is a small village that stands at the meeting of two roads, one leading towards Fismes, the other towards Fere-en-Tardenois. It has the appearance of hanging on to the hillside, for whilst the road to Fere-en-Tardenois continues to follow the plateau, that to Fismes dips abruptly at this place and disappears in the valley. The houses of Le Charmel are perched between these two roads. Thus the people of the village had a good view of the enemy's retreat, and everybody wanted to have his say about it. I turned to a tall man, lean and tanned, with a grizzled moustache, who had something still of a military air, and seemed to be calmer than the others around him. From him I was able to get some fairly clear information.
"Mon Lieutenant, it was like this.... They went off this morning early, with a great number of cannons and horses. The artillery went straight on towards Fismes by the road. The cavalry cut across the fields, and disappeared over the ridge you see over there on the other side of the valley. Then towards eight o'clock some of them came back. How many? Well, two or three regiments perhaps, and some guns; and they went down again towards Jaulgonne. I believe they wanted to destroy the bridge. But just as they got to the turn of the hill, pan! pan!—they were fired at. Then, of course, we got back to our houses and shut them up, as the guns began to fire. But when we heard no more reports we came out again, and saw them making off across the fields like the others and in the same direction. But it is quite possible that some of them stayed in the woods, or in the farms, on the other side of the forest of Riz...."
He was interrupted by my non-commissioned officer:
"Mon Lieutenant, the scouts ... they are signalling to you...."
I galloped up to them, when they pointed out to me, at about 1,500 yards distance, on the opposite ridge, a small group of cavalrymen near a stack, and, on the side of the slope, a patrol of German dragoons, pacing slowly with lances lowered and stopping every now and then facing in our direction.
I took my glasses and looked carefully at the stack. And then I saw a sight which sent a shiver of joy through me. The horsemen had dismounted and put their horses behind the stack. Three of the men then separated themselves from the rest and formed a little group. I could not distinguish their uniforms, but saw very clearly that they were looking through their glasses at us. Now and again they put their heads together, and consulted the map, as it seemed. A man then came out from behind the stack on foot, and could be distinctly seen, against the sky, sticking into the ground by his side a square pennon which flapped gently in the breeze. As far as I could see it was half black and half white. There could be no doubt that we were confronting a Staff. So the division was not far off; it had halted, and perhaps intended this time to fight at close quarters. I told my men what I thought, and they were overjoyed at the idea that, after all, there was a hope of realising our dream. There was not one of them who doubted that the Division of the Guards had been kind enough to stop its flight, and that our brave light brigade would attack it without any hesitation and cut it to pieces. I dismounted quickly, and lost not a moment in drawing up my report. I wrote down what I had seen and what I had learnt from the inhabitants and then called one of my Chasseurs:
"To the Colonel, full gallop!"
At the touch of the spur the little chestnut turned sharp round and flew down the dusty road like a whirlwind. Meanwhile I carefully posted my men, threw out scouts over the plateau and up to the forest of Fere, and formed patrols under my non-commissioned officers. I then took up my observation post under a large tree which, to judge by its venerable look, must have seen many generations pass and many other wars. The village folk collected around me in such numbers that I was obliged to have them thrust back by my men to Le Charmel. To console them I said: "You must go away. The enemy will take you for armed troops and fire guns at you."
I kept my eye upon my "Staff," and wished my glasses could help me to distinguish more clearly what men I had to deal with. I longed to see what they were like—to examine the faces of these haughty Reiters who for the last four days had been fleeing before us and always refusing a real encounter. I fancied that among them might be found that Rittmeister with the bulging neck and pink cheeks, who, after the orgy of that night at the Chateau de Conde, had left behind him the cap that I had found hanging from the chandelier in the dining-room. How I longed to see the brigade debouch, and to receive instructions from the Colonel!
I had not long to wait. My messenger soon came back, trotting up the road from Jaulgonne. But the instructions were not what I had expected. I was to stay where I was until further orders, to continue to observe the enemy, and keep a look-out in his direction.
I learnt some details from the man. The greater part of the infantry had already crossed the bridge, and there was also some artillery on this side of the river. As he said this a clatter of wheels and chains caused me to turn my head, and I saw behind us, in the stubble-fields of the plateau, two batteries of 75's taking up positions. Ah! ah! we were going to send them our greetings then, a salute to the pompous General over there, and to his aide-de-camp, the stiff and obsequious Rittmeister, whom I imagined to be at his side. I looked on gaily with my Chasseurs at the laying of the guns. How we all loved that good little gun, which had so often come up to lend us the support of its terrible projectiles at critical moments! And those good fellows the gunners loved it too; the men we saw jumping nimbly down from their limber, quickly unhitching their piece, and pointing it with tender care towards the enemy.
Standing on a bank, with his glasses to his eyes, the officer in command gave his orders which were passed from man to man by the markers. And then suddenly we heard four loud, sharp reports behind us. The whistling of the shells, which almost grazed our heads, was impressive, and, though we knew there was no danger, we instinctively ducked. But we recovered ourselves at once to see what effect they had produced.
What a pity! They had fallen a bit short. We distinctly saw four small white puffs on the side of the hill just below the group of German officers. Ah! They didn't wait for another! I saw them make off in hot haste whilst the troopers, stationed behind the stack, galloped off the horses. The man with the flag was the last to go, closing the procession with rather more dignity. But in ten seconds the whole lot had decamped, and the only men we could see were the dragoons of the patrol, who rode back to the ridge at full speed.
But just as they reached it the second battery opened fire, and this time the sighting was just right. The four white puffs appeared exactly over the spot where the Staff had stood a minute before—two to the right and two to the left of the stack. And all we now saw of the patrol was two riderless horses galloping madly towards the woods. Then the two batteries pounded away with a will.
When I had received orders to resume the forward movement and my good Chasseurs had taken up the pursuit again, the gunners had lengthened their range with mathematical precision, and the shells burst on the farther side of the ridge. I took a grim pleasure in imagining what must have been happening there, where, no doubt, the division was drawn up, and whilst I continued to direct my vigilant and expert scouts I amused myself by picturing the brilliant troopers of the Prussian Guard in headlong flight.
V. LOW MASS AND BENEDICTION
One morning in the middle of September, 1914, as we raised our heads at about six o'clock from the straw on which we had slept, I and my friend F. had a very disagreeable surprise: we heard in the darkness the gentle, monotonous noise of water falling drop by drop from the pent-house roof on to the road.
Arriving at Pevy the evening before, just before midnight, we had found refuge in a house belonging to a peasant. The hostess, a good old soul of eighty, had placed at our disposal a small bare room paved with tiles, in which our orderlies had prepared a sumptuous bed of trusses of straw. The night had been delightful, and we should have awaked in good spirits had it not been for the distressing fact noticed by my friend.
"It is raining," said F.
I could not but agree with him. Those who have been soldiers, and especially cavalrymen, know to the full how dispiriting is the sound of those few words: "It is raining."
"It is raining" means your clothes will be saturated; your cloak will be drenched, and weigh at least forty pounds; the water will drip from your shako along your neck and down your back; above all, your high boots will be transformed into two little pools in which your feet paddle woefully. It means broken roads, mud splashing you up to the eyes, horses slipping, reins stiffened, your saddle transformed into a hip-bath. It means that the little clean linen you have brought with you—that precious treasure—in your saddlebags, will be changed into a wet bundle on which large and indelible yellow stains have been made by the soaked leather.
But it was no use to think of all this. The orders ran: "Horses to be saddled, and squadron ready to mount, at 6.30." And they had to be carried out.
It was still dark. I went out into the yard, after pulling down my campaigning cap over my ears. Well, after all, the evil was less than I had feared. It was not raining, but drizzling. The air was mild, and there was not a breath of wind. When once our cloaks were on it would take some hours for the wet to reach our shirts. At the farther end of the yard some men were moving about round a small fire. Their shadows passed to and fro in front of the ruddy light. They were making coffee—jus, as they call it—that indispensable ration in which they soak bread and make a feast without which they think a man cannot be a good soldier.
I ran to my troop through muddy alleys, skipping from side to side to avoid the puddles. Daylight appeared, pale and dismal. A faint smell rose from the sodden ground.
"Nothing new, mon Lieutenant," were the words that greeted me from the sergeant, who then made his report. I had every confidence in him; he had been some years in the service, and knew his business. Small and lean, and tightly buttoned into his tunic, in spite of all our trials he was still the typical smart light cavalry non-commissioned officer. I knew he had already gone round the stables, which he did with a candle in his hand, patting the horses' haunches and looking with a watchful eye to see whether some limb had not been hurt by a kick or entangled in its tether.
In the large yard of the abandoned and pillaged farm, where the men had been billeted they were hurrying to fasten the last buckles and take their places in the ranks. I quickly swallowed my portion of insipid lukewarm coffee, brought me by my orderly; then I went to get my orders from the Captain, who was lodged in the market-square. No word had yet been received from the Colonel, who was quartered at the farm of Vadiville, two kilometres off. Patience! We had been used to these long waits since the army had been pulled up before the formidable line of trenches which the Germans had dug north of Reims. They were certainly most disheartening; but it could not be helped, and it was of no use to complain. I turned and went slowly up the steep footpath that led to my billet.
Pevy is a poor little village, clinging to the last slopes of a line of heights that runs parallel to the road from Reims to Paris. Its houses are huddled together, and seem to be grouped at the foot of the ridges for protection from the north wind. The few alleys which intersect the village climb steeply up the side of the hill. We were obliged to tramp about in the sticky mud of the main road waiting for our orders.
Passing the church, it occurred to me to go and look inside. Since the war had begun we had hardly had any opportunity of going into the village churches we had passed. Some of them were closed because the parish priests had left for the army, or because the village had been abandoned to the enemy. Others had served as marks for the artillery, and now stood in the middle of the villages, ruins loftier and more pitiable than the rest.
The church of Pevy seemed to be clinging to the side of the hill, and was approached by a narrow stairway of greyish stone, climbing up between moss-grown walls. I first passed through the modest little churchyard, with its humble tombs half hidden in the grass, and read some of the simple inscriptions:
"Here lies ... Here lies ... Pray for him...."
The narrow pathway leading to the porch was almost hidden in the turf, and as I walked up it my boots brushed the drops from the grass. The damp seemed to be getting into my bones, for it was still drizzling—a fine persistent drizzle. Behind me the village was in mist; the roofs and the maze of chimney tops were hardly distinguishable.
Passing through a low, dark porch, I opened the heavy door studded with iron nails, and entered the church, and at once experienced a feeling of relaxation, of comfort and repose. How touching the little sanctuary of Pevy seemed to me in its humble simplicity!
Imagine a kind of hall with bare walls, the vault supported by two rows of thick pillars. The narrow Gothic windows hardly allowed the grey light to enter. There were no horrible cheap modern stained windows, but a multitude of small white rectangular leaded panes. All this was simple and worn; but to me it seemed to breathe a noble and touching poetry. And what charmed me above all was that the pale light did not reveal walls covered with the horrible colour-wash we are accustomed to see in most of our village churches.
This church was an old one, a very old one. Its style was not very well defined, for it had no doubt been built, damaged, destroyed, rebuilt and repaired by many different generations. But those who preserved it to the present day had avoided the lamentable plastering which disfigures so many others. The walls were built with fine large stones, on which time had left its melancholy impress. There was no grotesque painting on them to mar their quiet beauty, and the dim light that filtered through at that early hour gave them a vague soft glow.
No pictures or ornaments disfigured the walls. The "Stations of the Cross" were the only adornment, and they were so simple and childish in their execution that they were no doubt the work of some rustic artist. And even this added a touching note to a harmonious whole.
But my attention was attracted by a slight noise, a kind of soft and monotonous murmur, coming from the altar. The choir was almost in darkness, but I could distinguish the six stars of the lighted candles. In front of the tabernacle was standing a large white shadowy form, almost motionless and like a phantom. At the bottom of the steps another form was kneeling, bowed down towards the floor; it did not stir as I approached. I went towards the choir on tip-toe, very cautiously. I felt that I, a profane person, was committing a sacrilege by coming to disturb those two men praying there all alone in the gloom of that sad morning. A deep feeling of emotion passed through me, and I felt so insignificant in their presence and in the mysterious atmosphere of the place that I knelt down humbly, almost timidly, in the shadow of one of the great pillars near the altar.
Then I could distinguish my fellow-worshippers better. A priest was saying mass. He was young and tall, and his gestures as he officiated were slow and dignified. He did not know that some one was present watching him closely; so it could not be supposed that he was speaking and acting to impress a congregation, and yet he had a way of kneeling, of stretching out his arms and of looking up to the humble gilded cross in front of him, that revealed all the ardour of fervent prayers. Occasionally he turned towards the back of the church to pronounce the ritual words. His face was serious and kindly, framed in a youthful beard—the face of an apostle, with the glow of faith in his eyes. And I was surprised to see underneath his priest's vestments the hems of a pair of red trousers, and feet shod in large muddy military boots.
The kneeling figure at the bottom of the steps now stood out more distinctly. The man was wearing on his shabby infantry coat the white armlet with the red cross. He must have been a priest, for I could distinguish some traces of a neglected tonsure among his brown hair.
The two repeated, in a low tone by turns, words of prayer, comfort, repentance, or supplication, harmonious Latin phrases, which sounded to me like exquisite music. And as an accompaniment in the distance, in the direction of Saint Thierry and Berry-au-Bac, the deep voice of the guns muttered ceaselessly.
For the first time in the campaign I felt a kind of poignant melancholy. For the first time I felt small and miserable, almost a useless thing, compared with those two fine priestly figures who were praying in the solitude of this country church for those who had fallen and were falling yonder under shot and shell.
How I despised and upbraided myself at such moments! What a profound disgust I felt for the follies of my garrison life, its gross pleasures and silly excesses! I was ashamed of myself when I reflected that death brushed by me every day, and that I might disappear to-day or to-morrow, after so many ill-spent and unprofitable days.
Without any effort, and almost in spite of myself, pious words came back to my lips—those words that my dear mother used to teach me on her knee years and years ago. And I felt a quiet delight in the almost forgotten words that came back to me:
"Forgive us our trespasses.... Pray for us, poor sinners...."
It seemed to me that I should presently go away a better man and a more valiant soldier. And, as though to encourage and bless me, a faint ray of sunshine came through the window.
"Ite, missa est...." The priest turned round; and this time I thought his eyes rested upon me, and that the look was a benediction and an absolution.
But suddenly I heard in the alley close by a great noise of people running and horses stamping, and a voice crying:
"Mount horses!... Mount horses!"
I was sorry to leave the little church of Pevy; I should so much have liked to wait until those two priests came out, to speak to them, and talk about other things than war, massacres and pillage. But duty called me to my men, my horses, and to battle.
Shortly afterwards, as I passed at the head of my troop in front of the large farm where the ambulance of the division was quartered, I saw my abbe coming out of a barn, with his sleeves tucked up and his kepi on the side of his head. He was carrying a large pail of milk. I recognised his clear look, and had no doubt that he recognised me too, for as our eyes met he gave me a kindly smile.
My heart was lighter as I went forward, and my soul was calmer.
* * * * *
For the last six days we had been quartered at Montigny-sur-Vesle, a pretty little village half-way up a hillside on the heights, 20 kilometres to the west of Reims. There we enjoyed a little rest for the first time in the campaign. On our front the struggle was going on between the French and German trenches, and the employment of cavalry was impossible. All the regiment had to do was to supply daily two troops required to ensure the connection between the two divisions of the army corps.
What a happiness it was to be able at last to enjoy almost perfect rest! What a delight to lie down every evening in a good bed; not to get up before seven o'clock; to find our poor horses stabled at last on good litter in the barns, and to see them filling out daily and getting sleeker!
For our mess we had the good luck to find a most charming and simple welcome at the house of good Monsieur Cheveret. That kind old gentleman did everything in his power to supply us with all the comforts he could dispose of. And he did it all with such good grace and such a pleasant smile that we felt at ease and at home at once. Madame Cheveret, whom we at once called "Maman Cheveret," was an alert little old lady who trotted about all day long in quest of things to do for us. She put us up in the dining-room, and helped our cook to clean the vegetables and to superintend the joints and sweets. For Gosset, the bold Chasseur appointed to preside over our mess arrangements, was a professional in the culinary art, and excelled in making everything out of nothing; so, with the help of Maman Cheveret, he accomplished wonders, and the result of it all was that we began to be enervated by the delights of this new Capua. And how thoroughly we enjoyed it!
We shared our Eden with two other squadrons of our regiment, a section of an artillery park, and a divisional ambulance. We prayed Heaven to grant us a long stay in such a haven of repose.
Now one morning, after countless ablutions with hot water and a clean shave, I was going, with brilliantly shining boots, down the steep footpath which led to the little house of our good Monsieur Cheveret, when my attention was drawn to a small white notice posted on the door of the church. It ran:
"THIS EVENING AT SIX O'CLOCK, BENEDICTION OF THE MOST HOLY SACRAMENT."
It occurred to me at once that this happy idea had been conceived by the Chaplain of the Ambulance, for until then the church had been kept locked, as the young parish priest had been called up by the mobilisation. I made haste to tell our Captain and my comrades the good news, and we all determined to be present at the Benediction that evening.
At half-past five our ears were delighted by music such as we had not been accustomed to hear for a very long time. In the deepening twilight some invisible hand was chiming the bells of the little church. How deliciously restful they were after the loud roar of the cannon and the rattle of the machine-guns! Who would have thought that such deep, and also such solemn, notes could come from so small a steeple? It stirred the heart and brought tears to the eyes, like some of Chopin's music. Those bells seemed to speak to us, they seemed to call us to prayer and preach courage and virtue to us.
At the end of the shady walk I was passing down—whose trees formed a rustling wall on either side—appeared the little church, with its slender steeple. It stood out in clear relief, a dark blue, almost violet silhouette against the purple background made by the setting sun. Some dark human forms were moving about and collecting around the low arched doorway. Perhaps these were the good old women of the district who had come to pray in this little church which had remained closed to them for nearly two months. I fancied I could distinguish them from where I was, dignified and erect in their old-fashioned mantles.
But as soon as I got closer to them I found I was mistaken. It was not aged and pious women who were hurrying to the church door, but a group of silent artillerymen wrapped in their large blue caped cloaks. The bells shook out their solemn notes, and seemed to be calling others to come too; and I should have been glad if their voices had been heard, for I was afraid the Chaplain's appeal would hardly be heeded and that the benches of the little church would be three-parts empty.
But on gently pushing the door open I found at once that my fears were baseless. The church was in fact too small to hold all the soldiers, who had come long before the appointed hour as soon as they heard the bells begin. And now that I had no fears about the church being empty I wondered how I was going to find a place myself. I stood on the doorstep, undecided, on tip-toe, looking over the heads of all those standing men to see whether there was any corner unoccupied where I could enjoy the beauty of the unexpected sight in peace.
The nave was almost dark. The expense of lighting, had no doubt to be considered, for for several days past no candle or taper was to be had for money. And no doubt the kindness of a motorist of the Red Cross had been appealed to for the supply of all the candles which lit up the altar. This was indeed resplendent. The vestry had been ransacked for candlesticks, and the tabernacle was surrounded by a splendid aureole of light. All this increased the touching impression I felt on entering.
Against the brilliant background of the choir stood out the black forms of several hundreds of men standing and looking towards the altar. Absolute silence reigned over the whole congregation of soldiers. And yet no discipline was enforced; there was no superior present to impose a show of devotion. Left to themselves, they all understood what they had to do. They crowded together, waiting in silence and without any impatience for the ceremony to begin.
Suddenly a white figure came towards me through the crowded ranks of soldiers. He extended his arms in token of welcome, and I at once recognised the Chaplain in his surplice. His face was beaming with pleasure, and his eyes shone behind his spectacles. He appeared to be supremely happy.
"This way, Monsieur l'Officier, this way. I have thought of everything. You must have the seat of honour. Follow me."
I followed the holy man, who elbowed a way for me up the crowded aisle. He had reserved all the choir-stalls for the officers. Before the war they had been occupied, at high mass, by the clergy, the choir, and the principal members of the congregation. He proudly showed me into one of them, and I felt rather embarrassed at finding myself suddenly in a blaze of light between an artillery lieutenant and a surgeon-major.
The low vestry door now opened and a very unexpected procession appeared. In front of a bearded priest walked four artillerymen in uniform. One of them carried a censer, and another the incense-box. The other two walked in front of them, arms crossed and eyes front. The whole procession knelt before the altar with perfect precision, and I saw beneath the priest's vestments muddy gaiters of the same kind as those worn by the gunners.
At the same time we heard, quite close to us, strains of music which seemed to us celestial. In the dim light I had not noticed the harmonium, but now I could distinguish the artist who was enchanting us by his skill in drawing sweet sounds from a poor worn instrument. He was an artillery captain. At once all eyes were turned towards him; we were all enraptured. None of us dared to hope that we should lift our voices in the hymns.
The organist seemed unconscious of his surroundings. The candle placed near the keyboard cast a strange light upon the most expressive of heads. Against the dark background of the church the striking features of a noble face were thrown into strong relief: a forehead broad and refined, an aristocratic nose, a fair moustache turned up at the ends, and, notably, two fine blue eyes, which, without a glance at the fingers on the keys, were fixed on the vaulted roof as though seeking inspiration there.
The Chaplain, turning to the congregation, then said:
"My friends, we will all join in singing the O Salutaris."
The harmonium gave the first notes, and I braced myself to endure the dreadful discords I expected from this crowd of soldiers—mostly reservists—who, I supposed, had come together that evening mainly out of curiosity.
Judge of my astonishment! At first only a few timid voices joined the Chaplain's. But after a minute or so a marvel happened. From all those chests came a volume of sound such as I could hardly have believed possible. Who will say then that our dear France has lost her Faith? Who can believe it? Every one of these men joined in singing the hymn, and not one of them seemed ignorant of the Latin words. It was a magnificent choir, under a lofty vault, chanting with the fervour of absolute sincerity. There was not one discordant note, not one voice out of tune, to spoil its perfect harmony.
Who can believe that men, many of them more than thirty years old, would remember all the words unless they had been brought up in the faith of their ancestors and still held it?
I could not help turning to look at them. In the light of the candles their faces appeared to be wonderfully transfigured. Not one of them expressed irony or even indifference. What a fine picture it would have made for a Rembrandt! The bodies of the men were invisible in the darkness of the nave, and their heads alone emerged from the gloom. The effect was grand enough to fascinate the most sceptical of painters; it soothed and charmed one and wiped out all the miseries that the war had left in its wake. Men like these would be equal to anything, ready for anything; and I myself should much have liked to see a Monsieur Homais hidden away in some corner of that church.
Meanwhile the sacred Office was proceeding at the altar. At any other time we might have smiled at the sight of that soldier-priest served by choristers of thirty-five in uniform; at that ceremony it was inexpressibly touching and attractive, and it was especially delightful to see how carefully and precisely each performed his function that the ceremony might not lack its accustomed pomp.
When the singing had ceased the Chaplain went up to the holy table. In a voice full of feeling he tried to express his gratitude and happiness to all those brave fellows. I should not imagine him to be a brilliant speaker at the best of times, but on that occasion the worthy man was completely unintelligible. His happiness was choking him. He tried in vain to find the words he wanted, used the wrong ones, and only confused himself by trying to get them right. But nobody had the least desire to laugh when, to conclude his address, he said with a sigh of relief:
"And now we will tell twenty beads of the rosary; ten for the success of our arms, and the other ten in memory of soldiers who have died on the field of honour.... Hail! Mary, full of grace...."
I looked round the church once more, and every one's lips were moving silently accompanying the priest's words. Opposite us I saw the artillery captain take a rosary out of his pocket and tell the beads with dreamy eyes; and when the Chaplain came to the sentence "Holy Mary, Mother of God, ..." hundreds of voices burst forth, deep and manly voices, full of fervour which seemed to proclaim their faith in Him Who was present before them on the altar, and also to promise self-sacrifice and devotion to that other sacred thing, their Country.
Then, after the Tantum ergo had been sung with vigour, the priest held up the monstrance, and I saw all those soldiers with one accord kneel down on the stone floor and bow their heads. The silence was impressive; not a word, not a cough, and not a chair moved. I had never seen such devotion in any church. Some spiritual power was brooding over the assemblage and bowing all those heads in token of submission and hope. Good, brave soldiers of France, how we love and honour you at such moments, and what confidence your chiefs must feel when they lead such men to battle!
* * * * *
We sat at table around the lamp, and good Maman Cheveret had just brought in the steaming soup. Right away towards the east we heard the dull roll of the cannon. Good Monsieur Cheveret had just brought up from his cellar a venerable bottle of his best Burgundy, and, at the invitation of the Captain, he sat down to drink a glass with us, smoking his cherry-wood pipe and listening with delight to our merry chat.
Gosset was in his kitchen next door preparing a delicious piece of beef a la mode and at the same time telling the admiring Maman Cheveret about his exploits of the past month.
We heard the men of the first troop cracking their jokes in the yard as they ate their rations and emptied their pannikin of wine under a brilliant moon.
Down in the valley on the banks of the murmuring Vesle, songs and laughter floated up to us from the artillery park.
And the village itself, shining under the starlit sky, seemed bathed in an atmosphere of cheerfulness, courage and confidence.
VI. A TRAGIC NIGHT IN THE TRENCHES
November 3, 1914.
Imagine a little tiled room, some 16 feet by 9, in which for over a fortnight passing soldiers have been living, sleeping, and eating; imagine the furniture overturned, the broken crockery strewn on the floor, the doors and drawers of the cupboards pulled out, their modest contents scattered to the four corners of the house; add to this windows without glass, doors broken in, rubbish of every kind lying about, brought no one can tell whence or how; and yet note that one or two chromo-lithographs, a few photographs of friends and relatives and certain familiar objects, still cling to the walls, evoking the life that animated this home but a short time ago, and you will get some idea of the place where my Major, my comrades of the squadron and I were lodged on that memorable November evening.
It was five o'clock, and night was already falling, the cold, damp, misty night of Flanders following on a dreary autumn day. Outside the guns were roaring far away. The Battle of the Yser was going on.
Our regiment had just been brought by rail from the Reims district, where it was, to the North of France, and thence to Belgium. Our chiefs had said: "You must leave your horses, you must forget that you ever were cavalrymen, you must make up your minds cheerfully to your new calling and become infantrymen for the time being. We are short of infantry here, and the Germans are trying to rush Dunkirk and Calais. Your country relies upon you to stop them." Our good Chasseurs left their horses at Elverdinghe, 10 kilometres from here. They came on foot, hampered by their heavy cavalry cloaks, dragging their riding boots through the atrocious mud of the ruined roads, carrying in their packs, together with their ration of bread and tinned meat, the huge load of one hundred and twenty cartridges; they arrived here in the firing line, and quite simply, as if they had never been accustomed to anything else, did wonders there and then.
Yesterday, I grieve to say, I was not at the head of my troop. I was unable to take part in the epic battle round Bixschoote, the poor Belgian village which was retaken and then abandoned by us for the twentieth time. I was not present at the heroic death of the gallant and charming Colonel d'A., of the —— Chasseurs, the author of those heart-stirring pages—and among them "The Charge"—which bring tears to the eyes of every cavalryman. He died facing the enemy, leading his regiment to the attack under terrific fire, and when his men carried him away they ranged themselves round him to make a rampart of their bodies for the chief they adored. I was not able to share the danger of my young comrade, Second-Lieutenant J., who fell bravely at the head of his marksmen, in the middle of my beloved regiment, in which fresh gaps have been made by the enemy's bullets. My seniority had marked me out as officer of liaison to the General commanding our division. But this morning at dawn I came back to take my place in the firing line, and I think I shall be able to make up for lost time.
The day has been absolutely quiet, however. After the fighting of the day before, and a night of sleeplessness and incessant alarms in the trenches, three of our squadrons, mine among them, were relieved before dawn and placed in reserve. They found billets in little forsaken farms some 600 yards from the firing line. Our men rested as well as they could all day, making beds of the scanty supplies of straw they found, washing themselves in pools, and renewing their strength in order to relieve the troops which had remained in the trenches; a squadron of our regiment, a squadron of the —— Chasseurs, and a section of infantry Chasseurs.
Seated on a broken box, I was doing my best to write a letter, while Major B. and my brother officers O. and F., together with Captain de G., of the third squadron, took their seats at a rickety table and began a game of bridge. Here, by the way, is a thing passing the understanding of the profane, I mean the non-bridge player. This is the extraordinary, I might almost say the immoderate, attraction which the initiated find in this game, even at the height of a campaign. What inexhaustible joys it must offer to make its adepts profit by the briefest moments of respite in a battle to settle down anywhere and anyhow and give themselves up to their mysterious practices!
I pause for a moment in my letter-writing to enjoy the sight, which has its special charm. Two or three kilometres off, towards Steenstraate, the cannon were working away furiously, while only a few paces from our shanty a section of our 75's was firing incessantly over the wood upon Bixschoote; overhead we heard the unpleasant roar of the big German shells; and in the midst of the racket I saw my bridge players dragging their table over to the broken window. Day was dying, and we had not seen a gleam of sunshine since morning. The sky was grey—a thick, dirty grey; it seemed to be very low, close upon us, and I felt that the night would come by slow degrees without any of those admirable symphonies of colour that twilight sometimes brings to battlefields, making the combatant feel that he is ending his day in apotheosis.
But those four seemed to hear nothing. In the grey light I watched the refined profile of the Major bending over the cards just dealt by F. He no doubt has to speak first, for the three others looked at him, in motionless silence, as if they were expecting some momentous utterance. Then suddenly, accompanied by the muffled roar of the battle music, the following colloquy took place, a colloquy full of traps and ambushes, I suppose, for the four officers cast suspicious and inquisitorial glances at each other over their cards:
"One spade." "Two hearts." "Two no trumps." "I double." "Your turn, Major."
But all of a sudden paf! paf! The four players had thrown down their cards, and we all looked at each other without a word. Suddenly we had just heard above us that strange and indefinable crackle made by bullets fired at close range as they tear through the air just above one. No doubt was possible; something extraordinary was happening near the trenches, for the crackling increased mightily, and hundreds and hundreds of bullets began to whistle round us. F. sent the table rolling to the other end of the room with a kick, and we all rushed out after the Major.
There is no more depressing moment in warfare than when one finds oneself exposed to violent fire from the enemy without being able to see whence it comes, or what troops are firing, and what is its objective. Obviously the attack was not directed against us, for between the trenches and the houses where we were there was a thick wood which entirely concealed us from the sight of the enemy. But on the other hand the shots could not have been fired from the trenches the Germans had hitherto occupied opposite us, for had they been the bullets must have passed high over our heads, and we should have heard only the characteristic whistle of shots fired at long range.
For a moment, only a moment, we were full of dread. What had happened? What had become of the comrades who were in the firing-line? Grouped together in the little enclosure bordered with quick-set hedges where there were still traces of what had been the kitchen-garden of our farm, we strained our eyes to see without uttering a word. In front of us was the dark line of the wood. We scrutinised it sharply, this silent mass of trees and bushes on which autumn had already laid the most splendid colours of its palette. In spite of the dull light, what an admirable background it made to the melancholy picture of the devastated landscape! First, quite close to the ground, was a tangle of bushes and brambles, its russet foliage forming a kind of impenetrable screen, which, in bright sunshine, would have been a curtain of purple and gold. Then, pointing up into the misty sky, came the denuded trunks of the trees, surrounded by a maze of myriads of delicate branches, their ramifications stretching a violet-tinted veil across the sky. In spite of the tragic present I could not but admire the marvellous setting Nature offered for the drama in which we were destined to be the actors.
The bullets continued their infernal music, whistling in thousands over our heads. At the same time the fire of the German mortars redoubled in intensity, and their great "coal-boxes" (big shells) burst with a deafening din a few hundred yards behind us, seeking to silence our guns. These, concealed in a hollow, answered vigorously.
But what did it all mean? What was happening? We longed to shout, to call, to implore some one to answer us, to tell us what had been taking place behind the thick curtain of the wood. But the curtain remained impenetrable.
In the few seconds we spent below that deserted house in the little trampled garden-close, under the rain of bullets that was falling around us, one dread oppressed us, and lay so heavy on our hearts that it made us dumb and incapable of exchanging our thoughts, or, rather, the one thought that haunted us all. "What has become of the second squadron? What has become of our Colonel, who had stayed in command? What has become of all our dear fellows there on the other side of the wood?" Uncertainty is indeed the worst of all miseries, because it makes its victims believe and imagine every horror.
From our post we could see at the windows and doors of the little houses scattered among the fields the anxious and inquiring faces of our men. They, too, were tortured by uncertainty. They stood huddled together, looking in our direction, waiting for a sign or an order.
Suddenly our doubts were dissipated.
"To arms!" cried our Major, in a ringing voice that echoed above the crackling of the bullets and was heard by the whole squadron.
He had no need to repeat the order. In the twinkling of an eye my troop had formed behind me, in squads. My men waited in absolute silence, their eyes fixed upon me, kneeling on one knee, and leaning on their rifles. I seemed to hear all their hearts beating in unison with mine; and knew their wills ready to second mine.
The Major gave the word of command. We disposed our men in skirmishing order in the ditch of the road that passed in front of our farm, parallel with the skirts of the wood. Our squadrons thus formed a line of from 300 to 400 yards, capable of holding the enemy in check for some time, if they had succeeded in taking our trenches and were already pushing through the thicket. Kneeling on the road behind them, I looked at my men. They were lying flat on the ground on the slope of the ditch; they had loaded their rifles, and I could not distinguish the slightest trace of fear or even of emotion in any one of them.
They were all looking straight before them trying to see whether some helmeted soldier were emerging from the bushes in the gathering shadow. What splendid soldiers the war has fashioned for us! They are no longer merely the diligent and conscientious cavalrymen we took pleasure in commanding, and whose smartness we admired in peace time. The stern experience of the battlefield has hardened, strengthened and ennobled them. Their faces are manlier; their discipline, far from relaxing, has become more thorough; their courage has developed, and, in most of them, now verges on temerity.
I have had two new men in my troop for a short time: Ladoucette and Roger. They are Territorials, men of from thirty-eight to forty, who, wearying of the depot and envying their juniors in the field, asked and obtained leave to rejoin the regiment at the Front. They fascinated me at once by their high spirits, their jovial chaff, and the cheerfulness with which they undertook the most laborious tasks. But I had not yet seen them under fire.
I looked about for them in the line of skirmishers. I tried to distinguish them among all the backs and necks lying before me. And I very soon guessed that they were at the extreme right of the troop, for I heard smothered laughter at that corner; evidently Ladoucette was cracking some of the highly-spiced jokes characteristic of him. Yes, I saw his head lifted above the grass on the slope, his bristling moustache, his brilliant eyes, and sarcastic mouth. I could not hear what he was saying, for the firing was still furious, but I saw from the smiling faces of his neighbours that he had, as usual, found the right word for the occasion, the word that provokes laughter under bullet fire and makes men forget danger. Not far from him his inseparable chum, Roger, guffawed appreciatively, and seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly. I rejoiced to think that I had got two first-rate recruits, worthy to fight side by side with the fine fellows of my brave troop.
Suddenly a dark figure emerged from the wood, then two more, then another three, then more. Was it the enemy? Without waiting for the word of command some of the men pointed their rifles at the mysterious shadows running in single file towards us.
"Don't fire! Don't fire!"
We had, fortunately, recognised the uniform of our infantry Chasseurs. But this increased rather than allayed our anxiety. We naturally imagined the direst catastrophes and feared the most terrible consequences when we saw those in whom we had trusted, those who occupied the trenches nearest to Bixschoote, beating a retreat. The first of the fugitives came up to us. They seemed completely demoralised. Haggard, ragged, and black with dust, they crossed the road at a run. We tried in vain to stop them. As they passed us they shouted something unintelligible, of which we could catch nothing but the words:
"They're coming, ... they're coming."
Together with O., I succeeded in stopping two men, who were going along less rapidly, supporting a wounded comrade who was groaning and dragging himself on one leg.
"Our flank was turned; there are thousands of them. They came through the village and enfiladed us. We had a great many killed ... our officer wounded. We must get back further to the rear."
As they went off haltingly with their comrade, whose groans were pitiable to hear, the tall figure of a lieutenant of foot Chasseurs rose suddenly before us. He looked like a ghost, and for a moment we thought he was about to fall, an exhausted mass, at our feet. His face was covered with blood. The red mask in which the white of the eyes formed two brilliant spots was horrible to see. His torn tunic and all his clothing were saturated with blood. He was gesticulating wildly with the revolver he clutched in his hands, and seemed absolutely distraught.
As he passed the Major seized him by the arm:
"Halt! halt! Look here, you must rally your men. We can put up a good defence here."
The officer wrenched himself free, and went off with hasty strides, calling to us without turning his head:
"I know what I must do.... We can't hold a line here.... I am going to form up by the artillery."
Two more men came by, depressed and silent, bent down by the weight of their knapsacks. They crossed the ditches by the roadside with difficulty, and were presently lost to sight in the fields amidst the gathering shadows.
There was no laughter now in our ranks. The same thought was in every mind, the same despair chilled every heart. The Germans must have taken our trenches, and our brave comrades had all chosen to die rather than to retreat. And the enemy must be there before us, in that wood; they must be stealing up to us noiselessly. I fancied I could see them, gliding from tree to tree, holding their rifles high, trying to deaden the sound of their footsteps among the dead leaves. Presently they would reach the dark line that stretched before us, mute and mysterious; they would mass their dense reserves in the rear, and suddenly thousands of lightning flashes would illuminate the fringe of the thicket. I looked at my men again. There was no sign of wavering; not a word was spoken; their faces looked a little pale in the waning light. Above us thousands of shells and bullets filled the air with their strange and terrible music.
A man came out of the wood and walked quietly towards us. It was not light enough to distinguish his uniform, but his calm and placid bearing was in marked contrast to that of the infantry Chasseurs. He must have recognised the little group formed by the Major, my comrades, and myself in the middle of the road, for he made straight for us.
When he got to within twenty paces of us we recognised to our joy Sergeant Madelin, a non-commissioned officer of our second squadron, the squadron that had stayed in the trenches with the Colonel and the machine-gun section. I cannot describe the relief we felt at the sight of him. Though we could not tell what he was going to say, his attitude dispelled our fears at once. He gazed at us with wide astonished eyes from under the peak of his shako, and came on quietly, as if he were taking a walk, his hands in his pockets, murmuring in a tone of stupefaction:
"What on earth is the matter?"
"Well, really, this is a little too much!" exclaimed the Major; "that's just what we want you to tell us!"