"But I have nothing to tell you, Major. The trench of the infantry Chasseurs was taken. We are all right. But the Colonel has sent me to say that there are signs of a German counter-attack on the left, and he wants you to reinforce him on that side with your three squadrons."
He spoke so calmly and with such an air of astonishment that we all felt inclined to laugh. Madelin had already given proof of his courage, he had even been mentioned in orders for his valour, but we had never seen him so placidly good-humoured under fire as on this occasion. All our fears were at once put to flight, and we thought only of one thing; to fly to the help of our comrades and win our share of glory.
The officers had advanced in front of the line of skirmishers. All the men sprang up in an instant, and the three squadrons dashed forward full speed.
But at the exact moment when our men, springing out of the ditches, began their advance towards the wood, the enemy's artillery, shortening its range, began to pour a perfect hail of shrapnel on our line. It was now almost pitch dark, and there was something infernal in the scene. The shells were bursting at a considerable height above us, some in front, some behind. They made a horrible kind of music. There must have been at least two batteries at work upon us, for we could no longer distinguish even the three characteristic shots of the German batteries in rafale fire. The noise was incessant, and each shell as it burst illumined a small section of the battlefield for a second. It just showed a tree trunk, a bit of wall, a strip of hedge, and then the darkness fell again over this point, while another was illuminated by the crash of a new explosion.
At one moment a sudden horror gripped me. To my left a shrapnel shell fell full on the line of the third squadron. This time the flash of the explosion had not only lighted up a corner of landscape; I had had a glimpse of a terrible sight.
You must imagine the intense and rapid light cast by a burning magnesium wire, accompanied by a deafening noise, and in this brief light the figures of several men, weirdly illuminated, in the attitudes induced by the terror of certain death, and you will get a faint impression of what I saw. Then, suddenly, everything fell back into darkness, a darkness that seemed more intense than before after the glare of the explosion. I dimly discerned bodies on the ground, and shadows bending over them.
I did not stop, but I heard the voice of the Major calmly giving orders:
"Pick him up! Gently...."
But the wounded man shrieked, refusing to allow himself to be touched; his limbs, no doubt, were shattered. No matter! Forward! Forward! We rushed on towards the wood, where we hoped to get some protection from the avalanche of shells. A voice called out names behind me:
"Corporal David killed! Sergeant Flosse wounded; leg broken."
My men were running forward so impetuously that presently they were on a level with me. What fine fellows! I half regretted that some hostile troop was not waiting for us ambushed in the wood. We might have had a splendid fight! But would there have been a fight at all? Would the Prussians have ventured to measure themselves against these dare-devils, whom danger excites instead of depressing? Well, we were at the edge of the wood at last, waiting till the Major came up with us.
Leaning against the trees, my Chasseurs took breath after their race. I passed swiftly along the line to make sure that all my men were safe. They were all there, and I was relieved to find that I had no losses to deplore. The joys and sorrows of war had forged a bond between us that nothing could break. I had soon learnt to know each one of them, with his virtues and his faults, and I felt them to be, without exception, worthy fellows and brave soldiers. Each time death struck down one of them, I suffered as at the loss of a beloved brother, and I believe they repaid my affection for them by perfect trust.
The Major had now rejoined us. We were not to lose a moment in responding to our Colonel's summons, and we were to remember that our comrades of the second squadron were bearing the brunt of the enemy's attack alone.
We resumed our headlong advance. It was more difficult in the darkness of the wood than on the soft earth of the fields. We stumbled over roots, and got entangled in brambles; men fell, picked themselves up again, and went on with an oath. There was no more chaff; all minds were strung up to fever pitch, and strength was giving out, while the storm of shrapnel continued overhead, cropping the branches, and lighting up the tangle of leafless trees and bushes at intervals as if with fireworks.
Suddenly I heard on my right, not far behind me, screams and calls for help, rising above the turmoil of battle. I saw my men stop for a moment, looking round. But they hurried on again at my orders without a word.
Time was precious. Every minute might be fatal to our brothers in arms. We could now hear the familiar sound of our cavalry carbines quite close to us. We were approaching the trenches where the second squadron was making its heroic stand.
We were all breathless from our frantic rush. But no one thought of slackening speed. I turned round to some one who was trotting behind me. It was my non-commissioned officer. Without a moment's loss of time he had run to see what had caused the cries we had heard, and now he had come back at the double to report to me.
"Sir, in the third troop, Sergeant Lagaraldi...."
"He's killed, ... and Corporal Durand too!"
"And there are many wounded."
I made no answer. Oh! it was horrible! Two poor fellows so full of life and spirits not an hour ago! In spite of myself I could not help thinking for a few minutes of the two shattered, quivering bodies lying among the grasses of the forest. But I thrust away the gruesome vision resolutely. We could only think of doing our duty at this supreme moment. Later we would remember the dead, weep for them, and pray for them.
The darkness was no longer so dense. The tangle of trees in front of us was less thick, the branches seemed to be opening out, we were near the edge of the wood. And at the same time, in spite of the mad beating of my heart and the buzzing in my ears, I was conscious that the cannonade had ceased, at least in our direction, and that the bullets were no longer coming so thickly. The German attack was probably relaxing; there was to be a respite. So much the better! It would enable us to pass from the wood to the trenches without much danger, thanks to the darkness.
We had arrived! One by one our men slipped into the communication trench. What a sense of well-being and of rest we all had! The little passage in the earth, so uninviting as a rule, seemed to us as desirable as the most sumptuous palace. We drew breath at last. We felt almost safe. But still, there was no time to be lost.
While the Major hurried off to take the Colonel's orders I climbed up on the parapet. Night had now fallen completely, but the moon was rising. Indeed, it would have been almost as light as day but for a slight mist which was spreading a diaphanous veil before our eyes. In the foreground to the right I could barely guess the dim outline of the battered mill and the burnt farm flanking the trench occupied by the foot Chasseurs. Further off, however, I could vaguely distinguish the row of trees that marked the first line of German trenches, about 250 yards away from us. To the left the mist had a reddish tinge. No doubt yet another house was burning in the unhappy village of Bixschoote.
There was a sudden silence in this little corner of the great battlefield, as if our arrival in the firing line had been a prearranged signal. On our right, too, the intensity of the fire upon the trenches occupied by the —— Territorials diminished. To the left, on the other hand, the gun fire and rifle fire were incessant in the direction of the bridge of Steenstraate, defended by the —— Brigade of mounted Chasseurs. It seemed evident that the Germans, having failed in their attempt to cross the Yser canal near us, were making a fresh effort further to the north. However, it is not safe to rely too absolutely even upon the most logical deductions, for very often the event upsets the most careful calculations and frustrates the wisest plans.
The moon was now shining with extraordinary brilliance, and the fog, far from veiling its lustre, seemed to make it more disconcerting. Persons assumed strange forms and the shapes of things were modified or exaggerated. Our dazzled eyes were mocked by depressing hallucinations; the smallest objects took on alarming proportions, and whenever a slight breeze stirred the foliage of the beetroot field in front of us we imagined we saw a line of snipers advancing.
I had great difficulty in preventing my men from firing. It was necessary to eke out our cartridges with the utmost care, for, owing to some mistake in the transmission of orders, our supplies had not been replenished since the day before, and we had used a great many in the fighting round Bixschoote. A like prudence was not, however, observed all along the line, for every now and then the trenches would be suddenly illuminated at a point where for a few seconds a useless volley would ring out. Then everything relapsed into darkness and immobility.
Towards Steenstraate, too, the firing seemed to be dying down. I looked at my watch. It was half-past six. This was the hour when as a rule our men began to feel hungry, and when in each troop the Chasseurs would set out, pannikin in hand, towards the smoking saucepan where the cook awaited them wielding his ladle with an important air. But on this particular evening no one thought of eating. We seemed all to feel that our work was not yet over, and that we had still a weighty task on hand. It was certainly not the moment to light fires and make soup; no doubt the Prussians were brewing something for us of a different kind, and it would never do not to return their compliments promptly.
Ready? Yes, we were ready. I turned and looked back into the trench. All my brave fellows were standing, their eyes turned to me, and seemed bent on divining by my attitude or gestures any new effort I might be about to ask of them. The pale light of the moonbeams struck full on their faces, leaving their bodies shrouded in the darkness of the trench. What a strange and comforting spectacle it was! In every eye I read calm courage and absolute confidence.
Whenever I feel weary or depressed, inclined to curse the slowness of our advance and the thousand miseries of war, I need only do what I did that evening. I need only turn to my Chasseurs and look into their eyes without a word; there I read so many noble and touching things that I am ashamed to have felt a momentary weakness.
They do not ask the why and the wherefore of things. They live from day to day, weighed down by hard work. To them the actual fighting is a rest and a delight. As soon as it is over they have to resume the hard life of cavalrymen on active service, spend all their time looking after their horses, fetching rations and forage, often from a considerable distance, cleaning harness and arms, and every night contriving some sort of quarters for themselves and their beasts in the squalor of half-destroyed or abandoned villages, quarters they must leave on the morrow. Yet nothing seems to depress them. They preserve all the eagerness of the first few days and that imperishable French gaiety which is an additional weapon for our troops.
That evening I felt them vibrating in unison with me more keenly than ever.
There was little doubt that I should have to appeal to their courage again presently, for something unusual was happening in front of us. It was maddening not to be able to pierce the luminous mist, behind which the enemy would be able to form up and take new positions without our knowledge. Down behind the line of willows we could now barely distinguish, we were aware of mysterious sounds, making a kind of distant murmur. They must come from the rattle of arms, orders given in whispers, footsteps slipping on the fat soil of plough-lands. Listening heads craned over our parapets. Each man was trying to hear, to understand, to see, and to divine, and each felt intuitively that the enemy was about to renew his assault. The most absolute silence and the most impressive calm reigned in our trenches. Yes, we were ready for them! Let them come!
Then suddenly from the enemy's camp there rose a solemn, harmonious hymn sung by hundreds of manly voices. We could not distinguish the words uttered in the barbarian tongue. But the music was perfectly audible, and I must confess that nothing caused me so much surprise throughout this eventful evening. With what ardour and unanimity, and also, I am bound to admit, with what art, these men proclaimed their faith before rushing on death! One could imagine no more magnificent temple for the prayers of soldiers about to offer up their lives than the spacious firmament above and the luminous night around. We listened, touched and delighted. The hymn continued for some time, and the music seemed to me noble and inspiring; the voices were true and the execution admirable. But, above all, the singing conveyed a disturbing impression of disciplined and ordered piety. To what lengths these men carry their love of command and obedience!
Suddenly the hymn broke off abruptly in a formidable uproar, above which rose thousands of voices shouting:
"Hurrah! Hurrah! Cavalry! Cavalry!"
Then, dominating the tumult, we heard their trumpets sounding the short, monotonous notes of the Prussian charge.
I leaped back into the trench.
The whole French line burst into a violent and deafening fusillade. Each man seemed full of blind rage, of an exasperated lust for destruction. I saw them take aim rapidly, press the trigger, and reload in feverish haste. I was deafened and bewildered by the terrible noise of the firing in the narrow confines of the trench. To our left, the machine-gun section of my friend F. kept up an infernal racket.
But the German line had suddenly dropped to the ground. I could barely distinguish a swarm of grey shadows running about in the fog. Then not a single dark figure was visible on the pale background of the tragic scene. How many of the bodies we could no longer make out must have been lying lifeless, and how horrible their proximity must have been to the living stretched side by side with them!
Our men had ceased firing of their own accord, and a strange silence had succeeded to the deafening din. What was about to happen? Would they dare to come on again? We hoped so with all our hearts, for we felt that if we could keep our men in hand, and prevent them from firing at random, the enemy could never get at us. But, above all, it was essential to economise our ammunition, for if we were short of cartridges, what resistance could we offer to a bayonet charge with our little carbines reduced to silence?
The Germans must have been severely shaken, for they seemed afraid to resume the attack. Nothing was moving in the bare plain that stretched before us. During this respite an order came from the officer in command, passing from mouth to mouth:
"Hand it on: No firing without the word of command."
Then silence fell on our trenches, heavy and complete as on the landscape before us. Suddenly, on the place where the enemy's riflemen had thrown themselves on the ground, we saw a slim shadow rise and stand. The man had got up quietly, as if no danger threatened him. And, in spite of everything, it was impossible not to admire the gallantry of his act. He stood motionless for a second, leaning on his sword or a stick; then he raised his arm slowly, and a hoarse voice yelled:
Other voices repeated the word of command, and were answered by renewed "hurrahs!" Then the heavy line of riflemen sprang up and again rushed towards us:
Once more our trenches belched forth their infernal fire. We could now plainly see numbers of them fall; then they suddenly threw themselves on the ground just as before. But instead of crouching motionless among the beetroot they began to answer our fire. Innumerable bullets whistled about us. I noted with joy that my men remained perfectly steady; they were aiming and firing deliberately, whereas at other points the fusillade was so violent that it cannot have been efficacious. I was very glad not to have to reprove my brave Chasseurs, for the uproar was so terrific that my voice would not have carried beyond the two men nearest to me. I calculated the number of cartridges each of them must have in reserve; twenty-five, perhaps thirty. How would it all end? I was just thinking of ordering my troop to cease firing, in order to reserve my ammunition for a supreme effort, if this should be necessary.
But something happened which checked this decision. F.'s machine-guns must have worked fearful havoc among our assailants, for suddenly, without a cry and without an order, we saw them rise and make off quickly right and left in the fog.
I was obliged to intervene to subdue the joyous effervescence caused in my troop. The men began to discuss their impressions in tones of glee that might have become dangerous. Ladoucette's voice was heard, as usual, above the din, calling upon his absent wife to admire his exploits:
"Madame Ladoucette, if you could have seen that!"
But we had to be on the qui vive. The German attack had been checked, but it might be renewed.
We were fully alive to the courage and tenacity of our enemies.
I could distinguish nothing ahead in the increasingly thick white fog. All I could hear was the sound of pickaxes on the ground and the thud of falling clods. The enemy had, no doubt, decided not to attack again and were digging new trenches. They no longer uttered their contemptuous guttural cries of "Cavalry! Cavalry!" They had learnt to their cost that these French cavalrymen, at the sight of whom their own are so ready to turn back, could hold their own equally well against German infantry. I thought we might count on a little respite. The battlefield was silent, save for the faint cries occasionally uttered by the wounded.
I hastily detached two troopers to man the listening-posts, and they slipped away silently. Then, as our Captain had unfortunately been summoned to Elverdinghe that day on special duty, I went to look for the Major to make my report to him. My men had seated themselves on the rough ledges cut in the slope of the trench, their carbines between their knees, and were talking together in low tones. As I passed a friendly smile lit up their faces. I walked slowly along the narrow trench, careful not to tread on the feet of the talkers.
As I approached a point where the trench, following the direction of the wood, formed an abrupt angle, I heard two familiar voices exchanging the following words:
"Fifty-two!... Tierce major...; three aces!" "Capital!"
This was really the limit! I turned the corner and came upon Major B. and F. seated on the ledge, quietly playing cards by the brilliant moonlight. As their tiny retreat could not accommodate four players, they were solacing themselves with a game of piquet.
Oh, all you who are of necessity far from the scene of conflict, good Frenchmen and valiant Frenchwomen, how I should have liked you to see this picture! No doubt you often wonder whether those who are defending your homes against the accursed invader will be able to bear the sufferings of this war to the bitter end; you fear that they may be losing their good humour and their dashing spirits; you imagine them brooding with careworn faces and anxious souls when, the excitement of the encounter dying down, they think of what the morrow may bring forth. How I wish you could have seen Major B. and the gallant Lieutenant F. playing piquet in the trench where they had just repulsed a furious German attack, which might have been renewed at any moment!
I left them to go on with their game, and went in search of my comrade O. I found him in the middle of his troop, talking amicably with his men. After the enemy had ceased firing he had sent a party of sappers to dig the graves of the two non-commissioned officers who had fallen in the wood. We retired into a corner of the trench, and there he told me of the grief he felt at this loss, a grief he was doing his best to hide, so as not to injure the moral of his troop. Lagaraldi had just got his promotion, and was a soldier of the highest promise; Durand was the model corporal, clean, cheerful, and active. And, even if they had been but mediocre troopers, I knew too well what we officers feel when we lose even a passable Chasseur, to wonder at the melancholy of my charming young comrade.
Time went on, and there were no signs of a fresh attack. The enemy's artillery seemed to be neglecting us, and to be bent upon the destruction of the Boesinghe bridge, by which we had crossed the Yser. His great shells flew over our heads with a sinister roar, and a few seconds later we heard the explosion far behind us. The German trenches in front of us were silent. A single shot fired at intervals alone reminded us that they were not forsaken.
"Mon Lieutenant, it's all ready."
A corporal had come out of the wood to tell O. that the graves were dug. When we had sent word to our chiefs, and placed our non-commissioned officers in temporary command, our strange, sad procession of mourners left the trenches and slipped through the thicket in single file. There were four officers, the Lieutenant-Colonel, Major B., O., and myself and four non-commissioned officers. It would have been dangerous to deplete the firing line further.
With heavy hearts we retraced our steps through the wood we had so lately passed through in all the exaltation of our advance. We knew the moral anguish we were about to feel in rendering this last service to our young brothers-in-arms. It was unhappily by no means the first time we had held such a ceremony, but never had I been present at one in such tragic circumstances, nor in such impressive surroundings. We hurried along, almost running in our anxiety to return quickly to our men. The branches caught at us and slashed our faces, the dead leaves and twigs crackled under our tread. Above us the shells still sang their funeral song.
We had now come in sight of the burial-ground. In the moonlight, at the edge of the wood close to the spot where our gallant fellows had fallen, we could distinguish newly-dug earth, and four silent men standing beside it, their tunics thrown off, leaning on spade and pickaxe. It was there.
In a little ravaged garden-plot, at the foot of great trees which would guard these graves, they had dug two holes, which, by night, looked extraordinarily deep and dark.
Ought we to lament or to envy the touching and simple burial rite of soldiers? To me, nothing could be more beautiful than such a last resting-place. Why should we desire richer tombs, sepulchral stones, and sculptured monuments? We are all equal upon that field of death, the battlefield at the close of day. And there can be no fitter shroud for him who has fallen on that field than his soldier's cloak. A little earth that will be grass-grown and flower-spangled again in the spring, a simple cross of rough wood, a name, a regimental number, a date—all this is better than the most splendid obsequies. And what can be more touching than the poor little bunches of wild flowers which the friends of the dead gather on the banks of ditches, and which are to be seen days afterwards, faded and yet so fair, hanging on the humble crosses? Such was to be the portion of Lagaraldi and Durand. Why should we pity them? We will weep for them, we will not pity them.
They were there, lying side by side in their cloaks, the turned-up capes of which shrouded their heads, and we bared our own in silence. Each of us, consciously or unconsciously, breathed a prayer, each set his teeth and tried to restrain his tears.
But we were not destined to pray in peace to the end. At the moment when the Lieutenant-Colonel was about to express our sorrow and pronounce the last farewell the enemy's mortars, suddenly changing their objective, began to bombard the part of the wood on the edge of which we were standing.
What was their idea? Did they think our reserves were massed in the wood? However this may have been, a formidable avalanche descended above and around us. The first salvo literally cleared the wood close by us. A great tree, cut through the middle, bent over for an instant and then rolled gently to the ground with a great crackling of broken boughs. At the same time the German bullets began to whistle round us by thousands, apparently determined to draw us into their frenzied saraband. Death seemed for a moment inevitable. We could not hesitate; we had to take cover, or to be mown down by shot or shell.
Then—I shall remember the gruesome moment to my dying hour—we all leaped into the only available shelter—crouching together in the newly-dug graves. We were just in time.
Bullets flew past us; the great "coal-boxes" burst without intermission. The uproar was tremendous, beyond anything we had ever heard. It would be impossible to describe the horror of those minutes. Those graves, all too spacious for the poor bodies we were about to commit to them, were too small to shelter us. We pressed one against the other in the strangest positions, hiding our heads between the shoulders of those who were lying in front of us; we thought every moment that the network of projectiles would be drawn more tightly round us, and that one would fall into our holes, transforming them into a ghastly charnel-house.
This idea occurred to me suddenly and obsessed me. Yes, yes, presently the great snorting, whistling, pitiless thing would fall between O. and me. We should feel nothing; there would be no pain. We should be only a little heap of bloody clay, and to-morrow at daybreak our comrades would but have to throw a few spadefuls of earth upon it. They would put a plain wooden cross above, with our names and ranks, the number of our regiment, a date: "November 3, 1914." And it would be better than any sumptuous monument.
Between two explosions, in spite of the noise of the German bullets, we distinctly heard the crack of our carbines.
"Our men are fighting!"
We all understood, and with one bound we were up and running frantically through the wood. How was it that none of us were killed? How did we manage to escape the shells and bullets which were cropping the branches and felling the trees around us? I shall never understand or forget this experience.
When at last we sprang breathless into our trench after what had seemed an interminable race, the tumult had died down again and only occasional shots broke the nocturnal calm. The reason of the sudden renewal of the fighting was given at once by F.
"Bravo!" he cried; "we have retaken the infantry Chasseurs' trench!"
This was a great consolation to us, for we were all full of regret at the loss of this little piece of ground. It had prevented us from feeling quite satisfied with our day.
Now all was well. Our task was accomplished.
* * * * *
On the following day, November 4, at three in the morning, a battalion of the —— Regiment of the Line came to relieve us. It formed part of that glorious 20th Corps, which has covered itself with glory ever since the beginning of the war, and fought all along the front from Lorraine to Flanders, always arriving at the moment when picked men were needed to make a last desperate effort. It had come up that evening, and was at once on the spot.
In the cold, luminous night, the heavily laden infantrymen defiled into the narrow trench, calm, silent, and serious.
The officer who was to take my place presented himself smartly, as if on the parade-ground.
I gave my name.
"My dear fellow," he said, "I am delighted to shake hands with you. Allow me to say how much we all admire your regiment. Your General has just told us how your Chasseurs have behaved. Accept my congratulations. We could not have done better ourselves. The cavalry is certainly taking first place as a fighting force. Your regiment is to be mentioned in despatches, and you deserve it. Good-night. Good luck!"
"Thank you! Good luck!"
* * * * *
Once more we passed through the wood to take up our position in reserve. Our men were beginning to feel the fatigue of those two days without sleep and almost without rest.
But joy, stronger than bodily fatigue, predominated. It hovered over our harassed troops. Above all, they were proud of having been appreciated and congratulated by their brothers-in-arms of the crack corps which is the admiration of the whole army.
Each man forgot his tortured nerves, his aching head, his weary legs, repeating to himself the magic words:
"Your regiment is to be mentioned in despatches!"
VII. SISTER GABRIELLE
It was a very dark night. How were we to find our way about the little unknown town of Elverdinghe, near which our regiment had just been quartered? We could hardly make out the low houses with closed windows and long roofs of thatch or slate, and kept stumbling on the greasy and uneven cobble-stones. Now and again the corner of a street or the angle of a square was lit up dimly by a ray of light filtering through half-closed shutters. I went along haphazard, preceded by my friend B. We were quite determined to find beds, and to sleep in peace.
After our four days' fighting near Bixschoote we had been sent to the rear, ten kilometres away from the line of fire, to get twenty-four hours' rest; had arrived at nightfall, and found much difficulty in putting up our men and horses in the small farms around the town. But no sooner had they all found places, no sooner had the horses got their nose-bags on and the kitchen fires been lighted, than B., who was always anxious about the comforts of his board and lodging, said to me:
"There is only one thing for us to do. We are to rest. We must find a bed and a well-furnished table. I had rather go to bed an hour later, and sleep between sheets after a good meal, than lie down at once on straw with an empty stomach. Listen to me. Let us go on to that nice Belgian town over there, only a few steps farther. It is hardly ten o'clock. It will be devilish bad luck if we can't find a good supper and good quarters. We need not trouble about anything else. Let us think first of serious matters."
So we started for the little town which seemed to be wrapped in sleep. We knocked at the doors, but not one opened; no doubt the houses were all full of soldiers. No one offered us any hospitality, in spite of all B.'s objurgations, now beseeching, now imperious. In despair, I suggested at last that we should go back to our squadron, and lie down by our horses; but B. would not hear of it, and still clung to his idea: to have a good dinner, and sleep in a bed.
Just then, we saw a dark figure creeping noiselessly along under the wall. B. at once went up to it, and caught it by the arm. It was a poor old woman, carrying a basket and a jug of milk. Said he:
"Madame, madame, have pity on two poor weary, half-starved soldiers...."
But she couldn't give us any information. Speaking in bad French, interspersed with Flemish, she gave us to understand that the little town was full of troops, and, at that hour, everybody was asleep.
"And what is there in that large white building, where the windows are alight?"
The good woman explained that it was a convent, where nuns took in the old people of the country. They could not give lodging to soldiers. But B. had already made up his mind; that was where we were to sleep. Leaving the old woman aghast, he went with long strides to the iron railing which surrounded a little garden in front of the convent. I tried in vain to make him understand that we could not invade these sacred precincts.
"Leave it to me," he said, "I'll speak to them."
He pushed the iron gate, which opened with a creak, and I shut it after him. I felt somewhat uneasy as I followed B., who crossed the garden with a rapid stride. I felt uneasy at the thought of his essentially military eloquence, and of the use to which he proposed to put it. But I knew, too, that he was not easily induced to abandon a resolution he had once taken. True, he did not often make one, but this time he seemed to be carrying out a very definite plan. The best thing was to submit, and await the result of his attempt. We went up three steps, and felt for the knocker. "Here it is," said B., and he lifted it and knocked hard. What a dismal sound it made in that sleeping town! I felt as though we had just committed an act of sacrilege. We listened, and heard, through the door, the noise of chairs dragged over the stone floor; then a light footstep approaching, a sound of keys and bolts, and the door was gently opened and held ajar.
"Sister," said B., with a bow, "what we are doing is, I know, most unusual; but we are dying of hunger and very tired, and, so far, nobody has been willing to open their door to us. Could we not have something to eat here, and sleep in a bed?"
The Sister looked at us and appeared not to understand. However, I was more at ease when I saw she was neither frightened nor displeased. She was a very old nun, dressed in black, and held in her hand a little lamp which flickered in the night breeze. Her face was furrowed with deep wrinkles, and her skinny hand, held before the lamp, seemed transparent. She made up her mind at once. Her face lit up with a kind smile, and she signed to us to come in, with words which were probably friendly. This was a supposition, for the worthy nun only spoke Flemish, and we could not understand anything she said. She carefully pushed the bolts again, placed her lamp on the floor, and made a sign to us to wait. Then she went away with noiseless steps, and we were left alone.
"You see," said B., "it is all going swimmingly. Now that we have got in, you must leave everything to me."
The flickering lamp lighted the hall dimly. The walls were bare, and there was no furniture but some rush chairs set in a line against the partition. Opposite the door, there was a simple wooden crucifix, and the stretched-out arms seemed to bid us welcome. A perfume of hot soup came from the door the old Sister had just shut.
"I say!" said B., "did you smell it? I believe it is cabbage soup, and if so, I shall take a second helping."
"Just wait a bit," I replied; "I'll wager they are going to turn us out."
From the other side of the door, by which the portress had just disappeared, we heard a voice calling:
"Sister Gabrielle!... Sister Gabrielle!..."
And a moment after, the same door opened, and another nun came in very quietly, and rather embarrassed, as it seemed to me. She came towards us.
Sister Gabrielle, your modesty will certainly suffer from all the good I am going to say of you.... But I am wrong, you will not suffer, for you certainly will never read the pages I have scribbled during the course of this war, at odd times, as I could, in bivouacs and billets. But I have vowed to keep a written record of the pictures which have charmed or moved me most during this campaign. If I ever survive it, I want to be able to read them again in my latter days. I want to have them read by those who belong to me, and to try to show them what kind of life we led during those unforgettable days. And it is not always the battles which leave the most lively impressions. How many delightful things one could relate that have happened outside the sphere of action! What memories of nights passed in the strangest places, as the chances of the march decreed, nights of bitterness during the retreat, nights of fever during the advance, nights of depression in the trenches! What kindly welcomes, what beautiful and what noble figures one might describe!
Sister Gabrielle, as you will never read this, and as your modesty will not suffer, let me tell the story of the welcome my friend B. and I received that evening at the Convent of Elverdinghe.
Sister Gabrielle came towards us. How pretty she was, in the coif that framed her face! How large her blue eyes looked! They really were so, but a touch of excitement made them seem larger still. Above all, she had an enchanting smile, a smile of such kindness that we at once felt at ease and sure of obtaining what we wanted. She spoke in a sweet and musical voice, hesitating just a little in her choice of words, although she spoke French very correctly.
"The Sister Superior has sent me to you," she said, "because I am the only one here who can speak French.... Messieurs les officiers, welcome."
She said it quite simply, and stood quite straight in her black dress, her arms hanging beside her. She might have been a picture of other days, an illuminated figure from a missal. We looked at each other and smiled too, happy to find so unexpected a welcome. B. was now quite self-possessed.
"Sister Gabrielle," he said, "see what a wretched state we are in; our clothes covered with mud, our faces not washed since I don't know when. We have just gone four days without sleep, almost without food, and we have never stopped fighting. Could you not take in two weary, famished soldiers for one night?"
Sister Gabrielle retained her wonderful smile. Without moving her arms, she slightly raised her two hands, which showed white against the black cloth of her dress. Those hands seemed to say: "I should like to very much, but I cannot." And at the same time the smile said: "We ought not to, but it shall be managed nevertheless."
"Come," she said; "in any case, we can give you something to eat."
And she took up the little lamp. She went first, opened the door at the end of the passage, and we followed her, delighted. We were dazzled as we came into this new room by the brilliance of the lamps that lit it. It was the convent kitchen. How clean and bright everything was! The copper saucepans shone resplendently. The black and white pavement looked like an ivory chessboard. Two Sisters were sitting peeling vegetables which they threw into a bowl of water. An enormous pot, on the well-polished stove, was humming its inviting monotone. It was this pot which exhaled the delicious smell that had greeted us when we entered the house. The whole picture recalled one of Bail's appetising canvases. The two Sisters raised their eyes, looked at us and—yes, they smiled too. B., feeling eloquent, wanted to make a speech; but Sister Gabrielle hurried us on:
"Come, come," she said. "It is not worth while; they wouldn't understand you."
She opened another door, and we went into a small rectangular room. Whilst our guide hastened to light the lamp hanging above the table, we laid our kits on the window-sill: our revolvers, shakoes, binocular glasses and map-cases; and how tarnished and dirty the things were, after those three months of war! We ourselves felt fairly ashamed to be seen in such a state. Our coats worn and stained, our breeches patched, our huge boots covered with mud, all formed a strange contrast to the room we were in. It was provided throughout with large cupboards in the walls, the doors of which reached to the ceiling. These doors were of polished wood, and shone like a mirror. The floor was like another mirror. That indefatigable chatterer B. began another speech:
"Sister, please excuse the costumes of fighting men. We must look like ruffians, but we are honest folk. If our faces do not inspire much confidence, it is simply because our stomachs are so empty. And no one more resembles a vagabond than a poor wretch who is dying with hunger. You will not know us again after we have had a few words with the pot which gave out such a savoury smell as we passed."
Sister Gabrielle did not cease to smile. With wonderful rapidity and skill she opened one of the cupboards, and, from the piles of linen, picked out a checkered red and white tablecloth with which she covered the table. In a moment she had arranged places for two, opposite each other.
"Sit down," she said, "and rest. I will go and fetch you something to eat."
B. followed her to the door.
"Sister Gabrielle," he said, "we have found a Paradise."
But she had already shut the door, and we heard her in the kitchen stimulating the zeal of the other two nuns in Flemish. We sat down, delighted. What a long time since we had enjoyed such comfort! Everything there seemed designed to charm our eyes and rest our minds. There was no noise in the street, and the convent itself would have seemed wrapped in sleep had it not been for the voices in the next room. But the distant roar of the guns still went on, and seemed to make our respite still more enjoyable.
We hardly heard Sister Gabrielle when she came in and put down the steaming soup before us. The delicate perfume of the vegetables made our mouths water. For many days past we had had nothing to eat but our rations of tinned meat, and all that time we had not been able to light a fire to cook anything at all. So we fell to eagerly upon our well-filled plates. B. even lost the power of speech for the moment.
Meanwhile the pretty little Sister, without appearing to look at us, was cutting bread, and then she brought a jug of golden beer. What a treat it was! Why couldn't it be like this every day? In that case the campaign would have seemed almost like a picnic. Whilst I was eating I could not help admiring Sister Gabrielle; she looked so refined in her modest black clothes. Her slightest movements were as harmonious as those of an actress on the stage. But she was natural in all she did, and the grace of every movement was instinctive. As she placed before us an imposing-looking omelette au lard, that rascal B., who had already swallowed two plates of soup and four large glasses of beer, began to maunder thus:
"Sister Gabrielle, ... Sister Gabrielle, I don't want to go away to-morrow. I want to end my days here with the old people you look after. Look at me. I am getting old too, and have been severely tried by life. Why shouldn't I stay where I am? I should have a nice little bed in the old people's dormitory, with nice white sheets, go to bed every evening on the stroke of eight, and you, Sister, would come and tuck me up. I should sleep, and eat cabbage soup, and drink good beer—your health. Sister!—and I shouldn't think any more about anything at all.... How nice it would be! No more uniform to strap you up after a good dinner; no more shako to squeeze your temples; no more bullets whistling past you; no more 'coal-boxes' to upset your whole system, and every evening a bed, ... a nice bed, ... and to think about nothing!..."
"Hush! Listen," said Sister Gabrielle with a finger on her lips.
At that moment the noise of the firing became louder. The Germans had no doubt just made a night attack either on Bixschoote or on Steenstraate, and now every piece was firing rapidly all along the line. So fast did the reports follow one another that they sounded like a continuous growl. However, the noise seemed to be dominated by the reports that came from a battery of heavy guns ("long 120's") two kilometres from Elverdinghe, which made all the windows of the convent rattle, I shuddered as I thought of those thousands of shells, hurtling through the darkness for miles to reduce so many living human beings to poor broken and bleeding things. And I pictured to myself our Prussians of Bixschoote sprawling on the ground, with their teeth set and their heads hidden among the beetroot, waiting until the hurricane had passed, to get up again and rush forward with their bayonets, cheering! Sister Gabrielle had the same thought, no doubt. She looked still whiter than before under her white coif, and clasping her hands and lowering her eyes, she said in a low voice:
"Mon Dieu, ... Mon Dieu! ... It is horrible!"
"Sister Gabrielle," continued the incorrigible B., "don't let us talk of such things. Let us rather discuss this omelette, a dish worthy of the gods, and the bacon in it, the savour of which might imperil a saint. Sister Gabrielle, you tempt us this evening to commit the sin of gluttony, which is the most venial of all sins. And I will bear the burden of it manfully."
I kicked B. under the table, to stop his incongruous remarks. But Sister Gabrielle seemed not to have listened to him. She went on serving us smilingly; changed our plates, and brought us ham and cheese. B. went on devouring everything that was put before him; but this did not put a stop to his divagations.
"Tell me, Sister Gabrielle, you are not going to turn us out of the house now, are you? It would be an offence against God, who commands us to pity travellers. And we are poor wretched travellers. If you drive us away, we shall have to sleep on the grass by the roadside, with stones for our pillows. No, you couldn't treat us so cruelly. I feel sure that in a few minutes you will show me the bed in the dormitory you will keep for me when I come to take up my quarters with you after the war."
Sister Gabrielle's smile had disappeared. For the first time, she seemed really distressed. She stopped in front of B., and looked at him with her large clear eyes. She made the same gesture as before; lifted up both her hands, in token of powerlessness, and seemed to be thinking how she could avoid hurting our feelings. Then she said, in a disheartened tone:
"But we have not a single spare bed."
A long silence followed this sentence, which seemed to plunge B. into despair. The guns continued their ominous booming, making the windows rattle terribly. I too thought now that it would be dreadful to leave the house, go and look for our troops in the dark, and put our men to the inconvenience of making room for us on their straw, so I too looked at Sister Gabrielle imploringly. All at once she seemed to have decided what to do. She began by opening one of the cupboards in the wall, took out of it two small glasses with long tapering stems, and placed them before us, with a goodly bottle of Hollands. She had recovered her exquisite smile, and she hurried, for she seemed anxious to put her idea into execution.
"There, drink. It's good Hollands, ... and we give it to our poor old people on festivals."
"Thank you. Sister, thank you."
But she had already run out of the room, and we were left there, happy enough, sipping our glass of Hollands, and enjoying the luxurious peace that surrounded us. The guns seemed to be further off; we only heard a distant growling in the direction of Ypres. Our eyelids began to droop, and it was almost a pleasure to feel the weariness of our limbs and heads, for now we felt sure that Sister Gabrielle would not send us away.
She came back into the room, with a candle in her hand.
"Come," she said.
She was now quite rosy, and seemed ashamed, as though she were committing a fault. We followed her, enchanted, and went back through the kitchen, now dark and deserted. The flickering light of the candle was reflected here and there on the curves of the copper pots and glass bowls. The house was sleeping. We crossed the hall, and went up a broad wooden staircase, polished and shining.
What a strange party we were, the youthful Sister, going in front, treading so softly, and we two soldiers, dusty, tattered and squalid, trying to make as little noise as possible with our heavy hobnailed boots! The nun's rosary clinked at each step against a bundle of keys that hung from her girdle.
I was walking last and enjoying the curious picture. The light fell only on Sister Gabrielle. As she turned on the landing, the feeble ray from below threw her delicate features into relief: her fine nose, her childish mouth, with its constant smile; our own shadows appeared upon the wall in fantastic shapes. Certainly we had never yet received so strange and unexpected a welcome.
We passed a high oak door, surmounted by a cross and a pediment with a Latin inscription. Sister Gabrielle crossed herself and bowed her head.
"The chapel," she said in a low voice.
And she went quickly on to the accompaniment of her clinking rosary and keys. As we began to go up the second flight of stairs B. resumed his monologue in a whisper:
"Sister Gabrielle, ... Sister Gabrielle, you are an angel from Paradise. Surely God can refuse you nothing. You will pray for me this evening, won't you? for I am a great sinner."
"Oh, yes, of course I shall pray for you," she answered, softly, as she turned towards us.
We came out on a long passage, bare and whitewashed. Half a dozen doors could be distinguished at regular intervals, all alike. Sister Gabrielle opened one of them, and we followed her in. We found ourselves in a small room, austerely furnished with two little iron bedsteads, two little deal tables, and two rush chairs. Above each bed there was a crucifix, with a branch of box attached to it. Each table had a tiny white basin and a tiny water-jug. All this was very nice, and amply sufficient for us. Everything was clean, bright, and polished.
"Thank you, Sister; we shall be as comfortable as possible. But, one thing, we shall sleep like tops. Will there be any one to wake us?"
"At what time do you want to get up?"
"At six, Sister, punctually, as soldiers must, you know."
"Oh! then I will see to it. We have Mass at four o'clock every morning."
"At four o'clock!" exclaimed B. "Every morning! Very well, Sister, to show you we are not miscreants, wake us at half-past three, and we will go to Mass too."
"But it isn't allowed. It is our Mass, in our chapel. No, no, you must sleep.... Get to bed quickly. Good-night. I will wake you at six o'clock."
"Good-night, Sister Gabrielle; good-night.... We shall be so comfortable. You see, you had some spare beds, after all."
"Oh, yes, we had. One can always manage somehow."
And she went off, shutting the door behind her.
And now B. and I thought of nothing but the luxury of sleeping in a bed. How delightful it would be after our sleepless nights in the fogs of the trenches!
But what was that noise resounding through the convent? What was that knocking and those wailing cries? There was some one at the door, hammering at the knocker, some one weeping and sobbing in the dark. I opened my window, and leant out. But the front door had already been opened, and a figure slipped in hurriedly. The sobs came up the stairs to our door, and women's voices, Sister Gabrielle's voice, speaking Flemish, then another voice, sounding like a death-rattle, trying in vain to pronounce words through choking sobs. How horrible that monotonous, inconsolable, continual wail was! It went on for a short time, and then doors were opened and shut, the voices died away, and suddenly the noise ceased.
B. had already got into bed, and, from under the sheets, he begged me, in a voice muffled by the bed-clothes, to put the candle out quickly. But I was haunted by that moaning, though I could not hear it any longer. I wanted to know what tragedy had caused those sobs. I could not doubt that the horrible war was at the bottom of it. And yet we were a long way from the firing line. My curiosity overcame my fatigue. I put on my jacket and went out, taking the candle with me. I ran down the two staircases, and my footsteps seemed to wake dismal echoes in the silent convent.
Just as I came to the hall Sister Gabrielle also arrived, with a small lantern in her hand. I must have frightened her, for she started and gave a little scream. But she soon recovered, and guessed what had disturbed me. She told me all about it in a few simple sentences; a poor woman had fled from her village, carrying her little girl of eighteen months. As she was running distractedly along the road from Lizerne to Boesinghe a German shell had fallen, and a fragment of it had killed her baby in her arms. She had just come six kilometres in the dark, clasping the little corpse to her breast in an agony of despair. She got to Elverdinghe, and knocked at the door of the convent, knowing that there she would find a refuge. And all along the road she had passed convoys, relief troops and despatch-riders; but she took no heed of them; she was obsessed by one thought; to find a shelter for the remains of what had been the joy and hope of her life.
"Just come," said Sister Gabrielle. "I will let you see her. We have put the poor little body in the mortuary chamber, and Sister Elizabeth is watching there."
I followed Sister Gabrielle, who opened a small door, and went down a few steps; we crossed a paved court. Her lantern and my candle cast yellowish gleams upon the high walls of the buildings. Heavy drops of rain were falling, making a strange noise on the stones. And a kind of anguish seized me when I again heard the continuous wailing of the unhappy mother. Sister Gabrielle opened a low door very gently, and we went in.
I must confess that I had been much less moved when, after the first day of the Battle of the Marne, we passed through a wood where our artillery had reduced a whole German regiment to a shapeless mass of human fragments. Here I realised all the horror of war. That men should kill each other in defence of their homes is conceivable enough, and I honour those who fall. But it passes all understanding why the massacre should include these poor weak and innocent creatures. And sights such as the one I saw in that little mortuary chapel inspire a fierce thirst for vengeance.
On a kind of large table, covered with a white cloth, the poor body was laid out. It bore no trace of any wound, and the little white face seemed to be smiling. The good nuns had covered the shabby clothes with an embroidered cloth. Upon that they had crossed the little hands, which seemed to be clasping a tiny crucifix. And over the whole they had strewn an armful of flowers. On each side they had placed silver candlesticks, and the reddish candle-light made golden reflections in the curly locks of the little corpse. Crouching on the ground by the side of it, I saw a shapeless heap of clothes which seemed to be shaken by convulsive spasms. It was from this heap that the monotonous wailing came. It was the young mother, weeping for her little one. One felt that nothing could console her, and that words would only increase her suffering. Besides, she had not even raised her head when we went in. It was best to leave her alone, since they say that tears bring comfort.
On the other side a young Sister was kneeling at a prie-Dieu, telling her rosary. Sister Gabrielle knelt down on the ground beside her. I longed to do something to lessen that grief, and help the poor woman a little. She must have come there in a state of destitution: her clothes revealed her poverty. But I durst not disturb either her mourning or their prayers, and I came out quietly on tiptoe.
Outside, the rain, which was now falling heavily, refreshed my fevered head somewhat. I crossed the courtyard quickly; but my candle went out, and I had some trouble in relighting it, which was very necessary, as I had to find my way in a maze of doors and passages. At last I reached my staircase, and passed the landing and the Sisters' chapel. I heard a distant clock strike midnight, went up another storey, and opened our door noiselessly. I thought that B. would perhaps be waiting for me impatiently, anxious to learn the reason of all the noise.
But B. was snoring with the bed-clothes over his ears.
At six o'clock some one knocked at our door, and I opened my eyes. Daylight showed faintly through the only window. I wondered where I was, and suddenly remembered ... Elverdinghe ... the convent....
"Is it you, Sister Gabrielle?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, it's I. Get up. I have been knocking for more than an hour."
B. sat up in his bed. I did the same, and told him what I had seen the evening before. He shook his head mournfully, and concluded:
"Well, ... it's war.... I hope they'll have a good breakfast ready for us."
We hurried through our dressing and ablutions, for we had to get back quickly to our quarters. As we came out of our room, lively and refreshed, we met Sister Gabrielle, who seemed to have been waiting for us. She asked us how we had slept, and, to stop the flood of eloquence that B. was on the point of letting loose, she said:
"That's right. You shall thank me later on. Come down now; your breakfast is waiting for you. It will get cold."
But, on passing the chapel, B. would insist on seeing it. Sister Gabrielle hesitated a moment, and then gave way, as you would to a child for the sake of peace. She opened the outer door, and smiled indulgently, as if anxious to humour all our whims. We passed through an anteroom, and then entered the chapel. It was quite small, only large enough to hold about twenty people. The walls were white, without any ornament, and panelled up to about the height of a man. The altar was extremely simple, and decorated with a few flowers. Some rush chairs completed the plenishings of the sanctuary where the good Sisters of Elverdinghe assembled every morning at four o'clock for prayers.
And, as we came out of this humble chapel, I noticed two mattresses, laid in a corner of the little anteroom.
"Who sleeps here, then, Sister?" I asked.
Sister Gabrielle turned as red as a poppy. I had to repeat my question twice, when, lowering her eyes, she answered:
"Sister Elizabeth—Sister Elizabeth ... and I."
"Sister Gabrielle, ... Sister Gabrielle, then that little room and those two little beds where we slept, were yours?"
"Hush! Please come to breakfast at once."
And, light as a bird, she disappeared down the staircase, so quickly that her black veil floated high above her, as though to hide her confusion.
* * * * *
And we saw no more of Sister Gabrielle. It was a very old woman—one of the inmates—who brought us our hot milk and coffee, our brown bread and fresh butter, in the dining-room with the high cupboards of polished wood. She explained that at this hour the nuns were busy attending to their old folk. It was of no use begging to see our little hostess again. We were told it would be against the rules, and we felt that the curtain had now indeed fallen upon this charming act of the weary tragedy.
Only, just as we were passing out of the convent gate for the last time, the old lady put into our hands a big packet of provisions wrapped up in a napkin. She had brought it hidden under her apron.
"Here, she told me to give you this, and ... to say that she will pray for you."
Our hearts swelled as we heard the heavy door close behind us. And whilst we went away silently along the broken, muddy road, we thought of the sterling hearts that are hidden under the humble habits of a convent.
Sister Gabrielle! I shall never forget you. Never will your delicate features fade from my memory. And I seem to see you still, going up the great wooden staircase, lit up by the flickering flame of the candle, when you and Sister Elizabeth gave up your beds so simply and unostentatiously to the two unknown soldiers.
VIII. CHRISTMAS NIGHT
"Mon Lieutenant mon Lieutenant, it's two o'clock."
My faithful Wattrelot held the flickering candle just in front of my eyes to rouse me. What torture it is to be snatched from sleep at such an early hour! It would not be anything in summer; but it was the 24th of December, and it was my turn to go on duty in the trenches. A nice way of keeping Christmas!... I turned over in my bed, trying to avoid that light that tormented me; I collected my thoughts, which had wandered far away whilst I was asleep, and had been replaced by exquisite dreams, dreams of times of peace, of welfare, of good cheer, and of gentle warmth.
Then I remembered: I had to take command of a detachment of a hundred troopers of the regiment, who were to replace the hundred now in the trenches. It was nearly a month since we had joined our Army Corps near R., and every other day the regiment had to furnish the same number of men to occupy a sector of the trenches. It was my turn, on the 24th of December, to replace my brother-officer and good friend Lieutenant de la G., who had occupied the post since the 22nd.
I had forgotten all this.... How cold it was! Brrr!...
Whilst Wattrelot was taking himself off I braced myself for the necessary effort of getting out of the warm sheets. Like a coward, I kept on allowing myself successive respites, vowing to rise heroically after each.
"I will get up as soon as Wattrelot has reached the landing of the first floor.... I will get up when I hear him walking on the pavement of the hall, ... or rather when I hear the entrance-door shut, and his boots creaking on the gravel path...."
But every noise was hushed. Wattrelot was already some way off, and I still shied at this act, which, after all, was inevitable: to get out of bed in a little ice-cold room at two o'clock in the morning. Through the window, which had neither shutter nor curtain, I saw a small piece of the sky, beautifully clear, in which myriads of stars were twinkling. The day before, when I came in to go to bed, it was freezing hard. That morning the frost, I thought, must be terrible.
"Come, up!" With a bound I was on the ground, and rushed at once to the little pitch-pine washstand. Rapid ablutions would wake me up thoroughly. Horror! The water in the jug was frozen. Oh! not very deeply, no doubt; but all the same I had to break a coating of ice that had formed on the surface. However, I was happy to feel more nimble after having washed my face. Quick! Two warm waistcoats under my jacket, my large cloak with its cape, my fur gloves, my campaigning cap pulled over my ears, and there I was, with a candle in my hand, going down the grand staircase of the chateau.
For I was quartered in a chateau. The very word makes one think of a warm room, well upholstered, well furnished, with soft carpets and comfortable armchairs. But, alas! it was nothing of the sort.... The good lady whose house it was had provided for all contingencies; the family rooms had been prudently dismantled and double-locked. A formidable concierge had the keys, and I was happy indeed when I found the butler's room in the attics. His bed, with its white sheets, seemed to me very desirable. And then, as we say in time of peace, one must take things as they come.
The open hall-door let in a wave of cold air, which struck cold on my face. But I had not a minute to lose. The detachment was to start at half-past two punctually, and it had, no doubt, already formed up in the market-place. I hurried into the street. The tall pines of the park stood out black against the silver sky, whilst the bare branches of the other trees formed thousands of arabesques and strange patterns all round. Not the slightest noise was to be heard in the limpid, diaphanous night, in which the air seemed as pure and rare as on the summits of lofty mountains. Under my footsteps the gravel felt soft, but, once I had got outside the iron gate, I found myself on ground as hard as stone. The mud formed by recent rains and the ruts hollowed by streams of convoys had frozen, and the road was a maze of furrows and inequalities which made me stumble again and again.
In front of the Hotel des Lacs a certain number of the men had already lined up, in front of their horses. Huddled in their cloaks, with collars turned up, they were stamping their feet and blowing into their hands. It must have been real torture for them too to come out of their straw litter, where they were sleeping so snugly a few moments before, rolled up in their blankets. They had got a liking for the kind of comfort peculiar to the campaigner, and had invented a thousand and one ingenious methods of improving the arrangements of their novel garrison. Sleeping parties had been gradually organised, and sets of seven or eight at a time enjoyed delightful nights, stretched on their clean straw. Many of them would certainly not be able to get to sleep if they suddenly found themselves in a real bed. And then it is less difficult to get up when one has gone to bed with one's clothes on, and when the room is not very warm. Not one of them complained; not one of them grumbled. We can always count on our brave fellows.
"All present, mon Lieutenant!"
It was the senior non-commissioned officers of the two squadrons assembled there who reported. Every one had got up and equipped himself at the appointed hour; not one was missing at roll-call; they had all assembled of their own accord; the corporals had not needed to knock at door after door to wake the sleepers. Our Chasseurs had very quickly established simple customs and rules of their own which ensured the regularity of the service without written orders. This intelligent and spontaneous discipline is one of the most admirable features of this campaign. It has grown up by degrees, without any special orders or prescriptions from above, with the result that the hardest labours are carried out almost without supervision, because each man understands the end in view and the grim necessities which it involves.
They understood at once that this early hour was the only one at which the relief could be effected. And every other day, just as on that December morning, twenty-five men out of each squadron get up at half-past one, equip themselves, and saddle their horses, whilst the cooks warm up a good cup of coffee for each man. Then, without any hurry, but at the exact moment, they form up in fighting order at the appointed spot, and when the officer arrives, in the dark, rain, wind, snow, or frost, he is sure of receiving the same report:
"All present, mon Lieutenant!"
Quick! Mount. We shall feel the cold less trotting over the hardened roads this bright night and under this brilliant moon. Two and two, in silence, we issued from the village in the direction of R. I knew that I should find a little further on, at the cross-roads where the crucifix stands, the fifty men of the first half-regiment and Second-Lieutenant de G., who serves under me.
Yes, there he was, coming to meet me on the hard road. It was a joy to me that chance had given me this jolly fellow for my trench companion. I hardly knew him, for he had not been with us more than a few days. Taken from the Military College directly war was declared, he had first been sent to a reserve squadron, and had only just been appointed to an active regiment. But I already knew, through my comrades of the first squadron, that he was a daring soldier and a merry companion. So much the better, I thought. War is a sad thing, and one must learn to take it gaily. A plague on gloomy spirits and long faces! True, we can no longer wage the picturesque war of the "good old days." We shall never know another Fontenoy, or Rivoli, or Eylau. But that is no reason why we should lose the jovial humour of our forefathers. Thank Heaven! we have preserved their qualities of dash and bravery. But it is more difficult to keep a smiling face in this hideous mole warfare, which is imposed even upon us troopers. All the more reason for liking and admiring the cheery officers who keep our spirits up, and G. is one of them.
We shook hands without speaking, for it seemed to us that if we opened our mouths the frost would get into our bodies and freeze them, and we set off at a sharp trot along the narrow by-road which, crossing the high-road to Paris, leads to C. There we should have to leave our horses, cross the zone of the enemy's artillery fire, and get to the trenches on foot. The horses snorted with pleasure, happy to warm themselves by rapid movement. Some of them indulged in merry capers, which were repressed, not too gently, by their more sedate riders. Their hoofs struck the uneven ground with a metallic ring which must have echoed far; and the clink of bits and stirrups also disturbed the sleeping country. Before us the road ran straight amidst the dark fields, a long pale grey ribbon. No one thought of laughing or talking; sleep seemed still to hover over the column, and every one knew that the two days of trench duty would be long and hard to get through even if the Prussians left us in peace.
We passed a cross, which shone white on the side of the road under the pale light of the moon, and saluted it. We had known it from the first days, and had its inscription by heart:
80 NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS, CORPORALS, AND SOLDIERS OF THE 39TH AND 74TH REGIMENTS OF INFANTRY, KILLED IN ACTION. PRAY FOR THEM.
We dimly discerned the modest wreaths of green leaves, now faded and yellow, and the little nosegays of withered flowers attached to the arms of this cross, left there after the departure of the regiment and undisturbed by any sacrilegious hand.
We crossed the Paris road, with its double row of trees, which, in the night, appeared gigantic, and, after answering the challenge of the Territorial guarding the approach to C., we entered the village.
It appeared to be completely empty, and yet there were two battalions of the —— Territorials quartered there. The moon seemed to be amusing itself by casting the shadows of the houses on one side of the street upon the walls of the other side in fantastic shapes.
We had reached the spot where we were to leave our horses. The men quickly unbuckled the blankets which were to help them to endure the weary hours of the following night. They slung them over their shoulders, and we set off towards the towing-path of the canal. We went very slowly, as we had at least seven or eight kilometres before us, and a walk of eight kilometres for troopers laden and dressed as we were is no light matter.
We found the towing-path. Walking at that hour of the night is certainly not very alluring. However, the view was not lacking in grandeur. On either side of the canal the dark silhouettes of tall trees stood out against the sky. Their shadows were reflected in the water, which gleamed with a metallic lustre in the moonshine. How calm and silent it was! Who would have thought we were at war? Not a cannon-shot, not a rifle-shot, disturbed the peace of the night. Yet, as a rule, there were no long intervals between the reports which reminded us of the serious work on hand.
That day it seemed as though some agreement had been come to by both sides to stop killing or trying to kill. However touching such an agreement might be, it would also be somewhat disturbing, for one must always beware of an enemy who resorts so freely to tricks and traps of every kind. It was as well not to celebrate Christmas too obtrusively. Besides, I did not think we were the only ones keeping vigil at that hour.
From time to time we passed small groups of infantry, haggard, dusty, and heavily laden, marching in ranks with their arms slung, by threes or fours, without speaking, striding slowly, as though they were trying to measure the length of the road. Some of them were carrying curious objects fastened to sticks: pots or big cans, perhaps baskets. Where they were going or what they were doing we did not ask. Every man has his own job; if those fellows were going that way they had their orders, and nobody troubled himself about their object. All was well. The clattering of the Chasseurs on the uneven road lent a little life to the picture. Perhaps they were talking together; but, if so, it was in an undertone, a whisper almost.
And suddenly the enemy let us know that he was also keeping watch. Far ahead of us, near C., a rocket went up into the clear sky and then fell slowly, very slowly, in the form of an intensely brilliant ball, lighting up all the surrounding country wonderfully. We knew them well, those formidable German rockets, which seemed as though they would never go out and shed a pallid and yet blinding light. We knew that as soon as they were lighted everybody who happened to be within range of the enemy's rifle fire had at once to lie flat on the ground, and not move or raise his head so long as the light was burning. Otherwise shots would be fired from all directions, mowing down the vegetation and cutting up the earth all around him. This time we were well outside the range, and we watched the dazzling star in front of us without halting.
"The shepherds' star," said G. solemnly.
Strange shepherds indeed must they have been who carried carbines as their crooks, and were provided with cartridges enough to send a hundred and twenty of their fellow-creatures into the next world. The star seemed to hang for a moment some yards from the ground; then slowly, slowly, as though exhausted by its effort, it fell to the ground and went out. The night seemed less clear and less diaphanous.
We had now reached the glass-works and it was there that we were to leave our cooks. No one would have supposed that this large factory lay idle, and that the hundreds of workmen employed there were dispersed. On the contrary, it seemed to have retained all the animation of the prosperous enterprise it had been before the war.
It was a large square of massive buildings, almost a miniature town, planted on the side of the canal, like an outlying bastion of the suburbs of R. The low white walls, crowned with tiles, had the stunted appearance of military works. But a nearer view gave rather the illusion of the life in a busy factory at night-time. The gateway opened on a courtyard, with furnace fires shining here and there. Shadowy forms passed backwards and forwards, enlivening the dim scene with the bustle of a hive. Men came out by fives or sixes, laden with different kinds of burdens, and disappeared into the darkness, making for mysterious goals. In front of the open gate other figures were unloading heavy cases from vans. These quondam glass-works were now a depot for the Army Supply service, and a huge kitchen, which administered and fed the whole sector of trenches, of which ours formed a part.
The Germans knew this. So every day and many times a day their guns fired a few salvoes of shells on the huge quadrilateral. But our good troopers were none the worse. Instead of working in the large buildings, part of which had already been destroyed by shells, they utilised the vast basements of the factory. There were the stores, and there they had their kitchens, where they worked day and night to supply their comrades in the trenches with the hot abundant food which twice a day made them forget for a few minutes the hardships of the cold, the rain, and the mud.
Our column halted under the bleak wall. At the wide gateway a sentinel was on duty, standing motionless, muffled in a heavy grey cloak; and through it our cooks passed, disappearing into the darkness, under the guidance of the liaison orderly of the preceding detachment. Whilst waiting for his return from the journey through the labyrinth our Chasseurs had a short rest before beginning the most difficult part of their journey—the last stage on the way to the trenches we were to occupy.
I took the opportunity of talking with an infantry captain who was there, walking up and down with his face buried in a thick muffler and his hands in the pockets of his heavy overcoat, on the sleeves of which three small pieces of gold lace were just discernible.
"Eh bien, mon Capitaine! Anything new?"
"Oh! nothing, except my opinion that you will not be disturbed either to-day or to-morrow. Since yesterday evening they have not fired one shot, and they were singing hymns till midnight. You may be pretty sure they'll redouble their Oremus this Christmas night, so you may sleep soundly."
"Unless all this is merely a feint, and to-night ..."
"Yes, you're right, unless to-night ..."
The column started, and, guided by the liaison orderly, we followed the high-road for some hundred yards. The shells had transformed it into a series of gorges, peaks, ravines, and hills. We had to jump over big branches cut from the trees by the projectiles. It was a road that would not be a cheerful one on moonless nights. Fortunately for us, that particular night was extremely bright. Everything around us could be distinguished; we could even divine about fifteen hundred yards to our right the "solitary tree," the famous tree, standing alone in the middle of the vast bare plain, which marked the centre of our sector of trenches, and where I knew I should find the "dug-out" belonging to the officers of our regiment. I was very much tempted to jump the ditch at the side of the road and cut across the fields to the final point of our march. It would have taken about twenty minutes, and have saved us the long difficult journey through the communication trench. But our orders were very precise: we were not to take short cuts even on dark nights, much less on starlit nights. Our chiefs do well to be cautious on our behalf, for it is certain that, though fully alive to the danger of such a route, there was not one of my hundred fellows who would have hesitated to dash across country just to save himself a few hundred yards.
We came to the mouth of the approach trench, four or five huge steps cut in the chalky clay. The frost had made them slippery, and we had to keep close to the edge of the bank to avoid stumbling. Behind me I heard some of the men sliding down heavily, and a din of mess-tins rolling away amidst laughter and jokes. "A merry heart goes all the way," and I knew my Chasseurs would soon pick themselves up and make up for lost time. This was essential, for the approach trench had ramifications and unexpected cross-passages which might have led a laggard astray.
We went forward slowly. The communication trench was at right angles to the enemy's trenches. To prevent him from enfilading it with his shells, it had been cut in zigzags. And I hardly know of a more laborious method of progression than that of taking ten paces to the right, making a sharp turn, and then again taking ten paces to the left, and so on, in order to cover a distance which, as the crow flies, would not be more than fifteen hundred yards. The passage was so narrow that we touched the walls on either side. The moonlight could not reach the ground we trod on, and we stumbled incessantly over the holes and inequalities caused by the late rains and hardened by the frost. Now and again we slid over ice that had formed on the little pools through which our comrades had been paddling two days before. And this was some consolation for the severity of the frost, preferable a hundred times to the horrors of the rain.
At last we debouched into our trenches, where our predecessors were impatiently waiting for us. Two days and two nights is a long time to go without sleeping, without washing, without having any other view than the walls of earth that shut you in. They were all eager to go back over the same road they had come by two days before, to get to their horses again, their quarters, their friends—in short, their home. So we found them quite ready to go, blankets rolled up and slung over their shoulders, and knapsacks in their places under their cloaks.
Whilst the non-commissioned officers of each squadron went to relieve the men at the listening posts, I brushed past the men lined up against the wall, and went towards the "solitary tree," which seemed to be stretching out its gaunt arms to protect our retreat. I had to turn to the right in a narrow passage which went round the tree, and ended in three steep steps cut in the earth, down which I had to go to reach the dug-out.
My old friend La G. was waiting for me at the bottom of this den, stretched on two chairs, warming his feet at a tiny iron stove perched upon a heap of bricks. By the light of the one candle he looked imposing and serious. His tawny beard, which he had allowed to grow since the war, spread like a fan over his chest, and gave him a look of Henri IV. I knew that this formidable exterior concealed the merriest companion and the most delightful sly joker that ever lived. So I was not much impressed by his thoughtful brow and his dreamy eye.
"Well, what's the news?" I asked.
"We are all freezing," he replied.
I rather suspected it. Besides this fact, which we had discovered before him, La G. could only confirm what the infantry captain had told me shortly before:
"You are going to have a most restful night, my dear fellow; and I advise you to have a Christmas manger arranged at the foot of the 'solitary tree,' and at midnight to sing 'Christians, awake,' in chorus.... We know some hymns as well as the Germans."
I had no lack of desire to put this proposal into action, but such pious customs as these would not perhaps have been quite in harmony with the tactical ideas of our commanding officer. Still I promised La G. I would do my best for the realisation of his dream.
"Good-bye and good luck!" he said.
"Good-bye," I replied.
And he went away into the darkness. At the end of the little passage that led to the trench I could see the men who had just been relieved passing in single file going towards the communication trench by which we had come. Their dark forms defiled in closely and rapidly. Having completed their task, they were happy to be free to get back to their squadrons, and as they passed they cracked their jokes at the others who had to stay. These answered back, but not in the most amiable manner. Then, little by little, silence settled down upon the scene. Every man was at his post: some kept watch, others walked about at the bottom of the trench or busied themselves with repairing or improving the indifferent shelters their predecessors had left them.
G. had gone to take the watch on which the junior officers of the units defending the sector relieved each other every three hours. So there I was alone, alone in the midst of my brave Chasseurs, with the duty of guarding those five hundred yards of trenches—a very small piece at that time of the immense French line. Behind us thousands of our fellows were sleeping in perfect confidence, relying upon the thin rampart we formed in front of them; and farther away still there were millions of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, who, under their family roof or under that of their hosts, were resting in peace because of our sleepless nights, our limbs stiffened by the cold, our carbines pointed through the loopholes of the trenches.
Thus were we to celebrate the merry festival of Christmas. There was no doubt that far away among those who were keeping the sacred vigil more than one would think of us and sympathise with us.... No doubt many a one among us would feel a touch of sadness that evening, thinking of his home. But none, not one, I felt sure, would wish to quit his post to get away from the Front. Military honour! glorious legacy of our ancestors! Who could have foreseen that it would be implanted so naturally and so easily in the young souls of our soldiers? Within their youthful bodies the same hearts were already beating as those of the immortal veterans of the epic days of France. Men are fashioned by war.
Ten o'clock came on Christmas Eve to find that our day had passed in almost absolute calm. It had been a glorious winter day, a day of bright sunshine and pure clear air. The Germans had hardly fired at all. A few cannon-shots only had replied to our artillery, which let off its heavy guns every now and then upon their positions from the heights behind us.
And then night came. B. and I had just finished our frugal meal. We had promised to pay a visit to the Territorials who occupied the trenches right and left of ours. Our Chasseurs had been posted in that particular section so that in case of attack they might form a solid base for the Territorials to rely upon. They did not conceal their confidence in our men or their admiration for them; and their officers had no scruples in asking for our advice when difficult cases arose. In fact, that very afternoon the captain commanding the company to our right had come to my dug-out to arrange with me about the patrols that had to be sent that night in advance of the line.
Wrapped in our cloaks, we came out of our warm retreat. The night was just like the previous one, starlit, bright, and frosty, a true Christmas night for times of peace. In our trenches one half of the men were awake, in obedience to orders. Carbines were loaded and placed in the loopholes, and the guns were trained upon the enemy. In front of us, at the end of the narrow passages which led out to the listening posts, I knew that our sentries were alert with eye and ear, crouching in their holes in pairs. No one could approach the broad network of wire which protected us without being immediately perceived and shot. At the bottom of the trenches the men on watch were talking softly together and stamping on the ground to combat the intense cold.