There was one officer who could talk all the others down, wherever he was; Captain Barclay Owens, attached from the Engineers. He was a little stumpy thumb of a man, only five feet four, and very broad,—a dynamo of energy. Before the war he was building a dam in Spain, "the largest dam in the world," and in his excavations he had discovered the ruins of one of Julius Caesar's fortified camps. This had been too much for his easily-inflamed imagination. He photographed and measured and brooded upon these ancient remains. He was an engineer by day and an archaeologist by night. He had crates of books sent down from Paris,—everything that had been written on Caesar, in French and German; he engaged a young priest to translate them aloud to him in the evening. The priest believed the American was mad.
When Owens was in college he had never shown the least interest in classical studies, but now it was as if he were giving birth to Caesar. The war came along, and stopped the work on his dam. It also drove other ideas into his exclusively engineering brains. He rushed home to Kansas to explain the war to his countrymen.. He travelled about the West, demonstrating exactly what had happened at the first battle of the Marne, until he had a chance to enlist.
In the Battalion, Owens was called "Julius Caesar," and the men never knew whether he was explaining the Roman general's operations in Spain, or Joffre's at the Marne, he jumped so from one to the other. Everything was in the foreground with him; centuries made no difference. Nothing existed until Barclay Owens found out about it. The men liked to hear him talk. Tonight he was walking up and down, his yellow eyes rolling, a big black cigar in his hand, lecturing the young officers upon French characteristics, coaching and preparing them. It was his legs that made him so funny; his trunk was that of a big man, set on two short stumps.
"Now you fellows don't want to forget that the night-life of Paris is not a typical thing at all; that's a show got up for foreigners.... The French peasant, he's a thrifty fellow.... This red wine's all right if you don't abuse it; take it two-thirds water and it keeps off dysentery.... You don't have to be rough with them, simply firm. Whenever one of them accosts me, I follow a regular plan; first, I give her twenty-five francs; then I look her in the eye and say, 'My girl, I've got three children, three boys.' She gets the point at once; never fails. She goes away ashamed of herself."
"But that's so expensive! It must keep you poor, Captain Owens," said young Lieutenant Hammond innocently. The others roared.
Claude knew that David particularly detested Captain Owens of the Engineers, and wondered that he could go on working with such concentration, when snatches of the Captain's lecture kept breaking through the confusion of casual talk and the noise of the phonograph. Owens, as he walked up and down, cast furtive glances at Gerhardt. He had got wind of the fact that there was something out of the ordinary about him.
The men kept the phonograph going; as soon as one record buzzed out, somebody put in another. Once, when a new tune began, Claude saw David look up from his paper with a curious expression. He listened for a moment with a half-contemptuous smile, then frowned and began sketching in his map again. Something about his momentary glance of recognition made Claude wonder whether he had particular associations with the air,—melancholy, but beautiful, Claude thought. He got up and went over to change the record himself this time. He took out the disk, and holding it up to the light, read the inscription:
"Meditation from Thais—Violin solo—David Gerhardt."
When they were going back along the communication trench in the rain, wading single file, Claude broke the silence abruptly. "That was one of your records they played tonight, that violin solo, wasn't it?"
"Sounded like it. Now we go to the right. I always get lost here."
"Are there many of your records?"
"Quite a number. Why do you ask?"
"I'd like to write my mother. She's fond of good music. She'll get your records, and it will sort of bring the whole thing closer to her, don't you see?"
"All right, Claude," said David good-naturedly. "She will find them in the catalogue, with my picture in uniform alongside. I had a lot made before I went out to Camp Dix. My own mother gets a little income from them. Here we are, at home." As he struck a match two black shadows jumped from the table and disappeared behind the blankets. "Plenty of them around, these wet nights. Get one? Don't squash him in there. Here's the sack."
Gerhardt held open the mouth of a gunny sack, and Claude thrust the squirming corner of his blanket into it and vigorously trampled whatever fell to the bottom. "Where do you suppose the other is?" "He'll join us later. I don't mind the rats half so much as I do Barclay Owens. What a sight he would be with his clothes off! Turn in; I'll go the rounds." Gerhardt splashed out along the submerged duckboard. Claude took off his shoes and cooled his feet in the muddy water. He wished he could ever get David to talk about his profession, and wondered what he looked like on a concert platform, playing his violin.
The following night, Claude was sent back to Division Head-quarters at Q— with information the Colonel did not care to commit to paper. He set off at ten o'clock, with Sergeant Hicks for escort. There had been two days of rain, and the communication trenches were almost knee-deep in water. About half a mile back of the front line, the two men crawled out of the ditch and went on above ground. There was very little shelling along the front that night. When a flare went up, they dropped and lay on their faces, trying, at the same time, to get a squint at what was ahead of them.
The ground was rough, and the darkness thick; it was past midnight when they reached the east-and-west road—usually full of traffic, and not entirely deserted even on a night like this. Trains of horses were splashing through the mud, with shells on their backs, empty supply wagons were coming back from the front. Claude and Hicks paused by the ditch, hoping to get a ride. The rain began to fall with such violence that they looked about for shelter. Stumbling this way and that, they ran into a big artillery piece, the wheels sunk over the hubs in a mud-hole.
"Who's there?" called a quick voice, unmistakably British.
"American infantrymen, two of us. Can we get onto one of your trucks till this lets up?"
"Oh, certainly! We can make room for you in here, if you're not too big. Speak quietly, or you'll waken the Major." Giggles and smothered laughter; a flashlight winked for a moment and showed a line of five trucks, the front and rear ones covered with tarpaulin tents. The voices came from the shelter next the gun. The men inside drew up their legs and made room for the strangers; said they were sorry they hadn't anything dry to offer them except a little rum. The intruders accepted this gratefully.
The Britishers were a giggly lot, and Claude thought, from their voices, they must all be very young. They joked about their Major as if he were their schoolmaster. There wasn't room enough on the truck for anybody to lie down, so they sat with their knees under their chins and exchanged gossip. The gun team belonged to an independent battery that was sent about over the country, "wherever needed." The rest of the battery had got through, gone on to the east, but this big gun was always getting into trouble; now something had gone wrong with her tractor and they couldn't pull her out. They called her "Jenny," and said she was taken with fainting fits now and then, and had to be humoured. It was like going about with your grandmother, one of the invisible Tommies said, "she is such a pompous old thing!" The Major was asleep on the rear truck; he was going to get the V.C. for sleeping. More giggles.
No, they hadn't any idea where they were going; of course, the officers knew, but artillery officers never told anything. What was this country like, anyhow? They were new to this part, had just come down from Verdure.
Claude said he had a friend in the air service up there; did they happen to know anything about Victor Morse?
Morse, the American ace? Hadn't he heard? Why, that got into the London papers. Morse was shot down inside the Hun line three weeks ago. It was a brilliant affair. He was chased by eight Boche planes, brought down three of them, put the rest to flight, and was making for base, when they turned and got him. His machine came down in flames and he jumped, fell a thousand feet or more.
"Then I suppose he never got his leave?" Claude asked.
They didn't know. He got a fine citation.
The men settled down to wait for the weather to improve or the night to pass. Some of them fell into a doze, but Claude felt wide awake. He was wondering about the flat in Chelsea; whether the heavy-eyed beauty had been very sorry, or whether she was playing "Roses of Picardy" for other young officers. He thought mournfully that he would never go to London now. He had quite counted on meeting Victor there some day, after the Kaiser had been properly disposed of. He had really liked Victor. There was something about that fellow... a sort of debauched baby, he was, who went seeking his enemy in the clouds. What other age could have produced such a figure? That was one of the things about this war; it took a little fellow from a little town, gave him an air and a swagger, a life like a movie-film,—and then a death like the rebel angels.
A man like Gerhardt, for instance, had always lived in a more or less rose-colored world; he belonged over here, really. How could he know what hard moulds and crusts the big guns had broken open on the other side of the sea? Who could ever make him understand how far it was from the strawberry bed and the glass cage in the bank, to the sky-roads over Verdure?
By three o'clock the rain had stopped. Claude and Hicks set off again, accompanied by one of the gun team who was going back to get help for their tractor. As it began to grow light, the two Americans wondered more and more at the extremely youthful appearance of their companion. When they stopped at a shell-hole and washed the mud from their faces, the English boy, with his helmet off and the weather stains removed, showed a countenance of adolescent freshness, almost girlish; cheeks like pink apples, yellow curls above his forehead, long, soft lashes.
"You haven't been over very long, have you?" Claude asked in a fatherly tone, as they took the road again.
"I came out in 'sixteen. I was formerly in the infantry."
The Americans liked to hear him talk; he spoke very quickly, in a high, piping voice.
"How did you come to change?"
"Oh, I belonged to one of the Pal Battalions, and we got cut to pieces. When I came out of hospital, I thought I'd try another branch of the service, seeing my pals were gone."
"Now, just what is a Pal Battalion?" drawled Hicks. He hated all English words he didn't understand, though he didn't mind French ones in the least.
"Fellows who signed up together from school," the lad piped.
Hicks glanced at Claude. They both thought this boy ought to be in school for some time yet, and wondered what he looked like when he first came over.
"And you got cut up, you say?" he asked sympathetically.
"Yes, on the Somme. We had rotten luck. We were sent over to take a trench and couldn't. We didn't even get to the wire. The Hun was so well prepared that time, we couldn't manage it. We went over a thousand, and we came back seventeen."
"A hundred and seventeen?"
Hicks whistled and again exchanged looks with Claude. They could neither of them doubt him. There was something very unpleasant about the idea of a thousand fresh-faced schoolboys being sent out against the guns. "It must have been a fool order," he commented. "Suppose there was some mistake at Headquarters?"
"Oh, no, Headquarters knew what it was about! We'd have taken it, if we'd had any sort of luck. But the Hun happened to be full of fight. His machine guns did for us."
"You were hit yourself?" Claude asked him.
"In the leg. He was popping away at me all the while, but I wriggled back on my tummy. When I came out of the hospital my leg wasn't strong, and there's less marching in the artillery.
"I should think you'd have had about enough."
"Oh, a fellow can't stay out after all his chums have been killed! He'd think about it all the time, you know," the boy replied in his clear treble.
Claude and Hicks got into Headquarters just as the cooks were turning out to build their fires. One of the Corporals took them to the officers' bath,—a shed with big tin tubs, and carried away their uniforms to dry them in the kitchen. It would be an hour before the officers would be about, he said, and in the meantime he would manage to get clean shirts and socks for them.
"Say, Lieutenant," Hicks brought out as he was rubbing himself down with a real bath towel, "I don't want to hear any more about those Pal Battalions, do you? It gets my goat. So long as we were going to get into this, we might have been a little more previous. I hate to feel small." "Guess we'll have to take our medicine," Claude said dryly, "There wasn't anywhere to duck, was there? I felt like it. Nice little kid. I don't believe American boys ever seem as young as that."
"Why, if you met him anywhere else, you'd be afraid of using bad words before him, he's so pretty! What's the use of sending an orphan asylum out to be slaughtered? I can't see it," grumbled the fat sergeant. "Well, it's their business. I'm not going to let it spoil my breakfast. Suppose we'll draw ham and eggs, Lieutenant?"
After breakfast Claude reported to Headquarters and talked with one of the staff Majors. He was told he would have to wait until tomorrow to see Colonel James, who had been called to Paris for a general conference. He had left in his car at four that morning, in response to a telephone message.
"There's not much to do here, by way of amusement," said the Major. "A movie show tonight, and you can get anything you want at the estaminet,—the one on the square, opposite the English tank, is the best. There are a couple of nice Frenchwomen in the Red Cross barrack, up on the hill, in the old convent garden. They try to look out for the civilian population, and we're on good terms with them. We get their supplies through with our own, and the quartermaster has orders to help them when they run short. You might go up and call on them. They speak English perfectly."
Claude asked whether he could walk in on them without any kind of introduction.
"Oh, yes, they're used to us! I'll give you a card to Mlle. Olive, though. She's a particular friend of mine. There you are: 'Mlle. Olive de Courcy, introducing, etc.' And, you understand," here he glanced up and looked Claude over from head to foot, "she's a perfect lady."
Even with an introduction, Claude felt some hesitancy about presenting himself to these ladies. Perhaps they didn't like Americans; he was always afraid of meeting French people who didn't. It was the same way with most of the fellows in his battalion, he had found; they were terribly afraid of being disliked. And the moment they felt they were disliked, they hastened to behave as badly as possible, in order to deserve it; then they didn't feel that they had been taken in—the worst feeling a doughboy could possibly have!
Claude thought he would stroll about to look at the town a little. It had been taken by the Germans in the autumn of 1914, after their retreat from the Marne, and they had held it until about a year ago, when it was retaken by the English and the Chasseurs d'Alpins. They had been able to reduce it and to drive the Germans out, only by battering it down with artillery; not one building remained standing.
Ruin was ugly, and it was nothing more, Claude was thinking, as he followed the paths that ran over piles of brick and plaster. There was nothing picturesque about this, as there was in the war pictures one saw at home. A cyclone or a fire might have done just as good a job. The place was simply a great dump-heap; an exaggeration of those which disgrace the outskirts of American towns. It was the same thing over and over; mounds of burned brick and broken stone, heaps of rusty, twisted iron, splintered beams and rafters, stagnant pools, cellar holes full of muddy water. An American soldier had stepped into one of those holes a few nights before, and been drowned.
This had been a rich town of eighteen thousand inhabitants; now the civilian population was about four hundred. There were people there who had hung on all through the years of German occupation; others who, as soon as they heard that the enemy was driven out, came back from wherever they had found shelter. They were living in cellars, or in little wooden barracks made from old timbers and American goods boxes. As he walked along, Claude read familiar names and addresses, painted on boards built into the sides of these frail shelters: "From Emery Bird, Thayer Co. Kansas City, Mo." "Daniels and Fisher, Denver, Colo." These inscriptions cheered him so much that he began to feel like going up and calling on the French ladies.
The sun had come out hot after three days of rain. The stagnant pools and the weeds that grew in the ditches gave out a rank, heavy smell. Wild flowers grew triumphantly over the piles of rotting wood and rusty iron; cornflowers and Queen Anne's lace and poppies; blue and white and red, as if the French colours came up spontaneously out of the French soil, no matter what the Germans did to it.
Claude paused before a little shanty built against a half-demolished brick wall. A gilt cage hung in the doorway, with a canary, singing beautifully. An old woman was working in the garden patch, picking out bits of brick and plaster the rain had washed up, digging with her fingers around the pale carrot-tops and neat lettuce heads. Claude approached her, touched his helmet, and asked her how one could find the way to the Red Cross.
She wiped her hands on her apron and took him by the elbow. "Vous savez le tank Anglais? Non? Marie, Marie!"
(He learned afterward that every one was directed to go this way or that from a disabled British tank that had been left on the site of the old town hall.)
A little girl ran out of the barrack, and her grandmother told her to go at once and take the American to the Red Cross. Marie put her hand in Claude's and led him off along one of the paths that wound among the rubbish. She took him out of the way to show him a church,—evidently one of the ruins of which they were proudest,—where the blue sky was shining through the white arches. The Virgin stood with empty arms over the central door; a little foot sticking to her robe showed where the infant Jesus had been shot away.
"Le bebe est casse, mais il a protege sa mere," Marie explained with satisfaction. As they went on, she told Claude that she had a soldier among the Americans who was her friend. "Il est bon, il est gai, mon soldat," but he sometimes drank too much alcohol, and that was a bad habit. Perhaps now, since his comrade had stepped into a cellar hole Monday night while he was drunk, and had been drowned, her "Sharlie" would be warned and would do better. Marie was evidently a well brought up child. Her father, she said, had been a schoolmaster. At the foot of the convent hill, she turned to go home. Claude called her back and awkwardly tried to give her some money, but she thrust her hands behind her and said resolutely, "Non, merci. Je n'ai besoin de rien," and then ran away down the path.
As he climbed toward the top of the hill he noticed that the ground had been cleaned up a bit. The path was clear, the bricks and hewn stones had been piled in neat heaps, the broken hedges had been trimmed and the dead parts cut away. Emerging at last into the garden, he stood still for wonder; even though it was in ruins, it seemed so beautiful after the disorder of the world below.
The gravel walks were clean and shining. A wall of very old boxwoods stood green against a row of dead Lombardy poplars. Along the shattered side of the main building, a pear tree, trained on wires like a vine, still flourished,—full of little red pears. Around the stone well was a shaven grass plot, and everywhere there were little trees and shrubs, which had been too low for the shells to hit,—or for the fire, which had seared the poplars, to catch. The hill must have been wrapped in flames at one time, and all the tall trees had been burned.
The barrack was built against the walls of the cloister,—three arches of which remained, like a stone wing to the shed of planks. On a ladder stood a one-armed young man, driving nails very skillfully with his single hand. He seemed to be making a frame projection from the sloping roof, to support an awning. He carried his nails in his mouth. When he wanted one, he hung his hammer to the belt of his trousers, took a nail from between his teeth, stuck it into the wood, and then deftly rapped it on the head. Claude watched him for a moment, then went to the foot of the ladder and held out his two hands. "Laissez-moi," he exclaimed.
The one aloft spat his nails out into his palm, looked down, and laughed. He was about Claude's age, with very yellow hair and moustache and blue eyes. A charming looking fellow.
"Willingly," he said. "This is no great affair, but I do it to amuse myself, and it will be pleasant for the ladies." He descended and gave his hammer to the visitor. Claude set to work on the frame, while the other went under the stone arches and brought back a roll of canvas,—part of an old tent, by the look of it.
"Un heritage des Boches," he explained unrolling it upon the grass. "I found it among their filth in the cellar, and had the idea to make a pavilion for the ladies, as our trees are destroyed." He stood up suddenly. "Perhaps you have come to see the ladies?"
Very well, the boy said, they would get the pavilion done for a surprise for Mlle. Olive when she returned. She was down in the town now, visiting the sick people. He bent over his canvas again, measuring and cutting with a pair of garden shears, moving round the green plot on his knees, and all the time singing. Claude wished he could understand the words of his song.
While they were working together, tying the cloth up to the frame, Claude, from his elevation, saw a tall girl coming slowly up the path by which he had ascended. She paused at the top, by the boxwood hedge, as if she were very tired, and stood looking at them. Presently she approached the ladder and said in slow, careful English, "Good morning. Louis has found help, I see."
Claude came down from his perch.
"Are you Mlle. de Courcy? I am Claude Wheeler. I have a note of introduction to you, if I can find it."
She took the card, but did not look at it. "That is not necessary. Your uniform is enough. Why have you come?"
He looked at her in some confusion. "Well, really, I don't know! I am just in from the front to see Colonel James, and he is in Paris, so I must wait over a day. One of the staff suggested my coming up here—I suppose because it is so nice!" he finished ingenuously.
"Then you are a guest from the front, and you will have lunch with Louis and me. Madame Barre is also gone for the day. Will you see our house?" She led him through the low door into a living room, unpainted, uncarpeted, light and airy. There were coloured war posters on the clean board walls, brass shell cases full of wild flowers and garden flowers, canvas camp-chairs, a shelf of books, a table covered by a white silk shawl embroidered with big butterflies. The sunlight on the floor, the bunches of fresh flowers, the white window curtains stirring in the breeze, reminded Claude of something, but he could not remember what.
"We have no guest room," said Mlle. de Courcy. "But you will come to mine, and Louis will bring you hot water to wash."
In a wooden chamber at the end of the passage, Claude took off his coat, and set to work to make himself as tidy as possible. Hot water and scented soap were in themselves pleasant things. The dresser was an old goods box, stood on end and covered with white lawn. On it there was a row of ivory toilet things, with combs and brushes, powder and cologne, and a pile of white handkerchiefs fresh from the iron. He felt that he ought not to look about him much, but the odor of cleanness, and the indefinable air of personality, tempted him. In one corner, a curtain on a rod made a clothes-closet; in another was a low iron bed, like a soldier's, with a pale blue coverlid and white pillows. He moved carefully and splashed discreetly. There was nothing he could have damaged or broken, not even a rug on the plank floor, and the pitcher and hand-basin were of iron; yet he felt as if he were imperiling something fragile.
When he came out, the table in the living room was set for three. The stout old dame who was placing the plates paid no attention to him,—seemed, from her expression, to scorn him and all his kind. He withdrew as far as possible out of her path and picked up a book from the table, a volume of Heine's Reisebilder in German.
Before lunch Mlle. de Courcy showed him the store room in the rear, where the shelves were stocked with rows of coffee tins, condensed milk, canned vegetables and meat, all with American trade names he knew so well; names which seemed doubly familiar and "reliable" here, so far from home. She told him the people in the town could not have got through the winter without these things. She had to deal them out sparingly, where the need was greatest, but they made the difference between life and death. Now that it was summer, the people lived by their gardens; but old women still came to beg for a few ounces of coffee, and mothers to get a can of milk for the babies.
Claude's face glowed with pleasure. Yes, his country had a long arm. People forgot that; but here, he felt, was some one who did not forget. When they sat down to lunch he learned that Mlle. de Courcy and Madame Barre had been here almost a year now; they came soon after the town was retaken, when the old inhabitants began to drift back. The people brought with them only what they could carry in their arms.
"They must love their country so much, don't you think, when they endure such poverty to come back to it?" she said. "Even the old ones do not often complain about their dear things—their linen, and their china, and their beds. If they have the ground, and hope, all that they can make again. This war has taught us all how little the made things matter. Only the feeling matters."
Exactly so; hadn't he been trying to say this ever since he was born? Hadn't he always known it, and hadn't it made life both bitter and sweet for him? What a beautiful voice she had, this Mlle. Olive, and how nobly it dealt with the English tongue. He would like to say something, but out of so much... what? He remained silent, therefore, sat nervously breaking up the black war bread that lay beside his plate.
He saw her looking at his hand, felt in a flash that she regarded it with favour, and instantly put it on his knee, under the table.
"It is our trees that are worst," she went on sadly. "You have seen our poor trees? It makes one ashamed for this beautiful part of France. Our people are more sorry for them than to lose their cattle and horses."
Mlle. de Courcy looked over-taxed by care and responsibility, Claude thought, as he watched her. She seemed far from strong. Slender, grey-eyed, dark-haired, with white transparent skin and a too ardent colour in her lips and cheeks,—like the flame of a feverish activity within. Her shoulders drooped, as if she were always tired. She must be young, too, though there were threads of grey in her hair,—brushed flat and knotted carelessly at the back of her head.
After the coffee, Mlle. de Courcy went to work at her desk, and Louis took Claude to show him the garden. The clearing and trimming and planting were his own work, and he had done it all with one arm. This autumn he would accomplish much more, for he was stronger now, and he had the habitude of working single-handed. He must manage to get the dead trees down; they distressed Mademoiselle Olive. In front of the barrack stood four old locusts; the tops were naked forks, burned coal-black, but the lower branches had put out thick tufts of yellow-green foliage, so vigorous that the life in the trunks must still be sound. This fall, Louis said, he meant to get some strong American boys to help him, and they would saw off the dead limbs and trim the tops flat over the thick boles. How much it must mean to a man to love his country like this, Claude thought; to love its trees and flowers; to nurse it when it was sick, and tend its hurts with one arm. Among the flowers, which had come back self-sown or from old roots, Claude found a group of tall, straggly plants with reddish stems and tiny white blossoms,—one of the evening primrose family, the Gaura, that grew along the clay banks of Lovely Creek, at home. He had never thought it very pretty, but he was pleased to find it here. He had supposed it was one of those nameless prairie flowers that grew on the prairie and nowhere else.
When they went back to the barrack, Mlle. Olive was sitting in one of the canvas chairs Louis had placed under the new pavilion.
"What a fine fellow he is!" Claude exclaimed, looking after him.
"Louis? Yes. He was my brother's orderly. When Emile came home on leave he always brought Louis with him, and Louis became like one of the family. The shell that killed my brother tore off his arm. My mother and I went to visit him in the hospital, and he seemed ashamed to be alive, poor boy, when my brother was dead. He put his hand over his face and began to cry, and said, 'Oh, Madame, il etait toujours plus chic que moi!'"
Although Mlle. Olive spoke English well, Claude saw that she did so only by keeping her mind intently upon it. The stiff sentences she uttered were foreign to her nature; her face and eyes ran ahead of her tongue and made one wait eagerly for what was coming. He sat down in a sagging canvas chair, absently twisting a sprig of Gaura he had pulled.
"You have found a flower?" She looked up.
"Yes. It grows at home, on my father's farm."
She dropped the faded shirt she was darning. "Oh, tell me about your country! I have talked to so many, but it is difficult to understand. Yes, tell me about that!"
Nebraska—What was it? How many days from the sea, what did it look like? As he tried to describe it, she listened with half-closed eyes. "Flat-covered with grain-muddy rivers. I think it must be like Russia. But your father's farm; describe that to me, minutely, and perhaps I can see the rest."
Claude took a stick and drew a square in the sand: there, to begin with, was the house and farmyard; there was the big pasture, with Lovely Creek flowing through it; there were the wheatfields and cornfields, the timber claim; more wheat and corn, more pastures. There it all was, diagrammed on the yellow sand, with shadows gliding over it from the half-charred locust trees. He would not have believed that he could tell a stranger about it in such detail. It was partly due to his listener, no doubt; she gave him unusual sympathy, and the glow of an unusual mind. While she bent over his map, questioning him, a light dew of perspiration gathered on her upper lip, and she breathed faster from her effort to see and understand everything. He told her about his mother and his father and Mahailey; what life was like there in summer and winter and autumn—what it had been like in that fateful summer when the Hun was moving always toward Paris, and on those three days when the French were standing at the Marne; how his mother and father waited for him to bring the news at night, and how the very cornfields seemed to hold their breath.
Mlle. Olive sank back wearily in her chair. Claude looked up and saw tears sparkling in her brilliant eyes. "And I myself," she murmured, "did not know of the Marne until days afterward, though my father and brother were both there! I was far off in Brittany, and the trains did not run. That is what is wonderful, that you are here, telling me this! We, we were taught from childhood that some day the Germans would come; we grew up under that threat. But you were so safe, with all your wheat and corn. Nothing could touch you, nothing!"
Claude dropped his eyes. "Yes," he muttered, blushing, "shame could. It pretty nearly did. We are pretty late." He rose from his chair as if he were going to fetch something.... But where was he to get it from? He shook his head. "I am afraid," he said mournfully, "there is nothing I can say to make you understand how far away it all seemed, how almost visionary. It didn't only seem miles away, it seemed centuries away."
"But you do come,—so many, and from so far! It is the last miracle of this war. I was in Paris on the fourth day of July, when your Marines, just from Belleau Wood, marched for your national fete, and I said to myself as they came on, 'That is a new man!' Such heads they had, so fine there, behind the ears. Such discipline and purpose. Our people laughed and called to them and threw them flowers, but they never turned to look... eyes straight before. They passed like men of destiny." She threw out her hands with a swift movement and dropped them in her lap. The emotion of that day came back in her face. As Claude looked at her burning cheeks, her burning eyes, he understood that the strain of this war had given her a perception that was almost like a gift of prophecy.
A woman came up the hill carrying a baby. Mlle. de Courcy went to meet her and took her into the house. Claude sat down again, almost lost to himself in the feeling of being completely understood, of being no longer a stranger. In the far distance the big guns were booming at intervals. Down in the garden Louis was singing. Again he wished he knew the words of Louis' songs. The airs were rather melancholy, but they were sung very cheerfully. There was something open and warm about the boy's voice, as there was about his face-something blond, too. It was distinctly a bland voice, like summer wheatfields, ripe and waving. Claude sat alone for half an hour or more, tasting a new kind of happiness, a new kind of sadness. Ruin and new birth; the shudder of ugly things in the past, the trembling image of beautiful ones on the horizon; finding and losing; that was life, he saw.
When his hostess came back, he moved her chair for her out of the creeping sunlight. "I didn't know there were any French girls like you," he said simply, as she sat down.
She smiled. "I do not think there are any French girls left. There are children and women. I was twenty-one when the war came, and I had never been anywhere without my mother or my brother or sister. Within a year I went all over France alone; with soldiers, with Senegalese, with anybody. Everything is different with us." She lived at Versailles, she told him, where her father had been an instructor in the Military School. He had died since the beginning of the war. Her grandfather was killed in the war of 1870. Hers was a family of soldiers, but not one of the men would be left to see the day of victory.
She looked so tired that Claude knew he had no right to stay. Long shadows were falling in the garden. It was hard to leave; but an hour more or less wouldn't matter. Two people could hardly give each other more if they were together for years, he thought.
"Will you tell me where I can come and see you, if we both get through this war?" he asked as he rose.
He wrote it down in his notebook.
"I shall look for you," she said, giving him her hand.
There was nothing to do but to take his helmet and go. At the edge of the hill, just before he plunged down the path, he stopped and glanced back at the garden lying flattened in the sun; the three stone arches, the dahlias and marigolds, the glistening boxwood wall. He had left something on the hilltop which he would never find again.
The next afternoon Claude and his sergeant set off for the front. They had been told at Headquarters that they could shorten their route by following the big road to the military cemetery, and then turning to the left. It was not advisable to go the latter half of the way before nightfall, so they took their time through the belt of straggling crops and hayfields.
When they struck the road they came upon a big Highlander sitting in the end of an empty supply wagon, smoking a pipe and rubbing the dried mud out of his kilts. The horses were munching in their nose-bags, and the driver had disappeared. The Americans hadn't happened to meet with any Highlanders before, and were curious. This one must be a good fighter, they thought; a brawny giant with a bulldog jaw, and a face as red and knobby as his knees. More because he admired the looks of the man than because he needed information, Hicks went up and asked him if he had noticed a military cemetery on the road back. The Kilt nodded.
"About how far back would you say it was?"
"I wouldn't say at all. I take no account of their kilometers," he replied dryly, rubbing away at his skirt as if he had it in a washtub.
"Well, about how long will it take us to walk it?"
"That I couldn't say. A Scotsman would do it in an hour."
"I guess a Yankee can do it as quick as a Scotchman, can't be?" Hicks asked jovially.
"That I couldn't say. You've been four years gettin' this far, I know verra well."
Hicks blinked as if he had been hit. "Oh, if that's the way you talk—"
"That's the way I do," said the other sourly.
Claude put out a warning hand. "Come on, Hicks. You'll get nothing by it." They went up the road very much disconcerted. Hicks kept thinking of things he might have said. When he was angry, the Sergeant's forehead puffed up and became dark red, like a young baby's. "What did you call me off for?" he sputtered.
"I don't see where you'd have come out in an argument, and you certainly couldn't have licked him."
They turned aside at the cemetery to wait until the sun went down. It was unfenced, unsodded, and a wagon trail ran through the middle, bisecting the square. On one side were the French graves, with white crosses; on the other side the German graves, with black crosses. Poppies and cornflower ran over them. The Americans strolled about, reading the names. Here and there the soldier's photograph was nailed upon his cross, left by some comrade to perpetuate his memory a little longer.
The birds, that always came to life at dusk and dawn, began to sing, flying home from somewhere. Claude and Hicks sat down between the mounds and began to smoke while the sun dropped. Lines of dead trees marked the red west. This was a dreary stretch of country, even to boys brought up on the flat prairie. They smoked in silence, meditating and waiting for night. On a cross at their feet the inscription read merely: Soldat Inconnu, Mort pour La France.
A very good epitaph, Claude was thinking. Most of the boys who fell in this war were unknown, even to themselves. They were too young. They died and took their secret with them,—what they were and what they might have been. The name that stood was La France. How much that name had come to mean to him, since he first saw a shoulder of land bulk up in the dawn from the deck of the Anchises. It was a pleasant name to say over in one's mind, where one could make it as passionately nasal as one pleased and never blush.
Hicks, too, had been lost in his reflections. Now he broke the silence. "Somehow, Lieutenant, 'mort' seems deader than 'dead.' It has a coffinish sound. And over there they're all 'tod,' and it's all the same damned silly thing. Look at them set out here, black and white, like a checkerboard. The next question is, who put 'em here, and what's the good of it?"
"Search me," the other murmured absently.
Hicks rolled another cigarette and sat smoking it, his plump face wrinkled with the gravity and labour of his cerebration. "Well," he brought out at last, "we'd better hike. This afterglow will hang on for an hour,—always does, over here."
"I suppose we had." They rose to go. The white crosses were now violet, and the black ones had altogether melted in the shadow. Behind the dead trees in the west, a long smear of red still burned. To the north, the guns were tuning up with a deep thunder. "Somebody's getting peppered up there. Do owls always hoot in graveyards?"
"Just what I was wondering, Lieutenant. It's a peaceful spot, otherwise. Good-night, boys," said Hicks kindly, as they left the graves behind them.
They were soon finding their way among shell holes, and jumping trench-tops in the dark,-beginning to feel cheerful at getting back to their chums and their own little group. Hicks broke out and told Claude how he and Dell Able meant to go into business together when they got home; were going to open a garage and automobile-repair shop. Under their talk, in the minds of both, that lonely spot lingered, and the legend: Soldat Inconnu, Mort pour La France.
After four days' rest in the rear, the Battalion went to the front again in new country, about ten kilometers east of the trench they had relieved before. One morning Colonel Scott sent for Claude and Gerhardt and spread his maps out on the table.
"We are going to clean them out there in F 6 tonight, and straighten our line. The thing that bothers us is that little village stuck up on the hill, where the enemy machine guns have a strong position. I want to get them out of there before the Battalion goes over. We can't spare too many men, and I don't like to send out more officers than I can help; it won't do to reduce the Battalion for the major operation. Do you think you two boys could manage it with a hundred men? The point is, you will have to be out and back before our artillery begins at three o'clock."
Under the hill where the village stood, ran a deep ravine, and from this ravine a twisting water course wound up the hillside. By climbing this gully, the raiders should be able to fall on the machine gunners from the rear and surprise them. But first they must get across the open stretch, nearly one and a half kilometers wide, between the American line and the ravine, without attracting attention. It was raining now, and they could safely count on a dark night.
The night came on black enough. The Company crossed the open stretch without provoking fire, and slipped into the ravine to wait for the hour of attack, A young doctor, a Pennsylvanian, lately attached to the staff, had volunteered to come with them, and he arranged a dressing station at the bottom of the ravine, where the stretchers were left. They were to pick up their wounded on the way back. Anything left in that area would be exposed to the artillery fire later on.
At ten o'clock the men began to ascend the water-course, creeping through pools and little waterfalls, making a continuous spludgy sound, like pigs rubbing against the sty. Claude, with the head of the column, was just pulling out of the gully on the hillside above the village, when a flare went up, and a volley of fire broke from the brush on the up-hill side of the water-course; machine guns, opening on the exposed line crawling below. The Hun had been warned that the Americans were crossing the plain and had anticipated their way of approach. The men in the gully were trapped; they could not retaliate with effect, and the bullets from the Maxims bounded on the rocks about them like hail. Gerhardt ran along the edge of the line, urging the men not to fall back and double on themselves, but to break out of the gully on the downhill side and scatter.
Claude, with his group, started back. "Go into the brush and get 'em! Our fellows have got no chance down there. Grenades while they last, then bayonets. Pull your plugs and don't hold on too long."
They were already on the run, charging the brush. The Hun gunners knew the hill like a book, and when the bombs began bursting among them, they took to trails and burrows. "Don't follow them off into the rocks," Claude kept calling. "Straight ahead! Clear everything to the ravine."
As the German gunners made for cover, the firing into the gully stopped, and the arrested column poured up the steep defile after Gerhardt.
Claude and his party found themselves back at the foot of the hill, at the edge of the ravine from which they had started. Heavy firing on the hill above told them the rest of the men had got through. The quickest way back to the scene of action was by the same water-course they had climbed before. They dropped into it and started up. Claude, at the rear, felt the ground rise under him, and he was swept with a mountain of earth and rock down into the ravine.
He never knew whether he lost consciousness or not. It seemed to him that he went on having continuous sensations. The first, was that of being blown to pieces; of swelling to an enormous size under intolerable pressure, and then bursting. Next he felt himself shrink and tingle, like a frost-bitten body thawing out. Then he swelled again, and burst. This was repeated, he didn't know how often. He soon realized that he was lying under a great weight of earth; his body, not his head. He felt rain falling on his face. His left hand was free, and still attached to his arm. He moved it cautiously to his face. He seemed to be bleeding from the nose and ears. Now he began to wonder where he was hurt; he felt as if he were full of shell splinters. Everything was buried but his head and left shoulder. A voice was calling from somewhere below.
"Are any of you fellows alive?"
Claude closed his eyes against the rain beating in his face. The same voice came again, with a note of patient despair.
"If there's anybody left alive in this hole, won't he speak up? I'm badly hurt myself."
That must be the new doctor; wasn't his dressing station somewhere down here? Hurt, he said. Claude tried to move his legs a little. Perhaps, if he could get out from under the dirt, he might hold together long enough to reach the doctor. He began to wriggle and pull. The wet earth sucked at him; it was painful business. He braced himself with his elbows, but kept slipping back.
"I'm the only one left, then?" said the mournful voice below.
At last Claude worked himself out of his burrow, but he was unable to stand. Every time he tried to stand, he got faint and seemed to burst again. Something was the matter with his right ankle, too—he couldn't bear his weight on it. Perhaps he had been too near the shell to be hit; he had heard the boys tell of such cases. It had exploded under his feet and swept him down into the ravine, but hadn't left any metal in his body. If it had put anything into him, it would have put so much that he wouldn't be sitting here speculating. He began to crawl down the slope on all fours. "Is that the Doctor? Where are you?"
"Here, on a stretcher. They shelled us. Who are you? Our fellows got up, didn't they?"
"I guess most of them did. What happened back here?"
"I'm afraid it's my fault," the voice said sadly. "I used my flash light, and that must have given them the range. They put three or four shells right on top of us. The fellows that got hurt in the gully kept stringing back here, and I couldn't do anything in the dark. I had to have a light to do anything. I just finished putting on a Johnson splint when the first shell came. I guess they're all done for now."
"How many were there?"
"Fourteen, I think. Some of them weren't much hurt. They'd all be alive, if I hadn't come out with you."
"Who were they? But you don't know our names yet, do you? You didn't see Lieutenant Gerhardt among them?"
"Don't think so."
"Nor Sergeant Hicks, the fat fellow?"
"Don't think so."
"Where are you hurt?"
"Abdominal. I can't tell anything without a light. I lost my flash light. It never occurred to me that it could make trouble; it's one I use at home, when the babies are sick," the doctor murmured.
Claude tried to strike a match, with no success. "Wait a minute, where's your helmet?" He took off his metal hat, held it over the doctor, and managed to strike a light underneath it. The wounded man had already loosened his trousers, and now he pulled up his bloody shirt. His groin and abdomen were torn on the left side. The wound, and the stretcher on which he lay, supported a mass of dark, coagulated blood that looked like a great cow's liver.
"I guess I've got mine," the Doctor murmured as the match went out.
Claude struck another. "Oh, that can't be! Our fellows will be back pretty soon, and we can do something for you."
"No use, Lieutenant. Do you suppose you could strip a coat off one of those poor fellows? I feel the cold terribly in my intestines. I had a bottle of French brandy, but I suppose it's buried."
Claude stripped off his own coat, which was warm on the inside, and began feeling about in the mud for the brandy. He wondered why the poor man wasn't screaming with pain. The firing on the hill had ceased, except for the occasional click of a Maxim, off in the rocks somewhere. His watch said 12:10; could anything have miscarried up there?
Suddenly, voices above, a clatter of boots on the shale. He began shouting to them.
"Coming, coming!" He knew the voice. Gerhardt and his rifles ran down into the ravine with a bunch of prisoners. Claude called to them to be careful. "Don't strike a light! They've been shelling down here."
"All right are you, Wheeler? Where are the wounded?"
"There aren't any but the Doctor and me. Get us out of here quick. I'm all right, but I can't walk."
They put Claude on a stretcher and sent him ahead. Four big Germans carried him, and they were prodded to a lope by Hicks and Dell Able. Four of their own men took up the doctor, and Gerhardt walked beside him. In spite of their care, the motion started the blood again and tore away the clots that had formed over his wounds. He began to vomit blood and to strangle. The men put the stretcher down. Gerhardt lifted the Doctor's head. "It's over," he said presently. "Better make the best time you can."
They picked up their load again. "Them that are carrying him now won't jolt him," said Oscar, the pious Swede.
B Company lost nineteen men in the raid. Two days later the Company went off on a ten-day leave. Claude's sprained ankle was twice its natural size, but to avoid being sent to the hospital he had to march to the railhead. Sergeant Hicks got him a giant shoe he found stuck on the barbed wire entanglement. Claude and Gerhardt were going off on their leave together.
A rainy autumn night; Papa Joubert sat reading his paper. He heard a heavy pounding on his garden gate. Kicking off his slippers, he put on the wooden sabots he kept for mud, shuffled across the dripping garden, and opened the door into the dark street. Two tall figures with rifles and kits confronted him. In a moment he began embracing them, calling to his wife:
"Nom de diable, Maman, c'est David, David et Claude, tous les deux!"
Sorry-looking soldiers they appeared when they stood in the candlelight, plastered with clay, their metal hats shining like copper bowls, their clothes dripping pools of water upon the flags of the kitchen floor. Mme. Joubert kissed their wet cheeks, and Monsieur, now that he could see them, embraced them again. Whence had they come, and how had it fared with them, up there? Very well, as anybody could see. What did they want first,—supper, perhaps? Their room was always ready for them; and the clothes they had left were in the big chest.
David explained that their shirts had not once been dry for four days; and what they most desired was to be dry and to be clean. Old Martha, already in bed, was routed out to heat water. M. Joubert carried the big washtub upstairs. Tomorrow for conversation, he said; tonight for repose. The boys followed him and began to peel off their wet uniforms, leaving them in two sodden piles on the floor. There was one bath for both, and they threw up a coin to decide which should get into the warm water first. M. Joubert, seeing Claude's fat ankle strapped up in adhesive bandages, began to chuckle. "Oh, I see the Boche made you dance up there!"
When they were clad in clean pyjamas out of the chest, Papa Joubert carried their shirts and socks down for Martha to wash. He returned with the big meat platter, on which was an omelette made of twelve eggs and stuffed with bacon and fried potatoes. Mme. Joubert brought the three-story earthen coffee-pot to the door and called, "Bon appetit!" The host poured the coffee and cut up the loaf with his clasp knife. He sat down to watch them eat. How had they found things up there, anyway? The Boches polite and agreeable as usual? Finally, when there was not a crumb of anything left, he poured for each a little glass of brandy, "pour cider la digestion," and wished them good-night. He took the candle with him.
Perfect bliss, Claude reflected, as the chill of the sheets grew warm around his body, and he sniffed in the pillow the old smell of lavender. To be so warm, so dry, so clean, so beloved! The journey down, reviewed from here, seemed beautiful. As soon as they had got out of the region of martyred trees, they found the land of France turning gold. All along the river valleys the poplars and cottonwoods had changed from green to yellow,—evenly coloured, looking like candle flames in the mist and rain. Across the fields, along the horizon they ran, like torches passed from hand to hand, and all the willows by the little streams had become silver. The vineyards were green still, thickly spotted with curly, blood-red branches. It all flashed back beside his pillow in the dark: this beautiful land, this beautiful people, this beautiful omelette; gold poplars, blue-green vineyards, wet, scarlet vine leaves, rain dripping into the court, fragrant darkness... sleep, stronger than all.
The woodland path was deep in leaves. Claude and David were lying on the dry, springy heather among the flint boulders. Gerhardt, with his Stetson over his eyes, was presumably asleep. They were having fine weather for their holiday. The forest rose about this open glade like an amphitheatre, in golden terraces of horse chestnut and beech. The big nuts dropped velvety and brown, as if they had been soaked in oil, and disappeared in the dry leaves below. Little black yew trees, that had not been visible in the green of summer, stood out among the curly yellow brakes. Through the grey netting of the beech twigs, stiff holly bushes glittered.
It was the Wheeler way to dread false happiness, to feel cowardly about being fooled. Since he had come back, Claude had more than once wondered whether he took too much for granted and felt more at home here than he had any right to feel. The Americans were prone, he had observed, to make themselves very much at home, to mistake good manners for good-will. He had no right to doubt the affection of the Jouberts, however; that was genuine and personal,—not a smooth surface under which almost any shade of scorn might lie and laugh... was not, in short, the treacherous "French politeness" by which one must not let oneself be taken in. Merely having seen the season change in a country gave one the sense of having been there for a long time. And, anyway, he wasn't a tourist. He was here on legitimate business.
Claude's sprained ankle was still badly swollen. Madame Joubert was sure he ought not to move about on it at all, begged him to sit in the garden all day and nurse it. But the surgeon at the front had told him that if he once stopped walking, he would have to go to the hospital. So, with the help of his host's best holly-wood cane, he limped out into the forest every day. This afternoon he was tempted to go still farther. Madame Joubert had told him about some caves at the other end of the wood, underground chambers where the country people had gone to live in times of great misery, long ago, in the English wars. The English wars; he could not remember just how far back they were,—but long enough to make one feel comfortable. As for him, perhaps he would never go home at all. Perhaps, when this great affair was over, he would buy a little farm and stay here for the rest of his life. That was a project he liked to play with. There was no chance for the kind of life he wanted at home, where people were always buying and selling, building and pulling down. He had begun to believe that the Americans were a people of shallow emotions. That was the way Gerhardt had put it once; and if it was true, there was no cure for it. Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together. While he was absorbed in his day dream of farming in France, his companion stirred and rolled over on his elbow.
"You know we are to join the Battalion at A—. They'll be living like kings there. Hicks will get so fat he'll drop over on the march. Headquarters must have something particularly nasty in mind; the infantry is always fed up before a slaughter. But I've been thinking; I have some old friends at A—. Suppose we go on there a day early, and get them to take us in? It's a fine old place, and I ought to go to see them. The son was a fellow student of mine at the Conservatoire. He was killed the second winter of the war. I used to go up there for the holidays with him; I would like to see his mother and sister again. You've no objection?"
Claude did not answer at once. He lay squinting off at the beech trees, without moving. "You always avoid that subject with me, don't you?" he said presently.
"Oh, anything to do with the Conservatoire, or your profession."
"I haven't any profession at present. I'll never go back to the violin."
"You mean you couldn't make up for the time you'll lose?"
Gerhardt settled his back against a rock and got out his pipe. "That would be difficult; but other things would be harder. I've lost much more than time."
"Couldn't you have got exemption, one way or another?"
"I might have. My friends wanted to take it up and make a test case of me. But I couldn't stand for it. I didn't feel I was a good enough violinist to admit that I wasn't a man. I often wish I had been in Paris that summer when the war broke out; then I would have gone into the French army on the first impulse, with the other students, and it would have been better."
David paused and sat puffing at his pipe. Just then a soft movement stirred the brakes on the hillside. A little barefoot girl stood there, looking about. She had heard voices, but at first did not see the uniforms that blended with the yellow and brown of the wood. Then she saw the sun shining on two heads; one square, and amber in colour,—the other reddish bronze, long and narrow. She took their friendliness for granted and came down the hill, stopping now and again to pick up shiny horse chestnuts and pop them into a sack she was dragging. David called to her and asked her whether the nuts were good to eat.
"Oh, non!" she exclaimed, her face expressing the liveliest terror, "pour les cochons!" These inexperienced Americans might eat almost anything. The boys laughed and gave her some pennies, "pour les cochons aussi." She stole about the edge of the wood, stirring among the leaves for nuts, and watching the two soldiers.
Gerhardt knocked out his pipe and began to fill it again. "I went home to see my mother in May, of 1914. I wasn't here when the war broke out. The Conservatoire closed at once, so I arranged a concert tour in the States that winter, and did very well. That was before all the little Russians went over, and the field wasn't so crowded. I had a second season, and that went well. But I was getting more nervous all the time; I was only half there." He smoked thoughtfully, sitting with folded arms, as if he were going over a succession of events or states of feeling. "When my number was drawn, I reported to see what I could do about getting out; I took a look at the other fellows who were trying to squirm, and chucked it. I've never been sorry. Not long afterward, my violin was smashed, and my career seemed to go along with it."
Claude asked him what he meant.
"While I was at Camp Dix, I had to play at one of the entertainments. My violin, a Stradivarius, was in a vault in New York. I didn't need it for that concert, any more than I need it at this minute; yet I went to town and brought it out. I was taking it up from the station in a military car, and a drunken taxi driver ran into us. I wasn't hurt, but the violin, lying across my knees, was smashed into a thousand pieces. I didn't know what it meant then; but since, I've seen so many beautiful old things smashed... I've become a fatalist."
Claude watched his brooding head against the grey flint rock.
"You ought to have kept out of the whole thing. Any army man would say so."
David's head went back against the boulder, and he threw one of the, chestnuts lightly into the air. "Oh, one violinist more or less doesn't matter! But who is ever going back to anything? That's what I want to know!"
Claude felt guilty; as if David must have guessed what apostasy had been going on in his own mind this afternoon. "You don't believe we are going to get out of this war what we went in for, do you?" he asked suddenly.
"Absolutely not," the other replied with cool indifference.
"Then I certainly don't see what you're here for!"
"Because in 1917 I was twenty-four years old, and able to bear arms. The war was put up to our generation. I don't know what for; the sins of our fathers, probably. Certainly not to make the world safe for Democracy, or any rhetoric of that sort. When I was doing stretcher work, I had to tell myself over and over that nothing would come of it, but that it had to be. Sometimes, though, I think something must.... Nothing we expect, but something unforeseen." He paused and shut his eyes. "You remember in the old mythology tales how, when the sons of the gods were born, the mothers always died in agony? Maybe it's only Semele I'm thinking of. At any rate, I've sometimes wondered whether the young men of our time had to die to bring a new idea into the world... something Olympian. I'd like to know. I think I shall know. Since I've been over here this time, I've come to believe in immortality. Do you?"
Claude was confused by this quiet question. "I hardly know. I've never been able to make up my mind."
"Oh, don't bother about it! If it comes to you, it comes. You don't have to go after it. I arrived at it in quite the same way I used to get things in art,—knowing them and living on them before I understood them. Such ideas used to seem childish to me." Gerhardt sprang up. "Now, have I told you what you want to know about my case?" He looked down at Claude with a curious glimmer of amusement and affection. "I'm going to stretch my legs. It's four o'clock."
He disappeared among the red pine stems, where the sunlight made a rose-colored lake, as it used to do in the summer... as it would do in all the years to come, when they were not there to see it, Claude was thinking. He pulled his hat over his eyes and went to sleep.
The little girl on the edge of the beech wood left her sack and stole quietly down the hill. Sitting in the heather and drawing her feet up under her, she stayed still for a long time, and regarded with curiosity the relaxed, deep breathing body of the American soldier.
The next day was Claude's twenty-fifth birthday, and in honour of that event Papa Joubert produced a bottle of old Burgundy from his cellar, one of a few dozens he had laid in for great occasions when he was a young man.
During that week of idleness at Madame Joubert's, Claude often thought that the period of happy "youth," about which his old friend Mrs. Erlich used to talk, and which he had never experienced, was being made up to him now. He was having his youth in France. He knew that nothing like this would ever come again; the fields and woods would never again be laced over with this hazy enchantment. As he came up the village street in the purple evening, the smell of wood-smoke from the chimneys went to his head like a narcotic, opened the pores of his skin, and sometimes made the tears come to his eyes. Life had after all turned out well for him, and everything had a noble significance. The nervous tension in which he had lived for years now seemed incredible to him... absurd and childish, when he thought of it at all. He did not torture himself with recollections. He was beginning over again.
One night he dreamed that he was at home; out in the ploughed fields, where he could see nothing but the furrowed brown earth, stretching from horizon to horizon. Up and down it moved a boy, with a plough and two horses. At first he thought it was his brother Ralph; but on coming nearer, he saw it was himself,—and he was full of fear for this boy. Poor Claude, he would never, never get away; he was going to miss everything! While he was struggling to speak to Claude, and warn him, he awoke.
In the years when he went to school in Lincoln, he was always hunting for some one whom he could admire without reservations; some one he could envy, emulate, wish to be. Now he believed that even then he must have had some faint image of a man like Gerhardt in his mind. It was only in war times that their paths would have been likely to cross; or that they would have had anything to do together... any of the common interests that make men friends.
Gerhardt and Claude Wheeler alighted from a taxi before the open gates of a square-roofed, solid-looking house, where all the shutters on the front were closed, and the tops of many trees showed above the garden wall. They crossed a paved court and rang at the door. An old valet admitted the young men, and took them through a wide hall to the salon, which opened on the garden. Madame and Mademoiselle would be down very soon. David went to one of the long windows and looked out. "They have kept it up, in spite of everything. It was always lovely here."
The garden was spacious,—like a little park. On one side was a tennis court, on the other a fountain, with a pool and water-lilies. The north wall was hidden by ancient yews; on the south two rows of plane trees, cut square, made a long arbour. At the back of the garden there were fine old lindens. The gravel walks wound about beds of gorgeous autumn flowers; in the rose garden, small white roses were still blooming, though the leaves were already red.
Two ladies entered the drawing-room. The mother was short, plump, and rosy, with strong, rather masculine features and yellowish white hair. The tears flashed into her eyes as David bent to kiss her hand, and she embraced him and touched both his cheeks with her lips.
"Et vous, vous aussi!" she murmured, touching the coat of his uniform with her fingers. There was but a moment of softness. She gathered herself up like an old general, Claude thought, as he stood watching the group from the window, drew her daughter forward, and asked David whether he recognized the little girl with whom he used to play. Mademoiselle Claire was not at all like her mother; slender, dark, dressed in a white costume de tennis and an apple green hat with black ribbons, she looked very modern and casual and unconcerned. She was already telling David she was glad he had arrived early, as now they would be able to have a game of tennis before tea. Maman would bring her knitting to the garden and watch them. This last suggestion relieved Claude's apprehension that he might be left alone with his hostess. When David called him and presented him to the ladies, Mlle. Claire gave him a quick handshake, and said she would be very glad to try him out on the court as soon as she had beaten David. They would find tennis shoes in their room,—a collection of shoes, for the feet of all nations; her brother's, some that his Russian friend had forgotten when he hurried off to be mobilized, and a pair lately left by an English officer who was quartered on them. She and her mother would wait in the garden. She rang for the old valet.
The Americans found themselves in a large room upstairs, where two modern iron beds stood out conspicuous among heavy mahogany bureaus and desks and dressing-tables, stuffed chairs and velvet carpets and dull red brocade window hangings. David went at once into the little dressing-room and began to array himself for the tennis court. Two suits of flannels and a row of soft shirts hung there on the wall.
"Aren't you going to change?" he asked, noticing that Claude stood stiff and unbending by the window, looking down into the garden. "Why should I?" said Claude scornfully. "I don't play tennis. I never had a racket in my hand."
"Too bad. She used to play very well, though she was only a youngster then." Gerhardt was regarding his legs in trousers two inches too short for him. "How everything has changed, and yet how everything is still the same! It's like coming back to places in dreams."
"They don't give you much time to dream, I should say!" Claude remarked.
"Explain to the girl that I don't play, will you? I'll be down later."
"As you like."
Claude stood in the window, watching Gerhardt's bare head and Mlle. Claire's green hat and long brown arm go bounding about over the court.
When Gerhardt came to change before tea, he found his fellow officer standing before his bag, which was open, but not unpacked.
"What's the matter? Feeling shellshock again?"
"Not exactly." Claude bit his lip. "The fact is, Dave, I don't feel just comfortable here. Oh, the people are all right. But I'm out of place. I'm going to pull out and get a billet somewhere else, and let you visit your friends in peace. Why should I be here? These people don't keep a hotel."
"They very nearly do, from what they've been telling me. They've had a string of Scotch and English quartered on them. They like it, too,-or have the good manners to pretend they do. Of course, you'll do as you like, but you'll hurt their feelings and put me in an awkward position. To be frank, I don't see how you can go away without being distinctly rude."
Claude stood looking down at the contents of his bag in an irresolute attitude. Catching a glimpse of his face in one of the big mirrors, Gerhardt saw that he looked perplexed and miserable. His flash of temper died, and he put his hand lightly on his friend's shoulder.
"Come on, Claude! This is too absurd. You don't even have to dress, thanks to your uniform,—and you don't have to talk, since you're not supposed to know the language. I thought you'd like coming here. These people have had an awfully rough time; can't you admire their pluck?"
"Oh, yes, I do! It's awkward for me, though." Claude pulled off his coat and began to brush his hair vigorously. "I guess I've always been more afraid of the French than of the Germans. It takes courage to stay, you understand. I want to run."
"But why? What makes you want to?"
"Oh, I don't know! Something in the house, in the atmosphere."
"No. Something agreeable."
David laughed. "Oh, you'll get over that!"
They had tea in the garden, English fashion—English tea, too, Mlle. Claire informed them, left by the English officers.
At dinner a third member of the family was introduced, a little boy with a cropped head and big black eyes. He sat on Claude's left, quiet and shy in his velvet jacket, though he followed the conversation eagerly, especially when it touched upon his brother Rene, killed at Verdun in the second winter of the war. The mother and sister talked about him as if he were living, about his letters and his plans, and his friends at the Conservatoire and in the Army. Mlle. Claire told Gerhardt news of all the girl students he had known in Paris: how this one was singing for the soldiers; another, when she was nursing in a hospital which was bombed in an air raid, had carried twenty wounded men out of the burning building, one after another, on her back, like sacks of flour. Alice, the dancer, had gone into the English Red Cross and learned English. Odette had married a New Zealander, an officer who was said to be a cannibal; it was well known that his tribe had eaten two Auvergnat missionaries. There was a great deal more that Claude could not understand, but he got enough to see that for these women the war was France, the war was life, and everything that went into it. To be alive, to be conscious and have one's faculties, was to be in the war.
After dinner, when they went into the salon, Madame Fleury asked David whether he would like to see Rene's violin again, and nodded to the little boy. He slipped away and returned carrying the case, which he placed on the table. He opened it carefully and took off the velvet cloth, as if this was his peculiar office, then handed the instrument to Gerhardt.
David turned it over under the candles, telling Madame Fleury that he would have known it anywhere, Rene's wonderful Amati, almost too exquisite in tone for the concert hall, like a woman who is too beautiful for the stage. The family stood round and listened to his praise with evident satisfaction. Madame Fleury told him that Lucien was tres serieux with his music, that his master was well pleased with him, and when his hand was a little larger he would be allowed to play upon Rene's violin. Claude watched the little boy as he stood looking at the instrument in David's hands; in each of his big black eyes a candle flame was reflected, as if some steady fire were actually burning there.
"What is it, Lucien?" his mother asked.
"If Monsieur David would be so good as to play before I must go to bed—" he murmured entreatingly.
"But, Lucien, I am a soldier now. I have not worked at all for two years. The Amati would think it had fallen into the hands of a Boche."
Lucien smiled. "Oh, no! It is too intelligent for that. A little, please," and he sat down on a footstool before the sofa in confident anticipation.
Mlle. Claire went to the piano. David frowned and began to tune the violin. Madame Fleury called the old servant and told him to light the sticks that lay in the fireplace. She took the arm-chair at the right of the hearth and motioned Claude to a seat on the left. The little boy kept his stool at the other end of the room. Mlle. Claire began the orchestral introduction to the Saint-Saens concerto.
"Oh, not that!" David lifted his chin and looked at her in perplexity.
She made no reply, but played on, her shoulders bent forward. Lucien drew his knees up under his chin and shivered. When the time came, the violin made its entrance. David had put it back under his chin mechanically, and the instrument broke into that suppressed, bitter melody.
They played for a long while. At last David stopped and wiped his forehead. "I'm afraid I can't do anything with the third movement, really."
"Nor can I. But that was the last thing Rene played on it, the night before he went away, after his last leave." She began again, and David followed. Madame Fleury sat with half-closed eyes, looking into the fire. Claude, his lips compressed, his hands on his knees, was watching his friend's back. The music was a part of his own confused emotions. He was torn between generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy. What would it mean to be able to do anything as well as that, to have a hand capable of delicacy and precision and power? If he had been taught to do anything at all, he would not be sitting here tonight a wooden thing amongst living people. He felt that a man might have been made of him, but nobody had taken the trouble to do it; tongue-tied, foot-tied, hand-tied. If one were born into this world like a bear cub or a bull calf, one could only paw and upset things, break and destroy, all one's life.
Gerhardt wrapped the violin up in its cloth. The little boy thanked him and carried it away. Madame Fleury and her daughter wished their guests goodnight.
David said he was warm, and suggested going into the garden to smoke before they went to bed. He opened one of the long windows and they stepped out on the terrace. Dry leaves were rustling down on the walks; the yew trees made a solid wall, blacker than the darkness. The fountain must have caught the starlight; it was the only shining thing,—a little clear column of twinkling silver. The boys strolled in silence to the end of the walk.
"I guess you'll go back to your profession, all right," Claude remarked, in the unnatural tone in which people sometimes speak of things they know nothing about.
"Not I. Of course, I had to play for them. Music has always been like a religion in this house. Listen," he put up his hand; far away the regular pulsation of the big guns sounded through the still night. "That's all that matters now. It has killed everything else."
"I don't believe it." Claude stopped for a moment by the edge of the fountain, trying to collect his thoughts. "I don't believe it has killed anything. It has only scattered things." He glanced about hurriedly at the sleeping house, the sleeping garden, the clear, starry sky not very far overhead. "It's men like you that get the worst of it," he broke out. "But as for me, I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on. Before that, the world seemed like a business proposition."
"You'll admit it's a costly way of providing adventure for the young," said David drily.
"Maybe so; all the same..."
Claude pursued the argument to himself long after they were in their luxurious beds and David was asleep. No battlefield or shattered country he had seen was as ugly as this world would be if men like his brother Bayliss controlled it altogether. Until the war broke out, he had supposed they did control it; his boyhood had been clouded and enervated by that belief. The Prussians had believed it, too, apparently. But the event had shown that there were a great many people left who cared about something else.
The intervals of the distant artillery fire grew shorter, as if the big guns were tuning up, choking to get something out. Claude sat up in his bed and listened. The sound of the guns had from the first been pleasant to him, had given him a feeling of confidence and safety; tonight he knew why. What they said was, that men could still die for an idea; and would burn all they had made to keep their dreams. He knew the future of the world was safe; the careful planners would never be able to put it into a strait-jacket,—cunning and prudence would never have it to themselves. Why, that little boy downstairs, with the candlelight in his eyes, when it came to the last cry, as they said, could "carry on" for ever! Ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men. As long as that was true, and now he knew it was true—he had come all this way to find out—he had no quarrel with Destiny. Nor did he envy David. He would give his own adventure for no man's. On the edge of sleep it seemed to glimmer, like the clear column of the fountain, like the new moon,—alluring, half-averted, the bright face of danger.
When Claude and David rejoined their Battalion on the 20th of September, the end of the war looked as far away as ever. The collapse of Bulgaria was unknown to the American army, and their acquaintance with European affairs was so slight that this would have meant very little to them had they heard of it. The German army still held the north and east of France, and no one could say how much vitality was left in that sprawling body.
The Battalion entrained at Arras. Lieutenant Colonel Scott had orders to proceed to the railhead, and then advance on foot into the Argonne.
The cars were crowded, and the railway journey was long and fatiguing. They detrained at night, in the rain, at what the men said seemed to be the jumping off place. There was no town, and the railway station had been bombed the day before, by an air fleet out to explode artillery ammunition. A mound of brick, and holes full of water told where it had been. The Colonel sent Claude out with a patrol to find some place for the men to sleep. The patrol came upon a field of straw stacks, and at the end of it found a black farmhouse.
Claude went up and hammered on the door. Silence. He kept hammering and calling, "The Americans are here!" A shutter opened. The farmer stuck his head out and demanded gruffly what was wanted; "What now?"
Claude explained in his best French that an American battalion had just come in; might they sleep in his field if they did not destroy his stacks?
"Sure," replied the farmer, and shut the window.
That one word, coming out of the dark in such an unpromising place, had a cheering effect upon the patrol, and upon the men, when it was repeated to them. "Sure, eh?" They kept laughing over it as they beat about the field and dug into the straw. Those who couldn't burrow into a stack lay down in the muddy stubble. They were asleep before they could feel sorry for themselves.
The farmer came out to offer his stable to the officers, and to beg them not on any account to make a light. They had never been bothered here by air raids until yesterday, and it must be because the Americans were coming and were sending in ammunition.
Gerhardt, who was called to talk to him, told the farmer the Colonel must study his map, and for that the man took them down into the cellar, where the children were asleep. Before he lay down on the straw bed his orderly had made for him, the Colonel kept telling names and kilometers off on his fingers. For officers like Colonel Scott the names of places constituted one of the real hardships of the war. His mind worked slowly, but it was always on his job, and he could go without sleep for more hours together than any of his officers. Tonight he had scarcely lain down, when a sentinel brought in a runner with a message. The Colonel had to go into the cellar again to read it. He was to meet Colonel Harvey at Prince Joachim farm, as early as possible tomorrow morning. The runner would act as guide.