We had thanked the young lieutenant and had bade him good-by, and were starting off again, hoping to make Maubeuge before night, when suddenly it struck me that the one thing about La Buissiere I should recall most vividly was not the sight of it, all stricken and stunned and forlorn as it was, but the stench of it.
Before this my eyes had been so busy recording impressions that my nose had neglected its duty; now for the first time I sensed the vile reek that arose from all about me. The place was one big, horrid stink. It smelled of ether and iodoform and carbolic acid—there being any number of improvised hospitals, full of wounded, in sight; it smelled of sour beef bones and stale bread and moldy hay and fresh horse dung; it smelled of the sweaty bodies of the soldiers; it smelled of everything that is fetid and rancid and unsavory and unwholesome.
And yet, forty-eight hours before, this town, if it was like every other Belgian town, must have been as clean as clean could be. When the Belgian peasant housewife has cleaned the inside of her house she issues forth with bucket and scrubbing brush and washes the outside of it—and even the pavement in front and the cobbles of the road. But the war had come to La Buissiere and turned it upside down.
A war wastes towns, it seems, even more visibly than it wastes nations. Already the streets were ankle-deep in filth. There were broken lamps and broken bottles and broken windowpanes everywhere, and one could not step without an accompaniment of crunching glass from underfoot.
Sacks of provender, which the French had abandoned, were split open and their contents wasted in the mire while the inhabitants went hungry. The lower floors of the houses were bedded in straw where the soldiers had slept, and the straw was thickly covered with dried mud and already gave off a sour-sickish odor. Over everything was the lime dust from the powdered walls and plastering.
We drove away, then, over the hill toward the south. From the crest of the bluff we could look down on ruined La Buissiere, with its garrison of victorious invaders, its frightened townspeople, and its houses full of maimed and crippled soldiers of both sides.
Beyond we could see the fields, where the crops, already overripe, must surely waste for lack of men and teams to harvest them; and on the edge of one field we marked where the three peasants dug the grave for the rotting horse, striving to get it underground before it set up a plague.
Except for them, busy with pick and spade, no living creature in sight was at work.
Sherman said it!
"Marsch, Marsch, Marsch, So Geh'n Wir Weiter!"
Have you ever seen three hundred thousand men and one hundred thousand horses moving in one compact, marvelous unit of organization, discipline and system? If you have not seen it you cannot imagine what it is like. If you have seen it you cannot tell what it is like. In one case the conceptive faculty fails you; in the other the descriptive. I, who have seen this sight, am not foolish enough to undertake to put it down with pencil on paper. I think I know something of the limitations of the written English language. What I do mean to try to do in this chapter is to record some of my impressions as I watched it.
In beginning this job I find myself casting about for comparisons to set up against the vision of a full German army of seven army corps on the march. I think of the tales I have read and the stories I have heard of other great armies: Alaric's war bands and Attila's; the First Crusade; Hannibal's cohorts, and Alexander's host, and Caesar's legions; the Goths and the Vandals; the million of Xerxes—if it was a million—and Napoleon starting for Moscow.
It is of no use. This Germanic horde, which I saw pouring down across Belgium, bound for France, does not in retrospect seem to me a man-made, man-managed thing. It seems more like a great, orderly function of Nature; as ordained and cosmic as the tides of the sea or the sweep of a mighty wind. It is hard to believe that it was ever fashioned of thousands of separate atoms, so perfectly is it welded into a whole. It is harder still to accept it as a mutable and a mortal organism, subject to the shifts of chance and mischance.
And then, on top of this, when one stops to remember that this army of three hundred thousand men and a hundred thousand horses was merely one single cog of the German military machine; that if all the German war strength were assembled together you might add this army to the greater army and hardly know it was there—why, then, the brain refuses to wrestle with a computation so gigantic. The imagination just naturally bogs down and quits.
I have already set forth in some detail how it came to pass that we went forth from Brussels in a taxicab looking for the war; and how in the outskirts of Louvain we found it, and very shortly thereafter also found that we were cut off from our return and incidentally had lost not only our chauffeur and our taxi-cab but our overcoats as well. There being nothing else to do we made ourselves comfortable along side the Belgian Lion Cafe in the southern edge of Louvain, and for hours we watched the advance guard sliding down the road through a fog of white dust.
Each time a break came in the weaving gray lines we fancied this surely was all. All? What we saw there was a puny dribbling stream compared with the torrent that was coming. The crest of that living tidal wave was still two days and many miles to the rearward. We had seen the head and a little of the neck. The swollen body of the myriad-legged gray centipede was as yet far behind.
As we sat in chairs tilted against the wall and watched, we witnessed an interesting little side play. At the first coming of the German skirmishers the people of this quarter of the town had seemed stupefied with amazement and astonishment. Most of them, it subsequently developed, had believed right up to the last minute that the forts of Liege still held out and that the Germans had not yet passed the gateways of their country, many kilometers to the eastward. When the scouts of the enemy appeared in their streets they fell for the moment into a stunned state. A little later the appearance of a troop of Uhlans had revived their resentment. We had heard that quick hiss and snarl of hatred which sprang from them as the lancers trotted into view on their superb mounts out of the mouth of a neighboring lane, and had seen how instantaneously the dull, malignant gleam of gun metal, as a sergeant pulled his pistol on them, had brought the silence of frightened respect again.
It now appeared that realization of the number of the invaders was breeding in the Belgians a placating spirit. If a soldier fell out of line at the door of a house to ask for water, all within that house strove to bring the water to him. If an officer, returning from a small sortie into other streets, checked up to ask the way to rejoin his command, a dozen eager arms waved in chorus to point out the proper direction, and a babble of solicitous voices arose from the group about his halted horse.
Young Belgian girls began smiling at soldiers swinging by and the soldiers grinned back and waved their arms. You might almost have thought the troops were Allies passing through a friendly community. This phase of the plastic Flemish temperament made us marvel. When I was told, a fortnight afterward, how these same people rose in the night to strike at these their enemies, and how, so doing, they brought about the ruination of their city and the summary executions of some hundreds of themselves, I marveled all the more.
Presently, as we sat there, we heard—above the rumbling of cannon wheels, the nimble clunking of hurrying hoofs and the heavy thudding of booted feet, falling and rising all in unison—a new note from overhead, a combination of whir and flutter and whine. We looked aloft. Directly above the troops, flying as straight for Brussels as a homing bee for the hive, went a military monoplane, serving as courier and spy for the crawling columns below it. Directly, having gone far ahead, it came speeding back, along a lower air lane and performed a series of circling and darting gyrations, which doubtlessly had a signal-code meaning for the troops. Twice or three times it swung directly above our heads, and at the height at which it now evoluted we could plainly distinguish the downward curve of its wing-planes and the peculiar droop of the rudder —both things that marked it for an army model. We could also make out the black cross painted on its belly as a further distinguishing mark.
To me a monoplane always suggests a bird when it does not suggest an insect or a winged reptile; and this monoplane particularly suggested the bird type. The simile which occurred to me was that of the bird which guards the African rhinoceros; after that it was doubly easy to conceive of this army as a rhinoceros, having all the brute strength and brute force which are a part of that creature, and its well-armored sides and massive legs and deadly horned head; and finally its peculiar fancy for charging straight at its objective target, trampling down all obstacles in the way.
The Germans also fancy their monoplane as a bird; but they call it Taube—a dove. To think of calling this sinister adjunct of warfare a dove, which among modern peoples has always symbolized peace, seemed a most terrible bit of sarcasm. As an exquisite essence of irony I saw but one thing during our week-end in Louvain to match it, and that was a big van requisitioned from a Cologne florist's shop to use in a baggage train. It bore on its sides advertisements of potted plants and floral pieces—and it was loaded to its top with spare ammunition.
Yet, on second thought, I do not believe the Prussians call their war monoplane a dove by way of satire. The Prussians are a serious-minded race and never more serious than when they make war, as all the world now knows.
Three monoplanes buzzed over us, making sawmill sounds, during the next hour or two. Thereafter, whenever we saw German troops on the march through a country new to them we looked aloft for the thing with the droopy wings and the black cross on its yellow abdomen. Sooner or later it appeared, coming always out of nowhere and vanishing always into space. We were never disappointed. It is only the man who expects the German army to forget something needful or necessary who is disappointed.
It was late in the afternoon when we bade farewell to the three-hundred- pound proprietress of the Belgian Lion and sought to reach the center of the town through byways not yet blocked off by the marching regiments. When we were perhaps halfway to our destination we met a town bellman and a town crier, the latter being in the uniform of a Garde Civique. The bellringer would ply his clapper until he drew a crowd, and then the Garde Civique would halt in an open space at the junction of two or more streets and read a proclamation from the burgomaster calling on all the inhabitants to preserve their tranquillity and refrain from overt acts against the Germans, under promise of safety if they obeyed and threat of death at the hands of the Germans if they disregarded the warning.
This word-of-mouth method of spreading an order applied only to the outlying sections. In the more thickly settled districts, where presumably the populace could read and write, proclamations posted on wall and window took its place. During the three days we stayed in Louvain one proclamation succeeded another with almost the frequency of special extras of evening newspapers when a big news story breaks in an American city: The citizens were to surrender all firearms in their possession; it would be immediately fatal to him if a man were caught with a lethal weapon on his person or in his house. Tradespeople might charge this or that price for the necessities of life, and no more. All persons, except physicians and nurses in the discharge of their professional duties, and gendarmes—the latter being now disarmed and entirely subservient to the military authorities—must be off the streets and public squares at a given time—to wit, nine p. m. Cafes must close at the same hour. Any soldier who refused to pay for any private purchase should be immediately reported at headquarters for punishment. Upper front windows of all houses on certain specified streets must be closed and locked after nightfall, remaining so until daylight of the following morning; this notice being followed and overlapped very shortly by one more amplifying, which prescribed that not only must front windows be made fast, but all must have lights behind them and the street doors must be left unlocked.
The portent of this was simple enough: If any man sought to fire on the soldiers below he must first unfasten a window and expose himself in the light; and after he fired admittance would be made easy for those who came searching for him to kill him.
At first these placards were signed by the burgomaster, with the military commandant's indorsement, and sometimes by both those functionaries; but on the second day there appeared one signed by the commandant only; and this one, for special emphasis, was bounded by wide borders printed in bright red. It stated, with cruel brevity, that the burgomaster, the senator for the district and the leading magistrate had been taken into custody as hostages for the good conduct of their constituents; and that if a civilian made any attack against the Germans he would forfeit his own life and endanger the lives of the three prisoners. Thus, inch by inch, the conquerors, sensing a growing spirit of revolt among the conquered—a spirit as yet nowise visible on the surface—took typically German steps to hold the rebellious people of Louvain in hobbles. It was when we reached the Y-shaped square in the middle of things, with the splendid old Gothic town hall rising on one side of it and the famous Church of Saint Pierre at the bottom of the gore, that we first beheld at close hand the army of the War Lord. Alongside the Belgian Lion we had thought it best to keep our distance from the troops as they passed obliquely across our line of vision. Here we might press as closely as we pleased to the column. The magnificent precision with which the whole machinery moved was astounding—I started to say appalling. Three streets converging into the place were glutted with men, extending from curb to curb; and for an outlet there was but one somewhat wider street, which twisted its course under the gray walls of the church. Yet somehow the various lines melted together and went thumping off out of sight like streams running down a funnel and out at the spout.
Never, so far as we could tell, was there any congestion, any hitch, any suggestion of confusion. Frequently there would come from a sideway a group of officers on horseback, or a whole string of commandeered touring cars bearing monocled, haughty staff officers in the tonneaus, with guards riding beside the chauffeurs and small slick trunks strapped on behind. A whistle would sound shrilly then; and magically a gap would appear in the formation. Into this gap the horsemen or the imperious automobiles would slip, and away the column would go again without having been disturbed or impeded noticeably. No stage manager ever handled his supers better; and here, be it remembered, there were uncountable thousands of supers, and for a stage the twisting, medieval convolutions of a strange city. Now for a space of minutes it would be infantry that passed, at the swinging lunge of German foot soldiers on a forced march. Now it would be cavalry, with accouterments jingling and horses scrouging in the close-packed ranks; else a battery of the viperish looking little rapid-fire guns, or a battery of heavier cannon, with cloth fittings over their ugly snouts, like muzzled dogs whose bark is bad and whose bite is worse.
Then, always in due order, would succeed the field telegraph corps; the field post-office corps; the Red Cross corps; the brass band of, say, forty pieces; and all the rest of it, to the extent of a thousand and one circus parades rolled together. There were boats for making pontoon bridges, mounted side by side on wagons, with the dried mud of the River Meuse still on their flat bottoms; there were baggage trains miles in length, wherein the supply of regular army wagons was eked out with nondescript vehicles—even family carriages and delivery vans gathered up hastily, as the signs on their sides betrayed, from the tradespeople of a dozen Northern German cities and towns, and now bearing chalk marks on them to show in what division they belonged. And inevitably at the tail of each regiment came its cook wagons, with fires kindled and food cooking for supper in the big portable ranges, so that when these passed the air would be charged with that pungent reek of burning wood which makes an American think of a fire engine on its way to answer an alarm.
Once, as a cook perched on a step at the back of his wagon bent forward to stir the stew with a spoon almost big enough for a spade, I saw under his hiked-up coat-tails that at the back of his gray trousers there were four suspender buttons in a row instead of two. The purpose of this was plain: when his suspenders chafed him he might, by shifting the straps to different buttons, shift the strain on his shoulders. All German soldiers' trousers have this extra garnishment of buttons aft.
Somebody thought of that. Somebody thought of everything.
We in America are accustomed to think of the Germans as an obese race, swinging big paunches in front of them; but in that army the only fat men we saw were officers, and not so many of them. On occasion, some colonel, beefy as a brisket and with rolls of fat on the back of his close-shaved neck, would be seen bouncing by, balancing his tired stomach on his saddle pommel; but, without exception, the men in the ranks were trained down and fine drawn. They bent forward under the weight of their knapsacks and blanket rolls; and their middles were bulky with cartridge belts, and bulging pockets covered their flanks.
Inside the shapeless uniforms, however, their limbs swung with athletic freedom, and even at the fag-end of a hard day's marching, with perhaps several hours of marching yet ahead of them, they carried their heavy guns as though those guns were toys. Their fair sunburned faces were lined with sweat marks and masked under dust, and doubtless some were desperately weary; but I did not see a straggler. To date I presume I have seen upward of a million of these German soldiers on the march, and I have yet to see a straggler.
For the most part the rank and file were stamped by their faces and their limbs as being of peasant blood or of the petty artisan type; but here and there, along with the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker, passed one of a slenderer build, usually spectacled and wearing, even in this employment, the unmistakable look of the cultured, scholarly man.
And every other man, regardless of his breed, held a cheap cigar between his front teeth; but the wagon drivers and many of the cavalrymen smoked pipes—the long-stemmed, china-bowled pipe, which the German loves. The column moved beneath a smoke-wreath of its own making.
The thing, however, which struck one most forcibly was the absolute completeness, the perfect uniformity, of the whole scheme. Any man's equipment was identically like any other man's equipment. Every drinking cup dangled behind its owner's spine-tip at precisely the same angle; every strap and every buckle matched. These Germans had been run through a mold and they had all come out soldiers. And, barring a few general officers, they were all young men—men yet on the sunny side of thirty. Later we were to see plenty of older men—reserves and Landwehr—but this was the pick of the western line that passed through Louvain, the chosen product of the active wing of the service.
Out of the narrow streets the marchers issued; and as they reached the broader space before the town hall each company would raise a song, beating with its heavy boots on the paving stones to mark the time. Presently we detected a mutter of resentment rising from the troops; and seeking the cause of this we discerned that some of them had caught sight of a big Belgian flag which whipped in the breeze from the top of the Church of Saint Pierre. However, the flag stayed where it had been put during the three days we remained in Louvain. Seemingly the German commander did not greatly care whose flag flew on the church tower overhead so long as he held dominion of the earth below and the dwellers thereof.
Well, we watched the gray ear-wig wriggling away to the westward until we were surfeited, and then we set about finding a place where we might rest our dizzy heads. We could not get near the principal hotels. These already were filled with high officers and ringed about with sentries; but half a mile away, on the plaza fronting the main railroad station, we finally secured accommodations—such as they were—at a small fourth- rate hotel.
It called itself by a gorgeous title—it was the House of the Thousand Columns, which was as true a saying as though it had been named the House of the One Column; for it had neither one column nor a thousand, but only a small, dingy beer bar below and some ten dismal living rooms above. Established here, we set about getting in touch with the German higher-ups, since we were likely to be mistaken for Englishmen, which would be embarrassing certainly, and might even be painful. At the hotel next door—for all the buildings flanking this square were hotels of a sort—we found a group of officers.
One of them, a tall, handsome, magnetic chap, with a big, deep laugh and a most beautiful command of our own tongue, turned out to be a captain on the general staff. It seemed to him the greatest joke in the world that four American correspondents should come looking for war in a taxicab, and should find it too. He beat himself on his flanks in the excess of his joy, and called up half a dozen friends to hear the amazing tale; and they enjoyed it too.
He said he felt sure his adjutant would appreciate the joke; and, as incidentally his adjutant was the person in all the world we wanted most just then to see, we went with him to headquarters, which was a mile away in the local Palais de Justice—or, as we should say in America, the courthouse. By now it was good and dark; and as no street lamps burned we walked through a street that was like a tunnel for blackness.
The roadway was full of infantry still pressing forward to a camping place somewhere beyond the town. We could just make out the shadowy shapes of the men, but their feet made a noise like thunderclaps, and they sang a German marching song with a splendid lilt and swing to it.
"Just listen!" said the captain proudly. "They are always like that— they march all day and half the night, and never do they grow weary. They are in fine spirits—our men. And we can hardly hold them back. They will go forward—always forward!
"In this war we have no such command as Retreat! That word we have blotted out. Either we shall go forward or we shall die! We do not expect to fall back, ever. The men know this; and if our generals would but let them they would run to Paris instead of walking there."
I think it was not altogether through vainglory he spoke. He was not a bombastic sort. I think he voiced the intent of the army to which he belonged.
At the Palais de Justice the adjutant was not to be seen; so our guide volunteered to write a note of introduction for us. Standing in a doorway of the building, where a light burned, he opened a small flat leather pack that swung from his belt, along with the excellent map of Belgium inclosed in a leather frame which every German officer carried. We marveled that the pack contained pencils, pens, inkpot, seals, officially stamped envelopes and note paper, and blank forms of various devices. Verily these Germans had remembered all things and forgotten nothing. I said that to myself mentally at the moment; nor have I had reason since to withdraw or qualify the remark.
The next morning I saw the adjutant, whose name was Renner and whose title was that of major; but first I, as spokesman, underwent a search for hidden weapons at the hands of a secret service man. Major Renner was most courteous; also he was amused to hear the details of our taxicabbing expedition into his lines. But of the desire which lay nearest our hearts—-to get back to Brussels in time haply to witness its occupation by the Germans—he would not hear.
"For your own sakes," thus he explained it, "I dare not let you gentlemen go. Terrible things have happened. Last night a colonel of infantry was murdered while he was asleep; and I have just heard that fifteen of our soldiers had their throats cut, also as they slept. From houses our troops have been fired on, and between here and Brussels there has been much of this guerrilla warfare on us. To those who do such things and to those who protect them we show no mercy. We shoot them on the spot and burn their houses to the ground.
"I can well understand that the Belgians resent our coming into their country. We ourselves regret it; but it was a military necessity. We could do nothing else. If the Belgians put on uniforms and enroll as soldiers and fight us openly, we shall capture them if we can; we shall kill them if we must; but in all cases we shall treat them as honorable enemies, fighting under the rules of civilized warfare.
"But this shooting from ambush by civilians; this murdering of our people in the night—that we cannot endure. We have made a rule that if shots are fired by a civilian from a house then we shall burn that house; and we shall kill that man and all the other men in that house whom we suspect of harboring him or aiding him.
"We make no attempt to disguise our methods of reprisal. We are willing for the world to know it; and it is not because I wish to cover up or hide any of our actions from your eyes, and from the eyes of the American people, that I am refusing you passes for your return to Brussels to-day. But, you see, our men have been terribly excited by these crimes of the Belgian populace, and in their excitement they might make serious mistakes.
"Our troops are under splendid discipline, as you may have seen already for yourselves. And I assure you the Germans are not a bloodthirsty or a drunken or a barbarous people; but in every army there are fools and, what is worse, in every army there are brutes. You are strangers; and if you passed along the road to-day some of our more ignorant men, seeing that you were not natives and suspecting your motives, might harm you. There might be some stupid, angry common soldier, some over- zealous under officer—you understand me, do you not, gentlemen?
"So you will please remain here quietly, having nothing to do with any of our men who may seek to talk with you. That last is important; for I may tell you that our secret-service people have already reported your presence, and they naturally are anxious to make a showing.
"At the end of one day—perhaps two—we shall be able, I think, to give you safe conduct back to Brussels. And then I hope you will be able to speak a good word to the American public for our army."
After this fashion of speaking I heard now from the lips of Major Renner what I subsequently heard fifty times from other army men, and likewise from high German civilians, of the common German attitude toward Belgium. Often these others have used almost the same words he used. Invariably they have sought to convey the same meaning.
For those three days we stayed on unwillingly in Louvain we were not once out of sight of German soldiers, nor by day or night out of sound of their threshing feet and their rumbling wheels. We never looked; this way or that but we saw their gray masses blocking up the distances. We never entered shop or house but we found Germans already there. We never sought to turn off the main-traveled streets into a byway but our path was barred by a guard seeking to know our business. And always, as we noted, for this duty those in command had chosen soldiers who knew a smattering of French, in order that the sentries might be able to speak with the citizens. If we passed along a sidewalk the chances were that it would be lined thick with soldiers lying against the walls resting, or sitting on the curbs, with their shoes off, easing their feet. If we looked into the sky our prospects for seeing a monoplane flying about were most excellent. If we entered a square it was bound to be jammed with horses and packed baggage trains and supply wagons. The atmosphere was laden with the ropy scents of the boiling stews and with the heavier smells of the soldiers' unwashed bodies and their sweating horses.
Finally, to their credit be it said, we personally did not see one German, whether officer or private, who mistreated any citizen, or was offensively rude to any citizen, or who refused to pay a fair reckoning for what he bought, or who was conspicuously drunk. The postcard venders of Louvain must have grown fat with wealth; for, next to bottled beer and butter and cheap cigars, every common soldier craved postcards above all other commodities.
We grew tired after a while of seeing Germans; it seemed to us that every vista always had been choked with unshaved, blond, blocky, short- haired men in rawhide boots and ill-fitting gray tunics; and that every vista always would be. It took a new kind of gun, or an automobile with a steel prow for charging through barbed-wire entanglements, or a group of bedraggled Belgian prisoners slouching by under convoy, to make us give the spectacle more than a passing glance.
There was something hypnotic, something tremendously wearisome to the mind in those thick lines flowing sluggishly along in streams like molten lead; in the hedges of gun barrels all slanting at the same angle; in the same types of faces repeated and repeated countlessly; in the legs which scissored by in such faultless unison and at each clip of each pair of living shears cut off just so much of the road—never any more and never any less, but always just exactly so much.
Our jaded and satiated fancies had been fed on soldiers and all the cumbersome pageantry of war until they refused to be quickened by what, half a week before, would have set every nerve tingling. Almost the only thing that stands out distinct in my memory from the confused recollections of the last morning spent in Louvain is a huge sight- seeing car—of the sort known at home as a rubberneck wagon—which lumbered by us with Red Cross men perched like roosting gray birds on all its seats. We estimated we saw two hundred thousand men in motion through the ancient town. We learned afterward we had under-figured the total by at least a third.
During these days the life of Louvain went on, so far as our alien eyes could judge, pretty much as it probably did in the peace times preceding. At night, obeying an order, the people stayed within their doors; in the daylight hours they pursued their customary business, not greatly incommoded apparently by the presence of the conqueror. If there was simmering hate in the hearts of the men and women of Louvain it did not betray itself in their sobered faces. I saw a soldier, somewhat fuddled, seize a serving maid about the waist and kiss her; he received a slap in the face and fell back in bad order, while his mates cheered the spunky girl. A minute later she emerged from the house to which she had retreated, seemingly ready to swap slaps for kisses some more.
However, from time to time sinister suggestions did obtrude themselves on us. For example, on the second morning of our enforced stay at the House of the Thousand Columns we watched a double file of soldiers going through a street toward the Palais de Justice. Two roughly clad natives walked between the lines of bared bayonets. One was an old man who walked proudly with his head erect. He was like a man going to a feast. The other was bent almost double, and his hands were tied behind his back.
A few minutes afterward a barred yellow van, under escort, came through the square fronting the railroad station and disappeared behind a mass of low buildings. From that direction we presently heard shots. Soon the van came back, unescorted this time; and behind it came Belgians with Red Cross arm badges, bearing on their shoulders two litters on which were still figures covered with blankets, so that only the stockinged feet showed.
Twice thereafter this play was repeated, with slight variations, and each time we Americans, looking on from our front windows, drew our own conclusions. Also, from the same vantage point we saw an automobile pass bearing a couple of German officers and a little, scared-looking man in a frock coat and a high hat, whose black mustache stood out like a charcoal mark against the very white background of his face. This little man, we learned, was the burgomaster, and this day he was being held a prisoner and responsible for the good conduct of some fifty-odd thousand of his fellow citizens. That night our host, a gross, silent man in carpet slippers, told us the burgomaster was ill in bed at home.
"He suffers," explained our landlord in French, "from a crisis of the nerves." The French language is an expressive language.
Then, coming a pace nearer, our landlord added a question in a cautious whisper.
"Messieurs," he asked, "do you think it can be true, as my neighbors tell me, that the United States President has ordered the Germans to get out of our country?"
We shook our heads, and he went silently away in his carpet slippers; and his broad Flemish face gave no hint of what corrosive thoughts he may have had in his heart.
It was Wednesday morning when we entered Louvain. It was Saturday morning when we left it. This last undertaking was preceded by difficulties. As a preliminary to it we visited in turn all the stables in Louvain where ordinarily horses and wheeled vehicles could be had for hire.
Perhaps there were no horses left in the stalls—thanks to either Belgian foragers or to German—or, if there were horses, no driver would risk his hide on the open road among the German pack trains and rear guards. At length we did find a tall, red-haired Walloon who said he would go anywhere on earth, and provide a team for the going, if we paid the price he asked. We paid it in advance, in case anything should happen on the way, and he took us in a venerable open carriage behind two crow-bait skeletons that had once, in a happier day when hay was cheaper, been horses.
We drove slowly, taking the middle of the wide Brussels road. On our right, traveling in the same direction, crawled an unending line of German baggage wagons and pontoon trucks. On our left, going the opposite way, was another line, also unending, made up of refugee villagers, returning afoot to the towns beyond Louvain from which they had fled four days earlier. They were footsore and they limped; they were of all ages and most miserable-looking. And, one and all, they were as tongueless as so many ghosts. Thus we traveled; and at the end of the first hour came to the tiny town of Leefdael.
At Leefdael there must have been fighting, for some of the houses were gutted by shells. At least two had been burned; and a big tin sign at a railroad crossing had become a tin colander where flying lead had sieved it. In a beet patch beside one of the houses was a mound of fresh earth the length of a long man, with a cross of sticks at the head of it. A Belgian soldier's cap was perched on the upright and a scrap of paper was made fast to the cross arm; and two peasants stood there apparently reading what was written on the paper. Later such sights as these were to become almost the commonest incidents of our countryside campaignings; but now we looked with all our eyes.
Except that the roadside ditches were littered with beer bottles and scraps of paper, and the road itself rutted by cannon wheels, we saw little enough after leaving Leefdael to suggest that an army had come this way until we were in the outskirts of Brussels. In a tree-edged, grass-plotted boulevard at the edge of the Bois, toward Tervueren, cavalry had halted. The turf was scarred with hoofprints and strewed with hay; and there was a row of small trenches in which the Germans had built their fires to do their cooking. The sod, which had been removed to make these trenches, was piled in neat little terraces, ready to be put back; and care plainly had been taken by the troopers to avoid damaging the bark on the trunks of the ash and elm trees.
There it was—the German system of warfare! These Germans might carry on their war after the most scientifically deadly plan the world has ever known; they might deal out their peculiarly fatal brand of drumhead justice to all civilians who crossed their paths bearing arms; they might burn and waste for punishment; they might lay on a captured city and a whipped province a tribute of foodstuffs and an indemnity of money heavier than any civilized race has ever demanded of the cowed and conquered—might do all these things and more besides—but their common troopers saved the sods of the greensward for replanting and spared the boles of the young shade trees! Next day we again left Brussels, the submissive, and made a much longer excursion under German auspices. And, at length, after much travail, we landed in the German frontier city of Aix-la-Chapelle, where I wrote these lines. There it was, two days after our arrival, that we heard of the fate of Louvain and of that pale little man, the burgomaster, who had survived his crisis of the nerves to die of a German bullet.
We wondered what became of the proprietor of the House of the Thousand Columns; and of the young Dutch tutor in the Berlitz School of Languages, who had served us as a guide and interpreter; and of the pretty, gentle little Flemish woman who brought us our meals in her clean, small restaurant round the corner from the Hotel de Ville; and of the kindly, red-bearded priest at the Church of Saint Jacques, who gave us ripe pears and old wine.
I reckon we shall always wonder what became of them, and that we shall never know. I hoped mightily that the American wing of the big Catholic seminary had been spared. It had a stone figure of an American Indian— looking something like Sitting Bull, we thought—over its doors; and that was the only typically American thing we saw in all Louvain.
When next I saw Louvain the University was gone and the stone Indian was gone too.
Being a Guest of the Kaiser
You know how four of us blundered into the German lines in a taxicab; and how, getting out of German hands after three days and back to Brussels, we undertook, in less than twenty-four hours thereafter, to trail the main forces then shoving steadily southward with no other goal before them but Paris.
First by hired hack, as we used to say when writing accounts of funerals down in Paducah, then afoot through the dust, and finally, with an equipment consisting of that butcher's superannuated dogcart, that elderly mare emeritus and those two bicycles, we made our zigzagging way downward through Belgium.
We knew that our credentials were, for German purposes, of most dubious and uncertain value. We knew that the Germans were permitting no correspondents—not even German correspondents—to accompany them. We knew that any alien caught in the German front was liable to death on the spot, without investigation of his motives. We knew all these things; and the knowledge of them gave a fellow tingling sensations in the tips of his toes when he permitted himself to think about his situation. But, after the first few hours, we took heart unto ourselves; for everywhere we met only kindness and courtesy at the hands of the Kaiser's soldiers, men and officers alike.
There was, it is true, the single small instance of the excited noncom. who poked a large, unwholesome-looking automatic pistol into my shrinking diaphragm when he wanted me to get off the running board of a military automobile into which I had climbed, half a minute before, by invitation of the private who steered it. I gathered his meaning right away, even though he uttered only guttural German and that at the top of his voice; a pointed revolver speaks with a tongue which is understood by all peoples. Besides, he had the distinct advantage in repartee; and so, with no extended argument, I got down from there and he pouched his ironmongery. I regarded the incident as being closed and was perfectly willing that it should remain closed.
That, however, though of consuming interest to me at the moment, was but a detail—an exception to prove the standing rule. One place we dined with a Rittmeister's mess; and while we sat, eating of their midday ration of thick pea soup with sliced sausages in it, some of the younger officers stood; also they let us stretch our wearied legs on their mattresses, which were ranged seven in a row on the parlor floor of a Belgian house, where from a corner a plaster statue of Joan of Arc gazed at us with her plaster eyes.
Common soldiers offered repeatedly to share their rye-bread sandwiches and bottled beer with us. Not once, but a dozen times, officers of various rank let us look at their maps and use their field glasses; and they gave us advice for reaching the zone of actual fighting and swapped gossip with us, and frequently regretted that they had no spare mounts or spare automobiles to loan us.
We attributed a good deal of this to the inherent kindliness of the German gentleman's nature; but more of it we attributed to a newborn desire on the part of these men to have disinterested journalists see with their own eyes the scope and result of the German operations, in the hope that the truth regarding alleged German atrocities might reach the outside world and particularly might reach America.
Of the waste and wreckage of war; of desolated homes and shattered villages; of the ruthless, relentless, punitive exactness with which the Germans punished not only those civilians they accused of firing on them but those they suspected of giving harbor or aid to the offenders; of widows and orphans; of families of innocent sufferers, without a roof to shelter them or a bite to stay them; of fair lands plowed by cannon balls, and harrowed with rifle bullets, and sown with dead men's bones; of men horribly maimed and mangled by lead and steel; of long mud trenches where the killed lay thick under the fresh clods—of all this and more I saw enough to cure any man of the delusion that war is a beautiful, glorious, inspiring thing, and to make him know it for what it is—altogether hideous and unutterably awful.
As for Uhlans spearing babies on their lances, and officers sabering their own men, and soldiers murdering and mutilating and torturing at will—I saw nothing. I knew of these tales only from having read them in the dispatches sent from the Continent to England, and from there cabled to American papers.
Even so, I hold no brief for the Germans; or for the reasons that inspired them in waging this war; or for the fashion after which they have waged it. I am only trying to tell what I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.
Be all that as it may, we straggled into Beaumont—five of us—on the evening of the third day out from Brussels, without baggage or equipment, barring only what we wore on our several tired and drooping backs. As in the case of our other trip, a simple sight-seeing ride had resolved itself into an expeditionary campaign; and so there we were, bearing, as proof of our good faith and professional intentions, only our American passports, our passes issued by General von Jarotzky, at Brussels, and—most potent of all for winning confidence from the casual eye—a little frayed silk American flag, with a hole burned in it by a careless cigar butt, which was knotted to the front rail of our creaking dogcart.
Immediately after passing the ruined and deserted village of Montignies St. Christophe, we came at dusk to a place where a company of German infantrymen were in camp about a big graystone farmhouse. They were cooking supper over big trench fires and, as usual, they were singing. The light shone up into the faces of the cooks, bringing out in ruddy relief their florid skins and yellow beards. A yearling bull calf was tied to a supply-wagon wheel, bellowing his indignation. I imagine he quit bellowing shortly thereafter.
An officer came to the edge of the road and, peering sharply at us over a broken hedge, made as if to stop us; then changed his mind and permitted us to go unchallenged. Entering the town, we proceeded, winding our way among pack trains and stalled motor trucks, to the town square. Our little cavalcade halted to the accompaniment of good- natured titterings from many officers in front of the town house of the Prince de Caraman-Chimay.
By a few Americans the prince is remembered as having been the cousin of one of the husbands of the much-married Clara Ward, of Detroit; but at this moment, though absent, he had particularly endeared himself to the Germans through the circumstance of his having left behind, in his wine cellars, twenty thousand bottles of rare vintages. Wine, I believe, is contraband of war. Certainly in this instance it was. As we speedily discovered, it was a very unlucky common soldier who did not have a swig of rare Burgundy or ancient claret to wash down his black bread and sausage that night at supper.
Unwittingly we had bumped into the headquarters of the whole army—not of a single corps, but of an army. In the thickening twilight on the little square gorgeous staff officers came and went, afoot, on horseback and in automobiles; and through an open window we caught a glimpse of a splendid-looking general, sitting booted and sword-belted at a table in the Prince de Caraman-Chimay's library, with hunting trophies—skin and horn and claw—looking down at him from the high-paneled oak wainscotings, and spick-and-span aides waiting to take his orders and discharge his commissions.
It dawned on us that, having accidentally slipped through a hole in the German rear guard, we had reached a point close to the front of operations. We felt uncomfortable.
It was not at all likely that a Herr Over-Commander would expedite us with the graciousness that had marked his underlings back along the line of communication. We remarked as much to one another; and it was a true prophecy. A staff officer—a colonel who spoke good English—received us at the door of the villa and examined our papers in the light which streamed over his shoulder from a fine big hallway behind him. In everything, both then and thereafter, he was most polite.
"I do not understand how you came here, you gentlemen," he said at length. "We have no correspondents with our army."
"You have now," said one of us, seeking to brighten the growing embarrassment of the situation with a small jape.
Perhaps he did not understand. Perhaps it was against the regulations for a colonel, in full caparison of sword and shoulder straps, to laugh at a joke from a dusty, wayworn, shabby stranger in a dented straw hat and a wrinkled Yankee-made coat. At any rate this colonel did not laugh.
"You did quite right to report yourselves here and explain your purposes," he continued gravely; "but it is impossible that you may proceed. To-morrow morning we shall give you escort and transportation back to Brussels. I anticipate"—here he glanced quizzically at our aged mare, drooping knee-sprung between the shafts of the lopsided dogcart—"I anticipate that you will return more speedily than you arrived.
"You will kindly report to me here in the morning at eleven. Meantime remember, gentlemen, that you are not prisoners—by no means, not. You may consider yourselves for the time being as—shall we say?—guests of the German Army, temporarily detained. You are at perfect liberty to come and go—only I should advise you not to go too far, because if you should try to leave town tonight our soldiers would certainly shoot you quite dead. It is not agreeable to be shot; and, besides, your great Government might object. So, then, I shall have the pleasure of seeing you in the morning, shall I not? Yes? Good night, gentlemen!"
He clicked his neat heels so that his spurs jangled, and bowed us out into the dark. The question of securing lodgings loomed large and imminent before us. Officers filled the few small inns and hotels; soldiers, as we could see, were quartered thickly in all the houses in sight; and already the inhabitants were locking their doors and dousing their lights in accordance with an order from a source that was not to be disobeyed. Nine out of ten houses about the square were now but black oblongs rising against the gray sky. We had nowhere to go; and yet if we did not go somewhere, and that pretty soon, the patrols would undoubtedly take unpleasant cognizance of our presence. Besides, the searching chill of a Belgian night was making us stiff.
Scouting up a narrow winding alley, one of the party who spoke German found a courtyard behind a schoolhouse called imposingly L'Ecole Moyenne de Beaumont, where he obtained permission from a German sergeant to stable our mare for the night in the aristocratic companionship of a troop of officers' horses. Through another streak of luck we preempted a room in the schoolhouse and held it against all comers by right of squatter sovereignty. There my friends and I slept on the stone floor, with a scanty amount of hay under us for a bed and our coats for coverlets. But before we slept we dined.
We dined on hard-boiled eggs and stale cheese—which we had saved from midday—in a big, bare study hall half full of lancers. They gave us rye bread and some of the Prince de Caraman-Chimay's wine to go with the provender we had brought, and they made room for us at the long benches that ran lengthwise of the room. Afterward one of them—a master musician, for all his soiled gray uniform and grimed fingers—played a piano that was in the corner, while all the rest sang.
It was a strange picture they made there. On the wall, on a row of hooks, still hung the small umbrellas and book-satchels of the pupils. Presumably at the coming of the Germans they had run home in such a panic that they left their school-traps behind. There were sums in chalk, half erased, on the blackboard; and one of the troopers took a scrap of chalk and wrote "On to Paris!" in big letters here and there. A sleepy parrot, looking like a bundle of rumpled green feathers, squatted on its perch in a cage behind the master's desk, occasionally emitting a loud squawk as though protesting against this intrusion on its privacy.
When their wine had warmed them our soldier-hosts sang and sang, unendingly. They had been on the march all day, and next day would probably march half the day and fight the other half, for the French and English were just ahead; but now they sprawled over the school benches and drummed on the boards with their fists and feet, and sang at the tops of their voices. They sang their favorite marching songs—Die Wacht am Rhein, of course; and Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles! which has a fine, sonorous cathedral swing to it; and God Save the King!—with different words to the air, be it said; and Haltet Aus! Also, for variety, they sang Tannenbaum—with the same tune as Maryland, My Maryland!—and Heil dir im Sieges-kranz; and snatches from various operas.
When one of us asked for Heine's Lorelei they sang not one verse of it, or two, but twenty or more; and then, by way of compliment to the guests of the evening, they reared upon their feet and gave us The Star Spangled Banner, to German words. Suddenly two of them began dancing. In their big rawhide boots, with hobbed soles and steel-shod heels, they pounded back and forth, while the others whooped them on. One of the dancers gave out presently; but the other seemed still unimpaired in wind and limb. He darted into an adjoining room and came back in a minute dragging a half-frightened, half-pleased little Belgian scullery maid and whirled her about to waltz music until she dropped for want of breath to carry her another turn; after which he did a solo—Teutonic version—of a darky breakdown, stopping only to join in the next song.
It was eleven o'clock and they were still singing when we left them and went groping through dark hallways to where our simple hay mattress awaited us. I might add that we were indebted to a corporal of lancers for the hay, which he pilfered from the feed racks outside after somebody had stolen the two bundles of straw one of us had previously purchased. Except for his charity of heart we should have lain on the cold flagging.
The next morning was Thursday morning, and by Thursday night, at the very latest, we counted on being back in Brussels; but we were not destined to see Brussels again for nearly six weeks. We breakfasted frugally on good bread and execrable coffee at a half-wrecked little cafe where soldiers had slept; and at eleven o'clock, when we had bestowed Bulotte, the ancient nag, and the dogcart on an accommodating youth—giving them to him as a gracious gift, since neither he nor anyone else would buy the outfit at any price—we repaired to the villa to report ourselves and start on our return to the place whence we had come so laboriously.
The commander and his staff were just leaving, and they were in a big hurry. We knew the reason for their hurry, for since daylight the sound of heavy firing to the south and southwest, across the border in the neighborhood of Maubeuge, had been plainly audible. Officers in long gray overcoats with facings of blue, green, black, yellow and four shades of red—depending on the branches of the service to which they belonged—were piling into automobiles and scooting away.
As we sat on a wooden bench before the prince's villa, waiting for further instructions from our friend of the night before—meaning by that the colonel who could not take a joke, but could make one of his own—a tall, slender young man of about twenty-four, with a little silky mustache and a long, vulpine nose, came striding across the square with long steps. As nearly as we could tell, he wore a colonel's shoulder straps; and, aside from the fact that he seemed exceedingly youthful to be a colonel, we were astonished at the deference that was paid him by those of higher rank, who stood about waiting for their cars. Generals, and the like, even grizzled old generals with breasts full of decorations, bowed and clicked before him; and when he, smiling broadly, insisted on shaking hands with all of them, some of the group seemed overcome with gratification.
Presently a sort of family resemblance in his face to some one whose picture we had seen often somewhere began to impress itself on us, and we wondered who he was; but, being rather out of the setting ourselves, none of us cared to ask. Two weeks later, in Aix-la-Chapelle, I was passing a shop and saw his likeness in full uniform on a souvenir postcard in the window. It was Prince August Wilhelm, fourth son of the Kaiser; and we had seen him as he was about getting his first taste of being under fire by the enemy.
Pretty soon he was gone and our colonel was gone, and nearly everybody else was gone too; Companies of infantry and cavalry fell in and moved off, and a belated battery of field artillery rumbled out of sight up the twisting main street. The field postoffice staff, the field telegraph staff, the Red Cross corps and the wagon trains followed in due turn, leaving behind only a small squad to hold the town—and us.
A tall young lieutenant was in charge of the handful who remained; and, by the same token, as was to transpire, he was also in charge of us. He was built for a football player, and he had shoulders like a Cyclops, and his family name was Mittendorfer. He never spoke to his men except to roar at them like a raging lion, and he never addressed us except to coo as softly as the mourning dove. It was interesting to listen as his voice changed from a bellow to a croon, and back again a moment later to a bellow. With training he might have made an opera singer—he had such a vocal range and such perfect control over it. This Lieutenant Mittendorfer introduced himself to our attention by coming smartly up and saying there had been a delay about requisitioning an automobile for our use; but he thought the car would be along very shortly—and would the American gentlemen be so good as to wait? There being nothing else to do, we decided to do as he suggested.
We chose for our place of waiting a row of seats before a taverne, and there we sat, side by side, keeping count of the guns booming in the distance, until it began to rain. A sergeant came up then and invited us to go with him, in order that we might escape a wetting. He waved us into the doorway of a house two doors from where we had been sitting, at the same time suggesting to us that we throw away our cigars and cigarettes. When we crossed the threshold we realized the good intention behind this advice, seeing that the room we entered, which had been a shop of sorts, was now an improvised powder magazine.
From the floor to the height of a man it was piled with explosive shells for field guns, cased in straw covers like wine bottles, and stacked in neat rows, with their noses all pointing one way. Our guide led us along an aisle of these deadly things, beckoned us through another doorway at the side, where a sentry stood with a bayonet fixed on his gun, and with a wave of his hand invited us to partake of the hospitalities of the place. We looked about us, and lo! we were hard- and-fast in jail!
I have been in pleasanter indoor retreats in my time, even on rainy afternoons. The room was bedded down ankle-deep in straw; and the straw, which had probably been fresh the day before, already gave off a strong musky odor—the smell of an animal cage in a zoo.
For furnishings, the place contained a bench and a large iron pot containing a meat stew, which had now gone cold, so that a rime of gray suet coated the upper half of the pot. But of human occupants there was an ample sufficiency, considering the cubic space available for breathing purposes. Sitting in melancholy array against the walls, with their legs half buried in the straw and their backs against the baseboards, were eighteen prisoners—two Belgian cavalrymen and sixteen Frenchmen—mostly Zouaves and chasseurs-a-pied. Also, there were three Turcos from Northern Africa, almost as dark as negroes, wearing red fezzes and soiled white, baggy, skirtlike arrangements instead of trousers. They all looked very dirty, very unhappy and very sleepy.
At the far side of the room on a bench was another group of four prisoners; and of these we knew two personally—Gerbeaux, a Frenchman who lived in Brussels and served as the resident Brussels correspondent of a Chicago paper; and Stevens, an American artist, originally from Michigan, but who for several years had divided his time between Paris and Brussels. With them were a Belgian photographer, scared now into a quivering heap from which two wall-eyes peered out wildly, and a negro chauffeur, a soot-black Congo boy who had been brought away from Africa on a training ship as a child. He, apparently, was the least-concerned person in that hole.
The night before, by chance, we had heard that Gerbeaux and Stevens were under detention, but until this moment of meeting we did not know their exact whereabouts. They—the Frenchman, the American and the Belgian— had started out from Brussels in an auto driven by the African, on Monday, just a day behind us. Because their car carried a Red Cross flag without authority to do so, and because they had a camera with them, they very soon found themselves under arrest, and, what was worse, under suspicion. Except that for two days they had been marched afoot an average of twenty-five miles a day, they had fared pretty well, barring Stevens. He, being separated from the others, had fallen into the hands of an officer who treated him with such severity that the account of his experiences makes a tale worth recounting separately and at length.
We stayed in that place half an hour—one of the longest half hours I remember. There was a soldier with a fixed bayonet at the door, and another soldier with a saw-edged bayonet at the window, which was broken. Parties of soldiers kept coming to this window to peer at the exhibits within; and, as they invariably took the civilians for Englishmen who had been caught as spies, we attracted almost as much attention as the Turcos in their funny ballet skirts; in fact I may say we fairly divided the center of the stage with the Turcos.
At the end of half an hour the lieutenant bustled in, all apologies, to say there had been a mistake and that we should never have been put in with the prisoners at all. The rain being over, he invited us to come outside and get a change of air. When we got outside we found that our two bicycles, which we had left leaning against the curb, were gone. To date they are still gone.
Again we sat waiting. Finally it occurred to us to go inside the little taverne, where, perhaps, we should be less conspicuous. We went in, and presently we were followed by Lieutenant Mittendorfer, he bringing with him a tall young top-sergeant of infantry who carried his left arm in a sling and had a three weeks' growth of fuzzy red beard on his chops. It was explained that this top-sergeant, Rosenthal by name, had been especially assigned to be our companion—our playfellow, as it were;— until such time as the long-delayed automobile should appear.
Sergeant Rosenthal, who was very proud of his punctured wrist and very hopeful of getting a promotion, went out soon; but it speedily became evident that he had not forgotten us. For one soldier with his gun appeared in the front room of the place, and another materialized just outside the door, likewise with his gun. And by certain other unmistakable signs it became plain to our perceptions that as between being a prisoner of the German army and being a guest there was really no great amount of difference. It would have taken a mathematician to draw the distinction, so fine it was.
We stayed in that taverne and in the small living room behind it, and in the small high-walled courtyard behind the living room, all that afternoon and that evening and that night, being visited at intervals by either the lieutenant or the sergeant, or both of them at once. We dined lightly on soldiers' bread and some of the prince's wine— furnished by Rosenthal—and for dessert we had some shelled almonds and half a cake of chocolate—furnished by ourselves; also drinks of pale native brandy from the bar.
During the evening we received several bulletins regarding the mythical automobile. Invariably Mittendorfer was desolated to be compelled to report that there had been another slight delay. We knew he was desolated, because he said he was. During the evening, also, we met all the regular members of the household living under that much-disturbed roof. There was the husband, a big lubberly Fleming who apparently did not count for much in the economic and domestic scheme of the establishment; his wife, a large, commanding woman who ran the business and the house as well; his wife's mother, an old sickly woman in her seventies; and his wife's sister, a poor, palsied half-wit.
When the sister was a child, so we heard, she had been terribly frightened, so that to this day, still frightened, she crept about, a pale shadow, quivering all over pitiably at every sound. She would stand behind a door for minutes shaking so that you could hear her knuckles knocking against the wall. She seemed particularly to dread the sight of the German privates who came and went; and they, seeing this, were kind to her in a clumsy, awkward way. Hourly, like a ghost she drifted in and out.
For a while it looked as though we should spend the night sitting up in chairs; but about ten o'clock three soldiers, led by Rosenthal and accompanied by the landlady, went out; and when they came back they brought some thick feather mattresses which had been commandeered from neighboring houses, we judged. Also, through the goodness of his heart, Mittendorfer, who impressed us more and more as a strange compound of severity and softness, took pity on Gerbeaux and Stevens, and bringing them forth from that pestilential hole next door, he convoyed them in to stay overnight with us. They told us that by now the air in the improvised prison was absolutely suffocating, what with the closeness, the fouled straw, the stale food and the proximity of so many dirty human bodies all packed into the kennel together.
Ten of us slept on the floor of that little grogshop—the five of our party lying spoon-fashion on two mattresses, Gerbeaux and Stevens making seven, and three soldiers. The soldiers relieved each other in two-hour spells, so that while two of them snored by the door the third sat in a chair in the middle of the room, with his rifle between his knees, and a shaded lamp and a clock on a table at his elbow. Just before we turned in, Rosenthal, who had adopted a paternal tone to the three guards, each of whom was many years older than he, addressed them softly, saying:
"Now, my children, make yourselves comfortable. Drink what you please; but if any one of you gets drunk I shall take pleasure in seeing that he gets from seven to nine years in prison at hard labor." For which they thanked him gratefully in chorus.
I am not addicted to the diary-keeping habit, but during the next day, which was Friday, I made fragmentary records of things in a journal, from which I now quote verbatim:
Seven-thirty a. m.—about. After making a brief toilet by sousing our several faces in a pail of water, we have just breakfasted—sketchily— on wine and almonds. It would seem that the German army feeds its prisoners, but makes no such provision for its guests. On the whole I think I should prefer being a prisoner.
We have offered our landlady any amount within reason for a pot of coffee and some toasted bread; but she protests, calling on Heaven to witness the truth of her words, that there is nothing to eat in the house—that the Germans have eaten up all her store of food, and that her old mother is already beginning to starve. Yet certain appetizing smells, which come down the staircase from upstairs when the door is opened, lead me to believe she is deceiving us. I do not blame her for treasuring what she has for her own flesh and blood; but I certainly could enjoy a couple of fried eggs.
Nine a. m. Mittendorfer has been in, with vague remarks concerning our automobile. Something warns me this young man is trifling with us. He appears to be a practitioner of the Japanese school of diplomacy—that is, he believes it is better to pile one gentle, transparent fiction on another until the pyramid of romance falls of its own weight, rather than to break the cruel news at a single blow.
Eleven-twenty. One of the soldiers has brought us half a dozen bottles of good wine—three bottles of red and three of white—but the larder remains empty. I do not know exactly what a larder is; but if it is as empty as I am at the present moment it must remind itself of a haunted house.
Eleven-forty. A big van full of wounded Germans has arrived. From the windows we can see it distinctly. The more seriously hurt lie on the bed of the wagon, under the hood. The man who drives has one leg in splints; and of the two who sit at the tail gate, holding rifles upright, one has a bandaged head, and the other has an arm in a sling.
Unless a German is so seriously crippled as to be entirely unfitted for service he manages to do something useful. There are no loose ends and no waste to the German military system; I can see that. The soldiers in the street cheer the wounded as they pass and the wounded answer by singing Die Wacht am Rhein feebly.
One poor chap raises his head and looks out. He appears to be almost spent, but I see his lips move as he tries to sing. You may not care for the German cause, but you are bound to admire the German spirit—the German oneness of purpose.
Noon. As the Texas darky said: "Dinnertime fur some folks; but just twelve o'clock fur me!" Again I smell something cooking upstairs. On the mantel of the shabby little interior sitting room, where we spend most of our time sitting about in a sad circle, is a little black-and- tan terrier pup, stuffed and mounted, with shiny glass eyes—a family pet, I take it, which died and was immortalized by the local taxidermist. If I only knew what that dog was stuffed with I would take a chance and eat him.
I have a fellow feeling for Arctic explorers who go north and keep on going until they run out of things to eat. I admire their heroism and sympathize with their sufferings, but I deplore their bad judgment. There are grapes growing on trellises in the little courtyard at the back, but they are too green for human consumption. I speak authoritatively on this subject, having just sampled one.
Two p.m. Tried to take a nap, but failed. Hansen found a soiled deck of cards behind a pile of books on the mantelpiece, and we all cheered up, thinking of poker; but it was a Belgian deck of thirty-two cards, all the pips below the seven-spot being eliminated. Poker with that deck would be a hazardous pursuit.
McCutcheon remarks casually that he wonders what would happen if somebody accidentally touched off those field-gun shells in the house two doors away. We suddenly remember that they are all pointed our way! The conversation seems to lull, and Mac, for the time being, loses popularity.
Two-thirty p.m. Looking out on the dreary little square of this town of Beaumont I note that the natives, who have been scarce enough all day, have now vanished almost entirely; whereas soldiers are noticeably more numerous than they were this morning.
Three-fifteen p.m. Heard a big noise in the street and ran to the window in time to see about forty English prisoners passing under guard —the first English soldiers I have seen, in this campaign, either as prisoners or otherwise. Their tan khaki uniforms and flat caps give them a soldierly look very unlike the slovenly, sloppy-appearing French prisoners in the guardhouse; but they appear to be tremendously downcast. The German soldiers crowd up to stare at them, but there is no jeering or taunting from the Germans. These prisoners are all infantrymen, judging by their uniforms. They disappear through the gateway of the prince's park.
Three-forty. I have just had some exercise; walked from the front door to the courtyard and back. There are two guards outside the door now instead of one. The German army certainly takes mighty good care of its guests.
This day has been as long as Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," and much more tiresome. No; I'll take that back; it is not strong enough. This day has been as long as the entire Christian Era.
Four p.m. Gerbeaux, who was allowed to go out foraging, under escort of a guard, has returned with a rope of dried onions; a can of alphabet noodles; half a pound of stale, crumbly macaroons; a few fresh string beans; a pot of strained honey, and several clean collars of assorted sizes. The woman of the-house is now making soup for us out of the beans, the onions and the noodles. She has also produced a little grated Parmesan cheese from somewhere.
Four-twenty p.m. That was the best soup I ever tasted, even if it was full of typographical errors from the jumbling together of the little alphabet noodles. Still, nobody but a proofreader could have found fault with that. There was only one trouble with that soup: there was not enough of it—just one bowl apiece. I would have traded the finest case of vintage wine in the Chimay vaults for another bowl.
Just as the woman brought in the soup Mittendorfer appeared, escorting a French lieutenant who was taken prisoner this morning. The prisoner was a little, handsome, dapper chap not over twenty-two years old, wearing his trim blue-and-red uniform with an air, even though he himself looked thoroughly miserable. We were warned not to speak with him, or he with us; but Gerbeaux, after listening to him exchanging a few words with the lieutenant, said he judged from his accent that the little officer was from the south of France.
We silently offered him a bowl of the soup as he sat in a corner fenced off from the rest of us by a small table; but he barely tasted it, and after a bit he lay down in his corner, with his arm for a pillow, and almost instantly was asleep, breathing heavily, like a man on the verge of exhaustion. A few minutes later we heard, from Sergeant Rosenthal, that the prisoner's brother-in-law had been killed the day before, and that he—the little officer—had seen the brother-in-law fall.
Five p.m. We have had good news—two chunks of good news, in fact. We are to dine and we are to travel. The sergeant has acquired, from unknown sources, a brace of small, skinny, fresh-killed pullets; eight fresh eggs; a big loaf of the soggy rye bread of the field mess; and wine unlimited. Also, we are told that at nine o'clock we are to start for Brussels—not by automobile, but aboard a train carrying wounded and prisoners northward.
Everybody cheers up, especially after ma-dame promises to have the fowls and the eggs ready in less than an hour.
The Belgian photographer, who, it develops, is to go with our troop, has been brought in from the guardhouse and placed with us. With the passing hours his fright has increased. Gerbeaux says the poor devil is one of the leading photographers of Brussels—that by royal appointment he takes pictures of the queen and her children. But the queen would have trouble in recognizing her photographer if she could see him now— with straw in his tousled hair, and his jaw lolling under the weight of his terror, and his big, wild eyes staring this way and that. Nothing that Gerbeaux can say to him will dissuade him from the belief that the Germans mean to shoot him.
I almost forgot to detail a thing that occurred a few minutes ago, just before the Belgian joined us. Mittendorfer brought a message for the little French lieutenant. The Frenchman roused up and, after they had saluted each other ceremoniously, Mittendorfer told him he had come to invite him to dine with a mess of German officers across the way, in the town hall.
On the way out he stopped to speak with Sergeant Rosenthal who, having furnished the provender for the forthcoming feast, was now waiting to share in it. Using German, the lieutenant said:
"I'm being kept pretty busy. Two citizens of this town have just been sentenced to be shot, and I've orders to go and attend to the shooting before it gets too dark for the firing squad to see to aim."
Rosenthal did not ask of what crime the condemned two had been convicted.
"You had charge of another execution this morning, didn't you?" he said.
"Yes," answered the lieutenant; "a couple—man and wife. The man was seventy-four years old and the woman was seventy-two. It was proved against them that they put poisoned sugar in the coffee for some of our soldiers. You heard about the case, didn't you?"
"I heard something about it," said Rosenthal.
That was all they said. After three weeks of war a tragedy like this has become commonplace, not only to these soldiers but to us. Already all of us, combatants and onlookers alike, have seen so many horrors that one more produces no shock in our minds. It will take a wholesale killing to excite us; these minor incidents no longer count with us. If I wrote all day I do not believe I could make the meaning of war, in its effects on the minds of those who view it at close hand, any clearer. I shall not try.
Six-fifteen p.m. We have dined. The omelet was a very small omelet, and two skinny pullets do not go far among nine hungry men; still, we have dined.
My journal breaks off with this entry. It broke off because immediately after dinner word came that our train was ready. A few minutes before we left the taverne for the station, to start on a trip that was to last two days instead of three hours, and land us not in Brussels, but on German soil in Aix-la-Chapelle, two incidents happened which afterward, in looking back on the experience, I have found most firmly clinched in my memory: A German captain came into the place to get a drink; he recognized me as an American and hailed me, and wanted to know my business and whether I could give him any news from the outside world. I remarked on the perfection of his English.
"I suppose I come by it naturally," he said. "I call myself a German, but I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and partly reared in New Jersey, and educated at Princeton; and at this moment I am a member of the New York Cotton Exchange."
Right after this three Belgian peasants, all half-grown boys, were brought in. They had run away from their homes at the coming of the Germans, and for three days had been hiding in thickets, without food, until finally hunger and cold had driven them in.
All of them were in sorry case and one was in collapse. He trembled so his whole body shook like jelly. The landlady gave him some brandy, but the burning stuff choked his throat until it closed and the brandy ran out of his quivering blue lips and spilled on his chin. Seeing this, a husky German private, who looked as though in private life he might be a piano mover, brought out of his blanket roll a bottle of white wine and, holding the scared, exhausted lad against his chest, ministered to him with all gentleness, and gave him sips of the wine. In the line of duty I suppose he would have shot that boy with the same cheerful readiness.
Just as we were filing out into the dark, Sergeant Rosenthal, who was also going along, halted us and reminded us all and severally that we were not prisoners, but still guests; and that, though we were to march with the prisoners to the station, we were to go in line with the guards; and if any prisoner sought to escape it was hoped that we would aid in recapturing the runaway. So we promised him, each on his word of honor, that we would do this; and he insisted that we should shake hands with him as a pledge and as a token of mutual confidence, which we accordingly did. Altogether it was quite an impressive little ceremonial—and rather dramatic, I imagine.
As he left us, however, he was heard, speaking in German, to say sotto voce to one of the guards:
"If one of those journalists tries to slip away don't take any chances— shoot him at once!"
It is so easy to keep one's honor intact when you have moral support in the shape of an earnest-minded German soldier, with a gun, stepping along six feet behind you. My honor was never safer.
With the German Wrecking Crew
When we came out of the little taverne at Beaumont, to start—as we fondly supposed—for Brussels, it was pitch dark in the square of the forlorn little town. With us the polite and pleasant fiction that we were guests of the German authorities had already worn seedy, not to say threadbare, but Lieutenant Mittendorfer persisted in keeping the little romance alive. For, as you remember, we had been requested—requested, mind you, and not ordered—to march to the station with the armed escort that would be in charge of the prisoners of war, and it had been impressed upon us that we were to assist in guarding the convoy, although no one of us had any more deadly weapon in his possession than a fountain pen; and finally, according to our instructions, if any prisoner attempted to escape in the dark we were to lay detaining hands upon him and hold him fast.
This was all very flattering and very indicative of the esteem in which the military authorities of Beaumont seemed to hold us. But we were not puffed up with a sense of our new responsibilities. Also we were as a unit in agreeing that under no provocation would we yield to temptations to embark on any side-excursions upon the way to the railroad. Personally I know that I was particularly firm upon this point. I would defy that column to move so fast that I could not keep up with it.
In the black gloom we could make out a longish clump of men who stood four abreast, scuffling their feet upon the miry wet stones of the square. These were the prisoners—one hundred and fifty Frenchmen and Turcos, eighty Englishmen and eight Belgians. From them, as we drew near, an odor of wet, unwashed animals arose. It was as rank and raw as fumes from crude ammonia. Then, in the town house of the Prince de Caraman-Chimay just alongside, the double doors opened, and the light streaming out fell upon the naked bayonets over the shoulders of the sentries and made them look like slanting lines of rain.
There were eight of us by now in the party of guests, our original group of five having been swollen by the addition of three others—the Frenchman Gerbeaux, the American artist Stevens and the Belgian court- photographer Hennebert, who had been under arrest for five days. We eight, obeying instructions—no, requests—found places for ourselves in the double files of guards, four going one side of the column and four the other. I slipped into a gap on the left flank, alongside four of the English soldiers. The guard immediately behind me was a man I knew. He had been on duty the afternoon previous in the place where we were being kept, and he had been obliging enough to let me exercise my few words of German upon him. He grinned now in recognition and humorously patted the stock of his rifle—this last, I take it, being his effort to convey to my understanding that he was under orders to shoot me in the event of my seeking to play truant during the next hour or so. He didn't know me—wild horses could not have dragged us apart.
A considerable wait ensued. Officers, coming back from the day's battle lines in automobiles, jumped out of their cars and pressed up, bedraggled and wet through from the rain which had been falling, to have a look at the prisoners. Common soldiers appeared also. Of these latter many, I judged, had newly arrived at the front and had never seen any captured enemies before. They were particularly interested in the Englishmen, who as nearly as I could tell endured the scrutinizing pretty well, whereas the Frenchmen grew uneasy and self-conscious under it. We who were in civilian dress—and pretty shabby civilian dress at that—came in for our share of examination too. The sentries were kept busy explaining to newcomers that we were not spies going north for trial. There was little or no jeering at the prisoners.
Lieutenant Mittendorfer appeared to feel the burden of his authority mightily. His importance expressed itself in many bellowing commands to his men. As he passed the door of headquarters, booming like a Prussian night-bittern, one of the officers there checked him with a gesture.
"Why all the noise, Herr Lieutenant?" he said pleasantly in German. "Cannot this thing be done more quietly?"
The young man took the hint, and when he climbed upon a bench outside the wine-shop door his voice was much milder as he admonished the prisoners that they would be treated with due honors of war if they obeyed their warders promptly during the coming journey, but that the least sign of rebellion among them would mean but one thing—immediate death. Since he spoke in German, a young French lieutenant translated the warning for the benefit of the Frenchmen and the Belgians, and a British noncom. did the same for his fellow countrymen, speaking with a strong Scottish burr. He wound up with an improvisation of his own, which I thought was typically British. "Now, then, boys," he sang out, "buck up, all of you! It might be worse, you know, and some of these German chaps don't seem a bad lot at all."
So, with that, Lieutenant Mittendorfer blew out his big chest and barked an order into the night, and away we all swung off at a double quick, with our feet slipping and sliding upon the travel-worn granite boulders underfoot. In addition to being rounded and unevenly laid, the stones were now coated with a layer of slimy mud. It was a hard job to stay upright on them.
I don't think I shall ever forget that march. I know I shall never forget that smell, or the sound of all our feet clumping over those slick cobbles. Nor shall I forget, either, the appealing calls of Gerbeaux' black chauffeur, who was being left behind in the now empty guardhouse, and who, to judge from his tones, did not expect ever to see any of us again. As a matter of fact, I ran across him two weeks later in Liege. He had just been released and was trying to make his way back to Brussels.
The way ahead of us was inky black. The outlines of the tall Belgian houses on either side of the narrow street were barely visible, for there were no lights in the windows at all and only dim candles or oil lamps in the lower floors. No natives showed themselves. I do not recollect that in all that mile-long tramp I saw a single Belgian civilian—only soldiers, shoving forward curiously as we passed and pressing the files closer in together.
Through one street we went and into another which if anything was even narrower and blacker than the first, and presently we could tell by the feel of things under our feet that we had quit the paved road and were traversing soft earth. We entered railway sidings, stumbling over the tracks, and at the far end of the yard emerged into a sudden glare of brightness and drew up alongside a string of cars.
After the darkness the flaring brilliancy made us blink and then it made us wonder there should be any lights at all, seeing that the French troops, in retiring from Beaumont four days before, had done their hurried best to cripple the transportation facilities and had certainly put the local gas plant out of commission. Yet here was illumination in plenty and to spare. At once the phenomenon stood explained. Two days after securing this end of the line the German engineers had repaired the torn-up right-of-way and installed a complete acetylene outfit, and already they were dispatching trains of troops and munitions clear across southeastern Belgium to and from the German frontier. When we heard this we quit marveling. We had by now ceased to wonder at the lightning rapidity and un-human efficiency of the German military system in the field.
Under the sizzling acetylene torches we had our first good look at these prospective fellow-travelers of ours who were avowedly prisoners.
Considered in the aggregate they were not an inspiring spectacle. A soldier, stripped of his arms and held by his foes, becomes of a sudden a pitiable, almost a contemptible object. You think instinctively of an adder that has lost its fangs, or of a wild cat that, being shorn of teeth to bite with and claws to tear with, is now a more helpless, more impotent thing than if it had been created without teeth and claws in the first place. These similes are poor ones, I'm afraid, but I find it difficult to put my thoughts exactly into words.
These particular soldiers were most unhappy looking, all except the half dozen Turcos among the Frenchmen. They spraddled their baggy white legs and grinned comfortably, baring fine double rows of ivory in their brown faces. The others mainly were droopy figures of misery and shame. By reason of their hair, which they wore long and which now hung down in their eyes, and by reason also of their ridiculous loose red trousers and their long-tailed awkward blue coats, the Frenchmen showed themselves especially unkempt and frowzy-looking. Almost to a man they were dark, lean, slouchy fellows; they were from the south of France, we judged. Certainly with a week's growth of black whiskers upon their jaws they were fit now to play stage brigands without further make-up.
"Wot a bloomin', stinkin', rotten country!" came, two rows back from where I stood, a Cockney voice uplifted to the leaky skies. "There ain't nothin' to eat in it, and there ain't nothin' to drink in it, too."