He was no longer afraid of the shrill shrieks of invisible bodies. His one great longing was to die. He was strongly convinced that he was going to die; his sufferings were too great; there was no longer any place in the world for him.
He had to pass by breaches opened in the wall by the bursting shells. There was no natural object to arrest the eye looking through these gaps. Hedges and groves had been swept away or blotted out by the fire of the artillery. He descried at the foot of the highway near his castle, several of the attacking columns which had crossed the Marne. The advancing forces were coming doggedly on, apparently unmoved by the steady, deadly fire of the Germans. Soon they were rushing forward with leaps and bounds, by companies, shielding themselves behind bits of upland in bends of the road, in order to send forth their blasts of death.
The old man was now fired with a desperate resolution;—since he had to die, let a French ball kill him! And he advanced very erect with his two pails among those men shooting, lying down. Then, with a sudden fear, he stood still hanging his head; a second thought had told him that the bullet which he might receive would be one danger less for the enemy. It would be better for them to kill the Germans . . . and he began to cherish the hope that he might get possession of some weapon from those dying around him, and fall upon that Junker who had struck him.
He was filling his pails for the third time, and murderously contemplating the lieutenant's back when something occurred so absurd and unnatural that it reminded him of the fantastic flash of the cinematograph;—the officer's head suddenly disappeared; two jets of blood spurted from his severed neck and his body collapsed like an empty sack.
At the same time, a cyclone was sweeping the length of the wall, tearing up groves, overturning cannon and carrying away people in a whirlwind as though they were dry leaves. He inferred that Death was now blowing from another direction. Until then, it had come from the front on the river side, battling with the enemy's line ensconced behind the walls. Now, with the swiftness of an atmospheric change, it was blustering from the depths of the park. A skillful manoeuver of the aggressors, the use of a distant road, a chance bend in the German line had enabled the French to collect their cannon in a new position, attacking the occupants of the castle with a flank movement.
It was a lucky thing for Don Marcelo that he had lingered a few moments on the bank of the fosse, sheltered by the bulk of the edifice. The fire of the hidden battery passed the length of the avenue, carrying off the living, destroying for a second time the dead, killing horses, breaking the wheels of vehicles and making the gun carriages fly through the air with the flames of a volcano in whose red and bluish depths black bodies were leaping. He saw hundreds of fallen men; he saw disembowelled horses trampling on their entrails. The death harvest was not being reaped in sheaves; the entire field was being mowed down with a single flash of the sickle. And as though the batteries opposite divined the catastrophe, they redoubled their fire, sending down a torrent of shells. They fell on all sides. Beyond the castle, at the end of the park, craters were opening in the woods, vomiting forth the entire trunks of trees. The projectiles were hurling from their pits the bodies interred the night before.
Those still alive were firing through the gaps in the walls. Then they sprang up with the greatest haste. Some grasped their bayonets, pale, with clamped lips and a mad glare in their eyes; others turned their backs, running toward the exit from the park, regardless of the shouts of their officers and the revolver shots sent after the fugitives.
All this occurred with dizzying rapidity, like a nightmare. On the other side of the wall came a murmur, swelling in volume, like that of the sea. Desnoyers heard shouts, and it seemed to him that some hoarse, discordant voices were singing the Marseillaise. The machine-guns were working with the swift steadiness of sewing machines. The attack was going to be opposed with furious resistance. The Germans, crazed with fury, shot and shot. In one of the breaches appeared a red kepis followed by legs of the same color trying to clamber over the ruins. But this vision was instantly blotted out by the sprinkling from the machine guns, making the invaders fall in great heaps on the other side of the wall. Don Marcelo never knew exactly how the change took place. Suddenly he saw the red trousers within the park. With irresistible bounds they were springing over the wall, slipping through the yawning gaps, and darting out from the depths of the woods by invisible paths. They were little soldiers, husky, panting, perspiring, with torn cloaks; and mingled with them, in the disorder of the charge, African marksmen with devilish eyes and foaming mouths, Zouaves in wide breeches and chasseurs in blue uniforms.
The German officers wanted to die. With upraised swords, after having exhausted the shots in their revolvers, they advanced upon their assailants followed by the soldiers who still obeyed them. There was a scuffle, a wild melee. To the trembling spectator, it seemed as though the world had fallen into profound silence. The yells of the combatants, the thud of colliding bodies, the clang of arms seemed as nothing after the cannon had quieted down. He saw men pierced through the middle by gun points whose reddened ends came out through their kidneys; muskets raining hammer-like blows, adversaries that grappled in hand-to-hand tussles, rolling over and over on the ground, trying to gain the advantage by kicks and bites.
The mustard-colored fronts had entirely disappeared, and he now saw only backs of that color fleeing toward the exit, filtering among the trees, falling midway in their flight when hit by the pursuing balls. Many of the invaders were unable to chase the fugitives because they were occupied in repelling with rude thrusts of their bayonets the bodies falling upon them in agonizing convulsions.
Don Marcelo suddenly found himself in the very thick of these mortal combats, jumping up and down like a child, waving his hands and shouting with all his might. When he came to himself again, he was hugging the grimy head of a young French officer who was looking at him in astonishment. He probably thought him crazy on receiving his kisses, on hearing his incoherent torrent of words. Emotionally exhausted, the worn old man continued to weep after the officer had freed himself with a jerk. . . . He needed to give vent to his feelings after so many days of anguished self-control. Vive la France! . . .
His beloved French were already within the park gates. They were running, bayonets in hand, in pursuit of the last remnants of the German battalion trying to escape toward the village. A group of horsemen passed along the road. They were dragoons coming to complete the rout. But their horses were fagged out; nothing but the fever of victory transmitted from man to beast had sustained their painful pace. One of the equestrians came to a stop near the entrance of the park, the famished horse eagerly devouring the herbage while his rider settled down in the saddle as though asleep. Desnoyers touched him on the hip in order to waken him, but he immediately rolled off on the opposite side. He was dead, with his entrails protruding from his body, but swept on with the others, he had been brought thus far on his steady steed.
Enormous tops of iron and smoke now began falling in the neighborhood. The German artillery was opening a retaliatory fire against its lost positions. The advance continued. There passed toward the North battalions, squadrons and batteries, worn, weary and grimy, covered with dust and mud, but kindled with an ardor that galvanized their flagging energy.
The French cannon began thundering on the village side. Bands of soldiers were exploring the castle and the nearest woods. From the ruined rooms, from the depths of the cellars, from the clumps of shrubbery in the park, from the stables and burned garage, came surging forth men dressed in greenish gray and pointed helmets. They all threw up their arms, extending their open hands:—"Kamarades . . . kamarades, non kaput." With the restlessness of remorse, they were in dread of immediate execution. They had suddenly lost all their haughtiness on finding that they no longer had any official powers and were free from discipline. Some of those who knew a little French, spoke of their wives and children, in order to soften the enemies that were threatening them with their bayonets. A brawny Teuton came up to Desnoyers and clapped him on the back. It was Redbeard. He pressed his heart and then pointed to the owner of the castle. "Franzosen . . . great friend of the Franzosen" . . . and he grinned ingratiatingly at his protector.
Don Marcelo remained at the castle until the following morning, and was astounded to see Georgette and her mother emerge unexpectedly from the depths of the ruined lodge. They were weeping at the sight of the French uniforms.
"It could not go on," sobbed the widow. "God does not die."
After a bad night among the ruins, the owner decided to leave Villeblanche. What was there for him to do now in the destroyed castle? . . . The presence of so many dead was racking his nerves. There were hundreds, there were thousands. The soldiers and the farmers were interring great heaps of them wherever he went, digging burial trenches close to the castle, in all the avenues of the park, in the garden paths, around the outbuildings. Even the depths of the circular lagoon were filled with corpses. How could he ever live again in that tragic community composed mostly of his enemies? . . . Farewell forever, castle of Villeblanche!
He turned his steps toward Paris, planning to get there the best way he could. He came upon corpses everywhere, but they were not all the gray-green uniform. Many of his countrymen had fallen in the gallant offensive. Many would still fall in the last throes of the battle that was going on behind them, agitating the horizon with its incessant uproar. Everywhere red pantaloons were sticking up out of the stubble, hobnailed boots glistening in upright position near the roadside, livid heads, amputated bodies, stray limbs—and, scattered through this funereal medley, red kepis and Oriental caps, helmets with tufts of horse hair, twisted swords, broken bayonets, guns and great mounds of cannon cartridges. Dead horses were strewing the plain with their swollen carcasses. Artillery wagons with their charred wood and bent iron frames revealed the tragic moment of the explosion. Rectangles of overturned earth marked the situation of the enemy's batteries before their retreat. Amidst the broken cannons and trucks were cones of carbonized material, the remains of men and horses burned by the Germans on the night before their withdrawal.
In spite of these barbarian holocausts corpses were every where in infinite numbers. There seemed to be no end to their number; it seemed as though the earth had expelled all the bodies that it had received since the beginning of the world. The sun was impassively flooding the fields of death with its waves of light. In its yellowish glow, the pieces of the bayonets, the metal plates, the fittings of the guns were sparkling like bits of crystal. The damp night, the rain, the rust of time had not yet modified with their corrosive action these relics of combat.
But decomposition had begun to set in. Graveyard odors were all along the road, increasing in intensity as Desnoyers plodded on toward Paris. Every half hour, the evidence of corruption became more pronounced—many of the dead on this side of the river having lain there for three or four days. Bands of crows, at the sound of his footsteps, rose up, lazily flapping their wings, but returning soon to blacken the earth, surfeited but not satisfied, having lost all fear of mankind.
From time to time, the sad pedestrian met living bands of men—platoons of cavalry, gendarmes, Zouaves and chasseurs encamped around the ruined farmsteads, exploring the country in pursuit of German fugitives. Don Marcelo had to explain his business there, showing the passport that Lacour had given him in order to make his trip on the military train. Only in this way, could he continue his journey. These soldiers—many of them slightly wounded—were still stimulated by victory. They were laughing, telling stories, and narrating the great dangers which they had escaped a few days before, always ending with, "We are going to kick them across the frontier!" . . .
Their indignation broke forth afresh as they looked around at the blasted towns—farms and single houses, all burned. Like skeletons of prehistoric beasts, many steel frames twisted by the flames were scattered over the plains. The brick chimneys of the factories were either levelled to the ground or, pierced with the round holes made by shells, were standing up like giant pastoral flutes forced into the earth.
Near the ruined villages, the women were removing the earth and trying to dig burial trenches, but their labor was almost useless because it required an immense force to inter so many dead. "We are all going to die after gaining the victory," mused the old man. "The plague is going to break out among us."
The water of the river must also be contaminated by this contagion; so when his thirst became intolerable he drank, in preference, from a nearby pond. . . . But, alas, on raising his head, he saw some greenish legs on the surface of the shallow water, the boots sunk in the muddy banks. The head of the German was in the depths of the pool.
He had been trudging on for several hours when he stopped before a ruined house which he believed that he recognized. Yes, it was the tavern where he had lunched a few days ago on his way to the castle. He forced his way in among the blackened walls where a persistent swarm of flies came buzzing around him. The smell of decomposing flesh attracted his attention; a leg which looked like a piece of charred cardboard was wedged in the ruins. Looking at it bitterly he seemed to hear again the old woman with her grandchildren clinging to her skirts—"Monsieur, why are the people fleeing? War only concerns the soldiers. We countryfolk have done no wrong to anybody, and we ought not to be afraid."
Half an hour later, on descending a hilly path, the traveller had the most unexpected of encounters. He saw there a taxicab, an automobile from Paris. The chauffeur was walking tranquilly around the vehicle as if it were at the cab stand, and he promptly entered into conversation with this gentleman who appeared to him as downcast and dirty as a tramp, with half of his livid face discolored from a blow. He had brought out here in his machine some Parisians who had wanted to see the battlefield; they were reporters; and he was waiting there to take them back at nightfall.
Don Marcelo buried his right hand in his pocket. Two hundred francs if the man would drive him to Paris. The chauffeur declined with the gravity of a man faithful to his obligations. . . . "Five hundred?" . . . and he showed his fist bulging with gold coins. The man's only response was a twirl of the handle which started the machine to snorting, and away they sped. There was not a battle in the neighborhood of Paris every day in the year! His other clients could just wait.
And settling back into the motor-car, Desnoyers saw the horrors of the battle field flying past at a dizzying speed and disappearing behind him. He was rolling toward human life . . . he was returning to civilization!
As they came into Paris, the nearly empty streets seemed to him to be crowded with people. Never had he seen the city so beautiful. He whirled through the avenue de l'Opera, whizzed past the place de la Concorde, and thought he must be dreaming as he realized the gigantic leap that he had taken within the hour. He compared all that was now around him with the sights on that plain of death but a few miles away. No; no, it was not possible. One of the extremes of this contrast must certainly be false!
The automobile was beginning to slow down; he must be now in the avenue Victor Hugo. . . . He couldn't wake up. Was that really his home? . . .
The majestic concierge, unable to understand his forlorn appearance, greeted him with amazed consternation. "Ah. Monsieur! . . . Where has Monsieur been?" . . .
"In hell!" muttered Don Marcelo.
His wonderment continued when he found himself actually in his own apartment, going through its various rooms. He was somebody once more. The sight of the fruits of his riches and the enjoyment of home comforts restored his self-respect at the same time that the contrast recalled to his mind the recollection of all the humiliations and outrages that he had suffered. . . . Ah, the scoundrels! . . .
Two mornings later, the door bell rang. A visitor!
There came toward him a soldier—a little soldier of the infantry, timid, with his kepis in his hand, stuttering excuses in Spanish:—"I knew that you were here . . . I come to . . ."
That voice? . . . Dragging him from the dark hallway, Don Marcelo conducted him to the balcony. . . . How handsome he looked! . . . The kepis was red, but darkened with wear; the cloak, too large, was torn and darned; the great shoes had a strong smell of leather. Yet never had his son appeared to him so elegant, so distinguished-looking as now, fitted out in these rough ready-made clothes.
"You! . . . You! . . ."
The father embraced him convulsively, crying like a child, and trembling so that he could no longer stand.
He had always hoped that they would finally understand each other. His blood was coursing through the boy's veins; he was good, with no other defect than a certain obstinacy. He was excusing him now for all the past, blaming himself for a great part of it. He had been too hard.
"You a soldier!" he kept exclaiming over and over. "You defending my country, when it is not yours!" . . .
And he kissed him again, receding a few steps so as to get a better look at him. Decidedly he was more fascinating now in his grotesque uniform, than when he was so celebrated for his skill as a dancer and idolized by the women.
When the delighted father was finally able to control his emotion, his eyes, still filled with tears, glowed with a malignant light. A spasm of hatred furrowed his face.
"Go," he said simply. "You do not know what war is; I have just come from it; I have seen it close by. This is not a war like other wars, with rational enemies; it is a hunt of wild beasts. . . . Shoot without a scruple against them all. . . . Every one that you overcome, rids humanity of a dangerous menace."
He hesitated a few seconds, and then added with tragic calm:
"Perhaps you may encounter familiar faces. Family ties are not always formed to our tastes. Men of your blood are on the other side. If you see any one of them . . . do not hesitate. Shoot! He is your enemy. Kill him! . . . Kill him!"
AFTER THE MARNE
At the end of October, the Desnoyers family returned to Paris. Dona Luisa could no longer live in Biarritz, so far from her husband. In vain la Romantica discoursed on the dangers of a return. The Government was still in Bordeaux, the President of the Republic and the Ministry making only the most hurried apparitions in the Capital. The course of the war might change at any minute; that little affair of the Marne was but a momentary relief. . . . But the good senora, after having read Don Marcelo's letters, opposed an adamantine will to all contrary suggestions. Besides, she was thinking of her son, her Julio, now a soldier. . . . She believed that, by returning to Paris, she might in some ways be more in touch with him than at this seaside resort near the Spanish frontier.
Chichi also wished to return because Rene was now filling the greater part of her thoughts. Absence had shown her that she was really in love with him. Such a long time without seeing her little sugar soldier! . . . So the family abandoned their hotel life and returned to the avenue Victor Hugo.
Since the shock of the first September days, Paris had been gradually changing its aspect. The nearly two million inhabitants who had been living quietly in their homes without letting themselves be drawn into the panic, had accepted the victory with grave serenity. None of them could explain the exact course of the battle; they would learn all about it when it was entirely finished.
One September Sunday, at the hour when the Parisians are accustomed to take advantage of the lovely twilight, they had learned from the newspapers of the great triumph of the Allies and of the great danger which they had so narrowly escaped. The people were delighted, but did not, however, abandon their calm demeanor. Six weeks of war had radically changed the temperament of turbulent and impressionable Paris.
The victory was slowly restoring the Capital to its former aspect. A street that was practically deserted a few weeks before was now filled with transients. The shops were reopening. The neighbors accustomed to the conventional silence of their deserted apartment houses, again heard sounds of returning life in the homes above and below them.
Don Marcelo's satisfaction in welcoming his family home was considerably clouded by the presence of Dona Elena. She was Germany returning to the encounter, the enemy again established within his tents. Would he never be able to free himself from this bondage? . . . She was silent in her brother-in-law's presence because recent events had rather bewildered her. Her countenance was stamped with a wondering expression as though she were gazing at the upsetting of the most elemental physical laws. In reflective silence she was puzzling over the Marne enigma, unable to understand how it was that the Germans had not conquered the ground on which she was treading; and in order to explain this failure, she resorted to the most absurd suppositions.
One especially engrossing matter was increasing her sadness. Her sons. . . . What would become of her sons! Don Marcelo had never told her of his meeting with Captain von Hartrott. He was maintaining absolute silence about his sojourn at Villeblanche. He had no desire to recount his adventures at the battle of the Marne. What was the use of saddening his loved ones with such miseries? . . . He simply told Dona Luisa, who was alarmed about the possible fate of the castle, that they would not be able to go there for many years to come, because the hostilities had rendered it uninhabitable. A covering of zinc sheeting had been substituted for the ancient roof in order to prevent further injury from wind and rain to the wrecked interior. Later on, after peace had been declared, they would think about its renovation. Just now it had too many inhabitants. And all the ladies, including Dona Elena, shuddered in imagining the thousands of buried bodies forming their ghastly circle around the building. This vision made Frau von Hartrott again groan, "Ay, my sons!"
Finally, for humanity's sake, her brother-in-law set her mind at rest regarding the fate of one of them, the Captain von Hartrott. He was in perfect health at the beginning of the battle. He knew that this was so from a friend who had conversed with him . . . and he did not wish to talk further about him.
Dona Luisa was spending a part of each day in the churches, trying to quiet her uneasiness with prayer. These petitions were no longer vague and generous for the fate of millions of unknown men, for the victory of an entire people. With maternal self-centredness they were focussed on one single person—her son, who was a soldier like the others, and perhaps at this very moment was exposed to the greatest danger. The tears that he had cost her! . . . She had implored that he and his father might come to understand each other, and finally just as God was miraculously granting her supplication, Julio had taken himself off to the field of death.
Her entreaties never went alone to the throne of grace. Someone was praying near her, formulating identical requests. The tearful eyes of her sister were raised at the same time as hers to the figure of the crucified Savior. "Lord, save my son!" . . . When uttering these words, Dona Luisa always saw Julio as he looked in a pale photograph which he had sent his father from the trenches—with kepis and military cloak, a gun in his right hand, and his face shadowed by a growing beard. "O Lord have mercy upon us!" . . . and Dona Elena was at the same time contemplating a group of officers with helmets and reseda uniforms reinforced with leather pouches for the revolver, field glasses and maps, with sword-belt of the same material.
Oftentimes when Don Marcelo saw them setting forth together toward Saint Honore d'Eylau, he would wax very indignant.
"They are juggling with God. . . . This is most unreasonable! How could He grant such contrary petitions? . . . Ah, these women!"
And then, with that superstition which danger awakens, he began to fear that his sister-in-law might cause some grave disaster to his son. Divinity, fatigued with so many contradictory prayers was going to turn His back and not listen to any of them. Why did not this fatal woman take herself off? . . .
He felt as exasperated at her presence in his home as he had at the beginning of hostilities. Dona Luisa was still innocently repeating her sister's statements, submitting them to the superior criticism of her husband. In this way, Don Marcelo had learned that the victory of the Marne had never really happened; it was an invention of the allies. The German generals had deemed it prudent to retire through profound strategic foresight, deferring till a little later the conquest of Paris, and the French had done nothing but follow them over the ground which they had left free. That was all. She knew the opinions of military men of neutral countries; she had been talking in Biarritz with some people of unusual intelligence; she knew what the German papers were saying about it. Nobody over there believed that yarn about the Marne. The people did not even know that there had been such a battle.
"Your sister said that?" interrupted Desnoyers, pale with wrath and amazement.
But he could do nothing but keep on longing for the bodily transformation of this enemy planted under his roof. Ay, if she could only be changed into a man! If only the evil genius of her husband could but take her place for a brief half hour! . . .
"But the war still goes on," said Dona Luisa in artless perplexity. "The enemy is still in France. . . . What good did the battle of the Marne do?"
She accepted his explanations with intelligent noddings of the head, seeming to take them all in, and an hour afterwards would be repeating the same doubts.
She, nevertheless, began to evince a mute hostility toward her sister. Until now, she had been tolerating her enthusiasms in favor of her husband's country because she always considered family ties of more importance than the rivalries of nations. Just because Desnoyers happened to be a Frenchman and Karl a German, she was not going to quarrel with Elena. But suddenly this forbearance had vanished. Her son was now in danger. . . . Better that all the von Hartrotts should die than that Julio should receive the most insignificant wound! . . . She began to share the bellicose sentiments of her daughter, recognizing in her an exceptional talent for appraising events, and now desiring all of Chichi's dagger thrusts to be converted into reality.
Fortunately La Romantica took herself off before this antipathy crystallized. She was accustomed to pass the afternoons somewhere outside, and on her return would repeat the news gleaned from friends unknown to the rest of the family.
This made Don Marcelo wax very indignant because of the spies still hidden in Paris. What mysterious world was his sister-in-law frequenting? . . .
Suddenly she announced that she was leaving the following morning; she had obtained a passport to Switzerland, and from there she would go to Germany. It was high time for her to be returning to her own; she was most appreciative of the hospitality shown her by the family. . . . And Desnoyers bade her good-bye with aggressive irony. His regards to von Hartrott; he was hoping to pay him a visit in Berlin as soon as possible.
One morning Dona Luisa, instead of entering the neighboring church as usual, continued on to the rue de la Pompe, pleased at the thought of seeing the studio once more. It seemed to her that in this way she might put herself more closely in touch with her son. This would be a new pleasure, even greater than poring over his photograph or re-reading his last letter.
She was hoping to meet Argensola, the friend of good counsels, for she knew that he was still living in the studio. Twice he had come to see her by the service stairway as in the old days, but she had been out.
As she went up in the elevator, her heart was palpitating with pleasure and distress. It occurred to the good lady that the "foolish virgins" must have had feelings like this when for the first time they fell from the heights of virtue.
The tears came to her eyes when she beheld the room whose furnishings and pictures so vividly recalled the absent. Argensola hastened from the door at the end of the room, agitated, confused, and greeting her with expressions of welcome at the same time that he was putting sundry objects out of sight. A woman's sweater lying on the divan, he covered with a piece of Oriental drapery—a hat trimmed with flowers, he sent flying into a far-away corner. Dona Luisa fancied that she saw a bit of gauzy feminine negligee embroidered in pink, flitting past the window frame. Upon the divan were two big coffee cups and bits of toast evidently left from a double breakfast. These artists! . . . The same as her son! And she was moved to compassion over the bad life of Julio's counsellor.
"My honored Dona Luisa. . . . My DEAR Madame Desnoyers. . . ."
He was speaking in French and at the top of his voice, looking frantically at the door through which the white and rosy garments had flitted. He was trembling at the thought that his hidden companion, not understanding the situation, might in a jealous fit, compromise him by a sudden apparition.
Then he spoke to his unexpected guest about the soldier, exchanging news with her. Dona Luisa repeated almost word for word the paragraphs of his letters so frequently read. Argensola modestly refrained from displaying his; the two friends were accustomed to an epistolary style which would have made the good lady blush.
"A valiant man!" affirmed the Spaniard proudly, looking upon the deeds of his comrade as though they were his own. "A true hero! and I, Madame Desnoyers, know something about what that means. . . . His chiefs know how to appreciate him." . . .
Julio was a sergeant after having been only two months in the campaign. The captain of his company and the other officials of the regiment belonged to the fencing club in which he had had so many triumphs.
"What a career!" he enthused. "He is one of those who in youth reach the highest ranks, like the Generals of the Revolution. . . . And what wonders he has accomplished!"
The budding officer had merely referred in the most casual way to some of exploits, with the indifference of one accustomed to danger and expecting the same attitude from his comrades; but his chum exaggerated them, enlarging upon them as though they were the culminating events of the war. He had carried an order across an infernal fire, after three messengers, trying to accomplish the same feat, had fallen dead. He had been the first to attack many trenches and had saved many of his comrades by means of the blows from his bayonet and hand to hand encounters. Whenever his superior officers needed a reliable man, they invariably said, "Let Sergeant Desnoyers be called!"
He rattled off all this as though he had witnessed it, as if he had just come from the seat of war, making Dona Luisa tremble and pour forth tears of joy mingled with fear over the glories and dangers of her son. That Argensola certainly possessed the gift of affecting his hearers by the realism with which he told his stories!
In gratitude for these eulogies, she felt that she ought to show some interest in his affairs. . . . What had he been doing of late?
"I, Madame, have been where I ought to be. I have not budged from this spot. I have witnessed the siege of Paris."
In vain, his reason protested against the inexactitude of that word, "siege." Under the influence of his readings about the war of 1870, he had classed as a siege all those events which had developed near Paris during the course of the battle of the Marne.
He pointed modestly to a diploma in a gold frame hanging above the piano against a tricolored flag. It was one of the papers sold in the streets, a certificate of residence in the Capital during the week of danger. He had filled in the blanks with his name and description of his person; and at the foot were very conspicuous the signatures of two residents of the rue de la Pompe—a tavern-keeper, and a friend of the concierge. The district Commissary of Police, with stamp and seal, had guaranteed the respectability of these honorable witnesses. Nobody could remain in doubt, after such precautions, as to whether he had or had not witnessed the siege of Paris. He had such incredulous friends! . . .
In order to bring the scene more dramatically before his amiable listener, he recalled the most striking of his impressions for her special benefit. Once, in broad daylight, he had seen a flock of sheep in the boulevard near the Madeleine. Their tread had resounded through the deserted streets like echoes from the city of the dead. He was the only pedestrian on the sidewalks thronged with cats and dogs.
His military recollections excited him like tales of glory.
"I have seen the march of the soldiers from Morocco. . . . I have seen the Zouaves in automobiles!"
The very night that Julio had gone to Bordeaux, he had wandered around till sunrise, traversing half of Paris, from the Lion of Belfort, to the Gare de l'Est. Twenty thousand men, with all their campaign outfit, coming from Morocco, had disembarked at Marseilles and arrived at the Capital, making part of the trip by rail and the rest afoot. They had come to take part in the great battle then beginning. They were troops composed of Europeans and Africans. The vanguard, on entering through the Orleans gate, had swung into rhythmic pace, thus crossing half Paris toward the Gare de l'Est where the trains were waiting for them.
The people of Paris had seen squadrons from Tunis with theatrical uniforms, mounted on horses, nervous and fleet, Moors with yellow turbans, Senegalese with black faces and scarlet caps, colonial artillerymen, and light infantry from Africa. These were professional warriors, soldiers who in times of peace, led a life of continual fighting in the colonies—men with energetic profiles, bronzed faces and the eyes of beasts of prey. They had remained motionlesss in the streets for hours at a time, until room could be found for them in the military trains. . . . And Argensola had followed this armed, impassive mass of humanity from the boulevards, talking with the officials, and listening to the primitive cries of the African warriors who had never seen Paris, and who passed through it without curiosity, asking where the enemy was.
They had arrived in time to attack von Kluck on the banks of the Ourq, obliging him to fall back or be completely overwhelmed.
A fact which Argensola did not relate to his sympathetic guest was that his nocturnal excursion the entire length of this division of the army had been accompanied by the amiable damsel within, and two other friends—an enthusiastic and generous coterie, distributing flowers and kisses to the swarthy soldiers, and laughing at their consternation and gleaming white teeth.
Another day he had seen the most extraordinary of all the spectacles of the war. All the taxicabs, some two thousand vehicles, conveying battalions of Zouaves, eight men to a motor car, had gone rolling past him at full speed, bristling with guns and red caps. They had presented a most picturesque train in the boulevards, like a kind of interminable wedding procession. And these soldiers got out of the automobiles on the very edge of the battle field, opening fire the instant that they leaped from the steps. Gallieni had launched all the men who knew how to handle a gun against the extreme right of the adversary at the supreme moment when the most insignificant weight might tip the scales in favor of the victory which was hanging in the balance. The clerks and secretaries of the military offices, the orderlies of the government and the civil police, all had marched to give that final push, forming a mass of heterogenous colors.
And one Sunday afternoon when, with his three companions of the "siege" he was strolling with thousands of other Parisians through the Bois de Boulogne, he had learned from the extras that the combat which had developed so near to the city was turning into a great battle, a victory.
"I have seen much, Madame Desnoyers. . . . I can relate great events."
And she agreed with him. Of course Argensola had seen much! . . . And on taking her departure, she offered him all the assistance in her power. He was the friend of her son, and she was used to his petitions. Times had changed; Don Marcelo's generosity now knew no bounds . . . but the Bohemian interrupted her with a lordly gesture; he was living in luxury. Julio had made him his trustee. The draft from America had been honored by the bank as a deposit, and he had the use of the interest in accordance with the regulations of the moratorium. His friend was sending him regularly whatever money was needed for household expenses. Never had he been in such prosperous condition. War had its good side, too . . . but not wishing to break away from old customs, he announced that once more he would mount the service stairs in order to bear away a basket of bottles.
After her sister's departure, Dona Luisa went alone to the churches until Chichi in an outburst of devotional ardor, suddenly surprised her with the announcement:
"Mama, I am going with you!"
The new devotee was no longer agitating the household by her rollicking, boyish joy; she was no longer threatening the enemy with imaginary dagger thrusts. She was pale, and with dark circles under her eyes. Her head was drooping as though weighed down with a set of serious, entirely new thoughts on the other side of her forehead.
Dona Luisa observed her in the church with an almost indignant jealousy. Her headstrong child's eyes were moist, and she was praying as fervently as the mother . . . but it was surely not for her brother. Julio had passed to second place in her remembrance. Another man was now completely filling her thoughts.
The last of the Lacours was no longer a simple soldier, nor was he now in Paris. Upon her return from Biarritz, Chichi had listened anxiously to the reports from her little sugar soldier. Throbbing with eagerness, she wanted to know all about the dangers which he had been experiencing; and the young warrior "in the auxiliary service" told her of his restlessness in the office during the interminable days in which the troops were battling around Paris, hearing afar off the boom of the artillery. His father had wished to take him with him to Bordeaux, but the administrative confusion of the last hour had kept him in the capital.
He had done something more. On the day of the great crisis, when the acting governor had sent out all the available men in automobiles, he had, unasked, seized a gun and occupied a motor with others from his office. He had not seen anything more than smoke, burning houses, and wounded men. Not a single German had passed before his eyes, excepting a band of Uhlan prisoners, but for some hours he had been shooting on the edge of the road . . . and nothing more.
For a while, that was enough for Chichi. She felt very proud to be the betrothed of a hero of the Marne, even though his intervention had lasted but a few hours. In a few days, however, her enthusiasm became rather clouded.
It was becoming annoying to stroll through the streets with Rene, a simple soldier and in the auxiliary service, besides. . . . The women of the town, excited by the recollection of their men fighting at the front, or clad in mourning because of the death of some loved one, would look at them with aggressive insolence. The refinement and elegance of the Republican Prince seemed to irritate them. Several times, she overheard uncomplimentary words hurled against the "embusques."
The fact that her brother who was not French was in the thick of the fighting, made the Lacour situation still more intolerable. She had an "embusque" for a lover. How her friends would laugh at her! . . .
The senator's son soon read her thoughts and began to lose some of his smiling serenity. For three days he did not present himself at the Desnoyers' home, and they all supposed that he was detained by work at the office.
One morning as Chichi was going toward the Bois de Boulogne, escorted by one of the nut-brown maids, she noticed a soldier coming toward her. He was wearing a bright uniform of the new gray-blue, the "horizon blue" just adopted by the French army. The chin strap of his kepi was gilt, and on his sleeve there was a little strip of gold. His smile, his outstretched hands, the confidence with which he advanced toward her made her recognize him. Rene an officer! Her betrothed a sub-lieutenant!
"Yes, of course! I could do nothing else. . . . I had heard enough!"
Without his father's knowledge, and assisted by his friends, he had in a few days, wrought this wonderful transformation. As a graduate of the Ecole Centrale, he held the rank of a sub-lieutenant of the Reserve Artillery, and he had requested to be sent to the front. Good-bye to the auxiliary service! . . . Within two days, he was going to start for the war.
"You have done this!" exclaimed Chichi. "You have done this!"
Although very pale, she gazed fondly at him with her great eyes—eyes that seemed to devour him with admiration.
"Come here, my poor boy. . . . Come here, my sweet little soldier! . . . I owe you something."
And turning her back on the maid, she asked him to come with her round the corner. It was just the same there. The cross street was just as thronged as the avenue. But what did she care for the stare of the curious! Rapturously she flung her arms around his neck, blind and insensible to everything and everybody but him.
"There. . . . There!" And she planted on his face two vehement, sonorous, aggressive kisses.
Then, trembling and shuddering, she suddenly weakened, and fumbling for her handkerchief, broke down in desperate weeping.
IN THE STUDIO
Upon opening the studio door one afternoon, Argensola stood motionless with surprise, as though rooted to the ground.
An old gentleman was greeting him with an amiable smile.
"I am the father of Julio."
And he walked into the apartment with the confidence of a man entirely familiar with his surroundings.
By good luck, the artist was alone, and was not obliged to tear frantically from one end of the room to the other, hiding the traces of convivial company; but he was a little slow in regaining his self-control. He had heard so much about Don Marcelo and his bad temper, that he was very uncomfortable at this unexpected appearance in the studio. . . . What could the fearful man want?
His tranquillity was restored after a furtive, appraising glance. His friend's father had aged greatly since the beginning of the war. He no longer had that air of tenacity and ill-humor that had made him unapproachable. His eyes were sparkling with childish glee; his hands were trembling slightly, and his back was bent. Argensola, who had always dodged him in the street and had thrilled with fear when sneaking up the stairway in the avenue home, now felt a sudden confidence. The transformed old man was beaming on him like a comrade, and making excuses to justify his visit.
He had wished to see his son's home. Poor old man! He was drawn thither by the same attraction which leads the lover to lessen his solitude by haunting the places that his beloved has frequented. The letters from Julio were not enough; he needed to see his old abode, to be on familiar terms with the objects which had surrounded him, to breathe the same air, to chat with the young man who was his boon companion.
His fatherly glance now included Argensola. . . . "A very interesting fellow, that Argensola!" And as he thought this, he forgot completely that, without knowing him, he had been accustomed to refer to him as "shameless," just because he was sharing his son's prodigal life.
Desnoyers' glance roamed delightedly around the studio. He knew well these tapestries and furnishings, all the decorations of the former owner. He easily remembered everything that he had ever bought, in spite of the fact that they were so many. His eyes then sought the personal effects, everything that would call the absent occupant to mind; and he pored over the miserably executed paintings, the unfinished dabs which filled all the corners.
Were they all Julio's? . . . Many of the canvases belonged to Argensola, but affected by the old man's emotion, the artist displayed a marvellous generosity. Yes, everything was Julio's handiwork . . . and the father went from canvas to canvas, halting admiringly before the vaguest daubs as though he could almost detect signs of genius in their nebulous confusion.
"You think he has talent, really?" he asked in a tone that implored a favorable reply. "I always thought him very intelligent . . . a little of the diable, perhaps, but character changes with years. . . . Now he is an altogether different man."
And he almost wept at hearing the Spaniard, with his ready, enthusiastic speech, lauding the departed "diable," graphically setting forth the way in which his great genius was going to take the world when his turn should come.
The painter of souls finally worked himself up into feeling as much affected as the father, and began to admire this old Frenchman with a certain remorse, not wishing to remember how he had ranted against him not so very long ago. What injustice! . . .
Don Marcelo clasped his hand like an old comrade. All of his son's friends were his friends. He knew the life that young men lived. . . . If at any time, he should be in any difficulties, if he needed an allowance so as to keep on with his painting—there he was, anxious to help him! He then and there invited him to dine at his home that very night, and if he would care to come every evening, so much the better. He would eat a family dinner, entirely informal. War had brought about a great many changes, but he would always be as welcome to the intimacy of the hearth as though he were in his father's home.
Then he spoke of Spain, in order to place himself on a more congenial footing with the artist. He had never been there but once, and then only for a short time; but after the war, he was going to know it better. His father-in-law was a Spaniard, his wife had Spanish blood, and in his home the language of the family was always Castilian. Ah, Spain, the country with a noble past and illustrious men! . . .
Argensola had a strong suspicion that if he had been a native of any other land, the old gentleman would have praised it in the same way. All this affection was but a reflex of his love for his absent son, but it so pleased the impressionable fellow that he almost embraced Don Marcelo when he took his departure.
After that, his visits to the studio were very frequent. The artist was obliged to recommend his friends to take a good long walk after lunch, abstaining from reappearing in the rue de la Pompe until nightfall. Sometimes, however, Don Marcelo would unexpectedly present himself in the morning, and then the soulful impressionist would have to scurry from place to place, hiding here, concealing there, in order that his workroom should preserve its appearance of virtuous labor.
"Youth . . . youth!" the visitor would murmur with a smile of tolerance.
And he actually had to make an effort to recall the dignity of his years, in order not to ask Argensola to present him to the fair fugitives whose presence he suspected in the interior rooms. Perhaps they had been his boy's friends, too. They represented a part of his past, anyway, and that was enough to make him presume that they had great charms which made them interesting.
These surprises, with their upsetting consequences, finally made the painter rather regret this new friendship; and the invitations to dinner which he was constantly receiving bored him, too. He found the Desnoyers table most excellent, but too tedious—for the father and mother could talk of nothing but their absent son. Chichi scarcely looked at her brother's friend. Her attention was entirely concentrated on the war. The irregularity in the mails was exasperating her so that she began composing protests to the government whenever a few days passed by without bringing any letter from sub-Lieutenant Lacour.
Argensola excused himself on various pretexts from continuing to dine in the avenue Victor Hugo. It pleased him far more to haunt the cheap restaurants with his female flock. His host accepted his negatives with good-natured resignation.
"Not to-day, either?"
And in order to compensate for his guest's non-appearance, he would present himself at the studio earlier than ever on the day following.
It was an exquisite pleasure for the doting father to let the time slip by seated on the divan which still seemed to guard the very hollow made by Julio's body, gazing at the canvases covered with color by his brush, toasting his toes by the beat of a stove which roared so cosily in the profound, conventual silence. It certainly was an agreeable refuge, full of memories in the midst of monotonous Paris so saddened by the war that he could not meet a friend who was not preoccupied with his own troubles.
His former purchasing dissipations had now lost all charm for him. The Hotel Drouot no longer tempted him. At that time, the goods of German residents, seized by the government, were being auctioned off;—a felicitous retaliation for the enforced journey which the fittings of the castle of Villeblanche had taken on the road to Berlin; but the agents told him in vain of the few competitors which he would now meet. He no longer felt attracted by these extraordinary bargains. Why buy anything more? . . . Of what use was such useless stuff? Whenever he thought of the hard life of millions of men in the open field, he felt a longing to lead an ascetic life. He was beginning to hate the ostentatious splendors of his home on the avenue Victor Hugo. He now recalled without a regretful pang, the destruction of the castle. No, he was far better off there . . . and "there" was always the studio of Julio.
Argensola began to form the habit of working in the presence of Don Marcelo. He knew that the resolute soul abominated inactive people, so, under the contagious influence of dominant will-power, he began several new pieces. Desnoyers would follow with interest the motions of his brush and accept all the explanations of the soulful delineator. For himself, he always preferred the old masters, and in his bargains had acquired the work of many a dead artist; but the fact that Julio had thought as his partner did was now enough for the devotee of the antique and made him admit humbly all the Spaniard's superior theories.
The artist's laborious zeal was always of short duration. After a few moments, he always found that he preferred to rest on the divan and converse with his guest.
The first subject, of course, was the absentee. They would repeat fragments of the letters they had received, and would speak of the past with the most discreet allusions. The painter described Julio's life before the war as an existence dedicated completely to art. The father ignored the inexactitude of such words, and gratefully accepted the lie as a proof of friendship. Argensola was such a clever comrade, never, in his loftiest verbal flights, making the slightest reference to Madame Laurier.
The old gentleman was often thinking about her nowadays, for he had seen her in the street giving her arm to her husband, now recovered from his wounds. The illustrious Lacour had informed him with great satisfaction of their reconciliation. The engineer had lost but one eye. Now he was again at the head of his factory requisitioned by the government for the manufacture of shells. He was a Captain, and was wearing two decorations of honor. The senator did not know exactly how this unexpected agreement had come about. He had one day seen them coming home together, looking affectionately at each other, in complete oblivion of the past.
"Who remembers things that happened before the war," said the politic sage. "They and their friends have completely forgotten all about their divorce. Nowadays we are all living a new existence. . . . I believe that the two are happier than ever before."
Desnoyers had had a presentiment of this happiness when he saw them together. And the man of inflexible morality who was, the year before, anathematizing his son's behavior toward Laurier, considering it the most unpardonable of his adventures, now felt a certain indignation in seeing Marguerite devoted to her husband, and talking to him with such affectionate interest. This matrimonial felicity seemed to him like the basest ingratitude. A woman who had had such an influence over the life of Julio! . . . Could she thus easily forget her love? . . .
The two had passed on as though they did not recognize him. Perhaps Captain Laurier did not see very clearly, but she had looked at him frankly and then hastily averted her eyes so as to evade his greeting. . . . The old man felt sad over such indifference, not on his own account, but on his son's. Poor Julio! . . . The unbending parent, in complete mental immorality, found himself lamenting this indifference as something monstrous.
The war was the other topic of conversation during the afternoons passed in the studio. Argensola was not now stuffing his pockets with printed sheets as at the beginning of hostilities. A serene and resigned calm had succeeded the excitement of those first moments when the people were daily looking for miraculous interventions. All the periodicals were saying about the same thing. He was content with the official report, and he had learned to wait for that document without impatience, foreseeing that with but few exceptions, it would say the same thing as the day before.
The fever of the first months, with its illusions and optimisms, now appeared to Argensola somewhat chimerical. Those not actually engaged in the war were returning gradually to their habitual occupations. Life had recovered its regular rhythm. "One must live!" said the people, and the struggle for existence filled their thoughts with its immediate urgency. Those whose relatives were in the army, were still thinking of them, but their occupations were so blunting the edge of memory, that they were becoming accustomed to their absence, regarding the unusual as the normal condition. At first, the war made sleep out of the question, food impossible to swallow, and embittered every pleasure with its funereal pall. Now the shops were slowly opening, money was in circulation, and people were able to laugh; they talked of the great calamity, but only at certain hours, as something that was going to be long, very long and would exact great resignation to its inevitable fatalism.
"Humanity accustoms itself easily to trouble," said Argensola, "provided that the trouble lasts long enough. . . . In this lies our strength."
Don Marcelo was not in sympathy with the general resignation. The war was going to be much shorter than they were all imagining. His enthusiasm had settled on a speedy termination;—within the next three months, the next Spring probably; if peace were not declared in the Spring, it surely would be in the Summer.
A new talker took part in these conversations. Desnoyers had become acquainted with the Russian neighbor of whom Argensola had so frequently spoken. Since this odd personage had also known his son, that was enough to make Tchernoff arouse his interest.
In normal times, he would have kept him at a distance. The millionaire was a great believer in law and order. He abominated revolutionists, with the instinctive fear of all the rich who have built up a fortune and remember their humble beginnings. Tchernoff's socialism and nationality brought vividly to his mind a series of feverish images—bombs, daggers, stabbings, deserved expiations on the gallows, and exile to Siberia. No, he was not desirable as a friend. . . .
But now Don Marcelo was experiencing an abrupt reversal of his convictions regarding alien ideas. He had seen so much! . . . The revolting proceedings of the invasion, the unscrupulous methods of the German chiefs, the tranquillity with which their submarines were sinking boats filled with defenseless passengers, the deeds of the aviators who were hurling bombs upon unguarded cities, destroying women and children—all this was causing the events of revolutionary terrorism which, years ago, used to arouse his wrath, to sink into relative unimportance.
"And to think," he said "that we used to be as infuriated as though the world were coming to an end, just because someone threw a bomb at a grandee!"
Those titled victims had had certain reprehensible qualities which had justified their execution. They had died in consequence of acts which they undertook, knowing well what the punishment would be. They had brought retribution on themselves without trying to evade it, rarely taking any precautions. While the terrorists of this war! . . .
With the violence of his imperious character, the old conservative now swung to the opposite extreme.
"The true anarchists are yet on top," he said with an ironical laugh. "Those who terrified us formerly, all put together, were but a few miserable creatures. . . . In a few seconds, these of our day kill more innocent people than those others did in thirty years."
The gentleness of Tchernoff, his original ideas, his incoherencies of thought, bounding from reflection to word without any preparation, finally won Don Marcelo so completely over that he formed the habit of consulting him about all his doubts. His admiration made him, too, overlook the source of certain bottles with which Argensola sometimes treated his neighbor. He was delighted to have Tchernoff consume these souvenirs of the time when he was living at swords' points with his son.
After sampling the wine from the avenue Victor Hugo, the Russian would indulge in a visionary loquacity similar to that of the night when he evoked the fantastic cavalcade of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
What his new convert most admired was his facility for making things clear, and fixing them in the imagination. The battle of the Marne with its subsequent combats and the course of both armies were events easily explained. . . . If the French only had not been so fatigued after their triumph of the Marne! . . .
"But human powers," continued Tchernoff, "have their limits, and the French soldier, with all his enthusiasm, is a man like the rest. In the first place, the most rapid of marches from the East to the North, in order to resist the invasion of Belgium; then the combats; then the swift retreat that they might not be surrounded; finally a seven days' battle—and all this in a period of three weeks, no more. . . . In their moment of triumph, the victors lacked the legs to follow up their advantage, and they lacked the cavalry to pursue the fugitives. Their beasts were even more exhausted than the men. When those who were retreating found that they were being spurred on with lessening tenacity, they had stretched themselves, half-dead with fatigue, on the field, excavating the ground and forming a refuge for themselves. The French also flung themselves down, scraping the soil together so as not to lose what they had gained. . . . And in this way began the war of the trenches."
Then each line, with the intention of wrapping itself around that of the enemy, had gone on prolonging itself toward the Northeast, and from these successive stretchings had resulted the double course toward the sea—forming the greatest battle front ever known to history.
When Don Marcelo with optimistic enthusiasm announced the end of the war in the following Spring or Summer—in four months at the outside—the Russian shook his head.
"It will be long . . . very long. It is a new war, the genuine modern warfare. The Germans began hostilities in the old way as though they had observed nothing since 1870—a war of involved movements, of battles in the open field, the same as Moltke might have planned, imitating Napoleon. They were desirous of bringing it to a speedy conclusion, and were sure of triumph. Why employ new methods? . . . But the encounter of the Marne twisted their plans, making them shift from the aggressive to the defensive. They then brought into service all that the war staff had learned in the campaigns of the Japanese and Russians, beginning the war of the trenches, the subterranean struggle which is the logical outcome of the reach and number of shots of the modern armament. The conquest of half a mile of territory to-day stands for more than did the assault of a stone fortress a century ago. Neither side is going to make any headway for a long time. Perhaps they may never make a definite advance. The war is bound to be long and tedious, like the athletic conquests between opponents who are equally matched."
"But it will have to come to an end, sometime," interpolated Desnoyers.
"Undoubtedly, but who knows when? . . . And in what condition will they both be when it is all over?" . . .
He was counting upon a rapid finale when it was least expected, through the exhaustion of one of the contestants, carefully dissimulated until the last moment.
"Germany will be vanquished," he added with firm conviction. "I do not know when nor how, but she will fall logically. She failed in her master-stroke in not entering Paris and overcoming its opposition. All the trumps in her pack of cards were then played. She did not win, but continues playing the game because she holds many cards, and she will prolong it for a long time to come. . . . But what she could not do at first, she will never be able to do."
For Tchernoff, the final defeat did not mean the destruction of Germany nor the annihilation of the German people.
"Excessive patriotism irritates me," he pursued. "Hearing people form plans for the definite extinction of Germany seems to me like listening to the Pan-Germanists of Berlin when they talk of dividing up the continents."
Then he summed up his opinion.
"Imperialism will have to be crushed for the sake of the tranquillity of the world; the great war machine which menaces the peace of nations will have to be suppressed. Since 1870, we have all been living in dread of it. For forty years, the war has been averted, but in all that time, what apprehension!" . . .
What was most irritating Tchernoff was the moral lesson born of this situation which had ended by overwhelming the world—the glorification of power, the sanctification of success, the triumph of materialism, the respect for the accomplished fact, the mockery of the noblest sentiments as though they were merely sonorous and absurd phrases, the reversal of moral values . . . a philosophy of bandits which pretended to be the last word of progress, and was no more than a return to despotism, violence, and the barbarity of the most primitive epochs of history.
While he was longing for the suppression of the representatives of this tendency, he would not, therefore, demand the extermination of the German people.
"This nation has great merits jumbled with bad conditions inherited from a not far-distant, barbarous past. It possesses the genius of organization and work, and is able to lend great service to humanity. . . . But first it is necessary to give it a douche—the douche of downfall. The Germans are mad with pride and their madness threatens the security of the world. When those who have poisoned them with the illusion of universal hegemony have disappeared, when misfortune has freshened their imagination and transformed them into a community of humans, neither superior nor inferior to the rest of mankind, they will become a tolerant people, useful . . . and who knows but they may even prove sympathetic!"
According to Tchernoff, there was not in existence to-day a more dangerous nation. Its political organization was converting it into a warrior horde, educated by kicks and submitted to continual humiliations in order that the willpower which always resists discipline might be completely nullified.
"It is a nation where all receive blows and desire to give them to those lower down. The kick that the Kaiser gives is transmitted from back to back down to the lowest rung of the social ladder. The blows begin in the school and are continued in the barracks, forming part of the education. The apprenticeship of the Prussian Crown Princes has always consisted in receiving fisticuffs and cowhidings from their progenitor, the king. The Kaiser beats his children, the officer his soldiers, the father his wife and children, the schoolmaster his pupils, and when the superior is not able to give blows, he subjects those under him to the torment of moral insult."
On this account, when they abandoned their ordinary avocations, taking up arms in order to fall upon another human group, they did so with implacable ferocity.
"Each one of them," continued the Russian, "carries on his back the marks of kicks, and when his turn comes, he seeks consolation in passing them on to the unhappy creatures whom war puts into his power. This nation of war-lords, as they love to call themselves, aspires to lordship, but outside of the country. Within it, are the ones who least appreciate human dignity and, therefore, long vehemently to spread their dominant will over the face of the earth, passing from lackeys to lords."
Suddenly Don Marcelo stopped going with such frequency to the studio. He was now haunting the home and office of the senator, because this friend had upset his tranquillity. Lacour had been much depressed since the heir to the family glory had broken through the protecting paternal net in order to go to war.
One night, while dining with the Desnoyers family, an idea popped into his head which filled him with delight. "Would you like to see your son?" He needed to see Rene and had begun negotiating for a permit from headquarters which would allow him to visit the front. His son belonged to the same army division as Julio; perhaps their camps were rather far apart, but an automobile makes many revolutions before it reaches the end of its journey.
It was not necessary to say more. Desnoyers instantly felt the most overmastering desire to see his boy, since, for so many months, he had had to content himself with reading his letters and studying the snap shot which one of his comrades had made of his soldier son.
From that time on, he besieged the senator as though he were a political supporter desiring an office. He visited him in the mornings in his home, invited him to dinner every evening, and hunted him down in the salons of the Luxembourg. Before the first word of greeting could be exchanged, his eyes were formulating the same interrogation. . . . "When will you get that permit?"
The great man could only reply by lamenting the indifference of the military department toward the civilian element; it always had been inimical toward parliamentarism.
"Besides, Joffre is showing himself most unapproachable; he does not encourage the curious. . . . To-morrow I will see the President."
A few days later, he arrived at the house in the avenue Victor Hugo, with an expression of radiant satisfaction that filled Don Marcelo with joy.
"It has come?"
"It has come. . . . We start the day after to-morrow."
Desnoyers went the following afternoon to the studio in the rue de la Pompe.
"I am going to-morrow!"
The artist was very eager to accompany him. Would it not be possible for him to go, too, as secretary to the senator? . . . Don Marcelo smiled benevolently. The authorization was only for Lacour and one companion. He was the one who was going to pose as secretary, valet or utility man to his future relative-in-law.
At the end of the afternoon, he left the studio, accompanied to the elevator by the lamentations of Argensola. To think that he could not join that expedition! . . . He believed that he had lost the opportunity to paint his masterpiece.
Just outside of his home, he met Tchernoff. Don Marcelo was in high good humor. The certainty that he was soon going to see his son filled him with boyish good spirits. He almost embraced the Russian in spite of his slovenly aspect, his tragic beard and his enormous hat which made every one turn to look after him.
At the end of the avenue, the Arc de Triomphe stood forth against a sky crimsoned by the sunset. A red cloud was floating around the monument, reflected on its whiteness with purpling palpitations.
Desnoyers recalled the four horsemen, and all that Argensola had told him before presenting him to the Russian.
"Blood!" shouted jubilantly. "All the sky seems to be blood-red. . . . It is the apocalyptic beast who has received his death-wound. Soon we shall see him die."
Tchernoff smiled, too, but his was a melancholy smile.
"No; the beast does not die. It is the eternal companion of man. It hides, spouting blood, forty . . . sixty . . . a hundred years, but eventually it reappears. All that we can hope is that its wound may be long and deep, that it may remain hidden so long that the generation that now remembers it may never see it again."
Don Marcelo was climbing up a mountain covered with woods.
The forest presented a tragic desolation. A silent tempest had installed itself therein, placing everything in violent unnatural positions. Not a single tree still preserved its upright form and abundant foliage as in the days of peace. The groups of pines recalled the columns of ruined temples. Some were still standing erect, but without their crowns, like shafts that might have lost their capitals; others were pierced like the mouthpiece of a flute, or like pillars struck by a thunderbolt. Some had splintery threads hanging around their cuts like used toothpicks.
A sinister force of destruction had been raging among these beeches, spruce and oaks. Great tangles of their cut boughs were cluttering the ground, as though a band of gigantic woodcutters had just passed by. The trunks had been severed a little distance from the ground with a clean and glistening stroke, as though with a single blow of the axe. Around the disinterred roots were quantities of stones mixed with sod, stones that had been sleeping in the recesses of the earth and had been brought to the surface by explosions.
At intervals—gleaming among the trees or blocking the roadway with an importunity which required some zigzagging—was a series of pools, all alike, of regular geometrical circles. To Desnoyers, they seemed like sunken basins for the use of the invisible Titans who had been hewing the forest. Their great depth extended to their very edges. A swimmer might dive into these lagoons without ever touching bottom. Their water was greenish, still water—rain water with a scum of vegetation perforated by the respiratory bubbles of the little organisms coming to life in its vitals.
Bordering the hilly pathway through the pines, were many mounds with crosses of wood—tombs of French soldiers topped with little tricolored flags. Upon these moss-covered graves were the old kepis of the gunners. The ferocious wood-chopper, in destroying this woods, had also blindly demolished many of the ants swarming around the trunks.
Don Marcelo was wearing leggings, a broad hat, and on his shoulders, a fine poncho arranged like a shawl—garments which recalled his far-distant life on the ranch. Behind him came Lacour trying to preserve his senatorial dignity in spite of his gasps and puffs of fatigue. He also was wearing high boots and a soft hat, but he had kept to his solemn frock-coat in order not to abandon entirely his parliamentary uniform. Before them marched two captains as guides.
They were on a mountain occupied by the French artillery, and were climbing to the top where were hidden cannons and cannons, forming a line some miles in length. The German artillery had caused the woodland ruin around the visitors, in their return of the French fire. The circular pools were the hollows dug by the German shells in the limy, non-porous soil which preserved all the runnels of rain.
The visiting party had left their automobile at the foot of the mountain. One of the officers, a former artilleryman, explained this precaution to them. It was necessary to climb this roadway very cautiously. They were within reach of the enemy, and an automobile might attract the attention of their gunners.
"A little fatiguing, this climb," he continued. "Courage, Senator Lacour! . . . We are almost there."
They began to meet artillerymen, many of them not in uniform but wearing the military kepis. They looked like workmen from a metal factory, foundrymen with jackets and pantaloons of corduroy. Their arms were bare, and some had put on wooden shoes in order to get over the mud with greater security. They were former iron laborers, mobilized into the artillery reserves. Their sergeants had been factory overseers, and many of them officials, engineers and proprietors of big workshops.
Suddenly the excursionists stumbled upon the iron inmates of the woods. When these spoke, the earth trembled, the air shuddered, and the native inhabitants of the forest, the crows, rabbits, butterflies and ants, fled in terrified flight, trying to hide themselves from the fearful convulsion which seemed to be bringing the world to an end. Just at present, the bellowing monsters were silent, so that they came upon them unexpectedly. Something was sticking up out of the greenery like a gray beam; at other times, this apparition would emerge from a conglomeration of dry trunks. Around this obstacle was cleared ground occupied by men who lived, slept and worked about this huge manufactory on wheels.
The senator, who had written verse in his youth and composed oratorical poetry when dedicating various monuments in his district, saw in these solitary men on the mountain side, blackened by the sun and smoke, with naked breasts and bare arms, a species of priests dedicated to the service of a fatal divinity that was receiving from their hands offerings of enormous explosive capsules, hurling them forth in thunderclaps.
Hidden under the branches, in order to escape the observation of the enemy's birdmen, the French cannon were scattered among the hills and hollows of the highland range. In this herd of steel, there were enormous pieces with wheels reinforced by metal plates, somewhat like the farming engines which Desnoyers had used on his ranch for plowing. Like smaller beasts, more agile and playful in their incessant yelping, the groups of '75 were mingled with the terrific monsters.
The two captains had received from the general of their division orders to show Senator Lacour minutely the workings of the artillery, and Lacour was accepting their observations with corresponding gravity while his eyes roved from side to side in the hope of recognizing his son. The interesting thing for him was to see Rene . . . but recollecting the official pretext of his journey, he followed submissively from cannon to cannon, listening patiently to all explanations.
The operators next showed him the servants of these pieces, great oval cylinders extracted from subterranean storehouses called shelters. These storage places were deep burrows, oblique wells reinforced with sacks of stones and wood. They served as a refuge to those off duty, and kept the munitions away from the enemy's shell. An artilleryman exhibited two pouches of white cloth, joined together and very full. They looked like a double sausage and were the charge for one of the large cannons. The open packet showed some rose-colored leaves, and the senator greatly admired this dainty paste which looked like an article for the dressing table instead of one of the most terrible explosives of modern warfare.
"I am sure," said Lacour, "that if I had found one of these delicate packets on the street, I should have thought that it had been dropped from some lady's vanity bag, or by some careless clerk from a perfumery shop . . . anything but an explosive! And with this trifle that looks as if it were made for the lips, it is possible to blow up an edifice!" . . .
As they continued their visit of investigation, they came upon a partially destroyed round tower in the highest part of the mountain. This was the most dangerous post. From it, an officer was examining the enemy's line in order to gauge the correctness of the aim of the gunners. While his comrades were under the ground or hidden by the branches, he was fulfilling his mission from this visible point.
A short distance from the tower a subterranean passageway opened before their eyes. They descended through its murky recesses until they found the various rooms excavated in the ground. One side of the mountain cut in points formed its exterior facade. Narrow little windows, cut in the stone, gave light and air to these quarters.
An old commandant in charge of the section came out to meet them. Desnoyers thought that he must be the floorwalker of some big department store in Paris. His manners were so exquisite and his voice so suave that he seemed to be imploring pardon at every word, or addressing a group of ladies, offering them goods of the latest novelty. But this impression only lasted a moment. This soldier with gray hair and near-sighted glasses who, in the midst of war, was retaining his customary manner of a building director receiving his clients, showed on moving his arms, some bandages and surgical dressings within his sleeves, He was wounded in both wrists by the explosion of a shell, but he was, nevertheless, sticking to his post.
"A devil of a honey-tongued, syrupy gentleman!" mused Don Marcelo. "Yet he is undoubtedly an exceptional person!"
By this time, they had entered into the main office, a vast room which received its light through a horizontal window about ten feet wide and only a palm and a half high, reminding one of the open space between the slats of a Venetian blind. Below it was a pine table filled with papers and surrounded by stools. When occupying one of these seats, one's eyes could sweep the entire plain. On the walls were electric apparatus, acoustic tubes and telephones—many telephones.
The Commandant sorted and piled up the papers, offering the stools with drawing-room punctilio.
"Here, Senator Lacour."
Desnoyers, humble attendant, took a seat at his side. The Commandant now appeared to be the manager of a theatre, preparing to exhibit an extraordinary show. He spread upon the table an enormous paper which reproduced all the features of the plain extended before them—roads, towns, fields, heights and valleys. Upon this map was a triangular group of red lines in the form of an open fan; the vertex represented the place where they were, and the broad part of the triangle was the limit of the horizon which they were sweeping with their eyes.
"We are going to fire at that grove," said the artilleryman, pointing to one end of the map. "There it is," he continued, designating a little dark line. "Take your glasses."
But before they could adjust the binoculars, the Commandant placed a new paper on top of the map. It was an enormous and somewhat hazy photograph upon whose plan appeared a fan of red lines like the other one.
"Our aviators," explained the gunner courteously, "have taken this morning some views of the enemy's positions. This is an enlargement from our photographic laboratory. . . . According to this information, there are two German regiments encamped in that wood."
Don Marcelo saw on the print the spot of woods, and within it white lines which represented roads, and groups of little squares which were blocks of houses in a village. He believed he must be in an aeroplane contemplating the earth from a height of three thousand feet. Then he raised the glasses to his eyes, following the direction of one of the red lines, and saw enlarged in the circle of the glass a black bar, somewhat like a heavy line of ink—the grove, the refuge of the foe.
"Whenever you say, Senator Lacour, we will begin," said the Commandant, reaching the topmost notch of his courtesy. "Are you ready?"
Desnoyers smiled slightly. For what was his illustrious friend to make himself ready? What difference could it possibly make to a mere spectator, much interested in the novelty of the show? . . .
There sounded behind them numberless bells, gongs that called and gongs that answered. The acoustic tubes seemed to swell out with the gallop of words. The electric wire filled the silence of the room with the palpitations of its mysterious life. The bland Chief was no longer occupied with his guests. They conjectured that he was behind them, his mouth at the telephone, conversing with various officials some distance off. Yet the urbane and well-spoken hero was not abandoning for one moment his candied courtesy.
"Will you be kind enough to tell me when you are ready to begin?" they heard him saying to a distant officer. "I shall be much pleased to transmit the order."
Don Marcelo felt a slight nervous tremor near one of his legs; it was Lecour, on the qui vive over the approaching novelty. They were going to begin firing; something was going to happen that he had never seen before. The cannons were above their heads; the roughly vaulted roof was going to tremble like the deck of a ship when they shot over it. The room with its acoustic tubes and its vibrations from the telephones was like the bridge of a vessel at the moment of clearing for action. The noise that it was going to make! . . . A few seconds flitted by that to them seemed unusually long . . . and then suddenly a sound like a distant peal of thunder which appeared to come from the clouds. Desnoyers no longer felt the nervous twitter against his knee. The senator seemed surprised; his expression seemed to say, "And is that all?" . . . The heaps of earth above them had deadened the report, so that the discharge of the great machine seemed no more than the blow of a club upon a mattress. Far more impressive was the scream of the projectile sounding at a great height but displacing the air with such violence that its waves reached even to the window.
It went flying . . . flying, its roar lessening. Some time passed before they noticed its effects, and the two friends began to believe that it must have been lost in space. "It will not strike . . . it will not strike," they were thinking. Suddenly there surged up on the horizon, exactly in the spot indicated over the blur of the woods, a tremendous column of smoke, a whirling tower of black vapor followed by a volcanic explosion.
"How dreadful it must be to be there!" said the senator.
He and Desnoyers were experiencing a sensation of animal joy, a selfish hilarity in seeing themselves in such a safe place several yards underground.
"The Germans are going to reply at any moment," said Don Marcelo to his friend.
The senator was of the same opinion. Undoubtedly they would retaliate, carrying on an artillery duel.
All of the French batteries had opened fire. The mountain was thundering, the shell whining, the horizon, still tranquil, was bristling with black, spiral columns. The two realized more and more how snug they were in this retreat, like a box at the theatre.
Someone touched Lacour on the shoulder. It was one of the captains who was conducting them through the front.
"We are going above," he said simply. "You must see close by how our cannons are working. The sight will be well worth the trouble."
Above? . . . The illustrious man was as perplexed, as astonished as though he had suggested an interplanetary trip. Above, when the enemy was going to reply from one minute to another? . . .
The captain explained that sub-Lieutenant Lacour was perhaps awaiting his father. By telephone they had advised his battery stationed a little further on; it would be necessary to go now in order to see him. So they again climbed up to the light through the mouth of the tunnel. The senator then drew himself up, majestically erect.
"They are going to fire at us," said a voice in his interior, "The foe is going to reply."
But he adjusted his coat like a tragic mantle and advanced at a circumspect and solemn pace. If those military men, adversaries of parliamentarism, fancied that they were going to laugh up their sleeve at the timidity of a civilian, he would show them their mistake!
Desnoyers could not but admire the resolution with which the great man made his exit from the shelter, exactly as if he were going to march against the foe.
At a little distance, the atmosphere was rent into tumultuous waves, making their legs tremble, their ears hum, and their necks feel as though they had just been struck. They both thought that the Germans had begun to return the fire, but it was the French who were shooting. A feathery stream of vapor came up out of the woods a dozen yards away, dissolving instantly. One of the largest pieces, hidden in the nearby thicket, had just been discharged. The captains continued their explanations without stopping their journey. It was necessary to pass directly in front of the spitting monster, in spite of the violence of its reports, so as not to venture out into the open woods near the watch tower. They were expecting from one second to another now, the response from their neighbors across the way. The guide accompanying Don Marcelo congratulated him on the fearlessness with which he was enduring the cannonading.
"My friend is well acquainted with it," remarked the senator proudly. "He was in the battle of the Marne."
The two soldiers evidently thought this very strange, considering Desnoyers' advanced age. To what section had he belonged? In what capacity had he served? . . .
"Merely as a victim," was the modest reply.
An officer came running toward them from the tower side, across the cleared space. He waved his kepi several times that they might see him better. Lacour trembled for him. The enemy might descry him; he was simply making a target of himself by cutting across that open space in order to reach them the sooner. . . . And he trembled still more as he came nearer. . . . It was Rene!
His hands returned with some astonishment the strong, muscular grasp. He noticed that the outlines of his son's face were more pronounced, and darkened with the tan of camp life. An air of resolution, of confidence in his own powers, appeared to emanate from his person. Six months of intense life had transformed him. He was the same but broader-chested and more stalwart. The gentle and sweet features of his mother were lost under the virile mask. . . . Lacour recognized with pride that he now resembled himself.
After greetings had been exchanged, Rene paid more attention to Don Marcelo than to his father, because he reminded him of Chichi. He inquired after her, wishing to know all the details of her life, in spite of their ardent and constant correspondence.
The senator, meanwhile, still under the influence of his recent emotion, had adopted a somewhat oratorical air toward his son. He forthwith improvised a fragment of discourse in honor of that soldier of the Republic bearing the glorious name of Lacour, deeming this an opportune time to make known to these professional soldiers the lofty lineage of his family.
"Do your duty, my son. The Lacours inherit warrior traditions. Remember our ancestor, the Deputy of the Convention who covered himself with glory in the defense of Mayence!"
While he was discoursing, they had started forward, doubling a point of the greenwood in order to get behind the cannons.
Here the racket was less violent. The great engines, after each discharge, were letting escape through the rear chambers little clouds of smoke like those from a pipe. The sergeants were dictating numbers, communicated in a low voice by another gunner who had a telephone receiver at his ear. The workmen around the cannon were obeying silently. They would touch a little wheel and the monster would raise its grey snout, moving it from side to side with the intelligent expression and agility of an elephant's trunk. At the foot of the nearest piece, stood the operator, rod in hand, and with impassive face. He must be deaf, yet his facial inertia was stamped with a certain authority. For him, life was no more than a series of shots and detonations. He knew his importance. He was the servant of the tempest, the guardian of the thunderbolt.
"Fire!" shouted the sergeant.
And the thunder broke forth in fury. Everything appeared to be trembling, but the two visitors were by this time so accustomed to the din that the present uproar seemed but a secondary affair.
Lacour was about to take up the thread of his discourse about his glorious forefather in the convention when something interfered.
"They are firing," said the man at the telephone simply.
The two officers repeated to the senator this news from the watch tower. Had he not said that the enemy was going to fire? . . . Obeying a sane instinct of preservation, and pushed at the same time by his son, he found himself in the refuge of the battery. He certainly did not wish to hide himself in this cave, so he remained near the entrance, with a curiosity which got the best of his disquietude.
He felt the approach of the invisible projectile, in spite of the roar of the neighboring cannon. He perceived with rare sensibility its passage through the air, above the other closer and more powerful sounds. It was a squealing howl that was swelling in intensity, that was opening out as it advanced, filling all space. Soon it ceased to be a shriek, becoming a rude roar formed by divers collisions and frictions, like the descent of an electric tram through a hillside road, or the course of a train which passes through a station without stopping.
He saw it approach in the form of a cloud, bulging as though it were going to explode over the battery. Without knowing just how it happened, the senator suddenly found himself in the bottom of the shelter, his hands in cold contact with a heap of steel cylinders lined up like bottles. They were projectiles.
"If a German shell," he thought, "should explode above this burrow . . . what a frightful blowing up!" . . .
But he calmed himself by reflecting on the solidity of the arched vault with its beams and sacks of earth several yards thick. Suddenly he was in absolute darkness. Another had sought refuge in the shelter, obstructing the light with his body; perhaps his friend Desnoyers.
A year passed by while his watch was registering a single second, then a century at the same rate . . . and finally the awaited thunder burst forth, making the refuge vibrate, but with a kind of dull elasticity, as though it were made of rubber. In spite of its thud, the explosion wrought horrible damage. Other minor explosions, playful and whistling, followed behind the first. In his imagination, Lacour saw the cataclysm—a writhing serpent, vomiting sparks and smoke, a species of Wagnerian monster that upon striking the ground was disgorging thousands of fiery little snakes, that were covering the earth with their deadly contortions. . . . The shell must have burst nearby, perhaps in the very square occupied by this battery.
He came out of the shelter, expecting to encounter a sickening display of dismembered bodies, and he saw his son smiling, smoking a cigar and talking with Desnoyers. . . . That was a mere nothing! The gunners were tranquilly finishing the charging of a huge piece. They had raised their eyes for a moment as the enemy's shell went screaming by, and then had continued their work.
"It must have fallen about three hundred yards away," said Rene cheerfully.
The senator, impressionable soul, felt suddenly filled with heroic confidence. It was not worth while to bother about his personal safety when other men—just like him, only differently dressed—were not paying the slightest attention to the danger.
And as the other projectiles soared over his head to lose themselves in the woods with the explosions of a volcano, he remained by his son's side, with no other sign of tension than a slight trembling of the knees. It seemed to him now that it was only the French missiles—because they were on his side—that were hitting the bull's eye. The others must be going up in the air and losing themselves in useless noise. Of just such illusions is valor often compounded! . . . "And is that all?" his eyes seemed to be asking.
He now recalled rather shamefacedly his retreat to the shelter; he was beginning to feel that he could live in the open, the same as Rene.
The German missiles were getting considerably more frequent. They were no longer lost in the wood, and their detonations were sounding nearer and nearer. The two officials exchanged glances. They were responsible for the safety of their distinguished charge.
"Now they are warming up," said one of them.
Rene, as though reading their thoughts, prepared to go. "Good-bye, father!" They were needing him in his battery. The senator tried to resist; he wished to prolong the interview, but found that he was hitting against something hard and inflexible that repelled all his influence. A senator amounted to very little with people accustomed to discipline. "Farewell, my boy! . . . All success to you! . . . Remember who you are!"
The father wept as he embraced his son, lamenting the brevity of the interview, and thinking of the dangers awaiting him.
When Rene had disappeared, the captains again recommended their departure. It was getting late; they ought to reach a certain cantonment before nightfall. So they went down the hill in the shelter of a cut in the mountain, seeing the enemy's shells flying high above them.
In a hollow, they came upon several groups of the famed seventy-fives spread about through the woods, hidden by piles of underbrush, like snapping dogs, howling and sticking up their gray muzzles. The great cannon were roaring only at intervals, while the steel pack of hounds were yelping incessantly without the slightest break in their noisy wrath—like the endless tearing of a piece of cloth. The pieces were many, the volleys dizzying, and the shots uniting in one prolonged shriek, as a series of dots unite to form a single line.
The chiefs, stimulated by the din, were giving their orders in yells, and waving their arms from behind the pieces. The cannon were sliding over the motionless gun carriages, advancing and receding like automatic pistols. Each charge dropped an empty shell, and introduced a fresh one into the smoking chamber.
Behind the battery, the air was racking in furious waves. With every shot, Lacour and his companion received a blow on the breast, the violent contact with an invisible hand, pushing them backward and forward. They had to adjust their breathing to the rhythm of the concussions. During the hundredth part of a second, between the passing of one aerial wave and the advance of the next, their chests felt the agony of vacuum. Desnoyers admired the baying of those gray dogs. He knew well their bite, extending across many kilometres. Now they were fresh and at home in their own kennels.
To Lacour it seemed as though the rows of cannon were chanting a measure, monotonous and fiercely impassioned that must be the martial hymn of the humanity of prehistoric times. This music of dry, deafening, delirious notes was awakening in the two what is sleeping in the depths of every soul—the savagery of a remote ancestry. The air was hot with acrid odors, pungent and brutishly intoxicating. The perfumes from the explosions were penetrating to the brain through the mouth, the eyes and the ears.
They began to be infected with the same ardor as the directors, shouting and swinging their arms in the midst of the thundering. The empty capsules were mounting up in thick layers behind the cannon. Fire! . . . always, fire!
"We must sprinkle them well," yelled the chiefs. "We must give a good soaking to the groves where the Boches are hidden."
So the mouths of '75 rained without interruption, inundating the remote thickets with their shells.
Inflamed by this deadly activity, frenzied by the destructive celerity, dominated by the dizzying sway of the ruby leaves, Lacour and Desnoyers found themselves waving their hats, leaping from one side to another as though they were dancing the sacred dance of death, and shouting with mouths dry from the acrid vapor of the powder. . . . "Hurrah! . . . Hurrah!"
The automobile rode all the afternoon long, stopping only when it met long files of convoys. It traversed uncultivated fields with skeletons of dwellings, and ran through burned towns which were no more than a succession of blackened facades.