"Why do Americans guard the gate?" she asked, "since you are a French guard?"
"Because we don't shoot with enough goodwill," grinned a little man.
"But who do you want to shoot?"
"Those fellows!" said the little man, slapping the moon-faced Russian on the thigh. "We used to guard the gates a week ago. But the Russians were always escaping, and not enough were shot as they got over the wall. So they said: 'The Americans are the types for that!' and they put them on to guard the gates. Look outside! You are having a success, mademoiselle!"
Hundreds of Russians stood about together outside, in strange, poor, scraped-together clothes, just as they had come from Germany, peering at Fanny in silence through the open doorway.
"But I thought these were liberated prisoners from Germany?"
"Don't ask me!" said the little man disgustedly. "I wish to heaven they were all back in Germany. Look at me! I've fought in the Somme, the Aisne, and Verdun, and now at the end of the war I'm left here to look after these pigs!"
A sergeant entered. "A man to take the prisoner in the fourth cell up to the doctor," he said sharply.
"It's not my turn," said the little man, aggrieved that the eye of the sergeant should so rest on him. "It's yours!" he said to the man on the bench beside him. "It's yours!" replied this man to the next.
"Yes, it's Chaumet's! Yes, it's Chaumet's, va-t'en!" they all said, and a man with a cast in his eye got up slowly, grumbling, and turned towards the door.
"Here, dress yourself!"
"What, to take a ... to the doctor?"
He pulled his belt and gun off the rack with an ill-will and disappeared, buckling it on.
"You have Russians in cells, too?"
"Those who won't work, yes. On bread and water. That one has been on bread and water for five days. In my opinion he'll die."
"But why won't they work?"
"Work! He won't even clean his own cell out! They say it's because they are Bolshevists, but I don't know about that. I talk a little Russian, and I think they are convinced that if they make themselves at all useful to us we shall never send them home. Some of them think they are in Germany still. They're an ignorant lot."
An American came in rather hesitatingly, but without nodding to the French.
"We've got bacon-chips in our camp," he said, addressing Fanny directly. "I don't like to bring them in here, but if you'd just step across ... it isn't a stone's throw."
She did not like to desert the French, but she was sick with hunger, and rose. She knew she would have nothing from the guard-house meal, for they probably had the same ration as she—one piece of meat, two potatoes, and one sardine a man.
After all, food was more important than sentiment, and she followed him out of the hut.
"You won't get anything from those skinflints," said the American, "so we thought you'd better come and have some chips."
"Because they have nothing to give," she answered, half inclined to turn back. The American barracks were opposite, and in the yard, under a shelter of planks, the men were eating round a complicated travelling kitchen on wheels. "They have all the latest, richest things," thought Fanny, jealous for the French, antagonistic, yet hungry. But when she was among the Americans, they were simple and kind to her, offering her a great tray of fried bacon chips, concerned that she should have to eat them with her hand, washing out their tin mugs and filling them with coffee for her, making her sit on a barrel while she ate. "It's only that they are so different," she thought. "So different from the French that they can never meet without hurting and jarring each other."
Russians slouched about in the snow, washing the pans. When they had finished eating the Americans called to the Russians to eat what remained of the bacon chips. Watching them eat with the hunger of animals, they said:
"They starve them in the French barracks. We give them food here, or they'd sure die."
"They give them what they can in the French barracks; the soldiers don't get a ration like this, you know, even for themselves."
"Their fault for not kicking up a shindy," said the free-born Americans. "We wouldn't stand it."
"You have no idea of poverty."
Food was even lying in the snow. A soldier cook thrust his head out of a hut, crying: "Any one want any more chips?"
She knew that it was probably true what the Frenchman had said, that the Americans shot the Russians as lightly as if they were sparrows. Yet here they wept over the French ration that kept the Russians hungry, though alive and well. What a curious mixture of sentiment and brutality they were....
She pulled out her cigarette case and offered a cigarette to a man standing near her. He took it and answered in a thick, lisping Jewish accent, soft and uniformed: "I don't smoke, ma'am. But I'll keep it as a souvenir give to me by the only lady I've seen in three months."
"That's really true? You haven't seen a woman for three months?"
"No, ma'am. Not a one. It must seem strange to you to hear us say that. Just as though you were a zebra."
"There's some one over by your car," said the sentry, who had no idea of silence at his post. She got up quickly and flew back to the other barracks, jumping the deep pools of water and mud and the little heaps of soiled snow, started up the car and drove back to the citadelle for lunch.
At one-thirty they started out again, to chase over the grey downs in search of Russian camps folded away in small depressions and hollows, invisible from the main roads.
And thus, day after day, for five days, she drove him from morning to evening, from camp to camp around Verdun, until they had seen many thousands of Russians. Sometimes the French lieutenant came with them, and once or twice the Russian gravely invited him to sit in front with the driver. Then they would talk together a little in English, and once he said: "Would you like me to tell you something that will surprise you and interest me?"
She looked round.
"Your employer," he said, smiling gently over the expression, "is jealous of you."
She did not know what to make of this.
"He dislikes it intensely when you talk to the commandant of the citadelle."
"He does not think you exclusive enough, considering you, as he does, as his woman."
"Yes, of course! But you ought to realise that you are the only woman for miles around, and you belong to us!"
"Well, yes. I have something the same feeling. But his is stronger because his nature is Oriental. He thinks: 'This woman is a great curiosity, therefore a great treasure; and this treasure belongs to me. I brought her here, I am responsible for her, she obeys my orders.'"
"But does he tell you all this, or do you guess it?"
"We talk of this and that."
That night in the mess-room the Russian leant across the table to Fanny.
"What is man's mystery to a woman if she lives surrounded by him?"
"Oh, but that's not necessary ... mystery!"
"It is necessary to love."
"Colonel Dellahousse," explained the lieutenant, smiling very much, "does not believe that you can love what you know."
The Russian nodded. "Love is based on a fabulous belief. An illusory image which fills the eyes of people who are unused to each other. This poor lady will soon be used to everything."
Fanny, who felt momentarily alarmed, suddenly remembered Julien.
"When do we go back?" she asked absently.
The sympathetic eyes of the lieutenant seemed to understand even that, and he smiled again.
They left next day, after the midday meal.
Before lunch she met a soldier, who stopped her in one of the branching corridors.
"You are going," he said. "I have a little thing to ask."
"Mademoiselle, it would not incommode you, it is such a little thing. Think! We have not seen a woman here so long."
Still she waited; and he muttered, already abashed:
"One kiss would not hurt you, mademoiselle."
"Let me pass...." she stammered to this member of the great "monastery."
He wavered and stood aside, and she went on up the corridor vaguely ashamed of her refusal.
* * * * *
"We go now," said the Russian, rising from the luncheon table. "Are you satisfied with your experience, mademoiselle?"
"Verdun. This life is strange to you. I have seen you reflective. Now, if you will go out to the car you shall go back to your civilised town where the Governor so dislikes me, and you shall see your women friends again! But we are not coming all the way with you."
"No, we stay at Briey. You return from Briey alone."
They set out once more upon the roads which ran between the dead violence of the plains—between trenches that wandered down from the side of a sandy hillock, by villages which appeared like an illusion upon the hillside, fading as they passed and reforming into the semblance of houses in the distance behind them.
The clouds above their heads were built up to a great height, rocky and cavernous; crows swung on outspread wings, dived and alighted heavily on the earth like fowls. They came behind the old German lines, and the road changing led them through short patches of covering woods filled with instruments. Depot after depot was piled between the trees and the notices hanging from the branches chattered antique directions at them. "The drinking trough—the drinking trough!" cried one, but they had no horse to water. "Take this path!" urged another, "for the...." but they flew by too fast to read the end of the message, while the path pursued them a little way among the pines, then turned abruptly away. "Do not smoke here ... Nicht rauchen," "NICHT RAUCHEN," "Rauchen streng verboten," cried the notices, in furious impotent voices. The wood chattered and spat with cries, with commands for which the men who made them cared no longer. The hungry noses of old guns snuffed at the car as it rolled by, guns dragging still upon their flanks the torn cloak of camouflage—small squat guns which stared idly into the air, or with wider mouths still, like petrified dogs for ever baying at the moon—long slim guns which lay along the grass and pushing undergrowth—and one gun which had dipped forward and, fallen upon its knees, howled silenced imprecations at the devil in the centre of the earth.
When they had passed the shattered staging of the past they came out upon the country which had been occupied by Germans but not by warfare. Here the fields, uncultivated, had grown wild, but round the sparse villages little patches of ground had been dug and sown. Not a cow grazed anywhere, not a sheep or a goat. No hens raced wildly across village streets. Far ahead on the white ribbon of road a black figure toiled in the gutter, and Fanny debated with herself: "Might I offer a lift?"
Looking ahead she saw no village or cottage within sight, and with a murmured apology to the Russian she pulled up beside the old woman whom she had overtaken.
"Where are you going?"
"We, too. Get in, madame."
The Russian made no comment. The old crone, knuckled, hard-breathing, climbed in, holding uncertainly to the windscreen and pulling after her her basket and umbrella.
"Cover yourself, madame," ordered Fanny, as to a child, and handed her a rug.
"I have never been in an auto before," whispered the old creature against a wind which made her breathless. "I have seen them pass."
"You are not afraid?"
"Cover yourself well, well."
Gallant old women, toiling like ants upon the long stretches of road, who, suddenly finding themselves projected through the air at a pace they had never experienced in their lives before, would say not a word, though the colour be whipped to their cheeks and their eyes rained tears until, clinging to the arm of the driver: "Stop here, mademoiselle!" they would whisper, expecting the car to rear and stop dead at their own doorstep; and finding themselves still carried on, and half believing themselves kidnapped: "Ah, mademoiselle, stop, stop...."
They slipped down into the pit of Briey where the houses cling to the sides of a circular hollow, and drew up by a white house which the Frenchman indicated.
The old woman searched, trembling and out of breath for her handkerchief, and wiped her streaming eyes; then, as she climbed out backwards, with feet feeling for the ground—"What do I owe you, mademoiselle?"
"Ah, nothing, nothing."
"Mais si! I am not at all poor!" and leaving a twopence-halfpenny piece on the seat, she hurried away.
Colonel Dellahousse came to the side of the car and thanked Fanny ceremoniously. "And if I do not see you again, mademoiselle," he said, "remember what I say and go back to your home before the pleasure of life is spoilt for you."
"Good-bye, good-bye," said the French lieutenant.
Soon after she had left Briey snow began to fall. A river circled at the foot of a hill, and she followed its windings on a road which ran just above it. Night wiped out the colours on the hills around her, until the moon rose and they glowed again, half trees, half light. She climbed slowly up to a plateau not a dozen miles from Metz.
* * * * *
An hour later, the car put away in the garage, Fanny was tapping at the window of the bath house in the town. The beautiful fat woman who prepared the baths answered her tap. "Fraeulein," said Fanny, "would it matter if I had a bath? Is it too late? I'll turn it on myself and dry it afterwards."
What did the woman mind if Fanny had a bath? Fat and beautiful, she had nothing left to wish for, and contentedly she gave her the corner room overlooking the canal and the theatre square, wishing her a good-night full of German blessings. The water ran boiling out of the tap, and the smoke curled up over the looking-glass and the window-sill.
When the bath was full to the brim she got in, lay back, and pulled open the window with her toe. The beautiful French theatre, piebald with snow and shadow, shone over the window-sill. The Cathedral clock struck out ten chimes, whirling and singing over her head, the voices of the little boys died down, the last had thrown his last snowball and gone to bed. The steam rose up like a veil before the window, and once again, between the grey walls of her bath—so like her cradle and her coffin—she meditated upon the riches and treasure of the passing days.
"And yet," echoed the thoughts in that still water travelling still, "to travel is not to move across the earth."
Peering back into the past, frowning in the effort to string forgotten words together, Fanny whispered upon the surface of the water:
"The strange things of travel, The East and the West, The hill beyond the hill—"
But the poem was shattered as the voice of the bath woman called to her through the door.
"You are well, Fraeulein?"
Fanny turned in her bath astonished. "Why, yes, thank you! Did you think I was ill?"
"I didn't know. I daren't go to bed till I see you out, for last week we had a woman who killed herself in here, drowned in the water. I have just remembered her."
"Well, I won't drown myself."
"I can never be sure now. She gave me such shock."
"Well, I'm getting out," said Fanny.
"I'm getting out. Listen!" And naked feet padded and splashed down upon the cork mat. "Now go to bed. I promise you I have no reason to drown myself."
THE LOVER IN THE LAMP
"How do you know you will meet him?" said the cold morning light; and when she walked in it the city looked big enough to hide his face. In the first street a girl said the name of Julien without knowing what it was she said. But only a child shrieked in answer from a magic square of chalk upon the pavement.
"You've been away for days and days," said her companions at the garage, to show that they had noticed it. "Where have you been?"
The garage faded. "Verdun," she said; and Verdun lacy and perilous, hung in her mind.
"Whom did you take?"
She struggled with the confusing image of the Russian. Before she could reply the other said: "There's to be an inspection of the cars this morning. You'll have to get something done to your car!"
Outside in the yard the sun was gay upon the thinly frosted-stones, but in the shadow of the garage the glass and brass of seventy or eighty cars glowed in a veiled bloom of polish. Only the Rochet-Schneider, which had been to Verdun, stood unready for the inspection, coated from wheel to hood with white Meuse mud. There was nothing to be done with her until she had been under the hose.
Out in the street, where the hose was fastened to the hydrant, the little pests of Metz clustered eagerly, standing on the hose pipe where the bursts were tied with string, and by dexterous pressure diverting the leaks into gay fountains that flew up and pierced the windows opposite. As the mud rolled off under the blast of the hose and left the car streaky and dripping, the little boys dipping their feet into the gutters and paddled.
Soaked and bareheaded, Fanny drove the clean car slowly back into the garage and set her in her place in the long line.
Stewart, beside her, whispered, "They've come, they've come! They're starting at the other end. Four officers."
Fanny pulled her tin of English "Brasso" from a pocket-flap, and began to rub a lamp. At the far, far end of the long shed four men were standing with their backs to her, round a car. The globed lamp was tricky, and the chamois-leather would slip and let her bark her knuckle on the bracket. But the glow, born in the brass, grew clearer and clearer, till suddenly, stooping to it, she looked into a mirror and saw all the garage behind her and the long rows of cars bent in a yellow curve, and little men and oily women walking incredibly upon the rounded ball of the world. They hung with their feet on curving walls running and walking without difficulty, blinking, moving, talking in a yellow lake of brass.
Julien, Dennis and two others, stopping at car after car, came nearer and nearer. And Julien, holding the inspection, nodded gravely to their comments, searching car after car with his eyes as he walked up the garage, until they rested on the head and the hair of the girl he knew; then he paused, three cars from her, and watched the head as it hung motionless, level with the lamp she had just turned into a mirror.
And within the field of her vision he had just appeared. He paused, fantastic, upon the ball of the world, balanced amazingly with his feet on the slope of a golden corridor, and, hypnotised, she watched his face, bent into the horn of a young moon—Julien, and yet unearthly and impossible. There were his two hands, lit in a brassy fire, hanging down his sides, and the cane which he held in his left went out beyond the scope of the corridor. The three others hung around him like bent corn. She watched these yellow shades, as tall as ladders, talk and act in the little theatre of the lamp.... He was coming up to her, he became enormous, his head flew out of the top of the world, his feet ran down into the centre of the earth. He was effacing the garage, he had eaten up the corridor and all the cars. He must be touching her, he must have swallowed her too, his voice in her ear said: "You'd gone for ever...."
"I ... I had gone?" She drew her gaze out of the mirror.
The world outside let him down again on to his feet, and he stood beside her and said gently in her ear: "Will you meet me again in the Cathedral at four to-day?" She nodded, and he turned away, and she saw that he was so unknown to her that she could hardly tell his uniformed back from the backs of those about him.
To meet this stranger then at four in the Cathedral she prepared herself with more care than she would have given to meet her oldest friend. The gilded day went by while she did little things with the holy air of a nun at her lamp—polishing her shoes, her belt, her cap badge, sitting on her bed beneath the stag's horn, an enraptured sailor upon the deck of the world. Around the old basin on the washstand faded blue animals chased each other and snapped at ferns and roses: she lifted the jug and drowned the beasts in water, and even to wash her hands was a rite which sent a shower of thoughts flying through her mind. How many before her had called this room a sanctuary, a temple, and prepared as carefully as she for some charmed meeting in the crannies of the town? This room? This "corridor." The passengers, travellers, soldiers, who had used this bed for a night and passed on, thought of it only as a segment in the endless chain of rooms that sheltered them. Bed, washstand, chair, table, rustled with history. Soldiers resting from the battle out there by Pont-a-Moussons, kissing the girl who lived in the back room, waking in the morning as darkly as she, leaving the room to another. Soldiers, new-fledged, coming up from Germany, trembling in the room as they heard the thunder out at Pont-a-Moussons. An officer—that ugly, wooden boy who stared at her from the wall above the mantelpiece. (What a mark he had left on the household that they should frame him in velvet and keep him staring at his own bed for ever!) She all but saw spirits—and shivered at the procession of life. Outside in the street she heard a cry, and her name called under the window. How like the cry that afternoon a week ago which had sent her to Verdun! Standing in the shadow of the curtain she peered cautiously out.
At sight of her, a voice cried up from the street: "There is a fancy dress dance next Tuesday night! I'm warning every one; it's so hard to get stuffs." The voice passed on to the house where Stewart lived.
("How nice of her!") This was a good day. ("What shall I wear at the dance?") There, about the face of the clock, windless and steady, hung the hours. Not yet time to start, not yet.
Through the lace of the curtain and the now closed window, the shadows hurried by upon the pavement, heads bobbed below upon the street.
Oh Dark, and Pale, and Plain, walking soberly in hat and coat, what sign in these faces of the silver webbery within the brain, of the flashing fancies and merry plans, like birds gone mad in a cage! The tram, as antique as a sedan chair, clanked across the bridge over the river, and changing its note as it reached firmer land, roared and bumbled like a huge bee into the little street. Stopping below her window it was assailed by little creatures who threw themselves as greedily within as if they were setting out upon a wild adventure.
"All going to meet somebody," said Fanny, whose mind, drowned in her happiness, took the narrowest view of life. But for all their push and hurry the little creatures in the glass cage were forced to unfold their newspapers and stare at each other for occupation while the all-powerful driver and Wattmann, climbing down from the opposite ends of the car, conferred together in the street. "It's waiting for the other tram!" And even as she said it, she found the clock behind her back had leapt mysteriously and slyly forward. "I'll take the other...." And, going downstairs, she stood in the shelter of her doorway, out of the cold wind that blew along the street. The delay of the other car brought her well up to her hour. "I'll even be a little late," she thought, proud of herself.
"Don't talk to the Wattmann," said the notices in the tramcar crossly to her in German as she slipped and slid upon its straining seats. "Don't spit, don't smoke ... don't...." But she had her revenge, for across all the notices her side of the war had written coldly: "You are begged, in the measure possible to you, to talk only French."
When they got into the narrow town the tramcar, mysteriously swelling, seemed to chip the shop windows and bump the front doors, and people upon the pavement scrambled between the glass of the tram and the glass of the big drapery shop.
They met, as it were, in the very centre of a conversation. "I never know where you are," he complained, as though this trouble was so in his thoughts that he must speak of it at once, "or when I shall see you again." She smiled radiantly, busier with greeting, less absorbed than he.
"You may go away and never come back. You go so far."
She went away often and far. But that was his trouble, not hers. He, at least, remained stationary in Metz. She was full of another thought—the vagueness, the precariousness of the chance that even in Metz had brought them together.
"How lucky what?"
How lucky? How lucky? He begged, implored, frowned, tried to peer. He would not let her rest. "Why should you hide what you think? I don't like it."
Oh, no, he did not like it. No one likes to get hint of that fountain of talk which, sweet or bitter, plays just out of reach of the ear, just behind the mask of the face.
"How lucky that you held the inspection!" had all but stolen from her lips. But this implied too clearly that it was lucky for somebody—for her, for him. And how could she say that? Her thoughts were so far in advance of her confessions. A dozen sentences rose to her lips, all too clear, too intimate. So she became silent before the things that she could not say.
"Of what are you thinking?"
Extortionate question. ("Am I to put all my fortune in your hand like that? Am I to say, 'Of you, of you'?") For every word she said aloud she said a hundred to herself; and after three words between them she had the impression of a whole conversation.
"One must arrange some plan," he said, pursuing his perplexity, "so that I know when you go, and when you come back. I can't always be holding inspections to find out."
"It was for that that you held the inspection?"
"Why, of course, of course!"
"But entirely to find out?" (divided between the desire to make him say it again and the fear of driving his motives into daylight).
"I didn't know what to do. I couldn't telephone and ask whether your car had returned."
Wonderful and excellent! She had had the notion while she was at Verdun that something might be rolling up to her account in the bank at Metz, and now he was giving her proof after proof of the accumulation.
But from the valley of vanity she suddenly flew up to wonder. "He does that for me!" looking at herself in the mirror of her mind. "He does it for me!" But of what use to look at the daylight image of herself—the khaki figure, the driver? "For he must be looking at glory as I do." The Russian said: "Love is an illusory image." "Isn't it strange how these human creatures can cast it like a net out of their personality?..." Vanity, creeping above love, beat it down like a stick beats down a fire; it was too easy to-day; he gave her nothing left to wish for; the spell over him, she felt, was complete, and now she had nothing else to do but develop her own. And this she had instantly less inclination to do. But, guided by his bright wits, he too withdrew, let the tacit assumption of intimacy drop between them, and their walk by the Moselle was filled by her talk of the Russian prisoners and Verdun.
She glanced at him from time to time, and would have grown more silent, but by his light questions he kept her talking briskly on, offering her no new proof, until she grew unsure and wondered whether she had been mistaken; and, the hour striking for her supper in the town, she went to it, filled anew with his charm and her anxiety. Other meetings came, when, thrilling with the see-saw of belief and doubt, they watched each other with absorbed attention, and in their fragile and unconfessed relationship sometimes one was the victor and sometimes the vanquished. Yet what was plain to the man who swept the mud from the streets was not plain to them.
"Does he love me already?"
"Will she love me soon?"
When they saw other couples by the banks of the Moselle, Reason in a convinced and careless voice said: "That is love!" But on coming towards each other they were not sure at all, and each said of the other: "To-morrow he may not meet me...." "To-morrow she will say she is busy and it will not be true!"
When Fanny said, "He may not meet me," she was mad. How could he fail to meet her when the rolling hours hung fire and buzzed about his head like loaded bees, unable to proceed; when in a lethargy of vision he signed his name at the bottom of the typewritten sheet, saying confusedly, "What does she think? Does she think of me?"
When at last they met under the shadow of the Cathedral they would exclaim in their hearts: "What next?" and hurry off by the Moselle, looking into the future, looking into the future, and yet warding it off, aware of the open speech that must soon lie between them, and yet charmed by the beautiful, the merciful, the delay. And going home, each would study the hours they had spent together, as a traveller returned from wonderful lands pores over the cold map which for him sparkles with mountains and rivers.
That very Saturday night after the early supper in their room in the town, she had gone out to the big draper's shop which did not close till seven, almost running into Reherrey on the pavement.
"I'm going to Weile," he said.
"I'm going there myself."
"To get your dress?"
They went into the large, empty shop together, to be surrounded at once by a group of idle girls.
"Stuffs ..." said Fanny, thinking vaguely.
"Black bombazine," said Reherrey, who had finished his thinking.
Fanny followed Reherrey to a newly-polished counter, backed by rows of empty shelves. They had no black bombazine.
"Black tulle," said Reherrey, with his air of cool indifference, "black gauze, black cotton..."
It had to be black sateen in the end. "Now you!" said Reherrey, when he had bought six yards at eight francs a yard.
"White ... something ... for me."
There was white nothing under sixteen francs a yard. "But cheap, cheap, CHEAP stuff," she expostulated—"stuff you would make lampshades of, or dusters. It's only for a fancy dress." The idle little girls assumed a special air. Fanny looked round the shop in desperation. It was like all the shops in Metz—the window dressed, the saleswomen ready, the shelves scrubbed out and polished, the lady waiting at the pay desk—but the goods hadn't come!
Here and there a shelf held a roll or two of some material, and eventually Fanny bought seven yards of white soft stuff at seven francs a yard.
"White," said Reherrey, with a critical look; "how English!"
Fanny had an idea of her own.
"Wo," she said heavily to Elsa's mother still later in the evening, "ist eine Schneiderin?"
"A dressmaker who speaks French...."
Elsa took her out into the dark street again, and in at a neighbouring archway, till at the back of deep courtyards they found a tiny flat of a little old lady. "Like this," explained Fanny, drawing with her pencil.
"Why, my mother had a dress like that!" said the little lady, pleased. "Before the last war." She nodded many times. "I know how to make a crinoline. But when do you want it?"
"For Tuesday night."
"Ah, dear mademoiselle! How can I! To-day is Saturday. I have only to-day and Monday. Unless.... Are you a Catholic?"
"Then you can sew on Sunday. You can do the frills."
All Sunday Fanny sewed frills under the stag's horn, and when she went to meet Julien in the late afternoon, she had the frills still in a parcel. "What is that?" he asked, as she unfolded the parcel in the empty Cathedral, and began to thread her needle.
"My dress for the dance."
"What is it going to be?"
"Frills. Hundreds of frills." She shook her lap a little, and yards and yards of white frills leapt on to the floor in a river.
"Those flowers you bought, look, you have never put them in water!"
He shook his head, and leaning from his chair, stretched out his arm for the parcel of white paper. "They are dying. Smell them! They yield more scent when they die." She sat holding the flowers near her face, and not thinking of him very distinctly, but not thinking of anything else.
"But they won't last."
"They will last this visit. I'll get new ones."
"Oh, how extravagant you are with happiness!..."
They looked startled and became silent. For every now and then among their talk some sentence which they had thought discreet rang out with a clarity which disturbed them.
Between them there had been no avowal, and neither could count on the other's secret. She was not sure he loved her; and though he argued, "Why should she come if she does not care?" he watched her sit by him with as little confidence, with as much despair, as if she sat on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. "Is it raining again? How dark it gets. I must soon go." She made gaps in and scattered that alarming silence in which the image of each filled and fitted into the thoughts of the other like an orange into its close rind. Yet so dark and perfect is the mask of the face, so dull the inner ear, that each looked uncertainly about, half deaf to the song which issued so plainly from the other, distracted by the great gaps in the music.
"Won't you stay with me till you have sewn to the end of that frill?"
She sat down again without a word. And, greedy after his victory, he added: "But I oughtn't to keep you?"
"I want to stay, too."
The frill flowed on with the beat of the Cathedral clock, and came to an end.
"Now I must go. It's supper—supper in the garage."
He walked with her almost in silence down the Cathedral steps and to the door of the house in the dark street by the river.
"You do say good-bye so curiously," he remarked, "so suddenly. Perhaps it's English."
"Perhaps it is," she agreed, disappearing into the house.
"What have you got there?" said her companions in the lighted room upstairs.
"My dress for the dance." But she did not open the parcel to show them the charmed frills. ("How is it they don't know that I left him in the street below?") She looked at the seven travellers who met each night round the table for dinner, overcome with the mystery of those uncommunicating, shrouded heads. "What have they all been doing?"
"Has every one had runs?"
"Yes, every one has been out. What have you been doing?"
"I haven't left Metz to-day," she replied, giddy with the isolation and the silence of the human mind.
THE THREE "CLIENTS"
"What!" cried Fanny on Monday morning, staring at the brigadier and at the pink paper he offered her.
"At once, at once, mademoiselle. You ought to have been told last night. You must go back for your things for the night and then as quickly as you can to the Hotel de l'Europe. I don't know how many days you'll be, but here is an order for fifty litres of petrol and a can of oil, and Pichot is getting you two spare tubes...."
She stared at him in horror a moment longer, then took the pink order and disappeared through the dark garage door. Her mind was in a frenzy of protestation. She saw the waiting cars which might have gone instead, the drivers polishing a patch of brass for want of something to do, and accident, pure accident, had lighted on her, to sweep her out of Metz, away from that luminous personality which brooded over the city like a sunset, out into the nondescript world, the cold Anywhere. White frills and yards of bleached calico lying at the dressmaker's cried out to her to stay, to make some protest, to say something, anything—that she was ill—and stay.
She splashed petrol wastefully into the tank, holding the small blue tin with firm hands high in the air above the leather strainer and the funnel.
"And if I said—(it is mad)—if I said, 'I am in love. I can't go. Send some one who is not in love!'" She glanced down from her perch on the footboard at the olive profile bent over the next car. The driver was sitting on his step with his open hand outstretched to hold a dozen bright washers which he was stirring with his forefinger. The hand with the washers sank gently to rest on his knee, and he sighed as he ceased stirring, and looked absently down the garage, his mystical cloak of bone and skin shrouding his thoughts. Idle men all down the garage hung about the cars, each holding within him some private affection, some close hope, something which sent a spurt of dubious song out of his mouth, or his eyes, wandering sightless, down the shed.
The tank, resenting her treatment, overflowed violently and drenched her skirt and feet.
"Are you ready, mademoiselle?"
"Coming. Where are the tubes?"
"I have them."
She drove through the yard, down the street, and hurried over the bridge to her room. Nightgown, toothbrush, comb, sponge, and powder—hating every hour of the days and nights her preparations meant.
At the Hotel de l'Europe, three men waited for her with frowns, loaded with plaid rugs, mufflers, black bags, and gaping baskets of food, from which protruded bottles of wine. It was, then, to be one of those days when they lunched by the wayside in the bitter cold.
She drew up beside them. A huge man with an unclean bearskin coat and flaccid red cheeks told her she was very late. She listened, apologising, but intent only on her question.
"And could you tell me—(I'm so dreadfully sorry, but they only told me very late at the garage)—and would you mind telling me which day you expect to get back?"
He turned to the others.
"It depends," said a dry, dark man with a look of rebuke, "on our work. To-morrow night, perhaps. Perhaps the next morning."
"Where shall I drive you?"
"Go out by Thionville. We are going up the Moselle to Treves."
Anxious to dispose of such a mountain of a man, it was suggested that the Bearskin should climb in beside the driver. Instantly Fanny was smothered up as he sat down, placing so many packages between himself and the outer side of the car that he sank heavily against her arm, and the fur of his coat blew into her mouth.
In discomfort she drove them from the town, brooding over her wheel, unhappily on and on till Metz had sunk over the edge of the flat horizon. The weary way to Thionville unfurled before them, furnaces to the left and flat grass prairie to the right—little villages and clustering houses went by them, and Thionville itself, with its tramlines and faint air of Manchester, drew near. Beyond Thionville the road changed colour abruptly, and stretched red and gravelly before them. The frost deepened, the wheels bit harder on the road surface, the grass-fields sparkled with a brittle light, and scanty winter orchards sprang up beside the road, which narrowed down and became a lane of beautiful surface. Not for long, however, for the surface changed again, and long hours set in when the car had to be held desperately with foot and hand brake to save the springs, and the accelerator could only be touched to be relinquished.
Fanny, hardly sad any more, but busy and hungry, secretly lifted the corner of her sleeve to peer at her wrist-watch, and seeing that it was half-past twelve, began to wonder how soon they would decide to sit down by the roadside for their lunch. She fumbled in the pocket of the car, but the last piece of chocolate had either been eaten or had slipped down between the leather and the wood. She could bring up nothing better than an old postcard, a hairpin, and a forgotten scrap of chamois-leather.
At last they stopped for lunch, choosing a spot where a hedge rose wirily against the midday sky, and spread the rugs on the frozen grass. The sudden cessation of movement and noise brought a stillness into the landscape; a child's voice startled them from the outskirts of a village beyond, and the crackle of a wheelbarrow that was being driven along the dry road.
The third man, who had blackberry eyes, and glasses which enlarged them, made great preparations over the setting of the meal. They had forgotten nothing. When they sat down, the Bearskin upon the step of the motor, the others cross-legged upon the ground, each man had a napkin as big as a sheet spread across the surface of his coat and waistcoat, and tied into the band of the overcoat at the side. Bottles of red wine, and a bottle of white to finish with, lay on a cloth spread upon the grass. Bread, cheese, sausage, pate, and a slab of chocolate; knives, forks and a china cup apiece. Fanny, who had taken her own uneatable lunch from the garage, was made to eat some of theirs. They were on a high, dry, open plateau of land, and the winter sun, not strong enough to break the frost, faintly warmed their necks and hands and the round bodies of the bottles.
It was not unpleasant sitting there with the three white-chested strangers, watching the sky through the prongs of the bare hedge, spreading pate on to fresh bread, and balancing her cup half full of red wine among the fibres and roots of the grass.
"Now that I have started I am well on my way to getting back," she thought, and found that within her breast the black despair of the morning had melted. She watched her companions for amusement.
The Bearskin, cumbrous, high-coloured, and blue-eyed, looked like an innkeeper in an English tavern. When he took off his cloth hood she thought she had never seen anything so staring as the pink of his face against the blue of his cap; but when the cap came off too for a second that he might stir his forehead with his finger, the blaze and crackle of his red hair beneath was even more ferocious. Yet he seemed intimidated by his companions, and kept silence, eating meekly from his knife, and spreading his napkin with care to the edge of his knees.
The little man with warm black eyes and the colder, thinner man talked appreciatively together.
"He! The pate is not bad."
"Not bad at all. And you haven't tried the cheese?"
"No, no. I never touch cheese before the wine; it's a sin. Now the bottle is all warmed. Try some."
"What is your father?" said the little man suddenly to Fanny.
"He is in the army."
"You have no brother—no one to take care of you?"
"You mean, because I come out here? But in England they don't mind; they think it interesting for us."
They obviously did not believe her, and turned to other subjects. But the Bearskin began to move uncomfortably on the step of the car, and, bending forward to attract their attention, he burst out:
"But, don't you know, mademoiselle is not paid!"
The others reconsidered her.
"How do you live then, mademoiselle? You have means of your own? You do not buy your clothes yourself? Your Government gives you those, and that fine leather coat?"
"I bought it myself," said Fanny, and caused a sensation.
Immediately they put out their delicate hands, and fingers that loved to appraise, to feel the leather on the lapel.
"How soft! We have no leather now like that in France! How much did that cost? No, let me guess! You never paid a sou less than—Well, how much?"
The Bearskin, who had sat beside her all the morning, and had now turned her into an object of interest, took a pride in Fanny.
"The English upbringing is very interesting," he said, pushing back his cap and letting out the flame of his hair. "The young ladies become very serious. I have been in England. I have been in Balham."
But though, owing to the leather coat, the others seemed to consider that they had an heiress amongst them, they would not let the big Bearskin be her impresario or their instructor.
"Divorce is very easy in England," said the thin man solemnly, and turned his shoulder slightly on the Bearskin, as though he blamed him for his stay in Balham.
When the lunch was over and the last fragment of pate drawn off the last knife upon the crust of bread that remained, Fanny's restless hopes turned towards packing up; but she counted without the white wine and the national repose after the midday meal. They washed their cups with care under the outlet tap of the radiator, and, wiping them dry to the last corner, sat back under the hedge to drink slowly.
All this time a peculiar quality had been drawing across the sun. It grew redder and duller, till, blushing, it died out, and Fanny saw that the morning frost had disappeared. Out to the left a mauve bank of cloud moved up across the sky like the smoke from a titanic bonfire, and, with the first drift of moisture towards them, the four shivered and rose simultaneously to pack the things and put them in the car.
As Fanny stooped to wind up the handle the first snowflake, soft and wet and heavy, melted on her ear.
"It won't lie," said the Bearskin. "Shall we draw up the hood?"
They drew it up, but the thin man, huddling himself in the corner of the back seat, insisted on "side-curtains as well."
"Then I'm sorry. Will you get out? They are under the seat."
"Oh, never mind, my dear fellow," said Blackberry-Eyes.
"No, no. One ought to keep the warmth of food within one."
And the other got out, and stood shivering while the Bearskin and Fanny pulled rugs and baskets and cushions out into the road that they might lift the back seat and find the curtains.
"Oh, how torn!" exclaimed the thin man bitterly, as he saw her drape the car with leather curtains whose windows of mica had long since been cracked and torn away. The snow was hissing on the radiator and melting on the road, and there seemed no wind left anywhere to drive the weight of the mauve cloud further across the sky. It hung solid and low above them, so that between the surface of the earth and the floor of the sky there was only a foggy tunnel in which the road could be seen a few yards ahead.
As they drove forward the windscreen became filmed with melting snow. Fanny unscrewed it and tilted it open, and the Bearskin fumbled unhappily at his collar to close every chink and cranny in his mossy hide.
They were climbing higher and higher across an endless plateau, and at last a voice called from the back, "We must look at the map." It was a voice of doubt and distrust that any road could be right road which held so much discomfort.
Fanny stopped and pulled her map from behind her back, where she was keeping it dry. "It's all right," she showed them, leaning over the back and holding the map towards them. Then she discovered that the back seat was empty, and her clients were huddled among the petrol tins and rugs upon the floor.
"You must be miserable! It's so much colder in the back. See, here's the big road that we must avoid, going off into Luxembourg, and here's ours, running downhill in another mile."
They believed her, being too cramped and miserable to take more than a querulous interest. In another half-hour the snow ceased, and as they glided down the long hill on the other side of the plateau in a bed of fresh, unruffled wool, the sun struck out with a suddenness that seemed to tear the sky in two, and turned the blue snow into a sheet of light which stretched far below them into a country of pine woods and pits of shadow. Down, down they ran, till just below lay a village—if village it was when only a house or two were gathered together for company in the forest.
The snow seemed to have lain here for days, for the car slipped and skidded at the steep entrance, where the boys of the village had made slides for their toboggans. A hundred feet from the first house a triumphal arch was built of pine and laurel across the road. On it was written in white letters "Soyez le Bienvenu." All the white poor houses glittered in the snow with flags.
A stream crossed the village street, and a file of geese on its narrow bridge brought her to a standstill.
"What are the flags for?" she asked of an old man, pressing back into a safety alcove in the stone wall of the bridge.
"We expect Petain here to-day. He is coming to Thionville."
"But Thionville is forty miles away—"
"Still, he might pass here—"
Running on and on through forest and hilly country, they left the snow behind them, and slipped down into greener valleys, till at last they came upon a single American sentry, and over his head was chalked upon a board: "This is Germany."
They pulled up. Germany it might be—but the road to Treves? He did not know; he knew nothing, except that with his left foot he stood in Germany, and with his right in France.
Over the side of the next mountain all Hans Andersen was stretched before them—tracts of little country, little wooden houses with pointed roofs, little hills covered with squares of different coloured woods, and a blue river at the bottom of the valley, white with geese upon its banks. They held their open mouths insultedly in the air as the motor passed. The narrow road became like marble, and the car hissed like a glass ball rolled on a stone step. On every little hill stood a castle made of brown chocolate, very small, but complete with turrets. Young horses with fat stomachs and arched necks bolted sideways off the road in fear, followed by gaily painted lattice-work carts, and plunged far into the grassland at the side. Old women with coloured hoods swore at them, and pulled the reins. Many pointed hills were grey with vine-sticks, and on the crest of each of these stood a small chapel as if to bless the wine. The countryside was wet and fresh—white, hardly yellow—with the winter sun; moss by the roadside still dripped from the night, and small bare orchard trees stood in brilliant grass.
"Look! How the grass grows in Germany!"
"Ah, it doesn't grow like that in the valley of the Meuse—"
Every cottage in every village was different; many wore hats instead of roofs, wooden things like steeples, with deep eaves and carved fringes, in which were shadowy windows like old eyes. Some were pink and some were yellow.
Soon they left the woods and came out upon an open plateau surrounded by wavy hills with castles on them. In the middle of the plateau was a Zeppelin shed which looked like the work of bigger men than the crawling peasants in the roads. One side of the shed was open, and the strange predatory bird within, insensible to the peering eye of an enemy, seemed lost in thought in this green valley. The camp of huts beside it was deserted, and there seemed to exist no hand to close the house door. They rose again on to a hillside, and on every horizon shone a far blue forest faint like sea or cloud.
Nearer Treves the villages were filled with Americans—Americans mending the already perfect roads, and playing with the children.
"This is a topsy-turvy country, as it would be in Hans Andersen," thought Fanny. "I thought the Germans had to mend the broken roads in France!"
They stayed that night in the Porta-Nigra hotel, which had been turned into an Allied hostel. The mess downstairs was chiefly filled with American officers, though a few Frenchmen sat together in one corner. The food was American—corn cakes, syrup, and white, flaky bread.
"Well, what bread! It's like cake!"
"Oh, the Americans eat well!"
"I don't agree with you. They put money into their food, and they eat a lot of it, but they can't cook.
"Isn't it astonishing what they eat! It's astonishing what all the armies eat compared with our soldiers."
"Now this cake-bread! I should soon sicken of it. But they will eat sweets and such things all day long."
"Well, I told you they are children!"
"The Americans here seem different. They behave better than those in France."
"These are very chics types. Pershing is here. This is the Headquarters Staff."
"Yes, one can see they are different."
"It appears they get on very well with the Germans."
"Hsh—not so loud."
After dinner they strolled out into the town. The Bearskin was very anxious to get a "genuine iron cross."
He was offered iron crosses worked on matchboxes, on cigarette lighters, on ladies' chains.
"But are they genuine?"
He did not know quite what he meant.
"I don't suppose them to be taken from a dead man's neck, but are they genuine?"
In the streets the Germans sold iron crosses from job lots on barrows for ten francs each.
"But I will get one cheaper!" said the Bearskin, and clambered up the steps into shop after shop. He found an iron cross on a chain for seven francs. No one knew what the mark was worth, and the three men, with the German salesman, bent over the counter adding and subtracting on paper.
"How can a goblin countryside breed people who sell iron crosses at ten francs each?" wondered Fanny.
There was a notice on the other side of the street, "Y.M.C.A., two doors down the street on your left," and the thin man stood in the door of the shop beside Fanny and pointed to it.
"Couldn't you go there and get me cigars? They will be very cheap. Have you money with you?"
"I'll try," said Fanny, "I've money. We can settle afterwards," inwardly resolving to get as many cigarettes as she could to take back for the men in the garage. She crossed the street, but looked back to find the thin man creeping after her. She waited for him, irritated.
"Go back. If the American salesman sees you he'll know it's for the French, and he won't sell."
"He knew that quite well," she thought impatiently to herself, "or he wouldn't have asked me to buy for him."
The thin man turned back to the cover of the shop like an eager little dog which has jumped too quickly for biscuit and been snubbed.
She went down the street and into the Y.M.C.A.
Instantly she was among three or four hundred men, who stood with their backs to her, in queues up the long wooden hall. Far ahead on the improvised counter was a guichet marked "Cigars." She placed herself at the tail of that queue.
"Move up, lady," said the man in front of her, moving her forward. "Say here's a lady. Move her up."
Men from the other queues looked round, and one or two whistled slyly beneath their breath, but her own queue adopted her protectingly, and moved her up to their head, against the counter.
It was out of the question to get cigars now. She had become a guest, and to get cigars would imply that she was not buying for herself, but to supply an unknown man without. And the marks on her uniform showed that the unknown was French.
"One carton of Camels, please," she said, used to the phraseology.
"Take two if you like," said the salesman. "We've just got a dump in."
She took two long cardboard packets of cigarettes, and put down ten francs.
"Only marks taken here," said the salesman. "You got to make the change as you come in."
"Put it down. Put it here. We don't get a lady in every day."
He gave her the change in marks, which seemed countless.
"I'm sure you've given me too much!"
"Oh no. Marks is goin' just for love in this country. Makes you feel rich!"
As she emerged from the hall with her two long cartons under her arm she found the thin man, the Bearskin and Blackberry-Eyes standing like children on the doorstep.
It was too much—to give her away like that.
Other Americans, coming out, looked at them as a gentleman coming out of his own house might look at a party of penguins on his doorstep.
Fanny swept past her friends without a glance and walked on up the street with her head in the air. They turned and came after her guiltily. When they caught her up in the next street, she said to the thin man, "I asked you not to come near while I was buying—"
"Have you got cigars, mademoiselle?"
"No, I couldn't. Why did you come like that? Now I can go in no more. You'd only to wait two minutes."
They looked crestfallen, while she held the cigarettes away from them as a nurse holds sweets from a naughty child.
"I could only get two packets. I can give you one. I'm sorry, but I promised to get cigarettes for some people in Metz."
The thin man brightened, and took the big carton of Camels with delight.
"They're good, those!" he said knowingly to the others. "How much were they, mademoiselle?"
"Five francs twenty the carton."
"Is it possible? And we have to pay...."
By his tone he made it seem a reflection on the Americans. Why should a country be so rich when his had been devastated, so thinned, so difficult to live in? Fanny thought of the poor huddled clients who had sat on the floor of the car during the snowstorm. It had been a bitter journey for them.
After all—those rich, those pink and happy Americans, leather-coated down to the humblest private, pockets full of money, and fat meals three times a day to keep their spirits up—why shouldn't they let him have their cigarettes?
"You can have this carton, too, if you like," she said, offering it. "I'll manage to slip in to-morrow morning."
He thanked her, delighted, and they went back to the hotel.
The problem of the kindness of the Americans, and her frequent abuse of it to benefit the French, puzzled her.
"But, after all, it's very easy to be kind. It's much easier to be kind if you are American and pink than if you are French and anxious."
Another difference between the two nations struck her.
"The Americans treat me as if I were an amusing child. The French, no matter how peculiar their advances, always, always as a woman."
Next morning, when she got down to breakfast at eight, she found that the three Frenchmen had already gone out about their work.
"Perhaps I shall get home to-night, after all," she prayed. She sat in the hotel and watched the Americans, or wandered about the little town until eleven. The affair with the cigars was suitably arranged. The hall was nearly empty when she went in, and the few men who stood about in it did not disarm her with special kindness. On getting back to the hotel she found the Bearskin pushing breathlessly and anxiously through the glass doors.
"Monsieur Raudel has left his cigarettes in his bedroom," he said, "unlocked up. He is anxious so I have come back."
"Well, tell him that if he—tell him quite as a joke, you know—that if I can get home—"
(Something in his little blue eye shone sympathetically, and she leant towards him.) "Well, I'll tell you! There is a dance to-night in Metz, and I am asked. And tell him that I have bought two boxes of cigars for him!"
The Bearskin, enchanted, promised to do his best.
By half-past twelve the three were back at lunch in the hotel. Over the coffee Monsieur Raudel looked reflectively at his well-shaped nails.
"Well, mademoiselle, so this is what it is to have a woman chauffeur—"
Fanny looked up nervously, regretting her confidence in the Bearskin.
"Apart from the pleasure of your company with us, we get cheap cigars, and you get your dance, so every one is pleased."
"Oh!" She was radiant. "But you haven't hurried too much? Are we really starting back?"
Monsieur Raudel, who was a new man when he wasn't cold, reassured her, and soon they were all packed in the Renault, and running out of Treves.
That same night as dusk fell she shook the snow from her feet and clothes and entered the dressmaker's kitchen. Four candles were burning beside the gas, and the tea-cups lay heaped and unwashed upon the dresser.
"Good-evening, good-evening," murmured a number of voices, German and French, and the old dressmaker, standing up, her face haggard under the gas, took both Fanny's hands with a whimper:
"It will never be done! Oh, dear child, it will never be done!"
The crinoline which they were preparing lay in white rags upon the table.
"Oh, Elsa, that is good! Are you helping too?" Elsa had brought three of her friends with her, and the four bright, bullety heads bent over the long frills which moved slowly through their sewing fingers. "Good Conquered Children!" They were sewing like little machines.
"The Fraeulein Schneiderin," explained Elsa, "is so upset."
And this was evident and needed no explaining. The little lady twisted her fingers, grieved and scolded, snatching at this and that, and rapping with her scissors upon the table as though she were going to wear the dress herself.
"Mademoiselle, I had to get them." She nodded towards the busy Conquered Children, apologising for them as though she feared Fanny might think she had done a deal with the devil for her sake.
"Here are my frills," said Fanny, bringing from her pocket two paper parcels, one of which she laid in mystery upon the table, the other opened and shook out her two long frills. She drew off her leather coat and sat down to sew.
"Oh, how calm you are!" burst out the dressmaker. "How can you be so calm? It won't be finished."
"Yes, yes, yes. It's only half-past five. Can I have a needle?"
"My mother had a dress like this before the last war." (This for the fiftieth time.) "And will your amoureux be there?" she asked with the licence of the old.
"Well, yes," said Fanny smiling, "he will."
"And what will he wear?"
"Oh, it's a secret. I don't know. But I chose this particular dress because it is so feminine, and it will be the first time he has seen me in the clothes of a woman."
"Children, hurry, hurry!" cried the dressmaker, in a frenzy of sympathy. "Minette, get down!" She slapped the grey cat tenderly as she lifted him off the table. "Tell them in their language to hurry!" she exclaimed. "I never learnt it!"
But, after the breath of excitement, followed her poor despair, and she dropped her hands in her lap. "It will never be done. I can't do it."
"Look, my dear, courage! The bodice is already done ... Have you had any tea?"
"The children ate. I couldn't. I am too excited. But you are so calm. You have no nerves. It isn't natural!"
Yet she ate a little piece of cake, scolding the cat and the children with her mouth full, prowling restlessly above their bent heads as they sewed and solidly sewed.
At the end of an hour and a half the nine frills were on the skirt, the long hoops of wire had been run in, and the hooks and eyes on the belt.
Often the door opened and shut; visitors came and went in the room; the milk woman put her head in, crying: "What a party!" and left the tiny can of milk upon the floor: Elsa's mother came to call her daughter to supper, but let her stay when she saw the dress still unfinished. Now and then some one would run out of the flat opposite, the flat above or the flat next door and, popping a head in at the door, wish them good luck. All the building seemed to know of the crinoline that was being made in the kitchen.
"You do not smoke a pipe?..." said the dressmaker softly, with appreciation.
"But none of us do!"
"Oh, pardon, yes! I saw it yesterday. A great big girl dressed like you with her hands in her pockets and a pipe in her mouth. It made an effect on me—you can hardly believe how it startled me! I called Madame Coppet to see."
"I know it wasn't one of us. And (it seems rude of me to say so) I even think the woman you saw was French."
"Oh, my dear, French women never do that!"
"Well, they do when they get free. They go beyond us in freedom when they get it The woman you saw (I have seen her, too) works with the men, shoulder to shoulder, eats with them, smokes with them, drinks with them, drives all night and all day, and they say she can change a tyre in two minutes.
"There was a woman, too, who drove a lorry between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc, not a tender, you know, but a big lorry. She wore a bit of old ermine round her neck, knickerbockers, and yellow check stockings. One could imagine she had painted her face by the light of a candle at four in the morning. She never wore a hat, and her short yellow hair stuck out over her face which was as bright as a pink lamp shade."
"She may have been, but she worked hard! She was always on that road. Or she would disappear for days with her lorry and come back caked in rouge and mud. I wish I could have got to know her and heard where she went and the things that happened to her."
"But, my dear, I keep thinking what a strange life it is for you. Are you always alone on your car?"
"You are with men alone then all the time?"
"All the time."
"Well, it's more than I can understand. It's part of the war."
Elsa bent across the table and picked up the folded bodice, murmuring that it was done. The dressmaker rose, and reaching for the hooped skirt, held it up between her two arms. It was a thrilling moment. Fanny, too, rose. "Put it on a dummy," she commanded. Candles were placed around the dummy, who seemed to step forward out of the shades of the kitchen, and offer its headless body to be hooked and buttoned into the dress. All the room stood back to look and admire. "Wie schoen!" said Elsa's shiny-headed friends, peering with their mouths open.
"Ah, dear child, you were so calm, and now it is done!" said the old dressmaker.
The dress stood stiffly glittering at them, white as snow, the nine frills pricking away from the great hooped skirt.
Fanny picked up the brown paper parcel she had laid on the dresser, taking from it a bottle of blue ink, a bottle of green, and a paint brush, and diluted the inks in a saucer under the tap. There was awe in the kitchen as she held the brush, filled with colour, in the air, and began to paint blue flowers on the dress.
At the first touch of the brush the old dressmaker clasped her hands. "What is she doing, the English girl! And we who have kept it so white...."
"Hush," said Fanny, stooping towards the bodice, "trust me!"
The children held their breath, except Elsa, who breathed so hard that Fanny felt her hair stir on her neck. She covered the plain, tight- waisted bodice with dancing flowers in blue and green.
On the frills of the skirt a dozen large flowers were painted as though fallen from the bodice. Soon it was done.
"Like that! In five minutes!" groaned the dressmaker, troubled by the peculiar growth of the flowers.
"Let it dry," said Fanny. "I'll go home and start doing my hair. Elsa will bring it round when it's dry."
The old woman held out both her hands, in a gesture of mute congratulation and fatigue.
"Now rest," said Fanny. "Now sleep—and in the morning I will come and tell you all about it," and ran out into the snow.
* * * * *
The top hook of the bodice would not meet. With her heart in her mouth, with despair, she pulled. Then sat down on the bed and stared blankly before her.
"Then if that won't meet, all, all the dress is wasted. I can't go. No, right in the front! There is nothing to be done, nothing to be done!" She sat alone in the room, the five candles she had lighted guttering and spilling wax. She was in the half-fastened painted bodice and a fine net petticoat she had bought at Nancy. Even the green silk bedroom slippers were on, tied round her ankles with ribbons, the only slippers she had found in Metz, and she had searched for them for hours.
The room was icy cold, and the hand of the clock chasing towards the hour for the dance. Should she go in uniform? Not for the world.
She would not meet him, and it seemed as though there could be no to-morrow, and she would never meet him again in this world. This meeting had had a peculiar significance—the flouncy, painted dress, the plans she had made to meet him for once as a woman. Shivering, and in absurd anguish she sat still on the bed.
"Oh, Elsa, Elsa, look!" Better the child than no one, and the shiny head was hanging round the door. ("Wie schoen!")
"But it isn't schoen! Look! It won't meet!"
"Oh!..." Elsa's eyes grew round with horror, and she went to fetch her mother. "Tanzen!" They talked so much of "tanzen" in that household. The thin mother was all sympathy, and stood in helpless sorrow before the gap in the bodice.
"What's all this?" and der Vater stood in the doorway, heavy as lead, and red as a plum.
"Give her a bunch of flowers," he said simply, and as if by accident, and "Oh!..." said Elsa's mother, and disappeared. She came back with three blue cotton cornflowers out of Elsa's hat, and the gap in the bodice was hidden.
* * * * *
He was not there. Her eyes flew round the room, searching the shadows in the corners, searching the faces. In the bitterness of dismay she could not fully enter the door, but stood a little back, blocking the entrance, afraid of the certainty which was ready for her within; but others, less eager, and more hurried, pressed her on, drove her into the centre of the room, and with a voice of excitement and distress chattering within her, like some one who has mislaid all he has, she shook hands with the eighteenth-century general who shrouded the personality of the Commandant Dormans.
At first she could not recognise any one as she looked round upon Turks, clowns, Indians, the tinselled, sequined, beaded, ragged flutter of the room, then from the coloured and composite clothing of a footballer, clown or jockey grinned the round face and owlish eyes of little Duval, who flew to her at once to whisper compliments and stumble on the swelling fortress of her white skirt. She realised dimly from him that her dress was as beautiful as she had hoped it might be, but what was the use of its beauty if Julien should be missing? And, looking over Duval's head, she tried to see through the crowd.
Suddenly she saw him, dressed in the white uniform of a Russian, standing by a buttress of the wall. His uniform had a faint yellowish colour, as if it had been laid away for many years against this evening's dance; the light caught his knees and long boots, but the shadow of the buttress crept over his face, turned from her towards a further door. On his head he wore a white hat of curling sheep's wool, which made him seem fantastically tall.
When Fanny had surveyed him, from the tip of his lit hat to his lit feet, she was content to leave him in his shadowed corner, and turned willingly to dance with Duval. The little man offered an arm to hold her, and, as he came nearer to her, his feet pressed the bottom ring of wire about her skirt, and the whole bell of flowers and frills swung backwards and stood out obliquely behind her.
Presently the Jew boy, Reherrey, detached himself from the others and came out to stand by her and flatter her. He had wound the black stuff that he had bought three days before so cleverly round his slim body that he seemed no fatter than a lacquered hairpin. The cynical flattery of this nineteen-year-old Jew, the plunging admiration which Duval breathed at her side, the attentive look in the bright eyes of the Commandant Dormans, who had come near them and stood before her, filled her with joy. She looked about her, bright rat, tiny and enormous in her own sight, aware now of her outer, now of her inner life, and sipped her meed of success, full of the light happiness fashioned from the admiration of creatures no bigger than herself. She laughed at one and the other, bending towards them, listening to what they had to say, without denying, without doubts, with only triumph in her heart; and, the group shifting a little, a voice was able to say secretly at her ear, "You look beautiful, but you are not exclusive...." Her sense of triumph was not dimmed because her quick ear caught jealousy shading the reproach in his voice.
She did not answer him, except to look at him; but they seemed to forgive each other mutually as the figure of yellowish-white moved close enough to tilt the bell skirt and take the figure of bluish-white into his arms and dance with her. Calico and sheep's wool and painted flowers went down the room under the low gas brackets, and her eyes, avoiding his, looked out from a little personal silence into the far-off whirl of the room, and heard the dimmed music and the scrape of feet.
For him the world was a pale dumb-show, and she the absorbing centre. For her the world without was lit equally with his personality, the glamour of which hung over all the scenes before her eyes with the weight of the sky over the land. So long as he lit the horizon the very furthest object in it wore a shaft of his light upon its body.
They danced on, not wearing away the shining boards with their feet half so much as they wore away the thin ice above the enchanted lake.
The Commandant Dormans crossed the room to them.
"She must be drawn. She must go for her portrait. Spare me your partner. Mademoiselle, we have an artist, a poilu, drawing some of the dresses. Will you come with me and sit for yours?"
She went into the little room and stood for the drawing; the door shut on her, and she and the artist faced each other. Through the door the music came softly, and as she stood, hands resting without a breath's stir on fold, on frill, head bent and wandering eyes, the artist with twitching face and moving hand looked up and down, up and down, and she sank, swaying a little upon her rooted feet, into a hypnotised tranquillity. She did not care what the man put upon the white paper with his flying hands; he might draw the flowers upon her skirt, but not the tall blooming flowers within her, growing fabulously like the lilies in a dream. Her thoughts went out to meet the waves of music floating through the door; her rooted body held so still that she no longer felt it, and her spirit hung unbodied in an exaltation between love which she remembered and love which she expected. No one came through the door; they left her in silence, enclosed in the cell of the room and of her dreams, and she was content to stand without movement, without act or thought. The near chair, the wall hard by, the golden room which she had just left so suddenly were alike to her; her eyes and her imagination were tuned to the same level, and there was no distinction between what was on her horizon and beyond it. Across the face of the artist the scenes in the room behind her passed in unarrested procession, and the voice of an illusory lover in her ear startled her by its clearness. The music wandered about the room like visible movement, and the artist, God bless him, never opened his mouth between his shower of tiny glances.
"Finished, mademoiselle!" and he held the drawing towards her as he leant back with a sigh. He had made too many drawings that evening, and any talent he had hung in his mind as wearily as a flag in an airless room. With an effort she broke her position and moved towards him, taking up the drawing in her hand with a forced interest. "Yes, thank you, thank you," she said, and he took it back and laid it with the pile he had made. "You don't like it? But I'm so tired. Look at these others I did earlier in the evening...."
But while she bent over them the door burst open and Dormans came in, followed by Duval and Dennis. "Is it finished? Let me look! Yes, yes, very good! Quite good!" They were pleased enough, and drew the artist away with them to the buffet.
Suddenly Julien was with her and had closed the door. He was hurried, excited, and it seemed as though he said what he could no longer contain, as though the thought biggest in his mind broke in a bound from him. He was white and he exclaimed: "It's terrible how much you could hurt me if you would!"
He seemed to close his eyes a little then and lean his head towards her. She looked at the drooping, half-lit head, and she knew that she had him without fear of escape. Knew too, that the moment was brief. Their recent, undeclared silence brooded as though still with them, half regretful and departing angel. "You will have other beauties," she said to her heart, "but none like this silence."
They were breathless. The ice had gone from the lake and the ship had not yet set sail. In a dream she moved down to the beach. She saw him open his eyes and stare at her incredulously. "I am going to break this beauty," she breathed alone, and put out her hand and launched the ship. He was by her side, the silence broken, the voyage begun.
FANNY ROBBED AND RESCUED
Clouds, yellow, mauve and blue, hung ominously over the road to Nancy. The valley was filled with shades, but the road itself gleamed like a bleached bone in a ditch. Seated upon the dashboard of her wounded car, Fanny had drummed her heels for warmth since morning, and seemed likely soon to drum them upon a carpet of snow. Beneath the car a dark stream of oil marked the road, and the oil still dripped from the differential case, where the back axle lay in two halves.
"I will telephone to your garage," her "client" had promised, as he climbed on to a passing lorry and continued his journey into Nancy. With that she had to be content, while she waited, first without her lunch, and then without her tea, for the breakdown lorry which his telephone message would eventually bring to her aid. Now it was nearly four o'clock. She had been hungry, but was hungry no longer. The bitter cold made her forehead ache, and though every moment the blue and mauve shades thickened upon the sky no flake of snow had fallen.
Only last night, only twenty-four hours ago, she had been preparing for the dance; and only last night she had said to Julien ... What had she said to Julien? What had he said to her? Again she was deep in a reverie that had lasted all day, that had kept her warm, had fed her.
She was almost asleep when a man's voice woke her, and she found a car with three Americans drawn up beside her.
"I guess this is too bad," said the man who had woken her. "We passed you this morning on our way into Nancy, and here you are still looking as though you had never moved. 'Ain't you had any food since then?"
"I haven't been so very hungry."
"Not hungry? You're sure past being hungry! Lucky we've got food with us in the car. Pity we've got to hurry, but here's sandwiches and sandwiches, and cakes and candy, and bits of bunstuff, and an apple. And here's a cheese that's running out of its wrappin'. When's your show coming to fetch you? 'Ain't you coming home along with us?"
"They won't be long now. Oh, you are good...." Fanny's hunger revived as she took the food, and now she was waiting ungratefully for them to be gone that she might start on her heavensent meal.
"Good-bye, ma'am," they cried together.
"Good-bye," she waved, and as their car passed onwards she climbed up on to the mudguard and spread the rug over her knees.
The slow night grew out of nothing, expanded, and nearly enveloped the slopes of the hill below. The wind dropped in the cloudy, heavy twilight, and the papers of the sandwiches did no more than rustle upon her knees. Not prepared yet to light her car lamps, Fanny laid her torch upon her lap, and its patch of white light lit her hands and the piles of bread, cake, and fancy buns.
Across the road in the deeper gloom that dyed the valley and spilt over its banks, a head rustled in the ragged border of twig and reed, and eyes watched the brightly-lighted meal which seemed to hang suspended above the vague shape of the motor car.
With a sense of being perfectly alone, walled round by the gathering dusk, Fanny made a deep inroad upon her sandwiches and cake, finishing with the apple, and began to roll up what remained in case of further need, should no one come to fetch her.
She reflected that her torch would not last her long and that she ought to put it and light her head and tail lamps instead, but, drowsy with pleasure in her lonely dinner, she sat on, prolonging the last moments before she must uncurl her feet and climb down on to the ground. The torch slipped from her knee on to a lower fold of the rug, lighting only the corner of a packet in which she had rolled the cake.
Suddenly, while she watched it, the gleam of the corner disappeared. She stared at the spot intensely, and saw a hand, a shade lighter than the darkness, travel across the surface of the rug, cover with its fingers the second parcel and draw it backwards into what had now become dense night. Her skin stirred as though a million antennae were alive upon it; she could not breathe lest any movement should fling the unknown upon her; her eyes were glued to the third packet, and, in a moment, the hand advanced again. With horror she saw it creep along the rug, a small brown, fibrous hand, worn with work. The third packet was eclipsed by the fingers and receded as the others had done, but as it reached the edge of the rug, overflowing horror galvanised her into movement, and catching the corners of the rug she threw it violently after the package and over the hand, at the same moment jumping from her seat and on to the footboard, to grope wildly for the switch. Her heart was leaping like a fish just flung into a basket, and every inch of her body winced from an expected grasp upon it. She flung herself over the side and into the seat of the car, found the switch and pushed it.
A dozen Chinese at least were caught in the two long beams that flew out across the darkness. For a second their wrinkled faces stared, eyes blinked, and short, unhollowed lips stretched over yellow teeth, then, with a flutter of dark garments, the Chinese started away from the fixed beams and were gone into the shadow. Except for the sudden twitter of a voice, the spurt of a stone flung up against the metal of the car, they melted silently out of sight and hearing. Sick with panic, Fanny leant down upon her knees and covered her head with her two arms, expecting a blow from above. Seconds passed, and ice-cold, with one leg gone to sleep, she lifted her head, switched off the lights and stared into the night. She could see nothing, and gradually becoming accustomed to the darkness, she found that they had completely disappeared. The rug, too, had gone, and all three packets of sandwiches. Cautiously, with trembling legs, she stepped upon the footboard.
Something hit her softly upon the forehead, but before she had time to suffer from a new fear her eye caught the glitter of a flake of snow in its parachute descent across the path of her lamps. "They hate snow...." she whispered, not knowing whether it was true. She tried to picture them as a band of workmen, who, content with their little pillage, were now far from her on their way to some encampment.
Finding the torch still caught between the mudguard and the bonnet, she prowled round the car, flashing it into corners and pits of darkness. There was no sign of a lurking face or flutter of garment.
Snow began to fall, patting her noiselessly on her face and hands, and curling faster and faster across the lights. In twenty minutes the road around her was lightened, and cones of delicate softness grew between the spokes of the wheels.
Climbing down again from her perch, Fanny went to the back of the car, and, taking from beneath the seat her box of tools, she groped in the hollow under the wood and pulled out an iron bar, stout and slightly bent, with a knob at one end—the handle of the wheel jack.
* * * * *
Far away, in what seemed another world, equally blind, snowy and obscure, but divided from this one by fathoms of frozen water, a car was coming out from Pont-a-Moussons on to the main Nancy road. Its two head-lamps glowed confusedly under the snow that clung to them, and the driver, his thick, blue coat buttoned about his chin, leant forward peering through the open windscreen, stung, blinded, and blinking as the flakes drove in.
The head-lamps swept the road, the range of the beams reaching out and climbing the tree trunks in sheltered spots, or flung back and huddled about the front wheels when a blast of fresh snow was swept in from the open valley on the left.
"We must be getting to Marbashe?"
"Hardly yet, mon capitaine. It was unlucky the brigadier should be at Thionville. I could have mended the spring on the lorry myself, but it wants two men to tow in the car."
"This is Marbache!"
In the shelter of the hamlet the lights leapt forward and struck a handful of houses, thickened and rounded with snow. Almost immediately darkness swallowed them up, and a drift of snow flung up by the wind burst in powder over the bonnet and on to the glass.
"The plain outside. Now we go down a long hill. We turn sharp to the right here."
The car entered a tunnel of skeleton trees through which the flakes drained and flickered, or broke in uneven gusts through the trunks. The left lamp touched a little wooden hut which stood blinkered and deserted. Just beyond it was a sharp turn in the road.
A pale light hung in the dark ahead of them.
"Is it a car? No."
"Yes, lamps. With the beam broken by the snow."
For fear of blinding the driver of a lighted vehicle which might, after all, be moving, one of the men put out his hand and switched off the headlights, and the car glided forward on its own momentum.
Thus they came upon Fanny, in the hollow torn by the lamps out of an obscurity which whirled like a dense pillar above her, seated on her mudguard, blanched and still as an image, the iron bar for a weapon in her right hand, the torch ready as a signal in her left.
"Well, yes, my poor child!" And she saw the man behind him, and laughed.
"Help me down. Within and without I am set in plaster."
"You look like a poor, weather-chipped goddess, or an old stone pillar with a face."
"Be careful, that leg will not stand.... Oh, look, look how the snow clings. It's frozen on my lap."
"We must be quick. Everything must be quickly done, or we shall all stay here."
"Oh, I don't care about that now!"
"What have you got in your hand? Give it to me."
"That's a weapon. I almost needed it. Where is the lorry?"
"The garage was empty. The brigadier was at Thionville. The lorry had a spring broken."
"And they told you?"
"I did not call at the 'C.R.A.' office till late in the day, or you would have been fetched long ago. Come along! Have you got your things together? We must take them back in the other car. And the magneto too."
"We're to leave the car after all my guarding care?"
"No; here's Pichot volunteered to take your place."
"Has he got food with him and rugs. My rug has gone...."
"He has everything. Come along! Let's put everything of value into the other car."
When they had finished the night air was clear of snowflakes; hill, road and valley were lit by the pallor of the fallen snow.
Fanny followed Julien to the other car. He swung the handle and jumped into the driving seat. "Come...." he said, and held out a hand.
"Good-night, Pichot. We'll send for you early in the morning."
"Good-night, mon capitaine. Good-night, mademoiselle."
They moved forward, and the moon like a wandering lamp lit their faces.
"Blow out, old moon!" said Julien, turning his silvered face and hair up to the sky. The moon flew behind a cloud.
"Quick!" he said.
... and kissed her. The jacks and tyres and wheels and bolts fluttered out of Fanny's head like black ravens and disappeared. They flew on, over the bridge at Pont-a-Moussons, up the shining ruinous street.
"Crouch lower!" said Julien. "If any one wanted to, they could count your eyelashes from the windows."
"Ah, yes, if there was any one to count...." She glanced up at the fragmentary pronged chimneys, the dark, unstirring caves of brick.
Soon the church clocks of Metz rang out, quarrelling, out of time with one another.
"Do you know this isn't going to last?" said Julien suddenly, as if the clocks had reminded him.
She turned swiftly towards him.
"The Grand Quartier is moving?"
"Ah, you knew? You had heard?"
"No, no," she shook her head. "But do you think I haven't thought of it? I keep thinking, 'We can't stay here for ever. Some end will come.' And then—'It will come this way. The Grand Quartier will go.'"
"But you are going with it."
"Julien! Is that true?"
"Certain. It was settled to-day. We are actually leaving in three days for Chantilly; and you, with all the garage, all the drivers, and the offices of the 'C.R.A.' are to be at Precy-sur-Oise, five miles away."
"But you are at Precy too?"
"No, I have to be at Chantilly. And worse than that ... The bridge over the Oise at Precy is blown up and all cars have to come sixteen miles round to Chantilly by another bridge. I am in despair about it. I have tried every means to get Dormans to fix upon another village, but he is obstinate, and Precy it must be for you, and Chantilly for me. But don't let's think of it now. Wait till you've eaten and are warm, and we can plan. Here are the gates!"
He handed out the paper pass as a red light waved to and from upon the snow. First the Customs-men, Germans still, in their ancient civic uniform. "Nothing to declare?" Then the little soldier with the lantern in his hand: "Your pass, ma belle!" As he caught sight of Julien, "Pardon, mademoiselle!" Lastly, up the long road into the open square by the station, down the narrow street, splashing the melted snow-water against the shop windows, and under the shadow of the cathedral.