"Put the car away and come and dine with me at Moitriers."
She looked at him astonished. "The car? Whose car is it? Does it belong to our garage?"
"It will in future. It arrived last night, fresh from Versailles. I am arranging with Dennis for you to take it over to-morrow."
Her eyes sparkled. "A beautiful Renault! A brand new Renault!..."
He laughed. "Hurry, or you will faint with hunger. Put it away and come, just as you are, to Moitriers, up into the balcony. I am going there first to order a wonderful dinner."
In a quarter of an hour they were sitting behind the wooden balustrade of the balcony at Moitriers—the only diners on the little landing that overhung the one fashionable restaurant in Metz. It was a quarter to nine; down below, the room, which was lined with mirrors set in gilt frames, was filled with light; knives and forks still tapped upon the plates, but the hour being late many diners leant across the strewn tablecloths and talked, or sat a little askew in their chairs and listened. A hum filled the warm air, and what was garish below, here, behind the balustrade, became filtered and strained to delicate streaks and bars of light which crossed and recrossed their cloth, their hands, their faces—what was noisy below was here no more than a soft insect bustle, a murmurous background to their talk.
The door of the balcony opened behind them, and Madame Berthe, the proprietress herself, moved at their side; her old-fashioned body, shaped like an hour-glass, was clothed in rucked black silk, which flowed over her like a pigment; flowed from her chin to the floor, upon which it lay stiffly in hills and valleys of braided hem. Her gay gold tooth gleamed, and the gold in her ears wagged, as she fed them gently on omelette, chicken and tinned peas, and a souffle ice.
They talked a little, sleepy after the wind, smiling at each other.
"Don't you want more light than that?" said Madame Berthe, coming in again softly with the coffee.
Fanny shook her head. "Not any more than this."
Then they were left alone, stirring the coffee, gazing down between the wooden columns at the diners below.
"Of what are you thinking?" she asked, as a sigh escaped her companion.
"The move to Chantilly. I am so loth to break up all this."
"Ah, well, it changes, doesn't it? Even if it is no longer the same landscape it changes!"
After a silence he added: "How fragile it is!"
"You!" He covered her hand with both his. "You! What I think you are, and what you think I am. Love and illusion. Too fragile to be given to us with our blunders and our nonsense."
She watched him, silent, and he went on:
"I don't understand this life. That's why I keep quiet and smile, as you say I do. There are often things I don't say when I smile."
"Oh, I wonder how much you believe me. And I listen to that immense interior life, which talks such a different language. I hate to move on to Chantilly."
Suddenly she recognised that they were at a corner which he had wanted her to turn for days. There had been something he had hinted at, something he wanted to tell her. He chafed at some knowledge he had which she did not share, which he wanted her to share.
Once he had said: "I had letters this morning which worried me...."
"One in particular. It hurt me. It gave me pain."
But she had not wanted to ask what was in the letter. Then he had grown restless, sighed and turned away, but soon they had talked again and it had passed.
And now to-night he said:
"Look how detached we are in this town, which is like an island in the middle of the sea. We behave as though we had no past lives, and never expected any future. Especially you."
"You behave as though I was born the day before you met me, and would die the day after you leave me. You never ask anything about me; you tell me nothing about yourself. We might be a couple of stars hanging in mid air shining at each other. And then I have the feeling that one might drop and the other wouldn't know where to look for it."
But after a little silence the truth burst out, and he said with despair: "Don't you want to know anything about me?"
(Yes, that was all very well. She did, she did. But not just this that was coming!)
And then he told her....
* * * * *
"What is she like ... Violette?"
After several low questions she seemed to stand between them like a child, thin and fair, delicate and silent, innocently expecting to be spared all pain.
"No, she doesn't go out very much. She stays indoors and does her hair, and her nails, and reads a little book."
"And have you known her for a long time?"
"A long time...."
After this they pretended that she did not exist, and the little wraith floated back to Paris from which she had come, suddenly, on days when she had written him certain letters which had brought tears into his eyes.
THE LAST NIGHT IN METZ: THE JOURNEY
Fanny turned again to seek the lights of the town and the dagger points of the churches that climbed against the sky upon the hill behind her, but all that met her eyes was the blanket of wet darkness, and the shimmer of the snowflakes under the lamps.
She slipped through the garage gates, touching the iron bars ... "almost for the last time."
"But what does it matter? All towns are the same and we sing the same song in each and wear the same coloured feathers." She stirred the snow in the yard with her foot. "An inch already and the Renault has so little grip upon the snow. Shall we be able to start to-morrow?"
Then she set out to look for a heap of snow chains which she had noticed before in a corner of the yard. Not far from her another little torch moved in the darkness, and under its downward ray she caught sight of a khaki skirt and a foot. "Someone else has thought of chains, too! And there are so few!" She clicked off her light and moved stealthily along the forest of cars, her fingers sweeping blankets of snow from the mudguards. Passing the first line of corpse-cars she saw the light again. "She's in the wrong place!" she thought, and hurried on. "Those bags of chains are just behind the Berliet they brought in backwards." Behind the Berliet little mounds showed in the snow. She stooped over them, shading her light with her knees, and dug in the light powder with her hand, pulling out a small canvas bag which she dusted and beat with her fingers.
"Are you looking for chains?" she called to the other light, her bag safely in her arms.
"They are here. Here! In this corner!"
"Who are you?" cried the voice.
But she slipped away in silence to the garage door; for on this last black and white night in Metz she longed to creep about unspoken to, unquestioned. A little soldier sat on guard by a brazier of glowing charcoal near the door. She nodded to him as she moved down the long line of cars to her own.
There it stood, the light of the brazier falling faintly upon it, the two points of the windscreen standing up like the ready ears of an interested dog, the beautiful lines of its body, long bonnet and mudguards stretched like a greyhound at a gallop, at rest until the dawn. She flung the bag of chains inside, and, patting the bonnet, slipped away and out into the street without attempting to try the fit of the chains upon the wheels.
She slept a last night in the dark red German room three streets away—first making a little tour of the walls in her nightgown, the candle flame waving from her hand, the hot wax running in a cascade over her fingers—and looked at the stag's horn fastened to the bracket and the cluster of Christmas postcards pinned to the wall.
The postcards arrested her attention, and a light darted in her mind. They were dark postcards, encrusted with shiny frosting, like the snow outside. Little birds and goblins, a wreath of holly, and a house with red mica windows were designed on them. She put out a finger and gently touched the rough, bright, common stuff; standing opposite them, almost breathless with a wave of memory. She could see herself no taller than the nursery fireguard, with round eyes to which every bright thing was a desire. She could feel herself very small amid the bustle and clatter of Christmas, blowing dark breath marks against the bright silver on the table, pulling the fringe round the iced cake, wetting her finger and picking up "hundreds and thousands" with it from a bag.
These postcards now in front of her were made by some one with the mind of a child. It struck and shook her violently with memory to see them. "That's why the Germans write good fairy stories!" she thought, and her eyes passed to the framed photographs that hung near the postcards, pictures of soldiers in uniform, sitting at a table with the two daughters of the house. But these wooden faces, these bodies pressing through unwieldy clothes seemed unrelated to the childish postcards.
She went contentedly to her bed, the room, bare of all her belongings, except the one bag that stood, filled and open, upon the table; sleeping for the last time in the strange bed in the strange town which she might never see again. It was time indeed to go.
For days past civilians had crept through the gates of Metz, leading old horses, drawing ramshackle carts filled with mattresses, faded silk chairs, gilt ormolu stands, clocks and cloaks and parrot cages; all the strange things that men and women use for their lives. The furniture that had fled in other carts from villages now dust upon a dead plain was returning through all the roads of France, repacked and dusted, to set up the spirit of civilian life again.
It was time to go, following all the other birds of passage that war had dragged through the town of Metz—time to make way for the toiling civilian with his impedimenta of civilisation.
In the morning when she opened her eyes the room was darker than usual, and the opening of the window but the merest square of light. Snow was built up round the frame in thick rolls four inches high.
She dressed hurriedly and rolled up the sleeping-sack with her few last things inside it. Out in the street the snow was dry and thick and beautifully untrodden. The garage gates looked strange, with a thick white banner blown down each side of the pillars. She looked inside the garage shed. Yes, all the cars had gone—hers stood alone, the suitcases inside, tyres pumped stiff and solid, the hood well buckled back.
"Mademoiselle hasn't gone with the convoy?" said the marechal des logis, aghast.
"Oh, I'm separate," she laughed.
"But the convoy is gone."
"I know it. But I'm not with them. It's an order. I'm going alone."
"Bien. But do you know the route?"
"I'm not going by it."
He laughed, suddenly giving up all attempt at responsibility, and bent to catch her starting handle.
"Oh, don't worry."
"Yes, it's your last day, I may as well help you to go away."
The engine started easily and she drove out of the garage into the yard, the wheels flying helplessly in the snow, and flinging up dry puffs like flour. "Haven't you chains?" said the marechal des logis. But she smiled and nodded and could not wait. "Good-bye—good-bye to all the garage," she nodded and waved. The sun broke out from behind a cloud, her brass and glass caught fire and twinkled gaily, the snow sparkled, the gate-posts shone at her. She left the garage without a regret in her heart, with not a thought in her head, save that in a minute she would be safe, no accident could stop her, she would be abroad upon the magic, the unbelievable journey.
* * * * *
They were in a small circular room, shaped like an English oasthouse, its roof running upwards in a funnel to meet the sky. At the apex was a round porthole of thick glass to let in the light, but as this was supporting several feet of snow the lighting of the room was effected only by a large oil-lamp which stood on the blackened table in the centre. An old woman came forward into the light of the lamp. Her eyes were fine and black—her mouth was toothless and folded away for ever, lost in a crevice under her nose. When she smiled the oak-apples of her cheeks rose up and cut the black eyes into hoops.
"We are on a long journey, madame, to Chantilly. We are cold; can we have coffee?"
She drew out chairs and bade them sit, then placed two tall glasses of coffee in the ring of light from the lamp, sugar melting in a sandy heap at the bottom of each.
"What an odd shape your house is!" said Julien, looking round him.
"It's very old, like me. And the light is poor. You have to know it to get used to it," she replied.
"You've only that one window?" He stared up the funnel to where he could see the grey underside of the cone of snow.
"But I can make that one better than it is; and then the lady can see herself in this little glass!" The old woman moved to the side of the wall where a rope hung down. "Elle a raison; since she has a gentleman with her! I was the same—and even not so long ago!"
She put up her thin arm and gave the rope a long pull. She must have been strong, for the skylight and all its burden opened on a hinge, and the snow could be seen sliding from it, could be heard in a heavy body rumbling on the roof. She closed the skylight, and now a wan light filtered down the funnel and turned their faces green. It was like life at the bottom of a well, and they felt as though the level of the earth was far above their heads, and its weighty walls pressing against their sides.
"But why is it built this way?"
"Many houses are," said the old woman with a shrug. "It's old, older than my mother." She sat down beside them. "Soldiers have been drunk in here many times in the war," she said. "And in the old war, too. But I never saw one like you." She pinched Fanny's sleeve. "Fine stuff," she said. "The Americans are rich!"
"I'm not American."
"Rich they are. But I don't care for them. They have no real feeling for a woman. You are not stupid, ma belle, to get a Frenchman for a lover."
"Don't make him vain."
"It is the truth. He knows it very well. Why should he be vain? An American loves a pretty face; but a Frenchman loves what is a woman." She rose and lifted the lamp, and let its ray search out a corner of the room wherein the great bed stood, wooden and square, its posts black with age, its bedding puffed about it and crowned with a scarlet eiderdown as solid and deep as the bed itself.
"A fine bed; an old bed; it is possible that you will not believe me, but I shared that bed with a bishop not two years ago."
Fanny's eyes were riveted on the bed.
Julien laughed. "In the worst sense, mother?"
"In the best, my son," bragged the old woman, sliding a skinny finger to the tip of her nose. "You don't believe me?"
Coming nearer, she stood with the lamp held in her two hands resting on the table, so that she towered over them in fluttering shawl and shadow.
"He arrived in the village one night in a great storm. It was past the New Year and soldiers had been coming through the street all day to go up to the lines beyond Pont-a-Moussons. I've had them sleeping in here on the floor in rows, clearing away the table and lying from wall to wall so thick that I had to step on them when I crossed the room with my lamp. But that night there were none; they were all passing through up to the front lines, and though the other end of the village was full, no one knocked here. There was snow as there is to-day, but not lying still on the ground. It was rushing through the air and choking people and lying heavy on everything that moved outside. That glass of mine up there was too heavy for me to move so I let it be. A knock came at the door in the middle of the night, and when I got up to unbar the door there was a soldier on the doorstep. I said: 'Are you going to wake me up every night to fill the room with men?' And he said: 'Not to-night, mother, only one. Pass in, monsieur.'
"It was a bishop, as I told you. Un eveque. A great big man with a red face shining with the snow. If he had not been white with snow he would have been as black as a rook. He stamped on the cobbles by the door and the snow went down off him in heaps, and there he was in his beautiful long clothes, and I said to myself: 'Whatever shall I do with him? Not the floor for such a man!' So there we were, I in my red shawl that hangs on the hook there, and he in his long clothes like a black baby in arms, and his big man's face staring at me over the top.
"'I can't put you anywhere but in my bed,' I told him. I told him like that, quickly, that he might know. And he answered like a gentleman, the Lord save his soul: 'Madame, what lady could do more!'
"'But there's only one bed' I told him (I told him to make it clear), 'and I'm not young enough to sleep on the floor.' Not that I'm an old woman. And he answered like a gentleman, the Lord save him...."
"I will tell you the end," said the old woman, drawing near to Julien as he took some money from his pocket to pay for the coffee.
Two hours later they drew up at a cafe in the main square at Ligny.
Within was a gentle murmur of voices, a smell of soup and baking bread; warm steam, the glow of oil lamps and reddened faces.
Sitting at a small table, with a white cloth, among the half-dozen American soldiers who, having long finished their lunch, were playing cards and dominoes, they ordered bread-soup, an omelette, white wine, brille cheese and their own ration of bully beef which they had brought in tins to be fried with onions.
A woman appeared from the door of the kitchen, carrying their bowl of bread-soup. Across the plains of her great chest shone a white satin waistcoat fastened with blue glass studs, and above her handsome face rose a crown of well-brushed hair dyed in two shades of scarlet. A little maid followed, and they covered the table with dishes, knives and forks, bread and wine. The woman beamed upon Fanny and Julien, and laying her hand upon Fanny's shoulder begged them not to eat till she had fetched them a glass of her own wine.
"You bet it's good, ma'am," advised a big American sergeant at a table near them. "You take it."
She brought them a wine which shone like dark amber in a couple of glasses, and stood over them listening with pleasure to their appreciation while each slight movement of her shoulders sent ripples and rivers of heaving light over the waistcoat of satin.
The butter round the omelette was bubbling in the dish, the brille had had its red rind removed and replaced by fried breadcrumbs, the white wine was light and sweet, and with the coffee afterwards they were given as much sugar as they wished.
"I have seen her before somewhere," said Julien, as the scarlet head receded among the shadows of the back room. "I wonder where?"
"One wouldn't forget her."
"No. It might have been in Paris; it might have been anywhere."
The little maid was at his elbow. "Madame would be glad if you would come to her store and make your choice of a cigar, monsieur."
"Well, I shall know where I met her. Do you mind if I go?"
He followed the girl into the back room. Fanny, searching in her pocket for her handkerchief, scattered a couple of German iron pennies on the floor; an American from the table behind picked them up and returned them to her. "These things are just a weight and a trouble," he said. "I think I shall throw mine away?"
"You've come down from Germany, then?"
"Been up at Treves. They do you well up there."
"Not better than here!"
"No, this is an exception. It's a good place."
"Madame is a great manager."
"Hev' you got more German pennies than you know what to do with?" said the American sergeant who had advised her to drink the wine. "Because, if you hev' so hev' I and I'll play you at dominoes for them."
As Julien did not return at once, Fanny moved to his table and piled her German pennies beside her, and they picked out their dominoes from the pile.
"I want to go home," said the American, and lifted up his big face and looked at her.
"You all do."
"That's right. We all do," assented another and another. They would make this statement to her at every village where she met them, in every estaminet, at any puncture on the road over which they helped her —simply, and because it was the only thing in their minds.
"Do you hev' to come out here?" he enquired.
"Oh, no. We come because we like to."
Thinking this a trumpery remark he made no answer, but put out another domino—then as though something about her still intrigued his heavy curiosity: "You with the French, ain't you?"
"Like that too?"
He sat a little back into his chair as though he felt he had put her in a corner now, and when she said she even liked that too, twitched his cheek a little in contempt for such a lie and went on playing.
But the remark worked something in him, for five minutes later he pursued:
"I don't see anything in the French. They ain't clean. They ain't generous. They ain't up-to-date nor comfortable."
Fanny played out her domino.
"They don't know how to live," he said more violently than he had spoken yet.
"What's living?" she said quickly. "What is it to live, if you know?"
"You want to put yourself at something, an' build up. Build up your fortune and spread it out and about, and have your house so's people know you've got it. I want to get home and be doing it."
"Mademoiselle actually knows it!" said Julien in the doorway to the red-haired woman in the back room, and Fanny jumped up.
The American passed four iron coins across the table. "'Tisn't going to hinder that fortune I'm going to make," he said, smiling at last.
"What do I know?" she asked, approaching the doorway, and moving with him into the back room.
"Madame owns a house in Verdun," said Julien, "and I tell her you know it."
"I know it?"
"Come and drink this little glass of my wine, mademoiselle," said the red-haired woman good-humouredly, "and tell me about my poor little house. I had a house on the crown of the hill ... with a good view ... and a good situation (she laughed) by the Cathedral."
"Had you? Well, there are a great many by the Cathedral," Fanny answered cautiously, for she thought she knew the house that was meant.
"But my house looked out on the citadelle, and stood very high on a rock. Below it there was a drop and steep steps went down to a street below."
"Had you pink curtains in the upper windows?"
"Is it not then so damaged?" demanded the woman eagerly, dropping her smile. "The curtains are left? You can see the curtains?"
"No, no, it is terribly damaged. If it is the house you mean I found a piece of pink satin and a curtain ring under a brick, and there is a sad piece which still waves on a high window. But wait a minute, excuse me, I'll be back." She passed through the cafe and ran out to the car, returning in a moment with something in her hand.
"I fear I looted your house, madame," she said, offering her a small cylindrical pot made of coarse clouded glass, and half filled with a yellowish paste. "I found that inside on the ground floor; I don't know why I took it."
The woman held it in her hand. "Oh!" she wailed, and sliding down upon the sofa, found her handkerchief.
"Mais non!" said Julien, "you who have so much courage!"
"But it was my own face!" she cried incoherently, holding out the little pot. "My poor little cream pot!"
"It was my face cream!"
"I had not used it for a week because they had recommended me a new one. Ah! miraculous! that so small a thing should follow me!"
She touched her eyes carefully with her handkerchief, but a live tear had fallen on the waistcoat.
"Tell me, mademoiselle ... sit down beside me, my dear ... the poor little house is no more good to me? I couldn't live there? Is there a roof?"
"You couldn't live in it."
"But the roof?"
"It was on the point of sliding off; it was worn like a hat over one ear. The front of the house is gone. Only on the frame of one window which sticks to the wall could I see your piece of pink curtain which waves."
"My poor, pretty house!" she mused. "My first, you know," she said in an undertone to Julien. "Ah, well, courage, as you say!"
"But you are very well here."
"True, but this isn't my vocation. I shall start again elsewhere. And Verdun itself, Mademoiselle, can one live in it?"
"No, not yet. Perhaps never."
"Madame, we must move on again," interrupted Julien. "We have a long way to go before night."
The woman rose, and turning to a drawer, pulled out a heap of soiled papers, bills and letters. "Wait," she said, "wait an instant!"
Turning them over she sought and found a couple of old sheets pinned together, and unpinning them she handed one to Fanny.
"It is the receipt for the cream," she said, "that I want to give you. It is a good cream though I left the pot behind."
* * * * *
The sun sank and the forests around Chantilly grew vague and deep. White statues stood by the roadside, and among the trees chateaux with closed eyes slept through the winter. Every tree hung down beneath its load of snow; the telephone wires drooped like worsted threads across the road.
Fanny, who had left Julien at his new billets in Chantilly, drove on alone to the little village on the Oise which was to be her home. It was not long before she could make out the posts and signals of the railway on her left, and the river appeared in a broad band below her. The moon rose, and in the river the reeds hung head downwards, staring up at the living reeds upon the bank.
It gleamed upon a signpost, and turning down a lane on the left she came on a handful of unlighted cottages, and beyond them a single village street, soundless and asleep. A chemist's shop full of coloured glasses was lit from within by a single candle; upon the step the chemist stood, a skull cap above his large, pitted face.
Somewhere in the shuttered village a roof already sheltered her companions, but before looking for them she drew up and gazed out beyond the river and the railway line to where the moon was slowly lighting hill after hill. But the spectral summer town which she sought was veiled in the night.
THE FORESTS OF CHANTILLY
The light of dawn touched Paris, the wastes of snow surrounding her, forests, villages scattered in the forest and plains around Senlis, Chantilly, Boran, Precy. The dark receded in the west; in the east a green light spread upwards from the horizon, touched the banks of the black Oise, the roofs of the houses of Precy, the dark window panes, and the flanks of the granite piers that stood beheaded in the water—all that was left of the great bridge that had crossed from bank to bank.
Above the river stood the station hut and the wooden gates of the level crossing, upon which the night lantern still hung; above again a strip of snow divided the railway line from the road, at the other side of whose stone wall the village itself began, and stretched backwards up a hill.
Upon a patch of snow above the river and below the road stood a flourishing little house covered with gables and turrets; and odd shapes like the newel-posts of staircases climbed unexpectedly about the roof. In summer, fresh with paint, the outside of the house must wave its vulgar little hands into the sky, but now, everything that bristled upon it served only as a fresh support for the snow which hung in deep drifts on its roof, and around its balconied windows. It stood in its own symmetrical walled garden, like a cup in a deep saucer, and within the wall a variety of humps and hillocks showed where the bushes crouched beneath their unusual blanket. One window, facing towards the railway and the river, had no balcony clinging to its stonework, and in the dark room behind it the light of the dawn pressed faintly between the undrawn curtains. A figure stirred upon the bed within, and Fanny, not clearly aware whether she had slept or not, longed to search the room for some heavier covering which, warming her, would let her sink into unconsciousness. Her slowly gathering wits, together with the nagging cold, forced her at last from the high bed on to the floor, and she crossed the room towards the light. In the walled garden below strange lights of dawn played, red, green and amber, like a crop of flowers. The railway lines beyond the garden wall disappeared in fiery bands north and south, lights flashed down from the sky above and winked in the black and polished river; at the limit of the white plain beyond, a window caught the sun and turned its burning-glass upon the snow.
"Chantilly...." A word like the dawn, filled with light and the promise of light! Turning back into the dim room, she flung her coat upon the bed, climbed in and fell asleep. Three hours later something pressed against her bed and she opened her eyes again. The room was fresh with daylight, and Stewart standing beside her carried a rug on her arm and wore a coat over her nightgown. "I'm coming down to have chocolate in your room...."
Fanny watched her. Stewart climbed up beside her wrapped in the rug. A knock at the door heralded the entry of a woman carrying a tray. Fanny watched her too, and saw that she was fresh, smiling, clean and big, and that steam flew up in puffs from the tray she carried. The woman pulled a little table towards the bed and set the tray on it.
"This is Madame Boujan!" said Stewart's voice.
Fanny tried to smile and say "Good morning," and succeeded. She was not awake but knew she was in clover. The cups holding the steaming chocolate were as large as bowls, and painted cherries and leaves glistened beneath their lustre surface. Beside the cups was a plate with rolls, four rolls; and there were knives and two big pots which must be butter and jam.
Fanny rolled nearer to the chocolate, sniffed it and pulled herself up in bed. The woman, still smiling beside them, turned and hunted among the clothes upon the chair; then held a jersey towards her shoulders and guided her arms into its sleeves. Ecstasy stole over Fanny; other similar wakings strung themselves like beads upon her memory; nursery wakings when her spirit had been guided into daylight by the crackle of a fire new-lit, by the movements of just such an aproned figure as this, by a smile on just such a pink face; or wakings after illness when her freshening life had leapt in her at the sound of a blind drawn up, at the sight of the white-cuffed hand that pulled the cord.
Oh, heavenly woman, who stood beside the tray, who fed her and warmed her while she was yet weak and babyish from sleep! Beyond her the white plains of beauty shone outside the window.... She sat up and smiled: "I'm awake," she said.
And Madame Boujan, having seen that her feet were set upon the threshold of day, went out of the door and closed it softly.
They held the lustre bowls cupped in their hands and sipped.
* * * * *
During lunch in the little villa, while they were all recounting their experiences, Madame Boujan came softly to Fanny's side and whispered:
"A soldier has brought you a note from Chantilly."
"Keep it for me in the kitchen," Fanny answered, under her breath, helping herself to potatoes.
"Will you come and cut wood for the bedroom fire?" said Stewart, when lunch was over. "I bought a hatchet in the village this morning."
"Come down by the river first," insisted Fanny, who had her note in her hand.
"Why? And it gets dark so soon!"
"I want to find a boat."
"To cross the river."
"To cross the river! Do you want to see what's on the other side?"
"Julien will be on the other side.... I have had a letter from him. I am to dine in Chantilly. He will send a car at seven to wait for me in the fields at the other side of the broken bridge, and trusts to me to find a boat. Come over the level crossing to the river."
They passed the station hut and came to a little landing stage near which a boat was tied.
"There's a boat," said Stewart. "Shall we ask at that hut?"
The wooden hut stood above their heads on a pedestal of stone; from its side the haunch of the stone bridge sprang away into the air, but stopped abruptly where it had been broken off. The hut, once perhaps a toll-house, was on a level with what had been the height of the bridge, and now it could be reached by stone steps which wound up to a small platform in front of the door. From within came men's voices singing.
"Look in here!"
A flickering light issued from a small window, and having climbed the steps they could see inside. Two boys, about sixteen, a soldier and an old man, sat round a table beneath a hanging lamp, and sang from scraps of paper which they held in their hands. Behind the old man a girl stood cleaning a cup with a cloth.
"They are practising something. Knock!"
But there was no need, for a dog chained in a barrel close to them set up a wild barking.
"Is he chained? Keep this side. The old man is coming."
The door opened. The voices ceased; the girl stood by the old man's side.
"Yes, it could be arranged. People still crossed that way; their boat was a sort of ferry and there was a charge.
"There might be a little fog to-night, but it didn't matter. Margot knows the way across blindfold—Margot would row the lady. She would be waiting with a lantern at five minutes to seven; and again at half-past nine. Not too late at all! But Margot would not wait on the other side, it was too cold. They would lend the lady a whistle, and she must blow on it from the far bank."
"There's romance!" said Fanny, as they came away.
"Not if you are caught."
"There's my magic luck!"
"How dare you ask like that? Even if you are not superstitious, even if you don't believe a word of it, why be so defiant—why not set the signs right!"
"Oh, my dear Stewart, I hardly care! And to the creature who doesn't care no suspicion clings. Haven't I an honest face? Would you think it was me, me, of all the Section, to cross the river to-night, in a little boat with a lantern, to creep out of the house, out of the village, to dine forbidden in Chantilly, with some one who enchants me! You wouldn't. Why, do you know, if I lived up in their house, under their eyes, I would go out just the same, to cross the river. I wouldn't climb by windows or invent a wild tale to soothe them, but open the door and shut the door, and be gone. And would anybody say: 'Where's Fanny?'"
"They might. But they would answer their own question: 'Innocently sleeping. Innocently working. Innocently darning, reading, writing.' I don't suspect myself so why should any one else suspect me!"
Fanny broke off and laughed.
"Come along and cut wood!"
They moved off into the woods as people with not a care in the world, and coming upon a snow-covered stack of great logs which had been piled by some one else, began to steal one or two and drag them away into a deep woodland drive where they could cut them up without fear of being noticed.
They worked on for an hour, and then Stewart drew a packet of cake from her coat pocket, and sitting upon the logs they had their tea.
Soon Fanny, wringing her hands, cried:
"I'm blue again, stiff again, letting the cold in, letting the snow gnaw. Where's the hatchet?"
For a time she chopped and hacked, and Stewart, shepherding the splinters which flew into the snow, piled them—splinters, most precious of all—petit bois to set a fire alight; and the afternoon grew bluer, deeper. Stewart worked in a reverie—Fanny in a heat of expectation. One mused reposedly on life—the other warmly of the immediate hours before her.
"Now I'm going to fetch the car," said Stewart at last. "Will you stay here and go on cutting till I come? There are two more logs."
She walked away up the drive, and Fanny picked the hatchet out of the snow and started on the leathery, damp end of a fresh log. It would not split, the tapping marred the white silence, and yet again she let the hatchet fall and sat down on the log instead. It was nearly six—they had spent the whole afternoon splitting up the logs, and making a fine pile of short pieces for firewood; the forest was darkening rapidly, blue deepened above the trees to indigo, and black settled among the trunks. Only the snow sent up its everlasting shine. Her thoughts fell and rose. Now they were upon the ground busy with a multitude of small gleams and sparkles—now they were up and away through the forest tunnels to Chantilly. What would he say first? How look when he met her?
"Ah, I am a silly woman in a fever! Yet happy—for I see beauty in everything, in the world, upon strange faces, in nights and days. Upon what passes behind the glassy eyes" (she pressed her own) "depends sight, or no sight. There is a life within life, and only I" (she thought arrogantly, her peopled world bounded by her companions) "am living in it. We are afraid, we are ashamed, but when one dares talk of this strange ecstasy, other people nod their heads and say: 'Ah, yes, we know about that! They are in love.' And they smile. But what a convention—tradition—that smile!"
There was no sound in the forest at all—not the cry of a bird, not the rustle of snow falling from a branch—but there was something deeper and remoter than sound, the approach of night. There was a change on the face of the forest—an effective silence which was not blankness—a voiceless expression of attention as the Newcomer settled into his place. Fanny looked up and saw the labyrinth of trees in the very act of receiving a guest.
"Oh, what wretched earnest I am in," she thought, suddenly chilled. "And it can only have one end—parting." But she had a power to evade these moods. She could slip round them and say to herself: "I am old enough—I have learnt again and again—that there is only one joy—the Present; only one Perfection—the Present. If I look into the future it is lost."
She heard the returning car far up the forest drive, and in a moment saw the gleam of its two lamps as they rocked and swayed. It drew up, and Stewart put out the lamps, ever remembering that their logs were stolen. There was still light enough by which they could pack the car with wood. As they finished Stewart caught her arm: "Look, a fire!" she said, pointing into the forest. Through a gap in the trees they could see a red glow which burst up over the horizon.
"And look behind the trees—the whole sky is illumined—What a fire!" As they watched, the glare grew stronger and brighter, and seemed about to lift the very tongue of its flame over the horizon.
"It's the moon!" they cried together.
The cold moon it was who had come up red and angry from some Olympic quarrel and hung like a copper fire behind the forest branches. Up and up she sailed, but paling as she rose from red to orange, from orange to the yellow of hay; and at yellow she remained, when the last branch had dropped past her face of light, and she was drifting in the height of the sky.
They drove back to the village and down to their isolated villa, and here on the road they passed ones and twos of the Section walking into supper.
"How little we have thought out your evasion!" whispered Stewart at the wheel, as they drew up at the door: "Get out, and go and dress. I will take the car up to the garage and come back."
Fanny slipped in through the garden. What they called "dressing" was a clean skirt and silk stockings—but silk stockings she dared not put on before her brief appearance at supper. Stuffing the little roll into her pocket she determined to change her stockings on the boat.
Soon, before supper was ended, she had risen from the table, unquestioned by the others, had paused a moment to meet Stewart's eye full of mystery and blessing, had closed the door and was gone.
She slipped down the road and across the field to the railway. There was a train standing, glowing and breathing upon the lines, and the driver called to her as she ran round the buffers of the engine. Soon she was down by the riverside and looking for Margot. Though there was moonlight far above her the river banks were wrapped in fog that smelt of water, and Margot's face at the hut window was white, and her wool dress white, too. She came down and they rowed out into the fog, in an upward circle because of the stream. Fanny could just see her companion's little blunt boots, the stretched laces across her instep, and above, her pretty face and slant eyes. Hurriedly, in the boat she pulled off the thick stockings, rolled them up, and drew on the silk. A chill struck her feet. She wrapped the ends of her coat lightly round her knees and as she did so the roll of thick stockings sprang out of her lap and fell overboard into the fog and the river. "Mademoiselle goes to a party?" said Margot, who had not noticed. The soft sympathetic voice was as full of blessing as Stewart's eyes had been.
"Yes, to a party. And you will fetch me back to-night when I whistle?"
"Yes. Blow three times, for sometimes in the singing at home I lose the sound."
The opposite bank seemed to drift in under the motionless boat, and she sprang out.
"A tout a l'heure, mademoiselle."
At the top of the bank the road ran out into the fog, which was thicker on this side. She walked along it and was lost to Margot's incurious eyes. Here it was utterly deserted: since the bridge had been blown up the road had become disused and only the few who passed over by Margot's boat ever found their way across these fields. She strayed along by the road's edge and could distinguish the blanched form of a tree.
Strange that the fog should reach so much further inland on this side of the river. Perhaps the ground was lower. Standing still her ear caught a rich, high, throaty sound, a choking complaint which travelled in the air.
"It is the car," she thought. Far away a patch of light floated in the sky, like an uprooted searchlight.
"That is the fog, bending the headlights upward."
She stood in the centre of the road and listened to the sound as it drew nearer and nearer, till suddenly the headlights came down out of the sky and pierced her—she stood washed in light, and the car stopped.
Beside the driver of the car was, not Julien, but a man with a red, wooden face like a Hindoo god made out of mahogany. Saluting, he said: "We are sent to fetch you, mademoiselle." He held the door of the closed car open for her, she smiled, nodded, climbed in and sank upon the seat.
"When you get to the lights of the houses, mademoiselle, will you stoop a little and cover yourself with this rug? It is not foggy in Chantilly and the street is very full."
"I will," she said, "I'll kneel down."
Something about his face distressed her. How came it that Julien trusted this new man? Perhaps he was some old and private friend of his who felt antagonistic to her, who disbelieved in her, who would hurt them both with his cynical impassivity.
"I'm fanciful!" she thought. "This is only some friend of his from Paris." Paris sending forth obstacles already!
In Chantilly she crouched beneath the rug—her expectations closing, unwandering, against her breast. Beams might pierce the glass of the car and light nothing unusual; what burnt beneath was not a fire that man could see. Generals in the street walked indifferently to the Hotel of the Grand Conde. It was their dinner hour, and who cared that an empty car should move towards a little inn beyond? Now, she held armfuls of the rug about her, buried from the light, now held her breath, too, as the car stopped.
And there stood Julien, at the end of the passage, he whom she had left, sombre and distracted, a long twenty-four hours ago in Chantilly. She saw the change even while she flew to him. He was gay, he was excited, he was exciting. He was beautiful, admirable, he admired her.
"Fanny, is it true? You have come?" and "Que vous etes en beaute!"
Within, a table was laid for three—three chairs, three plates, three covers. He saw her looking at this.
"We dine three to-night. You must condescend to dine with a sergeant. My old friend—Where is Alfred?"
"I am here."
"My old friend—four years before the war. The oldest friend I have. He has heard—"
("——Of Violette. He has heard of Violette! He is Violette's friend; he is against me!")
"I am so glad," she said aloud, in a small voice, and put out her hand. She did not like him, she had an instant dread of him, and thought he beheld it too.
"I did not even know he was here," said Julien, more gay than ever. "But he is the sergeant of the garage, and I find him again.
"What a help you'll be, to say the least of it! You will drive her to the river, you will fetch her from the river! I myself cannot drive, I am not allowed."
The impassive man thus addressed looked neither gay nor sad. His little eyes wandered to Fanny with a faint critical indifference. ("Julien has made a mistake, a mistake! He is an enemy!") She could not clearly decide how much she should allow her evening to be shadowed by this man, how deeply she distrusted him. But Julien was far from distrusting him. Through the dinner he seemed silently to brag to Alfred. His look said, and his smile said: "Is she not this and that, Alfred? Is she not perfect?" His blue eyes were bright, and once he said, "Go on, talk, Fanny, talk, Fanny, you have an audience. To-night you have two to dazzle!" Impossible to dazzle Alfred. Could he not see that? One might as easily dazzle a mahogany god, a little god alive beneath its casing with a cold and angry life. Yet though at first she was silent, inclined to listen to Alfred, to hope that something in his tones would soothe her enemy fears, soon she could not help following Julien's mood. Should she want to be praised, she had it from his eye—or be assured of love, it was there, too, in the eye, the smile, the soft tone. Because of Alfred, he could put nothing into words—because he must be dumb she could read a more satisfying conversation in his face.
She began to think the occasional presence of a third person was an addition, an exciting disturbance, a medium through which she could talk with ease two languages at once, French to Alfred, and love to Julien.
When they had finished dining Alfred left them, promising to come back with the car in half an hour, to take Fanny to the river.
"You must like him!" said Julien confidently, when the door had closed. Fanny said she would. "And do you like him?" Fanny said she did.
"I met him so many years ago. He was suffering very much at the time through a woman. Now he will tell you he has become a cynic."
"Did she treat him badly?"
"She ran away from him, taking his carriage and his two horses—"
"A beautiful woman?" interrupted Fanny, who liked details.
"She might equally well have been magnificent or monstrous. She was over life-size, and Alfred, who is small, adored her. Everything about her was emphatic. Her hair was heavy-black, her skin too red. And never still, never in one place. Alfred had a house outside Paris, and carriage and horses to take him to the station. One night she took the horses, put them into the carriage and was seen by a villager seated upon the coachman's box driving along the road. When she had passed him this man saw her stop and take up a dark figure who climbed to the seat beside her. They—the woman and her probable lover, who never once had been suspected, and never since been heard of—drove as far as Persan- Beaumont, near here, where they had an accident, and turned the carriage into the ditch, killing one of the horses. The other they took out and coolly tied to the station railings. They took the train and disappeared, and though she had lived with Alfred two years, she never left a note for him to tell him that she had gone, she never wired to him about the roses, she never has written one since."
"Enough to turn him into a cynic!"
"Not at first. He came to me, spent the night in my flat; he was distracted. We must have walked together a mile across my little floor. He couldn't believe she was gone, which was natural. And though next morning the horses were missing and the coach-house empty, he couldn't be got to connect the two disappearances. He rang me up from the country where he went next day, saying earnestly as though to convince himself, 'You know I've got on to the Paris police about those horses.' And later in the day, again: 'I hear there has been a good deal of horse-stealing all over the country.' Then, when the horses were found, one dead, and the other tied to the station railings, he believed at once that she had taken them and wouldn't talk one word more upon the subject. He sold the remaining horse."
"It was then he grew cool about women!"
"Not yet. It was then that he met, almost at once, a young girl who insisted in the most amazing fashion, that she loved him. He could not understand it. He came to me and said: 'Why does she love me?'
"I thought she was merely intriguing to marry him, but no, he said: 'There's something sincere and impressive in her tone; she loves me. What shall I do?'
'Why shouldn't you marry her?' I said.
And then he was all at once taken with the idea to such a degree that he became terrified when he was with her. 'Suppose she refuses me,' he said twenty times a day. 'Ask her. It's simple.' 'It's staking too much. You say, "Ask her," when all in a minute she may say no.'
"He got quite ill over it. The girl's mother asked him to the house, the girl herself, though she saw him less and less alone, smiled at him as tenderly as ever. And then there came a day when he left me full of courage, and going to her house he asked her to marry him. He met her alone by chance, and before asking her mother he spoke to the girl herself. She said no, point-blank. She said 'Nothing would induce her to.' He was so astonished that he didn't stay a second longer in the house. He didn't even come to me, but went back into the country, and then to England."
"But why did the girl—?"
"There is nothing to ask. Or, at any rate, there is no answer to anything. I suppose he asked himself every question about her conduct, but it was inexplicable."
"He should have asked her twice."
"It never occurred to him. And he has told me lately that she refused him with such considered firmness that it seemed unlikely that it was a whim."
"Well—poor Alfred! And yet it was only the merest chance, the merest run of bad luck—but it leaves him, you say, with the impression that we are flawed?"
"A terrible flaw. His opinion is that there is a deep coldness in women. In the brain, too, he feels them mortally unsound. Mad and cold he says now of all women, and therefore as unlike a normal man as a creature half-lunatic, half-snake."
"He thinks that of all women, young or old?"
"Yes, I think so. He tells me that whereas most men make the mistake of putting down womanly unreason to the score of their having too much heart, he puts it down to their having no heart at all, which he says is so mad a state that they are unrecognisable as human creatures."
"But—(alas, poor Alfred)—you have made a charming confidante for us!"
"Confidante? He will make the best. He is devoted to me."
"To anything, to any one I care for."
"Not to me. What you have told me is the key to his expression when he looks at me. If he is devoted to you it is not an unreasoning devotion, and he is judging me poisonous to you. As he has himself been hurt, he will not have you hurt. I wish he had never come. I wish he might never be my driver to the river, and your friend, and our enemy."
"I wish it. I am unhappy about him, and unhappiness is always punished. While we were in Metz every one smiled at us; here every one will spy us out, scold, frown, punish—"
"And your magic luck?"
"Alfred threatens my luck," she said. Then, with another look, "Are you angry with me? Can you love such a character?"
"I love it now."
"You have never heard me when I scold, or cry or am sulky?..."
"But if I make the experiment?"
"I could make a hundred experiments, but I make none of them. We cannot know what to-morrow may bring."
This she remembered suddenly with all her heart.
"Come nearer to me, Fanny. Why are you sitting so far away?"
She sat down nearer to him; she put all her fingers tightly round his wrist.
"I am not always sure that you are there, Julien; that you exist."
"Yet I am substantial enough."
"No, you are most phantom-like. It is the thought of parting that checks my earnestness; as though I had an impulse to save myself. It is the thought of parting that turns you into a ghost, already parted with; that sheds a light of unreality over you when I am distant. Something in me makes ready for that parting, flees from you, and I cannot stay it, steals itself, and I cannot break through it. I have known you so short a time. I have had nothing but pleasure from you; isn't it possible that I can escape without pain?"
"No, no, no!" She laid her cheek upon his hand. "Do something to make it easier. Must it be that when you go you go completely? Promise me at least that it will be gradual, that you will try to see me when you have taken up your other life."
"But if I can't? If you are ordered back to Metz?"
"Why should I be? But, if I am, promise me that you will try. If it is only an artifice, beguile me with it; I will believe in any promise."
"You don't need to ask me to promise; you know you don't need to make me promise. Wherever you are sent I will try to come. Wherever—do you hear? Do you think that that 'other' life is a dragon to eat me up? That it will be such bliss to me that I shall forget you completely? It isn't to be bliss, but work, hard work, and competition. It is the work that will keep me to Paris, not my happiness, my gaiety, my content with other faces. That would comfort me if I were listener, and you the speaker. But, Fanny, Fanny, I never met any one with such joy as you—it is you who change the forest and the inns we meet in, make the journeys a miracle. Don't show me another face. We have been in love without a cloud, without scenes, without tears. You have laughed at everything. Don't change, don't show me someone whom I don't know; not that sad face!"
"This then!" She held up a face in whose eyes and smile was the hasty radiance his fervour had brought her—and at sight of it the words broke from him—"Are you happy so quickly?"
"Yes, yes, already happy."
"Because I speak aloud of what I feel? What a doubting heart you have within you! And I believe you only pretend to distress yourself, that you may test whether I am sensitive enough to show the reflection of it. Come! Well—am I right?"
"Partly. But I need not think. Oh, I am glad your feeling is so like mine, and mine like yours! I will let the parting take care of itself —yet there is one thing about which I cannot tell. What does your heart do in absence, what kind of man are you when there is no one but Alfred, who will say: 'Forget her'?"
"What kind do you think?"
"While I am here beside you, you cannot even imagine how dim I might become. Can I tell? Can you assure me?"
Dim she might become to him, but dim she was not now as she besought him with eyes that showed a quick and eager heart, eyes fixed on his face full of enquiry, sure of its answer, feigning doubt that did not distress her.
"And I to you, and I to you?" he said, speaking in her ear when he had made her an answer. "Dim, too? Why do we never talk of your inconstancy? We must discuss it."
"Inconstancy! That word had not occurred to me. It was your forgetfulness that I dreaded."
"I shall not be unforgetful until I am inconstant."
"You can afford to tease me now you have me in such a mood!"
"In such a mood! Have I, indeed? Yet you will forget me before I forget you."
"You tell me to my face that I shall change?" she asked.
"Yes. And since you are bound to forget me, I insist at least that there shall be a reason for doing so. I would rather be a king dethroned than allowed to lapse like a poor idiot."
"You would? You can say that?" Her voice rose.
"One instant, Fanny. Even when my teasing is out of taste, learn to distinguish it from what I say in earnest. My dear, my dear, why should you have to listen to the matter of my philosophy and my experience which tells me all creatures forget and are forgotten! No! I wipe out! You will not vanish—"
The door opened and Alfred entered the room.
"The car is ready," he said. "I have had trouble in getting here."
Fanny turned to him. "I am ready," she said. "It is dreadful to have to trouble you to take me so late at night to the river."
"No, no—" Alfred, glowing from the exercise in the snowy night outside, was inclined to be more friendly, or at least less sparing of his words. "Here are some letters that were at your lodging." He handed three to Julien.
"When do you dine with me again?" Julien, holding the letters, placed his hand upon her shoulder.
"I cannot tell what the work will be. Perhaps little, as the snow is deep."
"It is snowing again outside," said Alfred.
"Then the snow will lie even deeper, and there will be no work."
"Get her back quickly, Alfred, or the snow will lie too deep for you. I will send you a note, Fanny."
"That is quite easy, is it?"
"Easy. But compromising."
"Oh, surely—not very?"
"In France everything is compromising, mademoiselle," said Alfred. "But he will find a way to send it."
Julien had urged her to hurry, fearing the snow; now he said, "You are going?" as though it distressed him.
"Yes, you must, you must. Where is your leather coat? Here—"
He found it.
"Stay! I must read this before you go. It is my demobilisation paper with the final date. I will look—"
"Are you coming?" called Alfred, from the end of the passage. "It is snowing wildly."
"There is some mistake," muttered Julien, his eye searching the large unfolded document.
"When, when—?" Fanny, hanging on his words, watched him.
"One moment. It is a mistake. Alfred! Alfred, here, a minute!"
"Look," he said, when Alfred had re-entered the room. He handed the paper to him, and drew him under the light. "See, they say—ah, wait, did I register at Charleville or Paris?"
"At Charleville. As an agriculturist. I remember well."
"Then there is no mistake." He folded up the paper, pinching the edges of the folds slowly with his thumb and finger nail.
"Fanny, it has come sooner than I expected."
She could say nothing, but fastened her gaze upon his lips.
"Much, much sooner, and there is no evading it. Alfred, I will bring her in a minute."
"The snow is coming down," muttered the mahogany god, grown wooden again under the light, and retreated.
"It is worse for me; it has been done by my own stupidity. But in those days I didn't know you—"
"Oh, if you are thinking of breaking it to me—only tell me which day! To-morrow?" She moved up close to him.
"Not to-morrow! No, no," he said, almost relieved that it was better than she feared. "In five days, in five days. Oh, this brings it before me! I have no wish now for that release for which I have longed. Fanny, it is only a change, not a parting!"
Alfred's voice called sharply from without. "You must come, mademoiselle! Julien, bring her!"
"One instant. She is coming. Fanny, I must think it out. Until I go—I shall have time—we will get you sent to Charleville, and Charleville I must come often to see my land and my factory."
"Often, I must—"
"Once a week at last. Perhaps more often. If we can only manage that!"
"Julien!" Alfred returned and stood again in the doorway. "This is absurd. I can never get to the river if you keep her."
"Go, go. I will arrange! You will have a note from me to-morrow. Hurry, good-night, good-night!"
She was in the car; now the door was shutting on her; yet once more he pulled it open, "Ah! Oh, good-night!"
At the side of the car, the snow whirling round his head, Julien kissed her face in the darkness; Alfred, relentless, drove the car onward, and the door shutting with a slam, left him standing by the inn.
The indifferent Alfred drove his unhappy burden towards the river. Walled in by the rush of snowflakes about him he made what way he could, but it was well-nigh impossible to see. The lamps gave no light, for the flakes had built a shutter across the glass like a policeman's dark lantern. The flying multitudes in the air turned him dizzy; he could not tell upon which side of the road he drove, and he could not tell what he would do when the wall beyond the outskirts of Chantilly forsook him. As to what was happening below him, what ruts, ditches, pits or hillocks he was navigating, he had no idea; his ship was afloat upon the snow, sluggishly rolling and heaving as it met with soft, mysterious obstacles.
Heaviness and gloom sat upon the velvet seat behind him. The white, wild night outside was playful and waggish compared with the black dejection behind the opaque glass windows.
Fanny, who could not see her hand move in the darkness, saw clearly with other miserable and roving eyes the road that lay before her.
"Julien, good-bye. Don't forget me!" That she would say to him in a few days; that was the gate, the black portal which would lead her into the road. That she would say, with entreaty, yet no painful tones of hers would represent enough the entreaty of her heart that neither would forget the other. She thought of this.
Not in wilful unreason, or in disbelief of his promise, she looked at this parting as though it might be final. Without him she could see no charm ahead. And yet.... Tough, leathery heart—indestructible spinner she knew herself to be—no sooner should the dew fall from this enchanting fabric, the web itself be torn, than she would set to work upon the flimsiest of materials to weave another. And with such weaving comes forgetfulness. She thought of this.
Not four feet away, another mind, inscrutable to hers, was violently employed upon its own problem. In this wild darkness the wall of Chantilly had bid him go on alone; it left him first without guide, second without shelter. He drove into the path of a rough and bitter storm which was attacking everything in the short plain between the forest and the town. It leapt upon him in an outbreak of hisses; cut him with hailstones, swept up false banks of snow before him till the illusion of a road led him astray. He turned too much to the right, hung on the lip of a buried ditch, turned back again and saved himself. He turned too much to the left, tilted, hung, was in danger—yet found the centre of the road again. Here, on this wild plain, the exposed night was whiter—blanched enough, foreign enough, fitful enough to puzzle the most resolved and native traveller.
He arrived at a cross-roads. Yet was it a cross-roads? When roads are filled in level with the plain around them, the plain itself wind-churned like a ploughed field, when banks are rompishly erected, or melt unstably before the blows of the storm, it is hard to choose the true road from the false. He chose a road which instantly he saw to be no road. Too late. He pitched, this time not to recover. "A river—a river-bed!" was his horrified thought. Down went the nose of the car before him, the steering-wheel hitting him in the chest. Down came Fanny and all her black thoughts against the glass at his back. The car had not fallen very far; it had slid forward into a snow-lined dyke, and remained, resting on its radiator, its front wheels thrust into the steep walls of the bank, its back wheels in the air. Alfred climbed down from a seat which had lost its seating power; Fanny opened the door and stepped from the black interior into the deep snow. The front lamps were extinguished and buried in the opposite bank, the little red light at the back shone upwards to heaven.
"Are you hurt?"
"Not at all. And you?"
"Not a bit."
Their cold relations did not seem one whit changed from what they had been in the inn. Nothing had intervened but a little reflection, a little effort, and a vigorous jerk. Why should they change? They stood side by side in the noisy violence of the storm, and one shouted to the other: "Can you get her out!" and the other answered, "No."
"I will walk on to the river."
"You would never find it."
The truth of this she saw as she looked round.
Alfred left her and descending into the dyke, went on his knees by the radiator and fumbled deep in the snow with his hand. A hissing arose as the heated water ran from the tap he had turned. He emptied the water from the generator; the tail light sank and went out.
"No one will run into her," he remarked. "No one will pass."
Aie—screamed the wind and created a pillar of white powder. Fanny, losing her balance, one foot sank on the edge of a rut, and she went down on her hands; to the knees her silk-clad legs met the cold bite of the snow.
"You must come back with me," shouted Alfred in her ear.
That seemed true and necessary; she could not reach the river; she could not stay where she was. She followed him. At the next ditch he put out his hand and helped her across. They had no lamp. By the light of the snow she watched his blue-clad legs as they sank and rose; her own sinking and rising in the holes he left for her, the buffets of wind un-steadying her at every step. She followed him. And because she was as green as a green bough which bursts into leaf around a wound, the disturbing, the exciting menace of her discovery brightened her heart, set her mind whirling, and overgrew her dejection.
They gained the Chantilly wall, and experienced at once its protection. The howling wind passed overhead and left them in a lew; the dancing snowflakes steadied and dropped more like rain upon them; she moved up abreast of Alfred.
"I will take you back to the inn," he said. "They will have a room there."
"Julien will have left and gone to his lodging."
"Yes, at the other end of the town," answered Alfred, she fancied with grim satisfaction. ("Though it is as well," she thought; "there will be less scandal in the eyes of the innkeeper.")
"To-morrow morning, mademoiselle, I will fetch you at six with another car and its driver, Foss, a man whom I can trust. We will take you to the river, and on the return journey drag the car from the ditch. It should be easy; she has not heeled over on her side."
"That will be marvellous. I cannot tell you how I apologise."
This, she began to see, was serious; her debt to the enemy Alfred was growing hourly.
"No, no," he said, as though he saw the thing in the light of common justice. "You have come over to dine with Julien; we must get you back to the river."
"Nevertheless it's monstrous," she thought, "what he has to do for me."
But Alfred regarded it less as a friendly office towards Julien than as a duty, an order given by an officer. He was a sergeant, and four years of war had changed him from an irritable and independent friend to a dogged and careful subordinate. He did not like Fanny any the more for the trouble she was giving him; but he did not hold her responsible for his discomforts. She must be got to the river and to the river he would get her.
Pray heaven she never crossed it again.
When they arrived on the pavement outside the inn, he said: "Knock, mademoiselle, and ask if there is a room. It would be better that I should not be seen. Explain that the snow prevented you from returning. If there is a room do not come back to tell me, I shall watch you enter, and fetch you at six in the morning."
She thanked him again, and following his instructions, found herself presently in a small room under the eaves—pitied by the innkeeper's wife, given a hot brick wrapped in flannel by the innkeeper's daughter, warmed and cheered and, in a very short time, asleep. At half-past five she was called, dressed herself, and drank a cup of coffee; paying a fabulous bill which included two francs for the hot brick.
At six came Alfred, in another car, seated beside Foss, the new driver, a pale man with a grave face. They moved off in the grey dawn which brightened as they drove. Beyond the Chantilly wall the plain stretched, and on it the labouring wheel-marks of the night before were plainly marked. Alfred, beside the driver, let down a pane of glass to tell her that he had already been out with Foss and towed in the other car. She saw the ditch into which they had sunk, the scrambled marks upon the bank where she had been towed out. In ten minutes they were in the midst of the forest.
Now, Fate the bully, punishing the unlucky, tripping up the hurried, stepped in again. This car, which had been seized in a hurry by cold and yawning men, was not as she should be.
"Is she oiled?" Foss had called to the real driver of the car.
"She is ... everything!" answered the man, in a hurry, going off to his coffee. She was not.
Just as the approaching sun began to clear the air, just as with a spring at her heart Fanny felt that to be present at the opening of a fine day was worth all the trouble in the world, the engine began to knock. She saw Foss's head tilt a little sideways, like a keen dog who is listening. The knock increased. The engine laboured, a grinding set in; Foss pulled up at the side of the road and muttered to Alfred. He opened the bonnet, stared a second, then tried the starting handle. It would not move. Fanny let down the pane of glass and watched them in silence. "Not a drop," said Foss's low voice. And later, "Oil, yes, but—find me the tin!"
"Do you mean there is no oil, no spare oil—" Alfred hunted vainly round the car, under the seats, in the tool box. There was no tin of oil.
"If I had some oil," said Foss, "and if I let her cool a little, I could manage—with a syringe."
They consulted together. Alfred nodded, and approached the window.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "I am going on to the next village to get a tin of oil. There is a garage. Cars will be passing soon; I must ask you to lie covered with the rug in the bottom of the car; your uniform is very visible. Foss will remain with you."
Fanny lay down in the bottom of the car, fitting her legs among a couple of empty petrol tins; Foss covered her with the rug. A quarter of an hour went by, and above her she began to hear the voices of birds; below her the cold crept up. She had no idea how far the village might be, and it is possible that Alfred had had no idea either. A bicycle bell rang at her side; later she heard the noise of a car, which passed her with a rush. Lying with her ear so close to the poor body of the motor she felt it to be but cold bones in a cemetery, dead, dead.
Outside in the road, Foss shaded his eyes and looked up the now sparkling road a hundred times. The motors increased; the morning traffic between Precy and Chantilly awoke; the cars were going in to the offices of the G.Q.G. Now and then Foss would come to the window of the car. "Don't move," he would say. The floor-boards were rattled by an icy wind that blew over the face of the snow and up under the car; the brown, silk legs lay prone and stiff between the petrol cans, lifeless now to the knee. She was seized with fits of violent shivering. At one moment she had planned in her despair to call to Foss and tell him she would walk—but she had let the moment pass and now she put away the thought of walking on those lifeless feet. Besides, she would be seen—that well-known cap, bobbing back between the trees from Chantilly so early in the morning!
"Oh, Honour of the Section, I am guarding you like my life!" She tried to raise her head a little to ease her neck.
"Don't move," said Foss.
Feet pattered past her; motors swept by; bicycle bells rang.
"Foss," she said.
The soldier leant towards her and listened.
"Choose your own time, but you must let me sit up a moment. I am in pain."
"Then, now, mademoiselle!"
She sat up, flinging the rug back, dazzled by the splendour of the forest, the climbing sun, the heavy-burdened trees. Behind her was a cart coming up slowly; far ahead a cyclist swayed in the ruts of the road. As they approached her she pleaded: "They can't know me! Let me sit up—"
But Foss knew only one master, his sergeant.
"Better go down, mademoiselle."
She went down again under the black rug, close against the wind that lifted the floor-boards, wrapping her coat more tightly round her, folding her arms about her knees.
"It must be nearly eight. I have an hour more before they come in to breakfast. Ah, and when they do, will one of them go into my bedroom with my letters?"
She tried to pick out in her mind that one most friendly to her, that one who was to destroy her. She heard in spirit her cry: "Fanny isn't there!"
She thought of Stewart who would have woken early, planning anxiously to save her. The faces of the Guardians of the Honour of the Section began to visit her one by one, and horror spread in her. Then, pushing them from her, attempting to escape: "They are not all the world—" But they were all the world—if in a strange land they were all to frown together. The thought was horrible. Time to get there yet! Alas, that the car was not facing towards Chantilly—so early in the morning!
"Foss, Foss, don't you see him coming?"
"The road is full of people."
A car rushed by them, yet never seemed to pass. The engine slowed down and a voice called: "What's up? Anything you want?"
It was the voice of Roland Vauclin. Ah, she knew him—that fat, childish man, who loved gossip as he loved his food. To Fanny it seemed but a question of seconds before he would lift the rug, say gravely, "Good morning, mademoiselle," before he would rush back to his village spreading the news like a fall of fresh snow over the roofs. She lay still from sheer inertia. Had Foss answered? She could not hear.
Then she heard him clear his throat and speak.
"The Captain asked me to get a bit of wood for his fire, sir. I have a man in there gathering branches, while I do a bit of 'business' with the car."
"Oh, right!... Go on!" said Vauclin to his own chauffeur. Again they were left alone. Talk between them was almost impossible; Fanny was so muffled, Foss so anxiously watched for Alfred. The reedy singing between the boards where the wind attacked her occupied all her attention. The very core of warmth seemed extinguished in her body, never to be lit again. She remembered their last fourier, or special body-servant, who had gone on leave upon an open truck, and who had grown colder and colder—"and he never got warm again and he died, madame," the letter from his wife had told them.
"I think he is coming! There is no one else on the road, mademoiselle. Will you look? I don't see very well—"
She tried to throw off the rug and sit up, but her frozen elbow slipped and she fell again on the floor of the car. Pulling herself up she stared with him through the glass. Far up the white road a little figure toiled towards them, carrying something, wavering as though the ice-ruts were deep, picking its way from side to side. Neither of them was sure whether it was Alfred; they watched in silence. Before she knew it was upon her a car went by; she dived beneath the rug, striking her forehead on the corner of the folding seat.
"Did they see? Was any one inside?"
"It was an empty car. Please be careful."
Foss was cold with rebuke. After that she lay still, isolated even from Foss. Ten minutes went by and suddenly Foss spoke—"Did you have to go far?"
And Alfred's hard voice answered "Yes."
Then she heard the two men working, tools clattering, murmured voices, and in ten minutes Foss said: "Try the starting handle."
She heard the efforts, the labour of Alfred at the handle.
"He will kill himself—he will break a blood-vessel," she thought as she listened to him. Every few minutes someone seized the handle and wound and wound—as she had never wound in her life—on and on, past the very limit of endurance. And under her ear, in the cold bones of the car, not a sign of life! Not a sign of life, and, as though she could hear them, all the clocks in the world struck nine.
The Guardians of the Honour would be in at breakfast now! they would be sitting, sitting—discussing her absence. Stewart, upstairs, would be looking out of the window, watching the river, perhaps answering questions indifferently with her cool look. "Oh, in the garage—or walking in the forest. I don't know." Cough! She jumped as the bones in the bottom of the car moved under her, and the engine breathed. The noise died out, Foss leapt to the handle and wound and wound, fiercely, like a man who meant to make her breathe again or die. Again she struggled to life, lived for a few minutes, choked and was silent.
"How is the handle?"
"Pretty stiff," said Foss, "but getting better. Give me the oil squirt."
Alfred took his place at the handle. Suddenly the car sprang to life again on a full deep note. Fanny lifted her head a little. Foss was leaning over the carburettor with his thin anxious look: Alfred stood in the snow, dark red in the face, and covered with oil. Soon they were moving along the road, slowly at first, and with difficulty: then faster and more freely. A little thin warmth began to creep up through the boards and play about her legs.
She was carried along under her dark rug for another twenty minutes, then fell against the seat as the car turned sharply into the forsaken road that led to the broken bridge. In five minutes more the car had stopped and Alfred was at the door saying: "At last, mademoiselle!" She stammered her thanks as she tried to step from the car to the ground —but fell on her knees on the dashboard.
"Have you hurt your foot?" said Alfred, who was hot.
"I am only cold," she said humbly, unwilling to intrude her puny endurances on their gigantic labours.
She sat on the step of the car rubbing her ankles, and stared at the meadows of thawing snow, at the open porches of stone which led the road straight into the river, at the church and the sunlit houses on the other side.
Bidding them good-bye she reached the bank, and climbed down it, stumbling in the frozen mud and pits of ice till she reached the stiff reeds at the bank.
The river had floes of ice upon it, green ice which swung and caught among the reeds at the edge. "It is thin," she thought, pushing her shoe through it, "it can't prevent the boat from crossing the river." Yet she was anxious.
There on the other side was the little hut, the steps, the boat tied to the stone and held rigid in the ice. A shaggy dog ran by her feet to the river's edge and barked. Feet came clambering down the bank and a workman followed the dog, with a bag of tools and a basket. He walked up to the river, and putting his hands in a trumpet to his mouth called in a huge voice: "Un passant, Margot! Margot!" Fanny remembered her whistle and blew that too.
There was no sign of life, and the little hut looked as before, like a brown dog asleep in the sun. Fanny turned to the man, ready to share her anxiety with him, but he had sat down on the bank and was retying a bootlace that had come undone.
Margot never showed herself at the hut window, at the hut door. When Fanny turned back to whistle again she saw her standing up in the boat, which, freed, was drifting out towards them—saw her scatter the ice with her oar—and the boat, pushed upstream, came drifting down towards them in a curve to hit the bank at their feet. The girl stepped out, smiling, happy, pretty, undimmed by the habit of trade. The man got in and sat down, the dog beside him.
"I would stand," said Margot to Fanny, "it's so wet."
She made no allusion to the broken appointment for the night before. Fanny, noticing the dripping boards of the boat, stood up, her hand upon Margot's shoulder to steady herself. The thin, illusory ice shivered and broke and sank as the oar dipped in sideways.
Cocks were crowing on the other side—the sun drew faint colours from the ice, the river clattered at the side of the boat, wind twisted and shook her skirt, and stirred her hair. All was forgotten in the glory of the passage of the river.
Margot, smiling up under her damp, brown hair, took her five sous, pressed her town boots against the wooden bar, and shot the boat up against the bank.
Fanny went up the bank, over the railway lines, and out into the road. Two hundred yards of road lay before her, leading straight up to the house. On the left was a high wall, on the right the common covered with snow—should some one come out of the house there was no chance of hiding. She glanced down at her tell-tale silk stockings; yet she could not hurry on those stiff and painful feet. She was near the door in the wall.
She passed in—the dog did not bark; came to the foot of the steps —nobody looked out of the window; walked into the hall among their hanging coats and macintoshes, touched them, moved them with her shoulder; heard voices behind the door of the breakfast room, was on the stairs, up out of sight past the first bend, up, up, into Stewart's room.
"Do you know...?"
"No one knows!"
"Oh ... oh...." All her high nerves came scudding and shuddering down into the meadows of content. Eternal luck.... She crept under Stewart's eiderdown and shivered.
"Here's the chocolate. I will boil it again on my cooker. Oh, you have a sort of ague...."
Good friend ... kind friend! She had pictured her like that, anxious, unquestioning and warm!
Later she went downstairs and opened the door of the breakfast room upon the Guardians of the Honour.
As she stood looking at them she felt that her clothes were the clothes of some one who had spent hours in the forest—that her eyes gave out a gay picture of all that was behind them—her adventures must shout aloud from her hands, her feet.
"Had your breakfast?" said some one.
"Upstairs," said Fanny, contentedly, and marvelled.
She had only to open and close her lips a dozen times, bid them form the words: "I have been out all night," to turn those browsing herds of benevolence into an ambush of threatening horns, lowered at her. Almost ... she would like to have said the sentence.
But basking in their want of knowledge she sat down and ate her third breakfast.
A thaw set in.
All night the snow hurried from the branches, slid down the tree trunks, sank into the ground. Sank into the moss, which suddenly uncovered, breathed water as a sponge breathes beneath the sea; sank into the Oise, which set up a roaring as the rising water sapped and tunnelled under its banks.
With a noise of thunder the winter roof of the villa slipped down and fell into the garden—leaving the handiwork of man exposed to the dawn—streaming tiles, ornamental chimneys, unburied gargoyles, parapet, and towers of wood.
In a still earlier hour, while darkness yet concealed the change of aspect, Fanny left the garden with a lantern in her hand. She had a paper in her pocket, and on the paper was written the order of her mission; the order ran clearly: "To take one officer to the demobolisation centre at Amiens and proceed to Charleville"; but the familiar words "and return" were not upon it.
She cast no glance back, yet in her mind sent no glance forward. She could not think of what she left; she left nothing, since these romantic forests would be as empty as tunnels when Julien was not there; but closing the door of the garden gate softly behind her, she blew out the lantern and hung it to the topmost spike, that Stewart, who was leaving for England in the morning, might bequeath it to their landlady.
All night long the Renault had stood ready packed in the road by the villa—and now, starting the engine, which ran soundlessly beneath the bonnet—she drove from a village whose strangeness was hidden from her, followed the Oise, which rumbled on a new note, heard the bubbling of wild brooks through the trees, and was lost in the steamy moisture of a thawing forest.
There was a sad, a deadly charm still about the journey. There was a bitter and a sweet comfort yet before her. There were two hours of farewell to be said at dawn. There was the sight of his face once more for her. That the man who slipped into the seat beside her at Chantilly was Julien dissolved her courage and set her heart beating. She glanced at him in that early light, and he at her. Two hours before them still.
She was to carry him with her only to lose him surely; he was to accompany her on her journey only to turn back.
All the way to Amiens he reassured himself and her: "In a week I will come to Charleville."
And she replied: "Yes, this is nothing. I lose you here, but in a week you will come."
(Why then this dread?)
"In a week—in a week," ran the refrain.
"How will you find me at Charleville? Will you come to the garage?"
"No, I shall write to the 'Silver Lion.' You will find in the middle of the main street an old inn with mouldering black wood upon the window sashes. How well I know it! I will write there."
"We are so near the end," she said suddenly, "that to have said 'Good-bye' to you, to leave you at Amiens, is no worse than this."
And faster she hurried towards Amiens to find relief. He did not contradict her, or bid her go slower, but as they neared Amiens, offered once more his promise that they would meet again in a week.
"It isn't that," she said. "I know we shall meet again. It isn't that I fear never to see you again. It is the closing of a chapter."
"I, too, know that."
They drove into Amiens in the streaming daylight.
The rain poured.
"I am sending you to my home," he said. "Every inch of the country is mine. You go to a town that I know, villages that I know, roads that I have walked and ridden and driven upon. You go to my country. I like to think of that."
"I shall go at once to see your house in Revins."
"Yes—oh, you will see it easily—on the banks of the Meuse. I was born there. In a week, in a few days, in a short time—I will come, too."
She stopped the car in a side street of the town.
Lifting her hands she said: "They want to hold you back." Then placed them back on the wheel. "They can't," she said, and shook her head.
He took his bag in his hand, and stood by the car, looking at her.
"You take the three o'clock train back to Paris when the papers are through," she said hurriedly with sudden nervousness. And then: "Oh, we've said everything! Oh, let's get it over—"
He held the side of the car with his hand, then stepped back sharply. She drove down the street without looking back.
There was a sort of relief in turning the next corner, in knowing that if she looked back she would see nothing. A heavy shadow lifted from her; it was a deliverance. "Good-bye" was said—was over; that pain was done—now for the next, now for the first of the days without him. She had slipped over the portal of one sorrow to arrive at another; but she felt the change, and her misery lightened. This half-happiness lasted her all the morning.
She moved out of Amiens upon the St. Quentin road, and was almost beyond the town before she thought of buying food for the day. Unjustly, violently, she reflected: "What a hurry to leave me! He did not ask if I had food, or petrol, or a map—"
But she knew in her heart that it was because he was young and in trouble, and had left her quickly, blindly, as eager as she to loosen that violent pain.
She bought a loaf of bread, a tin of potted meat, an orange and a small cheese, and drove on upon the road until she came to Warfusee. Wherever her thoughts fell, wherever her eye lay, his personality gnawed within her—and nowhere upon her horizon could she find anything that would do instead. Julien, who had moved off down the street in Amiens, went moving off down the street of her endless thought.
"I have only just left him! Can't I go back?" And this cry, carried out in the nerves of her foot, slowed the car up at the side of the road. She looked back—no smoke darkened the landscape. Amiens was gone behind her.
Again, on. In ten minutes the battlefields closed in beside the road.
Julien was gone. Stewart was gone. Comfort and ease and plenty were gone. "But We are here again!" groaned the great moors ahead, and on each hand. The dun grass waved to the very edge of the road cut through it. Deep and wild stretched the battlefields, and there, a few yards ahead, were those poor strangers, the scavenging Chinamen.
Upon a large rough signpost the word "Foucaucourt" was painted in white letters. A village of spars and beams and broken bricks—yet here, as everywhere, returning civilians hunted like crows among the ruins, carrying beams and rusty stoves, and large umbrellas for the rain.
At the next corner a Scotch officer hailed her.
"Will you give me a lift?"
He sat down beside her.
"What do you do?" she asked.
"I look after Chinamen."
"Ah, how lonely!"
"It is terrible," he replied. "Look at it! Dead for miles; the army gone, and I here with these little yellow fellows, grubbing up the crumbs."
She put him down at what he called "my corner"—a piece of ground indistinguishable from the rest.
"Is that where you live?"
There was a black-boarded hut from whose chimney smoke exuded, and to this ran a track across the grass. She watched him walk along it, a friendless, sandy man, left over from the armies which had peopled the rabbit warren in the ground. The Renault loped on with its wolf-like action, and she felt a spring of relief that she lived upon moving ground; passing on down the rickety road she forgot the little man.
Ahead lay the terrible miles. She seemed to make no gain upon them, and could not alter the face of the horizon, however fast she drove. Iron, brown grass—brown grass and iron, spars of wood, girders, torn railway lines and stones. Even the lorries travelling the road were few and far between. A deep loneliness was settled upon the desert where nothing grew. Yet, suddenly, from a ditch at the side of the road, a child of five stared at her. It had its foot close by a stacked heap of hand grenades; a shawl was wrapped round it and the thin hands held the ends together. What child? Whose? How did it get here, when not a house stood erect for miles and miles—when not a coil of smoke touched the horizon! Yes, something oozed from the ground! Smoke, blue smoke! Was life stirring like a bulb under this whiter ruin, this cemetery of village bones?
She stopped the car. The child turned and ran quickly across a heap of dust and iron and down into the ground behind a pillar. "It must have a father or mother below—" The breath of the invisible hearth coiled up into the air; the child was gone.
A man appeared behind the pillar and came towards the car. Fanny held out her cigarette-case and offered it to him.
"Have you been here long?" she asked.
"A month, mademoiselle."
"Are there many of you in this—village?" (Not a spar, not a pile of bricks stood higher than two feet above the ground.)
"There are ten persons now. A family came in yesterday."
"But how are you fed?"
"A lorry passes once a week for all the people in this district—within fifty miles. There are ten souls in one village, twenty in another, two in another. They have promised to send us huts, but the huts don't come. We have sunk a well now and it is drinkable, but before that we got water by lorry once a week, and we often begged a little from the radiators of other lorries."
"What have you got down there?"
"It is the cellar of my house, mademoiselle. There are two rooms still, and one is watertight. The trouble is the lack of tools. I can't build anything. We have a spade, and a pick and a hammer, which we keep between the ten of us."