"Take my hammer," said Fanny. "I can get another in the garage."
He took it, pleased and grateful, and she left this pioneer of recolonisation, this obstinate Crusoe and his family, standing by his banner of blue smoke.
Another hour and a large signpost arrested her attention.
"This was Villers Carbonel," it told her, and beneath it three roads ran in different directions. There was no sign at all of the village—not a brick lay where the signpost stood.
Stopping the car she drew out her map and considered—and suddenly, out of nowhere, with a rattle and a bang, and a high blast on a mad little horn, a Ford arrived at her side upon the cross-roads.
"Got no gas?" enquired an American. She looked up into his pink face. His hood was broken and hung down over one side of the car. One of his springs was broken and he appeared to be holding the car upright by the tilt of his body. His tyres were in rags, great pieces of rubber hung out beyond the mudguards.
"Dandy car you've got!" he said with envy. "French?"
Soon he was gone upon the road to Chaulnes. His retreating back, with the spindly axle, the wild hood, the torn fragments of tyre flying round in streamers, and the painful list of the body set her laughing, as she stood by the signpost in the desert.
Then she took the road to Peronne.
"I won't have my lunch yet—" looking at the pale sun. Her only watch had stopped long since, resenting the vibrations of the wheel. She passed Peronne—uprooted railways and houses falling head foremost into the river, and beyond it, side roads led her to a small deserted village, oddly untouched by shell or fire. Here the doors swung and banged, unlatched by any human fingers, the windows, still draped with curtains, were shut, and no face looked out. Here she ate her lunch.
The rain had ceased and a little pale sunshine cheered the cottages, the henless, dogless, empty road. A valiant bird sang on a hedge beside her.
With her wire-cutters she opened the tin of potted meat, and with their handle spread it on the bread.
"Lord, how lonely it is—surely some door might open, some face look out—" At that a little gust of wind got up, and she jumped in her seat, for a front door slammed and blew back again.
"I couldn't stay here the night—" with a shiver—and the bird on the branch sang louder than ever. "It's all very well," she addressed him. "You're with your own civilisation. I'm right out of mine!"
The day wore on. The white sun, having finished climbing one side of the sky, came down upon the other.
Here and there a man hailed her, and she gave him a lift to his village, talked a little to him, and set him down.
A young Belgian, who had learned his English at Eton, was her companion for half an hour.
"And you are with the French?" he asked. "How do you like the fellows?"
"I like them very much. I like them enormously." (Strange question, when all France meant Julien!)
"Don't you find they think there is no one else in the world?" he grumbled. "It is a delicious theory for them, and it must be amusing to be French!"
"Little Belgium—jealous young sister, resentful of the charm of the elder woman of the world!"
A French lieutenant climbed to the seat beside her.
"You are English, mademoiselle?" he said, she thought with a touch of severity. He was silent for a while. Then: "Ah, none but the English could do this—"
"Drive as you do, alone, mademoiselle, amid such perils."
She did not ask to what perils he alluded, and she knew that his words were a condemnation, not a compliment. Ah, she knew that story, that theory, that implication of coldness! She did not trouble to reply, nor would she have known how had she wished it.
They passed an inhabited village. From a door flew a man in a green bonnet and staggered in the street. After him a huge peasant woman came, and standing in the doorway shook her fist at him. "I'll teach you to meddle with my daughter—"
"Those are the cursed Italians!" said the French lieutenant, leaning from the car to watch.
A mile further on they came to a quarry, in which men prowled in rags.
"Those are the Russians!" he said. And these were kept behind barbed wire, fenced round with armed sentries.
She remembered an incident in Paris, when she had hailed a taxi.
"Are you an American?" asked the driver. "For you know I don't much like driving Americans."
"But I am English."
"Well, that's better. I was on the English Front once, driving for the French Mission."
"Why don't you like Americans?"
"Among other things they give me two francs when three is marked!"
"But once they gave you ten where three was marked!"
"That's all changed!" laughed the taxi-man. "And it's a long story. I don't like them."
* * * * *
"Go away!" said France restlessly, pushing at the new nations in her bosom. "It's all done. Go back again!"
"Are you an Ally?" said the Allies to each other balefully, their eyes no longer lit by battle, but irritable with disillusion—and each told his women tales of the other's shortcomings.
Along the sides of the roads, in the gutters, picking the dust-heap of the battlefields, there were representatives of other nations who did not join in the inter-criticism of the lords of the earth. Chinese, Arabs and Annamites made signs and gibbered, but none cared whether they were in amity or enmity.
Only up in Germany was there any peace from acrimony. There the Allies walked contentedly about, fed well, looked kindly at each other. There were no epithets to fling—they had all been flung long ago.
And the German people, looking curiously back, begged buttons as souvenirs from the uniforms of the men who spoke so many different languages.
The day wore on—
The sun came lower and nearer, till the half-light ran with her half- thought, dropping, sinking, dying. "Guise," said the signpost, and a battlement stared down and threw its shadow across her face. "Is that where the dukes lived?" She was a speck in the landscape, moving on wheels that were none of her invention, covering distances of hundreds of miles without amazement, upon a magic mount unknown to her forefathers. Dark and light moved across the face of the falling day. Sometimes when she lifted her eyes great clouds full of rain were crossing the sky; and now, when she looked again the wind had torn them to shreds and hunted them away. The shadows lengthened—those of the few trees falling in bars across the road. A turn of the road brought the setting sun in her face, and blinded with light, she drove into it. When it had gone it left rays enough behind to colour everything, gilding the road itself, the air, the mists that hung in the ditches.
Before the light was gone she saw the Ardennes forests begin upon her left.
When it was gone, wood and road, air and earth, were alike stone- coloured. Then the definite night, creeping forward on all sides, painted out all but the road and the margin of the road—and with the side lights on all vision narrowed down to the grey snout of the bonnet, the two hooped mudguards stretched like divers' arms, and the blanched dead leaves which floated above from the unseen branches of the trees.
Four crazy Fords were drawn up in one village street, and as her lights flashed on the door she caught sight of the word "Cafe" written on it. Placing the Renault beside the Fords she opened the door. Within five Frenchmen were drinking at one table, and four Americans at another. The Americans sprang up and claimed her, first as their own kin, and then at least as a blood sister. They gave her coffee, and would not let her pay; but she sat uneasily with them.
"For which nation do you work? There are no English here," they said.
"I am in the French Army."
"Gee, what a rotten job!" they murmured sympathetically.
"Where have you come from?"
"We've just come back from Germany, and you bet it's good up there!"
"Every darn thing you want. Good beds, good food, and, thank God, one can speak the lingo."
"You don't speak French then?"
"You bet not."
"Why don't you learn? Mightn't it be useful to you?"
"Oh, when you get back home. In business perhaps—"
"Ma'am," said the biggest American, leaning earnestly towards her, "let me tell you one thing. If any man comes up to me back in the States and starts on me with that darn language—I'll drop him one."
"And German is easier?"
"Oh, well, German we learn in the schools, you see. How far do you make it to St. Quentin?"
"Are you going there on those Fords?"
"We hope to, ma'am. But we started a convoy of twenty this morning, and these here four cars are all we've seen since lunch."
"I hardly think you'll get as far as St. Quentin to-night. And there's little enough to sleep in on the way. I should stay here." She rose. "I wish you luck. Good-bye."
She thanked them for their coffee, nodded to the quiet French table and went out.
One American followed her.
"Can you buzz her round?" he asked kindly, and taking the handle, buzzed her round.
"I bet you don't get any one to do that for you in your army, do you?" he asked, as he straightened himself from the starting handle. She put her gear in with a little bang of anger.
"You're kind," she said, "and they are kind. That you can't see it is all a question of language. Every village is full of bored Americans with nothing to do, and never one of them buys a dictionary!"
"If it's villages you speak of, ma'am, it isn't dictionaries is needed," he answered, "'tis plumbing!"
She had not left him ten minutes before one of her tyres punctured.
"Alas! I could have found a better use for them than arguing," she thought ruefully, regretting the friendly Americans, as she changed the tyre by the roadside under the beam from her own lamps.
When it was done she sat for a few minutes in the silent car. The moon came up and showed her the battlements of the Ardennes forest standing upon the crest of the mountains to her left. "That is to be my home—"
Julien was in Paris by now, divested of his uniform, sitting by a great fire, eating civilised food. A strange young man in dark clothes—she wondered what he would wear.
He seemed a great many difficult miles away. That he should be in a heated room with lights, and flowers, and a spread table—and she under the shadow of the forest watching the moon rise, lengthened the miles between them; yet though she would have given much to have him with her, she would have given nothing to change places with him.
The road left the forest for a time and passed over bare grass hills beneath a windy sky. Then back into the forest again, hidden from the moon. And here her half-stayed hunger made her fanciful, and she started at the noise of a moving bough, blew her horn at nothing, and seemed to hear the overtaking hum of a car that never drew near her.
Suddenly, on the left, in a ditch, a dark form appeared, then another and another. Down there in a patch of grass below the road she caught sight of the upturned wheels of a lorry, and stopping, got down, walked to the ditch and looked over. There, in wild disorder, lay thirty or forty lorries and cars, burnt, twisted, wheelless, broken, ravaged, while on the wooden sides the German eagle, black on white, was marked.
"What—what—can have happened here!"
She climbed back into the car, but just beyond the limit of her lights came on a huge mine crater, and the road seemed to hang on its lip and die for ever. Again she got down, and found a road of planks, shored up by branches of trees, leading round on the left edge of the crater to firm land on the other side. Some of the planks were missing, and moving carefully around the crater she heard others tip and groan beneath her.
"Could that have been a convoy caught by the mine? Or was it a dumping ground for the cars unable to follow in the retreat?"
The mine crater, which was big enough to hold a small villa, was overgrown now at the bottom with a little grass and moss.
On and on and on—till she fancied the moon, too, had turned as the sun had done, and started a downward course. It grew no colder, she grew no hungrier—but losing count of time, slipped on between the flying tree trunks, full of unwearied content. At last a light shone through the trees, and by a wooden bridge which led over another crater she came on a lonely house. "Cafe" was written on the door, but the shutters were tight shut, and only a line of light shone from a crack.
From within came sounds of laughter and men's voices. She knocked, and there was an instant silence, but no one came to answer. At length the bolts were withdrawn and the head of an old woman appeared through the door, which was cautiously opened a little.
"An omelette? Coffee?"
"You don't know what you speak of! We have no eggs."
"No, no, nothing at all. Go on to Charleville. We have nothing."
"How far is Charleville?"
But the door shut again, the bolts were shot, and a man's voice growled in the hidden room behind.
"Dubious hole. Yet it looks as though a big town were near——" And down the next slope she ran into Charleville. The town had been long abed, the street lamps were out, the cobbles wet and shining.
On the main boulevard one dark figure hurried along.
"Which is the 'Silver Lion'?" she called, her voice echoing in the empty street.
Soon, between rugs on a bed in the "Silver Lion," between a single sheet doubled in two, she slept—propping the lockless door with her suitcase.
The Renault slept or watched below in the courtyard, the moon sank, the small hours passed, the day broke, the first day in Charleville.
SPRING IN CHARLEVILLE
THE STUFFED OWL
A stuffed bird stood upon a windless branch and through a window of blue and orange squares of glass a broken moon stared in.
A bedroom, formed from a sitting-room, a basin to wash in upon a red plush table—no glass, no jug, no lock upon the door. Instead, gilt mirrors, three bell ropes and a barometer. A bed with a mattress upon it and nothing more.
This was her kingdom.
Beyond, a town without lights, without a station, without a milkshop, without a meat shop, without sheets, without blankets, crockery, cooking pans, or locks upon the doors. A population half-fed and poor. A sky black as ink and liquid as a river.
Prisoners in the streets, moving in green-coated gangs; prisoners in the gutters, pushing long scoops to stay the everlasting tide of mud; thin, hungry, fierce and sad, green-coated prisoners like bedraggled parrots, out-numbered the population.
The candle of the world was snuffed out—and the wick smoked.
The light was gone—the blinding light of the Chantilly snows, the lights on the Precy river—moonlight, sunlight—the little boat crossing at moonrise, sunrise.
"Ah, that long journey! How I pressed on, how I fled from Amiens!"
"What, not Charleville yet?" I said. "Isn't it Charleville soon? What hurry was there then to get there?"
The stuffed bird eyed her from his unstirring branch, and that yellow eye seemed to answer: "None, none..."
"This is his home; his country. He told me it was beautiful. But I cannot see beauty. I am empty of happiness. Where is the beauty?"
And the vile bird, winking in the candle's light, replied: "Nowhere."
But he lied.
Perhaps she had been sent, stuffed as he was, from Paris. Perhaps he had never flown behind the town, and seen the wild mountains that began at the last house on the other bank of the river. Or the river itself, greener than any other which flowed over black rocks, in cold gulleys —the jade-green Meuse flowing to Dinant, to Namur. Perhaps from his interminable boulevard he had never seen the lovely Spanish Square of red and yellow, its steep-roofed houses standing upon arches—or the proud Duc Charles de Gonzague who strutted for ever upon his pedestal, his stone cape slipping from one shoulder, his gay Spaniard's hat upon his head—holding back a smile from his handsome lips, lest the town which he had come over the mountains to found should see him tolerant and sin beneath his gaze.
That bird knew the rain would stop—knew it in his dusty feathers, but he would not kindle hope. He knew there was a yellow spring at hand—but he left her to mourn for the white lustre of Chantilly. Vile bird!... She blew out the candle that he might wink no more.
"To-morrow I will buy a padlock and a key. If among these gilt mirrors I can have no other charm, I will have solitude!" And having hung a thought, a plan, a hope before her in the future, she slept till day broke—the second day in Charleville.
* * * * *
She woke, a mixture of courage and philosophy.
"I can stand anything, and beyond a certain limit misfortune makes me laugh. But there's no reason why I should stand this!" The key and padlock idea was rejected as a compromise with happiness.
"No, no, let us see if we can get something better to lock up than that bird." He looked uncommonly dead by daylight.
"I would rather lock up an empty room, and leave it pure when I must leave it!"
Dressing, she went quickly down the street to the Bureau de la Place. The clerks and secretaries nodded and smiled at each other, and bent their heads over their typewriters when she looked at them.
"Can I see the billeting lieutenant?"
"He is not here."
"I saw him enter."
"We will go and see...."
She drummed upon the table with her fingers and the clerks and secretaries winked and nodded more meaningly than ever.
"Entrez, mademoiselle. He will see you."
The red-haired lieutenant with pince-nez was upon his feet looking at her curiously as she entered the adjoining room.
"Good morning, mademoiselle. There is something wrong with the billet that I found you yesterday?"
She looked at him. In his pale-blue eyes there was a beam; in his creased mouth there was an upward curve. The story of legitimate complaint that she had prepared drooped in her mind; she looked at him a little longer, hesitated, then, risking everything:
"Monsieur, there is a stuffed owl in the room."
He did not wince. "Take it out, mademoiselle."
"H'm, yes. I cannot see heaven except through orange glass."
"Open the window."
"It is fixed."
Then he failed her; he was a busy, sensible man.
"Mademoiselle, I find you a billet, I instal you, and you come to me in the middle of the morning with this ridiculous story of an owl. It isn't reasonable...."
The door opened and his superior officer walked in, a stern captain with no crease about his mouth, no beam in his olive eye.
Ah, now ... Now the lieutenant had but to turn to his superior officer and she would indeed be rent, and reasonably so.
"What is the matter?" said the newcomer. "Is something fresh needed?"
The billeting lieutenant never hesitated a second.
"Mon capitaine, unfortunately the billet found yesterday for this lady is unsuitable. The owner of the house returns this week, and needs the room."
"Have you some other lodging for her?"
"Yes, mon capitaine, in the Rue de Cleves."
"Good. Then there is no difficulty?"
"None. Follow me, mademoiselle, the street is near. I will take you to the concierge."
She followed him down the stairs, and caught him up upon the pavement.
"You may think, mademoiselle, that it is because I am young and susceptible."
"Oh, no, no...."
"Indeed, I am young; But I slept in that room myself the first night I came to Charleville...."
"My room with the owl? Do you mean that?"
"Yes, I put him upon the landing. But even then I dared not break the window. Here is the street."
"How you frightened me when your captain came in! How grateful I am, and how delighted. Is the house here?"
"Mademoiselle, I do not truly know what to do. It is an empty house."
"So much the better."
"But you are not afraid?"
"Oh, no, no, not at all. Has it any furniture?"
"Very little. We will see."
He pulled the bell at an iron railing, and the gate opened. A beautiful face looked out of the window, and a young woman called: "Eh bien! More officers? I told you, mon lieutenant, we have not room for one more."
"Now, come, come, Elsie! Not so sharp. It is for the house opposite this time. Have you the key?"
"But the house opposite is empty."
"It will not be when I have put mademoiselle into it."
The young concierge, under the impression that he was certainly installing his mistress, left the window, and came through the gate with a look of impish reproof in her eyes.
Together they crossed the road and she fitted the key into a green iron door let into the face of a yellow wall. Within was a courtyard, leading to a garden, and from the courtyard, steps in an inner wall led up into the house.
"All this ... all this mine?"
"All yours, mademoiselle."
The garden, a deserted tangle of fruit trees and bushes, fallen statues, arbours and grass lawn brown with fallen leaves, was walled in by a high wall which kept it from every eye but heaven's. The house was large, the staircase wide and low, the rooms square and high, filled with windows and painted in dusty shades of cream. In every room as they passed through them lay a drift of broken and soiled furniture as brown and mouldering as the leaves upon the lawn.
"Who lived here?"
"Who lived here?" echoed the concierge, and a strange look passed over her face. "Many men. Austrians, Turks, Bulgarians, Germans...."
"Were you, then, in Charleville all the time?"
"All the time. I knew them all."
In her eyes there flitted the image of enemies who had cried gaily to her from the street as she leant out of the open window of the house opposite. "Take anything," she said, with a shrug, to Fanny. "See what you can make from it. If you can make one room habitable from this dust-heap, you are welcome. See, there is at least a saucepan. Take that. So much has gone from the house in these last years it seems hardly worth while to retain a saucepan for the owner."
"Who is the owner?"
"A rich lady who can afford it. The richest family in Charleville. She has turned mechante. She will abuse me when she comes here to see this—as though I could have saved it. Her husband and her son were killed. Georges et Phillippe. Georges was killed the first day of the war, and Phillippe ... I don't know when, but somewhere near here."
"You think she will come back?"
"Sometimes I think it. She has such a sense of property. But her daughter writes that it would kill her to come. Phillippe was the sun ... was the good God to her."
"I must go back to my work," said the lieutenant. "Can you be happy here in this empty house? There will be rats...."
"I can be very happy—and so grateful. I will move my things across to-day. My companions ... that is to say six more of us arrive in convoy from Chantilly to-morrow."
"Six more! Had you told me that before ... But what more simple! I can put them all in here. There is room for twenty."
"Oh...." Her face fell, and she stood aghast. "And you gave me this house for myself. And I was so happy!"
"You are terrible. If my business was to lodge soldiers of your sex every day I should be grey-haired. You cannot lodge with an owl, you cannot lodge with your compatriots!..."
"Yet you were joking when you said you would put us all here?"
"I was joking. Take the house—the rats and the rubbish included with it! No one will disturb you till the owner comes. I have another, a better, a cleaner house in my mind for your companions. Now, good-bye, I must go back to my work. Will you ask me to tea one day?"
"I promise. The moment I have one sitting-room ready."
He left her, and she explored the upper storey with the concierge.
"I should have this for your bedroom and this adjoining for your sitting-room. The windows look in the street and you can see life." Fanny agreed. It pleased her better to look in the street than into the garden. The two rooms were large and square. Old blue curtains of brocade still hung from the windows; in the inner room was a vast oak bed and a turkey carpet of soft red and blue. The fireplaces were of open brick and suitable for logs. Both rooms were bare of any other furniture.
"I will find you the mattress to match that bed. I hid it; it is in the house opposite."
She went away to dust it and find a man to help her carry it across the road. Fanny fetched her luggage from her previous billet, borrowed six logs and some twigs from the concierge, promising to fetch her an ample store from the hills around.
All day she rummaged in the empty house—finding now a three-legged armchair which she propped up with a stone, now a single Venetian glass scrolled in gold for her tooth glass.
In a small room on the ground floor a beautiful piece of tapestry lay rolled in a dusty corner. Pale birds of tarnished silver flew across its blue ground and on the border were willows and rivers.
It covered her oak bed exactly—and by removing the pillows it looked like a comfortable and venerable divan. The logs in the fire were soon burnt through, and she did not like to ask for more, but leaving her room and wandering up and down the empty house in the long, pale afternoon, she searched for fragments of wood that might serve her.
A narrow door, built on a curve of the staircase, led to an upper storey of large attics and her first dazzled thought was of potential loot for her bedroom. A faint afternoon sun drained through the lattice over floors that were heaped with household goods. A feathered brush for cobwebs hung on a nail, she took it joyfully. Below it stood an iron lattice for holding a kettle on an open fire. That, too, she put aside.
But soon the attics opened too much treasure. The boy's things were everywhere, the father's and the son's. Her eyes took in the host of relics till her spirit was living in the lost playgrounds of their youth, pressing among phantoms.
"Irons ... For ironing! For my collars!"
But they were so small, too small. His again—the son's. "Yet why shouldn't I use them," she thought, and slung the little pair upon one finger.
Crossing to the second attic she came upon all the toys. It seemed as though nothing had ever been packed up—dolls' houses, rocking-horses, slates, weighing machines, marbles, picture books, little swords and guns, and strange boxes full of broken things.
Returning to the floor below with empty hands she brooded by the embers and shivered in her happy loneliness. Julien was no longer someone whom she had left behind, but someone whom she expected. He would be here ... how soon? In four days, in five, in six. There would be a letter to-morrow at the "Silver Lion." Since she had found this house, this perfect house in which to live alone and happy, the town outside had changed, was expectant with her, and full of his presence. But, ah ... inhuman... was Julien alone responsible for this happiness? Was she not weaving already, from her blue curtains, from her soft embers, from the branches of mimosa which she had bought in the market-place and placed in a thin glass upon the mantelpiece, from the gracious silence of the house, from her solitude?
What a struggle to get wood for that fire? Coal wouldn't burn in the open hearth. She had begged a little wood from the cook in the garage, but it was wet and hissed, and all her fire died down. Wood hadn't proved so abundant on the hills as she had hoped. Either it was cut and had been taken by the Germans, or grew in solid and forbidding branches. All the small broken branches and twigs of winter had been collected by the shivering population of the town and drawn down from the mountains on trays slung on ropes.
Stooping over her two wet logs she drenched them with paraffin, then, when she had used the last drop in her tin, got down her petrol bottle. "I shall lose all my hair one day doing this...."
The white flame licked hungrily out towards her, but it too, died down, leaving the wet wood as angrily cold as ever.
Going downstairs she searched the courtyard and the hayloft, but the Bulgarians and Turks of the past had burnt every bit, and any twigs in the garden were as wet as those which spluttered in the hearth. Then—up to the attics again.
"I must have wood," she exclaimed angrily, and picked up a piece of broken white wood from the floor.
It had "Philippe Seret" scrawled across it in pencil. "Why, it's your name!" she said wonderingly, and held the piece of wood in her hand. The place was all wood. There was wood here to last her weeks. Mouse cages—white mouse cages and dormouse cages, a wooden ruler with idle scratches all over it and "P.S." in the corner—boxes and boxes of things he wouldn't want; he'd say if he saw them now: "Throw it away"—boxes of glass tubes he had blown when he was fifteen, boxes of dried modelling clay....
"I must have wood," she said aloud, and picked up another useless fragment. It mocked her, it wouldn't listen to her need of wood; it had "P.S." in clumsy, inserted wires at the back. His home-made stamp.
Under it was a grey book called "Grammaire Allemande." "It wasn't any use your learning German, was it, Philippe?" she said, then stood still in a frozen conjecture as to the use and goal of all that bright treasure in his mind—his glass-blowing, his modelling, the cast head of a man she had found stamped with his initial, the things he had written and read, on slates, in books. "It was as much use his learning German as anything else," she said slowly, and her mind reeled at the edge of difficult questions.
Coming down from the attics again she held one piece of polished chair-back in her hand.
"How can I live in their family like this," she mused by the fire. "I am doing more. I am living in the dreadful background to which they can't or won't come back. I am counting the toys which they can't look at. Your mother will never come back to pack them up, Philippe!"
She made herself chocolate and drank it from a fine white cup with his mother's initials on it in gold.
* * * * *
Work was over for the day and she walked down the main street by the "Silver Lion," from whose windows she daily expected that Julien's voice would call to her.
"Mademoiselle has no correspondence to-day," said the girl, looking down at her from her high seat behind the mugs and glasses.
"He ought to be here to-day or to-morrow, as he hasn't written," and even at that moment thought she heard hurrying feet behind her and turned quickly, searching with her eyes. An old civilian ran past her and climbed into the back of a waiting lorry.
"I am in no hurry," she said, sure that he would come, and walked on into the Spanish Square, to stare in the shops behind the arcaded pillars. Merchandise trickled back into the empty town in odd ways. By lorry, train, and touring car, merchants penetrated and filled the shops with provisions, amongst which there were distressing lacks.
The trains, which had now been extended from Rheims over many laborious wooden bridges, stopped short of Charleville by four miles, as the bridges over the Meuse had not yet been made strong enough to support a railroad. To the passenger train, which left Paris twice a week, one goods truck full of merchandise was attached—and it seemed as though the particular truck to arrive was singled out casually, without any regard to the needs of the town. As yet no dusters, sheets or kitchen pans could be bought, but to-day in the Spanish Square every shop was filled to overflowing with rolls of ladies' stays; even the chemist had put a pair in the corner of his window. Fanny inquired the cause. A truck had arrived filled with nothing but stays. It was very unfortunate as they had expected condensed milk, but they had accepted the truck, as, no doubt, they would find means of selling them—for there were women in the country round who had not seen a pair for years.
A man appeared in the Square selling boots from Paris—the first to come to the town with leather soles instead of wooden ones. Instantly there was a crowd round him.
It was dark now and the electric street lamps were lit round the pedestal of the Spanish Duke. The organisation of the town was jerky, and often the lights would come on when it was daylight and often disappear when it was dark. Where Germans had been there were always electric light and telephones. No matter how sparse the furniture in the houses, how ragged the roof, how patched the windows—what tin cans, paper and rubbish lay heaped upon the floors, the electric light unfailingly illumined all, the telephone hung upon the wall among the peeling paper.
A little rain began to fall lightly and she hurried to her rooms. There, once within, the padlock slipped through the rings and locked, the fire lighted, the lamps lit, the room glowed before her. The turkey carpet showed all its blues and reds—the mimosa drooped above the mantelpiece, the willow palm in the jar was turning yellow and shedding a faint down.
"You must last till he comes to tea!" she rebuked it, but down it fluttered past the mirror on to the carpet.
"He will be here before they all fall," she thought, and propped open her window that she might hear his voice if he called her from the street below.
She boiled her kettle to make chocolate, hanging it upon a croquet hoop which she had found in the garden—Philippe's hoop. But Philippe was so powerless, he couldn't even stop his croquet hoop from being heated red-hot in the flames as a kettle-holder ... One must be sensible. He would allow it. That was the sort of device he would have thought well of.
"He rushed about the town on a motor-bicycle," the concierge had said, when asked about him. But that was later. There had been other times when he had rocked a rocking-horse, broken a doll's head, sold meat from a wooden shop, fed a dormouse.
"Did Philippe," she wondered, "have adventures, too, in this street?" She felt him in the curtains, under the carpet like a little wind.
* * * * *
The days passed.
Each day her car was ordered and ran to Rheims and Chalons through the battlefields, or through the mountains to Givet, Dinant or Namur. Changes passed over the mountains as quickly as the shades of flying clouds. The spring growth, at every stage and age from valley to crest, shook like light before the eyes. There were signs of spring, too, in the battlefields. Cowslips grew in the ditches, and grass itself, as rare and bright as a flower, broke out upon the plains.
A furtive and elementary civilisation began to creep back upon the borders of the national roads. Pioneers, with hand, dog, and donkey carts, with too little money, with too many children, with obstinate and tenacious courage, began to establish themselves in cellars and pill-boxes, in wooden shelters scraped together from the debris of their former villages. In those communities of six or seven families the re-birth and early struggles of civilisation set in. One tilled a patch of soil the size of a sheet between two trenches—one made a fowl-yard, fenced it in and placed a miserable hen within. Little notices would appear, nailed to poles emerging from the bowels of the earth. "Vin-Cafe" or "Small motor repairs done here."
All this was noticeable along the great national roads. But in the side roads, roads deep in yellow mud, uncleared, empty of lorries and cars, no one set up his habitation.
A certain lawlessness was abroad in the lonelier areas of the battlefields. Odds and ends of all the armies, deserters, well hidden during many months, lived under the earth in holes and cellars and used strange means to gain a living.
There had been rumours of lonely cars which had been stopped and robbed—and among the settlers a couple of murders had taken place in a single district. The mail from Charleville to Montmedy was held up at last by men in masks armed with revolvers. "We will go out armed!" exclaimed the drivers in the garage, and polished up their rifles.
After that, when the Americans hi the camps around, hungry upon the French ration, or drunk upon the mixture of methylated spirits and whisky sold in subterranean estaminets of ruined villages, picked a quarrel, there were deaths instead of broken heads and black eyes. "They must ... they MUST go home!" said the French, turning their easy wrath upon the homesick Americans.
Somewhere beyond Rheims the wreck of a cindery village sprawled along a side road. Not a chimney, not a pile of bricks, not a finger of wood or stone reached three feet high, but in the middle, a little wooden stake rose above the rubbish, a cross-bar pointing into the ground, and the words "Vin-Cafe" written in chalk upon it. Fanny, who was thirsty, drew up her car and climbed across the village to a hole down which the board pointed. Steps of pressed earth led down, and from the hole rose the quarrelling, fierce voices of three men. She fled back to the car, determined to find a more genial cafe upon a national road.
The same day, upon another side road, she came on the remains of a village, where the road, instead of leading through it, paused at the brink of the river, over which hung the end spars of a broken bridge.
"I will make a meal here," she thought, profiting by the check—and pulled out a packet of sandwiches, driving her car round the corner of a wall out of the wind. Here, across the road, a donkey cart was standing, and a donkey was tied to a brick in the gutter.
Upon the steps of a doorway which was but an aperture leading to nothing, for the house itself lay flat behind it and the courtyard was filled with trestles of barbed wire, a figure was seated writing earnestly upon its knees. She went nearer and saw an old man, who looked up as she approached.
"Sir ..." she began, meaning to inquire about the road—and the wind through the doorway blew her skirt tight against her.
"I am identifying the houses," he said, as though he expected to be asked his business. She saw by his face that he was very old—eighty perhaps. The book upon his knee contained quavering drawings, against each of which a name was written.
"This is mine," he said, pointing through the doorway on whose step he sat. "And all these other houses belong to people whom I know. When they come back here to live they have only to come to me and I can show them which house to go to. Without me it might be difficult, but I was the oldest man here and I know all the streets, and all the houses. I carry the village in my head."
"That is your donkey cart, then?"
"It is my son's. I drive here from Rheims on Saturdays, when he doesn't want it."
He showed his book, the cheap paper filled with already-fading maps, blurred names and vague sketches. The old man was in his dotage and would soon die and the book be lost.
"I carry the village in my head," he repeated. It was the only life the village had.
So the days went on, day after day, and with each its work, and still no letter at the "Silver Lion," Though vaguely ashamed at her mood, she could not be oppressed by this. Each cold, fine, blooming day in the mountains made him less necessary to her, and only the delicate memory of him remained to gild the town. When hopes wither other hopes spring up. When the touch of charm trembles no more upon the heart it can no longer be imagined.
The horn of a two days' moon was driving across the window; then stars, darkness, dawn and sunrise painted the open square; till rustling, and turning towards the light, she awoke. At the top of the window a magpie wiped his beak on a branch, bent head, and tail bent to balance him —then dropped like a mottled pebble out of sight. She sat up, drew the table prepared overnight towards her, lit the lamp for the chocolate —thinking of the dim Julien who might pay his beautiful visit in turn with the moon and the sun.
She got up and dressed, and walked in the spring morning, first to the bread shop to buy a pound of bread from the woman who wouldn't smile ... so serious and puzzling was this defect that Fanny had once asked her: "Would you rather I didn't buy my bread here?"
"No, I don't mind."
Then to the market for a bunch of violets and an egg.
And at last through the "Silver Lion"—for luck, opening one door of black wood, passing through the hot, sunny room, ignoring the thrilled glances of soldiers drinking at the tables, looking towards the girl at the bar, who shook her head, saying: "No, no letter for you!" and out again into the street by the other black door (which was gold inside).
She passed the morning in the garage working on the Renault, cleaning her, oiling her—then ate her lunch in the garage room with the Section.
Among them there ran a rumour of England—of approaching demobilisation, of military driving that must come to an end, to give place to civilian drivers who, in Paris, were thronging the steps of the Ministry of the Liberated Regions.
"Already," said one, "our khaki seems as old-fashioned as a crinoline. A man said to me yesterday: 'It is time mademoiselle bought her dress for the summer!'"
(What dream was that of Julien, and of a summer spent in Charleville! The noise of England burst upon her ears. She heard the talk at parties—faces swam so close to hers that she looked in their eyes and spoke to them.)
And how the town is filling with men in new black coats, and women in shawls! Every day more and more arrive. And the civilians come first now! Down in the Co-operative I asked for a tin of milk, and I was told: 'We are keeping the milk for the "Civils."' 'For the "Civils"?' I said, for we are all accustomed to the idea that the army feeds first."
"Oh, that's all gone! We are losing importance now. It is time to go home."
As they spoke there came a shrill whistle which sounded through Charleville.
"Ecoute!" said a man down the street, and the Section, moving to the window, heard it again, nameless, and yet familiar.
Unseen Charleville lifted its head and said, "Ecoute."
The first train had crawled over the new bridge, and stood whistling its triumph in the station.
As spring became more than a bright light over the mountains so the town in the hollow blossomed and functioned. The gate bells rang, the electric light ceased to glow in the daytime, great cranes came up on the trains and fished in the river for the wallowing bridges. Workmen arrived in the streets. In the early summer mornings tapping could be heard all about the town. Civilians in new black suits, civilians more or less damaged, limping or one-eyed, did things that made them happy with a hammer and a nail. They whistled as they tapped, nailed up shutters that had hung for four years by one hinge, climbed about the roofs and fixed a tile or two where a hundred were needed, brought little ladders on borrowed wheelbarrows and set them against the house-wall. In the house opposite, in the Rue de Cleves, a man was using his old blue puttees to nail up his fruit-trees.
All the men worked in new Sunday clothes; they had, as yet, nothing old to work in. Every day brought more of them to the town, lorries and horse carts set them down by the "Silver Lion," and they walked along the street carrying black bags and rolls of carpet, boxes of tools, and sometimes a well-oiled carbine.
"Yes, we must go home," said the Englishwomen. "It's time to leave the town."
The "Civils" seemed to drive them out. They knew they were birds of passage as they walked in the sun in their khaki coats.
The "Civils" were blind to them, never looked at them, hurried on, longing to grasp the symbolic hammer, to dust, sweep out the German rags and rubbish, nail talc over the gaping windows, set their homes going, start their factories in the surrounding mountains, people the houses so long the mere shelter for passing troops, light the civilian life of the town, and set it burning after the ashes and dust of war.
There were days when every owner, black-trousered and in his shirt- sleeves, seemed to be burning the contents of his house in a bonfire in the gutter. Poor men burned things that seemed useful to the casual eye —mattresses, bolsters, all soiled, soiled again and polluted by four years of soldiery.
Idling over the fire in the evening, Fanny's eye was caught by a stain upon her armchair. It was sticky; it might well be champagne—the champagne which stuck even now to the bottoms of the glasses downstairs.
"I wonder if they will burn the chair—when they come back." Some one must come back, some day, even if Philippe's mother never came. She seemed to see the figure of the Turkish officer seated in her chair, just as the concierge had described him, stout, fezzed, resting his legs before her fire—or of the German, stretched back in the chair in the evening reading the copy of the Westfaelisches Volksblatt she had found stuffed down in the corner of the seat.
How, how did that splash of wax come to be so high up on the face of the mirror? Had someone, some predecessor, thrown a candle in a temper? It puzzled her in the morning as she lay in bed.
On the polished wooden foot of the bed was burnt the outline of a face with a funny nose. A child's drawing. That was Philippe's. The nurse had cried at him in a rage, perhaps, and snatched the hot poker with which he drew—and that had made the long rushing burn that flew angrily across the wood from the base of the face's chin. "Oh, you've made it worse!" Philippe must have gibed.
("B"—who wrote "B" on the wall? The Bulgarian—)
She fell asleep.
The first bird, waking early, threw the image of the world across her lonely sleep. He squeaked alone, minute after minute, from his tree outside the window, thrusting forests, swamps, meadows, mountains in among her dreams. Then a fellow joined him, and soon all the birds were shouting from their trees. Slowly the room lightened till on the mantelpiece the buds of the apple blossom shone, till upon the wall the dark patch became an oil painting, till the painting showed its features —a castle, a river and a hill.
In the night the last yellow down had fallen from the palm upon the floor.
The common voice of the tin clock struck seven. And with it came women's voices—women's voices on the landing outside the door—the voice of the concierge and another's.'
Some instinct, some strange warning, sent the sleeper on the bed flying from it, dazed as she was. Snatching at the initialled cup of gold veining she thrust it behind the curtain on the window sill. An act of panic merely, for a second glance round the room convinced her that there was too much to be hidden, if hidden anything should be. With a leap she was back in bed, and drew the bedclothes up to her neck.
Then came the knock at the door.
"I am in bed," she called.
"Nevertheless, can I come in?" asked the concierge.
"You may come in."
The young woman came in and closed the door after her. She approached the bed and whispered—then glancing round the room with a shrug she picked up a dressing-gown and held it that Fanny might slip her arms into it.
"But what a time to come!"
"She has travelled all night. She is unfit to move."
"Must I see her now? I am hardly awake."
"I cannot keep her any longer. She was for coming straight here when the train came in at five. I have kept her at coffee at my house. Tant pis! You have a right to be here!"
The concierge drew the curtain a little wider and the cup was exposed. She thrust it back into the shadow; the door opened and Philippe's mother walked in. She was very tall, in black, and a deep veil hung before her face.
"Bonjour, madame," she said, and her veiled face dipped in a faint salute.
"Will you sit down?"
She took no notice of this, but leaning a little on a stick she carried, said, "I understand that it is right that I should find my house occupied. They told me it would be by an officer. Such occupation I believe ceases on the return of the owner."
"I am the owner of this house."
"May I ask of what nationality you are?"
The concierge standing behind her, shrugged her shoulders impatiently, as if she would say, "I have explained, and explained again!"
"I am English, madame."
The lady seemed to sink into a stupor, and bending her head in silence stared at the floor. Fanny, sitting upright in bed, waited for her to speak. The >concierge, her face still as an image, waited too.
Philippe's mother began to sway upon her stick.
"Do please sit down," said Fanny, breaking the silence at last.
"When will you go?" demanded the old lady, suddenly.
"Who gave you that lamp? That is mine." She pointed to a glass lamp which stood upon the table.
"It is all yours," said Fanny, humbly.
"Mademoiselle borrowed it," said the voice of the concierge. "I lent it to her."
"Why are my things lent when I am absent? My armchair—dirty, soiled, torn! Paul's picture—there is a hole in the corner. Who made that hole in the corner?"
"I didn't," said Fanny feebly, wishing that she were dressed and upon her feet.
"Madame, a Turkish officer made the hole. I spoke to him about it; he said it was the German colonel who was here before him. But I am sure it was the Turk."
"A Turk!" said Philippe's mother in bewilderment. "So you have allowed a Turk to come in here!"
"Madame does not understand."
"Oh, I understand well enough that my house has been a den! The house where I was born—All my things, all my things—You must give that lamp back!"
"Dear madame, I will give everything back, I have hurt nothing—"
"Not ruined my carpet, my mother's carpet! Not soiled my walls, written your name upon them, cracked my windows, filled my room downstairs with rubbish, broken my furniture—But I am told this is what I must expect!" Fanny looked at her, petrified. "But I—" she began.
"You don't understand," said the young concierge fiercely. "Don't you know who has lived here? In this room, in this bed, Turks, Bulgars, Germans. Four years of soldiers, coming in one week and gone the next. I could not stop it! When other houses were burnt I would say to myself, 'Madame is lucky.' When all your china was broken and your chairs used for firewood, could I help it? Can she help it? She is your last soldier, and she has taken nothing. So much has gone from this house it is not worth while to worry about what remains. When you wrote to me last month to send you the barometer, it made me smile. Your barometer!"
"No, madame, no! Not till you come back with me. They should not have let you come alone. But you were always wilful. You cannot mean to live here?"
"I wish this woman gone to-day. I wish to sleep here to-night."
"No, madame, no. Sleep in the house opposite to-night. Give her time to find a lodging—"
"A lodging! She will find a lodging soon enough. A town full of soldiers—" muttered the old woman.
"I think this is a question for the billeting lieutenant," said Fanny. "He will explain to you that I am billeted here exactly as a soldier, that I have a right to be here until your arrival. It will be kind of you to give me a day in which to find another room."
"Where are his things?" said the old woman unheedingly. "I must go up to the attics."
A vision of those broken toys came to Fanny, the dusty heap of horses, dolls and boxes—the poor disorder.
"You mustn't, yet!" she cried with feeling. "Rest first. Sit here longer first. Or go another day!"
"Have you touched them?" cried Philippe's mother, rising from the chair. "I must go at once, at once——" but even as she tried to cross the room she leant heavily upon the table and put her hand to her heart. "Get me water, Elsie," she said, and threw up her veil. Her ruined face was grey even at the lips; her eyes were caverns, worn by the dropping of water, her mouth was folded tightly that nothing kind or hopeful, or happy might come out of it again. Elsie ran to the washing-stand. Unfortunately she seized the glass with the golden scrolling, and when she held it to the lips of her mistress those lips refused it.
"That, too, that glass of mine! Elsie, I wish this woman gone. Why don't you get up? Where are your clothes? Why don't you dress and go—"
"Madame, hush, hush, you are ill."
"Ah!" dragging herself weakly to the door, "I must take an inventory. That is what I should have done before! If I don't make a list at once I shall lose something!"
"Take an inventory!" exclaimed the concierge mockingly, as she followed her. "The house won't change! After four years—it isn't now that it will change!" She paused at the door and looked back at Fanny. "Don't worry about the room, mademoiselle. She is like that—elle a des crises. She cannot possibly sleep here. Keep the room for a day or two till you find another."
"In a very few days I shall be going to England."
"Keep it a week if necessary. She will be persuaded when she is calmer. Why did they let her come when they wrote me that she was a dying woman! But no—elle est comme toujours—mechante pour tout le monde."
"You told me she thought only of Philippe."
"Ah, mademoiselle, she is like many of us! She has still her sense of property."
THE LAST DAY
Around the Spanish Square the first sun-awnings had been put up in the night, awnings red and yellow, flapping in the mountain wind.
In the shops under the arches, in the market in the centre of the Square, they were selling anemones.
"But have you any eggs?"
"No eggs this morning."
"None. There has been none these three days."
"A pot of condensed milk?"
"Mademoiselle, the train did not bring any."
"Must I eat anemones? Give me two bunches."
And round the Spanish Square the orange awnings protecting the empty shop-fronts shuddered and flapped, like a gay hat worn unsteadily when the stomach is empty.
What was there to do on a last day but look and note, and watch, and take one's leave? The buds against the twig-laced sky were larger than ever. To-morrow—the day after to-morrow ... it would be spring in England, too!
"Tenez, mademoiselle," said the market woman, "there is a little ounce of butter here that you may have!"
The morning passed and on drifted the day, and all was finished, all was done, and love gone, too. And with love gone the less divine but wider world lay open.
In the "Silver Lion" the patient girl behind the counter shook her head.
"There is no letter for you."
"And to-morrow I leave for England."
"If a letter comes where shall I send it on?"
"Thank you, but there will come no letter now. Good-bye."
It was the afternoon. Now such a tea, a happy, lonely tea—the last, the best, in Charleville! Crossing the road from the "Silver Lion" Fanny bought a round, flat, sandwich cake, and carried it to the house which was her own for one more night, placed it in state upon the biggest of the green and gold porcelain plates, and the anemones in a sugar-bowl beside it. She lit the fire, made tea, and knelt upon the floor to toast her bread. There was a half-conscious hurry in her actions.
("So long as nobody comes!" she whispered. "So long as I am left alone!") she feared the good-byes of the concierge, the threatened inventory of Philippe's mother, a call of state farewell from the billeting lieutenant.
When the toast was done and the tea made, some whim led her to change her tunic for a white jersey newly back from the wash, to put on the old dancing shoes of Metz—and not until her hair was carefully brushed to match this gaiety did she draw up the armchair with the broken leg, and prop it steadily beside the tea-table.
Who was that knocking on the door in the street?
One of the Section coming on a message? The brigadier to tell her that she had some last duty still?
"Shall I go to the window?" (creeping nearer to it). Then, with a glance back at the tea-table, "No, let them knock!"
But how they knocked! Persistent, gentle—could one sit peacefully at tea so called and so besought! She went up to the blue curtains, and standing half-concealed, saw the concierge brooding in the sunlight of her window-sill.
"Is nobody there?" said a light voice in the hidden street below, and at that she peered cautiously over the edge of the stonework, and saw a pale young man in grey before the door.
She watched him. She watched him gravely, for he had come too late. But tenderly, for she had been in love with him. The concierge raised her two black brows in her expressive face and looked upwards. Her look said: "Why don't you let him in?"
Yet Fanny stood inactive, her hands resting on the sun-warmed stone.
"Julien is here—is here! And does not know that I go to-morrow!"
But she put to-morrow from her, and in the stillness she felt her spirit smiling for pleasure in him. She had mourned him once; she never would again.
In her pocket lay the key of the street door, and the curtain-cord, long rotted and useless, dangled at her cheek. With a quick wrench she brought its length tumbling beside her on the sill, then knotted it to the key and let it down into the street.
The young man saw it hang before his eyes.
"Are you coming in?" said a voice above him. "Tea is ready."
"It has been ready for six weeks."
"Only wait—" He was trying the key in the door.
"What—still longer?" said the voice.
He was gone from the pavement, he had entered her house, he was on her stair—the grey ghost of the soldier!
She had a minute's grace. Slipping her hand into the cupboard she drew out another cup and saucer, and laid the table for two.
There was his face—his hands—at her door! But what a foreign grey body!
"Come in, Ghost!" she said, and held out her hands—for now she cared at least for "he who cared"—lest that, too, be lost! Does a ghost kiss? Yes, sometimes. Sometimes they are ghosts who kiss.
"Oh, Fanny!" Then, with a quick glance at the table, "You are expecting someone?"
"You. How late you come to tea with me!"
"But I—You didn't know."
"I waited tea for you," she said, and turning to a calendar upon a wooden wheel, she rolled it back a month.
She made him sit, she made him drink and eat. He filled the room with his gaiety. He had no reasons upon his tongue, and no excuses; she no reproaches, no farewell.
A glance round the room had shown her that there were no signs of her packing; her heavy kitbag was at the station, her suitcase packed and in the cupboard. She put her gravest news away till later.
"You came by the new train—that has arrived at last in Charleville?"
"Yes, and I go up to Revins to-night."
She paused at that. "But how?"
"I don't know," he answered, smiling at her.
Her eyes sparkled. "Could I?" (She had that morning delivered the car to its new driver.) "Of course. I could! I will, I will, I'll manage! You counted on me to drive you to Revins?"
"Will it be difficult to manage?"
"No—o—But I must get the car out before dark or there will be no excuse—" She pushed back her chair and went to the window. The sun was sinking over the mountains and the scenery in the western sky was reflected in the fiery pools between the cobbles in the street.
"I must go soon and get it. But how—"
She paused and thought. "How do you come down to-morrow?"
"I don't. I go on to Brussels. There is a car at Revins belonging to my agent. He will take me to Dinant for the Brussels train."
"You are bound for Brussels? Yet you could have gone straight from Paris to Brussels?"
"Yet I didn't because I wanted to see you!"
She took down her cap and coat from the nail on which they were hanging.
"Need you go yet?" he said, withdrawing the clothes from her arm, and laying them upon a chair. She sat down again.
"The sun is sinking. The town gets dark so quickly here, though it's light enough in the mountains. If I leave it later the men will be gone home, and the garage key with them."
"You're right," he said. "Put them on," and he held the coat for her. "But once you have the car there's no hurry over our drive. Yes, fetch it quickly, and then we'll go up above Revins and I'll show you the things I have in mind."
He drew out a fat, red note-book and held it up.
"It's full of my thoughts," he said. "Quick with the car, and we'll get up there while it's light enough to show you!"
She slipped out under the apple-red sky, through the streets where the shadows of the houses lay black as lacquer.
Before the locked gates of the garage the brigadier lounged smoking his little, dry cigarettes.
"We are on fire," he said, pointing up the street at the mountain. "What an evening!"
"Yes, and my last!" she said. "Oh, may I have the key of the garage?"
"But you've given up the car."
"Yes, I have, but—after to-morrow I shall never use your petrol again! And there are my bags to be taken to the station. Ah, let me have the key!"
He gave her the key.
"Don't be long then. Yet I shall be gone in a few minutes. When you come in hang the key on the nail in the office."
Once more she wound up the Renault, drove from the garage, regained the Rue de Cleves, and saw Julien leaning from her window sill.
"Come down, come down!" she called up to him, and realised that it would have been better to have made her revelation to him before they started on this journey. For now he was staring at the mountains in an absorbed excited fashion, and she would have to check his flow of spirits, spoil their companionable gaiety, and precipitate such heavy thoughts upon him as might, she guessed, spread to herself. Between his disappearance from the window and the opening of the street door she had a second in which to fight with her disinclination.
"And yet, if I've neglected to tell him in the room," she argued, "I can't tell him in the street!"
For looking up she saw, as she expected, the deep eyes of the concierge watching her as impersonally as the mountains watched the town.
"There'll come a moment," she said to herself as the street door opened and he joined her and climbed into the car, "when it'll come of itself, when it will be easy and natural."
By back streets they left the town, and soon upon the step road had climbed through the belt of trees and out on to bare slopes.
As they wound up the mountain, sitting so dose together, she felt how familiar his company was to her, and how familiar his silence. Their thoughts, running together, would meet presently, as they had often met, at the juncture when his hand was laid upon hers at the wheel: But when he spoke he startled her.
"How long has the railway been extended to Charleville?"
"A fortnight," she answered upon reflection.
"How about the big stone bridge on this side? The railway bridge?"
"Why that lies at the bottom of the river as usual."
"And haven't they replaced it yet by a wooden one?"
"No, not yet."
"And no one is even working there?"
"I haven't been there lately," she answered. "Maybe they are by now. Is it your railway to Revin you are thinking of?"
He was fingering his big note book.
"I can't start anything till the railway runs," he answered, tapping on the book, "but when it runs—I'll show you when we get up there."
They came to a quagmire in the red clay of the road. It was an ancient trap left over from the rains of winter, strewn with twigs and small branches so that light wheels might skim, with luck, over its shaking holes.
"You see," he said, pursuing his thought, "lorries wouldn't do here. They'd sink."
"They would," she agreed, and found that his innocence of her secret locked her words more tightly in her throat. Far above, from an iron peak, the light of the heavy sun was slipping. Beneath it they ran in shadow, through rock and moss. Before the light had gone they had reached the first crest and drew up for a moment at a movement of his hand.
Looking back to Charleville, he said, "See where the river winds. The railway crosses it three times. Can we see from here if the bridges are all down?" And he stood up and, steadying himself upon her shoulder, peered down at Charleville, to where man lived in the valleys. But though the slopes ahead of them were still alight, depths, distance, the crowding and thickening of twilight in the hollows behind them offered no detail.
"I fear they are," she said, gazing with him. "I think they are. I think I can remember that they are."
Soon they would be at the top of the long descent on Revins. Should she tell him, he who sat so close, so unsuspecting? An arrowy temptation shot through her mind.
"Is it possible—Why not write a letter when he is gone!"
She saw its beauty, its advantages, and she played with it like someone who knew where to find strength to withstand it.
"He is so happy, so gay," urged the voice, "so full of his plans! And you have left it so late. How painful now, just as he is going, to bid him think: 'I will never see her face again!'"
(How close he sat beside her! How close her secret sat within her!)
"Think how it is with you," pursued the tempting voice. "It is hard to part from a face, but not so hard to part from the writer of a letter."
Over the next crest the Belgian Ardennes showed blue and dim in the distance.
"Stop!" he said, holding up his hand again.
They were on the top of a high plateau; she drew up. A large bird with red under its wings flapped out and hung in the air over the precipice.
"See—the Meuse!" he said. "See, on its banks, do you see down there? Come to the edge."
Hundreds of feet below lay a ribbon-loop of dark, unstirring water. They stood at the edge of the rock looking down together. She saw he was excited. His usually pale face was flushed.
"Do you see down there, do you see in this light—a village?"
She could see well enough a village.
"That's Revins. And those dark dots beyond——"
"I see them."
"My factories. Before the summer you'll see smoke down there! They are partially destroyed. One can't see well, one can't see how much—"
"Have you never been back? Have you never seen what's happened?"
She had not guessed this: she was not prepared for this. This was the secret, then of his absorption.
"I've not seen it yet. I've not been able to get away. And the Paris factories have held me every minute. But now I'm here, I'm—I'm wondering—You see that dot beyond, standing separate?"
"That's where I sleep to-night. That's the house."
"But can you sleep there?" she asked, still shocked that she had not realised what this journey was to him.
"I mean is the house ruined?"
"Oh, the house is in bad order," he said. "Not ruined. 'Looted,' my old concierge writes. She was my nurse a hundred years ago. She has been there through the occupation. I wrote to her, and she expects me to-night. To-night it will be too dark, but to-morrow before I leave I shall see what they have done to the factories."
"Don't you know at all how bad they are?"
"I've had letters. The agent went on ahead five days ago and he has settled there already. But letters don't tell one enough. There are little things in the factories—things I put in myself—" He broke off and drew her to another side of the plateau. "See down there! That unfortunate railway crosses two more bridges. I can't see now, but they're blown up, since all the others are. And such a time for business! It hurts me to think of the things I can't set going till that railway works. Every one is crying out for the things that I can make here."
On and on he talked in his excitement, absorbed and planning, leading her from one point of view on the plateau to another. Her eyes followed his pointing hands from crest to crest of the mountains their neighbours, till the valleys were full of creeping shadows. Even when the shades filmed his eager hand he held it out to point here and there as though the whole landscape of the mountains was printed in immortal daylight on his mind.
"I can't see," she said. "It's so dark down there. I can't see it," as he pointed to the spot where the Brussels railway once ran.
"Well, it's there," he said, staring at the spot with eyes that knew.
The blue night deepened in the sky; from east, west, north, south, sprang the stars.
"Fanny, look! There's a light in my house!"
Fathoms of shade piled over the village and in the heart of it a light had appeared. "Marie has lit the lamp on the steps. I mustn't be too late for her—I must soon go down."
"What, you walk? Is there a footpath down?"
"I shall go down this mountain path below. It's a path I know, shooting hares. Soon I shall be back again. Brussels one week; then Paris; then here again. I'll see what builders can be spared from the Paris factories. They can walk out here from Charleville. Ten miles, that's nothing! Then we'll get the stone cut ready in the quarries. Do you know, during the war, I thought (when I thought of it), 'If the Revins factories are destroyed it won't be I who'll start them again. I won't take up that hard mountain life any more. If they're destroyed, it's too discouraging, so let them lie!' But now I don't feel discouraged at all. I've new ideas, bigger ones. I'm older, I'm going to be richer. And then, since they're partly knocked down I'll rebuild them in a better way. And it's not only that—See!" He was carried away by his resolves, shaken by excitement, and pulling out his note-book he tilted it this way and that under the starlight, but he could not read it, and all the stars in that sky were no use to him. He struck a match and held the feeble flame under that heavenly magnificence, and a puff of wind blew it out.
"But I don't need to see!" he exclaimed, and pointing into the night he continued to unfold his plans, to build in the unmeaning darkness, which, to his eyes, was mountain valleys where new factories arose, mountain slopes whose sides were to be quarried for their stony ribs, rivers to move power-stations, railways to Paris and to Brussels. As she followed his finger her eyes lit upon the stars instead, and now he said, "There, there!" pointing to Orion, and now "Here, here!" lighting upon Aldebrande.
As she followed his finger her thoughts were on their own paths, thinking, "This is Julien as he will be, not as I have known him." The soldier had been a wanderer like herself, a half-fantastic being. But here beside her in the darkness stood the civilian, the Julien-to-come, the solid man, the builder, plotting to capture the future.
For him, too, she could no longer remain as she had been. Here, below her was the face, the mountain face, of her rival. Unless she became one with his plans and lived in the same blazing light with them, she would be a separate landscape, a strain upon his focus.
Then she saw him looking at her. Her face, silver-bright in the starlight, was as unreadable as his own note-book.
"Are you sure," he was saying, "that you won't be blamed about the car?"
"Sure, quite sure. The men have all gone home."
"But to-morrow morning? When they see it has been out?"
"Not—to-morrow morning. No, they won't say anything to-morrow morning. Oh, dear Julien—"
"I think, I hope you are going to have a great success here. And don't forget—me—when you—"
"—When I come back in a week!"
"But your weeks—are so long."
"Yet you will be happy without me," he said suddenly.
"What makes you say that?"
"You've some solace, some treasure of your own." He nodded. "In a way," he said, "I've sometimes thought you half out of reach of pain."
She caught her breath, and the starry sky whirled over her head.
"You're a happy foreigner!" he finished. "Did you know? Dormans called you that after the first dance. He said to me: 'I wonder if they are all so happy in England! I must go and see.'"
"You too, you too!" she said, eagerly, and she wanted him to admit it. "See how happy, how busy, how full of the affairs of life you soon will be! Difficulties of every sort, and hard work and triumph—"
"And you'll see, you'll see, I'll do it," he said, catching fire again. "I'll grow rich on these bony mountains—it isn't only the riches, mind you, but they are the proof—I'll wring it out in triumph, not in water, but in gold—from the rock!"
He stood at the edge of the path, a little above her, blotting out the sky with his darker shape, then turning, kissed her.
"For the little time!" he said, and disappeared.
The noise of his footsteps descended in the night below. Ten minutes passed, and as each step trod innocently away from her for ever she continued motionless and silent to listen from her rock. The noises all but faded, yet, loth to put an end to the soft rustle, she listened while it grew fainter and less human to her ear, till it mingled at last with the rustle of nature, with the whine of the wind and the pit-pat of a little creature close at hand.
She stirred at last, and turned; and found herself alone with that flock of enormous companions, the hog-backed mountains, like cattle feeding about her. Above, uniting craggy horn to horn, was an architrave of stars.
"Good-bye"—to the light in the valley, and starting the car she began the descent on Charleville. There are moments when the roll of the world is perceptible to the extravagant senses. There are moments when the glamour of man thins away into oblivion before the magic of night, when his face fades and his voice is silenced before that wind of excited perception that blows out of nowhere to shake the soul.
In such a mood, in such a giddy hour, seated in person upon her car, in spirit upon her imagination, Fanny rode down the mountain into the night.
She was invincible, inattentive to the voice of absent man, a hard, hollow goddess, a flute for the piping of heaven—composing and chanting unmusical songs, her inner ear fastened upon another melody. And heaven, protecting a creature at that moment so estranged from earth, led her down the wild road, held back the threatening forest branches, brought her, all but standing up at the wheel like a lunatic, safely to the foot of the last hill.
Recalled to earth by the light of Charleville she drove slowly up the main street, replaced the car in the garage, and returned to her house in the Rue de Cleves.
"It is true," she whispered, as she entered the room, "that I am half out of reach of pain—" and long, in plans for the future, she hung over the embers.
The gradual sinking of the light before her reminded her of the present. "The last night that the fire burns for me!" She heaped on all her logs.
"Little pannikin of chocolate, little companion!" Hunger, too, awoke, and she dropped two sticks of chocolate into the water. "The fire dies down to-night. To-morrow I shall be gone." A petal from the apple blossom on the mantelpiece fell against her hand.
"To-morrow I shall be gone. The apple blossom is spread to large wax flowers, and the flowers will fall and never breed apples. They will sweep this room, and Philippe's mother will come and sit in it and make it sad. So many things happen in the evening. So many unripe thoughts ripen before the fire. Turk, Bulgar, German—Me. Never to return. When she comes into this room the apple flowers will stare at her across the desert of my absence, and wonder who she is! I wonder if I can teach her anything. Will she keep the grid on the wood fire? And the blue birds flying on the bed? It is like going out of life—tenderly leaving one's little arrangements to the next comer—"
And drawing her chair up to the table, she lit the lamp, and sat down to write her letter.