"Sacre bleu!" the poilu cried delightedly. "More honor to our '75's'!"
"I thought the planes did it!" Jeb turned in surprise.
"Oh, no, Monsieur! That was done by one of our guns six miles away!"
Below the pirouetting airmen there was no poetry of motion. Here men strained and panted and wiped grimy sweat from their eyes. A month ago this ground ahead had been vigorously contested—the very spot on which Jeb now stood had been well within the German lines.
In the thoroughness with which the engineers were making fast their gains, a military observer would have read that not only would the Allied army draw the sting from this "empire of death," but that never again would this part of France be yielded to alien hands. As far as the eye could reach roads were being improved, others made; the buried railways were being excavated, metals straightened, or replaced if too far bent; shell-proof dug-outs were having their finishing touches, some to be used as dressing-stations for the wounded whom to-morrow might bring in, others for storing ammunition. In a nearby wood, where trees had been reduced to little more than gaunt trunks barren of leaf and twig, observation posts were built with many tons of branches hauled from the rear, and so artfully wired in place that the stricken giants seemed almost ready to live again. This work in itself constituted reason enough for the Allied airmen to sweep the sky of German observers, since only by "putting out the enemy's eye" could such secrets of camouflage be preserved. Wells were being bored by gas engine power and pipes laid, as spider webs, to bring untainted water to man and beast. Then, of course, shallow trenches had to be dug for telephone wires which otherwise would perish in the first onslaught of artillery fire.
Among the trenches of greater magnitude, recently pounded to the point of obliteration, activities were being pressed at highest tension, for here the destruction had been particularly severe. The Germans had held them well, but no human agency could have prevailed against the unfaltering valor of the Allies. Now they were in Allied hands, and being prepared for Allied shelter. From sunken approaches to the assembly trenches, and from there forward through an intricate maze of communicating passages to the firing trench, tens of thousands of men were busy with pick and shovel—not, however, constructing the narrow, steep-sided affairs which proved so disastrous to the Germans on the Somme, but a shallower type of trench having more flare and a wider sole. Just behind them worked the plumbers and pipemen, the carpenters and timber placers, the electricians with their coils of wire and telephones; everything perfected with the greatest nicety today, which tomorrow—or the next, or next, tomorrow—would be buried for future plowshares. War could not be war unless it were the highest expression of construction and destruction, even as it raises life and death to the highest power of sublimity!
Boring like huge worms from the front line outward, were tunnellers, biting into the earth with grim persistence to lay mines beneath the enemy; not that this work would be finished in time for tomorrow's action, wherein plans were already completed to press forward, but should the German positions prove firm enough to establish another temporary deadlock, then they would serve a purpose. By such forethought are battles won, when nothing is underestimated, nothing overlooked, no shade of opportunity neglected, and all chances accounted for.
"I never dreamed it was so gigantic a game as this," Jeb gasped.
"But there is much more, Monsieur," his companion smiled.
"Does no one ever rest?" Jeb asked, in a voice of awe.
"Oh, yes, Monsieur," the poilu smiled again. "In places where the trenches have been cleared and mended, where telephone wires have been connected to instruments, where water pipes have been brought down and fauceted, flooring built across mucky places, gas gongs installed, ammunition, grenades and tinned food stored in the newly finished shell-proof chambers, you will find a few over-exhausted men sprawled out, sleeping."
While Jeb could see nothing of this, the driver promised to get him into it soon enough—a suggestion that turned him away in search of other scenes and thoughts. Off to the right two lines of snags marked what had once been graceful poplars edging a famous route national, but now——! He glanced quickly backward along the direction from which he came. Here, at first, a brighter prospect met his eyes: the far-off rolling slopes were green, the far-off woods had not been stripped of leaves; but never could the grim story be quite wiped out for, across this verdant scene, as a long, thin reptile with a million legs, crawled an endless line of artillery and munition trains.
"Can't I ever get away from it!" he cried to himself, shutting his eyes in agony.
The horses had been rested and word came to proceed; the limbers creaked and moved. Jeb gripped the seat in terror, feeling now that before they got half way down the slope a German gunner would pick them out and touch the magic spring which reduces men—not symbolically but literally—to dust. Yet he breathed more freely and sent another prayer up for the engineers when almost at once they entered a sunken road, converging toward the enemy although keeping well out of sight. At places where the terrain did not admit of this shelter, or other roads went off at tangents, long strips of canvas were stretched across the openings, their outer sides being painted, in theatre scenery fashion, to represent the surrounding ground. If the Germans had only known that thousands of troops and thousands of tons of ammunition passed daily within easy range of their guns, protected by a wall of 10-ounce canvas! Another important reason for sweeping their planes from the sky!
The poilu called Jeb's attention to these ingenious devices of camouflage, seeming to think them a great joke.
"But for the good God having made the Boche, Monsieur, I should call them asses with long ears for never estimating our finesse and resource."
"It wouldn't be disrespectful, Frenchie," one of the unit laughed, "because the good God made asses, too!"
"Well, Monsieur, I feel there should be an apology somewhere! Perhaps it is to the four-footed asses."
They climbed down at last and, each loaded with supplies, tramped through half a mile of communicating trenches to the protected dressing-stable dug-outs—roomy affairs, twenty feet below the surface and opening rearward into a kind of quadrangle. Five hundred yards ahead were the firing trenches, where things would happen; and the poilu, observing this, grimly remarked:
"Sacre bleu! They certainly have ordered you up to the very front, Monsieur! 'Tis not often the women are brought so close—but it means, Monsieur, that our Generals are positive of driving the Boche far back tomorrow!"
The chief surgeon in charge here rushed to meet them with open arms, embracing Dr. Barrow warmly; and then Barrow stepped back to look at him, for this was the great Bonsecours! Georges Bonsecours! He saw a man of medium height, and of medium build, slightly gray about his temples, and in the neighborhood of forty years of age. No one of these things was particularly distinguishing, but when he spoke—ah, then the impelling magnetism which drew others close to him, the force which sent them flying off to various duties, was easily explained. His eyes, while twinkling merrily as though everything in life possessed a touch of humor, also gave the impression that they could see beneath five layers of skin tissue—that by some canny second sight they could detect a piece of shrapnel without the aid of probes or X-ray; but a closer inspection showed that they were set in a face which had become seamed by weariness. His arms, also, hung with a directness that indicated great fatigue.
While supplies were being stored away and the women nurses had retired for a needed rest, the world-famed surgeon escorted Dr. Barrow farther down the line of dressing-stations, particularly to see his own unit which had been in this sector since the middle of April.
"Monsieur le Doctor," he said,—then continued in beautiful English—"I am greatly impressed with the fortitude of your American women who have assisted me. There is one—but why mention one, when they all typify to my mind graceful columns of ivory; pure in their strength and certainty, crystal in their thoughts and deeds! My operating table is a Grecian temple, Monsieur, when they surround it."
"That is a beautiful tribute," said Barrow, flushing with pride.
"Not as beautiful, Monsieur, as the inspiration and assistance which one of them has given me." He stopped, blushing like a girl, then continued frankly with an infectious smile: "We learn to be outspoken on the edge of No Man's Land—perhaps it is because we never know at what moment our lips may be completely sealed that we appreciate the value of saying fearlessly what is in our minds; therefore I will finish by telling you that, next to an Allied victory, my greatest hope is that she may be persuaded to share my fortune in Paris, after we are finished with the fortunes of war!"
"I could wish no girl better luck than that," Barrow smiled. "To us at home you stand as a kind of demi-god, a wizard, who——"
"Ah, Monsieur, I have accomplished nothing, really, until I came here, where her sympathy and bravery have made me see new things! I tell her that she inherits these traits from an angel mother and an American Indian father."
Both men laughed delightedly; Dr. Barrow little dreaming at the moment that this American girl, beloved by every one around her, was the daughter of an old friend who edited a paper down—or was it up?—in Hillsdale.
"You see that we are close to things here," Bonsecours continued, as they walked along.
"I had wondered about the women being so near the front," Barrow replied.
"Well, Monsieur, in some sectors this position is safer for them than farther back—only, of course, when our artillery and line is as strong as here, and the dressing-stations as well protected. Besides," he added softly, "we are needing many nurses, and have lost fearfully in men and orderlies."
The sun set clear that evening, putting a sparkle in the air which touched one's nerves like wine. Shortly before twilight Jeb was drawn to the entrance of his dug-out by the tramping and sloshing of many feet. He walked the length of the quadrangle to where it joined a communicating trench and for half an hour—even after the night had grown too dark to see distinctly—watched an incessant line of soldiery moving forward to positions. Tramp, tramp, they went, under orders of silence, because something big was on the boards for tomorrow. But 'twas not the quiet of glumness that enveloped them, for they showed in every step an elasticity of spirits, as of muscles. He might have called it a fluid line, so lithely did it flow by; he might have called it a line of gods, so proudly did each man hold his steel-capped head!
The firing trench lay about six hundred yards from the German first line; six hundred yards of No Man's Land waiting passively for the shambles! Jeb wrung his hands and leaned against the earthen wall. With that stark struggle for existence but a few hours off, how was it possible for men to step out happily! What would he be doing, were he amongst them!
The line was still passing, coming out of the impenetrable and marching—who knew where! when he stumbled through the dark entrance of the dug-out.
"What's going on out there?" a comrade asked.
"Ghosts," he answered, feeling for his bunk and throwing himself face down on it.
He was tired to exhaustion, his nerves were starved for rest. The dug-out was chilly after sundown and he reached fumblingly for his blanket, found himself lying upon it and awkwardly wriggled under.
The warmth was good. In a little while the steady tramp of men going to kill or die—for 'tis thus the gods play with us!—became a soothing lullaby, and lured him into sleep.
From this deep slumber Jeb was aroused by the very incarnation of doomsday noises that sent him bounding to the floor with nerves aquiver. The blanket dragging after him hung from his shoulders, even as bewilderment and sleep clung to his mind. His senses knew that it was night, although details about him were brought into sharp relief by a thousand flashes spasmodically flooding the dug-out with fiendish brilliancy; and he knew that his body was cold, although the walls and timbers seemed to be consumed by raging fires. He felt the ground trembling in the throes of a titanic upheaval, while his entire being seemed to be hammered and torn by the frightful cataclysm of sounds. He stood as though paralyzed, unmindful that bits of earth and gravel were sifting through chinks between the ceiling timbers and falling on his head.
Other members of the unit had staggered into wakefulness and sat staring at him, he thought, with greenish, flickering faces—accusingly, as if he were responsible. Each knew the French guns had searched out and were crumbling up the German defenses, but none had previously suspected that an artillery bombardment could reach such fury. The desultory firing of yesterday might well be understood as a moment decalme!
In this instant of terrified amazement Jeb and his comrades remained as statues, simply staring with owlish eyes devoid of intelligence, since it was well nigh impossible for men, uninitiated, to master their faculties until the first shock had been absorbed.
'Twas not so much the roar of cannon from their distant places in the rear—although these alone might doubtless have been startling enough—but the shower of projectiles falling on the doomed line only six hundred yards across No Man's Land. In answer to this bombardment from an eight-mile line of guns accurately trained the day before, enemy guns, trained with lesser accuracy, did their best to inflict an equal punishment. The effect was a combination of the solemnity and the littleness of man which defies every knack of human expression to depict.
The seasoned soldier could have told some things; he could have distinguished calibre from calibre as readily as the skillful fox hunter knows the position of his racing hounds by the quality of their voices. He could have spotted the vindictive crash of "75's," the deep-toned bellowing of "heavies," or, nearer by—had they been in action—the banging of trench mortars. In the sky he could have told from white or greenish-orange flashes, from lace-like wreaths or fixed-star blasts, where shrapnel or high explosive shells had burst; from the ringing of a gas gong he could tell where "green cross" shells were falling; he could, and gladly would, have explained—to his own satisfaction, at least—the many freak phenomena: a solitary light spirally ascending upward until lost in the clouds; sprays of fire and spark-showers illumining the sky; rainbow arcs of angry red that flickered, as an aurora borealis, from horizon to horizon.
But the uninitiated Medical Corps unit, numbed to inertia, was only sensible to an overhead riot of screeching demons, as shells hurtling forward were passed and answered by shells hurtling back—a sky of flying steel and a horizon of blasted earth! In moments of greatest concussion, simultaneous with the most blinding flashes, the air about their faces seemed to jump; crazy little vortexes scurried past the dug-out opening, or flew in across the floor, like phantom kittens seized by some curious madness. To Jeb's highly imaginative, and now half-crazed, mind these represented newly liberated souls, in anguish seeking refuge from the hurricane of death and its drenching rain of fire. He had not then found out how many hundreds of shells must be fired to wound one man!
On the Allied side the bombardment, with growing intensity, became a barrage. Explosions came as thick as drum taps when a roll is sounded. There seemed to be no intermission, really; no more, at any rate, than one's ear can detect between clicks in a telegraph room when the instruments work rapidly.
Barrow and Bonsecours ran in. They looked weirdly grotesque in the fitful playing of lights, and Bonsecours shouted something, although no voice seemed to issue from his lips. Then with vigorous gestures he beckoned the men up to him—having come especially to get this new unit straightened out, since his own veterans knew exactly what to do.
Jeb had not moved, for the blanket still hung from his shoulders. Neither had the others arisen from their bunks, so bewildered were they also by the chorus of death engines.
"Up now, and active!" the great surgeon yelled. "Stretchers! You go out shortly!"
"Go out!" Jeb screamed, finding his voice in a burst. "Go out!" he screamed again. "God Almighty, no one can go out there!"
His face was ghostlike, his eyes were large, staring, vacant. Bonsecours stepped nearer and studied him, bellowing in a tone that had made more than one man obey:
"There are twenty thousand fine fellows, mon chere enfant, each about to spring from his trench with the firm belief that if he gets hit we shall bring him in. No man dares break faith with a friend who thus relies on him!" He had put both hands on Jeb's shoulders and now continued to look steadfastly, honestly into his eyes. Then quickly he kissed him on both cheeks, saying: "I'll believe in you tonight, to do as I would do were my duty not back here!"
A strange feeling of warmth and strength passed through Jeb's veins, but he was given no time for reply, because this man of iron turned to the assembled unit, shouting:
"At dawn this curtain of shells will be lifted and dropped on the Boche second line. That instant our boys go over the top, across No Man's Land. But Germans burrow under ground in a barrage, or run out forward and lie down to escape it; so there will still be many with machine-guns left to rake the open stretch, and not all of our brave fellows will get across. It is those," he added, in a voice of thunder, "whom the good God expects us to bring in!"
There was no disobeying this man. Jeb felt sick through and through, but as the others filed out, every second one with a folded stretcher, he, also, followed. Yet he wanted to hold back; he wanted to dash into the darkest niche of the dug-out, bury his face there and—well, die! To die at once, outright, was preferable to the mental torture of expected laceration and suffering; nor could even the great Bonsecours have convinced him that these two monsters were not crouching, waiting especially for the moment when he should step forth.
While the dressing-station shelters opened into a roomy quadrangle, that in turn connected with trenches, there had also been cut narrow roadways up past the side of each dug-out, ascending sharply toward the front. By this rough and gravelly, though more direct, means, stretcher-bearers could be upon the crest in a twinkling, thence forward and downward over narrow bridges spanning the first line trench to No Man's Land itself.
As the stretcher-bearers of Barrow's unit poured out beneath the sky—or what would have been a sky had not incarnate fiends usurped it—Jeb found himself moving next to Bonsecours. Even in this strain, when men were thinking in terms of armies, the famous surgeon with infinite tact went about supporting the props of one human atom. After all, he had been trained to mend one man at a time! He spoke no word until they had climbed the sloping roadway and laid flat, peeping over; then, with his lips close to Jeb's ear, he shouted:
"Have no fear! When man calls on the highest expression of his will, he becomes indomitable; he succeeds in the highest terms of success—and thus will you succeed, mon pauvre enfant! Look!"
He sprang up, pointing where the fringe of that French fire curtain touched this great stage. The blinding lights flickered over his face and made him supreme at that moment. In the continuous, head-splitting noises of three thousand shells per minute, bursting on an eight-mile segment, he looked more like a war god than an agent of mercy.
The German position was crumbling—rather, it was being blasted out of existence. To Jeb it might have marked the very brink of hell. The flashes were almost as a steady white and greenish-orange blaze, and showed the earth spurting in great bunches upward; stiff winds that had sent clouds scurrying the day before now caught the ground smoke and drew it, as a sweeping prairie fire, back upon the enemy. This was a propitious wind, and on its wings the death gas sped.
Between the armies lay No Man's Land in utter desolation, but each little detail, each inconspicuous bit of wreckage left from earlier struggles, stood boldly outlined in the calcium glare. This was the stretch of ground he would be searching when the curtain lifted—except that its surface would then be strewn with men; some drawn up in pain, some moaning, some whimpering, some cursing, some terribly still. Had ever a curtain lifted on more poignant tragedy! Was there a parallel in crime to this wholesale slaughter which a treacherous nation thrust upon a peaceful world! Jeb tried to wonder how many dead might be there, but found that his mind would not leave the point of destruction; it had become riveted, as a bird is said to be mesmerized by a slowly approaching snake.
Lying just behind the ridge, feeling the earth tremble beneath his body, waiting for Bonsecours' command to dash into that cockpit of suffering and there mingle with the torn, the dying and the dead, he repeated over and over the great surgeon's words which bit into him like acid: "It is those whom the good God expects us to bring in!"
The dawn was coming! No sun appeared, but the flashes grew less blinding; the ground close to his face began to show natural browns where formerly had been flickering greens, and his hands looked more alive than dead. Also did the whole scene change as sky and earth increased their fury in this blending of the real and unreal; for, now added to the noises and fitful lights, were huge balls of white smoke, and brown, springing into quick existence; some expanded to balloon size and swept majestically onward, upward; some, caught in a vortex of madness,—swirling, writhing, darting,—formed devilishly gruesome arabesques that yet were formless; some burst like pon-pons; some released long streamers and darted earthward. Jeb's eyes were held by this appalling grandeur; his soul was chained, numbed, by its unlicensed braggadocio.
As though some invisible hand touched the spring of a jumping-jack box eight miles in length and released twenty thousand monkeys, the trench beneath Jeb seemed to open with a snap. Even above the cannonading he could hear men give vent to savage cheering. But his blood congealed and his fingers dug into the earth, his breath came in agonized gasps, as he watched them rush pell-mell, with bayonets fixed, across that deadly strip of ground.
Then suddenly the artillery ceased. The far-off German guns still roared, but they were as taps of rain upon a roof to ears that had almost bled from other detonations. For a moment Jeb thought he had been stricken deaf, and turned a questioning glance at Bonsecours, whose eyes were staring ahead in strained expectancy.
"See, Americans! The curtain has raised for our brave fellows, and it will now fall on the second line!"
In the immediate silence his voice seemed to be bellowing—then the mighty guns, having lifted the range, crashed out again. Yet, mingled with the blasting of this second line, could be heard the spiteful rattling of machine-guns, the fusillade of rifle fire, as the enemy, scrambling to places from the punishment they had just been through, poured death into the headlong charge.
The scene to Jeb now became a phantasmagoria of horrors. Men running with the speed of deer suddenly, and without apparent cause, pitched forward, rose and again went down; some stumbled awkwardly and did not try to rise. But the great wave, like a breaker rolling inward, swept irresistibly. Tired and encumbered though each man was who made up this wave, in a prodigiously short time they were pouring into the German trench.
Such is the accuracy of modern warfare—and of the French, who are the finest artillerymen in the world—that at the expiration of six minutes another appalling silence filled the air. The curtain of fire had again been lifted, to fall this time still farther back; even as the sweeping wave of infantry, without apparently a check, rolled on to take the second German line just emerging from its bath of fire.
Bonsecours seemed too fascinated to give or think of orders, yet he knew the time was not quite ripe, for part of a division had yet to come up from the assembly trenches in the rear, to form another wave which would go barging after the first.
Streams of these steel-helmeted fellows now began to pass—as the fluid line had passed in yesterday's twilight—close below Jeb. In the broadening daylight he could distinctly see their bronzed, immobile faces; their swinging gait, suggesting abundant reserve power, and their eyes that bespoke an utter disregard of dangers. They were men, second to none in determination and reckless personal valor, who did not endure hardship, but rode upon it; who did not work, without first laughing it into play. If the sun was hot, they sweated good humor; and, if the sky rained torrents, good humor trickled in rivulets down their backs. They had learned to treat flying shells with contempt, except when any of their comrades fell—and then a cold fury would burst amidst their ranks, exploding, not into tears, but oaths! Those oaths!—snapped barkingly from mouth to mouth while death was bursting right and left and overhead, and bayonets were fixing for a greater toll!
Jeb felt, with an uncanny sense of prophecy, that in this marching line was depicted a new phase of man growing out of war. The individual preferment which many of them enjoyed four years ago had thinned to nothingness in the welding of this great warrior-force of comrades, who never again would quite resume their former status. For, when a clubman eats and sleeps and jokes and fights beside the waiter who used to bring his cocktail, he learns to love that man, and the love is mutual; when a millionaire is dragged to shelter by the husky grocer's boy who used to leave a basket at his kitchen door, he also loves that boy, and the boy loves him. Each finds in the other values which are not measured by worldly goods, or the stamp of birth, or family influence; each sees in the naked soul of each truer riches which transcend what formerly had been false. And thus, in the armies of those supermen who after the war march home to lasting peace, the stamp of aristocracy will be the Aristocracy of Worth. It was many months before Jeb realized that, almost unconsciously, he had read this prophecy in the fire of death-dealing shells.
Again the range lifted, this time past a hamlet that stood in partial ruins on a hill. It had been spared complete destruction at German hands, doubtless because the enemy had left it hurriedly, and now the French artillerymen carefully avoided it lest a few old folk and children might be there. The human wave would sweep it clean enough of aliens! Yet that wave had come upon a rocky shore, and Jeb imagined he could hear the metallic clash and rasp of bayonet on bayonet, the gasps and sobs and curses of men fighting without quarter.
The new division just brought up now scrambled over the top, but No Man's Land had been largely stripped of dangers. Victory sparkled in the air; safety smiled at Jeb; with these fellows carrying the battle ever away from him, performing the unbelievable in pluck and endurance, he did not so much mind the thought of going for the wounded! But the uplift was transient—it fled in a panic as Bonsecours called:
"Quick, mes chere enfants, be after them! Overlook no one! Let the walking cases get in alone, and bring the others with all haste! There's one of your American girls in my unit who bids you God-speed! Go!"
The time had come! Dripping sweat from every pore, desperately seized again with trembling, Jeb staggered to his feet and started forward.
Bonsecours' command had been well timed, for up and down the line other men bearing stretchers bounded forward. Jeb's partner in this work, a lanky middle-westerner, called "Omaha" for love—although "John Hastings" was stamped in his identification disk—sprang out at a dog-trot, crossing the trench bridge and quickly getting into the plain below as if he were an old hand at this game instead of undertaking it now for the first time.
Jeb, following closely at his heels, had become utterly terrified. His flesh was numb and his legs moved automatically, rather than by conscious effort. The former mite of courage had atrophied. He felt wretchedly alone and unprotected, as an atom of dust drifting across a sunbeam. He wanted to clutch at something—to hold himself back—to scream!
Half a mile to right and left the Germans were plastering No Man's Land with a pitiless fire, but thus far the ground immediately about him remained scarcely touched. Shells occasionally burst on the trenches just behind, but Barrow's unit luckily was being permitted to go without serious embarrassment. And yet Jeb knew that it was only a matter of time before he and Hastings would receive a blasting. He shivered, jabbering words he could not have recalled a minute later; once cursing himself for a coward, then calling himself a liar for having said it.
There were not as many prone men on the field as he had expected to find. To his bulging eyes which watched the first charge, men seemed to be falling everywhere, but as a matter of fact this was not so.
They had gone quite a third of the distance across when Hastings stopped and unrolled the stretcher, shouting:
"Here's one! Lend a hand, Jeb!"
The coolness of the voice, its utmost naturalness, gave Jeb a most agreeable feeling, and before remembering again that men who drop in battle are things of blood and pain, he was easing one gently over on the brown canvas.
They started to come in, Hastings at the forward handles, he at the rear; moving as fast as the added weight permitted, skirting shell holes and stepping over fragments of barbed-wire. Crossing the first trench bridge a hundred faces looked up at them, steadily, unemotionally. Another division had been brought up after the second wave swept out, and a few of these fellows now said quietly: "Bravo!" But their thoughts were with the chap who lay silent on the canvas.
Reaching the top of the gravelly roadway that sloped to the dressing-stations, burying their heels in the loose earth which rolled along with them as they descended, the stretcher-bearers saw Barrow in a white jacket, and several white-faced nurses expectantly waiting; for this had been the first man brought in. Even as he was stripped and laid upon the crude table, Jeb and Hastings were well on their way out again.
In four hours No Man's Land had been fairly well cleared of suffering. Although Jeb was growing indifferent to the sight of blood, several times, as a result of extreme fear, he had been actively sick. The shells were as terrifying as ever; moreover, he and Hastings had to penetrate farther each time in search of wounded. Their last trip took them nearly to the scarp of blasted ground on which stood the half-destroyed hamlet. True, there had been shells bursting within a hundred yards of Jeb; but it so happened that he was particularly engrossed with lifting or easing some of the wounded. Once, when a splinter of steel cut Hastings' sleeve, the lanky westerner gave a whistle.
"That was close," he said.
And Jeb, newly terrified by the words, looked up quickly, asking:
"Did one come by?"
"Well, if it did, it did," Hastings answered. "Cut out your chills, Jeb, and let's get this feller in!"
But Jeb could not "cut out" the chill at once because another shell burst while he was looking, driving him into a panic so acute that Hastings began to swear.
Toward midday the wind fell and the heat became intense. Smoke, acrid and at times stifling, hung in the hollows like white- and brown-streaked palls, and the unwholesome smell of burning which infests battlefields was sickening. Jeb's clothes were wringing wet, and each time he panted across the first trench bridge he noted how the waiting men under steel helmets were drenched with perspiration. One of them called up to him:
"It's our turn next!—keep an eye open for me!"
The fellow was trying to grin, but succeeded only in making an ugly leer. Jeb read it in a flash—the man was afraid!—and a stinging sense of mortification came over him as he wondered if his own face had been as tell-tale—if it were now as tell-tale!
Over on the battle front, and especially around the half-destroyed hamlet, the Germans were contesting every foot that led to their third line of defense, while the Allies fought with stark madness to dislodge them. The airmen hovering above, having for the third time that day swept the sky of combatants, saw with surprise that armies on both sides were losing cohesion. Some units of the Allies had lost direction, others bored their way through the German line then, finding themselves hemmed in, fought out again; in many places were noticed small groups so intent upon their own little conflicts that they seemed to be having no part in the big game, at all. But these aerial observers realized that the tremendous sledge-hammer blows, directed with consummate skill and resiliency, left the mass of wastage on the German side; for, with strategical and tactical problems suddenly changed from boxed-in trench warfare to the elastic manoeuvers of open battle, the directing mind which is more elastic, all things else being equal, wins the day—and, whatever other virtues the Boche may possess, his mind can hardly be said to expand spontaneously. At the same time, the enemy was dying hard: fortifying at a moment's notice when forced into a corner, and making heroic resistance with machine-guns in patches of woods, craters, or other favorable moulding of the terrain.
When Jeb sweated in behind Hastings at one o'clock he staggered down the road without seeing it. From lack of food, and the horrible wrenching nausea he had suffered, as well as the terror gnawing more and more into his soul, he was pretty well done for.
Barrow, noting this with the eye of a skilful physician, sent a nurse for black coffee and a bowl of soup, but Jeb rebelled in disgust at the thought of it.
"Come, now," his chief said commandingly, when the nurse returned, "shut your eyes and drink them down, I tell you! We need you, Jeb; you mustn't kick up sick the first day!"
We need you! The words stirred new life in him. Then came a vision of the great Bonsecours as he had pointed toward No Man's Land and cried: "It is those whom the good God expects us to bring in!"
He swallowed the soup and coffee, doggedly turned and followed Hastings up the slope again. But, behind the back of his lanky partner, he was whimpering softly. Never before had the battle scene beyond inspired him with so much terror as now, for its ebb and flow was leaving a greater human wreckage than the Red Cross men could handle. The wounded were arriving at longer periods, because the stretcher-bearers were having farther and farther to go for them; and the disturbing fact was becoming evident that there were less stretcher-bearers than had started out in the morning.
Before Jeb's eyes now the third division barged over the top, leaving the front trench deserted. He saw the line hold beautifully for the first hundred yards, then become more and more phantom-like as it plunged deeper into the pall of smoke. He wondered dully if the fellow who had said: "Watch for me!" had found his nerve, or was still grinning the sickly leer of cowardice.
"That smoke ain't such a bad screen, Jeb," Hastings shouted. "Come on; let's get busy!"
Into it again they passed; many times that afternoon they came out and passed again into it. The last trip took them nearly to the old German first line—since morning blasted level with the ground—before they found a man who had not passed the point of aid. There were plenty about them of the other kind, for machine-guns here had done frightful work. Leading the way back, confused by sounds and smoke, Hastings lost direction, coming within a trice of being picked up and carried by a sudden rush of the French troops. Jeb, more insane with fear than anger, cursed him with every oath he had ever heard, but the forward stretcher-bearer, making allowances, went indifferently on.
They had got about halfway when the wounded man suddenly raised up, clutched at Jeb, and fell over to the ground. Jeb dropped the handles and screamed with terror, for it had been a ghastly sight, just a little more than his already badly rattled nerves could stand. But Hastings, turning, kneeled down for a better look; then solemnly arose and pointed with his thumb toward the conflict. Back they started for another load, but this last experience had almost been Jeb's undoing. He was obsessed with the idea that it had been the omen of Death reaching for him; he was gasping pitifully, ever alert for shell fire, and cringing at detonations too far off to be of danger. Try as he would to make his feet go forward, his hands pulled against the stretcher handles, until Hastings turned and repaid him with a longer string of oaths. These, and a memory of the ennobling words of Bonsecours, gave him strength for a new spurt; yet both soon began to lose efficiency.
They had found a wounded chap and were well on their way out, crossing the crater-scarred stretch which had been No Man's Land that morning—for No Man's Lands shift from day to day. They moved slowly, and Jeb was dragging; yet in an effort to keep going he had riveted his gaze on the shoulders of Hastings. Then, suddenly, although Hastings' shoulders remained unchanged, his head disappeared; evaporating into air.
For an instant it seemed to Jeb as though his eyes were playing a trick, but the next second the lanky middle-westerner crumpled up. A warm mist settled upon Jeb's face. With a piercing shriek of uncontrollable terror he dropped the handles and sprang into the nearest shell hole; cowering close under its side, pressing his mouth against the earth and moaning.
The last case in Bonsecours' unit had just been lifted from the table. Swathed in bandages it was laid once more upon a stretcher and carried rearward to a waiting ambulance whose racks would then be filled. Carefully, to spare his charges added pain, the driver engaged the clutch and started, but in so vile a condition was this road that the heavily loaded machine plunged as a mired horse. Yet there were no groans. Teeth might have been grit within that canopy of suffering, but the men were too game to make an outcry.
A nurse having come as far as the ambulance, now gave a stifled sob as she watched it lumber, like a huge beetle, over the uneven terrain. Her arms stiffened and her hands closed into little brown fists—for she knew too well what those bumps and plunges were doing to the lacerated human freight!
Standing alone upon a mound of earth and staring after it, her face touched by the amber glow of a westering sun that hung as an immense orange in the smoke of battle, all of Hillsdale would have gasped at her amazing beauty. For the mere prettiness which they had known, enhanced by happiness and laughter, was now transformed. As the chisel of Michael Angelo first carved but a placid face for the Mary in his masterful Pieta, and later gnawed into it shadows of pain and love until it became a part of God, so had the chisel of suffering humanity brought out the wonderful character which had been a latent part of this Nurse Marian. Her figure, while always the embodiment of grace, though attuned to the easy things of life, now stood as if it were akin to war's great sinew. She seemed indeed to be an ivory column of strength and softness, of support and beauty, of courage and tenderness.
In another minute she turned and went back to the dressing-stations where there was much cleaning up to be done—or as much as could be done—before the next stretcher arrived. Yet it did not come. The room, the table, the instruments had been put in order; the great Bonsecours sat resting on a box, and the other nurses had stepped outside the entrance, furtively watching. It seemed incredible that in all the head-splitting noises so near to them there should not be wounded men for the gathering!
"I don't understand it," he arose and crossed to Marian. "But, surely, some will be here soon!"—for, unlike Barrow's unit stationed a hundred yards away, his orderlies and assistants had been trained in many battles. There could be only one answer if they remained out much longer!—and he would then go himself, to fetch his own cases. He had done it many times before, which was one of the reasons the French army worshipped him.
"I'll run up and look," she cried.
"No, I'm afraid," he said.
"The great Bonsecours afraid?" she laughed—for, no matter how tired her own body might feel, she always managed to laugh when he showed signs of great fatigue.
"Afraid I could not live if anything happened to you, mon chere," he murmured.
A startled look flashed into her eyes, slightly different than that caused by the excitement of battle. Many weeks ago her intuition had measured the strength of this man's love for her, and had seen with unerring accuracy his honorable resistance to its pleading, when, during temporary lulls in their work, he might have spoken. That he had said this much now, indicated an overpowering mental and physical exhaustion. Even as she realized this, he realized his weakness, and hastened to add:
"I will go; you must stay inside."
"No, no," she sprang between him and the dug-out entrance. "You are so tired! I know you've not slept for two days!"
"Have you?" he smiled at her.
"Lots!" she lied—and he knew she lied. "I want you to rest—you owe it to them out there! It will take only a second for me to run up and have one peep!—there's no danger in that, and I can tell you if they're coming!"
"It will bring them no sooner," he sighed, sinking back again upon the box, "and there is danger—plenty of it."
Almost immediately he was asleep. She looked at him tenderly for a moment, then ran into the quadrangle, turning and following the steep path which led to the high ground above the dug-outs.
The scene beyond, as she now crouched and peered over the crest, was what she might have expected—yet one can never become quite used to such pictures as that! Below was the first-line trench, deserted since the third division had been sent forward, and its emptiness gave her a feeling of insecurity. She would have preferred a visual line of stalwart fellows between her and the maddened enemy, instead of one that had gone into the smoke. She looked back to see if another division were coming up, but the intervening world seemed destitute of habitation, save along the smoke-fringed horizon where French artillery spoke. Once more she turned to the empty trench, her face perplexed and somewhat frightened.
Just ahead lay the No Man's Land of eight hours ago; the new one for tomorrow had not yet been plotted out, but would doubtless lie a mile or so nearer the Rhine. Her staring eyes then caught and held two men, walking tandem, and she knew they carried a stretcher. They were two hundred yards away, obscured by smoke, and coming slowly. For an instant she glanced over the field hoping to discover others, and, on looking back, was amazed to find that the first were nowhere in sight. The air was already more or less thick with death, and she gasped at the thought of what their disappearance must mean.
Indifferent to the warning of Bonsecours—whom she knew would never hesitate were he in her place—she ran swiftly down to the trench, kneeled on the narrow bridge and frantically called in the hope that some one, slightly wounded or ill, perhaps, had been left behind who now might help her. But the solitude was ghastly. She called again and again, screaming that some of her unit had been shelled with the man they were bringing in. The pity of this seemed infinitely worse than the wounding of combatants; yet the ditch remained utterly devoid of life—the only answer she seemed to catch was that it waited merely to embrace the dead. Without giving a further thought to dangers, she sprang up and ran out across the field.
Going breathlessly, she watched for a glimpse of the brown stretcher. Prone bodies might not have guided her aright, for there were several of these; but the point she sought would have a stretcher, and there had been no other stretchers within sight. Then she came upon it. Hastings lay as he had fallen. One hand still grasped the handle—it was his left hand, the side whereon he wore the Red Cross emblem. Quick tears blinded her, but she brushed them away and kneeled by the wounded soldier. He lived, although merciful unconsciousness had come to him. She looked hastily around to see—at the same time wanting not to see—where the other man had fallen, and shuddered when she realized that he must have been blown to dust. The wounded soldier, then, was the only one here who needed her! She started to roll him on the stretcher, intending to drag it behind her and in this way sled him in; but its poles had been shattered. She tried to lift him, and found that to be utterly impossible.
The confusion was maddening out there upon that deserted No Man's Land. To the dug-out openings, pointing away from it, noises had been partially tempered; certainly the acrid smoke was less down in the quadrangle, and she had therefore not been prepared for quite such a cataclysm. Now a shell burst within fifty feet of her, providentially first burrowing, but sending a fountain of earth into the air that fell upon her like hail. Another burst.
In desperation dragging the wounded soldier to a nearby crater she slid him into it, and was about to follow when checked by a curious sight—for a man crouched there with his face against the side. One could have died in that position, yet this man lived because his body trembled visibly. Encircling his sleeve was the band of the Red Cross, and upon seeing this she leaped down to him, asking fearfully:
"Are you badly wounded?"
He did not look around, and she laid a hand gently on his arm, not daring to touch it firmly lest it be shattered.
"Tell me," she began again, in a louder voice, "are you badly wounded?"
Slowly he turned a face matted with sweat and powdered earth, haggard, as though it had been drawn up from a grave. She uttered a wild scream of recognition.
Her eyes opened to him. They suggested fluid-vague sympathies and fears that many a man would have bartered his life for; but this one before her only stared back with a look that was hardly sane, then turned again to the crater wall. He seemed to be stunned; without feeling, indeed, because dust and grit were plastered on one of his eye-balls.
"Jeb," she screamed, horrified at this, "tell me quickly where you're hurt!—oh, Jeb!"
He shook his head, muttering something she could not hear; but his gesture implied a negative. At first she did not understand; she could not reconcile this with the fact that he crouched inactive when wounded men were gasping for relief.
"Not hurt?" she insisted, taking hold of his arm. "But you must be, Jeb! You must be—to be here!"
Petulantly he shook off her hand; slowly she drew away from him, beginning—yet fearing—to understand. "But you must be, Jeb! You must be—to be here!"
"Help me, Jeb! There's a man behind you hit pretty hard!—help me get him in!"
She had again reached out and taken hold of him, but this time he jerked away, crying with his mouth against the earth:
"Let him stay! Only a fool would go out there!"
Her young eyes, already schooled in a realm of ravages that exists beyond the ken of those who do not go to wars, grew suddenly older. They seemed at last to have met a thing they could not look upon! They had witnessed the dying of many men—but here was a dying soul! As she had healed men, she now clutched for an heroic remedy in the hope of saving this more precious thing than life. But first, pitifully pleading, with her lips close to his ear, she asked:
"You must be wounded! For the love of Christ tell me the shell blew you here—that you didn't come willingly! Tell me even that you're dying, Jeb, but not——"
She could not say it, and waited, while his silence answered. Forgetting everything else she sprang to her feet and stepped back, her eyes narrowing at what she had discovered to be under his uniform—or, rather, not under it! In a panic she realized that here was a derelict ship of manliness being irresistibly driven by a hurricane of Fear; that a complete wreck was imminent unless she were the master-pilot. Her cheeks were aflame with indignation, her body bending tensely forward might have been a spring of steel set to release some instrument of torture—and then she let the bolt descend like the wrath of furies.
With the smoke of shells sweeping over them, sometimes enveloping her head and shoulders as though she were looking through a storm of anger, she called on God to witness that he was a cringing coward. She stood above him transformed into a superb though outraged figure of Liberty, lashing him with words that at any other time her tongue would have refused to speak; words, some of which she did not know the meaning but had heard from the lips of suffering soldiers. Unconsciously she was following the maxim of a famous officer who one day said to her that all men are cowards somewhere, but brave everywhere if sufficiently aroused; and now she brutally strove to bruise his soul, hysterically telling herself that if it could be made to bleed it would become purified.
Much of this, owing to her incoherence and the noise of battle—and, perhaps, the chaotic tumult in his brain—was unheard; but some little of it registered, for suddenly he turned upon his knees and stared at her, as though his normal faculties were beginning to quicken. For half a minute he stared. No words, no gestures, could have been as eloquent as the look which burned from his pale, haggard face; it was as liquid fire being poured upon the woman for whom he had once avowed a love, and who now cursed him! The tableau, with its weird setting—her condemnation as a whip of flame curled snake-like above his head—might have been a picture put into life, and called "The Flagellation of a Soul"! Then, clapping his hands to his ears, he bowed his head, shrieking:
"Stop it! You hurt!"
"I intend to hurt," she cried down at him. "If you were in the Army you'd be stood before the wall and shot for this!—maybe they'll do it yet! Thank God, the people at home can't see you, you damnable coward!" Yet with her next breath she was wailing to the torn world and tortured air: "Tell me that I've lied! Oh, Jeb, tell me that I've lied!"
He pressed his face again into the powdered earth, and something about his dogged attitude said that she was going too far. Her woman's instinct sent this warning just in time, abruptly causing her to realize that a self-esteem once crushed into complete abasement can never look upon fellow man with its former level eyes—and she was here to save, not to destroy! The crouching figure on whom she had inflicted a wound without having done the slightest good, was, after all, a big, imaginative child in a vast night, utterly unprepared by rearing and training, psychology or properly directed thought, to cope with this demon-carnival into which he had been projected. And why should not the shell's concussion have stunned him into this sad plight?
Retrospection flickering as a shadow picture on the brain has more than once averted tragedies. In the passing of a second she now saw two long-ago scenes: one, his desperate and victorious fight with a boy who had kicked her puppy; the other, neighbors rushing with blankets to a nearby pond, calling that he had swum out and saved a drowning lad—nearly perishing in the effort! While she stared, still horrified; while shells rent the air, and dust and smoke half blinded her, a spirit of maternalism began to plead for this one-time schoolmate—champion of her little dog, life-saver to a comrade! What had she done but add to the agony of one already agonized beyond his power to escape!
A great pity filled her soul, and her body seemed to become liquefied into a tossing sea of tears. With a sob she bent over him and, as all ages of womanhood instinctively understand, gently drew his head against her breast.
"Oh, Jeb! Can't you pull yourself together? Won't you try to be a man?" she asked fiercely.
He staggered up and backed against the crater, holding his hands out to keep her off when she would have followed. But his cheeks had turned from white to crimson, and his eyes flashed a holy, or an unholy, fire.
"I hope to God I never get back to-night," he cried hoarsely. "I hope to God you'll never have to look at anything as despicable as I've been!"
It was he now who occupied the place of the mighty, and she the one who felt like cowering. Turning savagely he all but tossed the unconscious soldier to his shoulders, struggled up the shell hole and ran toward the dressing-stations. Scarcely knowing that her feet touched ground, she flew behind him; sobbing, laughing, wringing her hands—lifted by the great storm of victory which swept her soul.
But at the deserted trench he stopped, laid his burden on the little bridge and turned back.
"Jeb, take him all the way in," she pleaded, catching at his sleeve—but he shook off her hand, yelling like a madman:
"You can get help from here!—don't touch me!—I ain't fit!"
The next instant he was dashing headlong into the smoke. Frantically she screamed:
"Come back!—Jeb!—your unit!"
But she might have made the men on Mars hear as easily. Once she started to run after him, yet the fruitlessness of such a chase—and, more important still, the unconscious soldier's claim for aid—checked her. Blinded by tears, she dashed up the road and down to the quadrangle, staggered into the dug-out, and cried in a strange voice to Bonsecours:
"There's a man out there I can't bring in!"
He sprang up as if electrified. But her words had not alarmed him so much as her appearance and, in desperation catching her by the shoulders, he demanded:
"What has happened—tell me!"
"N—nothing," she sank upon the box, burying her face in her folded arms. She was sobbing hysterically now, and nurses rarely did this—until they snapped!
"Tell me!—tell me!" he cried, leaning over her, and fighting as he had never fought to keep from holding her close to him. His heart had been too nearly starved, his strength too nearly exhausted, to withstand a scene like this. "If you pity me, tell me what has happened," he implored.
She did not look up, but impulsively reached for one of his hands and pressed it fiercely, almost savagely, against her cheek. This must have been the comfort she needed, this touch of a man who was every inch a man, because the sobs at once grew quiet; and, in full control of her nerves, she arose, saying urgently:
"Quick! He's on the trench bridge!"
As in a dream, the great Bonsecours sprang out.
Jeb dashed blindly ahead, indifferent to shells and death, not caring where he went so that it was toward the thick of battle. He wanted to be killed; he wanted to die as Hastings died, showing the world how real men are capable of making the last big sacrifice. But his torturing conscience laughed at the presumption, for Hastings had typified a faultless courage; and his brain ceaselessly echoed the scorn which Marian had hurled at him, spurring him as rowels of hot steel to greater speed.
The smoke, as a heavy fog, shrouded the uncontested No Man's Land, being quite impenetrable beyond a radius of fifty yards. It was as though he were running constantly beneath a low, flattened dome which kept accurate pace with him, through the sides of whose inverted rim new objects sprang into view with almost magic suddenness. Yet he saw little of anything beyond a girl's look of horror, heard nothing but her outraged words. Scarcely knowing it he hurdled prostrate figures, stumbled into craters, tripped on vagrant ends of wire entanglements, till at last, through sheer exhaustion, he fell face down amidst a small group of the dead.
His maddened race had taken him close to the scene of battle; indeed, he had crossed the old first and second German trenches without observing them, so completely demolished had they been by the French barrage. The fighting was yet somewhere beyond, although not waged with anything like the intensity of an hour ago. The artillery had almost entirely ceased, and the lesser rattle of machine-guns was diminishing. Yet he listened, trying to locate the thickest part of it, intending to push there as soon as he regained his breath; but always just above the noises came Marian's burning words, and for awhile he lay with tightly closed eyes, letting them beat upon him as blows.
Gradually, as his breathing grew more normal, other words mingled with hers in a kind of verbal potpourri—jumbled and unmeaning, yet soon getting clear of the confusion and sounding in his ears like a clarion voice:
"When man calls on the highest expression of his will, he becomes indomitable; he succeeds in the highest terms of success—and thus will you succeed, mon pauvre enfant!"
He thought this over with a sense of comfort. It would feel good to become indomitable, to succeed in the highest terms of success! Had he ever stopped, and with solemn deliberation called upon the highest expression of his will? He tried to remember. Surely he had given no thought to will power when tossed into the ocean from the sinking ship—nor at any time since coming to this battle front! Each day, from the historic Sixth of April even unto the present minute, he unsparingly admitted, had been spent by him amidst concocted fears and magnified dangers; but never once had he buried his teeth in a single manly purpose, as Tim might have expressed it. This brought Tim to mind, and the many sane things he had said aboard ship. Then another voice, enriched not alone by affection but by the pride of age as it had spoken 'way back yonder in the Hillsdale Eagle office:
"I want to be proud of you," it now said calmly. "You're going out to play a mighty big game, boy, wherein Humanity is trumps, and Patriotism, Righteousness and Service are the other three aces. Yet, even if you hold all these, you may still lose unless you possess one more magic card: Self-respect! We all owe to our soul a certain measure of self-respect, Jeb. It is a gentleman's personal debt of honor to himself, demanding payment before every other obligation, and is satisfied only when we face each of life's crises with steel-tipped, crystal courage!"
Jeb rolled despairingly over on his back, gripping his hands and whispering:
"Oh, God, give me that steel-tipped, crystal courage!"
The sun had set, and with its decline the battlefield grew peculiarly still. A barely perceptible current of air was stirring, and he watched the low canopy of smoke slowly drifting; feeling very small amidst the dead and desolation as he fancied that it might be a silent, winged army of souls gliding eastward to a new dawn.
Suddenly he wondered about the battle—what had become of it! Except for desultory cannonading far to the left, perfect quiet, almost peace, reigned over the darkening ground. In the region where he lay, human passions seemed to have burned into ashes as cold and lifeless as the six or eight calm bodies near to him. He knew the Allies were silently consolidating their gains while, beyond, the Germans strengthened positions for another resistance; the armies of construction were creating what armies of destruction would furiously undo. So uncannily silent had the immediate world become that now, for the first time, he noticed a singing in his ears, caused by twelve hours of hellish concussions—and then, coming more completely to himself, he discovered that for the first time in many days he was hungry.
Jeb sat up and seriously took stock of himself. He had come here to die, but was beginning to resent the very thought of it; he had run to get away from—what? Disgrace and mortification? Why continue to suffer these if a means were at hand to wipe them off the slate? For what purpose should he be disgraced and mortified if, henceforth, he played a man's part! Near his feet was a dead soldier whose face happened to be turned directly toward him, and through the gathering twilight Jeb saw that the eyes were open, steadily fixed upon him as if waiting to see what he would decide. But this ghastly picture brought him no feeling of revulsion as it might have, earlier; instead, he gazed back for quite a minute, seeming to discover in the dead eyes an expression of reproach so poignant that he finally whispered:
"I don't blame you, old fellow; I haven't done the right thing, at all."
From this he turned to the others about him, and with a new vision saw them in the places they had occupied at home: father, husband, brother, son! His mind leapt the span of miles and looked in upon the anxious faces—hopeful, perhaps—of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, who waited; and a new kinship sprang up within him for those stricken families of France!
"Oh, the crucifixion of waiting!" he murmured, his eyes again caressing the prostrate forms. For he seemed to be living among men, not dead but yet unborn; helpless, silent, sleeping things whose souls alone were quick—alive somewhere in a wonderful twilight land of peace! Why pity these deserted temples of spirit-heroes! "And to think," he whispered softly, "that you fellows have learned to die! How did it feel? A little gasp?—some dizziness?—surprise, perhaps?—and then God's great entwining arms?"
But the dead eyes staring at him seemed to answer:
"Not until you face it like a soldier of Humanity! Not until you strike a manly blow for the little nations which were ravaged; the women, children, helpless men, ground in the mailed fist of a lying tyrant! God entwines those within His arms who fight for right, not run from it!"
Jeb sprang up, alive to action. Death, then, was but an ephemeral part of this big game; he was fighting not only for today, but for the future; fighting for the peace and righteousness of years to come, long, long after he, in any case, would have been dead! He turned impulsively to the staring eyes, and whispered: "Thanks, old fellow!"—then started toward the new French lines.
Night had fallen, and the world about him was dark except when bathed with the light of star shells, intermittently fired from the opposing armies. Yet he realized that these balls of blinding whiteness must be quite a distance away, since their calcium glare but vaguely penetrated the canopy of smoke, touching the wreckage and the dead with ghost-like iridescence and making them appear almost as unreal as real. He could not even tell from what point these shells were fired, as no spot-lights showed—merely their effect which diffused the smoke alike on all sides.
Suddenly, somewhere behind him, came a sharp rattle of machine-gun fire. He dropped to the ground, listening; wondering in a panic how this fight could have started so far back when he had not even come in touch with the rear French lines. In five minutes all was still again. Either the scrimmage hinged on a false alarm, or a rush had been made for the possession of some slight point, or—but why guess! Anyhow, it had been short; but, as a barking dog when the night is still will awaken other dogs far across the country-side, so did this brief fusillade draw intermittent firing from many points in more distant places.
Instead of helping Jeb determine his position, these but added to his confusion. Directions of the compass might be anywhere; he was unquestionably lost, with the best of chances for walking into an enemy outpost and being taken prisoner—and he had heard enough of Germany's treatment of prisoners to prefer death rather than capture.
Several star shells must now have been fired from flare pistols somewhere, because objects about him took shape, and he dropped flat, simulating death, not knowing how many eyes were on the watch for movements. When darkness came again his sense of location had not been helped.
Crouching, sometimes crawling on his stomach, but going forward ever more cautiously, he was driven cold with terror when, within thirty feet of him, out of the very air about him, came low, guttural sounds of talking. The words were German.
His first impulse was to dash wildly through the smoke and escape, but even as his muscles grew taut to make the spring a voice commanded him to halt. It was not an outside voice this time, but one within; and, although trembling, he froze closer to the ground, obeying instantly. Then the sound of a spade thrust into soil, raised and emptied, told of digging. Digging what? Graves? No, the German army, that great Imperial Machine, was being pounded too hard to bother with its dead! The German God could look after them—or the Allies!
Not knowing how to cope with this new situation he began cautiously to crawl away, feeling for a corpse to hide behind should another lot of stars go up and expose him there; yet when his fingers touched a cold, bearded face he nearly cried aloud. A sudden loathing for this inanimate thing almost sent him running;—the next second, answering a silent command, he stretched beside it as though he and it were bunkies in a cantonment. But his heart was beating unmercifully, confusing his ears which strained for every sound. Regularly the spades and picks continued their work; minute dragged into minute, till another iridescence pierced the smoke. He then peeped out. To his surprise there was but one man in sight; a solitary sentinel standing above an excavation—Jeb could not tell how deep.
When darkness again fell he was more than ever confused. Whether these men were inside their own lines laying mines for an expected advance, or by some cunning had got behind the Allies for a devilish purpose, taxed his ingenuity to decide. At any rate, this was no place for him; no ingenuity was required to determine that. He felt that somewhere to the right the French must be, but it was a guess based largely upon hope. Right or wrong, an effort must be made at once to report this digging party, and slowly he crept off; prone at first, then arising to his hands and knees.
In this way he must have gone a thousand yards when the terrain began sharply to ascend, and more than ever puzzled he stopped again, listening. Only the far off, spasmodic growling of the "heavies" told that fifteen miles away someone was being unmercifully plastered; but the nearer artillery slept. With eyes and ears straining to their utmost, with muscles held ready to relax and let him flatten out at the first sign of enemies, he continued up this new and very dangerous slope, possessing no idea where it would lead, knowing only that he must reach his own lines before dawn. And now he realized that the air was becoming more pure.
Frequently after sundown in this part of France a light mist rises in the lowlands. To-night there had been no mist, but the terrain had lent itself to cup the hovering battle smoke, holding it in depressions as lakes of vapor, while the higher points stood clear. Jeb was now creeping up one of these higher points; and within half an hour his eyes looked at the stars, his grateful nostrils breathed a pure, untainted atmosphere. Like a snake he slid head-first into the nearest shell hole, climbed warily back to its edge, and watched.
The sky was so bejewelled, the Milky Way so white, that a luminosity bathed the earth about him which, in contrast to the smoky lowland, seemed almost bright. Before him lay what had once been the little hamlet on the scarp—he recognized it, remembering how the French barrage had in mercy been lifted over it. But it had not escaped a severe pounding. A few sections of torn walls, a few chimneys, here and there a gable still supporting one end of a caved-in roof, made a skyline that was saggy, unreal and awe-inspiring. No life was anywhere apparent. Crumbled on its solitary hill, overlooking a white-and-brown streaked sea of smoke that lapped its feet, it typified the most acute expression of desolation.
Having taken his bearings on the North Star and become assured of which way lay the French and British rear, he was leaving the crater when a sound made him draw back again in haste, a muffled sound of iron striking stone.
The old fear bit into him with all its terrors. He was getting weak from hunger, anyway, and his nerves had been through more than ordinary nerves could stand; yet, since the sounds came from somewhere in the ruins they might well mean a villager trying to dig himself out. 'Twas a heartening thought, and Jeb was on the point of creeping forward when a sentry appeared around a pyramid of fallen stones—a tremendous fellow, wearing the Boche uniform. A moment later eight Germans came toward him, picking their way over piles of rubble and carrying spidery things he recognized as machine-guns. Crouching low beneath the crater's side he waited breathlessly, while they passed so near that he could smell their sweaty clothing. After several minutes he peeped out; the sentry and they had disappeared. Without doubt this was a night party fortifying the ruined hamlet on the scarp; but, if that were so, where in the name of God, he asked himself, could the Allied army be!
Objects were now growing more distinct, and for an instant he was driven cold with terror believing this to be the sign of dawn; but a silvery glow in the eastern sky proclaimed a rising moon. In imminent danger of discovery when this should become still brighter he dared not remain in the shell hole. On the other hand, fear had him pinioned with such long claws that he hardly dared to move at all; and had one German, wounded and defenseless, come upon him then demanding his surrender he could not have raised a finger in defense. He merely wanted safety now; a place to hide—he cared not for how long. His ears had closed to the stern demands of will power; the words of Mr. Strong, and Bonsecours, and even Marian, had lost their potency. An appeal more powerful than all of these was needed to raise him to the place of man!
Ahead, almost at his hands, were scattered bricks and clay chunks of blasted buildings; but twenty feet beyond stood a section of upright wall, supported beneath by twisted doorway timbers and propped by the wreckage of a roof which, at one side, reached the ground. It was a forbidding place, seeming on the point of tottering over, although this very danger might grant it immunity from German searchers.
Making himself as flat as possible he wriggled forward, listened a moment at the threshold, then crept inside and crawled to the farthest, darkest corner. The next instant his blood was congealed by a piercing scream not three feet from his face.
Out of the darkness, right into his face, this scream came, ending in a weak, despairing, but above all else heartrending, moan; then everything grew still. Jeb could have neither moved nor uttered a cry; he had recoiled in terror, crouching as a part of the fallen masonry that littered the floor.
Almost at once quick steps resounded through the ruined streets, scrambling over heaps of wreckage and coming nearer until they passed with a kind of ruthless determination just outside the tottering wall. In another moment they had turned an angle and the sentry, silhouetted against the lighter sky, stood peering through the doorway. He barked something in German that had an ominous sound, and the nearby voice began an hysterical whimpering, interspersed with pleading in rapidly spoken French which Jeb partially understood. At least, he realized a girl was in this dark place with him, and that she was promising to make no further outcry. Weak and thin her voice seemed, though rasping in a kind of frenzy, as she attempted to excuse a former disobedience by trying to explain how someone had come and frightened her. Luckily for Jeb the man gruffly interrupted with another flow of German, or his fate might then and there have been sealed.
"Please—please," the girl moaned, "oh, please don't come in! I won't cry again!"
He hesitated, as if considering; then growled a threat and turned back.
Waiting until he had quite gone and the last sound of his boots upon the rubble had died away, Jeb summoned his French and cautiously whispered:
"I'm your friend—don't make a noise!"
A slight movement in the corner first answered him, then a wee voice asked:
"Is Monsieur English?"
The sound which followed this lingered in his ears long afterward. It was scarcely a gasp, nor moan, nor groan, but an inarticulate animal sound expressive of what the body feels when snatched in the nick of time from destruction. A moment later she had crawled through the darkness; her hands passed quickly over his sleeve, his shoulder, then found his neck and clasped it passionately.
Drawing her gently to his lap he realized that she was merely a child who had come to him—a skeleton child, of perhaps eight or nine years old, seeming to be little more than bones dressed in scanty clothing. Touching his lips to her cheeks he whispered encouragement, promising prodigious things without regard to their possible accomplishment, until her body ceased to quiver. Then she whispered tremulously:
"Are you the American who fed us?"
"No, little one, I haven't fed you." He, too, spoke in the merest whisper.
"But yes, Monsieur, indeed you did! Le bon cure said the American gave us food for many, many months. Oh, I wish I had some now!"
"He meant the American Relief, little one. Haven't you any food now?"
"Not since two days, Monsieur. The Boche," he felt her quiver again as she pronounced this name, "used to take our American food and give us their own black kind; but the cure told us to submit gracefully, as those who had tried to object were killed. But two days ago a German, a Kommandantur, they called him, Monsieur, said that he felt so very, very sorry for us he thought we had better starve; and since then we have had nothing."
"Where is the cure now?" he asked, feeling himself grow hot with rage.
"Dead, Monsieur. They killed him for trying to defend his bell."
"Defend his bell?"
"Quite so, Monsieur." She snuggled into a more comfortable position, as though the presence of this American removed all dangers; she found it good, furthermore, to talk to someone, even in whispers, and amidst ruins, and about the horrors buried there. "Before blowing up the Marie they lowered the bell—for everything iron in the village they said must be sent into Germany. But the cure loved his bell—so did we all, Monsieur—and he threw his arms about it, pleading. But this made the soldiers laugh very much." She waited an instant, as though listening, then continued: "So they got a blanket, Monsieur, and tossed him into the air, but always let him fall upon the stones. He was very old, was le bon cure,—but so good! Then officers came up, and they carried open bottles of wine, and around their necks were strung on cords many women's finger rings and bracelets. My mother uttered a prayer, because she thought they would help le bon cure, but when they were told he had tried to protect his bell, they jumped over and over him, Monsieur, pretending to prance like horses, and kept sticking him with their spurs until his poor face was cut and swollen. We cried out for shame, but he held up the Crucifix toward us and gently shook his head—so we turned away weeping. But they let us bury him, Monsieur," she added, tenderly.
"Where are your parents?" Jeb asked, shuddering not alone at the tale of barbarity, but because this young child had become so inured to these sights that she could passively recite them.
"Dead, Monsieur," she answered, in a tone that might itself have been dead. "Quite dead," she added, dispiritedly. "My father was summoned with many others to Avricourt. When they came back the Germans marched him past our house tied to the tail of one of their horses, but would not let us speak to him; yet he turned his face so we could see a blue cross marked upon his cheek, and then my mother fainted—she was not well, Monsieur. That night they shot him."
Her poor little body was beginning to shake, but he drew her closer with soothing words, while his heart was wrung by pity. For the moment he forgot what had been uppermost in his mind: to discover through her if this place lay within the German lines and how far were the Allies. She took courage from his endearments and continued, although in the same lifeless whisper:
"The next day they marched my mother and other women away, Monsieur. I ran after her but was thrust back; yet she called telling me to hide the children in the cellar."
"Then your mother may not be dead," he suggested hopefully.
"But yes, Monsieur. I watched them for a great way along the road—there are no trees now, and I could see. Several times she fell; the last time a soldier raised his gun twice, and twice brought it down. Oh, I wanted to help her then, but they laughed and held me!"
Jeb was growing beside himself at these unheard-of barbarities, but he managed to ask gently:
"Why are you not in the cellar now?—listen!"
The sound of iron striking stone again reached him. She understood, and answered quietly:
"It is where they dig, Monsieur. They have been doing it since sundown; and it was their coming and going through the cellars that made me bring the children here, in fear of them."
"But where are the children?" he asked, for no sound had come from the corner she had left.
"There are three, Monsieur, in the dark behind me. Two live, but they do not know me any more. They are so young," she said apologetically, "that the things they have seen quite put out their minds—but they obey me, very nicely."
"Merciful God," he gasped.
"The other," her voice resumed its tone of dull despair, "was killed but a little while ago by the man who looked in. Monsieur, we were very hungry and frightened, and she was crying; but I tried—oh, how I tried—to comfort her! Then in anger he came, and—and stuck her with the long knife on his gun. Oh, Monsieur," she whispered, clinging to him in a new terror, "I was glad for the darkness!"
A sob, arising from the very depths of Jeb's soul, burst from his lips. Scalding tears of rage and anguish streamed down his cheeks; and these must have touched her upturned face, for she raised a thin hand and patted him, whispering:
"You are very kind, Monsieur, to weep for her."
"My poor little child," he moaned, "my poor little child! Oh, what a plight they've left you in!—with only the dead, and worse than dead!"
The moon had cleared by now, bathing the ruined hamlet with a silvery sheen, although the place which sheltered them remained in darkness. But through a rift in the broken wall stole one narrow beam of light, and he moved slightly to let this fall upon her face—then just in time caught himself, else he would have given a cry of pain and fury.
Her eyes, horrified and shadowed by the cruelties she had witnessed, were turned to him; great, dark, hollow eyes which seemed to be looking directly through him to some confusion of thoughts beyond. Her face was pinched and blue with lack of nourishment, the skin stretched tightly over cheek bones which seemed about to push through; her lips were wax-like, dry and cracked, and her ears were almost transparent. But even more appalling than any of these was the utter despair, the absence of hope or desire of life, that had changed the bloom of youth to the decay of age. She might have been the wan ghost of a shrivelled old woman lying in his arms, instead of young flesh and blood!
This martyred child, who should be sleeping happily amidst dreams of dolls and play—what was the ghastly thing into which she had been made? The father, who with horse and plowshare should be summoned by the morning cock to yielding fields—where was that servant of the vineyard? The mother, who should be planning for the harvest which her capable hands would convert into winter comforts—what of her? A wee tot, whose sobbing should have been stilled by tender arms—did she understand the caress of steel? And the other two, whose minds had been snapped by horrors and privations—did their locked-in souls realize these things to be the result of military necessity?—or a nation's degeneracy!
Yet what could he expect from a people whose idol in philosophy, their pampered Nietschke, teaches and writes: "Morality is a symptom of decadence! There is no right other than that of theft, usurpation and violence!" It is in his book for all to read! What hope of an army, or hope of mercy from it, whose Kaiser confesses himself to be a liar or a lunatic by proclaiming: "The spirit of God has descended upon Me because I am the German Emperor! I am the instrument of the Most High. I am His sword, His representative on earth. Woe and death to those who oppose My will! Death to the infidel who denies My mission! Let all the enemies of the German nation perish. God demands their destruction—God, who by My mouth summons you to carry out His decrees!"
[Footnote 3: From the Kaiser's proclamation to his army, Sept. 13, 1914.]
As Jeb recalled these utterances, their blasphemy made him cringe. He wrapped the little broken body tighter in his arms. Was she, then, what she was by a loving God's decree? He kissed her hair and groaned in righteous anger. Did that Outcast Emperor dare call himself the representative of God on earth, and thereupon urge his menials to do evil for the sake of evil, destroy for destruction's sake, pillage for the bestial love of it, outrage the life, honor and liberty of the helpless, leaving a wide trail that everywhere led to the most loathsome crimes?—did "the spirit of God descend upon" this vampire, and call him "chosen"?
Jeb found himself trembling in every muscle as a deep rage at these blasphemies spread throughout his frame. As tropic storms strike languid forests, swaying, threshing, rending trees this way and that, so a mighty rush of fury swept him. Slowly at first, then faster, the almost forgotten taper flame of manliness that flickered on the altar of his inmost being leaped higher, until it blazed as a consuming fire. The eyes of his soul were open; the strength of his soul grasped the sword of Humanity to strike for this child, and the thousands like her, whose injury was irreparable, who had been blasted, damned, by the ego-mania of accursed hypocrites!
"Oh, little one," he whispered to her fiercely, "if all the boys back home could see the things you've shown me, they'd break their necks getting over here to smash that upstart German power!"
For a moment he bowed his head, as though in prayer. The far-off rumbling of cannon, sublimely rising from the distant horizon, might have been a deep-toned organ sending its hymn of victory through the vaulted space; and, while he listened, the little hand was raised again to touch his cheek, as the weak voice murmured:
"Monsieur, I feel better since you came."
"I must get you away," he kissed her quickly. "Now listen well, and answer well, for everything depends on what you know!"
The indomitable spirit of France which kept these people alive through hardships and outrages that will never be written, bounded through her veins and warmed them. He felt her body snuggle more confidingly, as if to assure him that he would not be disappointed in her share of this new partnership.
After careful questioning he learned enough to open his eyes. The French lines had indeed passed northward, leaving this ruined hamlet in its wake. But for several months prior to yesterday's engagement the Germans had been working on gigantic subterranean operations, beginning at the levels of the cellar floors and penetrating downward until the entire village sub-area had been converted into a kind of catacomb. Here a great number of machine-guns were stored with quantities of ammunition, and a garrison put in charge which numbered upwards of two thousand men. A machine-gun regiment, he mentally noted. These had fought when the French came but, instead of retreating, ducked into the sub-cellars and closed the openings which had been artfully contrived to escape notice. When the French passed, thinking the enemy had been driven before them, the Boche quietly emerged after nightfall and slipped away in several directions, taking many guns and spades and boxes of ammunition.
Jeb felt that he now understood the mystery of that digging party back on the plain, as also the nearer sounds. They were units of this garrison—and there must be many others like them scattered about—fortifying for a particular counter attack tomorrow when, with a line of machine-gun sections operating in the Allied rear, defeat might be turned to victory. It was an audacious scheme, thus to burrow while a victorious army passed over them, and then come up out of the ground and strike again!
"How far is it to the place they're digging here?" he asked.
"Just there, beyond this wall—but a little ways," she pointed in the direction from which the sentry had come.
"How many are there?"
"I could not say, Monsieur; but few, assuredly, as I saw quite as many as I thought were in the ground, and more, slip away after dark with the guns and spades and boxes."
"Then wait very quietly till I come back," he lifted her from his lap, but she clung desperately and would have cried had he not promised to return safely.
She let him go then and he crawled away, passing just outside the door to see if the street were clear. Skirting the torn walls and keeping in the heavier shadows, creeping over piles of rubble as silently as a rat, he came at last to a point which overlooked the hole where men toiled, wearily, though in desperate haste. The sentry paced back and forth within a hundred feet of him, sometimes speaking in monosyllables to his comrades below.