When the light again dawned upon Pierrot’s distressed brain he was conscious, first, of an intense sensation of pain and weakness. Then gradually he became aware of a weight upon his chest and a severe throbbing in his right hind leg. He lifted his head but found himself unable to move or to reach his wounded leg with his tongue. Across his body rested the heavy thigh of a dead soldier.
Pierrot sank back and waited till the dizziness passed and his head cleared a little. Then the universal instinct for self-preservation and the need to struggle for his life awoke within him. Little by little, with long, painful waits between his efforts, he managed to drag himself free from the weight upon him.
He stood for a moment, trembling with weakness, as though to reassure himself that he was alive. All was quiet about him, though the sounds of battle still raged not far away. He hardly noticed the forms of fallen men in the trench or heard their occasional moans. Then he dropped to his side again and made a feeble attempt to lick his aching leg. The foot was quite numb and the hair was matted and caked, but the bleeding had stopped.
As his small store of strength returned he discovered that he was cold as well as weak, and the need came upon him—the instinct of the hurt animal—to crawl away to some sheltered spot where he might either recuperate or die. It seemed to him that first of all he must get away from the horrible trench. Very slowly and painfully, with one leg dragging, he toiled up the bank and over the escarpment, and lay panting on the snowy ground. Then, after a little rest, he started on again unsteadily toward a little thicket of shrubbery that had been trampled nearly flat by the feet of the grenadiers.
It seemed a long way off, and he was obliged to stop often to rest. When at last he approached the thicket he was startled for a moment by a brown hare which scuttled out from beneath the tangled bushes and went bounding off across the snow. Pierrot felt no impulse to give chase nor any wonder that the hare should have escaped destruction. He burrowed under the broken branches and sniffed his way to where the hare had made a nest in the dry grass beneath. The spot was still warm, and Pierrot curled himself up in it gratefully and fell to nursing his wound.
For three days and two nights Pierrot lay in his hiding-place, sleeping much of the time. At noon the warm sun struck through the twigs which by night shielded him from the bitter winds. The Red Cross motors came and there were sounds of human activity in the trench. Soldiers marched by, but there was no rushing attack and no heavily shod phalanx came crashing through his cover. In his dense retreat he lay undiscovered, waiting patiently for life or death.
During the third day he became restless and slept but little. He was feeling somewhat stronger and his mind had become more active. His wounded leg throbbed less severely. Toward nightfall an imperative call came to him to go forth.
Thus far, strangely enough, he had not felt keen pangs of hunger, for it is natural for sick dogs to fast. But now he was painfully aware of a consuming thirst. He had occasionally reached out and lapped at the cool snow outside his covert, but while that had felt good to his fevered nose and mouth, it had not sufficed. Now his throat was parched, his tongue was thick and dry, and his head ached. If you do not believe that dogs have headaches, notice how your terrier thrusts his head against your knee next time he is ailing, and begs for the pressure of your hand.
So Pierrot crawled out of his nest in the gathering dusk and looked about him, stretching his stiffened limbs and lifting his nose to the keen wind. He walked once around his thicket and then started off across the frozen ground toward the dunes, making laborious progress, keeping to the shadows, sniffing for water.
Twice he heard voices, and once footsteps approached and passed by, while he lay still and waited, cowering. At last he came to a hollow where melting snow had formed a little pool. He broke the thin sheet of ice with one forepaw, and then, thrusting his nose into the freezing water, he drank long and gratefully.
With the quenching of his thirst a new life seemed to flow through his veins and courage returned to his stout heart. But he was still weak, and after a moment’s indecision he crept back to his shelter.
On the morning of the fourth day he awoke refreshed. But now a new need had come to torment him. He was hungry. Sharp pangs gnawed at his vitals and all his being cried aloud for food. He thrust his head out of his hiding-place and looked about, sniffing the air. Over the edge of the trench he saw the movements of men and the sun glistening on rifle barrels and German helmets. He drew back stealthily. Experience had taught him caution. He had had enough of soldiers and of war. He must wait.
All day he suffered the agonies of hunger and fought against the impulse to dash out blindly in search of food. And as the day advanced he was conscious of an ever-increasing desire to go home. A great longing filled him for his cozy bed in Medard’s stable, for the home where there was always plenty to eat, for the kind hands that knew how to cure a dog’s hurts, for the human love that had drifted so far into the past that it was like a dream of heaven. The homing instinct became his ruling motive; it obsessed him and drew him as with chains.
Repeatedly he started impulsively out from the thicket, and as often the sight of soldiers drove him fearfully back.
When at last nightfall came and the trenches glowed with little campfires, Pierrot sallied forth, deliberately and cautiously. First, he sought again his drinking-pool and slaked his burning thirst. Then he passed on into an unknown country in the dark. He skirted the dunes, followed a little watercourse for half a mile, and then struck into a shallow ditch beside a rutty road. He trusted little to his eyes, but ears and nostrils were constantly alert to detect danger, and he gave a wide berth to everything that suggested man to his senses. His sore feet had healed, but he was obliged to travel on three legs by reason of his wound, and he was still stiff and far from strong. Always his nose was searching earth and air for the scent of food.
Suddenly he stopped and lifted his head. From a shallow ravine a few rods from the road came a smell that at once attracted and repelled him. There was the scent of men and of wood smoke. There was also the scent of food. The thought of soldiers terrified him, but his unwonted exercise had made him ravenous with hunger.
Irresistibly the smell of food drew him, and he crept stealthily toward the low bushes that grew along the edge of the ravine. Peering through, he saw with fearful eyes the glow of dying campfires stretching off in a long line, and the shadowy forms of prone men wrapped in blankets. On the opposite bank a lone guard paced slowly up and down.
Pierrot skulked silently along behind the bushes till he came to a spot where the food smell was very strong. Directly below him was one of the smouldering fires, and a few feet down the bank he discerned strewn about half-visible objects from which the smell came.
Grown reckless with famine, Pierrot crawled eagerly out from the bushes and fell upon the refuse of the camp. A hard crust of bread, the bones and offal of a fowl, the beans clinging to the inside of a tin—he devoured them all impartially.
One of the tin cans, dislodged by Pierrot’s eager nose, rolled noisily down the bank, and the sentry opposite halted and raised his rifle quickly to his shoulder. Pierrot crouched back, watching him. The soldier evidently thought better of arousing his comrades with a rifle shot, and suspecting that some animal was prowling about, picked up a stone and threw it at Pierrot. It struck with a thud beside him and bounded up into the bushes. Pierrot, thoroughly alarmed but still hungry, seized a large bone in his teeth and dashed back through the bushes. Not waiting to ascertain whether he was pursued, he ran for a mile across the frozen fields on his three weary legs before he came to a stop. Then, making sure that he had fully escaped the danger that threatened, he fell upon his stomach on the hard ground with the bone between his paws, and spent a contented half-hour crunching it until the last vestige had disappeared.
When dawn began to show faintly in the eastern sky Pierrot sought a new hiding-place. At last he came upon the scattered remains of a haycock in a marshy meadow. The hay was damp and stiff with frost, but Pierrot dug his way beneath the largest heap of it and slept the deep sleep of exhaustion until the evening fell.
When he awoke he was lame and sore, but he dragged himself forth, yawned mightily, and set his face toward home.
He felt not the slightest doubt as to the general direction, but he had no idea of the distance. There was but one thing to do—plod doggedly along, with his right hind foot held clear of the ground. Now and then he made a detour to avoid suspicious forms, and again to follow up a scent of food. Twice that night he stumbled upon bits of refuse. It was scanty foraging, but it served to appease the pangs within him.
The next morning, having seen no soldiers, and finding the country apparently peaceful, he was emboldened to continue his journey by daylight, for the longing for home was strong within him. But the attempt was too much for his weakened body, and he was forced to give up before noon and crawl under a hedge to rest.
At some time during the afternoon a sound caused Pierrot to awake suddenly and to leap to his feet. A human form and footstep brought him to a quick posture of defence, with bared teeth and bristling neck.
Before him stood a young woman in a coarse gray dress, torn shawl, and wooden shoes. She was not happy looking and pretty like the newsgirls in Brussels, nor neat and fresh-faced like Mère Marie. She was a squat, dumpy sort of person, with a pale face and dull eyes and her mouth was drawn down at the corners.
At first she was as much startled as Pierrot, and a look of fear overspread her coarse features that was not pretty to see. But when she saw it was only a dog, the dull look came back to her eyes and she stood stolidly waiting.
Pierrot had never suffered ill at the hands of a woman, and the snarl died in his throat. The bristles on his neck lay down again and his tail began to move tentatively. He took an inquiring step toward the woman.
The ghost of a smile flitted across the peasant’s face and she slowly approached Pierrot with her thick palms outspread. The dog advanced a little nearer, with a cocking of the ears and a look of pleased inquiry in his eyes. Then the woman perceived that he was lame. Her slow sympathies quickened and she approached and laid her hand on his head. Then she stooped and felt of his leg, not too gently. It hurt Pierrot, but he only gave her ear a little caress with his moist nose.
“Poor fellow!” said the woman in Flemish. “Come, and we will wash it.”
Pierrot followed her as she walked toward a little grove of trees back from the road and entered the low doorway of a small hut. There was no one inside except an old gray cat, which at once retired to the rafters. At this the woman gave a low, short laugh.
The hut was a poor little place, indeed, and apparently the woman lived all alone in it, though there was a man’s smock hanging from a peg on the wall. She moved about with a sort of hopeless indifference, hanging a kettle of water in the chimney and building a little fire of faggots beneath it. Pierrot lay down before it and fell asleep again, for he was still very weary.
When the water was warm the woman took an old rag and washed Pierrot’s wound. He awoke and thumped his tail on the hard earthen floor, for the warm water felt very good. Then the woman tied the rag about his leg and bade him lie quiet.
Going to a cupboard, she brought out a half loaf of coarse black bread and cut off two slices. Then she got a bowl and a little meal and made a sort of broth or gruel. These she placed on the rude table and drew up a stool.
Pierrot did not move toward the table, but lay watching the woman with interest as she folded her hands and bowed her head.
Presently she began eating her broth with a pewter spoon, but she did not finish it. She placed the bowl on the floor and Pierrot, not understanding how hungry she still was, cleaned it in a twinkling. Then the woman gave Pierrot one of the slices of bread and ate the other herself. The gray cat, it appeared, was expected to forage for his own dinner.
Pierrot stretched out before the fire again, with a feeling of peace and contentment such as he had not known for a long time, and slept soundly for many hours.
In the morning the peasant woman gave Pierrot half of her scanty breakfast. Then she drew her worn shawl over her head and opened the door of the hut.
“Come with me,” she said.
Pierrot arose regretfully and went out into the crisp morning. The woman turned off toward the little wood, but Pierrot hesitated. She had been very kind, but she was not going in the direction of home. Not hearing his footsteps, she turned and spoke again, pleadingly.
“Come with me,” she said.
But still Pierrot hesitated. He was grateful to the woman, and his first impulse was to obey her, but from where he stood he could see the long road stretching toward the east, and he knew that off there somewhere were home and the faces of those he loved. The need to go on awoke again within him, and with one little bark of farewell he turned and hobbled rapidly off on his three legs. The woman stood gazing after him for a few moments, a pathetic object in the keen morning wind. Then she brushed the back of her hand across her eyes and turned slowly away among the trees.
It was no three days’ journey that Pierrot had undertaken this time, for though he had no load dragging at his heels, he found that he could not travel fast nor very far at a time. He had only his instinct and a vague memory to guide him, and often the winding road led him astray, so that he covered many needless miles.
But he had ceased to fear the soldiers, and dared now to travel by daylight and thus made better progress, though he still made wide detours to avoid suspicious looking people. The clumsy bandage became loose and Pierrot tore it off with his teeth, but his wounded leg did not hurt him now save when he attempted to use it.
It was weary work, travelling on three legs and on scanty rations. Sometimes he was obliged to sink down exhausted in a sheltered spot and wait till his strength returned. Sometimes, when the pangs of hunger seized him, he was forced to waste valuable hours hunting for food.
People in houses and peasants in the fields he learned not to fear, and twice he was invited into cottages and fed. But always he managed to get away after he was rested and never knew that he was guilty of ingratitude. Sometimes men on the road or in the fields called to him, but he would not stop. Once a boy gave chase, but Pierrot put all the speed he could muster into his three legs and contrived to escape, though he was obliged to lie panting for a long time after this race before he could recover. It was hard for him to understand this loss of his old-time power.
He kept no account of the days and only knew that the way seemed endless. But one afternoon the conviction seized him that he was nearing his journey’s end. There was nothing familiar in the objects in the landscape; he had never been there before. But something inside him told him it was so. He pressed on eagerly, whining a little to himself as a terrier whines when he scents a mole. Surely, over the next hill, or around the next bend, he would come upon the old, familiar scenes—cottage and byre and the blessed fields of home. Over there, just beyond, were the well-remembered faces, the happy voices of the children, the capable, kind hands of Mère Marie.
In his zestful haste he overtaxed his strength again, and, trembling with excitement and fatigue, he was obliged to seek rest before sunset.
He slept fitfully that night. Frequently his dreams awoke him and he stood peering into the darkness, listening for he knew not what, before he remembered and lay down again. But though he rested ill, he was abroad before daybreak, padding laboriously on.
All that day he travelled without food or rest, stopping only for an occasional drink when opportunity offered. There was never a doubt in his mind that to-day he would be home again. No sound or scent or unaccustomed sight lured him from his straight course. Then at length he came out upon the road he knew, with its rows of poplar trees, and his heart began to hammer at his ribs. Heedless of pain and weariness, he dashed blindly on, around the bend in the road, up the little lane, to the place where home had been.
Pierrot stopped in a panic of bewilderment. The tile-roofed house was gone and only blackened timbers remained. He sniffed about among the ruins for a time, greatly troubled, and then circled around toward the outbuildings. They, too, were gone, but nearby was a little shack that he did not remember.
Night was coming on again, and Pierrot was feeling very weary and forlorn and hopeless. Was this, then, the empty end of his long, painful quest? Where was the pretty little home and the comfortable cow barn and the people he used to love? Had all vanished into thin air?
Pierrot dragged himself disconsolately over to the strange little shack and sniffed at the crack under the door. Something in the scent drove him into a sudden frenzy of excitement. He began to scratch vigorously and gave voice to one short, sharp bark.