After breakfast Claude reported to Headquarters and talked with one of the staff Majors. He was told he would have to wait until tomorrow to see Colonel James, who had been called to Paris for a general conference. He had left in his car at four that morning, in response to a telephone message.
"There's not much to do here, by way of amusement," said the Major. "A movie show tonight, and you can get anything you want at the estaminet,--the one on the square, opposite the English tank, is the best. There are a couple of nice Frenchwomen in the Red Cross barrack, up on the hill, in the old convent garden. They try to look out for the civilian population, and we're on good terms with them. We get their supplies through with our own, and the quartermaster has orders to help them when they run short. You might go up and call on them. They speak English perfectly."
Claude asked whether he could walk in on them without any kind of introduction.
"Oh, yes, they're used to us! I'll give you a card to Mlle. Olive, though. She's a particular friend of mine. There you are: 'Mlle. Olive de Courcy, introducing, etc.' And, you understand," here he glanced up and looked Claude over from head to foot, "she's a perfect lady."
Even with an introduction, Claude felt some hesitancy about presenting himself to these ladies. Perhaps they didn't like Americans; he was always afraid of meeting French people who didn't. It was the same way with most of the fellows in his battalion, he had found; they were terribly afraid of being disliked. And the moment they felt they were disliked, they hastened to behave as badly as possible, in order to deserve it; then they didn't feel that they had been taken in--the worst feeling a doughboy could possibly have!
Claude thought he would stroll about to look at the town a little. It had been taken by the Germans in the autumn of 1914, after their retreat from the Marne, and they had held it until about a year ago, when it was retaken by the English and the Chasseurs d'Alpins. They had been able to reduce it and to drive the Germans out, only by battering it down with artillery; not one building remained standing.
Ruin was ugly, and it was nothing more, Claude was thinking, as he followed the paths that ran over piles of brick and plaster. There was nothing picturesque about this, as there was in the war pictures one saw at home. A cyclone or a fire might have done just as good a job. The place was simply a great dump-heap; an exaggeration of those which disgrace the outskirts of American towns. It was the same thing over and over; mounds of burned brick and broken stone, heaps of rusty, twisted iron, splintered beams and rafters, stagnant pools, cellar holes full of muddy water. An American soldier had stepped into one of those holes a few nights before, and been drowned.
This had been a rich town of eighteen thousand inhabitants; now the civilian population was about four hundred. There were people there who had hung on all through the years of German occupation; others who, as soon as they heard that the enemy was driven out, came back from wherever they had found shelter. They were living in cellars, or in little wooden barracks made from old timbers and American goods boxes. As he walked along, Claude read familiar names and addresses, painted on boards built into the sides of these frail shelters: "From Emery Bird, Thayer Co. Kansas City, Mo." "Daniels and Fisher, Denver, Colo." These inscriptions cheered him so much that he began to feel like going up and calling on the French ladies.
The sun had come out hot after three days of rain. The stagnant pools and the weeds that grew in the ditches gave out a rank, heavy smell. Wild flowers grew triumphantly over the piles of rotting wood and rusty iron; cornflowers and Queen Anne's lace and poppies; blue and white and red, as if the French colours came up spontaneously out of the French soil, no matter what the Germans did to it.
Claude paused before a little shanty built against a half-demolished brick wall. A gilt cage hung in the doorway, with a canary, singing beautifully. An old woman was working in the garden patch, picking out bits of brick and plaster the rain had washed up, digging with her fingers around the pale carrot-tops and neat lettuce heads. Claude approached her, touched his helmet, and asked her how one could find the way to the Red Cross.
She wiped her hands on her apron and took him by the elbow. "Vous savez le tank Anglais? Non? Marie, Marie!"
(He learned afterward that every one was directed to go this way or that from a disabled British tank that had been left on the site of the old town hall.)
A little girl ran out of the barrack, and her grandmother told her to go at once and take the American to the Red Cross. Marie put her hand in Claude's and led him off along one of the paths that wound among the rubbish. She took him out of the way to show him a church,--evidently one of the ruins of which they were proudest,--where the blue sky was shining through the white arches. The Virgin stood with empty arms over the central door; a little foot sticking to her robe showed where the infant Jesus had been shot away.
"Le bebe est casse, mais il a protege sa mere," Marie explained with satisfaction. As they went on, she told Claude that she had a soldier among the Americans who was her friend. "Il est bon, il est gai, mon soldat," but he sometimes drank too much alcohol, and that was a bad habit. Perhaps now, since his comrade had stepped into a cellar hole Monday night while he was drunk, and had been drowned, her "Sharlie" would be warned and would do better. Marie was evidently a well brought up child. Her father, she said, had been a schoolmaster. At the foot of the convent hill, she turned to go home. Claude called her back and awkwardly tried to give her some money, but she thrust her hands behind her and said resolutely, "Non, merci. Je n'ai besoin de rien," and then ran away down the path.
As he climbed toward the top of the hill he noticed that the ground had been cleaned up a bit. The path was clear, the bricks and hewn stones had been piled in neat heaps, the broken hedges had been trimmed and the dead parts cut away. Emerging at last into the garden, he stood still for wonder; even though it was in ruins, it seemed so beautiful after the disorder of the world below.
The gravel walks were clean and shining. A wall of very old boxwoods stood green against a row of dead Lombardy poplars. Along the shattered side of the main building, a pear tree, trained on wires like a vine, still flourished,--full of little red pears. Around the stone well was a shaven grass plot, and everywhere there were little trees and shrubs, which had been too low for the shells to hit,--or for the fire, which had seared the poplars, to catch. The hill must have been wrapped in flames at one time, and all the tall trees had been burned.
The barrack was built against the walls of the cloister,--three arches of which remained, like a stone wing to the shed of planks. On a ladder stood a one-armed young man, driving nails very skillfully with his single hand. He seemed to be making a frame projection from the sloping roof, to support an awning. He carried his nails in his mouth. When he wanted one, he hung his hammer to the belt of his trousers, took a nail from between his teeth, stuck it into the wood, and then deftly rapped it on the head. Claude watched him for a moment, then went to the foot of the ladder and held out his two hands. "Laissez-moi," he exclaimed.
The one aloft spat his nails out into his palm, looked down, and laughed. He was about Claude's age, with very yellow hair and moustache and blue eyes. A charming looking fellow.
"Willingly," he said. "This is no great affair, but I do it to amuse myself, and it will be pleasant for the ladies." He descended and gave his hammer to the visitor. Claude set to work on the frame, while the other went under the stone arches and brought back a roll of canvas,--part of an old tent, by the look of it.
"Un heritage des Boches," he explained unrolling it upon the grass. "I found it among their filth in the cellar, and had the idea to make a pavilion for the ladies, as our trees are destroyed." He stood up suddenly. "Perhaps you have come to see the ladies?"
Very well, the boy said, they would get the pavilion done for a surprise for Mlle. Olive when she returned. She was down in the town now, visiting the sick people. He bent over his canvas again, measuring and cutting with a pair of garden shears, moving round the green plot on his knees, and all the time singing. Claude wished he could understand the words of his song.
While they were working together, tying the cloth up to the frame, Claude, from his elevation, saw a tall girl coming slowly up the path by which he had ascended. She paused at the top, by the boxwood hedge, as if she were very tired, and stood looking at them. Presently she approached the ladder and said in slow, careful English, "Good morning. Louis has found help, I see."
Claude came down from his perch.
"Are you Mlle. de Courcy? I am Claude Wheeler. I have a note of introduction to you, if I can find it."
She took the card, but did not look at it. "That is not necessary. Your uniform is enough. Why have you come?"
He looked at her in some confusion. "Well, really, I don't know! I am just in from the front to see Colonel James, and he is in Paris, so I must wait over a day. One of the staff suggested my coming up here--I suppose because it is so nice!" he finished ingenuously.
"Then you are a guest from the front, and you will have lunch with Louis and me. Madame Barre is also gone for the day. Will you see our house?" She led him through the low door into a living room, unpainted, uncarpeted, light and airy. There were coloured war posters on the clean board walls, brass shell cases full of wild flowers and garden flowers, canvas camp-chairs, a shelf of books, a table covered by a white silk shawl embroidered with big butterflies. The sunlight on the floor, the bunches of fresh flowers, the white window curtains stirring in the breeze, reminded Claude of something, but he could not remember what.
"We have no guest room," said Mlle. de Courcy. "But you will come to mine, and Louis will bring you hot water to wash."
In a wooden chamber at the end of the passage, Claude took off his coat, and set to work to make himself as tidy as possible. Hot water and scented soap were in themselves pleasant things. The dresser was an old goods box, stood on end and covered with white lawn. On it there was a row of ivory toilet things, with combs and brushes, powder and cologne, and a pile of white handkerchiefs fresh from the iron. He felt that he ought not to look about him much, but the odor of cleanness, and the indefinable air of personality, tempted him. In one corner, a curtain on a rod made a clothes-closet; in another was a low iron bed, like a soldier's, with a pale blue coverlid and white pillows. He moved carefully and splashed discreetly. There was nothing he could have damaged or broken, not even a rug on the plank floor, and the pitcher and hand-basin were of iron; yet he felt as if he were imperiling something fragile.
When he came out, the table in the living room was set for three. The stout old dame who was placing the plates paid no attention to him,--seemed, from her expression, to scorn him and all his kind. He withdrew as far as possible out of her path and picked up a book from the table, a volume of Heine's Reisebilder in German.
Before lunch Mlle. de Courcy showed him the store room in the rear, where the shelves were stocked with rows of coffee tins, condensed milk, canned vegetables and meat, all with American trade names he knew so well; names which seemed doubly familiar and "reliable" here, so far from home. She told him the people in the town could not have got through the winter without these things. She had to deal them out sparingly, where the need was greatest, but they made the difference between life and death. Now that it was summer, the people lived by their gardens; but old women still came to beg for a few ounces of coffee, and mothers to get a can of milk for the babies.
Claude's face glowed with pleasure. Yes, his country had a long arm. People forgot that; but here, he felt, was some one who did not forget. When they sat down to lunch he learned that Mlle. de Courcy and Madame Barre had been here almost a year now; they came soon after the town was retaken, when the old inhabitants began to drift back. The people brought with them only what they could carry in their arms.
"They must love their country so much, don't you think, when they endure such poverty to come back to it?" she said. "Even the old ones do not often complain about their dear things--their linen, and their china, and their beds. If they have the ground, and hope, all that they can make again. This war has taught us all how little the made things matter. Only the feeling matters."
Exactly so; hadn't he been trying to say this ever since he was born? Hadn't he always known it, and hadn't it made life both bitter and sweet for him? What a beautiful voice she had, this Mlle. Olive, and how nobly it dealt with the English tongue. He would like to say something, but out of so much . . . what? He remained silent, therefore, sat nervously breaking up the black war bread that lay beside his plate.
He saw her looking at his hand, felt in a flash that she regarded it with favour, and instantly put it on his knee, under the table.
"It is our trees that are worst," she went on sadly. "You have seen our poor trees? It makes one ashamed for this beautiful part of France. Our people are more sorry for them than to lose their cattle and horses."
Mlle. de Courcy looked over-taxed by care and responsibility, Claude thought, as he watched her. She seemed far from strong. Slender, grey-eyed, dark-haired, with white transparent skin and a too ardent colour in her lips and cheeks,--like the flame of a feverish activity within. Her shoulders drooped, as if she were always tired. She must be young, too, though there were threads of grey in her hair,--brushed flat and knotted carelessly at the back of her head.
After the coffee, Mlle. de Courcy went to work at her desk, and Louis took Claude to show him the garden. The clearing and trimming and planting were his own work, and he had done it all with one arm. This autumn he would accomplish much more, for he was stronger now, and he had the habitude of working single-handed. He must manage to get the dead trees down; they distressed Mademoiselle Olive. In front of the barrack stood four old locusts; the tops were naked forks, burned coal-black, but the lower branches had put out thick tufts of yellow-green foliage, so vigorous that the life in the trunks must still be sound. This fall, Louis said, he meant to get some strong American boys to help him, and they would saw off the dead limbs and trim the tops flat over the thick boles. How much it must mean to a man to love his country like this, Claude thought; to love its trees and flowers; to nurse it when it was sick, and tend its hurts with one arm. Among the flowers, which had come back self-sown or from old roots, Claude found a group of tall, straggly plants with reddish stems and tiny white blossoms,-- one of the evening primrose family, the Gaura, that grew along the clay banks of Lovely Creek, at home. He had never thought it very pretty, but he was pleased to find it here. He had supposed it was one of those nameless prairie flowers that grew on the prairie and nowhere else.
When they went back to the barrack, Mlle. Olive was sitting in one of the canvas chairs Louis had placed under the new pavilion.
"What a fine fellow he is!" Claude exclaimed, looking after him.
"Louis? Yes. He was my brother's orderly. When Emile came home on leave he always brought Louis with him, and Louis became like one of the family. The shell that killed my brother tore off his arm. My mother and I went to visit him in the hospital, and he seemed ashamed to be alive, poor boy, when my brother was dead. He put his hand over his face and began to cry, and said, 'Oh, Madame, il etait toujours plus chic que moi!'"
Although Mlle. Olive spoke English well, Claude saw that she did so only by keeping her mind intently upon it. The stiff sentences she uttered were foreign to her nature; her face and eyes ran ahead of her tongue and made one wait eagerly for what was coming. He sat down in a sagging canvas chair, absently twisting a sprig of Gaura he had pulled.
"You have found a flower?" She looked up.
"Yes. It grows at home, on my father's farm."
She dropped the faded shirt she was darning. "Oh, tell me about your country! I have talked to so many, but it is difficult to understand. Yes, tell me about that!"
Nebraska--What was it? How many days from the sea, what did it look like? As he tried to describe it, she listened with half-closed eyes. "Flat-covered with grain-muddy rivers. I think it must be like Russia. But your father's farm; describe that to me, minutely, and perhaps I can see the rest."
Claude took a stick and drew a square in the sand: there, to begin with, was the house and farmyard; there was the big pasture, with Lovely Creek flowing through it; there were the wheatfields and cornfields, the timber claim; more wheat and corn, more pastures. There it all was, diagrammed on the yellow sand, with shadows gliding over it from the half-charred locust trees. He would not have believed that he could tell a stranger about it in such detail. It was partly due to his listener, no doubt; she gave him unusual sympathy, and the glow of an unusual mind. While she bent over his map, questioning him, a light dew of perspiration gathered on her upper lip, and she breathed faster from her effort to see and understand everything. He told her about his mother and his father and Mahailey; what life was like there in summer and winter and autumn--what it had been like in that fateful summer when the Hun was moving always toward Paris, and on those three days when the French were standing at the Marne; how his mother and father waited for him to bring the news at night, and how the very cornfields seemed to hold their breath.
Mlle. Olive sank back wearily in her chair. Claude looked up and saw tears sparkling in her brilliant eyes. "And I myself," she murmured, "did not know of the Marne until days afterward, though my father and brother were both there! I was far off in Brittany, and the trains did not run. That is what is wonderful, that you are here, telling me this! We, we were taught from childhood that some day the Germans would come; we grew up under that threat. But you were so safe, with all your wheat and corn. Nothing could touch you, nothing!"
Claude dropped his eyes. "Yes," he muttered, blushing, "shame could. It pretty nearly did. We are pretty late." He rose from his chair as if he were going to fetch something . . . . But where was he to get it from? He shook his head. "I am afraid," he said mournfully, "there is nothing I can say to make you understand how far away it all seemed, how almost visionary. It didn't only seem miles away, it seemed centuries away."
"But you do come,--so many, and from so far! It is the last miracle of this war. I was in Paris on the fourth day of July, when your Marines, just from Belleau Wood, marched for your national fete, and I said to myself as they came on, 'That is a new man!' Such heads they had, so fine there, behind the ears. Such discipline and purpose. Our people laughed and called to them and threw them flowers, but they never turned to look . . . eyes straight before. They passed like men of destiny." She threw out her hands with a swift movement and dropped them in her lap. The emotion of that day came back in her face. As Claude looked at her burning cheeks, her burning eyes, he understood that the strain of this war had given her a perception that was almost like a gift of prophecy.
A woman came up the hill carrying a baby. Mlle. de Courcy went to meet her and took her into the house. Clause sat down again, almost lost to himself in the feeling of being completely understood, of being no longer a stranger. In the far distance the big guns were booming at intervals. Down in the garden Louis was singing. Again he wished he knew the words of Louis' songs. The airs were rather melancholy, but they were sung very cheerfully. There was something open and warm about the boy's voice, as there was about his face-something blond, too. It was distinctly a bland voice, like summer wheatfields, ripe and waving. Claude sat alone for half an hour or more, tasting a new kind of happiness, a new kind of sadness. Ruin and new birth; the shudder of ugly things in the past, the trembling image of beautiful ones on the horizon; finding and losing; that was life, he saw.
When his hostess came back, he moved her chair for her out of the creeping sunlight. "I didn't know there were any French girls like you," he said simply, as she sat down.
She smiled. "I do not think there are any French girls left. There are children and women. I was twenty-one when the war came, and I had never been anywhere without my mother or my brother or sister. Within a year I went all over France alone; with soldiers, with Senegalese, with anybody. Everything is different with us." She lived at Versailles, she told him, where her father had been an instructor in the Military School. He had died since the beginning of the war. Her grandfather was killed in the war of 1870. Hers was a family of soldiers, but not one of the men would be left to see the day of victory.
She looked so tired that Clause knew he had no right to stay. Long shadows were falling in the garden. It was hard to leave; but an hour more or less wouldn't matter. Two people could hardly give each other more if they were together for years, he thought.
"Will you tell me where I can come and see you, if we both get through this war?" he asked as he rose.
He wrote it down in his notebook.
"I shall look for you," she said, giving him her hand.
There was nothing to do but to take his helmet and go. At the edge of the hill, just before he plunged down the path, he stopped and glanced back at the garden lying flattened in the sun; the three stone arches, the dahlias and marigolds, the glistening boxwood wall. He had left something on the hilltop which he would never find again.
The next afternoon Claude and his sergeant set off for the front. They had been told at Headquarters that they could shorten their route by following the big road to the military cemetery, and then turning to the left. It was not advisable to go the latter half of the way before nightfall, so they took their time through the belt of straggling crops and hayfields.
When they struck the road they came upon a big Highlander sitting in the end of an empty supply wagon, smoking a pipe and rubbing the dried mud out of his kilts. The horses were munching in their nose-bags, and the driver had disappeared. The Americans hadn't happened to meet with any Highlanders before, and were curious. This one must be a good fighter, they thought; a brawny giant with a bulldog jaw, and a face as red and knobby as his knees. More because he admired the looks of the man than because he needed information, Hicks went up and asked him if he had noticed a military cemetery on the road back. The Kilt nodded.
"About how far back would you say it was?"
"I wouldn't say at all. I take no account of their kilometers," he replied dryly, rubbing away at his skirt as if he had it in a washtub.
"Well, about how long will it take us to walk it?"
"That I couldn't say. A Scotsman would do it in an hour."
"I guess a Yankee can do it as quick as a Scotchman, can't be?" Hicks asked jovially.
"That I couldn't say. You've been four years gettin' this far, I know verra well."
Hicks blinked as if he had been hit. "Oh, if that's the way you talk--"'
"That's the way I do," said the other sourly.
Claude put out a warning hand. "Come on, Hicks. You'll get nothing by it." They went up the road very much disconcerted. Hicks kept thinking of things he might have said. When he was angry, the Sergeant's forehead puffed up and became dark red, like a young baby's. "What did you call me off for?" he sputtered.
"I don't see where you'd have come out in an argument, and you certainly couldn't have licked him."
They turned aside at the cemetery to wait until the sun went down. It was unfenced, unsodded, and a wagon trail ran through the middle, bisecting the square. On one side were the French graves, with white crosses; on the other side the German graves, with black crosses. Poppies and cornflower ran over them. The Americans strolled about, reading the names. Here and there the soldier's photograph was nailed upon his cross, left by some comrade to perpetuate his memory a little longer.
The birds, that always came to life at dusk and dawn, began to sing, flying home from somewhere. Claude and Hicks sat down between the mounds and began to smoke while the sun dropped. Lines of dead trees marked the red west. This was a dreary stretch of country, even to boys brought up on the flat prairie. They smoked in silence, meditating and waiting for night. On a cross at their feet the inscription read merely: Soldat Inconnu, Mort pour La France.
A very good epitaph, Claude was thinking. Most of the boys who fell in this war were unknown, even to themselves. They were too young. They died and took their secret with them,--what they were and what they might have been. The name that stood was La France. How much that name had come to mean to him, since he first saw a shoulder of land bulk up in the dawn from the deck of the Anchises. It was a pleasant name to say over in one's mind, where one could make it as passionately nasal as one pleased and never blush.
Hicks, too, had been lost in his reflections. Now he broke the silence. "Somehow, Lieutenant, 'mort' seems deader than 'dead.' It has a coffinish sound. And over there they're all 'tod,' and it's all the same damned silly thing. Look at them set out here, black and white, like a checkerboard. The next question is, who put 'em here, and what's the good of it?"
"Search me," the other murmured absently.
Hicks rolled another cigarette and sat smoking it, his plump face wrinkled with the gravity and labour of his cerebration. "Well," he brought out at last, "we'd better hike. This afterglow will hang on for an hour,--always does, over here."
"I suppose we had." They rose to go. The white crosses were now violet, and the black ones had altogether melted in the shadow. Behind the dead trees in the west, a long smear of red still burned. To the north, the guns were tuning up with a deep thunder. "Somebody's getting peppered up there. Do owls always hoot in graveyards?"
"Just what I was wondering, Lieutenant. It's a peaceful spot, otherwise. Good-night, boys," said Hicks kindly, as they left the graves behind them.
They were soon finding their way among shell holes, and jumping trench-tops in the dark,-beginning to feel cheerful at getting back to their chums and their own little group. Hicks broke out and told Claude how he and Dell Able meant to go into business together when they got home; were going to open a garage and automobile-repair shop. Under their talk, in the minds of both, that lonely spot lingered, and the legend: Soldat Inconnu, Mort pour La France.