Produced by Suzanne Shell, Charlie Kirschner and the PG Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
THE HAPPY FOREIGNER
PROLOGUE: THE EVE
PART I. THE BLACK HUT AT BAR
CHAPTER I. THE TRAVELLER
PART II. LORRAINE
CHAPTER II. METZ
CHAPTER III. JULIEN
CHAPTER IV. VERDUN
CHAPTER V. VERDUN
CHAPTER VI. THE LOVER IN THE LAMP
CHAPTER VII. THE THREE “CLIENTS”
CHAPTER VIII. GERMANY
CHAPTER IX. THE CRINOLINE
CHAPTER X. FANNY ROBBED AND RESCUED CHAPTER XI. THE LAST NIGHT IN METZ: THE JOURNEY
PART III. THE FORESTS OF CHANTILLY
CHAPTER XII. PRECY-SUR-OISE
CHAPTER XIII. THE INN
CHAPTER XIV. THE RIVER
CHAPTER XV. ALLIES
CHAPTER XVI. THE ARDENNES
PART IV. SPRING IN CHARLEVILLE
CHAPTER XVII. THE STUFFED OWL
CHAPTER XVIII. PHILIPPE’S HOUSE
CHAPTER XIX. PHILIPPE’S MOTHER
CHAPTER XX. THE LAST DAY
Between the grey walls of its bath–so like its cradle and its coffin–lay one of those small and lonely creatures which inhabit the surface of the earth for seventy years.
As on every other evening the sun was sinking and the moon, unseen, was rising.
The round head of flesh and bone floated upon the deep water of the bath.
“Why should I move?” rolled its thoughts, bewitched by solitude. “The earth itself is moving.
“Summer and winter and winter and summer I have travelled in my head, saying–‘All secrets, all wonders, lie within the breast!’ But now that is at an end, and to-morrow I go upon a journey.
“I have been accustomed to finding something in nothing–how do I know if I am equipped for a larger horizon!…”
And suddenly the little creature chanted aloud:–
“The strange things of travel,
The East and the West,
The hill beyond the hill,–
They lie within the breast!”
THE BLACK HUT AT BAR
The war had stopped.
The King of England was in Paris, and the President of the United States was hourly expected.
Humbler guests poured each night from the termini into the overflowing city, and sought anxiously for some bed, lounge-chair, or pillowed corner, in which to rest until the morning. Stretched upon the table in a branch of the Y.W.C.A. lay a young woman from England whose clothes were of brand-new khaki, and whose name was Fanny.
She had arrived that night at the Gare du Nord at eight o’clock, and the following night at eight o’clock she left Paris by the Gare de l’Est.
Just as she entered the station a small boy with a basket of violets for sale held a bunch to her face.
“No, thank you.”
He pursued her and held it against her chin.
“No, thank you.”
“But I give it to you! I _give_ it to you!”
As she had neither slept on the boat from Southampton nor on the table of the Y.W.C.A., tears of pleasure came into her eyes as she took them. But while she dragged her heavy kitbag and her suitcase across the platform another boy of a different spirit ran beside her.
“Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle! Wait a minute…” he panted.
“Haven’t you heard … haven’t you heard! The war is over!”
She continued to drag the weighty sack behind her over the platform. “She didn’t know!” howled the wicked boy. “No one had told her!”
And in the train which carried her towards the dead of night the taunt and the violets accompanied her.
At half-past two in the morning she reached the station of Bar-le-Duc. The rain rattled down through the broken roof as she crossed the lines of the platform on the further side, where, vaguely expecting to be met she questioned civilians and military police. But the pall of death that hung over Bar stretched even to the station, where nobody knew anything, expected anything, cared anything, except to hurry out and away into the rain.
She, too, followed at last, leaving her bag and box in the corner of a deserted office, and crossing the station yard tramped out in the thick mud on to a bridge. The rain was falling in torrents, and crouching for a minute in a doorway she made her bundles faster and buttoned up her coat. Roofs jutted above her, pavements sounded under her feet, the clock struck three near by. If there was an hotel anywhere there was no one to give information about it. The last train had emptied itself, the travellers had hurried off into the night, and not a foot rang upon the pavements. The rain ran in a stream down her cap and on to her face; down her sleeves and on to her hands.
A light further up the street attracted her attention, and walking towards it she found that it came from an open doorway above which she could make out the letters “Y.M.C.A.”
She did not know with what complicated feelings she would come to regard these letters–with what gratitude mixed with irritation, self-reproach with greed.
Climbing the steps she looked inside. The hall of the building was paved with stone, and on a couple of dozen summer chairs of cane sat as many American officers, dozing in painful attitudes of unrest. By each ran a stream of water that trickled from his clothes, and the streams, joining each other, formed aimless rivers upon the floor.
The eye of a captain opened.
“Come in, ma’am,” he said without moving. She wondered whether she should.
The eye of a lieutenant opened.
“Come in, ma’am,” he said, and rose. “Take my chair.”
“Could you tell me if there is any hotel?”
“There is some sort of a shanty down the street. I’ll take you.”
Further up the street a faint light shone under a slit between two boards. There was no door near it, no keyhole or shutter. The American thundered at the boards with a tin of jam which he took out of his pocket. The noise was monstrous in the blackness, but the town had heard noises more monstrous than that, and it lay in a barred and blind, unanswering stupor.
“God!” said the American, quickly angered, and kicked the board till the slit grew larger. The light went out.
“Some one is coming round to the door,” said Fanny, in time to prevent the destruction of the board.
Higher up the street bolts were being withdrawn and a light fell upon the pavement.
“Who’s there?” creaked a voice. The American moved towards the light.
“The hotel is shut to Americans,” said the voice.
“The devil it is,” shouted the American. “And why, then?”
“Man killed here last night,” said the voice briefly. Fanny moved towards the light and saw an old man with a shawl upon his shoulders, who held a candle fixed in the neck of a bottle.
“I am English,” she said to the old man. “I am alone. I want a room alone.”
“I’ve a room … If you’re not American!”
“I don’t know what kind of a hole this is,” said the American wrathfully. “I think you’d better come right back to the ‘Y.’ Say, here, what kind of a row was this last night you got a man killed in?”
“Kind of row your countrymen make,” muttered the old man, and added “Bandits!”
Soothing, on the one hand, entreating on the other, the girl got rid of her new friend, and effected an entrance into the hotel. (“If hotel it is!” she thought, in the brief passage of a panic while the old man stooped to the bolts of the door.)
“I’ve got rooms enough,” he said, “rooms enough. Now _they’ve_ gone. Follow me.”
She followed his candle flame and he threw open a door upon the ground floor.
“I’ve no light to give you.”
“Yet I must have a light.”
Grumbling, he produced half an inch of wax candle.
“Hurry into bed and that will last you. It’s all I have.”
The bed wore a coloured rug, bare and thin, an eiderdown, damp and musty. Spreading her wet mackintosh on the top she rolled herself up as well as she could, and developing a sort of warmth towards morning, slept an hour or two. The daylight showed her nothing to wash in, no jug, no basin, no bell to pull.
As no one would come to her, as there was nothing to be gained by waiting, she got up, and going into the hall, entered a dark coffee-room in which breakfast was served at its lowest ebb, black coffee, sugarless, and two pieces of dry bread.
Yet, having eaten, she was able to think: “I am a soldier of five sous. I am here to drive for the French Army.” And her thoughts pleased her so well that, at the moment when her circumstances were in their state of least perfection, she exclaimed: “How right I was to come!” and set off down the street to find her companions.
A mile out of the town upon the banks of a tributary of the Meuse stood a deserted glass factory which had been converted by the French into a garage for a fleet of thirty cars. Above the garage was a large attic used as a dormitory for the mechanics, soldier-cooks, drivers and clerks. In a smaller room at the end slept the non-commissioned officers–the _brigadier_ and the two _maréchaux des logis_.
A hundred yards from the factory, built upon the brink of the stream which was now in flood, and reached from the road by a narrow wooden bridge, stood a tarred hut of wood and tarpaulin. It was built upon simple lines. A narrow corridor ran down the centre of it, and on either hand were four square cells divided one from the other by grey paper stretched upon laths of wood–making eight in all. At one end was a small hall filled with mackintoshes. At the other a sitting-room.
This was the home of the women drivers attached to the garage. In one of these paper cells, henceforward to be her own, Fanny set up her intimate life.
* * * * *
Outside the black hut the jet-black night poured water down. Inside, the eight cubicles held each a woman, a bed, and a hurricane lantern. Fanny, in her paper box, listened to the scratching of a pen next door, then turned her eyes as a new and nearer scratching caught her ear. A bright-eyed rat stared at her through the hole it had made in the wall.
“Food is in!”
Out of the boxes came the eight women to eat pieces of dark meat from a tin set on the top of the sitting-room stove–then cheese and bread. The watery night turned into sleet and rattled like tin-foil on the panes.
“Where is Stewart?”
“She is not back yet.”
Soon the eight crept back to their boxes and sat again by the lamps to read or darn or write. They lived so close to each other that even the most genial had learnt to care for solitude, and the sitting-room remained empty.
The noise of Stewart’s feet sounded in the corridor. She swung a lantern in her hand; her face was shining, her hair streaming.
“Is there any food?”
“It’s on the stove.”
“Is it eatable?”
Silence for a while, and then one by one they crept out into the black mud beyond the hut to fill their cans with hot water from the cook-house–and so to bed, on stretchers slung on trestles, where those who did not sleep listened through the long night to those who slept too well.
“Are you awake?” came with the daylight. “Ah, you are washing! You are doing your hair!” There was no privacy.
“How cold, how cold the water, is!…” sighed Fanny, And a voice through the paper wall, catching the shivering whisper, exclaimed: “Use your hot-water bottle!”
“Empty it into your basin. If you have kept it in your bed all night you will find the water has the chill off.”
Those who had to be out early had left before the daylight, still with their lanterns swinging in their hands; had battled with the cold cars in the unlighted garage, and were moving alone across the long desert of the battlefields.
On the first morning she was tested on an old ambulance, and passed the test. On the second morning she got her first run upon a Charron car that had been assigned to her.
Driving into Bar-le-Duc in the early morning under a grey flood of rain she asked of a passer-by, “Which is the Rue Thierry?” She got no answer. The French, too poor and wet, did not trouble to reply; the Americans did not know. As she drove along at the side of the road there came a roar out of the distance, and a stream of American lorries thundered down the street. Men, women and children ran for their lives to gain the pavements, as the lorries passed, a mud-spout covered Fanny’s face and hands, and dripped from her windscreen.
“Why do they drive like that?” she wondered, hunting blindly for her handkerchief, and mopping at her face. She thought there must be some desperate need calling for the lorries, and looked after them with respect.
When she had found her street, and fetched her “client,” she drove at his order to Souilly, upon the great road to Verdun. And all day, calling at little villages upon the way, where he had business, she drove with the caution of the newcomer. It seemed to her that she had need for caution. She saw a Ford roll over, leave the road, and drop into the ditch. The wild American who had driven it to its death, pulled himself up upon the road, and limping, hailed a passing lorry, and went upon his way.
She saw a horse gallop out of a camp with a terrified Annamite upon its back. Horse and Annamite shot past her on the road, the yellow man’s eyes popping from his head, his body slipping, falling, falling. When she would have slowed the car to watch the end of the flight her client cried to her: “Why do you wait?”
Enormous American guns, trailed behind lorries driven by pink-faced boys swayed from side to side on the greasy road, and threatened to crush her like an egg-shell.
Everywhere she saw a wild disregard for life, everywhere she winced before the menace of speed, of weight, of thundering metal.
In the late afternoon, returning home in the half-light, she overtook a convoy of lorries driven by Annamites.
Hooting with her horn she crept past three lorries and drew abreast of the fourth; then, misjudging, she let the tip of her low mudguard touch the front wheel of the foremost lorry. The touch was so slight that she had passed on, but at a cry she drew up and looked back. The lorry which she had touched was overhanging the edge of the road, and its radiator, striking a tree, had dropped down into the valley below. Climbing from her car she ran back and was instantly surrounded by a crowd of Annamites who chirped and twittered at her, and wrung their little hands.
“What can I do?…” she said to them aloud, in distress.
But they understood nothing, and seemed to echo in their strange bird language, “What can _we_ do … what can _we_ do?…” (“And I…” she thought in consternation, “am responsible for this!”)
But the last lorry had drawn alongside, and a French sergeant descended from it and joined the Annamites. He walked to the edge of the road, saw the radiator below upon a rock, and shrugged his shoulders. Catching sight of Fanny’s face of horror he laughed.
“_Ne vous en faîtes pas, mademoiselle_! These poor devils sleep as they drive. Yes, even with their eyes open. We started nine this morning. We were four when we met you–and now we are three!”
On the third morning the rain stopped for an hour or two. Fanny had no run till the afternoon, and going into the garage in the morning she set to work on her car.
“Where can I get water?” she asked a man.
“The pump is broken,” he replied. “I backed my car against it last night. But there is a tap by that broken wall on the piece of waste ground.”
She crossed to the wall with her bucket.
Standing upon the waste ground was an old, closed limousine whose engine had long been injured past repair. One of the glass windows was broken, but it was as roomy and comfortable as a first-class railway carriage, and the men often sat in it in a spare moment.
The yard cleared suddenly for the eleven o’clock meal. As Fanny passed the limousine a man appeared at the broken window and beckoned to her. His face was white, and he wore his shirt, trousers, and braces. She stopped short with the bucket in her hand.
“On est delivré de cette bande!” he said, pointing to the yard, and she went a little nearer.
“Wait till I get my coat on,” he said softly to her, and struggled into his coat.
He put both his hands on the window ledge, leant towards her, and said clearly: “Je suis le président Wilson.”
“You are the President Wilson,” she echoed, hunting for the joke, and willing to smile. He passed her out his water-bottle and a tin box. “You must fill these for me,” he said. “Fill the bottle with wine, and get me bread and meat. Be quick. You know I must be off. The King expects me.”
Where have you come from?”
“I slept here last night. I have come far. But I must be quick now, for it’s late, and … I believe in Freedom!” he finished emphatically.
“Well, will you wait till I have made you up a parcel of food?”
“Only be quick.”
“Will you wait in the car? Promise to wait!”
“Yes. Be quick. Look sharp.”
She put down her bucket and stretched up her hand for the bottle and the box. He held them above her a second, hesitating, then put them into her hand. She turned from him and went back into the yard. As she approached the door of the room where the men sat eating she looked round and saw that he was watching her intently. She waved once, soothingly, then slipped into the long room filled with the hum of voices and the smell of gravy.
“There is a poor madman in the yard,” she whispered to the man nearest her. The others looked up.
“They’ve lost a man from the asylum. I heard in the town this morning,” said one. “We must keep him here till we telephone. Have you told the brigadier, mademoiselle?”
“You tell him. I’ll go back and talk to the man. Ask the brigadier to telephone.”
“I’ll come with you, mademoiselle,” said another. “Where is he?”
“In the old limousine by the water tap. He is quiet. Don’t frighten him by coming all together.” Chairs and benches were pushed back, and the men stood up in groups.
“We will go round by the gate in case he makes a run for it. Better not use force if one can help it….”
Fanny and her companion went out to the car. “Where is my food and wine?” called the man.
“It’s coming,” answered Fanny, “they are doing it up in the kitchen.”
“Well, I can’t wait. I must go without it. I can’t keep the King waiting.” And he opened the door of the limousine. As he stood on the step he held a bundle of rusty weapons.
“What’s that you’ve got?”
“Bosche daggers,” he said. “See!” He held one towards her, without letting it go from his hand.
“Where did you find those?”
“On the battlefields.” He climbed down the steps.
“Stay a moment,” said Fanny. “I’m in a difficulty. Will you help me?”
“What’s that? But I’ve no time….”
“Do you know about cars?”
“I was in the trade,” he nodded his head.
“I have trouble … I cannot tell what to do. Will you come and see?”
“If it’s a matter of a moment. But I must be away.”
“If you leave all those things in the car you could fetch them as you go,” suggested Fanny, eyeing the daggers.
The man whistled and screwed up one eye. “When one believes in Freedom one must go armed,” he said. “Show me the car.”
Going with her to the car-shed he looked at the spark-plugs of the car, at her suggestion unscrewing three from their seatings. At the fourth he grew tired, and said fretfully: “Now I must be off. You know I must. The King expects me.”
He walked to the gate of the yard, and she saw the men behind the gate about to close on him. “You’re not wearing your decorations!” she called after him. He stopped, looked down, looked a little troubled.
She took the gilt safety pin from her tie, the safety pin that held her collar to her blouse at the back, and another from the back of her skirt, and pinned them along his poor coat. An ambulance drove quickly into the yard, and three men, descending from it, hurried towards them. At sight of them the poor madman grew frantic, and turning upon Fanny he cried: “You are against me!” then ran across the yard. She shut her eyes that she might not see them hunt the lover of freedom, and only opened them when a man cried in triumph: “_We’ll_ take you to the King!”
“Pauvre malheureux!” muttered the drivers in the yard.
Day followed day and there was plenty of work. Officers had to be driven upon rounds of two hundred kilometres a day–interviewing mayors of ruined villages, listening to claims, assessing damage caused by French troops in billets. Others inspected distant motor parks. Others made offers to purchase old iron among the villages in order to prove thefts from the battlefields.
The early start at dawn, the flying miles, the winter dusk, the long hours of travel by the faint light of the acetylene lamps filled day after day; the unsavoury meal eaten alone by the stove, the book read alone in the cubicle, the fitful sleep upon the stretcher, filled night after night.
A loneliness beyond anything she had ever known settled upon Fanny. She found comfort in a look, a cry, a whistle. The smiles of strange men upon the road whom she would never see again became her social intercourse. The lost smiles of kind Americans, the lost, mocking whistles of Frenchmen, the scream of a nigger, the twittering surprise of a Chinese scavenger.
Yet she was glad to have come, for half the world was here. There could have been nothing like it since the Tower of Babel. The country around her was a vast tract of men sick with longing for the four corners of the earth.
“Have you _got_ to be here?” asked an American.
“No, I wanted to come.”
The eye of the American said “Fool!”
“Are you paid to come here?” asked a Frenchman.
“No. In a sense, I pay to come.” The eye of the Frenchman said, “Englishwoman!”
Each day she drove in a wash of rain. Each night she returned long after dark, and putting her car in the garage, felt her way up the inky road by the rushing of the river at its edge, crossed the wooden bridge, and entered the cell which she tried to make her personal haven.
But if personal, it was the personality of a dog; it had the character of a kennel. She had brought no furnishings with her from England; she could buy nothing in the town. The wooden floor was swamped by the rain which blew through the window; the paper on the walls was torn by rats; tarry drops from the roof had fallen upon her unmade bed.
The sight of this bed caused her a nightly dismay. “Oh, if I could but make it in the morning how different this room would look!”
There would be no one in the sitting-room, but a tin would stand on the stove with one, two, or three pieces of meat in it. By this she knew whether the cubicles were full or if one or two were empty. Sometimes the coffee jug would rise too lightly from the floor as she lifted it, and in an angry voice she would call through the hut: “There is no coffee!” Silence, silence; till a voice, goaded by the silence, cried: “Ask Madeleine!”
And Madeleine, the little maid, had long since gone over to laugh with the men in the garage.
Then came the owners of the second and third piece of meat, stumbling across the bridge and up the corridor, lantern in hand. And Fanny, perhaps remembering a treasure left in her car, would rise, leave them to eat, feel her way to the garage, and back again to the safety of her room with a tin of sweetened condensed milk under her arm. So low in comfort had she sunk it needed but this to make her happy. She had never known so sharp, so sweet a sense of luxury as that with which she prepared the delicacy she had seized by her own cunning. It had not taken her long to learn the possibilities of the American Y.M.C.A., the branch in Bar, or any other which she might pass in her travels.
Shameless she was as she leant upon the counter in some distant village, cajoling, persuading, spinning some tale of want and necessity more picturesque, though no less actual, than her own. Secret, too, lest one of her companions, over-eager, should spoil her hunting ground.
Sitting with her leather coat over her shoulders, happy in her solitude, she would drink the cup of Benger’s Food which she had made from the milk, and when it was finished, slide lower among the rugs, put out the lights, and listen to the rustle of the rats in the wall.
“Mary Bell is getting married,” said a clear voice in the hut.
“To the Wykely boy?” answered a second voice, and in a sudden need of sound the two voices talked on, while the six listeners upon their stretchers saw in the dark the life and happiness of Mary Bell blossom before them, unknown and bright.
The alarm clock went off with a scream at five.
“Why, I’ve hardly been asleep!” sighed Fanny, bewildered, and, getting up, she lit the lamp and made her coffee. Again there was not time to make the bed. Though fresh to the work she believed that she had been there for ever, yet the women with whom she shared her life had driven the roads of the Meuse district for months before she came to them, and their eyes were dim with peering into the dark nights, and they were tired past any sense of adventure, past any wish or power to better their condition.
On and on and on rolled the days, and though one might add them together and make them seven, they never made Sunday. For there is no Sunday in the French Army, there is no bell at which tools are laid aside, and not even the night is sacred.
On and on rolled the weeks, and the weeks made months, till all November was gone, and all December, and the New Year broke in fresh torrents of rain.
Fanny made friends all day and lost them again for ever as she passed on upon the roads. Sometimes it was a sentry beside whom her “clients” left her for an hour while they inspected a barracks; sometimes it was an old woman who called from a doorway that she might come and warm her hands at the fire; sometimes an American who helped her to change a tyre.
There were times, further up towards Verdun, where there were no old women, or young women, or villages, when she thought her friends were mad, deranged, eccentric in their loneliness.
“My sister has a grand piano …” said one American to her–opening thus his conversation. But he mused upon it and spoke no further.
“Yes?” she encouraged. “Yes?”
He did not open his mind until she was leaving, when he said simply to her: “I wish I was back home.” And between the two sentences all the pictures of his home were flowing in his thoughts.
An old woman offered her shelter in a village while her clients were busy with the mayor. In the kitchen there was a tiny fire of twigs.
American boys stamped in and out of the house, laughing, begging the daughter to sew on a button, sell them an egg, boys of nineteen and twenty, fair, tall, and good-looking.
“We shall be glad when they are gone,” said the old woman looking at their gay faces. “They are children,” she added, “with the faults of children.”
“They seem well-mannered.”
“They are beautiful boys,” said the peasant woman, “and good-mannered. But I’m tired of them. Children are all very well, but to have your house full of them, your village, your family-life! They play all day in the street, chasing the dogs, throwing balls. When our children come out of school there’s no holding them, they must be off playing with the Americans. The war is over. Why don’t they take them home?”
“Good-day, ma’am,” said a tall boy, coming up to Fanny. “You’re sure cold. We brought you this.” And he offered her a cup of coffee he had fetched from his canteen.
“Yes, they’re good boys,” said the old woman, “but one doesn’t want other people’s children always in one’s life.”
“Is this a park?” Fanny asked a soldier in the next village, a village whose four streets were filled with rows of lorries, touring cars and ambulances. On every car the iron was frail with rust, the bonnets of some were torn off, a wheel, two wheels, were missing, the side ripped open disclosing the rusting bones.
“What are you doing here?”
“We are left behind from the Fourth Army which has gone up to Germany. I have no tools or I would make one car out of four. But my men are discouraged and no one works. The war is over.
“Then this is a park?”
“No, madame, it is a cemetery.”
Months went by, and there came a night, as wet and sad as any other, when no premonitory star showed in the sky, and all that was bright in Fanny’s spirit toned itself to match the monotonous, shadowless pallor about her.
She was upon her homeward journey. At the entrance to the hut she paused; for such a light was burning in the sitting-room that it travelled even the dark corridor and wandered out upon the step. By it she could see the beaded moisture of the rain-mist upon the long hair escaped from her cap.
A group of women stood within, their faces turned towards the door as she entered.
“What is it?”
“We are going to Metz! We are ordered to Metz!” Stewart waved a letter.
Was poverty and solitude at an end? They did not know it. In leaving the Meuse district did they leave, too, the boundless rain, the swollen rivers, the shining swamps, the mud which ebbed and flowed upon the land like a tide? Was hunger at an end, discomfort, and poor living? They had no inkling.
Fanny, indifferent to any change, hoping for nothing better, turned first to the meat tin, for she was hungry.
“Metz is a town,” she hazarded.
“There will be things to eat there?”
“No, very little. It was fed from Germany; now that it is suddenly fed from Paris the service is disorganised. One train crosses the devastated land in the day. I hear all this from the brigadier–who has, for that matter, never been there.”
“Then we are going for certain?”
“We are sent for. Yes, we are going. We are to be attached to the Headquarters Staff. Pétain is there. It might even be gay.”
Fanny laughed. “Gay!”
“I was thinking of my one pair of silk stockings.”
“You have silk stockings with you!”
“Yes, I … I am equipped for anything.”
There came a morning, as wet and sad as any other, when Stewart and Fanny, seated in the back of an ambulance, their feet overhanging the edge, watched the black hut dwindle upon the road, and wondered how any one had lived there so long.
With its back to the woods and hills of Luxembourg, with its face to the desolation of Northern France, the city of Metz stood at the entry of Lorraine like the gate to a new world.
The traveller, arriving after long hours of journey through the battlefields, might sigh with relief, gape with pleasure, then hurry away down deflagged streets, beneath houses roped with green-leafed garlands, to eat divinely at Moitrier’s restaurant, and join the dancing in the hall below.
Not a night passed in Metz without the beat of music upon the frosty air. It burst into the narrow streets from _estaminets_ where the soldiers danced, from halls, from drawing-rooms of confiscated German houses where officers of the “Grand Quartier Général” danced a triumph. Or it might be supposed to be a triumph by the Germans who stayed in their homes after dark. They might suppose that the French officers danced for happiness, that they danced because they were French, because they were victorious, because they were young, because they must.
It was not, surely, the wild dancing of the host whose party drags a little, who calls for more champagne, more fiddles?
In the centre of the city of Metz sat the Maréchal Pétain, and kept his eye upon Lorraine. He was not a man who cared for gaiety, but should the Lorraines be insufficiently amused he gave them balls–insufficiently fed, he sent for flour and sugar; all the flour and sugar that France could spare; more, much more, than Paris had, and at his bidding the cake-shops flowered with _éclairs, millefeuilles, brioches, choux à la crême_, and cakes more marvellous with German names.
France, poor and hungry, flung all she had into Alsace and Lorraine, that she might make her entry with the assuring dazzle of the benefactress. The Lorraines, like children, were fed with sugar while the meat shops were empty–were kept dancing in national costume that they might forget to ask for leather boots, to wonder where wool and silk were hiding.
Fêtes were organised, colours were paraded in the square, torchlight processions were started on Saturday nights, when the boys of the town went crying and whooping behind the march of the flares. Artists were sent for from Paris, took train to Nancy, and were driven laboriously through hours of snow, over miles of shell-pitted roads, that they might sing and play in the theatre or in the house of the Governor. To the dances, to the dinners, to the plays came the Lorraine women, wearing white cotton stockings to set off their thick ankles, and dancing in figures and set dances unknown to the officers from Paris.
The Commandant Dormans, head of all motor transport under the Grand Quartier Général, having prepared his German drawing-room as a ballroom, having danced all the evening with ladies from the surrounding hills, found himself fatigued and exasperated by the side of the head of Foreign Units attached to the Automobile Service.
“I thought you had Englishwomen at Bar-le-Duc,” he said to the latter.
“What are they doing at Bar-le-Duc? Get them here.”
“Is there work, sir?”
“Work! They shall work from dawn to sunset so long as they will dance all night! Englishwomen do dance, don’t they?”
“I have never been to England.”
“Get them here. Send for them.”
So through his whim it happened that six days later a little caravan of women crossed the old front lines beyond Pont-à-Mousson as dusk was falling, and as dark was falling entered the gates of Metz.
They leant from the ambulance excitedly as the lights of the streets flashed past them, saw windows piled with pale bricks of butter, bars of chocolates, tins of preserved strawberries, and jams.
“Can you see the price on the butter?”
“I can’t see. Yes…. Twenty-four francs a pound.”
“Ah, is it possible, éclairs?”
And with exclamations of awe they saw the cake shops in the Serpenoise.
German boys cried “American girls! American girls!” and threw paper balls into the back of the ambulance.
“I heard, I heard….”
“What is it?”
“I heard German spoken.”
“Did you think, then, they were all dead?”
“No,” but Fanny felt like some old scholar who hears a dead language spoken in a vanished town.
They drove on past the Cathedral into the open square of the Place du Theâtre. Half the old French theatre had been set aside as offices for the Automobile Service, and now the officers of the service, who had waited for them with curiosity, greeted them on the steps.
“You must be tired, you must be hungry! Leave the ambulance where it is and come now, as you are, to dine with us!”
In the uncertain light from the lamp on the theatre steps the French tried to see the English faces, the women glanced at the men, and they walked together to the oak-panelled Mess Room in a house on the other side of the empty square. A long table was spread with a white cloth, with silver, with flowers, as though they were expected. Soldiers waited behind the chairs.
“Vauclin! That _foie gras_ you brought back from Paris yesterday… where is it, out with it? What, you only brought two jars! Arrelles, there’s a jar left from yours.”
“Mademoiselle, sit here by Captain Vauclin. He will amuse you. And you, mademoiselle, by me. You all talk French?”
“And fancy, I never met an Englishwoman before. Never! Your responsibility is terrible. How tired you must be!… What a journey! For to-night we have found you billets. We billet you on Germans. It is more comfortable; they do more for you. What, you have met no Germans yet? They exist, yes, they exist.”
“Arrelles, you are not talking French! You should talk English. You can’t? Nor I either….”
“But these ladies talk French marvellously….”
Some one in another house was playing an ancient instrument. Its music stole across the open square. Soldiers passed singing in the street.
A hundred miles … a hundred years away … lay Bar-le-Duc, liquid in mud, soaked in eternal rain. “What was I?” thought Fanny in amazement. “To what had I come, in that black hut!” And she thought that she had run down to the bottom of living, lain on that hard floor where the poor lie, known what it was to live as the poor live, in a hole, without generosity, beauty, or privacy–in a hole, dirty and cold, plain and coarse.
She glanced at her neighbour with wonder and appreciation, delight and envy. There was a light, clean scent upon his hair. She saw his hands, his nails. And her own.
A young Jew opposite her had his hair curled, and a faint powdery bloom about his face.
(“But never mind! That is civilisation. There are people who turn from that and cry for nature, but I, since I’ve lived as a dog, when I see artifice, feel gay!”)
“You don’t know with what interest you have been awaited.”
“Ah, yes! And were you pleased to come?”
“We did not know to what we were coming!”
She looked round the table peacefully, listened to the light voices talking a French she had never heard at Bar.
“I could not make you understand how different….” (No, she would not tell him how they had lived at Bar. She was ashamed.) But as she was answering the servant gave him a message and he was called away. When he returned he said: “The Commandant Dormans is showing himself very anxious.”
The Jew laughed and said: “He wants to see these ladies this evening?”
“No, he spares them that, knowing of their journey. He sends a message by the Capitaine Châtel to tell us that the _D.S.A._ gives a dance to-morrow night. The personal invitation will be sent by messenger in the morning. You dance, mademoiselle?”
“There is a dance, and we are invited? Yes, yes, I dance! You asked if I was happy now that I am here. To us this might be Babylon, after the desert!”
“Babylon, the wicked city?”
“The gay, the light, beribboned city! What is the ‘D.S.A.’?”
“A power which governs our actions. We are but the C.R.A…. the regulating control. But they are the Direction. ‘Direction Service Automobile.’ They draw up all traffic rules for the Army, dispose of cars, withdraw them. On them you depend and I depend. But they are well-disposed towards you.”
“And the Commandant Dormans is the head?”
“The head of all transport. He is a great man. Very peculiar.”
“The Capitaine Châtel?”
“His aide, his right hand, the nearest to his ear.”
Dinner over, the young Jew, Reherrey, having sent for two cars from the garage, drove the tired Englishwomen to their billets. As the cars passed down the cobbled streets and over a great bridge, Fanny saw water gleam in the gulf below.
“What river is that?”
A sentry challenged them on the far side of the bridge. “Now we are in the outer town, the German quarter.”
In a narrow street whose houses overhung the river each of the section was put down at a different doorway, given a paper upon which was inscribed her right to billets, and introduced in Reherry’s rapid German to her landlady.
Fanny in her turn, following the young man through a dark doorway, found herself in a stone alley and climbed the windings of a stairway. A girl of twelve or thirteen received her on the upper landing, saying “Guten Abend,” and looking at her with wonder.
“Where is your mother?” said Reherry.
“She is out with my eldest sister.”
“What is your name?”
“Then, Elsa, look after this lady. Take her to her room, the room I saw your mother about, give her hot water, and bring her breakfast in the morning. Take great care of her.”
“Jawohl, mein Herr.”
Reherry turned away and ran down the stairs. Elsa showed Fanny to a room prepared for her.
“You are English?” said Elsa, and could not take her eyes off her.
“Yes, I am English. And are you German?” (Question so impossible, so indiscreet in England…)
“I am real German, from Coblentz. How did you come here, Fräulein?”
“In a car.”
“But from England! Is there not water?”
“I crossed the water in a ship, and afterwards I came here in a car.”
“You have a motor car? But every one is rich in England.”
“Oh, not very…”
“Yes, every one. Mother says so.”
The girl went away, then brought her a jug of hot water.
“I hope,” said Fanny, venturing upon a sea of forgotten German, “I hope I haven’t turned you or your sister out of this room.”
“This is the strangers’ room,” said Elsa. “I thank you.”
When she had gone, Fanny looked round the room. It was too German to be true. The walls were dark red, the curtains dark red, the carpet, eiderdown, rep cover of the armchair, plush on the photograph frames, embroidered mats upon the washstand, tiles upon the stove, everything a deep, dark red. Four mugs stood upon the mantelpiece, and … she rubbed her eyes … was it possible that one had an iron cross upon its porcelain, one the legend “Got mit uns,” the third the head of the Kaiser, the fourth the head of the Kaiserin? “That is too much! The people I shall write to won’t believe it!”
Her bed was overhung by a large branch of stag’s horn fixed upon the wall.
She felt the bed, counted the blankets, found matches on the mantelpiece, a candle in the candlestick, room in the stove to boil a kettle or a saucepan. Hot water steamed from her jug, a hot brick had been placed to warm her bed, a plate of rye bread cut in slices and covered with a cloth was upon the table.
Foreign to her own, the eyes which had rejoiced in this room … yet the smile of German comfort was upon it.
She lay down beneath the branching antlers, and smiled before she went to sleep: “One pair of silk stockings … to dance in Babylon …”
* * * * *
In the morning a thin woman dressed in black brought her breakfast–jam, rye bread, coffee and sugar.
“Guten Morgen,” said the woman, and looked at her curiously. But Fanny couldn’t remember which language she ought to talk, and fumbled in her head so long that the woman went away.
She dressed and went out, meeting Stewart by her doorway. Together they crossed the bridge, the theatre square, and went towards the Cathedral with eager faces. They did not look up at the Cathedral, at the statute of old David upon which the Kaiser had had his own head carved, and upon whose crossed hands the people had now hung chains fastened with a padlock–they did not glance at the Hôtel de Ville in the square beyond, but, avoiding the tram which emerged from the narrow Serpenoise like a monster that had too long been oppressed, they hurried on up the street with a subdued and hungry gaiety.
There was a Need to be satisfied before anything could be seen, done, or said. A Need four years old, now knocking at the doors of heaven, howling to be satisfied.
Before the windows of a shop they paused, but Stewart, standing back and looking up the street, said: “There is a better further on!” and when they had gone on a few paces Fanny whispered, hurrying, “A better still beyond!” At the third shop, the Need, imperative, royal, would wait no longer, and drove them within.
“How many?” asked the saleswoman at the end of ten minutes.
“Seven _éclairs_ and a cream bun, said Stewart.
“Just nine _éclairs_,” said Fanny.
“Seventeen francs,” said the woman without moving an eyelash.
This frenzy cooled, their pockets lighter, they walked for pleasure in the town. The narrow streets streamed with people–French soldiers and officers, Lorraine women in the costumes of pageantry, and German children who cried shrilly: “Amerikanerin, Amerikanerin!”
An English major passed them. They recognised his flawless boots before they realised his nationality. And, following his, the worst boots in the world–worn by a couple of sauntering Italian officers, gay in olive and silver uniform. German men in black slouch hats hurried along the streets.
It had been arranged that they should eat their meals in a room overlooking the canal, at the foot of the Cathedral–and there at eleven o’clock they went, to be a little dashed in spirit by the reappearance of the Bar-le-Duc crockery.
The same yellow dish carried what seemed the same rationed jam; the square blocks of meat might have been cooked in the Bar cook-hut, and brought with them over the desert; two heavy loaves stood as usual on the wooden table. The French Army ration was the same in every town.
“Mesdames,” said the orderly assigned to them, “there are two sous-officers without who wish to speak with you.”
“Let them come in.”
Two blue figures appeared in the doorway and saluted. The first brought a card of invitation from the Commandant Dormans. The second was the brigadier from the garage with a list of the cars assigned to the drivers.
“Perhaps these ladies would come down and try their cars after lunch?” he suggested, and lunch being over they walked with him through the winding streets. At the gates of a great yard he paused and a sentry swung them open. Behind the gates lay a sandy plain as large as a parade ground, which, except for gulleys or gangways crossing it at intervals, was packed from end to end with row after row of cars; cars in the worst possible condition, torn, twisted, wheelless, cars with less dramatic and yet fatal injuries; some squatting backwards upon their haunches, some inclined forwards upon their knees–one, lately fished up from a river, had slabs and crusts of ice still upon its seats–one, the last dragged in at the tail of a breakdown lorry, hung, fore-wheels in the air, helpless upon a crane. Here, in the yard, was nothing but broken iron and mouldering carriage work–the cemetery of the Transport of the Grand Quartier.
Lining all one side of the yard ran a shed, closed and warmed and lighted, where living cars slept in long rows mudguard to mudguard, and bright lamps facing outward.
As the Englishwomen walked in a soft rustle could be heard up and down the lighted shed, for each half-hidden driver working by his car turned and shot a glance, expectant and mocking, towards the door.
“Ben quoi, i’paraît qu’c’esst vrai! Tu vois!”
“Qu’est-ce qu’il dit, c’ui-là?”
“C’est les Anglaises, pardi!”
“Tu comprends, j’suis contre tout ca. I’y a des fois ou les femmes c’est bien. Mais ici …”
“Tu grognes? On va r’devenir homme, c’est tres bien!”
“C’est idiot! Qu’est-ce qu’elles vont faire ici!”
“On dirait–c’est du militarisme francais!”
“Le militarisme francais j’m’en f—-! Tu verra, cela va faire encore du travail pour nous.”
“Attends un peu!”… And murmurs filled the shed–glances threaded the shadows, chilling the spirit of the foreign women adventuring upon the threshold.
“Four Rochets,” said the _brigadier_, consulting his paper, “two Delages, two FIATS … Mademoiselle, here is yours, and yours. The Lieutenant Denis will be here in a moment. He fears the Rochets will be too heavy for you, but we must see.”
The lieutenant who had been at dinner the night before entered the shed, greeted them, and turned to Stewart. “That car is too heavy for your strength, mademoiselle. It is not a car for a lady.”
“I like the make,” she said stiffly, conscious of the ears which listened in the shed.
“See if you can start her now, mademoiselle,” said the _brigadier_, arranging the levers.
There was a still hush in the shed as Stewart bent to the handle. Fanny, standing by the Rochet which had been assigned to her, felt her heart thumping.
(“Tu vas voir!” whispered the little soldiers watching brightly from behind the cars. “Attends, attends un peu! Pour les mettre en marche, les tacots, c’est autre chose!”)
Stewart, seizing the handle, could not turn it. In the false night of the shed the lights shone on polished lamps, on glass and brass, on French eyes which said: “That’s what comes of it!”–which were ready to say–“March out again, Englishwomen, ridiculous and eager and defeated!”
Fanny, looking neither to right nor left, prayed under her breath –“Stewart, Stewart we can never live in this shed if you can’t start her. And if you can’t, nobody else can….”
There was a spurt of life from the engine as it back-fired, and Stewart sprang away holding her wrist with the other hand. The lieutenant, the brigadier, and a driver from a car near by crowded round her with exclamations.
“You advanced the spark too much,” said the driver to the _brigadier_. “_Tenez_! I will retard it.”
“She shan’t touch the car again.” said the lieutenant. “It is too heavy.”
“Leave the controls alone,” said Stewart, scowling at the driver. “Give me room …” She caught the handle with her injured hand, and with a gasp, swung the Rochet into throbbing life.
There was a murmur of voices down the shed, and each man with a slight movement returned to the work he had been doing; the polishers polished, the cleaners swept, and a little chink of metal on metal filled the garage. The women were accepted.
The day had vanished. Cars, yard and garage sank out of sight. Out in the streets the lamps woke one by one, and from the town came shouts and the stamp of feet marching. It was Saturday night and a torchlight procession of soldier and civilians wound down the street. The band passed first, and after it men carried fire-glares fastened upon sticks.
The garage gates turned to rods and bars of gold till the light left them, and the glare upon the house-fronts opposite travelled slowly down the street.
Fanny slipped out of the yard and crept along behind the flares like a shadow on the pavement. At the street corner she passed out on to the bridge over the Moselle, and leant against the stonework to watch the plumes of fire as they glittered up the riverside upon the tow-path. The lights vanished, leaving the darkness so intense that she could only feel her way over the bridge by holding to the stonework with her hand. A sentry challenged her and when she had passed him she had arrived at the door of her German lodging.
Climbing the stairs a slow breeze of excitement filled out the sails of her spirit. “My silk stockings … my gold links, and my benzene bottle!” she murmured happily. Now that of all her life she had the slenderest toilet to make–three hours was the time she had set aside for it!
Earth has her usual delights–which can be met with six days out of the seven. But here and there upon grey earth there exist, like the flying of sunlight, celestial pleasures also–and one of these is the heaven of success. When, puffed-up and glorious, the successful creature struts like a peacock, gilded in a passing radiance. And in a radiance, in a magic illumination, the newcomers danced in the drawing-room of the Commandant Dormans, and tasted that which cannot be found when sought, nor held when tasted.
Old tapestries of tropical foliage hung around the walls, dusk upon one wall, dawn upon another. Trees climbed from floor to ceiling laden with lime-coloured flowers, with birds instead of fruits upon the branches.
When at a touch the yellow dust flew out under the lamplight it seemed to the mazy eye of the dancer that the trees sent up a mist of pollen and song.
In this happy summer, Fanny, turning her vain ear to spoken flattery, her vain eye to mute, danced like a golden gnat in fine weather.
The Commandant Dormans spoke to her. If he was not young he had a quick voice that was not old. He said: “We welcome you. We have been waiting for you. We are glad you have come.”
Faces surrounded her which to her fresh eyes were not easy to read. Names which she had heard last night became young and old men to her –skins red and pale and dark-white–eyes blue and olive and black–gay, audacious and mocking features. She was dazzled, she did not hurry to understand. One could not choose, one floated free of preference, all men were strangers.
“One day I shall know what they are, how they live, how they think.” But she did not want that day to come.
The Commandant Dormans said: “You do not regret Bar-le-Duc?”
“No, no, no.”
“I hear you are all voracious for work. I hear that if you do not drive from morning to night we cannot hope to keep you with us!”
Denis said to her: “Be careful of him! He believes there is no end to the human strength.”
She replied joyously: “There is no end to our strength!”
When she had eyes to see, to watch, to choose, she found that there was in the room a man who was graceful and young, whose eyes were a peculiar shape, who laughed all the time gently as he danced. He never looked at her, never came near her. This young man was indifferent to her, he was indifferent to her … Soon he became a trouble and a pleasure to her. With whom was he dancing now … and now? Who was it that amused him? His eyes and his hair were bright … but there were many around her whose eyes and hair were as bright. Before she had seen that young man laugh her pleasure had been more complete.
While she was talking to Denis a voice said to her: “Won’t you dance with me?”
Looking up she saw who it was. His mouth smiled, his eyes were clever and gay.
The moment she danced with him she began to grow proud, she began to find herself. Someone whispered to her: “The section must leave at such and such an hour….”
She thought in a flash: “For me the section is dissolved … I am I, and the others are the others!”
The evening wore on. The musicians flagged and took up their courage again. It was late when Stewart, touching Fanny’s arm, showed her that they were almost the only two women in the room.
“Where are the others?”
“In the hall, putting on their coats. We are all going.”
“Aren’t they in a hurry?”
“They have had orders, which were brought up just now, for runs early to-morrow morning. But you and I have nothing, and Denis has asked us … if you are quick you can slip away … to have supper with him at Moitriers.”
“We can. The others go home in two cars which have been sent for us. No one will know that we are not in the other car. I’m so hungry.”
“So am I, starving. Very well.”
They joined the others, put on their coats, hunted ostentatiously for their gloves, then slipped ahead down the dark stairway into the square below. Denis joined them.
“Splendid. I have my car round that corner. It will be only a matter of half an hour, but if you are both as hungry as I you will welcome it. Everything was finished upstairs, every crumb and cake. We must get a fourth. Who shall I get?”
“Any one whom you would like to bring,” said Stewart. “I don’t think I have mastered the names yet. I really don’t mind.”
“And you, mademoiselle?”
“Nor I either,” said Fanny, sniffing at the frosty air, at the fresh night.
“Whom you like!”
“Then I won’t be a moment. I’ll bring whom I can.”
“Monsieur!”… as he reached the corner. He turned back.
“There is an artillery captain … in a black uniform with silver.”
“An artillery captain …” he paused enquiringly.
“In black and silver. There was no other in the room.”
“Oh, yes, there were two in black and silver!”
“Tall, with …”
“Ah, tall! The other is very short … The tall one is the Commandant’s aide, Captain Chatêl. He may not be able…. But I will see!” He disappeared again.
When he returned he had the young man beside him.
“One moment,” said Châtel, as they walked towards the car; “who asked for me, the girl with the fair hair, or with the dark?”
“With the fair.”
Moitriers was closed when they reached it, and they drove on to the only other place where food could be bought past the hour of midnight–the station buffet.
Pushing past the barriers at the entrance to the station they entered a long corridor filled with heavy civilian life. Men and women lay, slept and snored upon the stone ledges which lined the side of the tunnel, their bags and packets stacked around them. Small children lay asleep like cut corn, heads hanging and nodding in all directions, or propped against each other in such an intricate combination that if one should move the whole sheaf of tired heads slipped lower to the floor.
Further on, swing doors of glass led to a waiting-room, and here the sleeping men and women were so packed upon the ground and around the little tables that it was difficult to walk between them. Men sat in groups of nine or ten around a table meant for four each with his head sunk down between his hands upon the marble surface. On one table a small child wrapped in shawls lay among the circle of heads, curled like a snail, its toe in its father’s ear. At each end of the room stood soldiers with fixed bayonets.
Denis paused at the entrance. “Walk round here,” he said, “there is a gangway for the sentry.”
“If we talk too loud,” said Fanny, “we shall wake them.”
“They must soon wake in any case. It must be near the time for the train. You know who they are?”
“Germans. Expelled from Metz. They leave in batches for Germany every night–by a train that comes in and goes out at some horrible hour.”
Passing through more glass doors they came to an inner room where, behind a buffet, a lady in black silk served them with beer and slices of raw ham and bread.
The four sat down for a moment at a little table–Denis talking of the system by which the outgoing Germans were nightly weeded from those who had permission to remain behind in Metz. Julien Châtel joined in the conversation. He spoke with the others but he glanced at Fanny. For the briefest of seconds he thought as he looked at her face that he saw a new interest smile upon it. He did not know that his own face wore the same look. His look said as he looked at her: “You, you, you!” At one moment she thought: “Am I pretty?” At the next she was content only to breathe, and thought no more of herself. She took in now his eyes which seldom rested on her, now a movement of his lips which made her feel both happy and miserable, and suddenly she learnt how often his finger traced some letter upon his cheek.
These things were important. They were like the opening sentences of a great play to which one must listen, absorbed, for fear of misunderstanding all the story.
It was not long before they rose, threaded their way back between the sleeping Germans, regained the car, and drove down the silent streets towards the Cathedral.
“Have you seen it?” said Julien in a low voice, addressing her directly.
“Yes. I want to show it to you. Will you meet me there to-morrow at three?”
(The others talked and smiled and knew nothing. Whoever has a secret is stronger than they who know nothing. Fanny thought: “My companions, to be as you are is not to exist! Whatever you feel, you are feeling nothing …”)
“Yes,” she answered, and joined her hands tightly, for this was where the play really began.
* * * * *
The sun shone gaily. Here was no mud, no unhappiness, here were no puzzled women, and touching mayors of ruined villages, but instead gay goblin houses, pointed churches like sugar cake, the old French theatre with its stone garlands glittering in the sun; sun everywhere, streaming over the Place du Théâtre, over women shaking coloured rags from the windows, women washing linen by the river; everything that had been wet was drying, everything that had savoured of tears and age and sadness was burning up under the sun, and what moisture remained was brighter than jewels.
“Suppose he never came!”
“Why, then, be ready for that. Very likely he wouldn’t come. Very likely he would think in daylight–‘ She is not a woman, but an English Amazon…'” Fanny glanced down at her clothes regretfully. She was ill-equipped for an assignation.
“At least I might have better gloves,” she thought, and walked into a small shop which advertised men’s clothes in German across the window. She bought yellow washing-leather gloves at twenty-eight francs a pair, and would have paid a hundred had the salesman insisted.
And now with yellow gloves, silk stockings, shining shoes and a heart as light as a leaf upon a wind she walked towards the Cathedral.
“He won’t come. He won’t be there….” She pushed at the east door.
He was under a Madonna, his black and silver hat in his hand, his eyes critical and pleased as he walked to meet her. They sat down together on a seat, without speaking. Then, each longing for the other to speak –“You have come….” he said first. (His face was oval and his hair was shining.)
“Yes,” she nodded, and noticed a peculiar glory in the Cathedral. The dark cave shone as white flesh and youth can shine through the veils of a mourner.
They no longer lived their own separate lives; they had come together at each other’s call.
“I thought you wouldn’t come.”
“Why, why did you think that?”
Little questions and little answers fell in a sudden rain from their lips. Yet while Fanny spoke he did not seem to know what she said, and answered at random, or sometimes he did not answer at all, but smiled.
Afraid of the fragile avowal of silence, evading it, she found little words to follow one another. But he answered less and less, and smiled at her, till his face was full of this smile. So then she said: “We’ll go out and walk by the river,” and he rose at once and followed her among the forest of wooden chairs. They forgot that he was to have shown her the Cathedral. In all its length she never saw one statue except the first Madonna, not one stone face but his young face with the cold light upon it, his hands as white as stones, as long and fine as any of the carved fingers which prayed around them.
They walked together down the winding path below the bridge to the very edge of the Moselle, which lay in light winter sunlight, its banks buried in shrubberies of green.
Mont St. Quentin, conical, covered with waving trees, shone like a hill in summer, and beyond it the indigo forest of every Lorraine horizon floated indefinitely like a cloud.
A young doctor lounged beside them, putty-coloured under his red plush cap. “Why are all doctors plain in France?” she laughed.
“Hush!” He wound his hand round and round like the player of a barrel -organ. “I have to stop you when you say silly things like a phonograph, at so much a metre.”
So he believed he might tease her…. Delighted, she stopped by the bank of the river and stared into the water. The sun ran over her shoulders and warmed her hands. The still shine of the river held both their eyes as movement in a train holds the mind.
“I am enjoying my walk,” he said. He did not mean it like that, or as a compliment to her. When it was said he thought it sounded banal, and was sorry. “What a pity!”
But she was not critical because she was looking for living happiness, and every moment she was more and more convinced that she would get it. But when he asked her her name and she repeated it, it sounded so much like an avowal that they both turned together down the tow-path with a quick movement and spoke of other things, for they were old enough to be afraid that the vague happiness that fluttered before them down the path would not be so beautiful when it was caught. And at this fear she said distinctly to herself: “In love!” and wondered that she had not said it before.
Coming back to him with her words, she then began to wound and to delay him. “You mustn’t be late for your office….”
“When shall I see you again?”
They dropped into a long silence. She summoned her coquetry that she called pride. The blue, blue forest at the edge of her sight tilted a little like a ship, the watery hill-country rolled towards it in mysterious kilometres.
“It is beautiful,” she said clumsily, avoiding his question, ignoring it. “Yet when I go there it is always more beautiful on the next hill.’
“I must hurry,” he said at once, “I shall be late at my office.”
“Where is your office?”
He looked round vaguely. “There in that group of pines.” They walked towards it, they were almost at the door, but he would not repeat his question. Would he not at the last moment? No. Had it not then been clear that the living happiness was at her lips? No. Could he let her go, could it have been a failure? He was holding out one of the stone hands. He was going.
She looked up and the sun was streaming in his eyes, blinding him, and without seeing her he stared into the darkness that was her face. “I have so enjoyed my walk,” he said. “Thank you for coming.”
All her face said “Oh!” in a hurt, frightened stare, but the sun only came round the edges of her hair and cap and left the panic in a shifting darkness. He was gone.
She went back to her street. Reaching the big, populous house she followed the corridor that led from the stone courtyard, climbed to the first floor and opened the door of her own room. A bitter disillusion ran through her. The close-packed furniture seemed to say indifferently, “There’s not much room for you!” and she knew quite well as she sat down on the bed that it was not her room at all, but had been as public to the birds of passage as the branch of a tree to the birds of the air.
“I did so little. I did so little. It was such a little mistake!” Self-pity flooded her.
“And why did he ask me to come to the Cathedral if such a little thing, such a little thing….” Indignation rose.
“Things don’t crumble like that, don’t vanish like that!” She stared, astonished, at the scenes she had left behind her, the shining of the dark Cathedral, the ripple on the Moselle. “But they do, they do, they do….”
Down in the street her own name caught her ear, and she went to the window.
“Are you there, are you there?” cried the voice.
Hanging waist-deep out of the window she received her orders for the next day.
“I came down to tell you now,” said the girl below on the pavement. “I thought you might have things to do to the car. You must be at the Hôtel Royal, near the station, at half-past six to-morrow morning.”
“Have you any idea whom I’m to take? Or where?”
“I don’t know where, but the man is a Russian colonel.”
She drew her head back through the window, and the gay tumble of the street gave way to the impersonal, heavy room. Cramming her oil-stained overall into her haversack, she put on her leather coat and went up to the garage.
The sun had disappeared. A cold wind struck the silk-clad ankles.
“Come in,” she said in English, lifting her head and all her mind and spirit out of the pit of the pillow.
Feet came further into the room and a shivering child held a candle in her face. “Halb sechs, Fräulein,” it said. But the Fräulein continued to stare at him. He thought she was not yet awake–he could not tell that she was counting countries in her head to find which one she was in–or that she was inclining towards the theory that she was at school in Germany. He was very cold in his shirt and little trousers, and he pulled at her sheets. “Fräulein!” he said again with chattering teeth, and when she nodded more collectedly the little ghost slipped out relieved by the door. “Russian colonel … I must get up. Fancy making that boy call me! Why couldn’t someone older … I must get up.”
He had left the electric light burning in her room, but out in the corridor all was black and hushed as she had left it the night before when she had gone to bed. Behind the kitchen door there was a noise of water running in the sink. She opened the door, and there was the wretched child again, still in his shirt, rinsing out her coffee-pot by the light of one candle. Well, since he was doing it … Poor child! But she must have her coffee. By the time she was dressed he tapped again and brought in the tray with coffee, bread and jam on it. Setting it down, he looked it over with an anxious face. “Zucker,” he said, and disappeared to fetch it. She filled her thermos bottle with the rest of the coffee which she could not finish, and put two of the slices of grey bread into the haversack, then crept downstairs and out into the black street where the gas lamps still burnt and the night sentry still paced up and down in the spectral gloom. Over the river hung a woolly fog, imprisoning the water; but as she crossed the bridge she noticed where its solidity was incomplete and torn, and into the dark water which lay at the bottom of such crevasses a lamp upon the bridge struck its arrowed likeness. It was a good seven minutes’ walk to the garage, and she tried to get warm by running, but the ice crackling in the gutters and between the cobble stones defied her, and her hands ached with cold though she put them in turn right through her blouse against her heart to warm them as she ran. Fetching her car she drove to the Hôtel Royal, and settled down to wait.
A porter came out and swept the steps of the hotel, and a puff of his dust caught her in the face. He laid a fibre mat on each stone step, and clipped them with little metal clips.
“Are you for us?” asked a _sous-lieutenant_, looking first up and down the empty street and then at the car. He had blue eyes and a long, sad moustache that swept down the lower half of his face and even below his chin, making him look older than he should.
“I am for a Russian colonel,” she said, liking his mild face.
“That’s right. Yes, a Russian colonel. Colonel Dellahousse. But can you manage by yourself? Can you really? I will tell him….”
He disappeared up the steps and through the swing door of the hotel. A moment later he was out again.
“He will come to you himself, he will see you. But we want to go to Verdun! Could you drive so far? You could? Yes, yes, perhaps. Yet here he comes….”
In dark civilian clothes the Russian came down the hotel steps. He was tall, serious, upright, rich. His face beneath his wide, black hat was grave and well cared for. The sombre glitter of his eye was grave, his small dark beard shone in the well-controlled prime of its growth. From the narrow line of white collar to the narrower thread of French watchchain–from the lean, long feet to the lean, white hands she took him in, and braced herself, adjusted herself, to meet his stately gravity. If there was something of the Mephistopheles in fancy dress about him, it was corrected by his considerate expression.
“Have you had breakfast?” he began, speaking French with a softly nasal accent.
“How kind of you to think of it! Yes, thank you, monsieur.”
“I have to go to Verdun,” he put it to her. “I have business there.” It was as though he expected that she would let him off without difficult explanations, would exclaim: “There is some mistake! Some other car, some other driver is intended for your work!”
But she remained silent except for a smile of acknowledgment, and with a sigh he summoned the lieutenant and went back into the hotel. In a few minutes the Frenchman came out again. “Monsieur Dellahousse would like to know if you know the way?” he inquired.
“He doesn’t want to take me? Isn’t that it?” asked Fanny, smiling but anxious.
“He is a little doubtful,” admitted the lieutenant. “You must excuse….”
“Perhaps I appear flippant to him. But I am grave, too, grave as he, and I long to go, and the car and I, we are trustworthy. I do, indeed, know the way to Verdun.”
He went in again, and for answer the porter brought out the bags, and Colonel Dellahousse followed, carrying a sealed black bag with care under his arm. She was sure he had said to the Frenchman: “But what sort of a woman is she? One does not want to have difficulties.” And as sure, too, that the other had answered: “I know the English. They let their women do this sort of thing. I think it will be all right.”
She no longer felt defiant towards the spoken and unspoken criticism she met everywhere: “What kind of women can these be whose men allow them to drive alone with us for hours, and sometimes days?” but had begun to apologise for it even to herself, while it sometimes caused her bewilderment.
She drove them back through the waking town and out by the Verdun gates, and soon up on to the steep heights above the town among frozen fields and grasslands white with frost. The big stone tombs of 1870 stuck out of a light ground fog like sails upon a grey sea, and it was not long, at Jeandelize, before the 1914 graves began, small isolated wooden crosses. They touched the brink of the battlefields; a rain of dead gunfire began along the sides of the road, shell-holes with hairy edges of dried thistles and, at the bottom of each, green moss stiffened with ice. The road grew wilder and wilder and took on the air of a burnt-out moor, mile after mile of grey, stricken grass, old iron, and large upturned stones. Wherever a pair of blasted trees was left at the road’s side a notice hung in mid-air, on wires slung from tree to tree across the road.
“Halt–Autos!” shouted the square, black, German orders from the boards which swung and creaked in the wind.
“Nach Verdun,” said the monster black arrows painted on trees and stone, pointing, thick, black and steady, till it seemed that the ghost of the German endeavour still flung itself along the road. “Nach Verdun! Nach Verdun!” without a pause, with head down. “Nach Verdun,” so that no one might go wrong, go aside, go astray, turn back against the order of the arrow. Not an arrow anywhere answered “Nach Metz.”
For miles and miles nothing living was to be seen, neither animal, nor motor, nor living man; only the stray fires of the Chinese fluttered here and there like blue and red marsh fires a mile or so back from the main road. Once as she flew along she shied like a horse and twisted the wheel as a wild screaming and twittering rose at the side of the car, and glancing back she saw three figures wriggle and laugh in mockery and astonishment. They had risen round the embers of a dead fire, and stood swaying on their feet and showing white teeth in orange faces. One had the long hair of a woman flapping about his ears.
They reached Etain, and turned the sharp corner in the street lined with hollow houses, passed under a tunnel of thick camouflage, leafy as an arbour, mouldy as the rags upon a corpse, and came on the first pill-boxes of the Hindenburg line.
Another twelve miles and the twin towers of Verdun appeared over the brow of a hill.
“I thought it but dust!” exclaimed the Russian. “I thought it a ruin; it is a town!”
“Wait, wait till you get nearer….”
Then down the last long hill and over the paved Route d’Etain into the suburbs of Verdun. As they neared it the town began to show its awful frailty–its appearance of preservation was a mockery. Verdun stood upright as by a miracle, a coarse lace of masonry–not one house was whole.
“Stop!” ordered the Russian, and at the foot of the steep, conical hill which wore Verdun upon its crest they stopped and stared. The town was poured over the slopes of the hill as though a titanic tipcart had let out its rubbish upon the summit. Houses, shops and churches, still upright, still formed Verdun, kept its shape intact, unwilling that it should fall to dust while these deadly skeletons could keep their feet. Light glared through the walls, and upon the topmost point of all the palace of the bishop was balanced, its bones laced against the sky. The Russian, who had stood up in the car, sat down. “Now go on….”
The streets which circled the base of the hill had been partially cleared of fallen rock and stonework, and the car could pick its way between the crazy shop-fronts, where notices of vanished cobblers, manicurists, butchers, flapped before caverns hollowed by fire, upon fingers of stone already touched by moss.
Here and there soldiers moved in bands at their work of clearing. But the black hat, the drab coat of the civilian had long been left behind –and here the face of a woman was unknown as the flying dragons of the world’s youth.
Now and then with a crash the remains of a house fell, as the block of stonework which alone supported it was disarranged by the working soldiers.
“Where am I to go?” asked Fanny, as the street wound round the base of the hill.
“I will climb over beside you and direct you,” said the French lieutenant, and dropped into the front seat.
“Where do these soldiers sleep? Not among these ruins?”
A block of masonry fell ahead of them and split its stones across the street.
“Be careful! You can get round by this side street. Up here…. In these ruins. No living soul can sleep in Verdun now.”
“Don’t you know? They sleep _beneath_ Verdun, in this hill around which we are circling. I am looking for the entrance.”
“Inside this hill? Under the town?”
“But you’ve heard of the _citadelle?_”
“Yes, but… this hill is so big.”
“There are fifteen kilometres of tunnel in this hollow hill, and hundreds of steps lead up to the top by the palace, where there is a defence of barbed wire and guns. Look, here is the entrance.”
They left the car. Before them was a small dark hole in the side of the hill, an entrance not much higher than a man, into which ran a single rail line of narrow gauge. A sentry challenged them as they walked towards him.
Entering the hill they found themselves in a tunnel lit by electric bulbs which hung in a dotted line ahead of them.
“Wait!” ordered the deep voice of the Russian, and he strode from them into the depths of the tunnel with the Eastern swing of Ali Baba entering his cave.
Fanny stood by the mild lieutenant, and they waited obediently.
“I must tell you a secret,” he said to her. “Monsieur Dellahousse is very glad to be here. He said this morning: ‘The Governor has sent me a woman to break my neck!'”
“But he took me….”
“Could he refuse you?–For he felt that it was a glove of challenge thrown down by the Governor of Metz. They do not get on together…. He took you with dignity, but he was convinced that he placed himself in the jaws of death.”
“When do we go back? We cannot now be in Metz before dark.”
“But haven’t they told you? Never warned you? How monstrous! We are staying here.”
“And I return alone?”
“No, you stay too. You are lent to us for five days. They should have told you!”
“Oh, I stay too. In this tunnel, here! How odd, how amusing!”
“Monsieur Dellahousse has gone to ask the Commandant of the _citadelle_ to house us all. Here he comes.”
The Russian returned under the chain of lights. “Follow me,” he said, and led them further into his cavern.
They followed him like children, and as they advanced the lieutenant whispered: “We are now well beneath the town. It lies like a crust above our heads. Exactly beneath the palace you will see the steps go up….”
“What is the railway line for?”
“Bread for the garrison. There are great bakeries in the _citadelle_.”
Further and further still…. Till the Russian turned to the right and took a branching tunnel. Here, lining the curve of the stone wall were twenty little cubicles of light wood, raised a few inches from the moist floor, and roofless except for the arch of the tunnel that ran equally above them all. These were the rooms assigned to the _officers de passage_, officers whom duty kept for a night in Verdun. Each cubicle held a bed, a tin basin on a tripod, a minute square of looking-glass, a chair and a shelf, and each bore the name of its temporary owner written on a card upon the door.
“Twenty … twenty-one … and twenty-two,” read the Russian from a paper he carried, and threw open the door of twenty-two.
“This is yours, mademoiselle”; he bowed and waved her toward it. Fanny entered the room, which, from his manner, might have been the gilded ante-chamber of his Tzar.
She heard him enter his own room, and through the partition the very sighing of his breath was audible as it rustled upon his lips! He tried to give her the illusion of privacy, for, wishing to speak to her, he left his room again to tap at her door, though his voice was as near her ear whether at door or wall.
“I hope you are content, mademoiselle?” he said through the woodwork.
“You will sleep here,” he continued, as though he suspected her of sleeping anywhere but there, “and dine with us in the officers’ mess at seven. Until then, please stay in the _citadelle_ in case I need you.”
She heard his footsteps go up the corridor, the lieutenant following him. “I will unpack,” she thought, and from her knapsack drew what she had by chance brought with her. Upon the shelf she arranged a tin of _singe_–the French bully beef–a gilt box of powder, a toothbrush, a comb, a map, a packet of letters to be answered, and a magneto spanner.
There was an hour yet before dinner and she wandered out into the corridors to explore the _citadelle_. A soldier stood upon a ladder changing the bulb of an electric light.
Catching sight of her he hurried from his ladder, and passing her with a stiff face, saluted, and disappeared.
Soon she began to think that this was the busy hour in the fortress: the corridors rustled gently, the unformed whispering of voices echoed behind her. The walls seemed to open at a dozen spots as she walked on, and little men with bright, grave faces hurried past her about their duties.
“Perhaps they are changing the guard….”
Yet a face which had already passed her three times began to impress its features upon her, and she realised suddenly that it was curiosity, not duty, that called the soldiers from their burrows. The news was spreading,