I was second lieutenant of a hastily recruited Oregon company in the American Expeditionary Force, and the incident I relate occurred in the difficult and anxious weeks of the American conquest of the Argonne. The forest was intricate, the trails narrow, and the signs which the native read with ease were inscrutable to the foreigner. The men were forced to advance in small linear detachments, which were separated for hours from the main body, and the danger of any group that failed to rejoin its companions at the appointed time and place was very great. A French guide was assigned to each detachment. His place was at the head of the column, while the second lieutenant who directed the movement took his place in the rear except when actual fighting was in progress. The reason for this was simple but sufficing. Americans between battles are only human, and in the course of a trying march through hilly and woody country the temptation to leave ranks in quest of a rabbit or squirrel, of rest, or,—most of all, in quest of water,—was nearly irresistible. To see that it did not become altogether irresistible was the business of the second lieutenant in the rear of the line.
My own guide, Pierre Bonnat, was an Auvergnat, tallish for a Frenchman,—dark-haired, with a high sugar-loaf forehead, melancholy, half-retreating eyes, and a bow-shaped mustache thin enough not to screen the play of sensitive and shapely lips. He had a chipped and splintered English, which invariably proved more useful in a crisis than my own college-born and café-nourished French. Between French and English I came soon to know and love this peasant as one of the most faithful, tender, manly souls whom I had known in any country. His Catholic faith was untouched by the license of the times; he believed in ghosts as simply as his forebears, and was wont to tell a tale of the spirit of a grandsire who, when the family estate was in danger through the disappearance of a title-deed, appeared one night to Pierre's oldest uncle, and led him up the stairway to a little loft in which the precious document had been too carefully secreted. "When need is, they come back—sí, sí, M'sieu, they come back," he would say with the meekest insistence when I allowed myself to smile faintly at these delusions. He had a low-pitched, mellow voice, and nature or practice had gifted him with a very low but remarkably penetrating call or whistle, which, heard at a distance, no stranger could have distinguished from the ordinary feral noises of the wood. The men in my detachment had been taught to recognize and obey this call.
On the night before the march, Pierre and I, sitting in my tent, traced together on an official map the route which the detachment was to take on the ensuing day. Pierre spoke of the official map with the extreme deference which masked his contempt, and put on a pleased surprise whenever any allegation of the map agreed with the facts in his memory. Our route lay to the northwest. The great landmark for the stranger was Mont St. Robert, about twelve miles east, mostly hid by the forest, but emerging into plain view wherever a westerly ravine broke the density of the woods. The Germans lay between our route and Mont St. Robert to the east and north, and their fire was expected to diminish toward the close of the day, as our route diverged more and more toward the northwest. Pierre pointed out to me a stone bridge over a stream called the Aure; our arrival at which, some time between four and six p.m., would mean the attainment of comparative safety. These few facts fixed themselves in my mind; the fullness of my trust in Pierre made me slightly inattentive to the rest.
In the morning all went well. The day was fine, the trees were a shield from the sun, and for hours I had no occasion to remind a straggler of his duty. I amused myself by watching Mont St. Robert as it showed itself from time to time through the ravines that seamed the forest. On its side was a decayed fortification of the Roman era, in which windows or rather openings of various sizes could be made out by the help of a field-glass. I counted twenty-three distinct apertures with various flecks or patches which might be openings or might be stains. The fire of the enemy, though often heard, rarely grazed our column. At ten o'clock a ball nipped a soldier's knee; at half-past three a sergeant's cheek was ripped open. When Pierre and I met for a few moments, his tranquillity was reassuring.
In the later afternoon the men's spirits flagged a little; the fire, though mainly harmless, was steady as ever, and about four o'clock I was disturbed by an incident of absolutely no importance, as it seemed, except the importance which the smallest mystery possessses to men traversing an unknown and hostile country. A file like ours is a spinal column in which the vertebræ are men. That column has a spinal marrow which on occasion can quiver from end to end. About four o' clock I felt what I can only describe as a shudder run down this cord and terminate in me. The column scarcely paused; no accident was reported; my inquiries of the half-dozen men in front of me elicited nothing but confused or humorous replies. From that moment, however, I was a little anxious. I had a sense of moving east instead of west, a sense which it was hard to prove or disprove, since the path ran first east, then west, like the lacings of a shoe, and landmarks were rarely to be seen.
I began to look a little eagerly for signs of the end of the day's journey. After four o'clock we might hope to come upon the stone bridge that crossed the little river Aure. Four o'clock came, half-past, five o'clock, but no river. It was nearly six o'clock when Mont St. Robert, which had last been seen about an hour after midday, emerged into clear view through another break in the forest. It looked strangely near and clear, and the impulse to count as a sedative to the nerves made me reckon up again the visible openings on its hoary and broken front. I counted twice: the total was certain; there were twenty-nine. Only one inference was possible: we were approaching Mont St. Robert, from which we should gradually have receded, and were moving northeast toward the points where the German force was concentrated.
I was sure that Pierre had been wounded or blinded; nothing less could have beguiled his vigilance. Hastily halting the line, I made my way forward with some effort, only to find Pierre gone and an American private in the lead. To my angry question this man replied a little shakily: "Dead, sir—didn't you know? Shell splinter—the heart. About four o'clock." Between grief, wrath, and alarm, I could hardly put the questions that hurried to my lips. Pierre had died, as the man said, about four o'clock, and the soldier nearest him had tried to send a message back to me. That message had evaporated on the way. It had passed, as it crept down the line, from certainty to probability, from probability to conjecture, from conjecture to a vague hint of unknown evil, till it reached me finally as a shapeless fear. At the point where Pierre fell, the trail was unusually distinct, and the head soldier, in the absence of orders and the vanity of leadership, had passed on. He had failed to note the point where the trail diverged to the northwest, and we were astray without a guide near set of sun in the depths of an intricate and unknown forest raked by German fire.
The head soldier protested that he could guide us back, and after a moment's irresolution I allowed him to try. Twilight falls early and blurs the trails in a great forest. In a quarter of an hour he admitted his bewilderment. A second tried, a third, I tried myself—all to no purpose. Extrication by our own means at that hour was plainly out of the question. I ordered the men to halt and lie down at intervals of six feet. The distress of the men, though not extreme, was very evident. Brave men are not brave in all situations, even in war. They are brave in certain well-defined situations, and are likely to be overset by something, perhaps not so dangerous in itself, which lies outside their program of contingencies. The earth and air themselves seem suddenly hostile, and the very stars, gleaming through the tree-trunks, seemed to signal their whereabouts to the enemy.
We lay in this suspense for about three-quarters of an hour. We had grown used to all the sounds of the forest, even to the firing and distant shellbursts, when the attention of the troop was suddenly arrested by a new sound—a long, vaguely musical, surprisingly low, surprisingly penetrating sound. The men stirred, half sat up, awaited some signal from me, whispered inaudibly, and, remembering orders, crouched on the ground again. I spoke to the man beside me—a phlegmatic but trustworthy fellow named Jenkins—in what I meant to be a steady voice.
"Jenkins, you heard that sound?"
"What was it?"
"I don't know, sir."
"What do you think it was?"
"Pierre's whistle, sir."
"But Pierre—" I could not end the sentence.
"I know, sir. In the heart."
"Then it's not his whistle?"
"No, sir." (Tone perfectly respectful, but quite incredulous.)
I lay down with a brusque movement intended to bring back Jenkins to his senses. In less than three minutes the sound came again—this time with something like an appeal, an urgency, in its long concluding glide. It brought half the men to a sitting posture. I was not angry with them, but I spoke angrily for all that.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing, sir." They lay down again obediently.
Something forced me to turn to Jenkins again.
"Was that Pierre's whistle, Jenkins?"
"I think so, sir."
"You think dead men whistle?"
"I don't know much about dead men, sir. But I know Pierre's whistle."
"Is he dead or alive, do you think?"
"I don't know." He stopped, then resumed respectfully: "Does it matter, sir?"
"I mean, I would trust Pierre, alive or dead. He would still be Pierre. I would trust him to help us."
I looked hard at the blurred human shape beside me in the shadow. "Jenkins," I said, "you're the one man of sense in this detachment. Alive or dead, we'll follow his whistle."
I drew the men around me as noiselessly as I could, and told them of my purpose. The red mounted to my cheek in the dark when I thought of re-telling the story to the club at home or reporting it to my senior officer the next day. But the ripple of smothered laughter which I had expected from Americans informed of a design so puerile did not come. The men were alert, almost hopeful, as I ranged them in a somewhat shortened line and took my place at their head. Jenkins came next, and the third man was a young physician whose advice and skill had served me more than once. The whistle had stopped, and, after my preparations were made, I had a moment's fear lest the redescending silence should prove that I had been a fool. I was almost cursing myself for succumbing to the vagaries of an untaught man like Jenkins, when from the southwest, about a hundred yards away, the sound came again, low, clear, restrained, imperative. I felt the line behind me tighten like a bowstring. "Forward," I said, and we plunged into the gloom.
The travel was very slow at first, but as our feet grew adept in the manners of the ground, we were able slowly to increase our pace. At brief intervals I ordered the men to number themselves—one, two, three, four, etc.—to make sure that no one had fallen from the ranks. After about ten minutes, the increasing firmness and flatness of the ground indicated that we had come upon a trail. We should have lost the track repeatedly, however, but for the variations in the note of the whistle, which took on a sharp, short, warning emphasis when we deviated from the path. The German fire crossed our route rather irregularly and aimlessly from time to time, and I noticed, or thought I noticed, that the voice timed itself to these explosions, bringing us to a halt by its cessation just before a tract of ground in our front was swept by hostile fire. A cheerfulness and trust, remarkable in view of the danger and difficulty that still encircled us, animated the entire column, and I felt its rebound in the rise of my own spirits. We were clearly retracing our route, and I tried to recall remembered objects, though in that darkness it was very hard to make out a correspondence between dim sights and dimmer memories.
I should have been glad to identify the spot at which the route that our companions had taken diverged to the northwest. But any such discovery was clearly not to be hoped for; a route which we had missed in daylight would not disclose itself to the most anxious scrutiny in the dark. The whistle came more and more decidedly from the south; it was guiding us back to our camp of the previous day. One spot on that route I still hoped to ascertain, the spot where Pierre had fallen. A moment came when one of the men who had been close to Pierre when he fell pointed out a large oak under which he was nearly sure that we should find the dead body of our guide. He was wrong; there was nothing under the tree but knotted roots and trampled grass tufts. We resumed our course; he pointed out more timidly another tree, and, on reaching the spot, we came upon a dusky, horizontal object, in which, by the glimmer of the single lantern we had dared to light, we made out successively a body, a face, the face of Pierre. He had bled freely, and the ground beside him was moist to the hand. The doctor felt his heart. "Quite dead," he said. "Has he been dead long?" I asked. "Three hours at least." It was not five minutes since we had heard the whistle, a whistle that seemed bright with the confidence of rescue.
"Go back to the file," I said. "I'll join you presently." I stooped down once more and looked into my friend's face. There was a peace on the lips that might have been taken for a smile. I am an Anglo-Saxon, with a liberal share of the self-curbing instincts of my race, but I think that if the whole troop had been there in full daylight I could not have withstood the impulse which made me stoop and press my lips to Pierre's. As I was about to lift my head I was seized with a still less rational impulse. I put my ear to those lips. In the excitement of my shaken nerves I mistook for a sound in the ear what was—what must have been—an echo in the memory. Fancy or truth, I heard these whispered words:
"When need is, they come back."
THE CONTRACT OF CORPORAL TWING
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"It is mankind that is crucified," said my mate; "mankind! in the person of each individual, common man! Take one such from each of the warring nations. There would be twenty of them, would there not? Lay the dead, tortured, mangled bodies in a row and contemplate them, what can one feel but bitter, fierce, rebellious pity for their agony? Pity for friend and foe alike. Close your eyes, can you not see each separate wretch upon his cross? Each has given his life for an ideal, a dream, and each, perchance, has cried out in his anguish: 'Why hast thou forsaken me?'"
We were awaiting the signal to attack. It wanted but five minutes to the hour. The giant guns had been doing their work of preparation for two nights and a day. Behind the lines we had rehearsed our particular business with minute and exhaustive care. Our objective was a wrecked village beyond the enemy's third line. We had studied every street and every building until we knew them by heart. The village church, as we had learned from our airmen, had been transformed into a fortress. We were to take and hold it at all costs. The morning was dark and misty, and as we stood in our trench, knee-deep in the slush, despite the excitement of the anticipated charge, the blood was chilled.
"Yes," said I. "I suppose the bravest sometimes weaken; but in our stronger moments we must feel that the sacrifice is not in vain. Those who come after will remember. If we win, they will have owed the victory, the redemption, to us."
"And if we fail?" said my friend.
"The manner of our going will teach them how to 'follow on!'"
My companion had but recently joined our regiment—a youngster of twenty-two, fresh from a sedentary occupation in the city of London; the toughening process of his training had not yet inured him to the horrors of war. He had been in action only once since coming to the front, and after the fury of the slaughter was past he had sobbed like a child at the thought of what he had called the "murder" he himself had wrought. During the last four days we had discussed constantly that inevitable law of the universe which demands that all evolution, all progress, shall result only from perpetual conflict. My own reading had made me familiar with the philosophers and the metaphysicians, and our dingy dugout had reëchoed with the valiant blows my new acquaintance had delivered against the stubborn doors of experience, fact, natural law, and the deductions of the sages. "Why? Wherefore? To what end?" The madness of war! The fearful contest of the creeds! The rival gods of stone, and gold, and flesh, and spirit! Wherein were the South Sea Islanders less sane than the Christians, who now raised their blood-stained hands aloft in prayers for victory, spending alternate days in praise and massacre?
"Christianity has failed," sighed the new soldier. "The world has relapsed into barbarism. Civilization will be overwhelmed as it has been before. To what end, then, is perfection won from conflict, if the hard-earned result of all our suffering is still the repeated annihilation of our hope?
"'What are men that He should heed us?' cried the king of sacred song,
"'Insects of an hour, that hourly work their brother insects wrong.'"
At this juncture a mutual friend, one McMahon, had entered the dugout. He was followed to the door by a number of other men who grasped his hands and hugged him roughly.
"What's the matter?" we asked.
"Victoria Cross!" said several voices, and the coy hero was hauled off to more commodious quarters across the way.
"That's the other side of the question," said I.
"What is?" said my pessimist.
"What that bit of copper stands for."
"The God that lives in man."
"The God that is born of war?"
"The God that is born of conflict."
"Did you ever see the Passion Play?" said my friend.
"I saw it once at Oberammergau," said I.
"Yes, I know," said he. "But it seemed to me so much of a business there, so much of a spectacle in a theater. I saw it many years ago in a more remote Bavarian village—a place visited by very few tourists."
"Do you mean Oberfells?" said I, for I had a vivid recollection of the place, with its vineyards, its cow-bells, its calvaries, and the circle of snow-covered sentinel mountains; its rushing torrent, whose roar, in the gorge below, only emphasized the sleepy quiet of the tiny hamlet. Just now I recalled too a charnel-house in the church, the walls lined with thousands of skulls and a life-size group of the Nativity in the crypt.
"Yes," said he, "Oberfells. You have been there?"
"I passed a night there while on a walking tour when I was studying art in Munich."
"You speak German, then?"
"Yes, fairly well."
"Did you witness 'The Passion' there?"
"Well," said my friend, "I happened to be there in 1910. I shall not forget it. The Passion Play was performed amid an awful storm. At Oberfells everything is most primitive and the representation is all the more appealing because of its very simplicity. There is no theater, no stage, a background of everlasting mountains, and a foreground of somber rocks and solemn pines—an audience composed entirely of villagers and the neighboring peasants. On that occasion I was the only stranger. The thing is not advertised; the guide-books ignore it, very few persons know about it.
"As I say, there was a fearful storm which burst forth soon after the play began and which raged with fury for two days. The performance was abandoned, the people believing the tempest was an evidence of divine wrath. The peasant who should have appeared as Christus, and who was to have impersonated that character for the first time, was overwhelmed with grief, for he felt that God had pronounced him unworthy. He was a simple creature and would not be comforted.
"As you know, these peasants are brought up to play this and the other characters of the sacred tragedy from childhood, selected and ordained. To take part in this rite is the crowning ambition of their lives. This poor lad nearly died of mortification, but was upheld by the assurance that he would live to impersonate the Saviour on the next occasion, in 1915. For at Oberfells the Passion Play is given every five years.
"However, fate has again interposed. You have heard, no doubt, that he has been drafted and sent to the front—Christ in the trenches! Think of it! What must this gentle spirit think and feel, who from childhood has shaped every thought and hope to train his soul into the likeness of the Prince of Peace? We said just now: 'Mankind is crucified!' Here is one who wept because fortune had kept him from the cross. I wonder if he has had his will? I wonder if, already, he has found his Calvary?"
The uproar of the guns ceased suddenly. I was about to speak when a sharp whistle cut short my reply. In a moment we were over the top of the trench, a young officer, with a little cane in one hand and a pistol in the other, leading us on. We ran low, men dropping here and there, the machine-guns bidding us welcome. Things happen quickly in a charge. The first thing I knew quite clearly we had fought our way past the third line and were in the village. My friend was on the ground, a bayonet in his shoulder, but he had seized his foe's rifle and held onto it desperately. I struck at his opponent with all my strength. My bayonet entered his side. I withdrew it and struck again. As I did so the man released his own weapon and held both hands crossed—the palms outward—before his face. My bayonet pierced both palms, made an ugly gash on his forehead, and glanced upward. He fell like a log. Meanwhile our men had rushed on and the battle had passed into the heart of the village. I lifted my mate to his feet and tried to drag him to some shelter. His gaze was fixed on his fallen enemy.
"Come on!" I cried.
"Did you hear what he said?"
"What did he say? Come!" and I struggled to force him on.
"As he lay there, he said: 'Father, forgive them.' I must go back. I can't leave him there."
At this moment a crowd of our men swept us forward. The enemy attacked on our flank. My pal forgot his wound and we both fought like madmen. The lust to kill is like a mighty hunger and we fed our fill. The church was defended obstinately, but after about twenty minutes we were in it, a panting, blood-stained, reeking lot of conquerors.
The great guns had created havoc. The place was in ruins. As so often happened in this war, the figures of the saints, although fallen, remained intact, unbroken. In this instance, however, the life-size image of the Christ had been torn loose from the nails which had held it and stood among the scattered masonry upon the ground strangely poised with three other figures, the head bent as though looking down upon the vacant cross, a huge instrument at least ten feet high, made of walnut, which, torn down, reclined at an angle on the steps of the altar.
For half an hour we defended the church from counter-attacks. Then the fight died down and our men began to establish the guns and consolidate our position.
It was toward evening of this winter day when the injured were gathered into the various dilapidated buildings. My mate, hit in the legs as well as in the shoulder, lay near the chancel of the church among the long rows of wounded friends and enemies.
I was busy with some first aid when the stretcher-bearers brought in a German soldier and put him down against the broken column opposite. The man was conscious, but his eyes were wild with fever. A lantern which hung over his head showed a great gash on his brow; blood streamed from his side, and both hands were pierced through. His face was livid and his great dark eyes looked like the eyes of a wounded deer. His hair was wet with blood and his thin auburn beard completed his resemblance to One whose effigy we well knew.
We looked at him spellbound.
"They know not what they do," said the wounded man, and he continued to mutter brokenly in German.
My mate seized my hand in both of his. "It is the Christus!" said he.
Stretcher bearers were now taking the disabled back to the ambulances behind our lines. I was unhurt and, after I had done what I could to make my pal comfortable, I went over to my late opponent and tried to help him. It was evident that his mind was wandering. In the ghastly light of the lamp his eyes shone with madness.
The dreadful thunder of the guns had begun again—a barrage of terror to keep the enemy from bringing up reserves.
"The storm!" whispered the wounded Christus. "It is God's anger! I am not worthy of the cross."
My mate sat propped against the pillar opposite, gazing pale and fascinated; other wounded men, British and German, leaned toward the strange figure. The shattered, roofless church; the feeble glimmer of some half-dozen lanterns; the three figures of the fallen saints supporting, upright, the image of Christ, which, with bowed head crowned with thorns, arms outstretched, and pierced hands, looked down upon the overthrown cross as though he saw thereon some vision of as great a sacrifice; the crashes of the distant cannonade; the groans of the dying—I see and hear all this now as clearly as I saw and heard it then.
"Hush!" said one. "He is speaking"; and through the turmoil Christus spoke, while the crowd listened.
Now he was again a boy in his little village, now learning his father's craft as a potter, now the sweet secrets of a childish courtship made men turn away as though they should not hear. Now he is selected to impersonate the Saviour of the world, and is ordained with simple rites and solemn prayer. His voice grows stronger as he speaks broken and detached sentences of the rôle which he studied from boyhood until the great day when the village gathers to see the new Christus. Then the guns burst forth again; and again he cries: "The storm! The storm! I am not worthy of the cross." Now is he taken from his cottage and taught the soldier's trade, and now he cries to God for pity that he too has learned the lust of blood and killed, and killed, and killed. "Not peace!" he cries. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword!"
A signal-rocket from without sent a flash of weird light through the shattered roof. The delirious man sprang to his feet and in an instant was standing before the group of fallen images. He stood in front of the ruined altar, at the foot of the prostrate cross, his arms upraised. Many of the disabled men staggered to their feet, most of them still bleeding from fearful wounds; others lifted themselves on their elbows or struggled to their knees. Above them upon the elevated platform Christus confronted the saints.
"The graves were opened!" he cried. "The graves were opened! and the saints which slept awoke!" And again he cried: "The sun was darkened and the veil of heaven was rent!"
Even as he spoke a shell fell in front of the chancel, a fearful explosion shook the ruined building. When the smoke cleared away many poor wretches had paid the last tribute of devotion. Those who yet lived looked toward the altar. There, stretched upon the huge cross, every shred of clothing torn from his body by the bursting shell, lay the dead Christus of Oberfells, his arms extended upon the beam, a red flood flowing from his side, the pierced palms near the cruel nails where Christ's had been. The saints stood by unharmed and He still gazed where He, Himself, had hung in agony.
The cries of dying men rent the air, the living clung together on their knees, my mate and I were kneeling side by side. He threw his arms about me, trembling.
"It is mankind!" he cried—and he pointed to the naked figure on the cross—"Mankind! Mankind is crucified!"
- This story is not based on fact.