The Marne/Chapter 10
The next morning Jacks dragged Troy out of bed by the feet. The room was still dark, and through the square of the low window glittered a bunch of stars.
"Hurry call to Montmirail—step lively!" Jacks ordered, his voice thick with sleep.
All the old names; with every turn of the wheel they seemed to be drawing nearer and nearer to the ravaged spot of earth where Paul Gantier slept his faithful sleep. Strange if, to-day of all days, Troy should again stand by his friend's grave.
They pushed along eastward under the last stars, the roll of the cannon crashing through the quiet dawn. The birds flew up with frightened cries from the trees along the roadside; rooks cawed their warning from clump to clump, and gathered in the sky in dark triangles flying before the danger.
The east began to redden through the dust-haze of the cloudless air. As they advanced the road became more and more crowded, and the ambulance was caught in the usual dense traffic of the front: artillery, field-kitchens, motor-trucks, horse-wagons, hay-carts packed with refugees, and popping motor-cycles zigzagging through the tangle of vehicles. The movement seemed more feverish and uncertain than usual, and now and then the road was jammed, and curses, shouts and the crack of heavy whips sounded against the incessant cannonade that hung its iron curtain above the hills to the north-east. The faces of soldiers and officers were unshaved sallow drawn with fatigue and anxiety. Women crouched sobbing on their piled-up baggage, and here and there, by the roadside, a little country cart had broken down, and the occupants sat on the bank watching the confusion like impassive lookers-on.
Suddenly, in the thickest of the struggle, a heavy lorry smashed into Troy's ambulance, and he felt the unmistakable wrench of the steering-gear. The car shook like a careening boat, and then righted herself and stopped.
"Oh, hell!" shouted Jacks in a fury. The two lads jumped down, and in a few minutes they saw that they were stranded beyond remedy. Tears of anger rushed into Troy's eyes. On this day of days he was not even to accomplish his own humble job!
Another ambulance of their own formation overtook them, and it was agreed that Jacks, who was the sharper of the two, was to get a lift to the nearest town, and try to bring back a spare part, or, failing that, pick up some sort of a car in which they could continue their work.
Troy was left by the roadside. Hour after hour he sat there waiting and cursing his fate. When would Jacks be back again? Not at all, most likely; it was ten to one he would be caught on the way and turned on to some more pressing job. He knew, and Troy knew, that their ambulance was for the time being a hopeless wreck, and would probably have to stick ignominiously in its ditch till some one could go and fetch a spare part from Paris. And meanwhile, what might not be happening nearer by?
The rumble and thump of the cannonade grew more intense; a violent engagement was evidently going on not far off. Troy pulled out his map and tried to calculate how far he was from the front; but the front, at that point, was a wavering and incalculable line. He had an idea that the fighting was much nearer than he or Jacks had imagined. The place at which they had broken down must be about fifteen miles from the Marne. But could it be possible that the Germans had crossed the Marne?
Troy grew hungry, and thrust his hand in his pocket to pull out a sandwich. With it came a letter of his mother's, carried off in haste when he left Paris the previous morning. He re-read it with a mournful smile. "Of course we all know the Allies must win; but the preparations here seem so slow and blundering; and the Germans are still so strong. . . . (Thump, thump, the artillery echoed: "Strong!") And just at the end of the letter, again; "I do wonder if you'll run across Sophy. . . ."
He lit a cigarette, and shut his eyes and thought. The sight of Miss Warlick had made Sophy Wicks's presence singularly vivid to him: he had fallen asleep thinking of her the night before. How like her to have taken a course at the Presbyterian Hospital without letting any one know! He wondered that he had not suspected, under her mocking indifference, an ardour as deep as his own, and he was ashamed of having judged her as others had, when, for so long, the thought of her had been his torment and his joy. Where was she now, he wondered? Probably in some hospital in the south or the centre: the authorities did not let beginners get near the front, though, of course, it was what all the girls were mad for. . . . Well, Sophy would do her work wherever it was assigned to her: he did not see her intriguing for a showy post.
Troy began to marvel again at the spell of France—his France! Here was a girl who had certainly not come in quest of vulgar excitement, as so many did: Sophy had always kept herself scornfully aloof from the pretty ghouls who danced and picnicked on the ruins of the world. He knew that her motives, so jealously concealed, must have been as pure and urgent as his own. France, which she hardly knew, had merely guessed at through the golden blur of a six weeks' midsummer trip, France had drawn her with an irresistible pressure; and the moment she had felt herself free she had come. "Whither thou goest will I go, thy people shall be my people. . . ." Yes, France was the Naomi-country that had but to beckon, and her children rose and came. . . .
Troy was exceedingly tired: he stretched himself on the dusty bank, and the noise of the road-traffic began to blend with the cannonade in his whirling brain. Suddenly he fancied the Germans were upon him. He thought he heard the peppering volley of machine-guns, shouts, screams, rifle-shots close at hand. . . .
He sat up and rubbed his eyes.
What he had heard was the cracking of whips and the shouting of carters urging tired farm-horses along. Down a by-road to his left a stream of haggard country people was pouring from the direction of the Marne. This time only a few were in the carts: the greater number were flying on their feet, the women carrying their babies, the old people bent under preposterous bundles, blankets, garden utensils, cages with rabbits, an agricultural prize framed and glazed, a wax wedding-wreath under a broken globe. Sick and infirm people were dragged and sboved along by the older children: a goitred idiot sat in a wheel-barrow pushed by a girl, and laughed and pulled its tongue. . . .
In among the throng Troy began to see the torn blue uniforms of wounded soldiers limping on bandaged legs. . . . Others too, not wounded, elderly haggard territorials, with powder-black faces, bristling beards, and the horror of the shell-roar in their eyes. . . . One of them stopped near Troy, and in a thick voice begged for a drink . . . just a drop of anything, for God's sake. Others followed, pleading for food and drink. "Gas, gas . . ." a young artilleryman gasped at him through distorted lips. . . . The Germans were over the Marne, they told him, the Germans were coming. It was hell back there, no one could stand it.
Troy ransacked the ambulance, found water, brandy, biscuits, condensed milk, and set up an impromptu canteen. But the people who had clustered about him were pushed forward by others crying: "Are you mad to stay here? The Germans are coming!"—and in a feeble panic they pressed on.
One old man, trembling with fatigue, and dragging a shaking brittle old woman, had spied the stretcher beds inside the ambulance, and without asking leave scrambled in and pulled his wife after him. They fell like logs on to the grey blankets, and a livid territorial with a bandaged arm drenched in blood crawled in after them and sank on the floor. The rest of the crowd had surged by.
As he was helping the wounded soldier to settle himself in the ambulance, Troy heard a new sound down the road. It was a deep continuous rumble, the rhythmic growl of a long train of army-trucks. The way must have been cleared to let them by, for there was no break or faltering in the ever-deepening roar of their approach.
A cloud of dust rolled ahead, growing in volume with the growing noise; now the first trucks were in sight, huge square olive-brown motor-trucks stacked high with scores and scores of rosy soldiers. Troy jumped to his feet with a shout. It was an American regiment being rushed to the front!
The refugees and the worn-out blue soldiers fell back before the triumphant advance, and a weak shout went up. The rosy soldiers shouted back, but their faces were grave and set. It was clear that they knew where they were going, and to what work they had been so hurriedly summoned.
"It's hell back there!" a wounded territorial called out, pointing backward over his bandaged shoulder, and another cried: "Vive l'Amérique!"
"Vive la France!" shouted the truckful abreast of Troy, and the same cry burst from his own lungs. A few miles off the battle of the Marne was being fought again, and here were his own brothers rushing forward to help! He felt that his greatest hour had struck.
One of the trucks had halted for a minute just in front of him, marking time, and the lads leaning over its side had seen him, and were calling out friendly college calls.
"Come along and help!" cried one, as the truck got under way again.
Troy glanced at his broken-down motor; then his eye lit on a rifle lying close by in the dust of the roadside. He supposed it belonged to the wounded territorial who had crawled into the ambulance.
He caught up the rifle, scrambled up over the side with the soldier's help, and was engulfed among his brothers. Furtively he had pulled the ambulance badge from his collar . . . but a moment later he understood the uselessness of the precaution. All that mattered to any one just then was that he was one more rifle for the front.