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XI

 

On the way he tried to call up half-remembered snatches of military lore.

If only he did not disgrace them by a blunder!

He had talked enough to soldiers, French and American, in the last year: he recalled odd bits of professional wisdom, but he was too excited to piece them together. He was not in the least afraid of being afraid, but his heart sank at the dread of doing something stupid, inopportune, idiotic. His envy of the youths beside him turned to veneration. They had all been in the front line, and knew its vocabulary, its dangers and its dodges.

All he could do was to watch and imitate. . . .

Presently they were all tumbled out of the motors and drawn up by the roadside. An officer bawled unintelligible orders, and the men executed mysterious movements in obedience.

Troy crept close to the nearest soldier, and copied his gestures awkwardly—but no one noticed. Night had fallen, and he was thankful for the darkness. Perhaps by to-morrow morning he would have picked up a few of their tricks. Meanwhile, apparently, all he had to do was to march, march, march, at a sort of break-neck trot that the others took as lightly as one skims the earth in a dream. If it had not been for his pumping heart and his aching bursting feet, Troy at moments would have thought it was a dream. . . .

Rank by rank they pressed forward in the night toward a sky-line torn with intermittent flame.

"We're going toward a battle," Troy sang to himself, "toward a battle, toward a battle. . . ." But the words meant no more to him than the doggerel the soldier was chanting at his elbow.

 

They were in a wood, slipping forward cautiously, beating their way through the under-growth. The night had grown cloudy, but now and then the clouds broke, and a knot of stars clung to a branch like swarming bees.

At length a halt was called in a clearing, and then the group to which Troy had attached himself was ordered forward. He did not understand the order, but seeing the men moving he followed, like a mascot dog trotting after its company, and they began to beat their way onward, still more cautiously, in little crawling lines of three or four. It reminded Troy of "playing Indian" in his infancy.

"Careful . . . watch out for 'em . . ." the soldier next to him whispered, clutching his arm at a noise in the underbrush; and Troy's heart jerked back violently, though his legs were still pressing forward.

They were here, then: they might be close by in the blackness, behind the next tree-hole, in the next clump of bushes—the destroyers of France, old M. Gantier's murderers, the enemy to whom Paul Gantier had given his life! These thoughts slipped confusedly through Troy's mind, scarcely brushing it with a chill wing. His main feeling was one of a base physical fear, and of a newly-awakened moral energy which had the fear by the throat and held it down with shaking hands. Which of the two would quer, how many yards farther would the resolute Troy drag on the limp coward through this murderous wood? That was theone thing that mattered. . . .

At length they dropped down into a kind of rocky hollow overhung with bushes, and lay there, finger on trigger, hardly breathing. "Sleep a bit if you can—you look beat," whispered the friendly soldier.

Sleep!

Troy's mind was whirling like a machine in a factory blazing with lights. His thoughts rushed back over the miles he had travelled since he had caught up the rifle by the roadside.

"My God!" he suddenly thought, "what am I doing here, anyhow? I'm a deserter."

Yes: that was the name he would go by if ever his story became known. And how should it not become known? He had deserted—deserted not only his job, and his ambulance, and Jacks, who might come back at any moment—it was a dead certainty to him now that Jacks would come back—but also (incredible perfidy!) the poor worn-out old couple and the wounded territorial who had crawled into the ambulance. He, Troy Belknap, United States Army Ambulance driver, and sworn servant of France, had deserted three sick and helpless people who, if things continued to go badly, would almost certainly fall into the hands of the Germans. . . . It was too horrible to think of, and so, after a minute or two, he ceased to think of it—at least with the surface of his mind.

"If it's a court-martial it's a court-martial," he reflected; and began to stretch his ears again for the sound of men slipping up in the darkness through the bushes. . . .

But he was really horribly tired, and in the midst of the tension the blaze of lights in his head went out, and he fell into a half-conscious doze. When he started into full consciousness again the men were stirring, and he became aware that the sergeant was calling for volunteers.

Volunteers for what? He didn't know and was afraid to ask. But it became clear to him that the one chance to wash his guilt away (was that funny old-fashioned phrase a quotation, and where did it come from?) was to offer himself for the job, whatever it might be.

The decision once taken, he became instantly calm, happy and alert. He observed the gesture made by the other volunteers and imitated it. It was too dark for the sergeant to distinguish one man from another, and without comment he let Troy fall into the line of men who were creeping up out of the hollow.

The awful cannonade had ceased, and as they crawled along single file between the trees the before-dawn twitter of birds rained down on them like dew, and the woods smelt like the woods at home.

They came to the end of the trees, and guessed that the dark wavering wall ahead was the edge of a wheat-field. Some one whispered that the Marne was just beyond the wheat-field, and that the red flares they saw must be over Château-Thierry.

The momentary stillness laid a reassuring touch on Troy's nerves, and he slipped along adroitly at the tail of the line, alert but cool. Far off the red flares still flecked the darkness, but they did not frighten him. He said to himself: "People are always afraid in their first battle. I'm not the least afraid, so I suppose this is not a battle" . . . and at the same moment there was a small shrieking explosion followed by a horrible rattle of projectiles that seemed to spring up out of the wheat at their feet.

The men dropped on their bellies and crawled away from it, and Troy crawled after, sweating with fear. He had not looked back, but he knew that some of the men must be lying where they had dropped, and suddenly it occurred to him that it was his business to go and see. . . .

Was it, though? Or would that be disobeying orders again?

The Ambulance driver's instinct awoke in him, and he did not stop to consider, but turned and crawled back, straight back to the place that the horrible explosion had come from. The firing had stopped, but in the thin darkness he saw a body lying in front of him in the flattened wheat. He looked in the direction from which he had come, and saw that the sergeant and the rest of the men were disappearing to the right; then he ramped forward again, forward and forward, till he touched the arm of the motionless man and whispered: "Hi, kid, it's me. . . ."

He tried to rouse the wounded man, to pull him forward, to tow him like a barge along the beaten path in the wheat. But the man groaned and resisted. He was evidently in great pain, and Troy, whom a year's experience in ambulance work had enlightened, understood that he must either be carried away or left where he was.

To carry him it was necessary to stand up, and the night was growing transparent, and the wheat was not more than waist high.

Troy raised his head an inch or two and looked about him. In the east, beyond the wheat, a pallor was creeping upward, drowning the last stars. Any one standing up would be distinctly visible against that pallor. With a sense of horror and reluctance and dismay he lifted the wounded man and stood up. As he did so he felt a small tap on his back, between the shoulders, as if some one had touched him from behind. He half turned to see who it was, and doubled up, slipping down with the wounded soldier in his arms.