The Marne/Chapter 2
They were at St. Moritz—as usual.
He and M. Gantier had been for a tramp through the Val Suvretta, and, coming home late, were rushing into their evening clothes to join Mr. and Mrs. Belknap at dinner (as they did now regularly, Troy having reached the virile age of fifteen, and having to justify the possession of a smoking-jacket and patent-leather shoes). He was just out of his bath, and smothered in towels, when the tutor opened the door and thrust in a newspaper.
"There will be war—I must leave to-morrow."
Troy dropped the towels.
War! War! War against his beautiful France! And this young man, his dearest friend and companion, was to be torn from him suddenly, senselessly, torn from their endless talks, their long walks in the mountains, their elaborately planned courses of study archæology, French literature, mediæval philosophy, the Divine Comedy, and vistas and vistas beyond—to be torn from all this, and to disappear from Troy Belknap's life into the black gulf of this unfathomable thing called War, that seemed suddenly to have escaped out of the history books like a dangerous lunatic escaping from the asylum in which he was supposed to be securely confined!
Troy Belknap was stunned.
He pulled himself together to bid a valiant farewell to M. Gantier (the air was full of the "Marseillaise" and Sambre-et-Meuse, and everybody knew the Russians would be in Berlin in six weeks); but once his tutor was gone the mystery and horror again closed in on him.
France, his France, attacked, invaded, outraged; and he, a poor helpless American boy, who adored her, and could do nothing for her—not even cry, as a girl might! It was bitter.
His parents, too, were dreadfully upset; and so were all their friends. But what chiefly troubled them was that they could get no money, no seats in the train, no assurance that the Swiss frontier would not be closed before they could cross the border. These preoccupations seemed to leave them, for the moment, no time to think about France; and Troy, during those first days, felt as if he were an infant Winkelried, with all the shafts of the world's woe gathered into his inadequate breast.
For France was his holiday world, the world of his fancy and imagination, a great traceried window opening on the universe. And now, in the hour of her need, all he heard about him was the worried talk of people planning to desert her!
Safe in Paris, Mr. and Mrs. Belknap regained their balance. Having secured (for a sum that would have fitted up an ambulance) their passages on a steamer sailing from England, they could at length look about them, feel sorry, and subscribe to all the budding war charities. They even remembered poor Madame Lebuc, stranded by the flight of all her pupils, and found a job for her in a refugee bureau. Then, just as they were about to sail, Mrs. Belknap had a touch of pneumonia, and was obliged to postpone her departure; while Mr. Belknap, jamming his possessions into a single suit-case, dashed down to Spain to take ship at Malaga. The turn affairs were taking made it advisable for him to get back as quickly as possible, and his wife and son were to follow from England in a month.
All the while there came no news of M. Gantier. He had rejoined his depot at once, and Troy had had a post-card from him, dated the 6th of August, and saying that he was leaving for the front. After that, silence.
Troy, poring over the morning papers, and slipping out alone to watch for the noon communiqués in the windows of the Paris Herald, read of the rash French advance in Alsace, and the enemy's retaliatory descent on the region the Belknaps had so often sped over. And one day, among the names of the ruined villages, he lit on that of the little town where they had all lunched with the Gantiers. He saw the box-garden with the hornbeam arbour where they had gone to drink coffee, old M. Gantier ceremoniously leading the way with Mrs. Belknap; he saw Mme. Gantier, lame and stout, hobbling after with Mr. Belknap; a little old aunt with bobbing curls; the round-faced Gantier girl, shy and rosy; an incredibly dried and smoked and aged grandfather, with Voltairian eyes and sly snuff-taking gestures; and his own friend, the eldest of the three brothers; he saw all these modest beaming people grouped about Mme. Gantier's coffee and Papa Gantier's best bottle of "Fine," he smelt the lime-blossoms and box, he heard the bees in the lavender, he looked out on the rich fields and woods and the blue hills bathed in summer light. And he read: "Not a house is standing. The curé has been shot. A number of old people were burnt in the Hospice. The mayor and five of the principal inhabitants have been taken to Germany as hostages."
The year before the war, he remembered, old M. Gantier was mayor!
He wrote and wrote, after that, to his tutor; wrote to his depot, to his Paris address, to the ruin that had been his home; but had no answer. And finally, amid the crowding horrors of that dread August, he forgot even M. Gantier, and M. Gantier's family, forgot everything but the spectacle of the Allied armies swept back from Liége, from Mons, from Laon, from Charleroi, and the hosts of evil surging nearer and ever nearer to the heart of France.
His father, with whom he might have talked, was gone; and Troy could not talk to his mother. Not that Mrs. Belknap was not kind and full of sympathy: as fast as the bank at home cabled funds she poured them out for war charities. But most of her time was spent in agitated conference with her compatriots, and Troy could not bear to listen to their endlessly reiterated tales of flight from Nauheim or Baden or Brussels, their difficulties in drawing money, hiring motors, bribing hotel-porters, battling for seats in trains, recovering lost luggage, cabling for funds, and their general tendency to regard the war as a mere background to their personal grievances.
"You were exceedingly rude to Mrs. Sampson, Troy," his mother said to him, surprised one day by an explosion of temper. "It is so natural she should be nervous at not being able to get staterooms; and she had just given me five hundred dollars for the American ambulance."
"Giving money's no use," the boy growled, obscurely irritated; and when Mrs. Belknap exclaimed, "Why, Troy, how callous—with all this suffering!" he slunk out without answering, and went downstairs to lie in wait for the evening papers.
The misery of feeling himself a big boy, long-limbed, strong-limbed, old enough for evening clothes, champagne, the classics, biology, and views on international politics, and yet able to do nothing but hang about marble hotels and pore over newspapers, while rank on rank, and regiment on regiment, the youth of France and England, swung through the dazed streets and packed the endless trains—the misery of this was so great to Troy that he became, as the days dragged on, more than ever what his mother called "callous," sullen, humiliated, resentful at being associated with all the rich Americans flying from France.
At last the turn of the Belknaps came too; but, as they were preparing to start, news came that the German army was at Lille, and civilian travel to England interrupted.
It was the fateful week, and every name in the bulletins—Amiens, Compiègne, Rheims, Meaux, Senlis—evoked in Troy Belknap's tortured imagination visions of ancient beauty and stability. He had done that bit of France alone with M. Gantier the year before, while Mrs. Belknap waited in Paris for belated clothes; and the thought of the great stretch of desolation spreading and spreading like a leprosy over a land so full of the poetry of the past, and so rich in a happy prosperous present, was added to the crueller vision of the tragic and magnificent armies that had failed to defend it.
Troy, as soon as he was reassured about his mother's health, had secretly rejoiced at the accident which had kept them in France. But now his joy was turned to bitterness. Mrs. Belknap, in her horrified surprise at seeing her plans again obstructed, lost all sense of the impending calamity except as it affected her safety and Troy's, and joined in the indignant chorus of compatriots stranded in Paris, and obscurely convinced that France ought to have seen them safely home before turning her attention to the invader.
"Of course I don't pretend to be a strategist," whimpering or wrathful ladies used to declare, their jewel-boxes clutched in one hand, their passports in the other, "but one can't help feeling that if only the French Government had told our Ambassador in time, trains might have been provided. . . ."
"Or why couldn't Germany have let our Government know? After all, Germany has no grievance against America. . . ."
"And we've really spent enough money in Europe for some consideration to be shown us . . ." the woeful chorus went on.
The choristers were all good and kindly persons, shaken out of the rut of right feeling by the first real fright of their lives. But Troy was too young to understand this, and to foresee that, once in safety, they would become the passionate advocates of France, all the more fervent in their championship because of their reluctant participation in her peril.
("What did I do? Why, I just simply stayed in Paris. . . . Not to run away was the only thing one could do to show one's sympathy," he heard one of the passport-clutchers declare, a year later, in a New York drawing-room.)
Troy, from the height of his youthful indignation, regarded them all as heartless egoists, and fled away into the streets from the sound of their lamentations.
But in the streets was fresh food for misery; for every day the once empty vistas were filled with trains of farm-waggons, drawn by slow country horses, and heaped with furniture and household utensils; and beside the carts walked lines of haggard people, old men and women with vacant faces, mothers hugging hungry babies, and children limping after them with heavy bundles. The fugitives of the Marne were pouring into Paris.
Troy dashed into the nearest shops, bought them cakes and fruit, followed them to the big hippodrome where they were engulfed in the dusty arena, and finally, in despair at his inability to do more than gape and pity, tried to avoid the streets they followed on their way into Paris from St. Denis and Vincennes.
Then one day, in the sunny desert of the Place de la Concorde, he came on a more cheering sight. A motley band of civilians, young, middle-aged, and even grey-headed, were shambling along together, badged and beribboned, in the direction of the Invalides; and above them floated the American flag. Troy flew after it, and caught up with the last marchers.
"Where are we going? . . . Foreign Legion," an olive-faced "dago" answered joyously in broken American. "All 'nited States citizens. . . . Come and join up, sonnie. . . ." And for one mad moment Troy thought of risking the adventure.
But he was too visibly only a schoolboy still; and with tears of envy in his smarting eyes he stood, small and useless, on the pavement, and watched the heterogeneous band under the beloved flag disappearing in the doorway of the registration office.
When he got back to his mother's drawing-room the tea-table was still surrounded, and a lady was saying: "I've offered anything for a special train, but they won't listen. . . ." And another, in a stricken whisper: "If they do come, what do you mean to do about your pearls?"