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III

 

Then came the Marne, and suddenly the foreigners caught in Paris by the German advance became heroes—or mostly heroines—who had stayed to reassure their beloved city in her hour of need.

"We all owe so much to Paris," murmured Mrs. Belknap, in lovely convalescent clothes, from her sofa-corner. "I'm sure we can none of us ever cease to be thankful for this chance of showing it. . . ."

She had sold her staterooms to a compatriot who happened to be in England, and was now cabling home to suggest to Mr. Belknap that she should spend the winter in France and take a job on a war charity. She was not strong enough for nursing, but she thought it would be delightful to take convalescent officers for drives in the Bois in the noiseless motor. "Troy would love it too," she cabled.

Mr. Belknap, however, was unmoved by these arguments. "Future too doubtful," he cabled back. "Insist on your sailing. Staterooms November tenth paid for. Troy must return to school."

"Future too doubtful" impressed Mrs. Belknap more than "Insist," though she made a larger use of the latter word in explaining to her friends why, after all, she was obliged to give up her projected war work. Meanwhile, having quite recovered, she rose from her cushions, donned a nurse's garb, poured tea once or twice at a fashionable hospital, and, on the strength of this effort, obtained permission to carry supplies (in her own motor) to the devastated regions. Troy of course went with her, and thus had his first glimpse of war.

Fresh in his mind was a delicious July day at Rheims with his tutor, and the memory of every detail noted on the way, along the green windings of the Marne, by Meaux, Montmirail and Epernay. Now, traversing the same towns, he seemed to be looking into murdered faces, vacant and stony. Where he had seen the sociable gossiping life of the narrow streets, young men lounging at the blacksmith's, blue-sleeved carters sitting in the wine-shops while their horses shook off the flies in the hot sunshine of the village square, black-pinafored children coming home from school, the fat curé stopping to talk to little old ladies under the church porch, girls with sleek hair calling to each other from the doorways of the shops, and women in sunburnt gingham bending over the village wash-trough or leaning on their rakes among the hayricks—where all this had been, now only a few incalculably old people sat in the doorways and looked with bewildered eyes at strange soldiers fulfilling the familiar tasks.

This was what war did! It emptied towns of their inhabitants as it emptied veins of their blood; it killed houses and lands as well as men. Out there, a few miles beyond the sunny vineyards and the low hills, men were dying at that very moment by hundreds, by thousands—and their motionless young bodies must have the same unnatural look as these wan ruins, these gutted houses and sterile fields. . . . War meant Death, Death, Death—Death everywhere and to everything.

By a special favour, the staff-officer who accompanied them managed to extend their trip to the ruined château of Mondement, the pivot on which the battle had turned. He had himself been in the thick of the fight, and standing before the shattered walls of the old house he explained the struggle for the spur of Mondement: the advance of the grey masses across the plain, their capture of the ridge that barred the road to Paris; then the impetuous rush of General Humbert's infantry, repulsed, returning, repulsed again, and again attacking; the hand-to-hand fighting in court and gardens; the French infantry's last irresistible dash, the batteries rattling up, getting into place on the ridge, and flinging back the grey battalions from the hillside into the marshes.

Mrs. Belknap smiled and exclaimed, with vague comments and a wandering glance (for the officer, carried away by his subject, had forgotten her and become technical); while Troy, his map spread on the top of a shot-riddled wall, followed every word and gesture with eyes that absorbed at the same time all the details of the immortal landscape.

The Marne—this was the actual setting of the battle of the Marne! This happy temperate landscape, with its sheltering woods, its friendly fields and downs flowing away to a mild sky, had looked on at the most awful conflict in history. Scenes of anguish and heroism that ought to have had some Titanic background of cliff and chasm had unrolled themselves among harmless fields, and along wood-roads where wild strawberries grew and children cut hazel-switches to drive home their geese. A name of glory and woe was attached to every copse and hollow, and to each grey steeple above the village roofs. . . .

Troy listened, his heart beating higher at each exploit, till he forgot the horror of war, and thought only of its splendours. Oh, to have been there too! To have had even the smallest share in those great hours! To be able to say, as this young man could say: "Yes, I was in the battle of the Marne"; to be able to break off, and step back a yard or two, correcting one's self critically: "No . . . it was here the General stood when I told him our batteries had got through . . ." or: "This is the very spot where the first seventy-five was trained on the valley. I can see the swathes it cut in the Bavarians as they swarmed up at us a third and fourth time. . . ."

Troy suddenly remembered a bit of Henry V. that M. Gantier had been fond of quoting:

And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accurst they were not here,
And hold their manhood cheap, when any speaks
That fought with us. . . .

 

Ah, yes—ah, yes—to have been in the battle of the Marne!

 

On the way back, below the crest of the hill, the motor stopped at the village church and the officer jumped down.

"Some of our men are buried here," he said.

Mrs. Belknap, with a murmur of sympathy, caught up the bunch of roses she had gathered in the ravaged garden of the château, and they picked their way among the smashed and slanting stones of the cemetery to a corner behind the church where wooden crosses marked a row of fresh graves. Half-faded flowers in bottles were thrust into the loose earth, and a few tin wreaths hung on the arms of the crosses.

Some of the graves bore only the date of the battle, with "Pour la France," or "Priez pour lui"; but on others names and numbers had been roughly burnt into the crosses.

Suddenly Troy stopped short with a cry.

"What is it?" his mother asked. She had walked ahead of him to the parapet overhanging the valley, and forgetting her roses she leaned against the low cemetery wall while the officer took up his story.

Troy made no answer. Mrs. Belknap stood with her back to him, and he did not ask her to turn. He did not want her, or any one else, to read the name he had just read; of a sudden there had been revealed to him the deep secretiveness of sorrow. But he stole up to her and drew the flowers from her hand, while she continued, with vague inattentive murmurs, to follow the officer's explanations. She took no notice of Troy, and he went back to the grave and laid the roses on it.

On the cross he had read: "September 12, 1914. Paul Gantier, —th Chasseurs à pied."

"Oh, poor fellows . . . poor fellows. Yes, that's right, Troy; put the roses on their graves," Mrs. Belknap assented approvingly, as she picked her way back to the motor.