The Marne/Chapter 7
France again—France at last! As the cliffs grew green across the bay he could have knelt to greet them—as he hurried down the gang-plank with the eager jostling crowd he could have kissed the sacred soil they were treading.
The very difficulties and delays of the arrival thrilled and stimulated him, gave him a keener sense of his being already a humble participant in the conflict. Passports, identification papers, sharp interrogatories, examinations, the enforced surrendering of keys and papers: how different it all was from the old tame easy landings, with the noiseless motor waiting at the dock, and France lying safe and open before them whichever way they chose to turn!
On the way over many things had surprised and irritated him—not least the attitude of some of his fellow-passengers. The boat swarmed with young civilians, too young for military service, or having, for some more or less valid reason, been exempted from it. They were all pledged to some form of relief work, and all overflowing with zeal: "France" was as often on their lips as on Troy's. But some of them seemed to be mainly concerned with questions of uniform and rank. The steamer seethed with wrangles and rivalries between their various organisations, and now and then the young crusaders seemed to lose sight of the object of their crusade—as had too frequently been the case with their predecessors.
Very few of the number knew France or could speak French, and most of them were full of the importance of America's mission. This was Liberty's chance to Enlighten the World; and all these earnest youths apparently regarded themselves as her chosen torch-bearers.
"We must teach France efficiency," they all said with a glowing condescension.
The women were even more sure of their mission; and there were plenty of them, middle-aged as well as young, in uniform too, cocked-hatted, badged and gaitered—though most of them, apparently, were going to sit in the offices of Paris war-charities, and Troy had never noticed that Frenchwomen had donned khaki for that purpose.
"France must be purified," these young Columbias proclaimed. "Frenchmen must be taught to respect Women. We must protect our boys from contamination . . . the dreadful theatres . . . and the novels . . . and the Boulevards. . . . Of course we mustn't be hard on the French, for they've never known Home Life, or the Family . . . but we must show them . . . we must set the example. . . ."
Troy, sickened by their blatancy, had kept to himself for the greater part of the trip; but during the last days he had been drawn into talk by a girl who reminded him of Miss Wicks, though she was in truth infinitely prettier. The evenings below decks were long, and he sat at her side in the saloon and listened to her.
Her name was Hinda Warlick, and she came from the Middle West. He gathered from her easy confidences that she was singing in a suburban church choir while waiting for a vaudeville engagement. Her studies had probably been curtailed by the task of preparing a repertory, for she appeared to think that Joan of Arc was a Revolutionary hero, who had been guillotined with Marie Antoinette for blowing up the Bastille; and her notions of French history did not extend beyond this striking episode. But she was ready and eager to explain France to Troy, and to the group of young men who gathered about her, listening to her piercing accents and gazing into her deep blue eyes.
"We must carry America right into the heart of France—for she has got a great big heart, in spite of everything," Miss Warlick declared. "We must teach her to love children and home and the outdoor life, and you American boys must teach the young Frenchmen to love their mothers. You must set the example. . . . Oh, boys, do you know what my ambition is? It's to organize an Old Home Week just like ours, all over France from Harver right down to Marseilles—and all through the devastated regions too. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could get General Pershing to let us keep Home Week right up at the front, at 'Eep and Leal and Rams, and all those martyr cities—right close up in the trenches? So that even the Germans would see us and hear us, and perhaps learn from us too?—for you know we mustn't despair even of teaching the Germans!"
Troy, as he crept away, heard one young man, pink and shock-headed, murmur shyly to the Prophetess: "Hearing you say this has made it all so clear to me———" and an elderly Y.M.C.A. leader, adjusting his eyeglasses, added with nasal emphasis: "Yes, Miss Warlick has expressed in a very lovely way what we all feel: that America's mission is to contribute the human element to this war."
"Oh, good God!" Troy groaned, crawling to his darkened cabin. He remembered M. Gantier's phrase, "Self-satisfaction is death," and felt a sudden yearning for Sophy Wicks's ironic eyes and her curt "What's the use of jawing?"
He had been for six months on his job, and was beginning to know something about it: to know, for instance, that nature had never meant him for an ambulance-driver.
Nevertheless he had stuck to his task with such a dogged determination to succeed that after several months about the Paris hospitals he was beginning to be sent to exposed sectors.
His first sight of the desolated country he had traversed three years earlier roused old memories of the Gantier family, and he wrote once more to their little town, but again without result. Then one day he was sent to a sector in the Vosges which was held by American troops. His heart was beating hard as the motor rattled over the hills, through villages empty of their inhabitants, like those of the Marne, but swarming with big fair-haired soldiers. The land lifted and dipped again, and he saw ahead of him the ridge once crowned by M. Gantier's village, and the wall of the terraced garden, with the horn-beam arbour putting forth its early green. Everything else was in ruins: pale weather-bleached ruins over which the rains and suns of three years had passed effacingly. The church, once so firm and four-square on the hill, was now a mere tracery against the clouds; the hospice roofless, the houses all gutted and bulging, with black smears of smoke on their inner walls. At the head of the street a few old women and children were hoeing vegetables before a row of tin-roofed shanties, and a Y.M.C.A. hut flew the stars-and-stripes across the way.
Troy jumped down and began to ask questions. At first the only person who recognized the name of Gantier was an old woman too frightened and feeble-minded to answer intelligibly. Then a French territorial who was hoeing with the women came forward. He belonged to the place and knew the story.
"M. Gantier—the old gentleman? He was mayor, and the Germans took him. He died in Germany. The young girl—Mile. Gantier—was taken with him. No, she's not dead. . . . I don't know. . . . She's shut up somewhere in Germany . . . queer in the head, they say. . . . The sons—ah, you knew Monsieur Paul? He went first. . . . What, the others? . . . Yes: the three others—Louis at Notre Dame de Lorette; Jean on a submarine: poor little Félix, the youngest, of the fever at Salonika. Voilà. . . . The old lady? Ah, she and her sister went away . . . some charitable people took them, I don't know where. . . . I've got the address somewhere. . . ." He fumbled, and brought out a strip of paper on which was written the name of a town in the centre of France.
"There's where they were a year ago. . . . Yes, you may say: there's a family gone—wiped out. How often I've seen them all sitting there, laughing and drinking coffee under the arbour! They were not rich, but they were happy and proud of each other. That's over."
He went back to his hoeing.
After that, whenever Troy Belknap got back to Paris he hunted for the surviving Gantiers. For a long time he could get no trace of them; then he remembered his old governess, Mme. Lebuc, for whom Mrs. Belknap had found employment in a refugee bureau.
He ran down Mme. Lebuc, who was still at her desk in the same big room, facing a row of horse-hair benches packed with tired people waiting their turn for a clothing-ticket or a restaurant card.
Mme. Lebuc had grown much older, and her filmy eyes peered anxiously through large spectacles before she recognized Troy. Then, after tears and raptures, he set forth his errand, and she began to peer again anxiously, shuffling about the bits of paper on the desk, and confusing her records hopelessly.
"Why, is that you?" cried a gay young voice; and there, on the other side of the room, sat one of the young war-goddesses of the Belknap tennis-court, trim, uniformed, important, with a row of bent backs in shabby black before her desk.
"Ah, Miss Batchford will tell you—she's so quick and clever," Mme. Lebuc sighed, resigning herself to chronic bewilderment.
Troy crossed to the other desk. An old woman sat before it in threadbare mourning, a crape veil on her twitching head. She spoke in a low voice, slowly, taking a long time to explain; each one of Miss Batchford's quick questions put her back, and she had to begin all over again.
"Oh, these refugees!" cried Miss Batchford, stretching a bangled arm above the crape veil to clasp Troy's hand. "Do sit down, Mr. Belknap.—Dépêchez-vous, s'il vous plaît," she said, not too unkindly, to the old woman; and added, to Troy: "There's no satisfying them."
At the sound of Troy's name the old woman had turned her twitching head, putting back her veil. Her eyes met Troy's, and they looked at each other doubtfully. Then—"Madame Gantier!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, yes," she said, the tears running down her face.
Troy was not sure if she recognized him, though his name had evidently called up some vague association. He saw that most things had grown far off to her, and that for the moment her whole mind was centred on the painful and humiliating effort of putting her case to this strange young woman who snapped out questions like a machine.
"Do you know her?" asked Miss Batchford, surprised.
"I used to, I believe," Troy answered.
"You can't think what she wants—just everything! They're all alike. She wants to borrow five hundred francs to furnish a flat for herself and her sister."
"Well, why not?"
"Why, we don't lend money, of course. It's against all our principles. We give work, or relief in kind—that's what I'm telling her."
"I see. Could I give it to her?"
"What—all that money? Certainly not. You don't know them!"
Troy shook hands and went out into the street to wait for Mme. Gantier; and when she came he told her who he was. She cried and shook a great deal, and he called a cab and drove her home to the poor lodging where she and her sister lived. The sister had become weak-minded, and the room was dirty and untidy, because, as Mme. Gantier explained, her lameness prevented her from keeping it clean, and they could not afford a charwoman. The pictures of the four dead sons hung on the wall, a wisp of crape above each, with all their ribbons and citations. But when Troy spoke of old M. Gantier and the daughter Mme. Gantier's face grew like a stone, and her sister began to whimper like an animal.
Troy remembered the territorial's phrase: "You may say: there's a family wiped out." He went away, too shy to give the five hundred francs in his pocket.
One of his first cares on getting back to France had been to order a head-stone for Paul Gantier's grave at Mondement. A week or two after his meeting with Mme. Gantier, his ambulance was ordered to Epernay, and he managed to get out to Mondement and have the stone set up and the grave photographed. He had brought some flowers to lay on it, and he borrowed two tin wreaths from the neighbouring crosses, so that Paul Gantier's mound should seem the most fondly tended of all. He sent the photograph to Mme. Gantier, with a five hundred franc bill; but after a long time his letter came back from the post-office. The two old women had gone. . . .