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VIII

 

In February Mr. Belknap arrived in Paris on a mission. Tightly buttoned into his Red Cross uniform, he looked to his son older and fatter, but more important and impressive, than usual.

He was on his way to Italy, where he was to remain for three months, and Troy learned with dismay that he needed a secretary, and had brought none with him because he counted on his son to fill the post.

"You've had nearly a year of this, old man, and the front's as quiet as a church. As for Paris, isn't it too frivolous for you? It's much farther from the war nowadays than New York. I haven't had a dinner like this since your mother joined the Voluntary Rationing League," Mr. Belknap smiled at him across their little table at the Nouveau Luxe.

"I'm glad to hear it—about New York, I mean," Troy answered composedly. "It's our turn now. But Paris isn't a bit too frivolous for me. Which shall it be, father—the Palais Royal—or the Capucines? They say the new revue there is great fun."

Mr. Belknap was genuinely shocked. He had caught the war fever late in life, and late in the war, and his son's flippancy surprised and pained him.

"The theatre? We don't go to the theatre. . . ." He paused to light his cigar, and added, embarrassed: "Really, Troy, now there's so little doing here, don't you think you might be more useful in Italy?"

Troy was anxious, for he was not sure that Mr. Belknap's influence might not be sufficient to detach him from his job on a temporary mission; but long experience in dealing with parents made him assume a greater air of coolness as his fears increased.

"Well, you see, father, so many other chaps have taken advantage of the lull to go off on leave that if I asked to be detached now—well, it wouldn't do me much good with my chief," he said cunningly, guessing that if he appeared to yield his father might postpone action.

"Yes, I see," Mr. Belknap rejoined, impressed by the military character of the argument. He was still trying to get used to the fact that he was himself under orders, and nervous visions of a sort of mitigated court-martial came to him in the middle of pleasant dinners, or jumped him out of his morning sleep like an alarm-clock.

Troy saw that his point was gained; but he regretted having proposed the Capucines to his father. He himself was not shocked by the seeming indifference of Paris: he thought the gay theatres, the crowded shops, the restaurants groaning with abundance, were all healthy signs of the nation's irrepressible vitality. But he understood that America's young zeal might well be chilled by the first contact with this careless exuberance, so close to the lines where young men like himself were dying day by day in order that the curtain might ring up punctually on low-necked revues, and fat neutrals feast undisturbed on lobster and champagne. Only now and then he asked himself what had become of the Paris of the Marne, and what would happen if ever again——— But that of course was nonsense. . . .

Mr. Belknap left for Italy—and two days afterward Troy's ambulance was roused from semi-inaction and hurried to Beauvais. The retreat from St. Quentin had begun, and Paris was once again the Paris of the Marne.

The same—but how different!—were the tense days that followed. Troy Belknap, instead of hanging miserably about marble hotels and waiting with restless crowds for the communiqués to appear in the windows of the newspaper offices, was in the thick of the retreat, swept back on its tragic tide, his heart wrung, but his imagination hushed by the fact of participating in the struggle, playing a small dumb indefatigable part, relieving a little fraction of the immense anguish and the dreadful disarray.

The mere fact of lifting a wounded man "so that it wouldn't hurt"; of stiffening one's lips to a smile as the ambulance pulled up in the marketplace of a terror-stricken village; of calling out "Nous les tenons!" to whimpering women and bewildered old people; of giving a lift to a family of foot-sore refugees; of prying open a tin of condensed milk for the baby, or taking down the address of a sister in Paris, with the promise to bring her news of the fugitives; the heat and the burden and the individual effort of each minute carried one along through the endless and yet breathless hours—backward and forward, backward and forward, between Paris and the fluctuating front, till in Troy's weary brain the ambulance took on the semblance of a tireless grey shuttle humming in the hand of Fate. . . .

It was on one of these trips that, for the first time, he saw a train-load of American soldiers on the way to the battle front. He had, of course, seen plenty of them in Paris during the months since his arrival; seen them vaguely roaming the streets, or sitting in front of cafés, or wooed by polyglot sirens in the obscure promiscuity of cinema-palaces.

At first he had seized every chance of talking to them; but either his own shyness or theirs seemed to paralyze him. He found them, as a rule, bewildered, depressed and unresponsive. They wanted to kill Germans all right, they said; but this hanging around Paris wasn't what they'd bargained for, and there was a good deal more doing back home at Podunk or Tombstone or Skohegan.

It was not only the soldiers who took this depreciatory view of France. Some of the officers whom Troy met at his friends' houses discouraged him more than the enlisted men with whom he tried to make friends in the cafés. They had more definite and more unfavourable opinions as to the country they had come to defend. They wanted to know, in God's name, where in the blasted place you could get fried hominy and a real porter-house steak for breakfast, and when the ball-game season began, and whether it rained every day all the year round; and Troy's timid efforts to point out some of the compensating advantages of Paris failed to excite any lasting interest.

But now he seemed to see a different race of men. The faces leaning from the windows of the train glowed with youthful resolution. The soldiers were out on their real business at last, and as Troy looked at them, so alike and so innumerable, he had the sense of a force, inexorable and exhaustless, poured forth from the reservoirs of the new world to replenish the wasted veins of the old.

"Hooray!" he shouted frantically, waving his cap at the passing train; but as it disappeared he hung his head and swore under his breath. There they went, his friends and fellows, as he had so often dreamed of seeing them, racing in their hundreds of thousands to the rescue of France; and he was still too young to be among them, and could only yearn after them with all his aching heart!

After a hard fortnight of day-and-night work he was ordered a few days off, and sulkily resigned himself to inaction. For the first twenty-four hours he slept the leaden sleep of weary youth, and for the next he moped on his bed in the Infirmary; but the third day he crawled out to take a look at Paris.

The long-distance bombardment was going on, and now and then, at irregular intervals, there was a more or less remote crash, followed by a long reverberation. But the life of the streets was not affected. People went about their business as usual, and it was obvious that the strained look on every face was not caused by the random fall of a few shells, but by the perpetual vision of that swaying and receding line on which all men's thoughts were fixed. It was sorrow, not fear, that Troy read in all those anxious eyes—sorrow over so much wasted effort, such high hopes thwarted, so many dear-bought miles of France once more under the German heel.

That night when he came home he found a letter from his mother. At the very end, in a crossed postscript, he read: "Who do you suppose sailed last week? Sophy Wicks. Soon there'll be nobody left! Old Mrs. Wicks died in January—did I tell you?—and Sophy has sent the children to Long Island with their governess, and rushed over to do Red Cross nursing. It seems she had taken a course at the Presbyterian without any one's knowing it. I've promised to keep an eye on the children. Let me know if you see her."

Sophy Wicks in France! There was hardly room in his troubled mind for the news. What Sophy Wicks did or did not do had shrunk to utter insignificance in the crash of falling worlds. He was rather sorry to have to class her with the other hysterical girls fighting for a pretext to get to France; but what did it all matter, anyhow? On the way home he had overheard an officer in the street telling a friend that the Germans were at Creil. . . .

Then came the day when the advance was checked. The glorious counterattack of General Mangin gave France new faith in her armies, and Paris irrepressibly burst at once into abounding life. It was as if she were ashamed of having doubted, as if she wanted, by a livelier renewal of activities, to proclaim her unshakable faith in her defenders. In the perpetual sunshine of the most golden of springs she basked and decked herself, and mirrored her recovered beauty in the Seine.

And still the cloudless weeks succeeded each other, days of blue warmth and nights of silver lustre; and still, behind the impenetrable wall of the front, the Beast dumbly lowered and waited. Then one morning, toward the end of May, Troy, waking late after an unusually hard day, read: "The new German offensive has begun. The Chemin des Dames has been retaken by the enemy. Our valiant troops are resisting heroically. . . ."

Ah, now indeed they were on the road to Paris! In a flash of horror he saw it all. The bitter history of the war was re-enacting itself, and the battle of the Marne was to be fought again. . . .

The misery of the succeeding days would have been intolerable if there had been time to think of it. But day and night there was no respite for Troy's service; and, being by this time a practised hand, he had to be continually on the road.

On the second day he received orders to evacuate the wounded from an American base hospital near the Marne. It was actually the old battleground he was to traverse; only, before, he had traversed it in the wake of the German retreat, and now it was the allied troops who, slowly, methodically, and selling every inch dear, were falling back across the sacred soil. Troy faced eastward with a heavy heart. . . .