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IX

 

The next morning at daylight they started for the front.

Troy's breast swelled with the sense of the approach to something bigger than he had yet known. The air of Paris, that day, was heavy with doom. There was no mistaking its taste on the lips. It was the air of the Marne that he was breathing. . . .

Here he was, once more involved in one of the great convulsions of destiny, and still almost as helpless a spectator as when, four years before, he had strayed the burning desert of Paris and cried out in his boy's heart for a share in the drama. Almost as helpless, yes—in spite of his four more years, his grown-up responsibilities, and the blessed uniform thanks to which he, even he, a poor little ambulance-driver of eighteen, ranked as a soldier of the great untried army of his country. It was something—it was a great deal—to be even the humblest part, the most infinitesimal cog, in that mighty machinery of the future; but it was not enough, at this turning-point of history, for one who had so lived it all in advance, who was so aware of it now that it had come, who had carried so long on his lips the taste of its scarcely breathable air.

As the ambulance left the gates of Paris, and hurried eastward in the grey dawn, this sense of going toward something new and overwhelming continued to grow in Troy. It was probably the greatest hour of the war that was about to strike—and he was still too young to give himself to the cause he had so long dreamed of serving.

From the moment they left the gates the road was encumbered with huge grey motor-trucks, limousines, torpedoes, motor-cycles, long trains of artillery, army kitchens, supply wagons, all the familiar elements of the procession he had so often watched unrolling itself endlessly east and west from the Atlantic to the Alps. Nothing new in the sight—but something new in the faces! A look of having got beyond the accident of living, and accepted what lay over the edge, in the dim land of the final. He had seen that look in the days before the Marne. . . .

Most of the faces on the way were French: as far as Epernay they met their compatriots only in isolated groups. But whenever one of the motor-trucks lumbering by bore a big U.S. on its rear panel Troy pushed his light ambulance ahead and skimmed past, just for the joy of seeing the fresh young heads rising pyramid-wise above the sides of the lorry, hearing the snatches of familiar song—"Hail, hail, the gang's all here!" and "We won't come back till it's over over there!"—and shouting back, in reply to a stentorian "Hi, kid, beat it!", "Bet your life I will, old man!"

Hubert Jacks, the young fellow who was with him, shouted back too, as lustily; but between times he was more occupied with the details of their own particular job to which he was newer than Troy—and seemed not to feel so intensely the weight of impending events.

As they neared the Montmirail monument: "Ever been over this ground before?" Troy asked carelessly, and Jacks answered: "N—no."

"Ah—I have. I was here just after the battle of the Marne, in September 'fourteen."

"That so? You must have been quite a kid," said Jacks with indifference, filling his pipe.

"Well—not quite," Troy rejoined sulkily; and they said no more.

At Epernay they stopped for lunch, and found the place swarming with troops. Troy's soul was bursting within him: he wanted to talk and remember and compare. But his companion was unimaginative, and perhaps a little jealous of his greater experience. "He doesn't want to show that he's new at the job," Troy decided.

They lunched together in a corner of the packed restaurant, and while they were taking coffee some French officers came up and chatted with Troy. To all of them he felt the desperate need of explaining that he was driving an ambulance only because he was still too young to be among the combatants.

"But I shan't be—soon!" he always added, in the tone of one who affirms. "It's merely a matter of a few weeks now."

"Oh, you all look like babies—but you all fight like devils," said a young French lieutenant seasoned by four years at the front; and another officer added gravely: "Make haste to be old enough, cher monsieur. We need you all every one of you. . . ."

"Oh, we're coming—we're all coming!" Troy cried.

That evening, after a hard and harrowing day's work between postes de secours and a base hospital, they found themselves in a darkened village, where, after a summary meal under flying shells, some one suggested ending up at the Y.M.C.A. hut.

The shelling had ceased, and there seemed nothing better to do than to wander down the dark street to the underground shelter packed with American soldiers. Troy was sleepy and tired, and would have preferred to crawl into his bed at the inn; he felt, more keenly than ever, the humiliation (the word was stupid, but he could find no other) of being among all these young men, only a year or two his seniors, and none, he was sure, more passionately eager than himself for the work that lay ahead, and yet so hopelessly divided from him by that stupid difference in age. But Hubert Jacks was seemingly unconscious of this, and only desirous of ending his night cheerfully. It would have looked unfriendly not to accompany him, so they pushed their way together through the cellar door surmounted by the sociable red triangle.

It was a big cellar, but brown uniforms and ruddy faces crowded it from wall to wall. In one corner the men were sitting on packing-boxes at a long table made of boards laid across barrels, the smoky light of little oil lamps reddening their cheeks and deepening the furrows in their white foreheads as they laboured over their correspondence. Others were playing checkers, or looking at the illustrated papers, and everybody was smoking and talking—not in large groups, but quietly, by twos or threes. Young women in trig uniforms, with fresh innocent faces, moved among the barrels and boxes, distributing stamps or books, chatting with the soldiers, and being generally homelike and sisterly. The men gave them back glances as honest, and almost as innocent, and an air of simple daylight friendliness pervaded the Avernian cave.

It was the first time that Troy had ever seen a large group of his compatriots so close to the fighting front, and in an hour of ease, and he was struck by the gravity of the young faces, and the low tones of their talk. Everything was in a minor key. No one was laughing or singing or larking: the note was that which might have prevailed in a club of quiet elderly men, or in a drawing-room where the guests did not know each other well. Troy was all the more surprised because he remembered the jolly calls of the young soldiers in the motor-trucks, and the songs and horse-play of the gangs of trench-diggers and hut-builders he had passed on the way. Was it that his compatriots did not know how to laugh when they were at leisure, or was it rather that, in the intervals of work, the awe of the unknown laid its hand on these untried hearts?

Troy and Jacks perched on a packing-box, and talked a little with their neighbours; but presently they were interrupted by the noise of a motor stopping outside. There was a stir at the mouth of the cavern, and a girl said eagerly: "Here she comes!"

Instantly the cellar woke up. The soldiers' faces grew young again, they flattened themselves laughingly against the walls near the entrance, the door above was cautiously opened, and a girl in a long blue cloak appeared at the head of the stairs.

"Well, boys—you see I managed it!" she cried; and Troy recognized the piercing accents and azure gaze of Miss Hinda Warlick.

"She managed it!" the whole cellar roared as one man, drowning her answer in a cheer. And, "Of course I did!" she continued, laughing and nodding right and left as she made her triumphant way down the lane of khaki, to what, at her appearance, had somehow promptly become the stage at the farther end of a packed theatre. The elderly Y.M.C.A. official who accompanied her puffed out his chest like a general and blinked knowingly behind his gold eye-glasses.

Troy's first movement had been one of impatience. He hated all that Miss Warlick personified, and hated it most of all on this sacred soil, and at this fateful moment, with the iron wings of doom clanging so close above their heads. But it would have been almost impossible to fight his way out through the crowd that had closed in behind her—and he stayed.

The cheering subsided, she gained her improvised platform—a door laid on. some biscuit-boxes—and the recitation began.

She gave them all sorts of things, ranging from grave to gay, and extracting from the sentimental numbers a peculiarly piercing effect that hurt Troy like the twinge of a dental instrument. And her audience loved it all, indiscriminately and voraciously, with souls hungry for the home-flavour and long nurtured on what Troy called "cereal-fiction." One had to admit that Miss Warlick knew her public, and could play on every chord.

It might have been funny if it had not been so infinitely touching. They were all so young, so serious, so far from home, and bound on a quest so glorious! And there overhead, just above them, brooded and clanged the black wings of their doom. . . . Troy's mockery was softened to tenderness, and he felt, under the hard shell of his youthful omniscience, the stir of all the things to which the others were unconsciously responding.

"And now, by special request, Miss Warlick is going to say a few words," the elderly eye-glassed officer importantly announced.

Ah, what a pity! If only she had ended on that last jolly chorus, so full of artless laughter and tears! Troy remembered her dissertations on the steamer, and winced at a fresh display of such fatuity in such a scene.

She had let the cloak slip from her shoulders, and stepped to the edge of her unsteady stage. Her eyes burned large in a face grown suddenly grave. . . . For a moment she reminded him again of Sophy Wicks.

"Only a few words, really," she began apologetically; and the cellar started a cheer of protest.

"No—not that kind. Something different. . . ." She paused long enough to let the silence prepare them: sharp little artist that she was! Then she leaned forward. "This is what I want to say. I've come from the French front—pretty near the edge. They're dying there, boys—dying by thousands, now, this minute. . . . But that's not it I know: you want me to cut it out and I'm going to. . . . But this is why I began that way; because it was my first sight of—things of that sort. And I had to tell you———"

She stopped, pale, her pretty mouth twitching.

"What I really wanted to say is this. Since I came to Europe, nearly a year ago, I've got to know the country they're dying for—and I understand why they mean to go on and on dying—if they have to—till there isn't one of them left.

"Boys—I know France now—and she's worth it! Don't you make any mistake!

"I have to laugh now when I remember what I thought of France when I landed. My! How d'you suppose she'd got on so long without us? Done a few things too—poor little toddler! Well—it was time we took her by the hand, and showed her how to behave. And I wasn't the only one either; I guess most of us thought we'd have to teach her her letters. Maybe some of you boys right here felt that way too?"

A guilty laugh, and loud applause.

"Thought so," said Miss Warlick, smiling.

"Well," she continued, "there wasn't hardly anything I wasn't ready to teach them. On the steamer coming out with us there was a lot of those Amb'lance boys. My! How I gassed to them. I said the French had got to be taught how to love their mothers—I said they hadn't any home-feeling—and didn't love children the way we do. I've been round among them some since then, in the hospitals, and I've seen fellows lying there shot 'most to death, and their little old mothers in white caps arriving from 'way off at the other end of France. Well, those fellows know how to see their mothers coming even if they're blind, and how to hug 'em even if their arms are off. . . . And the children—the way they go on about the children! Ever seen a French soldier yet that didn't have a photograph of a baby stowed away somewhere in his dirty uniform? I never have. I tell you, they're white! And they're fighting as only people can who feel that way about mothers and babies. The way we're going to fight; and maybe we'll prove it to 'em sooner than any of us think. . . .

"Anyhow, I wanted to get this off my chest to-night; not for you, only for myself. I didn't want to have a shell get me before I'd said 'Veever la France!' before all of you.

"See here, boys—the Marcellaze!"

She snatched a flag from the wall, drawing herself up to heroic height; and the whole cellar joined her in a roar.