Transcriber's Note: Inconsistent hyphenation and ellipses in the original have been preserved. The table of contents was added.
ONE MAN'S INITIATION—1917
JOHN DOS PASSOS
NEW YORK GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY 1922
TO THOSE WITH WHOM I SAW ROCKETS IN THE SKY A CERTAIN EVENING AT SUNSET ON THE ROAD FROM ERIZE-LA-PETITE TO ERIZE-LA-GRANDE.
Table of Contents
Chapter I 9 Chapter II 17 Chapter III 22 Chapter IV 31 Chapter V 49 Chapter VI 64 Chapter VII 85 Chapter VIII 107 Chapter IX 109 Chapter X 125 Chapter XI 127
One Man's Initiation—1917
In the huge shed of the wharf, piled with crates and baggage, broken by gang-planks leading up to ships on either side, a band plays a tinselly Hawaiian tune; people are dancing in and out among the piles of trunks and boxes. There is a scattering of khaki uniforms, and many young men stand in groups laughing and talking in voices pitched shrill with crates excitement. In the brown light of the wharf, full of rows of yellow and barrels and sacks, full of racket of cranes, among which winds in and out the trivial lilt of the Hawaiian tune, there is a flutter of gay dresses and coloured hats of women, and white handkerchiefs.
The booming reverberation of the ship's whistle drowns all other sound.
After it the noise of farewells rises shrill. White handkerchiefs are agitated in the brown light of the shed. Ropes crack in pulleys as the gang-planks are raised.
Again, at the pierhead, white handkerchiefs and cheering and a flutter of coloured dresses. On the wharf building a flag spreads exultingly against the azure afternoon sky.
Rosy yellow and drab purple, the buildings of New York slide together into a pyramid above brown smudges of smoke standing out in the water, linked to the land by the dark curves of the bridges.
In the fresh harbour wind comes now and then a salt-wafting breath off the sea.
Martin Howe stands in the stern that trembles with the vibrating push of the screw. A boy standing beside him turns and asks in a tremulous voice, "This your first time across?"
"Yes.... I never used to think that at nineteen I'd be crossing the Atlantic to go to a war in France." The boy caught himself up suddenly and blushed. Then swallowing a lump in his throat he said, "It ought to be time to eat."
"God help Kaiser Bill! O-o-o old Uncle Sam. He's got the cavalry, He's got the infantry He's got the artillery; And then by God we'll all go to Germany! God help Kaiser Bill!"
The iron covers are clamped on the smoking-room windows, for no lights must show. So the air is dense with tobacco smoke and the reek of beer and champagne. In one corner they are playing poker with their coats off. All the chairs are full of sprawling young men who stamp their feet to the time, and bang their fists down so that the bottles dance on the tables.
"God help Kaiser Bill."
Sky and sea are opal grey. Martin is stretched on the deck in the bow of the boat with an unopened book beside him. He has never been so happy in his life. The future is nothing to him, the past is nothing to him. All his life is effaced in the grey languor of the sea, in the soft surge of the water about the ship's bow as she ploughs through the long swell, eastward. The tepid moisture of the Gulf Stream makes his clothes feel damp and his hair stick together into curls that straggle over his forehead. There are porpoises about, lazily tumbling in the swell, and flying-fish skim from one grey wave to another, and the bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water.
Martin has been asleep. As through infinite mists of greyness he looks back on the sharp hatreds and wringing desires of his life. Now a leaf seems to have been turned and a new white page spread before him, clean and unwritten on. At last things have come to pass.
And very faintly, like music heard across the water in the evening, blurred into strange harmonies, his old watchwords echo a little in his mind. Like the red flame of the sunset setting fire to opal sea and sky, the old exaltation, the old flame that would consume to ashes all the lies in the world, the trumpet-blast under which the walls of Jericho would fall down, stirs and broods in the womb of his grey lassitude. The bow rises and falls gently in rhythm with the surging sing-song of the broken water, as the steamer ploughs through the long swell of the Gulf Stream, eastward.
"See that guy, the feller with the straw hat; he lost five hundred dollars at craps last night."
It is almost dark. Sea and sky are glowing claret colour, darkened to a cold bluish-green to westward. In a corner of the deck a number of men are crowded in a circle, while one shakes the dice in his hand with a strange nervous quiver that ends in a snap of the fingers as the white dice roll on the deck.
From the smoking-room comes a sound of singing and glasses banged on tables.
"Oh, we're bound for the Hamburg show, To see the elephant and the wild kangaroo, An' we'll all stick together In fair or foul weather, For we're going to see the damn show through!"
On the settee a sallow young man is shaking the ice in a whisky-and-soda into a nervous tinkle as he talks:
"There's nothing they can do against this new gas.... It just corrodes the lungs as if they were rotten in a dead body. In the hospitals they just stand the poor devils up against a wall and let them die. They say their skin turns green and that it takes from five to seven days to die—five to seven days of slow choking."
* * * * *
"Oh, but I think it's so splendid of you"—she bared all her teeth, white and regular as those in a dentist's show-case, in a smile as she spoke—"to come over this way to help France."
"Perhaps it's only curiosity," muttered Martin.
"Oh no.... You're too modest.... What I mean is that it's so splendid to have understood the issues.... That's how I feel. I just told dad I'd have to come and do my bit, as the English say."
"What are you going to do?"
"Something in Paris. I don't know just what, but I'll certainly make myself useful somehow." She beamed at him provocatively. "Oh, if only I was a man, I'd have shouldered my gun the first day; indeed I would."
"But the issues were hardly ... defined then," ventured Martin.
"They didn't need to be. I hate those brutes. I've always hated the Germans, their language, their country, everything about them. And now that they've done such frightful things ..."
"I wonder if it's all true ..."
"True! Oh, of course it's all true; and lots more that it hasn't been possible to print, that people have been ashamed to tell."
"They've gone pretty far," said Martin, laughing.
"If there are any left alive after the war they ought to be chloroformed.... And really I don't think it's patriotic or humane to take the atrocities so lightly.... But really, you must excuse me if you think me rude; I do get so excited and wrought up when I think of those frightful things.... I get quite beside myself; I'm sure you do too, in your heart.... Any red-blooded person would."
"Only I doubt ..."
"But you're just playing into their hands if you do that.... Oh, dear, I'm quite beside myself, just thinking of it." She raised a small gloved hand to her pink cheek in a gesture of horror, and settled herself comfortably in her deck chair. "Really, I oughtn't to talk about it. I lose all self-control when I do. I hate them so it makes me quite ill.... The curs! The Huns! Let me tell you just one story.... I know it'll make your blood boil. It's absolutely authentic, too. I heard it before I left New York from a girl who's really the best friend I have on earth. She got it from a friend of hers who had got it directly from a little Belgian girl, poor little thing, who was in the convent at the time.... Oh, I don't see why they ever take any prisoners; I'd kill them all like mad dogs."
"What's the story?"
"Oh, I can't tell it. It upsets me too much.... No, that's silly, I've got to begin facing realities.... It was just when the Germans were taking Bruges, the Uhlans broke into this convent.... But I think it was in Louvain, not Bruges.... I have a wretched memory for names.... Well, they broke in, and took all those poor defenceless little girls ..."
"There's the dinner-bell."
"Oh, so it is. I must run and dress. I'll have to tell you later...."
Through half-closed eyes, Martin watched the fluttering dress and the backs of the neat little white shoes go jauntily down the deck.
* * * * *
The smoking-room again. Clink of glasses and chatter of confident voices. Two men talking over their glasses.
"They tell me that Paris is some city."
"The most immoral place in the world, before the war. Why, there are houses there where ..." his voice sank into a whisper. The other man burst into loud guffaws.
"But the war's put an end to all that. They tell me that French people are regenerated, positively regenerated."
"They say the lack of food's something awful, that you can't get a square meal. They even eat horse."
"Did you hear what those fellows were saying about that new gas? Sounds frightful, don't it? I don't care a thing about bullets, but that kind o' gives me cold feet.... I don't give a damn about bullets, but that gas ..."
"That's why so many shoot their friends when they're gassed...."
"Say, you two, how about a hand of poker?"
A champagne cork pops.
"Jiminy, don't spill it all over me."
"Where we goin', boys?"
"Oh we're going to the Hamburg show To see the elephant and the wild kangaroo, And we'll all stick together In fair or foul weather, For we're going to see the damn show through!"
Before going to bed Martin had seen the lighthouses winking at the mouth of the Gironde, and had filled his lungs with the new, indefinably scented wind coming off the land. The sound of screaming whistles of tug-boats awoke him. Feet were tramping on the deck above his head. The shrill whine of a crane sounded in his ears and the throaty cry of men lifting something in unison.
Through his port-hole in the yet colourless dawn he saw the reddish water of a river with black-hulled sailing-boats on it and a few lanky little steamers of a pattern he had never seen before. Again he breathed deep of the new indefinable smell off the land.
Once on deck in the cold air, he saw through the faint light a row of houses beyond the low wharf buildings, grey mellow houses of four storeys with tiled roofs and intricate ironwork balconies, with balconies in which the ironwork had been carefully twisted by artisans long ago dead into gracefully modulated curves and spirals.
Some in uniform, some not, the ambulance men marched to the station, through the grey streets of Bordeaux. Once a woman opened a window and crying, "Vive l'Amerique," threw out a bunch of roses and daisies. As they were rounding a corner, a man with a frockcoat on ran up and put his own hat on the head of one of the Americans who had none. In front of the station, waiting for the train, they sat at the little tables of cafes, lolling comfortably in the early morning sunlight, and drank beer and cognac.
Small railway carriages into which they were crowded so that their knees were pressed tight together—and outside, slipping by, blue-green fields, and poplars stalking out of the morning mist, and long drifts of poppies. Scarlet poppies, and cornflowers, and white daisies, and the red-tiled roofs and white walls of cottages, all against a background of glaucous green fields and hedges. Tours, Poitiers, Orleans. In the names of the stations rose old wars, until the floods of scarlet poppies seemed the blood of fighting men slaughtered through all time. At last, in the gloaming, Paris, and, in crossing a bridge over the Seine, a glimpse of the two linked towers of Notre-Dame, rosy grey in the grey mist up the river.
* * * * *
"Say, these women here get my goat."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, I was at the Olympia with Johnson and that crowd. They just pester the life out of you there. I'd heard that Paris was immoral, but nothing like this."
"It's the war."
"But the Jane I went with ..."
"Gee, these Frenchwomen are immoral. They say the war does it."
"Can't be that. Nothing is more purifying than sacrifice."
"A feller has to be mighty careful, they say."
"Looks like every woman you saw walking on the street was a whore. They certainly are good-lookers though."
"King and his gang are all being sent back to the States."
"I'll be darned! They sure have been drunk ever since they got off the steamer."
"Raised hell in Maxim's last night. They tried to clean up the place and the police came. They were all soused to the gills and tried to make everybody there sing the 'Star Spangled Banner.'"
"Damn fool business."
* * * * *
Martin Howe sat at a table on the sidewalk under the brown awning of a restaurant. Opposite in the last topaz-clear rays of the sun, the foliage of the Jardin du Luxembourg shone bright green above deep alleys of bluish shadow. From the pavements in front of the mauve-coloured houses rose little kiosks with advertisements in bright orange and vermilion and blue. In the middle of the triangle formed by the streets and the garden was a round pool of jade water. Martin leaned back in his chair looking dreamily out through half-closed eyes, breathing deep now and then of the musty scent of Paris, that mingled with the melting freshness of the wild strawberries on the plate before him.
As he stared in front of him two figures crossed his field of vision. A woman swathed in black crepe veils was helping a soldier to a seat at the next table. He found himself staring in a face, a face that still had some of the chubbiness of boyhood. Between the pale-brown frightened eyes, where the nose should have been, was a triangular black patch that ended in some mechanical contrivance with shiny little black metal rods that took the place of the jaw. He could not take his eyes from the soldier's eyes, that were like those of a hurt animal, full of meek dismay. Someone plucked at Martin's arm, and he turned suddenly, fearfully.
A bent old woman was offering him flowers with a jerky curtsey.
"Just a rose, for good luck?"
"No, thank you."
"It will bring you happiness."
He took a couple of the reddest of the roses.
"Do you understand the language of flowers?"
"I shall teach you.... Thank you so much.... Thank you so much."
She added a few large daisies to the red roses in his hand.
"These will bring you love.... But another time I shall teach you the language of flowers, the language of love."
She curtseyed again, and began making her way jerkily down the sidewalk, jingling his silver in her hand.
He stuck the roses and daisies in the belt of his uniform and sat with the green flame of Chartreuse in a little glass before him, staring into the gardens, where the foliage was becoming blue and lavender with evening, and the shadows darkened to grey-purple and black. Now and then he glanced furtively, with shame, at the man at the next table. When the restaurant closed he wandered through the unlighted streets towards the river, listening to the laughs and conversations that bubbled like the sparkle in Burgundy through the purple summer night.
But wherever he looked in the comradely faces of young men, in the beckoning eyes of women, he saw the brown hurt eyes of the soldier, and the triangular black patch where the nose should have been.
At Epernay the station was wrecked; the corrugated tin of the roof hung in strips over the crumbled brick walls.
"They say the Boches came over last night. They killed a lot of permissionaires."
"That river's the Marne."
"Gosh, is it? Let me get to the winder."
The third-class car, joggling along on a flat wheel, was full of the smell of sweat and sour wine. Outside, yellow-green and blue-green, crossed by long processions of poplars, aflame with vermilion and carmine of poppies, the countryside slipped by. At a station where the train stopped on a siding, they could hear a faint hollow sound in the distance: guns.
* * * * *
Croix de Guerre had been given out that day at the automobile park at Chalons. There was an unusually big dinner at the wooden tables in the narrow portable barracks, and during the last course the General passed through and drank a glass of champagne to the health of all present. Everybody had on his best uniform and sweated hugely in the narrow, airless building, from the wine and the champagne and the thick stew, thickly seasoned, that made the dinner's main course.
"We are all one large family," said the General from the end of the barracks ... "to France."
That night the wail of a siren woke Martin suddenly and made him sit up in his bunk trembling, wondering where he was. Like the shriek of a woman in a nightmare, the wail of the siren rose and rose and then dropped in pitch and faded throbbingly out.
"Don't flash a light there. It's Boche planes."
Outside the night was cold, with a little light from a waned moon.
"See the shrapnel!" someone cried.
"The Boche has a Mercedes motor," said someone else. "You can tell by the sound of it."
"They say one of their planes chased an ambulance ten miles along a straight road the other day, trying to get it with a machine-gun. The man who was driving got away, but he had shell-shock afterwards."
"Did he really?"
"Oh, I'm goin' to turn in. God, these French nights are cold!"
* * * * *
The rain pattered hard with unfaltering determination on the roof of the little arbour. Martin lolled over the rough board table, resting his chin on his clasped hands, looking through the tinkling bead curtains of the rain towards the other end of the weed-grown garden, where, under a canvas shelter, the cooks were moving about in front of two black steaming cauldrons. Through the fresh scent of rain-beaten leaves came a greasy smell of soup. He was thinking of the jolly wedding-parties that must have drunk and danced in this garden before the war, of the lovers who must have sat in that very arbour, pressing sunburned cheek against sunburned cheek, twining hands callous with work in the fields. A man broke suddenly into the arbour behind Martin and stood flicking the water off his uniform with his cap. His sand-coloured hair was wet and was plastered in little spikes to his broad forehead, a forehead that was the entablature of a determined rock-hewn face.
"Hello," said Martin, twisting his head to look at the newcomer. "You section twenty-four?"
"Yes.... Ever read 'Alice in Wonderland'?" asked the wet man, sitting down abruptly at the table.
"Doesn't this remind you of it?"
"This war business. Why, I keep thinking I'm going to meet the rabbit who put butter in his watch round every corner."
"It was the best butter."
"That's the hell of it."
"When's your section leaving here?" asked Martin, picking up the conversation after a pause during which they'd both stared out into the rain. They could hear almost constantly the grinding roar of camions on the road behind the cafe and the slither of their wheels through the mud-puddles where the road turned into the village.
"How the devil should I know?"
"Somebody had dope this morning that we'd leave here for Soissons to-morrow." Martin's words tailed off into a convictionless mumble.
"It surely is different than you'd pictured it, isn't it, now?"
They sat looking at each other while the big drops from the leaky roof smacked on the table or splashed cold in their faces.
"What do you think of all this, anyway?" said the wet man suddenly, lowering his voice stealthily.
"I don't know. I never did expect it to be what we were taught to believe.... Things aren't."
"But you can't have guessed that it was like this ... like Alice in Wonderland, like an ill-intentioned Drury Lane pantomime, like all the dusty futility of Barnum and Bailey's Circus."
"No, I thought it would be hair-raising," said Martin.
"Think, man, think of all the oceans of lies through all the ages that must have been necessary to make this possible! Think of this new particular vintage of lies that has been so industriously pumped out of the press and the pulpit. Doesn't it stagger you?"
"Why, lies are like a sticky juice overspreading the world, a living, growing flypaper to catch and gum the wings of every human soul.... And the little helpless buzzings of honest, liberal, kindly people, aren't they like the thin little noise flies make when they're caught?"
"I agree with you that the little thin noise is very silly," said Martin.
* * * * *
Martin slammed down the hood of the car and stood upright. A cold stream of rain ran down the sleeves of his slicker and dripped from his greasy hands.
Infantry tramped by, the rain spattering with a cold glitter on grey helmets, on gun-barrels, on the straps of equipment. Red sweating faces, drooping under the hard rims of helmets, turned to the ground with the struggle with the weight of equipment; rows and patches of faces were the only warmth in the desolation of putty-coloured mud and bowed mud-coloured bodies and dripping mud-coloured sky. In the cold colourlessness they were delicate and feeble as the faces of children, rosy and soft under the splattering of mud and the shagginess of unshaven beards.
Martin rubbed the back of his hand against his face. His skin was like that, too, soft as the petals of flowers, soft and warm amid all this dead mud, amid all this hard mud-covered steel.
He leant against the side of the car, his ears full of the heavy shuffle, of the jingle of equipment, of the splashing in puddles of water-soaked boots, and watched the endless rosy patches of faces moving by, the faces that drooped towards the dripping boots that rose and fell, churning into froth the soupy, putty-coloured mud of the road.
* * * * *
The schoolmaster's garden was full of late roses and marigolds, all parched and bleached by the thick layer of dust that was over them. Next to the vine-covered trellis that cut the garden off from the road stood a green table and a few cane chairs. The schoolmaster, something charmingly eighteenth-century about the cut of his breeches and the calves of his legs in their thick woollen golf-stockings, led the way, a brown pitcher of wine in his hand. Martin Howe and the black-haired, brown-faced boy from New Orleans who was his car-mate followed him. Then came a little grey woman in a pink knitted shawl, carrying a tray with glasses.
"In the Verdunois our wine is not very good," said the schoolmaster, bowing them into chairs. "It is thin and cold like the climate. To your health, gentlemen."
"And down with the Boches."
In the pale yellow light that came from among the dark clouds that passed over the sky, the wine had the chilly gleam of yellow diamonds.
"Ah, you should have seen that road in 1916," said the schoolmaster, drawing a hand over his watery blue eyes. "That, you know, is the Voie Sacree, the sacred way that saved Verdun. All day, all day, a double line of camions went up, full of ammunition and ravitaillement and men."
"Oh, the poor boys, we saw so many go up," came the voice, dry as the rustling of the wind in the vine-leaves, of the grey old woman who stood leaning against the schoolmaster's chair, looking out through a gap in the trellis at the rutted road so thick with dust, "and never have we seen one of them come back."
"It was for France."
"But this was a nice village before the war. From Verdun to Bar-le-Duc, the Courrier des Postes used to tell us, there was no such village, so clean and with such fine orchards." The old woman leaned over the schoolmaster's shoulder, joining eagerly in the conversation.
"Even now the fruit is very fine," said Martin.
"But you soldiers, you steal it all," said the old woman, throwing out her arms. "You leave us nothing, nothing."
"We don't begrudge it," said the schoolmaster, "all we have is our country's."
"We shall starve then...."
As she spoke the glasses on the table shook. With a roar of heavy wheels and a grind of gears a camion went by.
"O good God!" The old woman looked out on to the road with terror in her face, blinking her eyes in the thick dust.
Roaring with heavy wheels, grinding with gears, throbbing with motors, camion after camion went by, slowly, stridently. The men packed into the camions had broken through the canvas covers and leaned out, waving their arms and shouting.
"Oh, the poor children," said the old woman, wringing her hands, her voice lost in the roar and the shouting.
"They should not destroy property that way," said the schoolmaster.... "Last year it was dreadful. There were mutinies."
Martin sat, his chair tilted back, his hands trembling, staring with compressed lips at the men who jolted by on the strident, throbbing camions. A word formed in his mind: tumbrils.
In some trucks the men were drunk and singing, waving their bidons in the air, shouting at people along the road, crying out all sorts of things: "Get to the front!" "Into the trenches with them!" "Down with the war!" In others they sat quiet, faces corpse-like with dust. Through the gap in the trellis Martin stared at them, noting intelligent faces, beautiful faces, faces brutally gay, miserable faces like those of sobbing drunkards.
At last the convoy passed and the dust settled again on the rutted road.
"Oh, the poor children!" said the old woman. "They know they are going to death."
They tried to hide their agitation. The schoolmaster poured out more wine.
"Yes," said Martin, "there are fine orchards on the hills round here."
"You should be here when the plums are ripe," said the schoolmaster.
A tall bearded man, covered with dust to the eyelashes, in the uniform of a commandant, stepped into the garden.
"My dear friends!" He shook hands with the schoolmaster and the old woman and saluted the two Americans. "I could not pass without stopping a moment. We are going up to an attack. We have the honour to take the lead."
"You will have a glass of wine, won't you?"
"With great pleasure."
"Julie, fetch a bottle, you know which.... How is the morale?"
"I thought they looked a little discontented."
"No.... It's always like that.... They were yelling at some gendarmes. If they strung up a couple it would serve them right, dirty beasts."
"You soldiers are all one against the gendarmes."
"Yes. We fight the enemy but we hate the gendarmes." The commandant rubbed his hands, drank his wine and laughed.
"Hah! There's the next convoy. I must go."
The commandant shrugged his shoulders, clicked his heels together at the garden gate, saluted, smiling, and was gone.
Again the village street was full of the grinding roar and throb of camions, full of a frenzy of wheels and drunken shouting.
"Give us a drink, you."
"We're the train de luxe, we are."
"Down with the war!"
And the old grey woman wrung her hands and said:
"Oh, the poor children, they know they are going to death!"
Martin, rolled up in his bedroll on the floor of the empty hayloft, woke with a start.
"Say, Howe!" Tom Randolph, who lay next him, was pressing his hand. "I think I heard a shell go over."
As he spoke there came a shrill, loudening whine, and an explosion that shook the barn. A little dirt fell down on Martin's face.
"Say, fellers, that was damn near," came a voice from the floor of the barn.
"We'd better go over to the quarry."
"Oh, hell, I was sound asleep!"
A vicious shriek overhead and a shaking snort of explosion.
"Gee, that was in the house behind us...."
"I smell gas."
"Ye damn fool, it's carbide."
"One of the Frenchmen said it was gas."
"All right, fellers, put on your masks."
Outside there was a sickly rough smell in the air that mingled strangely with the perfume of the cool night, musical with the gurgling of the stream through the little valley where their barn was. They crouched in a quarry by the roadside, a straggling, half-naked group, and watched the flashes in the sky northward, where artillery along the lines kept up a continuous hammering drumbeat. Over their heads shells shrieked at two-minute intervals, to explode with a rattling ripping sound in the village on the other side of the valley.
"Damn foolishness," muttered Tom Randolph in his rich Southern voice. "Why don't those damn gunners go to sleep and let us go to sleep?... They must be tired like we are."
A shell burst in a house on the crest of the hill opposite, so that they saw the flash against the starry night sky. In the silence that followed, the moaning shriek of a man came faintly across the valley.
* * * * *
Martin sat on the steps of the dugout, looking up the shattered shaft of a tree, from the top of which a few ribbons of bark fluttered against the mauve evening sky. In the quiet he could hear the voices of men chatting in the dark below him, and a sound of someone whistling as he worked. Now and then, like some ungainly bird, a high calibre shell trundled through the air overhead; after its noise had completely died away would come the thud of the explosion. It was like battledore and shuttlecock, these huge masses whirling through the evening far above his head, now from one side, now from the other. It gave him somehow a cosy feeling of safety, as if he were under some sort of a bridge over which freight-cars were shunted madly to and fro.
The doctor in charge of the post came up and sat beside Martin. He was a small brown man with slim black moustaches that curved like the horns of a long-horn steer. He stood on tip-toe on the top step and peered about in every direction with an air of ownership, then sat down again and began talking briskly.
"We are exactly four hundred and five metres from the Boche.... Five hundred metres from here they are drinking beer and saying, 'Hoch der Kaiser.'"
"About as much as we're saying 'Vive la Republique', I should say."
"Who knows? But it is quiet here, isn't it? It's quieter here than in Paris."
"The sky is very beautiful to-night."
"They say they're shelling the Etat-Major to-day. Damned embusques; it'll do them good to get a bit of their own medicine."
Martin did not answer. He was crossing in his mind the four hundred and five metres to the first Boche listening-post. Next beyond the abris was the latrine from which a puff of wind brought now and then a nauseous stench. Then there was the tin roof, crumpled as if by a hand, that had been a cook shack. That was just behind the second line trenches that zig-zagged in and out of great abscesses of wet, upturned clay along the crest of a little hill. The other day he had been there, and had clambered up the oily clay where the boyau had caved in, and from the level of the ground had looked for an anxious minute or two at the tangle of trenches and pitted gangrened soil in the direction of the German outposts. And all along these random gashes in the mucky clay were men, feet and legs huge from clotting after clotting of clay, men with greyish-green faces scarred by lines of strain and fear and boredom as the hillside was scarred out of all semblance by the trenches and the shell-holes.
"We are well off here," said the doctor again. "I have not had a serious case all day."
"Up in the front line there's a place where they've planted rhubarb.... You know, where the hillside is beginning to get rocky."
"It was the Boche who did that.... We took that slope from them two months ago.... How does it grow?"
"They say the gas makes the leaves shrivel," said Martin, laughing.
He looked long at the little ranks of clouds that had begun to fill the sky, like ruffles on a woman's dress. Might not it really be, he kept asking himself, that the sky was a beneficent goddess who would stoop gently out of the infinite spaces and lift him to her breast, where he could lie amid the amber-fringed ruffles of cloud and look curiously down at the spinning ball of the earth? It might have beauty if he were far enough away to clear his nostrils of the stench of pain.
"It is funny," said the little doctor suddenly, "to think how much nearer we are, in state of mind, in everything, to the Germans than to anyone else."
"You mean that the soldiers in the trenches are all further from the people at home than from each other, no matter what side they are on."
The little doctor nodded.
"God, it's so stupid! Why can't we go over and talk to them? Nobody's fighting about anything.... God, it's so hideously stupid!" cried Martin, suddenly carried away, helpless in the flood of his passionate revolt.
"Life is stupid," said the little doctor sententiously.
Suddenly from the lines came a splutter of machine-guns.
"Evensong!" cried the little doctor. "Ah, but here's business. You'd better get your car ready, my friend."
The brancardiers set the stretcher down at the top of the steps that led to the door of the dugout, so that Martin found himself looking into the lean, sensitive face, stained a little with blood about the mouth, of the wounded man. His eyes followed along the shapeless bundles of blood-flecked uniform till they suddenly turned away. Where the middle of the man had been, where had been the curved belly and the genitals, where the thighs had joined with a strong swerving of muscles to the trunk, was a depression, a hollow pool of blood, that glinted a little in the cold diffusion of grey light from the west.
* * * * *
The rain beat hard on the window-panes of the little room and hissed down the chimney into the smouldering fire that sent up thick green smoke. At a plain oak table before the fireplace sat Martin Howe and Tom Randolph, Tom Randolph with his sunburned hands with their dirty nails spread flat and his head resting on the table between them, so that Martin could see the stiff black hair on top of his head and the dark nape of his neck going into shadow under the collar of the flannel shirt.
"Oh, God, it's too damned absurd! An arrangement for mutual suicide and no damned other thing," said Randolph, raising his head.
"A certain jolly asinine grotesqueness, though. I mean, if you were God and could look at it like that ... Oh, Randy, why do they enjoy hatred so?"
"A question of taste ... as the lady said when she kissed the cow."
"But it isn't. It isn't natural for people to hate that way, it can't be. It even disgusts the perfectly stupid damn-fool people, like Higgins, who believes that the Bible was written in God's own handwriting and that the newspapers tell the truth."
"It makes me sick at ma stomach, Howe, to talk to one of those hun-hatin' women, if they're male or female."
"It is a stupid affair, la vie, as the doctor at P.1. said yesterday...."
They sat silent, watching the rain beat on the window, and run down in sparkling finger-like streams.
"What I can't get over is these Frenchwomen." Randolph threw back his head and laughed. "They're so bloody frank. Did I tell you about what happened to me at that last village on the Verdun road?"
"I was lyin' down for a nap under a plum-tree, a wonderfully nice place near a li'l brook an' all, an' suddenly that crazy Jane ... You know the one that used to throw stones at us out of that broken-down house at the corner of the road.... Anyway, she comes up to me with a funny look in her eyes an' starts makin' love to me. I had a regular wrastlin' match gettin' away from her."
"Funny position for you to be in, getting away from a woman."
"But doesn't that strike you funny? Why down where I come from a drunken mulatto woman wouldn't act like that. They all keep up a fake of not wantin' your attentions." His black eyes sparkled, and he laughed his deep ringing laugh, that made the withered woman smile as she set an omelette before them.
"Voila, messieurs," she said with a grand air, as if it were a boar's head that she was serving.
Three French infantrymen came into the cafe, shaking the rain off their shoulders.
"Nothing to drink but champagne at four francs fifty," shouted Howe. "Dirty night out, isn't it?"
"We'll drink that, then!"
Howe and Randolph moved up and they all sat at the same table.
"Fortune of war?"
"Oh, the war, what do you think of the war?" cried Martin.
"What do you think of the peste? You think about saving your skin."
"What's amusing about us is that we three have all saved our skins together," said one of the Frenchmen.
"Yes. We are of the same class," said another, holding up his thumb. "Mobilised same day." He held up his first finger. "Same company." He held up a second finger. "Wounded by the same shell.... Evacuated to the same hospital. Convalescence at same time.... Reforme to the same depot behind the lines."
"Didn't all marry the same girl, did you, to make it complete?" asked Randolph.
They all shouted with laughter until the glasses along the bar rang.
"You must be Athos, Porthos, and d'Artagnan."
"We are," they shouted.
"Some more champagne, madame, for the three musketeers," sang Randolph in a sort of operatic yodle.
"All I have left is this," said the withered woman, setting a bottle down on the table.
"Is that poison?"
"It's cognac, it's very good cognac," said the old woman seriously.
"C'est du cognac! Vive le roi cognac!" everybody shouted.
"Au plein de mon cognac Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon, Au plein de mon cognac Qu'il fait bon dormir."
"Down with the war! Who can sing the 'Internationale'?"
"Not so much noise, I beg you, gentlemen," came the withered woman's whining voice. "It's after hours. Last week I was fined. Next time I'll be closed up."
The night was black when Martin and Randolph, after lengthy and elaborate farewells, started down the muddy road towards the hospital. They staggered along the slippery footpath beside the road, splashed every instant with mud by camions, huge and dark, that roared grindingly by. They ran and skipped arm-in-arm and shouted at the top of their lungs:
"Aupres de ma blonde, Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon, Aupres de ma blonde, Qu'il fait bon dormir."
A stench of sweat and filth and formaldehyde caught them by the throat as they went into the hospital tent, gave them a sense of feverish bodies of men stretched all about them, stirring in pain.
* * * * *
"A car for la Bassee, Ambulance 4," said the orderly.
Howe got himself up off the hospital stretcher, shoving his flannel shirt back into his breeches, put on his coat and belt and felt his way to the door, stumbling over the legs of sleeping brancardiers as he went. Men swore in their sleep and turned over heavily. At the door he waited a minute, then shouted:
"Too damn sleepy," came Randolph's voice from under a blanket.
"I've got cigarettes, Tom. I'll smoke 'em all up if you don't come."
"All right, I'll come."
"Less noise, name of God!" cried a man, sitting up on his stretcher.
After the hospital, smelling of chloride and blankets and reeking clothes, the night air was unbelievably sweet. Like a gilt fringe on a dark shawl, a little band of brightness had appeared in the east.
"Some dawn, Howe, ain't it?"
As they were going off, their motor chugging regularly, an orderly said:
"It's a special case. Go for orders to the commandant."
Colours formed gradually out of chaotic grey as the day brightened. At the dressing-station an attendant ran up to the car.
"Oh, you're for the special case? Have you anything to tie a man with?"
"It's nothing. He just tried to stab the sergeant-major."
The attendant raised a fist and tapped on his head as if knocking on a door. "It's nothing. He's quieter now."
"What caused it?"
"Who knows? There is so much.... He says he must kill everyone...."
"Are you ready?"
A lieutenant of the medical corps came to the door and looked out. He smiled reassuringly at Martin Howe. "He's not violent any more. And we'll send two guardians."
A sergeant came out with a little packet which he handed to Martin.
"That's his. Will you give it to them at the hospital at Fourreaux? And here's his knife. They can give it back to him when he gets better. He has an idea he ought to kill everyone he sees.... Funny idea."
The sun had risen and shone gold across the broad rolling lands, so that the hedges and the poplar-rows cast long blue shadows over the fields. The man, with a guardian on either side of him who cast nervous glances to the right and to the left, came placidly, eyes straight in front of him, out of the dark interior of the dressing-station. He was a small man with moustaches and small, good-natured lips puffed into an o-shape. At the car he turned and saluted.
"Good-bye, my lieutenant. Thank you for your kindness," he said.
"Good-bye, old chap," said the lieutenant.
The little man stood up in the car, looking about him anxiously.
"I've lost my knife. Where's my knife?"
The guards got in behind him with a nervous, sheepish air. They answered reassuringly, "The driver's got it. The American's got it."
The orderly jumped on the seat with the two Americans to show the way. He whispered in Martin's ear:
"He's crazy. He says that to stop the war you must kill everybody, kill everybody."
* * * * *
In an open valley that sloped between hills covered with beech-woods, stood the tall abbey, a Gothic nave and apse with beautifully traced windows, with the ruin of a very ancient chapel on one side, and crossing the back, a well-proportioned Renaissance building that had been a dormitory. The first time that Martin saw the abbey, it towered in ghostly perfection above a low veil of mist that made the valley seem a lake in the shining moonlight. The lines were perfectly quiet, and when he stopped the motor of his ambulance, he could hear the wind rustling among the beech-woods. Except for the dirty smell of huddled soldiers that came now and then in drifts along with the cool wood-scents, there might have been no war at all. In the soft moonlight the great traceried windows and the buttresses and the high-pitched roof seemed as gorgeously untroubled by decay as if the carvings on the cusps and arches had just come from under the careful chisels of the Gothic workmen.
"And you say we've progressed," he whispered to Tom Randolph.
"God, it is fine."
They wandered up and down the road a long time, silently, looking at the tall apse of the abbey, breathing the cool night air, moist with mist, in which now and then was the huddled, troubling smell of soldiers. At last the moon, huge and swollen with gold, set behind the wooded hills, and they went back to the car, where they rolled up in their blankets and went to sleep.
Behind the square lantern that rose over the crossing, there was a trap door in the broken tile roof, from which you could climb to the observation post in the lantern. Here, half on the roof and half on the platform behind the trap-door, Martin would spend the long summer afternoons when there was no call for the ambulance, looking at the Gothic windows of the lantern and the blue sky beyond, where huge soft clouds passed slowly over, darkening the green of the woods and of the weed-grown fields of the valley with their moving shadows.
There was almost no activity on that part of the front. A couple of times a day a few snapping discharges would come from the seventy-fives of the battery behind the Abbey, and the woods would resound like a shaken harp as the shells passed over to explode on the crest of the hill that blocked the end of the valley where the Boches were.
Martin would sit and dream of the quiet lives the monks must have passed in their beautiful abbey so far away in the Forest of the Argonne, digging and planting in the rich lands of the valley, making flowers bloom in the garden, of which traces remained in the huge beds of sunflowers and orange marigolds that bloomed along the walls of the dormitory. In a room in the top of the house he had found a few torn remnants of books; there must have been a library in the old days, rows and rows of musty-smelling volumes in rich brown calf worn by use to a velvet softness, and in cream-coloured parchment where the finger-marks of generations showed brown; huge psalters with notes and chants illuminated in green and ultramarine and gold; manuscripts out of the Middle Ages with strange script and pictures in pure vivid colours; lives of saints, thoughts polished by years of quiet meditation of old divines; old romances of chivalry; tales of blood and death and love where the crude agony of life was seen through a dawn-like mist of gentle beauty.
"God! if there were somewhere nowadays where you could flee from all this stupidity, from all this cant of governments, and this hideous reiteration of hatred, this strangling hatred ..." he would say to himself, and see himself working in the fields, copying parchments in quaint letterings, drowsing his feverish desires to calm in the deep-throated passionate chanting of the endless offices of the Church.
One afternoon towards evening as he lay on the tiled roof with his shirt open so that the sun warmed his throat and chest, half asleep in the beauty of the building and of the woods and the clouds that drifted overhead, he heard a strain from the organ in the church: a few deep notes in broken rhythm that filled him with wonder, as if he had suddenly been transported back to the quiet days of the monks. The rhythm changed in an instant, and through the squeakiness of shattered pipes came a swirl of fake-oriental ragtime that resounded like mocking laughter in the old vaults and arches. He went down into the church and found Tom Randolph playing on the little organ, pumping desperately with his feet.
"Hello! Impiety I call it; putting your lustful tunes into that pious old organ."
"I bet the ole monks had a merry time, lecherous ole devils," said Tom, playing away.
"If there were monasteries nowadays," said Martin, "I think I'd go into one."
"But there are. I'll end up in one, most like, if they don't put me in jail first. I reckon every living soul would be a candidate for either one if it'd get them out of this God-damned war."
There was a shriek overhead that reverberated strangely in the vaults of the church and made the swallows nesting there fly in and out through the glassless windows. Tom Randolph stopped on a wild chord.
"Guess they don't like me playin'."
"That one didn't explode though."
"That one did, by gorry," said Randolph, getting up off the floor, where he had thrown himself automatically. A shower of tiles came rattling off the roof, and through the noise could be heard the frightened squeaking of the swallows.
"I am afraid that winged somebody."
"They must have got wind of the ammunition dump in the cellar."
"Hell of a place to put a dressing-station—over an ammunition dump!"
The whitewashed room used as a dressing-station had a smell of blood stronger than the chloride. A doctor was leaning over a stretcher on which Martin caught a glimpse of two naked legs with flecks of blood on the white skin, as he passed through on his way to the car.
"Three stretcher-cases for Les Islettes. Very softly," said the attendant, handing him the papers.
Jolting over the shell-pitted road, the car wound slowly through unploughed weed-grown fields. At every jolt came a rasping groan from the wounded men.
As they came back towards the front posts again, they found all the batteries along the road firing. The air was a chaos of explosions that jabbed viciously into their ears, above the reassuring purr of the motor. Nearly to the abbey a soldier stopped them.
"Put the car behind the trees and get into a dugout. They're shelling the abbey."
As he spoke a whining shriek grew suddenly loud over their heads. The soldier threw himself flat in the muddy road. The explosion brought gravel about their ears and made a curious smell of almonds.
Crowded in the door of the dugout in the hill opposite they watched the abbey as shell after shell tore through the roof or exploded in the strong buttresses of the apse. Dust rose high above the roof and filled the air with an odour of damp tiles and plaster. The woods resounded in a jangling tremor, with the batteries that started firing one after the other.
"God, I hate them for that!" said Randolph between his teeth.
"What do you want? It's an observation post."
"I know, but damn it!"
There was a series of explosions; a shell fragment whizzed past their heads.
"It's not safe there. You'd better come in all the way," someone shouted from within the dugout.
"I want to see; damn it.... I'm goin' to stay and see it out, Howe. That place meant a hell of a lot to me." Randolph blushed as he spoke.
Another bunch of shells crashing so near together they did not hear the scream. When the cloud of dust blew away, they saw that the lantern had fallen in on the roof of the apse, leaving only one wall and the tracery of a window, of which the shattered carving stood out cream-white against the reddish evening sky.
There was a lull in the firing. A few swallows still wheeled about the walls, giving shrill little cries.
They saw the flash of a shell against the sky as it exploded in the part of the tall roof that still remained. The roof crumpled and fell in, and again dust hid the abbey.
"Oh, I hate this!" said Tom Randolph. "But the question is, what's happened to our grub? The popote is buried four feet deep in Gothic art.... Damn fool idea, putting a dressing-station over an ammunition dump."
"Is the car hit?" The orderly came up to them.
"Don't think so."
"Good. Four stretcher-cases for 42 at once."
* * * * *
At night in a dugout. Five men playing cards about a lamp-flame that blows from one side to the other in the gusty wind that puffs every now and then down the mouth of the dugout and whirls round it like something alive trying to beat a way out.
Each time the lamp blows the shadows of the five heads writhe upon the corrugated tin ceiling. In the distance, like kettle-drums beaten for a dance, a constant reverberation of guns.
Martin Howe, stretched out in the straw of one of the bunks, watches their faces in the flickering shadows. He wishes he had the patience to play too. No, perhaps it is better to look on; it would be so silly to be killed in the middle of one of those grand gestures one makes in slamming the card down that takes the trick. Suddenly he thinks of all the lives that must, in these last three years, have ended in that grand gesture. It is too silly. He seems to see their poor lacerated souls, clutching their greasy dog-eared cards, climb to a squalid Valhalla, and there, in tobacco-stinking, sweat-stinking rooms, like those of the little cafes behind the lines, sit in groups of five, shuffling, dealing, taking tricks, always with the same slam of the cards on the table, pausing now and then to scratch their louse-eaten flesh.
At this moment, how many men, in all the long Golgotha that stretches from Belfort to the sea, must be trying to cheat their boredom and their misery with that grand gesture of slamming the cards down to take a trick, while in their ears, like tom-toms, pounds the death-dance of the guns.
Martin lies on his back looking up at the curved corrugated ceiling of the dugout, where the shadows of the five heads writhe in fantastic shapes. Is it death they are playing, that they are so merry when they take a trick?
The three planes gleamed like mica in the intense blue of the sky. Round about the shrapnel burst in little puffs like cotton-wool. A shout went up from the soldiers who stood in groups in the street of the ruined town. A whistle split the air, followed by a rending snort that tailed off into the moaning of a wounded man.
"By damn, they're nervy. They dropped a bomb."
"I should say they did."
"The dirty bastards, to get a fellow who's going on permission. Now if they beaded you on the way back you wouldn't care."
In the sky an escadrille of French planes had appeared and the three German specks had vanished, followed by a trail of little puffs of shrapnel. The indigo dome of the afternoon sky was full of a distant snoring of motors.
The train screamed outside the station and the permissionaires ran for the platform, their packed musettes bouncing at their hips.
* * * * *
The dark boulevards, with here and there a blue lamp lighting up a bench and a few tree-trunks, or a faint glow from inside a closed cafe where a boy in shirt-sleeves is sweeping the floor. Crowds of soldiers, Belgians, Americans, Canadians, civilians with canes and straw hats and well-dressed women on their arms, shop-girls in twos and threes laughing with shrill, merry voices; and everywhere girls of the street, giggling alluringly in hoarse, dissipated tones, clutching the arms of drunken soldiers, tilting themselves temptingly in men's way as they walk along. Cigarettes and cigars make spots of reddish light, and now and then a match lighted makes a man's face stand out in yellow relief and glints red in the eyes of people round about.
Drunk with their freedom, with the jangle of voices, with the rustle of trees in the faint light, with the scents of women's hair and cheap perfumes, Howe and Randolph stroll along slowly, down one side to the shadowy columns of the Madeleine, where a few flower-women still offer roses, scenting the darkness, then back again past the Opera towards the Porte St. Martin, lingering to look in the offered faces of women, to listen to snatches of talk, to chatter laughingly with girls who squeeze their arms with impatience.
"I'm goin' to find the prettiest girl in Paris, and then you'll see the dust fly, Howe, old man."
* * * * *
The hors d'oeuvre came on a circular three-tiered stand; red strips of herrings and silver anchovies, salads where green peas and bits of carrot lurked under golden layers of sauce, sliced tomatoes, potato salad green-specked with parsley, hard-boiled eggs barely visible under thickness of vermilion-tinged dressing, olives, radishes, discs of sausage of many different forms and colours, complicated bundles of spiced salt fish, and, forming the apex, a fat terra-cotta jar of pate de foie gras. Howe poured out pale-coloured Chablis.
"I used to think that down home was the only place they knew how to live, but oh, boy ..." said Tom Randolph, breaking a little loaf of bread that made a merry crackling sound.
"It's worth starving to death on singe and pinard for four months."
After the hors d'oeuvre had been taken away, leaving them Rabelaisianly gay, with a joyous sense of orgy, came sole hidden in a cream-coloured sauce with mussels in it.
"After the war, Howe, ole man, let's riot all over Europe; I'm getting a taste for this sort of livin'."
"You can play the fiddle, can't you, Tom?"
"Enough to scrape out Aupres de ma blonde on a bet."
"Then we'll wander about and you can support me.... Or else I'll dress as a monkey and you can fiddle and I'll gather the pennies."
"By gum, that'd be great sport."
"Look, we must have some red wine with the veal."
"Let's have Macon."
"All the same to me as long as there's plenty of it."
Their round table with its white cloth and its bottles of wine and its piles of ravished artichoke leaves was the centre of a noisy, fantastic world. Ever since the orgy of the hors d'oeuvres things had been evolving to grotesqueness, faces, whites of eyes, twisted red of lips, crow-like forms of waiters, colours of hats and uniforms, all involved and jumbled in the melee of talk and clink and clatter.
The red hand of the waiter pouring the Chartreuse, green like a stormy sunset, into small glasses before them broke into the vivid imaginings that had been unfolding in their talk through dinner. No, they had been saying, it could not go on; some day amid the rending crash of shells and the whine of shrapnel fragments, people everywhere, in all uniforms, in trenches, packed in camions, in stretchers, in hospitals, crowded behind guns, involved in telephone apparatus, generals at their dinner-tables, colonels sipping liqueurs, majors developing photographs, would jump to their feet and burst out laughing at the solemn inanity, at the stupid, vicious pomposity of what they were doing. Laughter would untune the sky. It would be a new progress of Bacchus. Drunk with laughter at the sudden vision of the silliness of the world, officers and soldiers, prisoners working on the roads, deserters being driven towards the trenches would throw down their guns and their spades and their heavy packs, and start marching, or driving in artillery waggons or in camions, staff cars, private trains, towards their capitals, where they would laugh the deputies, the senators, the congressmen, the M.P.'s out of their chairs, laugh the presidents and the prime ministers, and kaisers and dictators out of their plush-carpeted offices; the sun would wear a broad grin and would whisper the joke to the moon, who would giggle and ripple with it all night long.... The red hand of the waiter, with thick nails and work-swollen knuckles, poured Chartreuse into the small glasses before them.
"That," said Tom Randolph, when he had half finished his liqueur, "is the girl for me."
"But, Tom, she's with a French officer."
"They're fighting like cats and dogs. You can see that, can't you?"
"Yes," agreed Howe vaguely.
"Pay the bill. I'll meet you at the corner of the boulevard." Tom Randolph was out of the door. The girl, who had a little of the aspect of a pierrot, with dark skin and bright lips and gold-yellow hat and dress, and the sour-looking officer who was with her, were getting up to go.
At the corner of the Boulevard Howe heard a woman's voice joining with Randolph's rich laugh.
"What did I tell you? They split at the door and here we are, Howe.... Mademoiselle Montreil, let me introduce a friend. Look, before it's too late, we must have a drink."
At the cafe table next them an Englishman was seated with his head sunk on his chest.
"Oh, I say, you woke me up."
"No harm. Jolly good thing."
They invited him over to their table. There was a moist look about his eyes and a thickness to his voice that denoted alcohol.
"You mustn't mind me. I'm forgetting.... I've been doing it for a week. This is the first leave I've had in eighteen months. You Canadians?"
"No. Ambulance service; Americans."
"New at the game then. You're lucky.... Before I left the front I saw a man tuck a hand-grenade under the pillow of a poor devil of a German prisoner. The prisoner said, 'Thank you.' The grenade blew him to hell! God! Know anywhere you can get whisky in this bloody town?"
"We'll have to hurry; it's near closing-time."
They started off, Randolph and the girl talking intimately, their heads close together, Martin supporting the Englishman.
"I need a bit o' whisky to put me on my pins."
They tumbled into the seats round a table at an American bar.
The Englishman felt in his pocket.
"Oh, I say," he cried, "I've got a ticket to the theatre. It's a box.... We can all get in. Come along; let's hurry."
They walked a long while, blundering through the dark streets, and at last stopped at a blue-lighted door.
"Here it is; push in."
"But there are two gentlemen and a lady already in the box, meester."
"No matter, there'll be room." The Englishman waved the ticket in the air.
The little round man with a round red face who was taking the tickets stuttered in bad English and then dropped into French. Meanwhile, the whole party had filed in, leaving the Englishman, who kept waving the ticket in the little man's face.
Two gendarmes, the theatre guards, came up menacingly; the Englishman's face wreathed itself in smiles; he linked an arm in each of the gendarmes', and pushed them towards the bar.
"Come drink to the Entente Cordiale.... Vive la France!"
In the box were two Australians and a woman who leaned her head on the chest of one and then the other alternately, laughing so that you could see the gold caps in her black teeth.
They were annoyed at the intrusion that packed the box insupportably tight, so that the woman had to sit on the men's laps, but the air soon cleared in laughter that caused people in the orchestra to stare angrily at the box full of noisy men in khaki. At last the Englishman came, squeezing himself in with a finger mysteriously on his lips. He plucked at Martin's arm, a serious set look coming suddenly over his grey eyes. "It was like this"—his breath laden with whisky was like a halo round Martin's head—"the Hun was a nice little chap, couldn't 'a' been more than eighteen; had a shoulder broken and he thought that my pal was fixing the pillow. He said 'Thank you' with a funny German accent.... Mind you, he said 'Thank you'; that's what hurt. And the man laughed. God damn him, he laughed when the poor devil said 'Thank you.' And the grenade blew him to hell."
The stage was a glare of light in Martin's eyes; he felt as he had when at home he had leaned over and looked straight into the headlight of an auto drawn up to the side of the road. Screening him from the glare were the backs of people's heads: Tom Randolph's head and his girl's, side by side, their cheeks touching, the pointed red chin of one of the Australians and the frizzy hair of the other woman.
In the entr'acte they all stood at the bar, where it was very hot and an orchestra was playing and there were many men in khaki in all stages of drunkenness, being led about by women who threw jokes at each other behind the men's backs.
"Here's to mud," said one of the Australians. "The war'll end when everybody is drowned in mud."
The orchestra began playing the Madelon and everyone roared out the marching song that, worn threadbare as it was, still had a roistering verve to it that caught people's blood.
People had gone back for the last act. The two Australians, the Englishman, and the two Americans still stood talking.
"Mind you, I'm not what you'd call susceptible. I'm not soft. I got over all that long ago." The Englishman was addressing the company in general. "But the poor beggar said 'Thank you.'"
"What's he saying?" asked a woman, plucking at Martin's arm.
"He's telling about a German atrocity."
"Oh, the dirty Germans! What things they've done!" the woman answered mechanically.
Somehow, during the entr'acte, the Australians had collected another woman; and a strange fat woman with lips painted very small, and very large bulging eyes, had attached herself to Martin. He suffered her because every time he looked at her she burst out laughing.
The bar was closing. They had a drink of champagne all round that made the fat woman give little shrieks of delight. They drifted towards the door, and stood, a formless, irresolute group, in the dark street in front of the theatre.
Randolph came up to Martin.
"Look. We're goin'. I wonder if I ought to leave my money with you ..."
"I doubt if I'm a safe person to-night ..."
"All right. I'll take it along. Look ... let's meet for breakfast."
"At the Cafe de la Paix."
"All right. If she is nice I'll bring her."
"She looks charming."
Tom Randolph pressed Martin's hand and was off. There was a sound of a kiss in the darkness.
"I say, I've got to have something to eat," said the Englishman. "I didn't have a bit of dinner. I say—mangai, mangai." He made gestures of putting things into his mouth in the direction of the fat woman.
The three women put their heads together. One of them knew a place, but it was a dreadful place. Really, they mustn't think that ... She only knew it because when she was very young a man had taken her there who wanted to seduce her.
At that everyone laughed and the voices of the women rose shrill.
"All right, don't talk; let's go there," said one of the Australians. "We'll attend to the seducing."
A thick woman, a tall comb in the back of her high-piled black hair, and an immovable face with jaw muscled like a prize-fighter's, served them with cold chicken and ham and champagne in a room with mouldering greenish wall-paper lighted by a red-shaded lamp.
The Australians ate and sang and made love to their women. The Englishman went to sleep with his head on the table.
Martin leaned back out of the circle of light, keeping up a desultory conversation with the woman beside him, listening to the sounds of the men's voices down corridors, of the front door being opened and slammed again and again, and of forced, shrill giggles of women.
"Unfortunately, I have an engagement to-night," said Martin to the woman beside him, whose large spherical breasts heaved as she talked, and who rolled herself nearer to him invitingly, seeming with her round pop-eyes and her round cheeks to be made up entirely of small spheres and large soft ones.
"Oh, but it is too late. You can break it."
"It's at four o'clock."
"Then we have time, ducky."
"It's something really romantic, you see."
"The young are always lucky." She rolled her eyes in sympathetic admiration. "This will be the fourth night this week that I have not made a sou.... I'll chuck myself into the river soon."
Martin felt himself softening towards her. He slipped a twenty-franc note in her hand.
"Oh, you are too good. You are really galant homme, you."
Martin buried his face in his hands, dreaming of the woman he would like to love to-night. She should be very dark, with red lips and stained cheeks, like Randolph's girl; she should have small breasts and slender, dark, dancer's thighs, and in her arms he could forget everything but the madness and the mystery and the intricate life of Paris about them. He thought of Montmartre, and Louise in the opera standing at her window singing the madness of Paris....
One of the Australians had gone away with a little woman in a pink negligee. The other Australian and the Englishman were standing unsteadily near the table, each supported by a sleepy-looking girl. Leaving the fat woman sadly finishing the remains of the chicken, large tears rolling from her eyes, they left the house and walked for a long time down dark streets, three men and two women, the Englishman being supported in the middle, singing in a desultory fashion.
They stopped under a broken sign of black letters on greyish glass, within which one feeble electric light bulb made a red glow. The pavement was wet, and glimmered where it slanted up to the lamp-post at the next corner.
"Here we are. Come along, Janey," cried the Australian in a brisk voice.
The door opened and slammed again. Martin and the other girl stood on the pavement facing each other. The Englishman collapsed on the doorstep, and began to snore.
"Well, there's only you and me," she said.
"Oh, if you were only a person, instead of being a member of a profession——" said Martin softly.
"Come," she said.
"No, dearie. I must go," said Martin.
"As you will. I'll take care of your friend." She yawned.
He kissed her and strode down the dark street, his nostrils full of the smell of the rouge on her lips.
He walked a long while with his hat off, breathing deep of the sharp night air. The streets were black and silent. Intemperate desires prowled like cats in the darkness.
* * * * *
He woke up and stretched himself stiffly, smelling grass and damp earth. A pearly lavender mist was all about him, through which loomed the square towers of Notre Dame and the row of kings across the facade and the sculpture about the darkness of the doorways. He had lain down on his back on the little grass plot of the Parvis Notre Dame to look at the stars, and had fallen asleep.
It must be nearly dawn. Words were droning importunately in his head. "The poor beggar said 'Thank you' with a funny German accent and the grenade blew him to hell." He remembered the man he had once helped to pick up in whose pocket a grenade had exploded. Before that he had not realised that torn flesh was such a black-red, like sausage meat.
"Get up, you can't lie there," cried a gendarme.
"Notre Dame is beautiful in the morning," said Martin, stepping across the low rail on to the pavement.
"Ah, yes; it is beautiful."
Martin Howe sat on the rail of the bridge and looked. Before him, with nothing distinct yet to be seen, were two square towers and the tracery between them and the row of kings on the facade, and the long series of flying buttresses of the flank, gleaming through the mist, and, barely visible, the dark, slender spire soaring above the crossing. So had the abbey in the forest gleamed tall in the misty moonlight; like mist, only drab and dense, the dust had risen above the tall apse as the shells tore it to pieces.
* * * * *
Amid a smell of new-roasted coffee he sat at a table and watched people pass briskly through the ruddy sunlight. Waiters in shirt-sleeves were rubbing off the other tables and putting out the chairs. He sat sipping coffee, feeling languid and nerveless. After a while Tom Randolph, looking very young and brown with his hat a little on one side, came along. With him, plainly dressed in blue serge, was the girl. They sat down and she dropped her head on his shoulder, covering her eyes with her dark lashes.
"Oh, I am so tired."
"Poor child! You must go home and go back to bed."
"But I've got to go to work."
"Poor thing." They kissed each other tenderly and languidly.
The waiter came with coffee and hot milk and little crisp loaves of bread.
"Oh, Paris is wonderful in the early morning!" said Martin.
"Indeed it is.... Good-bye, little girl, if you must go. We'll see each other again."
"You must call me Yvonne." She pouted a little.
"All right, Yvonne." He got to his feet and pressed her two hands.
"Well, what sort of a time did you have, Howe?"
"Curious. I lost our friends one by one, left two women and slept a little while on the grass in front of Notre Dame. That was my real love of the night."
"My girl was charming.... Honestly, I'd marry her in a minute." He laughed a merry laugh.
"Let's take a cab somewhere."
They climbed into a victoria and told the driver to go to the Madeleine.
"Look, before I do anything else I must go to the hotel."
"Of course; you'd better go at once."
The cab rattled merrily along the streets where the early sunshine cast rusty patches on the grey houses and on the thronged fantastic chimney-pots that rose in clusters and hedges from the mansard roofs.
The lamp in the hut of the road control casts an oblong of light on the white wall opposite. The patch of light is constantly crossed and scalloped and obscured by shadows of rifles and helmets and packs of men passing. Now and then the shadow of a single man, a nose and a chin under a helmet, a head bent forward with the weight of the pack, or a pack alone beside which slants a rifle, shows up huge and fantastic with its loaf of bread and its pair of shoes and its pots and pans.
Then with a jingle of harness and clank of steel, train after train of artillery comes up out of the darkness of the road, is thrown by the lamp into vivid relief and is swallowed again by the blackness of the village street, short bodies of seventy-fives sticking like ducks' tails from between their large wheels; caisson after caisson of ammunition, huge waggons hooded and unhooded, filled with a chaos of equipment that catches fantastic lights and throws huge muddled shadows on the white wall of the house.
"Put that light out. Name of God, do you want to have them start chucking shells into here?" comes a voice shrill with anger. The brisk trot of the officer's horse is lost in the clangour.
The door of the hut slams to and only a thin ray of orange light penetrates into the blackness of the road, where with jingle of harness and clatter of iron and tramp of hoofs, gun after gun, caisson after caisson, waggon after waggon files by. Now and then the passing stops entirely and matches flare where men light pipes and cigarettes. Coming from the other direction with throbbing of motors, a convoy of camions, huge black oblongs, grinds down the other side of the road. Horses rear and there are shouts and curses and clacking of reins in the darkness.
Far away where the lowering clouds meet the hills beyond the village a white glare grows and fades again at intervals: star-shells.
* * * * *
"There's a most tremendous concentration of sanitary sections."
"You bet; two American sections and a French one in this village; three more down the road. Something's up."
"There's goin' to be an attack at St. Mihiel, a Frenchman told me."
"I heard that the Germans were concentrating for an offensive in the Four de Paris."
"Anyway, this is the third week we've been in this bloody hole with our feet in the mud."
"They've got us quartered in a barn with a regular brook flowing through the middle of it."
"The main thing about this damned war is ennui—just plain boredom."
"Not forgetting the mud."
Three ambulance drivers in slickers were on the front seat of a car. The rain fell in perpendicular sheets, pattering on the roof of the car and on the puddles that filled the village street. Streaming with water, blackened walls of ruined houses rose opposite them above a rank growth of weeds. Beyond were rain-veiled hills. Every little while, slithering through the rain, splashing mud to the right and left, a convoy of camions went by and disappeared, truck after truck, in the white streaming rain.
Inside the car Tom Randolph was playing an accordion, letting strange nostalgic little songs filter out amid the hard patter of the rain.
"Oh, I's been workin' on de railroad All de livelong day; I's been workin' on de railroad Jus' to pass de time away."
The men on the front seat leaned back and shook the water off their knees and hummed the song.
The accordion had stopped. Tom Randolph was lying on his back on the floor of the car with his arm over his eyes. The rain fell endlessly, rattling on the roof of the car, dancing silver in the coffee-coloured puddles of the road. Their boredom fell into the rhythm of crooning self-pity of the old coon song:
"I's been workin' on de railroad All de livelong day; I's been workin' on de railroad Jus' to pass de time away."
"Oh, God, something's got to happen soon."
Lost in rubber boots, and a huge gleaming slicker and hood, the section leader splashed across the road.
"All cars must be ready to leave at six to-night."
"Yay. Where we goin'?"
"Orders haven't come yet. We're to be in readiness to leave at six to-night...."
"I tell you, fellers, there's goin' to be an attack. This concentration of sanitary sections means something. You can't tell me ..."
* * * * *
"They say they have beer," said the aspirant behind Martin in the long line of men who waited in the hot sun for the cope to open, while the dust the staff cars and camions raised as they whirred by on the road settled in a blanket over the village.
"Of course not," said the aspirant, laughing so that all the brilliant ivory teeth showed behind his red lips. "It'll be detestable. I'm getting it because it's rare, for sentimental reasons."
Martin laughed, looking in the man's brown face, a face in which all past expressions seemed to linger in the fine lines about the mouth and eyes and in the modelling of the cheeks and temples.
"You don't understand that," said the aspirant again.
"Indeed I do."
Later they sat on the edge of the stone wellhead in the courtyard behind the store, drinking warm beer out of tin cups blackened by wine, and staring at a tall barn that had crumpled at one end so that it looked, with its two frightened little square windows, like a cow kneeling down.
"Is it true that the ninety-second's going up to the lines to-night?"
"Yes, we're going up to make a little attack. Probably I'll come back in your little omnibus."
"I hope you won't."
"I'd be very glad to. A lucky wound! But I'll probably be killed. This is the first time I've gone up to the front that I didn't expect to be killed. So it'll probably happen."
Martin Howe could not help looking at him suddenly. The aspirant sat at ease on the stone margin of the well, leaning against the wrought iron support for the bucket, one knee clasped in his strong, heavily-veined hands. Dead he would be different. Martin's mind could hardly grasp the connection between this man full of latent energies, full of thoughts and desires, this man whose shoulder he would have liked to have put his arm round from friendliness, with whom he would have liked to go for long walks, with whom he would have liked to sit long into the night drinking and talking—and those huddled, pulpy masses of blue uniform half-buried in the mud of ditches.
"Have you ever seen a herd of cattle being driven to abattoir on a fine May morning?" asked the aspirant in a scornful, jaunty tone, as if he had guessed Martin's thoughts.
"I wonder what they think of it."
"It's not that I'm resigned.... Don't think that. Resignation is too easy. That's why the herd can be driven by a boy of six ... or a prime minister!"
Martin was sitting with his arms crossed. The fingers of one hand were squeezing the muscle of his forearm. It gave him pleasure to feel the smooth, firm modelling of his arm through his sleeve. And how would that feel when it was dead, when a steel splinter had slithered through it? A momentary stench of putrefaction filled his nostrils, making his stomach contract with nausea.
"I'm not resigned either," he shouted in a laugh. "I am going to do something some day, but first I must see. I want to be initiated in all the circles of hell."
"I'd play the part of Virgil pretty well," said the aspirant, "but I suppose Virgil was a staff officer."
"I must go," said Martin. "My name's Martin Howe, S.S.U. 84."
"Oh yes, you are quartered in the square. My name is Merrier. You'll probably carry me back in your little omnibus."
* * * * *
When Howe got back to where the cars were packed in a row in the village square, Randolph came up to him and whispered in his ear:
"The attack. It's to-morrow at three in the morning; instructions are going to be given out to-night."
A detonation behind them was like a blow on the head, making their ear-drums ring. The glass in the headlight of one of the cars tinkled to the ground.
"The 410 behind the church, that was. Pretty near knocks the wind out of you."
"Say, Randolph, have you heard the new orders?"
A tall, fair-haired man came out from the front of his car where he had been working on the motor, holding his grease-covered hands away from him.
"It's put off," he said, lowering his voice mysteriously. "D.J.'s not till day after to-morrow at four-twenty. But to-morrow we're going up to relieve the section that's coming out and take over the posts. They say it's hell up there. The Germans have a new gas that you can't smell at all. The other section's got about five men gassed, and a bunch of them have broken down. The posts are shelled all the time."
"Great," said Tom Randolph. "We'll see the real thing this time."
There was a whistling shriek overhead and all three of them fell in a heap on the ground in front of the car. There was a crash that echoed amid the house-walls, and a pillar of black smoke stood like a cypress tree at the other end of the village street.
"Talk about the real thing!" said Martin.
"Ole 410 evidently woke 'em up some."
* * * * *
It was the fifth time that day that Martin's car had passed the cross-roads where the calvary was. Someone had propped up the fallen crucifix so that it tilted dark despairing arms against the sunset sky where the sun gleamed like a huge copper kettle lost in its own steam. The rain made bright yellowish stripes across the sky and dripped from the cracked feet of the old wooden Christ, whose gaunt, scarred figure hung out from the tilted cross, swaying a little under the beating of the rain. Martin was wiping the mud from his hands after changing a wheel. He stared curiously at the fallen jowl and the cavernous eyes that had meant for some country sculptor ages ago the utterest agony of pain. Suddenly he noticed that where the crown of thorns had been about the forehead of the Christ someone had wound barbed wire. He smiled, and asked the swaying figure in his mind:
"And You, what do You think of it?"
For an instant he could feel wire barbs ripping through his own flesh.
He leaned over to crank the car.
The road was filled suddenly with the tramp and splash of troops marching, their wet helmets and their rifles gleaming in the coppery sunset. Even through the clean rain came the smell of filth and sweat and misery of troops marching. The faces under the helmets were strained and colourless and cadaverous from the weight of the equipment on their necks and their backs and their thighs. The faces drooped under the helmets, tilted to one side or the other, distorted and wooden like the face of the figure that dangled from the cross.
Above the splash of feet through mud and the jingle of equipment, came occasionally the ping, ping of shrapnel bursting at the next cross-roads at the edge of the woods.
Martin sat in the car with the motor racing, waiting for the end of the column.
One of the stragglers who floundered along through the churned mud of the road after the regular ranks had passed stopped still and looked up at the tilted cross. From the next cross-roads came, at intervals, the sharp twanging ping of shrapnel bursting.
The straggler suddenly began kicking feebly at the prop of the cross with his foot, and then dragged himself off after the column. The cross fell forward with a dull splintering splash into the mud of the road.
* * * * *
The road went down the hill in long zig-zags, through a village at the bottom where out of the mist that steamed from the little river a spire with a bent weathercock rose above the broken roof of the church, then up the hill again into the woods. In the woods the road stretched green and gold in the first horizontal sunlight. Among the thick trees, roofs covered with branches, were rows of long portable barracks with doors decorated with rustic work. At one place a sign announced in letters made of wattled sticks, Camp des Pommiers.
A few birds sang in the woods, and at a pump they passed a lot of men stripped to the waist who were leaning over washing, laughing and splashing in the sunlight. Every now and then, distant, metallic, the pong, pong, pong of a battery of seventy-fives resounded through the rustling trees.
"Looks like a camp meetin' ground in Georgia," said Tom Randolph, blowing his whistle to make two men carrying a large steaming pot on a pole between them get out of the way.
The road became muddier as they went deeper into the woods, and, turning into a cross-road, the car began slithering, skidding a little at the turns, through thick soupy mud. On either side the woods became broken and jagged, stumps and split boughs littering the ground, trees snapped off halfway up. In the air there was a scent of newly-split timber and of turned-up woodland earth, and among them a sweetish rough smell.
Covered with greenish mud, splashing the mud right and left with their great flat wheels, camions began passing them returning from the direction of the lines.
At last at a small red cross flag they stopped and ran the car into a grove of tall chestnuts, where they parked it beside another car of their section and lay down among the crisp leaves, listening to occasional shells whining far overhead. All through the wood was a continuous ping, pong, ping of batteries, with the crash of a big gun coming now and then like the growl of a bull-frog among the sing-song of small toads in a pond at night.
Through the trees from where they lay they could see the close-packed wooden crosses of a cemetery from which came a sound of spaded earth, and where, preceded by a priest in a muddy cassock, little two-wheeled carts piled with shapeless things in sacks kept being brought up and unloaded and dragged away again.
* * * * *
Showing alternately dark and light in the sun and shadow of the woodland road, a cook waggon, short chimney giving out blue smoke, and cauldrons steaming, clatters ahead of Martin and Randolph; the backs of two men in heavy blue coats, their helmets showing above the narrow driver's seat. On either side of the road short yellow flames keep spitting up, slanting from hidden guns amid a pandemonium of noise.
Up the road a sudden column of black smoke rises among falling trees. A louder explosion and the cook waggon in front of them vanishes in a new whirl of thick smoke. Accelerator pressed down, the car plunges along the rutted road, tips, and a wheel sinks in the new shell-hole. The hind wheels spin for a moment, spattering gravel about, and just as another roar comes behind them, bite into the road again and the car goes on, speeding through the alternate sun and shadow of the woods. Martin remembers the beating legs of a mule rolling on its back on the side of the road and, steaming in the fresh morning air, the purple and yellow and red of its ripped belly.
"Did you get the smell of almonds? I sort of like it," says Randolph, drawing a long breath as the car slowed down again.
* * * * *
The woods at night, fantastic blackness full of noise and yellow leaping flames from the mouths of guns. Now and then the sulphurous flash of a shell explosion and the sound of trees falling and shell fragments swishing through the air. At intervals over a little knoll in the direction of the trenches, a white star-shell falls slowly, making the trees and the guns among their tangle of hiding branches cast long green-black shadows, drowning the wood in a strange glare of desolation.
"Where the devil's the abri?"
Everything drowned in the detonations of three guns, one after the other, so near as to puff hot air in their faces in the midst of the blinding concussion.
"Look, Tom, this is foolish; the abri's right here."
"I haven't got it in my pocket, Howe. Damn those guns."
Again everything is crushed in the concussion of the guns.
They throw themselves on the ground as a shell shrieks and explodes. There is a moment's pause, and gravel and bits of bark tumble about their heads.
"We've got to find that abri. I wish I hadn't lost my flashlight."
"Here it is! No, that stinks too much. Must be the latrine."
"Damn, I ran into a tree. I found it."
"All right. Coming."
Martin held out his hand until Randolph bumped into it; then they stumbled together down the rough wooden steps, pulled aside the blanket that served to keep the light in, and found themselves blinking in the low tunnel of the abri.
Brancardiers were asleep in the two tiers of bunks that filled up the sides, and at the table at the end a lieutenant of the medical corps was writing by the light of a smoky lamp.
"They are landing some round here to-night," he said, pointing out two unoccupied bunks. "I'll call you when we need a car."
As he spoke, in succession the three big guns went off. The concussion put the lamp out.
"Damn," said Tom Randolph.
The lieutenant swore and struck a match.
"The red light of the poste de secours is out, too," said Martin.
"No use lighting it again with those unholy mortars.... It's idiotic to put a poste de secours in the middle of a battery like this."
The Americans lay down to try to sleep. Shell after shell exploded round the dugout, but regularly every few minutes came the hammer blows of the mortars, half the time putting the light out.
A shell explosion seemed to split the dugout and a piece of eclat whizzed through the blanket that curtained off the door. Someone tried to pick it up as it lay half-buried in the board floor, and pulled his fingers away quickly, blowing on them. The men turned over in the bunks and laughed, and a smile came over the drawn green face of a wounded man who sat very quiet behind the lieutenant, staring at the smoky flame of the lamp.
The curtain was pulled aside and a man staggered in holding with the other hand a limp arm twisted in a mud-covered sleeve, from which blood and mud dripped on to the floor.
"Hello, old chap," said the doctor quietly. A smell of disinfectant stole through the dugout.
Faint above the incessant throbbing of explosions, the sound of a claxon horn.
"Ha, gas," said the doctor. "Put on your masks, children." A man went along the dugout waking those who were asleep and giving out fresh masks. Someone stood in the doorway blowing a shrill whistle, then there was again the clamour of a claxon near at hand.
The band of the gas mask was tight about Martin's forehead, biting into the skin.
He and Randolph sat side by side on the edge of the bunk, looking out through the crinkled isinglass eyepieces at the men in the dugout, most of whom had gone to sleep again.
"God, I envy a man who can snore through a gas-mask," said Randolph.
Men's heads had a ghoulish look, strange large eyes and grey oilcloth flaps instead of faces.
Outside the constant explosions had given place to a series of swishing whistles, merging together into a sound as of water falling, only less regular, more sibilant. Occasionally there was the rending burst of a shell, and at intervals came the swinging detonations of the three guns. In the dugout, except for two men who snored loudly, raspingly, everyone was quiet.
Several stretchers with wounded men on them were brought in and laid in the end of the dugout.
Gradually, as the bombardment continued, men began sliding into the dugout, crowding together, touching each other for company, speaking in low voices through their masks.
"A mask, in the name of God, a mask!" a voice shouted, breaking into a squeal, and an unshaven man, with mud caked in his hair and beard, burst through the curtain. His eyelids kept up a continual trembling and the water streamed down both sides of his nose.
"O God," he kept talking in a rasping whisper, "O God, they're all killed. There were six mules on my waggon and a shell killed them all and threw me into the ditch. You can't find the road any more. They're all killed."
An orderly was wiping his face as if it were a child's.
"They're all killed and I lost my mask.... O God, this gas ..."
The doctor, a short man, looking like a gnome in his mask with its wheezing rubber nosepiece, was walking up and down with short, slow steps.
Suddenly, as three soldiers came in, drawing the curtain aside, he shouted in a shrill, high-pitched voice:
"Keep the curtain closed! Do you want to asphyxiate us?"
He strode up to the newcomers, his voice strident like an angry woman's. "What are you doing here? This is the poste de secours. Are you wounded?"
"But, my lieutenant, we can't stay outside ..."
"Where's your own cantonment? You can't stay here; you can't stay here," he shrieked.
"But, my lieutenant, our dugout's been hit."
"You can't stay here. You can't stay here. There's not enough room for the wounded. Name of God!"
"But, my lieutenant ..."
"Get the hell out of here, d'you hear?"
The men began stumbling out into the darkness, tightening the adjustments of their masks behind their heads.
The guns had stopped firing. There was nothing but the constant swishing and whistling of gas-shells, like endless pails of dirty water being thrown on gravel.
"We've been at it three hours," whispered Martin to Tom Randolph.
"God, suppose these masks need changing."
The sweat from Martin's face steamed in the eyepieces, blinding him.
"Any more masks?" he asked.
A brancardier handed him one. "There aren't any more in the abri."
"I have some more in the car," said Martin.
"I'll get one," cried Randolph, getting to his feet.
They started out of the door together. In the light that streamed out as they drew the flap aside they saw a tree opposite them. A shell exploded, it seemed, right on top of them; the tree rose and bowed towards them and fell.
"Are you all there, Tom?" whispered Martin, his ears ringing.
"Bet your life."
Someone pulled them back into the abri. "Here; we've found another."
Martin lay down on the bunk again, drawing with difficulty each breath. His lips had a wet, decomposed feeling.
At the wrist of the arm he rested his head on, the watch ticked comfortably.
He began to think how ridiculous it would be if he, Martin Howe, should be extinguished like this. The gas-mask might be defective.
God, it would be silly.
Outside the gas-shells were still coming in. The lamp showed through a faint bluish haze. Everyone was still waiting.