THE VALLEY OF VISION
A BOOK OF ROMANCE
AND SOME HALF-TOLD TALES
BY HENRY VAN DYKE
"Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions."
TO MY CHILDREN
AND CHILDREN'S CHILDREN
WHO MAY REMEMBER THESE TROUBLOUS TIMES WHEN WE ARE GONE ON NEW ADVENTURE
"Why do you choose such a title as The Valley of Vision for your book," said my friend; "do you mean that one can see farther from the valley than from the mountain-top?"
This question set me thinking, as every honest question ought to do. Here is the result of my thoughts, which you will take for what it is worth, if you care to read the book.
The mountain-top is the place of outlook over the earth and the sea. But it is in the valley of suffering, endurance, and self-sacrifice that the deepest visions of the meaning of life come to us.
I take the outcome of this Twentieth Century War as a victory over the mad illusion of world-dominion which the Germans saw from the peak of their military power in 1914. The united force of the Allies has grown, through valley-visions of right and justice and human kindness, into an irresistible might before which the German "will to power" has gone down in ruin.
There are some Half-Told Tales in the volume—fables, fantasies—mere sketches, grave and gay, on the margin of the book of life,
"Where more is meant than meets the ear."
Dreams have a part in most of the longer stories. That is because I believe dreams have a part in real life. Some of them we remember as vividly as any actual experience. These belong to the imperfect sleep. But others we do not remember, because they are given to us in that perfect sleep in which the soul is liberated, and goes visiting. Yet sometimes we get a trace of them, by a happy chance, and often their influence remains with us in that spiritual refreshment with which we awake from profound slumber. This is the meaning of that verse in the old psalm: "He giveth to His beloved in sleep."
The final story in the book was written before the War of 1914 began, and it has to do with the Light of the World, leading us through conflict and suffering towards Peace.
AVALON, November 24, 1918.
A Remembered Dream Antwerp Road A City of Refuge A Sanctuary of Trees The King's High Way HALF-TOLD TALES The Traitor in the House Justice of the Elements Ashes of Vengeance The Broken Soldier and the Maid of France The Hearing Ear Sketches of Quebec A Classic Instance HALF-TOLD TALES The New Era and Carry On The Primitive and His Sandals Diana and the Lions The Hero and Tin Soldiers Salvage Point The Boy of Nazareth Dreams
The sails and smoke-stacks of great shift were visible, all passing out to sea
The cathedral spire... was swaying and rocking in the air like the mast of a ship at sea
All were fugitives, anxious to be gone... and making no more speed than a creeping snail's pace of unutterable fatigue
"I will ask you to choose between your old home and your new home now"
"I'm going to carry you in, 'spite of hell"
"I was a lumberjack"
"I am going to become a virtuous peasant, a son of the soil, a primitive"
The Finding of Christ in the Temple
A REMEMBERED DREAM
This is the story of a dream that came to me some five-and-twenty years ago. It is as vivid in memory as anything that I have ever seen in the outward world, as distinct as any experience through which I have ever passed. Not all dreams are thus remembered. But some are. In the records of the mind, where the inner chronicle of life is written, they are intensely clear and veridical. I shall try to tell the story of this dream with an absolute faithfulness, adding nothing and leaving nothing out, but writing the narrative just as if the thing were real.
Perhaps it was. Who can say?
In the course of a journey, of the beginning and end of which I know nothing, I had come to a great city, whose name, if it was ever told me, I cannot recall.
It was evidently a very ancient place. The dwelling-houses and larger buildings were gray and beautiful with age, and the streets wound in and out among them wonderfully, like a maze.
This city lay beside a river or estuary—though that was something that I did not find out until later, as you will see—and the newer part of the town extended mainly on a wide, bare street running along a kind of low cliff or embankment, where the basements of the small houses on the water-side went down, below the level of the street, to the shore. But the older part of the town was closely and intricately built, with gabled roofs and heavy carved facades hanging over the narrow stone-paved ways, which here and there led out suddenly into open squares.
It was in what appeared to be the largest and most important of these squares that I was standing, a little before midnight. I had left my wife and our little girl in the lodging which we had found, and walked out alone to visit the sleeping town.
The night sky was clear, save for a few filmy clouds, which floated over the face of the full moon, obscuring it for an instant, but never completely hiding it—like veils in a shadow dance. The spire of the great cathedral was silver filigree on the moonlit side, and on the other side, black lace. The square was empty. But on the broad, shallow steps in front of the main entrance of the cathedral two heroic figures were seated. At first I thought they were statues. Then I perceived they were alive, and talking earnestly together.
They were like Greek gods, very strong and beautiful, and naked but for some slight drapery that fell snow-white around them. They glistened in the moonlight. I could not hear what they were saying; yet I could see that they were in a dispute which went to the very roots of life.
They resembled each other strangely in form and feature—like twin brothers. But the face of one was noble, lofty, calm, full of a vast regret and compassion. The face of the other was proud, resentful, drawn with passion. He appeared to be accusing and renouncing his companion, breaking away from an ancient friendship in a swift, implacable hatred. But the companion seemed to plead with him, and lean toward him, and try to draw him closer.
A strange fear and sorrow shook my heart. I felt that this mysterious contest was something of immense importance; a secret, ominous strife; a menace to the world.
Then the two figures stood up, marvellously alike in strength and beauty, yet absolutely different in expression and bearing, the one serene and benignant, the other fierce and threatening. The quiet one was still pleading, with a hand laid upon the other's shoulder. But he shook it off, and thrust his companion away with a proud, impatient gesture.
At last I heard him speak.
"I have done with you," he cried. "I do not believe in you. I have no more need of you. I renounce you. I will live without you. Away forever out of my life!"
At this a look of ineffable sorrow and pity came upon the great companion's face.
"You are free," he answered. "I have only besought you, never constrained you. Since you will have it so, I must leave you, now, to yourself."
He rose into the air, still looking downward with wise eyes full of grief and warning, until he vanished in silence beyond the thin clouds.
The other did not look up, but lifting his head with a defiant laugh, shook his shoulders as if they were free of a burden. He strode swiftly around the corner of the cathedral and disappeared among the deep shadows.
A sense of intolerable calamity fell upon me. I said to myself:
"That was Man! And the other was God! And they have parted!"
Then the multitude of bells hidden in the lace-work of the high tower began to sound. It was not the aerial fluttering music of the carillon that I remembered hearing long ago from the belfries of the Low Countries. This was a confused and strident ringing, jangled and broken, full of sudden tumults and discords, as if the tower were shaken and the bells gave out their notes at hazard, in surprise and trepidation.
It stopped as suddenly as it began. The great bell of the hours struck twelve. The windows of the cathedral glowed faintly with a light from within.
"It is New Year's Eve," I thought—although I knew perfectly well that the time was late summer. I had seen that though the leaves on the trees of the square were no longer fresh, they had not yet fallen.
I was certain that I must go into the cathedral. The western entrance was shut. I hurried to the south side. The dark, low door of the transept was open. I went in. The building was dimly lighted by huge candles which flickered and smoked like torches. I noticed that one of them, fastened against a pillar, was burning crooked, and the tallow ran down its side in thick white tears.
The nave of the church was packed with a vast throng of people, all standing, closely crowded together, like the undergrowth in a forest. The rood-screen was open, or broken down, I could not tell which. The choir was bare, like a clearing in the woods, and filled with blazing light.
On the high steps, with his back to the altar, stood Man, his face gleaming with pride.
"I am the Lord!" he cried. "There is none above me! No law, no God! Man is power. Man is the highest of all!"
A tremor of wonder and dismay, of excitement and division, shivered through the crowd. Some covered their faces. Others stretched out their hands. Others shook their fists in the air. A tumult of voices broke from the multitude—voices of exultation, and anger, and horror, and strife.
The floor of the cathedral was moved and lifted by a mysterious ground-swell. The pillars trembled and wavered. The candles flared and went out. The crowd, stricken dumb with a panic fear, rushed to the doors, burst open the main entrance, and struggling in furious silence poured out of the building. I was swept along with them, striving to keep on my feet.
One thought possessed me. I must get to my wife and child, save them, bring them out of this accursed city.
As I hurried across the square I looked up at the cathedral spire. It was swaying and rocking in the air like the mast of a ship at sea. The lace-work fell from it in blocks of stone. The people rushed screaming through the rain of death. Many were struck down, and lay where they fell.
I ran as fast as I could. But it was impossible to run far. Every street and alley vomited men—all struggling together, fighting, shouting, or shrieking, striking one another down, trampling over the fallen—a hideous melee. There was an incessant rattling noise in the air, and heavier peals as of thunder shook the houses. Here a wide rent yawned in a wall—there a roof caved in—the windows fell into the street in showers of broken glass.
How I got through this inferno I do not know. Buffeted and blinded, stumbling and scrambling to my feet again, turning this way or that way to avoid the thickest centres of the strife, oppressed and paralyzed by a feeling of impotence that put an iron band around my heart, driven always by the intense longing to reach my wife and child, somehow I had a sense of struggling on. Then I came into a quieter quarter of the town, and ran until I reached the lodging where I had left them.
They were waiting just inside the door, anxious and trembling. But I was amazed to find them so little panic-stricken. The little girl had her doll in her arms.
"What is it?" asked my wife. "What must we do?"
"Come," I cried. "Something frightful has happened here. I can't explain now. We must get away at once. Come, quickly."
Then I took a hand of each and we hastened through the streets, vaguely steering away from the centre of the city.
Presently we came into that wide new street of mean houses, of which I have already spoken. There were a few people in it, but they moved heavily and feebly, as if some mortal illness lay upon them. Their faces were pale and haggard with a helpless anxiety to escape more quickly. The houses seemed half deserted. The shades were drawn, the doors closed.
But since it was all so quiet, I thought that we might find some temporary shelter there. So I knocked at the door of a house where there was a dim light behind the drawn shade in one of the windows.
After a while the door was opened by a woman who held the end of her shawl across her mouth. All that I could see was the black sorrow of her eyes.
"Go away," she said slowly; "the plague is here. My children are dying of it. You must not come in! Go away."
So we hurried on through that plague-smitten street, burdened with a new fear. Soon we saw a house on the riverside which looked absolutely empty. The shades were up, the windows open, the door stood ajar. I hesitated; plucked up courage; resolved that we must get to the waterside in some way in order to escape from the net of death which encircled us.
"Come," I said, "let us try to go down through this house. But cover your mouths."
We groped through the empty passageway, and down the basement-stair. The thick cobwebs swept my face. I noted them with joy, for I thought they proved that the house had been deserted for some time, and so perhaps it might not be infected.
We descended into a room which seemed to have been the kitchen. There was a stove dimly visible at one side, and an old broken kettle on the floor, over which we stumbled. The back door was locked. But it swung outward as I broke it open. We stood upon a narrow, dingy beach, where the small waves were lapping.
By this time the "little day" had begun to whiten the eastern sky; a pallid light was diffused; I could see westward down to the main harbor, beside the heart of the city. The sails and smoke-stacks of great ships were visible, all passing out to sea. I wished that we were there.
Here in front of us the water seemed shallower. It was probably only a tributary or backwater of the main stream. But it was sprinkled with smaller vessels—sloops, and yawls, and luggers—all filled with people and slowly creeping seaward.
There was one little boat, quite near to us, which seemed to be waiting for some one. There were some people on it, but it was not crowded.
"Come," I said, "this is for us. We must wade out to it."
So I took my wife by the hand, and the child in the other arm, and we went into the water. Soon it came up to our knees, to our waists.
"Hurry," shouted the old man at the tiller. "No time to spare!"
"Just a minute more," I answered, "only one minute!"
That minute seemed like a year. The sail of the boat was shaking in the wind. When it filled she must move away. We waded on, and at last I grasped the gunwale of the boat. I lifted the child in and helped my wife to climb over the side. They clung to me. The little vessel began to move gently away.
"Get in," cried the old man sharply; "get in quick."
But I felt that I could not, I dared not. I let go of the boat. I cried "Good-by," and turned to wade ashore.
I was compelled to go back to the doomed city. I must know what would come of the parting of Man from God!
The tide was running out more swiftly. The water swirled around my knees. I awoke.
But the dream remained with me, just as I have told it to you.
Along the straight, glistening road, through a dim arcade of drooping trees, a tunnel of faded green and gold, dripping with the misty rain of a late October afternoon, a human tide was flowing, not swiftly, but slowly, with the patient, pathetic slowness of weary feet, and numb brains, and heavy hearts.
Yet they were in haste, all of these old men and women, fathers and mothers, and little children; they were flying as fast as they could; either away from something that they feared, or toward something that they desired.
That was the strange thing—the tide on the road flowed in two directions.
Some fled away from ruined homes to escape the perils of war. Some fled back to ruined homes to escape the desolation of exile. But all were fugitives, anxious to be gone, striving along the road one way or the other, and making no more speed than a creeping snail's pace of unutterable fatigue. I saw many separate things in the tide, and remembered them without noting.
A boy straining to push a wheelbarrow with his pale mother in it, and his two little sisters trudging at his side. A peasant with his two girls driving their lean, dejected cows back to some unknown pasture. A bony horse tugging at a wagon heaped high with bedding and household gear, on top of which sat the wrinkled grandmother with the tiniest baby in her arms, while the rest of the family stumbled alongside—and the cat was curled up on the softest coverlet in the wagon. Two panting dogs, with red tongues hanging out, and splayed feet clawing the road, tugging a heavy-laden cart while the master pushed behind and the woman pulled in the shafts. Strange, antique vehicles crammed with passengers. Couples and groups and sometimes larger companies of foot-travellers. Now and then a solitary man or woman, old and shabby, bundle on back, eyes on the road, plodding through the mud and the mist, under the high archway of yellowing leaves.
All these distinct pictures I saw, yet it was all one vision—a vision of humanity with its dumb companions in flight—infinitely slow, painful, pitiful flight!
I saw no tears, I heard no cries of complaint. But beneath the numb and patient haste on all those dazed faces I saw a question.
"What have we done? Why has this thing come upon us and our children?"
Somewhere I heard a trumpet blown. The brazen spikes on the helmets of a little troop of German soldiers flashed for an instant, far down the sloppy road. Through the humid dusk came the dull, distant booming of the unseen guns of conquest in Flanders.
That was the only answer.
A CITY OF REFUGE
In the dark autumn of 1914 the City sprang up almost in a night, as if by enchantment.
It was white magic that called it into being—the deep, quiet, strong impulse of compassion and protection that moved the motherly heart of Holland when she saw the hundreds of thousands of Belgian fugitives pouring out of their bleeding, ravaged land, and running, stumbling, creeping on hands and knees, blindly, instinctively turning to her for safety and help.
"Come to me," she said, like a good woman who holds out her arms and spreads her knees to make a lap for tired and frightened children, "come to me. I will take care of you. You shall be safe with me."
All doors were open. The little brick farmhouses and cottages with their gayly painted window-shutters; the long rows of city houses with their steep gables; the prim and placid country mansions set among their high trees and formal flower-gardens—all kinds of dwellings, from the poorest to the richest, welcomed these guests of sorrow and distress. Many a humble family drained its savings-bank reservoir to keep the stream of its hospitality flowing. Unused factories were turned into barracks. Deserted summer hotels were filled up. Even empty greenhouses were adapted to the need of human horticulture. All Holland was enrolled, formally or informally, in a big Comite voor Belgische Slachtoffers.
But soon it was evident that the impromptu methods of generosity could not meet the demands of the case. Private resources were exhausted. Poor people could no longer feed and clothe their poorer guests. Families were unhappily divided. In the huge flock of exiles driven out by the cruel German Terror there were goats as well as sheep, and some of them bewildered and shocked the orderly Dutch homes where they were sheltered, by their nocturnal habits and negligible morals. Something had to be done to bring order and system into the chaos of brotherly love. Otherwise the neat Dutch mind which is so close to the Dutch heart could not rest in its bed. This vast trouble which the evil of German militarism had thrust upon a helpless folk must be helped out by a wise touch of military organization, which is a good thing even for the most peaceful people.
So it was that the City of Refuge (and others like it) grew up swiftly in the wilderness.
It stands in the heathland that slopes and rolls from the wooded hills of Gelderland to the southern shore of the Zuider Zee—a sandy country overgrown with scrub-oaks and pines and heather—yet very healthy and well drained, and not unfertile under cultivation. You may see that in the little neighbor-village, where the trees arch over the streets, and the kitchen-gardens prosper, and the shrubs and flowers bloom abundantly.
The small houses and hotels of this tiny summer resort are of brick. It has an old, well-established look; a place of relaxation with restraint, not of ungirdled frivolity. The plain Dutch people love their holidays, but they take them serenely and by rule: long walks and bicycle-rides, placid and nourishing picnics in the woods or by the sea, afternoon tea-parties in sheltered arbors. One of their favorite names for a country-place is Wel Teweden, "perfectly contented."
The commandant of the City of Refuge lives in one of the little brick houses of the village. He is a portly, rosy old bachelor, with a curly brown beard and a military bearing; a man of fine education and wide experience, seasoned in colonial diplomacy. The ruling idea in his mind is discipline, authority. His official speech is abrupt and final, the manner of a martinet covering a heart full of kindness and generous impulses.
"Come," he says, after a good breakfast, "I want you to see my camp. It is not as fine and fancy as the later ones. But we built it in a hurry and we had it ready on time."
A short ride over a sandy road brings you to the city gate—an opening in the wire enclosure of perhaps two or three square miles among the dwarf pines and oaks. The guard-house is kept by a squad of Dutch soldiers. But it is in no sense a prison-camp, for people are coming and going freely all the time, and the only rules within are those of decency and good order.
"Capacity, ten thousand," says the commandant, sweeping his hand around the open circle, "quite a city, niet waar? I will show you the various arrangements."
All the buildings are of wood, a mushroom city, but constructed with intelligence to meet the needs of the sudden, helpless population. You visit the big kitchen with its ever-simmering kettles; the dining-halls with their long tables and benches; the schoolhouses full of lively, irrepressible children; the wash-house where always talkative and jocose laundresses are scrubbing and wringing the clothes; the sewing-rooms where hundreds of women and girls are busy with garments and gossip; the chapel where religious services are held by the devoted pastors; the recreation-room which is the social centre of the city; the clothing storerooms where you find several American girls working for love.
Then you go through the long family barracks where each family has a separate cubicle, more or less neat and comfortable, sometimes prettily decorated, according to the family taste and habit; the barracks for the single men; the barracks for the single women; the two hospitals, one general, the other for infectious diseases; and last of all, the house where the half-dozen disorderly women are confined, surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire and guarded by a sentry.
Poor, wretched creatures! You are sorry for them. Why not put the disorderly men into a house of confinement, too?
"Ah," says the commandant bluntly, "we find it easier and better to send the disorderly men to jail or hospital in some near town. We are easier with the women. I pity them. But they are full of poison. We can't let them go loose in the camp for fear of infection."
How many of the roots of human nature are uncovered in a place like this! The branches and the foliage and the blossoms, too, are seen more clearly in this air where all things are necessarily open and in common.
The men are generally less industrious than the women. But they work willingly at the grading of roads and paths, the laying out and planting of flower-beds, the construction of ornamental designs, of doubtful taste but unquestionable sincerity.
You read the names which they have given to the different streets and barracks, and the passageways between the cubicles, and you understand the strong, instinctive love which binds them to their native Belgium. "Antwerp Avenue," "Louvain Avenue," "Malines Street," "Liege Street," and streets bearing the names of many ruined towns and villages of which you have never heard, but which are forever dear to the hearts of these exiles. The names of the hero-king, Albert, and of his brave consort, Queen Elizabeth, are honored by inscriptions, and their pictures, cut from, newspapers, decorate the schoolrooms and the little family cubicles.
The brutal power which reigns at Berlin may drive the Belgians out of Belgium by terror and oppression. But it cannot drive Belgium out of the hearts of the Belgians. While they live their country lives, and Albert is still their King.
But think of the unnatural conditions into which these thousands of human beings—yes, and hundreds of thousands like them, torn from their homes, uprooted, dispersed, impoverished—are forced by this bitter, cruel war. Think of the cold and ruined hearthstones, the scattered families, the shelterless children, the desolate and broken hearts. This is what Germany has inflicted upon mankind in order to realize her robber-dream!
Yet the City of Refuge, being human, has its bright spots and its bits of compensation. Here is one, out of many.
The chief nurse, a young Dutch lady of charming face and manners, serving as a volunteer under the sacred sign of the Red Cross, comes in, one morning, to make her report to the commandant.
"Well," he says, disguising in his big voice of command the warm admiration which he feels for the lady, "what is the trouble to-day? Speak up."
"Nothing, sir," she answers calmly. "Everything is going on pretty well. No new cases of measles—those in hospital improving. The only thing that bothers me is the continual complaint about that Mrs. Van Orley—you remember her, a thin, dark little person. She is melancholy and morose, quarrels all the time, says some one has stolen her children. The people near her in the barracks complain that she disturbs them at night, moans and talks aloud in her sleep, jumps up and runs down the corridor laughing or crying: 'Here they are!' They don't believe she ever had any children. They think she is crazy and want her put out. But I don't agree with that. I think she has had children, and now she has dreams."
"Send her away," growls the commandant; "send her to a sanatorium! This camp is not a lunatic asylum."
"But," interposes the nurse in her most discreet voice, "she is really a very nice woman. If you would allow me to take her on as a housemaid in the general hospital, I think I could make something out of her; at least I should like to try."
"Have your own way," says the commandant, relenting; "you always do. Now tell me the next trouble. You have something more up your sleeve, I'm sure."
"Babies," she replies demurely; "two babies from Amsterdam. Lost, somehow or other, in the flight. No trace of their people. A family in Zaandam has been taking care of them, but can't afford it any longer. So the Amsterdam committee has sent them here."
The commandant has listened, his cheeks growing redder and redder, his eyes rounder and more prominent. He springs up and paces the floor in wrath.
"Babies!" he cries stormily. "By all the gods, da—those Amsterdammers! Excuse me, but this is too much. Do they think this is a foundling asylum? or a nursing home? Babies! What in Heaven's name am I to do with them? Babies! Where are those babies?"
"Just outside, and very nice babies indeed," says the nurse, opening the hall door and giving a soft call.
Enter a slim black-haired boy of about three and a half years and a plump golden-haired girl about a year younger. They toddle to the nurse and snuggle against her blue dress and white apron.
Smiling she guides them toward the commandant and says: "Here they are, sir. How do you like them?"
That terrific personage has been suddenly transformed from haircloth into silk. He beams, and pulling out his fat gold watch, coos like a hoarse dove: "Look here, kinderen, come and hear the bells in my tick-tock!"
Presently he has one of them leaning against the inside of each knee, listening ardently to the watch.
"What do you think of that!" he says. "What is your name, youngster?"
"Hendrik," answers the boy, looking up.
"Hendrik what? You have another name, haven't you?"
The boy shakes his head and looks puzzled, as if the thought of two names were too much for him. "Hendrik," he repeats more clearly and firmly.
"And what is her name?" asks the commandant, patting the little girl.
"Sooss," answers the boy. "Mama say 'ickle angel.' Hendrik say Sooss."
All effort to get any more information from the children was fruitless. They were too small to remember much, and what they did remember was of their own size—only very little things, of no importance except to themselves. The commandant looks at the nurse quizzically.
"Now, miss, you have unloaded these vague babies on me. What do you propose that I should do with them? Adopt them?"
"Not yet, anyhow," she answers, smiling broadly. "Let us take them up to the camp. I'll bet we can find some one there to look after them. What do you say, sir?"
"Well, well," he sighs, "have your own way as usual! Just ring that bell for the automobile, als't-Ublieft."
In the busy sewing-room the two children are standing up on one of the tables. The commandant has an arm around each of them, for they are a little frightened by so much noise and so many eyes looking at them. The chatter dies down, as he speaks in his gruff authoritative voice, but with a twinkle in his eyes, rather like a middle-aged Santa Claus.
"Look here! I've got two fine babies."
A titter runs through the room.
"Ja, Men'eer," says one of the women, "congratulations! They are lievelingen—darlings!"
"Silence!" growls the commandant amiably. "None of your impudence, you women. Look here! These two children—I want somebody to adopt them, or at least to take care of them. I will pay for them. Their names are Hendrik and—"
A commotion at the lower end of the room. A thin, dark little woman is standing up, waving her piece of sewing like a flag, her big eyes flaming with excitement.
"Stop!" she cries, hurrying and stumbling forward through the crowd of women and girls. "Oh, stop a minute! They are mine—I lost them—mine, I tell you—lost—mine!"
She reaches the head of the table and flings her arms around the boy, crying: "My Hendrik!"
The boy hesitates a second, startled by the sudden wildness of her caress. Then he presses his hot little face in her neck.
"Lieve moeder!" he murmurs. "Where was you? I looked."
But the thin, dark little woman has fainted dead away.
The rest we will leave, as the wise commandant does, to the chief nurse.
A SANCTUARY OF TREES
The Baron d'Azan was old—older even than his seventy years. His age showed by contrast as he walked among his trees. They were fresh and flourishing, full of sap and vigor, though many of them had been born long before him.
The tracts of forest which still belonged to his diminished estate were crowded with the growths native to the foot-hills of the Ardennes. In the park around the small chateau, built in a Belgian version of the First Empire style, trees from many lands had been assembled by his father and grandfather: drooping spruces from Norway, dark-pillared cypresses from Italy, spreading cedars from Lebanon, trees of heaven from China, fern-leaved gingkos from Japan, lofty tulip-trees and liquidambars from America, and fantastic sylvan forms from islands of the Southern Ocean. But the royal avenue of beeches! Well, I must tell you more about that, else you can never feel the meaning of this story.
The love of trees was hereditary in the family and antedated their other nobility. The founder of the house had begun life as the son of a forester in Luxemburg. His name was Pol Staar. His fortune and title were the fruit of contracts for horses and provisions which he made with the commissariat of Napoleon I. in the days when the Netherlands were a French province. But though Pol Staar's hands were callous and his manners plain, his tastes were aristocratic. They had been formed young in the company of great trees.
Therefore when he bought his estate of Azan (and took his title from it) he built his chateau in a style which he considered complimentary to his imperial patron, but he was careful also to include within his domain large woodlands in which he could renew the allegiance of his youth. These woodlands he cherished and improved, cutting with discretion, planting with liberality, and rejoicing in the thought that trees like those which had befriended his boyhood would give their friendly protection to his heirs. These are traits of an aristocrat—attachment to the past, and careful provision for posterity. It was in this spirit that Pol Staar, first Baron d'Azan, planted in 1809 the broad avenue of beeches, leading from the chateau straight across the park to the highroad. But he never saw their glory, for he died when they were only twenty years old.
His son and successor was of a different timber and grain; less aristocratic, more bourgeois—a rover, a gambler, a man of fashion. He migrated from the gaming-tables at Spa to the Bourse at Paris, perching at many clubs between and beyond, and making seasonal nests in several places. This left him little time for the Chdteau d'Azan. But he came there every spring and autumn, and showed the family fondness for trees in his own fashion. He loved the forests so much that he ate them. He cut with liberality and planted without discretion. But for the great avenue of beeches he had a saving admiration. Not even to support the gaming-table would he have allowed them to be felled.
When he turned the corner of his thirty-first year he had a sharp illness, a temporary reformation, and brought home as his wife a very young lovely actress from the ducal theatre at Saxe-Meiningen. She was a good girl, deeply in love with her handsome husband, to whom she bore a son and heir in the first year of their marriage. Not many moons thereafter the pleased but restless father slid back into his old rounds again. The forest waned and the debts waxed. Rumors of wild doings came from Spa and Aix, from Homburg and Baden, from Trouville and Ostend. After four years of this the young mother died, of no namable disease, unless you call it heart-failure, and the boy was left to his grandmother's care and company among the trees.
Every day when it was fair the old lady and the little lad took their afternoon walk together in the beech-tree avenue, where the tips of the branches now reached the road. At other times he roamed the outlying woods and learned to know the birds and the little wild animals. When he was twelve his grandmother died. After that he was left mainly to the housekeeper, his tutors, and the few friends he could make among the children of the neighborhood.
When he had finished his third year at the University of Louvain and attained his majority, his father returned express-haste from somewhere in Bohemia, to attend the coronation of Leopold II, that remarkable King of Belgium and the Bourse. But by this time the gay Baron d'Azan had become stout, the pillar of his neck seemed shorter because it was thicker, and the rose in his bold cheek had the purplish tint of a crimson rambler. So he died of an apoplexy during the festivities, and his son brought him back to the Chateau d'Azan, and buried him there with due honor, and mourned for him as was fitting. Thus Albert, third Baron d'Azan, entered upon his inheritance.
It seemed, at first, to consist mainly of debts. These were paid by the sale of the deforested lands and of certain detached woodlands. By the same method, much as he disliked it, he made a modest provision of money for continuing his education and beginning his travels. He knew that he had much to learn of the world, and he was especially desirous of pursuing his favorite study of botany, which a wise old priest at Louvain had taught him to love. So he engaged an intelligent and faithful forester to care for the trees and the estate, closed the house, and set forth on his journeys.
They led him far and wide. In the course of them no doubt he studied other things than botany. It may be that he sowed some of the wild oats with which youth is endowed; but not in the gardens of others; nor with that cold self-indulgence which transforms passionate impulse into sensual habit. He had a permanent and regulative devotion to botanical research; and that is a study which seems to promote modesty, tranquillity, and steadiness of mind in its devotees, of whom the great Linnaeus is the shining exemplar. Young Albert d'Azan sat at the feet of the best masters in Europe and America. He crossed the western continent to observe the oldest of living things, the giant Sequoias of California. He went to Australasia and the Dutch East Indies and South America in search of new ferns and orchids. He investigated the effect of ocean currents and of tribal migrations in the distribution of trees. His botanical monographs brought him renown among those who know, and he was elected a corresponding member of many scientific societies. After twenty years of voyaging he returned to port at Azan, richly laden with observation and learning, and settled down among his trees to pursue his studies and write his books.
The estate, under the forester's care, had improved a little and promised a modest income. The house, though somewhat dilapidated, was easily made livable. But the one thing that was full of glory and splendor, triumphantly prosperous, was the great avenue of beeches. Their long, low aisle of broad arches was complete. They shimmered with a pearly mist of buds in early spring and later with luminous green of tender leafage. In mid-summer they formed a wide, still stream of dark, unruffled verdure; in autumn they were transmuted through glowing yellow into russet gold; in winter their massy trunks were pillars of gray marble and the fan-tracery of their rounded branches was delicately etched against the sky.
"Look at them," the baron would say to the guests whom the fame of his learning and the charm of his wide-ranging conversation often brought to his house. "Those beeches were planted by my grandfather after the battle of Wagram, when Napoleon whipped the Austrians. After that came the Beresina and Leipsic and Waterloo and how many battles and wars of furious, perishable men. Yet the trees live on peaceably, they unfold their strength in beauty, they have not yet reached the summit of their grandeur. We are all parvenus beside them."
"If you had to choose," asked the great sculptor Constantin Meunier one day, "would you have your house or one of these trees struck by lightning?"
"The house," answered the botanist promptly, "for I could rebuild it in a year; but to restore the tree would take three-quarters of a century."
"Also," said the sculptor, with a smile, "you might change the style of your house with advantage, but the style of these trees you could never improve."
"But tell me," he continued, "is it true, as they say, that lightning never strikes a beech?"
"It is not entirely true," replied the botanist, smiling in his turn, "yet, like many ancient beliefs, it has some truth in it. There is something in the texture of the beech that seems to resist electricity better than other trees. It may be the fatness of the wood. Whatever it is, I am glad of it, for it gives my trees a better chance."
"Don't be too secure," said the sculptor, shaking his head. "There are other tempests besides those in the clouds. When the next war comes in western Europe Belgium will be the battle-field. Beech-wood is very good to burn."
"God forbid," said the baron devoutly. "We have had peace for a quarter of a century. Why should it not last?"
"Ask the wise men of the East," replied the sculptor grimly.
When he was a little past fifty the baron married, with steadfast choice and deep affection, the orphan daughter of a noble family of Hainault. She was about half his age; of a tranquil, cheerful temper and a charm that depended less on feature than on expression; a lover of music, books, and a quiet life. She brought him a small dowry by which the chateau was restored to comfort, and bore him two children, a boy and a girl, by whom it was enlivened with natural gayety. The next twenty years were the happiest that Albert d'Azan and his wife ever saw. The grand avenue of beeches became to them the unconscious symbol of something settled and serene, august, protective, sacred.
On a brilliant morning of early April, 1914, they had stepped out together to drink the air. The beeches were in misty, silver bloom above them. All around was peace and gladness.
"I want to tell you a dream I had last night," he said, "a strange dream about our beeches."
"If it was sad," she answered, "do not let the shadow of it fall on the morning."
"But it was not sad. It seemed rather to bring light and comfort. I dreamed that I was dead and you had buried me at the foot of the largest of the trees."
"Do you call that not sad?" she interrupted reproachfully.
"It did not seem so. Wait a moment and you shall hear the way of it. At first I felt only a deep quietness and repose, like one who has been in pain and is very tired and lies down in the shade to sleep. Then I was waking again and something was drawing me gently upward. I cannot exactly explain it, but it was as if I were passing through the roots and the trunk and the boughs of the beech-tree toward the upper air. There I saw the light again and heard the birds singing and the wind rustling among the leaves. How I saw and heard I cannot tell you, for there was no remembrance of a body in my dream. Then suddenly my soul—I suppose it was that—stood before God and He was asking me: 'How did you come hither?' I answered, 'By Christ's way, by the way of a tree.' And He said it was well, and that my work in heaven should be the care of the trees growing by the river of life, and that sometimes I could go back to visit my trees on earth, if I wished. That made me very glad, for I knew that so I should see you and our children under the beeches. And while I was wondering whether you would ever know that I was there, the dream dissolved, and I saw the morning light on the tree-tops. What do you think of my dream? Childish, wasn't it?"
She thought a little before she answered.
"It was natural enough, though vague. Of course we could not be buried at the foot of the beech-tree unless Cardinal Mercier would permit a plot of ground to be consecrated there. But come, it is time to go in to breakfast."
She seemed to dismiss the matter from her mind. Yet, as women so often do, she kept all these sayings and pondered them in her heart.
The promise of spring passed into the sultry heat of summer. The storm-cloud of the twentieth century blackened over Europe. The wise men of Berlin made mad by pride, devoted the world not to the Prince of Peace but to the lords of war. In the first week of August the fury of the German invasion broke on Belgium. No one had dared to dream the terrors of that tempest. It was like a return of the Dark Ages. Every home trembled. The pillars of the tranquil house of Azan were shaken.
The daughter was away at school in England, and that was an unmixed blessing. The son was a lieutenant in the Belgian army; and that was right and glorious, but it was also a dreadful anxiety. The father and mother were divided in mind, Whether to stay or take flight with their friends. At last the father decided the hard question.
"It is our duty to stay. We cannot fight for our country, but we can suffer with her. Our daughter is in safety; our son's danger we cannot and would not prevent. How could we really live away from here, our home, our trees? I went to consult the cardinal. He stays, and he advises us to do so. He says that will be the best way to show our devotion. As Christians we must endure the evil that we cannot prevent; but as Belgians our hearts will never consent to it."
That was their attitude as the tide of blood and tears drew nearer to them, surrounded them, swept beyond them, engulfed the whole land. The brutal massacres at Andenne and Dinant were so near that the news arrived before the spilt blood was dry. The exceeding great and bitter cry of anguish came to them from a score of neighboring villages, from a hundred lonely farmhouses. The old botanist withered and faded daily; his wife grew pale and gray. Yet they walked their via crucis together, and kept their chosen course.
They fed the hungry and clothed the naked, helped the fugitives and consoled the broken-hearted. They counselled their poor neighbors to good order, and dissuaded the ignorant from the folly and peril of violence. Toward the invading soldiery their conduct was beyond reproach. With no false professions of friendship, they fulfilled the hard services which were required of them. Their servants had been helped away at the beginning of the trouble—all except the old forester and his wife, who refused to leave. With their aid the house was kept open and many of the conquerors lodged there and in the outbuildings. So good were the quarters that a departing Saxon chalked on the gate-post the dubious inscription: "Gute Leute-nicht auspliin-dern." Thus the captives at the Chateau d'Azan had a good name even among their enemies. The baron received a military pass which enabled him to move quite freely about the district on his errands of necessity and mercy, and the chateau became a favorite billet for high-born officers.
In the second year of the war an evil chance brought two uninvited guests of very high standing indeed—that is to say in the social ring of Potsdam. Their names are well known. Let us call them Prince Barenberg and Count Ludra. The first was a major, the second a captain. Their value as warriors in the field had not proved equal to their prominence as noblemen, so they were given duty in the rear.
They were vicious coxcombs of the first order. Their uniforms incased them tightly. Like wasps they bent only at the waist. Their flat-topped caps were worn with an aggressive slant, their swords jingled menacingly, their hay-colored mustaches spoke arrogance in every upturned hair. When they bowed it was a mockery; when they smiled it was a sneer. For the comfortable quarters of the Chateau d'Azan they had a gross appreciation, for the enforced hospitality of its owners an insolent condescension. They took it as their due, and resented the silent protest underneath it.
"Excellent wine, Herr Baron," said the prince, who, like his comrade, drank profusely of the best in the cellar. "Your Rudesheimer Berg '94 is kolossal. Very friendly of you to save it for us. We Germans know good wine. What?"
"You have that reputation," answered the baron.
"And say," added the count, "let us have a couple of bottles more, dear landlord. You can put it in the bill."
"I shall do so," said the baron gravely. "It shall be put in the bill with other things."
"But why," drawled the prince, "does la Baronne never favor us with her company? Still very attractive—musical probably—here is a piano—want good German music—console homesickness."
"Madame is indisposed," answered the baron quietly, "but you may be sure she regrets your absence from home."
The officers looked at each other with half-tipsy, half-angry eyes. They suspected a jest at their expense, but could not quite catch it.
"Impudence," muttered the count, who was the sharper of the two when sober.
"No," said the prince, "it is only stupidity. These Walloons have no wit."
"Come," he added, turning to the baron, "we sing you a good song of fatherland—show how gemuthlich we Germans are. You Belgians have no word for that. What?"
He sat down to the piano and pounded out "Deutschland ueber Alles," singing the air in a raucous voice, while Ludra added a rumbling bass.
"What do you think of that? All Germans can sing. Gemuthlich. What?"
"You are right," said the baron, with downcast eyes. "We Belgians have no word for that. It is inexpressible—except in German. I bid you good night."
For nearly a fortnight this condition of affairs continued. The baron endured it as best he could, obeying scrupulously the military regulations which necessity laid upon him, and taking his revenge only in long thoughts and words of polite sarcasm which he knew would not be understood. The baroness worked hard at the housekeeping, often cooking and cleaning with her own hands, and rejoicing secretly with her husband over the rare news that came from their daughter in England, from their boy at the front in West Flanders. Sometimes, when the coast was clear, husband and wife walked together under the beech-trees and talked in low tones of the time when the ravenous beast should no more go up on the land.
The two noble officers performed their routine duties, found such amusement as they could in neighboring villages and towns, drank deep at night, and taxed their ingenuity to invent small ways of annoying their hosts, for whom they felt the contemptuous dislike of the injurer for the injured. They were careful, however, to keep their malice within certain bounds, for they knew that the baron was in favor with the commandant of the district.
One morning the baron and his wife, looking from their window in a wing of the house, saw with surprise and horror a score or more of German soldiers assembled beside the beech-avenue, with axes and saws, preparing to begin work.
"What are they going to do there?" cried he in dismay, and hurried down to the dining-room, where the officers sat at breakfast, giving orders to an attentive corporal.
"A thousand pardons, Highness," interrupted the baron; "forgive my haste. But surely you are not going to cut down my avenue of beeches?"
"Why not?" said the prince, swinging around in his chair. "They are good wood."
"But, sir," stammered the baron, trembling with excitement, "those trees—they are an ancient heritage of the house—planted by my grandfather a century ago—an old possession—spare them for their age."
"You exaggerate," sneered the prince. "They are not old. I have on my hunting estate in Thuringia oaks five hundred years old. These trees of yours are mere upstarts. Why shouldn't they be cut? What?"
"But they are very dear to us," pleaded the baron earnestly. "We all love them, my wife and children and I. To us they are sacred. It would be harsh to take them from us."
"Baron," said the prince, with suave malice, "you miss the point. We Germans are never harsh. But we are practical. My soldiers need exercise. The camps need wood. Do you see? What?"
"Certainly," answered the poor baron, humbling himself in his devotion to his trees. "Your Highness makes the point perfectly clear—the need of exercise and wood. But there is plenty of good timber in the forest and the park—much easier to cut. Cannot your men get their wood and their exercise there, and spare my dearest trees?"
Ludra laughed unpleasantly.
"You do not yet understand us, dear landlord. We Germans are a hard-working people, not like the lazy Belgians. The harder the work the better we like it. The soldiers will have a fine time chopping down your tough beeches."
The slender old man drew himself up, his eyes flashed, he was driven to bay.
"You shall not do this," he cried. "It is an outrage, a sacrilege. I shall appeal to the commandant. He will protect my rights."
The officers looked at each other. Deaf to pity, they had keen ears for danger. A reproof, perhaps a punishment from their superior would be most unpleasant. They hesitated to face it. But they were too obstinate to give up their malicious design altogether with a good grace.
"Military necessity," growled the prince, "knows no private rights. I advise you, baron, not to appeal to the commandant. It will be useless, perhaps harmful."
"Here, you," he said gruffly, turning to the corporal, "carry out my orders. Cut the two marked beeches by the gate. Then take your men into the park and cut the biggest trees there. Report for further orders to-morrow morning."
The wooden-faced giant saluted, swung on his heels, and marched stiffly out. The baron followed him quickly.
He knew that entreaties would be wasted on the corporal. How to get to the commandant, that was the question? He would not be allowed to use the telephone which was in the dining-room, nor the automobile which belonged to the officers; nor one of their horses which were in his stable. The only other beast left there was a small and very antique donkey which the children used to drive. In a dilapidated go-cart, drawn by this pattering nag, the baron made such haste as he could along twelve miles of stony road to the district headquarters. There he told his story simply to the commandant and begged protection for his beloved trees.
The old general was of a different type from the fire-eating dandies who played the master at Azan. He listened courteously and gravely. There was a picture in his mind of the old timbered house in the Hohe Venn, where he had spent four years in retirement before the war called him back to the colors. He thought of the tall lindens and the spreading chestnuts around it and imagined how he should feel if he saw them falling under the axe.
Then he said to his petitioner:
"You have acted quite correctly, Monsieur le Baron, in bringing this matter quietly to my attention. There is no military necessity for the destruction of your fine trees. I shall put a stop to it at once."
He called his aide-de-camp and gave some instructions in a low tone of voice. When the aide came back from the telephone and reported, the general frowned.
"It is unheard of," he muttered, half to himself, "the way those titled young fools go beyond their orders."
Then he turned to his visitor.
"I am very sorry, Monsieur le Baron, but two of your beeches have already fallen. It cannot be helped now. But there shall be no more of it, I promise you. Those young officers are—they are—let us call them overzealous. I will transfer them to another post to-morrow. The German command appreciates the correct conduct of you and Madame la Baronne. Is there anything more that I can do for you?"
"I thank your Excellency sincerely," replied the baron. Then he hesitated a moment, as if to weigh his words. "No, Herr General, I believe there is nothing more—in which you can help me."
The old soldier's eyelids flickered for an instant. "Then I bid you a very good day," he said, bowing.
The baron hurried home, to share the big good news with his wife. The little bad news she knew already. Together they grieved over the two fallen trees and rejoiced under the golden shadow of their untouched companions. The officers had called for wine, and more wine, and yet more wine, and were drinking deep and singing loud in the dining-room.
In the morning came an orderly with a despatch from headquarters, ordering the prince and the count to duty in a dirty village of the coal region. Their baggage was packed into the automobile, and they mounted their horses and went away in a rage.
"You will be sorry for this, dumbhead," growled the prince, scowling fiercely. "Yes," added Ludra, with a hateful grin, "we shall meet again, dear landlord, and you will be sorry."
Their host bowed and said nothing.
Some weeks later the princely automobile came to the door of the chateau. The forester brought up word that the Prince Barenberg and the Count Ludra were below with a message from headquarters; the commandant wished the baron to come there immediately; the automobile was sent to bring him. He made ready to go. His wife and his servant tried hard to dissuade him: it was late, almost dark, and very cold—not likely the commandant had sent for him—it might be all a trick of those officers—they were hateful men—they would play some cruel prank for revenge. But the old man was obstinate in his resolve; he must do what was required of him, he must not even run the risk of slighting the commandant's wishes; after all, no great harm could come to him.
When he reached the steps he saw the count in the front seat, beside the chauffeur, grinning; and the prince's harsh voice, made soft as possible, called from the shadowy interior of the car:
"Come in, baron. The general has sent for you in a hurry. We will take you like lightning. How fine your beeches look against the sky. What?"
The old man stepped into the dusky car. It rolled down the long aisle, between the smooth gray columns, beneath the fan-tracery of the low arches, out on to the stony highway. Thus the tree-lover was taken from his sanctuary.
He did not return the next day, nor the day after. His wife, tortured by anxiety, went to the district headquarters. The commandant was away. The aide could not enlighten her. There had been no message sent to the baron—that was certain. Major Barenberg and Captain Ludra had been transferred to another command. Unfortunately, nothing could be done except to report the case.
The brave woman was not broken by her anguish, but raised to the height of heroic devotion. She dedicated herself to the search for her husband. The faithful forester, convinced that his master had been killed, was like a slow, sure bloodhound on the track of the murderers. He got a trace of them in a neighboring village, where their car had been seen to pass at dusk on the fatal day. The officers were in it, but not the baron. The forester got a stronger scent of them in a wine-house, where their chauffeur had babbled mysteriously on the following day. The old woodsman followed the trail with inexhaustible patience.
"I shall bring the master's body home," he said to his mistress, "and God will use me to avenge his murder."
A few weeks later he found his master's corpse hidden in a hollow on the edge of the forest, half-covered with broken branches, rotting leaves, and melting snow. There were three bullets in the body. They had been fired at close range.
The widow's heart, passing from the torture of uncertainty to the calm of settled grief, had still a sacred duty to live for. She had not forgotten her husband's dream. She went to the cardinal-archbishop to beg the consecration of a little burial-plot at the foot of the greatest of the beeches of Azan. That wise and brave prince of the church consented with words of tender consolation, and promised his aid in the pursuit of the criminals.
"Eminence," she said, weeping, "you are very good to me. God will reward you. He is just. He will repay. But my heart's desire is to follow my husband's dream."
So the body of the old botanist was brought back to the shadow of the great beech-trees, and was buried there, like the bones of a martyr, within the sanctuary.
Is this the end of the story?
Who can say?
It is written also, among the records of Belgium, that the faithful forester disappeared mysteriously a few weeks later. His body was found in the forest and laid near his master.
Another record tells of the trial of Prince Barenberg and Count Ludra before a court martial, The count was sentenced to ten years of labor on his own estate. The death-sentence of the prince was commuted to imprisonment in some unnamed place. So far the story of German justice.
But of the other kind of justice—the poetic, the Divine—the record is not yet complete.
I know only that there is a fatherless girl working and praying in a hospital in England, and a fatherless boy fighting and praying in the muddy trenches near Ypres, and a lonely woman walking and praying under certain great beech-trees at the Chateau d'Azan. The burden of their prayer is the same. Night and day it rises to Him who will judge the world in righteousness and before whose eyes the wicked shall not stand.
THE KING'S HIGH WAY
In the last remnant of Belgium, a corner yet unconquered by the German horde, I saw a tall young man walking among the dunes, between the sodden lowland and the tumbling sea.
The hills where he trod were of sand heaped high by the western winds; and the growth over them was wire-grass and thistles, bayberry and golden broom and stunted pine, with many humble wild flowers—things of no use, yet beautiful.
The sky above was gray; the northern sea was gray; the southern fields were hazy gray over green; the smoke of shells bursting in the air was gray. Gray was the skeleton of the ruined city in the distance; gray were the shattered spires and walls of a dozen hamlets on the horizon; gray, the eyes of the young man who walked in faded blue uniform, in the remnant of Belgium. But there was an indomitable light in his eyes, by which I knew that he was a King.
"Sir," I said, "I am sure that you are his Majesty, the King of Belgium."
He bowed, and a pleasant smile relaxed his tired face.
"Pardon, monsieur," he answered, "but you make the usual mistake in my title. If I were only 'the King of Belgium,' you see, I should have but a poor kingdom now—only this narrow strip of earth, perhaps four hundred square miles of debris, just a 'pou sto,' a place to stand, enough to fight on, and if need be to die in."
His hand swept around the half-circle of dull landscape visible southward from the top of the loftiest dune, the Hooge Blikker. It was a land of slow-winding streams and straight canals and flat fields, with here and there a clump of woods or a slight rise of ground, but for the most part level and monotonous, a checker-board landscape—stretching away until the eyes rested on the low hills beyond Ypres. Now all the placid charm of Flemish fertility as gone from the land—it was scarred and marred and pitted. The shells and mines had torn holes in it; the trenches and barbed-wire entanglements spread over it like a network of scars and welts; the trees were smashed into kindling-wood; the farmhouses were heaps of charred bricks; the shattered villages were like mouths full of broken teeth. As the King looked round at all this, his face darkened and the slight droop of his shoulders grew more marked.
"But, no," he said, turning to me again, "that is not my kingdom. My real title, monsieur, is King of the Belgians. It was for their honor, for their liberty, that I was willing to lose my land and risk my crown. While they live and hold true, I stand fast."
Then ran swiftly through me the thought, of how the little Belgian army had fought, how the Belgian people had suffered, rather than surrender the independence of their country to the barbarians. The German cannonade was roaring along the Yser a few miles away; the air trembled with the overload of sound; but between the peals of thunder I could hear the brave song of the skylark climbing his silver stairway of music, undismayed, hopeful, unconquerable. I remembered how the word of this quiet man beside whom I stood had been the inspiration and encouragement of his people through the fierce conflict, the long agony: "I have faith in our destiny; a nation which defends itself does not perish; God will be with us in that just cause."
"Sir," I said, "you have a glorious kingdom which shall never be taken away. But as for your land, the fates have been against you. How will you ever get back to it? The Germans are strong as iron and they bar the way. Will you make a peace with them and take what they have so often offered you?"
"Never," he answered calmly; "that is not the way home, it is the way to dishonor. When God brings me back, my army and my Queen are going with me to liberate our people. There is only one way that leads there—the King's high way. Look, monsieur, you can see the beginning of it down there. I hope you wish me well on that road, for I shall never take another."
So he bade me good afternoon very courteously and walked away among the dunes to his little cottage at La Panne.
Looking down through the light haze of evening I saw a strip of the straight white road leading eastward across the level land. At the beginning of it there was a broken bridge; in places it seemed torn up by shells; it disappeared in the violet dusk. But as I looked a vision came.
The bridge is restored, the road mended and built up, and on that highway rides the King in his faded uniform with the Queen in white beside him. At their approach ruined villages rejoice aloud and ancient towns break forth into singing.
In Bruges the royal comrades stand beside the gigantic monument in the centre of the Great Market, and above the shouting of the multitude the music of the old belfry floats unheard. Ghent and Antwerp have put on their glad raiment, and in their crooked streets and crowded squares joy flows like a river surging as it goes. Into Brussels I see this man and woman ride through a welcome that rises around them like the voice of many waters—the welcome of those who have waited and suffered, the welcome of those to whom liberty and honor were more dear than life. In the Grande Place, the antique, carven, gabled houses are gay with fluttering banners; the people delivered from the cruel invader sing lustily the Marseillaise and the old songs of Belgium.
In the midst, Albert and Elizabeth sit quietly upon their horses. They have come home. Not by the low road of cowardly surrender; not by the crooked road of compromise and falsehood; not by the soft road of ease and self-indulgence; but by the straight road of faith and courage and self-sacrifice—the King's High Way.
THE TRAITOR IN THE HOUSE
The Guest, who came from beyond the lake, had lived in the house for years and had the freedom of it, so that he had become quite like a member of the family. He was friendly treated and well lodged. Indeed, some thought he had the best room of all, for though it was in the wing, it was spacious and well warmed, and had a side door, so that he could go in and out freely by day or night,
It must be said that he had earned his living on the place, being industrious and useful, a very handy man about the house; and the children had a liking for him because he sang merry songs and told beautiful fairy-tales.
So he was all the more surprised and aggrieved when the Master of the house said to him one night, as they sat late by the fire:
"I suspect you."
"But of what?" cried the Guest.
"Of caring more for the house that you came from than for the house that you live in."
"But you know I was at home there once," said the Guest, "would you have me forget that? Surely you will not deny me the freedom of my thoughts and memories and fond feelings. Would you make me less than a man?"
"No," said the Master, "but I will ask you to choose between your old home and your new home now. The house in which you lived formerly is become our enemy—a nest of brigands and bloody men. They have killed a child of ours on the highway. They threaten us to-night with an attack in force. Tell me plainly where you stand."
The Guest looked down his nose toward the smouldering embers of the fire. He knocked out the dottle of his pipe on one of the andirons. Two fat tears rolled down his cheeks; he was very sentimental.
"I am with you," he said.
"Good," said the Master, "now let us make the house fast!"
So they closed and barred the shutters and locked and bolted the front door.
Then they lighted their bedroom candles and bade each other good night.
But as the Guest went along his dim corridor, the Master turned and followed him very softly on tiptoe, watching.
Outside the house, in the darkness, there was a sound of many shuffling feet and whispering voices.
When the Guest came to the side door he tried the latch, to see that it was working freely. He moved the bolt, not forward into its socket, but backward so that it should be no hindrance. In the window beside the doorway he set his candle. So the house was ready for late-comers.
Then the Guest sighed a little. "They are my old friends," he murmured, "my dear old friends! I could not leave them out in the cold. I am not responsible for what they do. Only I must my old affection prove." So he sighed again and turned softly to his bed.
But as he turned the Master stood before him and took him by the throat.
"Traitor!" he cried. "You would betray the innocent. Already your soul is stained with my sleeping children's blood." And with his hands he choked the false Guest to death.
Then he shot the bolt of the side door, and barred the window, and called the servants, and made ready to defend the house.
Great was the fighting that night. In the morning, when the robbers were driven off, the false Guest was buried, outside the garden, in an unmarked grave.
February 2, 1918.
JUSTICE OF THE ELEMENTS
So the Criminal with a Crown came to the end of his resources. He had told his last lie, but not even his servants would believe it. He had made his last threat, but no living soul feared it. He had put forth his last stroke of violence and cruelty, but it fell short.
When he saw his own image reflected in the eyes of men, and knew what he had done to the world and what had come of his evil design, he was afraid, and cried, "Let the Earth swallow me!" And the Earth opened, and swallowed him.
But so great was the harm that he had wrought upon the Earth, and so deeply had he drenched it with blood, that it could not contain him. So the Earth opened again, and spewed him forth.
Then he cried, "Let the Sea hide me!" And the waves rolled over his head.
But the Sea, whereon he had wrought iniquity, and filled the depths thereof with the bones of the innocent, could not endure him and threw him up on the shore as refuse.
Then he cried, "Let the Air carry me away!" And the strong winds blew, and lifted him up so that he felt exalted.
But the pure Air, wherein he had let loose the vultures of hate, dropping death upon helpless women and harmless babes, found the burden and the stench of him intolerable, and let him fall.
And as he was falling he cried, "Let the Fire give me a refuge!" So the Fire, wherewith he had consumed the homes of men, rejoiced; and the flames which he had compelled to do his will in wickedness leaped up as he drew near.
"Welcome, old master!" roared the Fire. "Be my slave!"
Then he perceived that there was no hope for him in the justice of the elements. And he said, "I will seek mercy of Him against whom I have most offended."
So he fled to the foot of the Great White Throne. And as he kneeled there, broken and abased, the world was silent, waiting for the sentence of the Judge of All.
ASHES OF VENGEANCE
Dun was a hard little city, proud and harsh; but impregnable because it was built upon a high rock. The host of the Visigoths had besieged it for months in vain. Then came a fugitive from the city, at midnight, to the tent of Alaric, the Chief of the besiegers.
The man was haggard and torn. His eyes were wild, his hands trembling. The Chief held and steadied him with a look.
"Who are you?" he asked. "Your name, the purpose that brings you here?"
"My name," said the man, "is the Avenger. For thirty years I have lived in Dun, and the people have been unjust and cruel to me. They persecuted my family, because they hated me. My wife died of a broken heart, my children of starvation. I have just escaped from the prison of Dun, and come to tell you how the city may be taken. There is a secret pathway, a hidden entrance. I know it and can reveal it to you."
"Good," said the Chief, measuring the man with tranquil eyes, "but what is your price?"
"Vengeance," said the man, "I ask only the right to revenge my sufferings upon those who have inflicted them, when you have taken the city."
Alaric bent his head and was silent for a moment. "It is a fair price," he said, "and I will pay it. Tell me the way to take the city, and I will leave at your command a troop of soldiers sufficient to work your will on it afterward."
The trumpet sounded the capture of the city in the morning. The Avenger, waking late from his troubled sleep, led his soldiers through the open gate.
It was like a city of the dead, and the bodies of those who had been killed in the last defense, lay where they had fallen. Empty and silent were the streets where lie had so often walked in humiliation. Gone were the familiar faces that had frowned on him and mocked him. The houses at whose doors he had often knocked were vacant. His wrath sank within him, and the arrow of solitude pierced him to the heart.
Then he came to the belfry, and there was the bell-ringer, one of the worst of his ancient persecutors, standing at the entrance of the tower.
"Why are you here?" said the Avenger.
"By the orders of King Alaric," answered the bell-ringer, "to ring the bells when peace comes to the city."
"Ring now," said the Avenger, "ring now!"
Then, at the sound of the bells, the people who had concealed themselves at Alaric's command came trooping forth from the cellars and caves where they had been hiding,—old men and women and children, a motley throng of sufferers.
The Avenger looked at them and the tears ran down his cheeks, because he remembered.
"Listen," he said, "don't be afraid. These soldiers are going on to join their army. You have done me great wrong. But the fire of hatred is burnt out, and in the ashes of vengeance we are going to plant the seeds of peace."
THE BROKEN SOLDIER AND THE MAID OF FRANCE
THE MEETING AT THE SPRING
Along the old Roman road that crosses the rolling hills from the upper waters of the Marne to the Meuse a soldier of France was passing in the night.
In the broader pools of summer moonlight he showed as a hale and husky fellow of about thirty years, with dark hair and eyes and a handsome, downcast face. His uniform was faded and dusty; not a trace of the horizon blue was left, only a gray shadow. He had no knapsack on his back, no gun on his shoulder. Wearily and doggedly he plodded his way, without eyes for the veiled beauty of the sleeping country. The quick, firm military step was gone. He trudged like a tramp, choosing always the darker side of the road.
He was a figure of flight, a broken soldier.
Presently the road led him into a thick forest of oaks and beeches, and so to the crest of a hill overlooking a long open valley with wooded heights beyond. Below him was the pointed spire of some temple or shrine, lying at the edge of the wood, with no houses near it. Farther down he could see a cluster of white houses with the tower of a church in the centre. Other villages were dimly visible up and down the valley on either slope. The cattle were lowing from the barnyards. The cocks crowed for the dawn. Already the moon had sunk behind the western trees. But the valley was still bathed in its misty, vanishing light. Over the eastern ridge the gray glimmer of the little day was rising, faintly tinged with rose. It was time for the broken soldier to seek his covert and rest till night returned.
So he stepped aside from the road and found a little dell thick with underwoods, and in it a clear spring gurgling among the ferns and mosses. Around the opening grew wild gooseberries and golden broom and a few tall spires of purple foxglove. He drew off his dusty boots and socks and bathed his feet in a small pool, drying them with fern leaves. Then he took a slice of bread and a piece of cheese from his pocket and made his breakfast. Going to the edge of the thicket, he parted the branches and peered out over the vale.
Its eaves sloped gently to the level floor where the river loitered in loops and curves. The sun was just topping the eastern hills; the heads of the trees were dark against a primrose sky.
In the fields the hay had been cut and gathered. The aftermath was already greening the moist places. Cattle and sheep sauntered out to pasture. A thin silvery mist floated here and there, spreading in broad sheets over the wet ground and shredding into filmy scarves and ribbons as the breeze caught it among the pollard willows and poplars on the border of the stream. Far away the water glittered where the river made a sudden bend or a long smooth reach. It was like the flashing of distant shields. Overhead a few white clouds climbed up from the north. The rolling ridges, one after another, enfolded the valley as far as eye could see; dark green set in pale green, with here and there an arm of forest running down on a sharp promontory to meet and turn the meandering stream.
"It must be the valley of the Meuse," said the soldier. "My faith, but France is beautiful and tranquil here!"
The northerly wind was rising. The clouds climbed more swiftly. The poplars shimmered, the willows glistened, the veils of mist vanished. From very far away there came a rumbling thunder, heavy, insistent, continuous, punctuated with louder crashes.
"It is the guns," muttered the soldier, shivering. "It is the guns around Verdun! Those damned Boches!"
He turned back into the thicket and dropped among the ferns beside the spring. Stretching himself with a gesture of abandon, he pillowed his face on his crossed arms to sleep.
A rustling in the bushes roused him. He sprang to his feet quickly. It was a priest, clad in a dusty cassock, his long black beard streaked with gray. He came slowly treading up beside the trickling rivulet, carrying a bag on a stick over his shoulder.
"Good morning, my son," he said. "You have chosen a pleasant spot to rest."
The soldier, startled, but not forgetting his manners learned from boyhood, stood up and lifted his hand to take off his cap. It was already lying on the ground. "Good morning, Father," he answered, "I did not choose the place, but stumbled on it by chance. It is pleasant enough, for I am very tired and have need of sleep."
"No doubt," said the priest. "I can see that you look weary, and I beg you to pardon me if I have interrupted your repose. But why do you say you came here 'by chance'? If you are a good Christian you know that nothing is by chance. All is ordered and designed by Providence."
"So they told me in church long ago," said the soldier coldly; "but now it does not seem so true—at least not with me."
The first feeling of friendliness and respect into which he had been surprised was passing. He had fallen back into the mood of his journey—mistrust, secrecy, resentment.
The priest caught the tone. His gray eyes under their bushy brows looked kindly but searchingly at the soldier and smiled a little. He set down his bag and leaned on his stick. "Well," he said, "I can tell you one thing, my son. At all events it was not chance that brought me here. I came with a purpose."
The soldier started a little, stung by suspicion. "What then," he cried, roughly, "were you looking for me? What do you know of me? What is this talk of chance and purpose?"
"Come, come," said the priest, his smile spreading from his eyes to his lips, "do not be angry. I assure you that I know nothing of you whatever, not even your name nor why you are here. When I said that I came with a purpose I meant only that a certain thought, a wish, led me to this spot. Let us sit together awhile beside the spring and make better acquaintance."
"I do not desire it," said the soldier, with a frown.
"But you will not refuse it?" queried the priest gently. "It is not good to refuse the request of one old enough to be your father. Look, I have here some excellent tobacco and cigarette-papers. Let us sit down and smoke together. I will tell you who I am and the purpose that brought me here."
The soldier yielded grudgingly, not knowing what else to do. They sat down on a mossy bank beside the spring, and while the blue smoke of their cigarettes went drifting under the little trees the priest began:
"My name is Antoine Courcy. I am the cure of Darney, a village among the Reaping Hook Hills, a few leagues south from here. For twenty-five years I have reaped the harvest of heaven in that blessed little field. I am sorry to leave it. But now this war, this great battle for freedom and the life of France, calls me. It is a divine vocation. France has need of all her sons to-day, even the old ones. I cannot keep the love of God in my heart unless I follow the love of country in my life. My younger brother, who used to be the priest of the next parish to mine, was in the army. He has fallen. I am going to replace him. I am on my way to join the troops—as a chaplain, if they will; if not, then as a private. I must get into the army of France or be left out of the host of heaven."
The soldier had turned his face away and was plucking the lobes from a frond of fern. "A brave resolve, Father," he said, with an ironic note. "But you have not yet told me what brings you off your road, to this place."
"I will tell you," replied the priest eagerly; "it is the love of Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid who saved France long ago. You know about her?"
"A little," nodded the soldier. "I have learned in the school. She was a famous saint."
"Not yet a saint," said the priest earnestly; "the Pope has not yet pronounced her a saint. But it will be done soon. Already he has declared her among the Blessed Ones. To me she is the most blessed of all. She never thought of herself or of a saint's crown. She gave her life entire for France. And this is the place that she came from! Think of that—right here!"
"I did not know that," said the soldier.
"But yes," the priest went on, kindling. "I tell you it was here that the Maid of France received her visions and set out to her work. You see that village below us—look out through the branches—that is Domremy, where she was born. That spire just at the edge of the wood—you saw that? It is the basilica they have built to her memory. It is full of pictures of her. It stands where the old beech-tree, 'Fair May,' used to grow. There she heard the voices and saw the saints who sent her on her mission. And this is the Gooseberry Spring, the Well of the Good Fairies. Here she came with the other children, at the festival of the well-dressing, to spread their garlands around it, and sing, and cat their supper on the green. Heavenly voices spoke to her, but the others did not hear them. Often did she drink of this water. It became a fountain of life springing up in her heart. I have come to drink at the same source. It will strengthen me as a sacrament. Come, son, let us take it together as we go to our duty in battle!"
Father Courcy stood up and opened his old black bag. He took out a small metal cup. He filled it carefully at the spring. He made the sign of the cross over it.
"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," he murmured, "blessed and holy is this water." Then he held the cup toward the soldier. "Come, let us share it and make our vows together."
The bright drops trembled and fell from the bottom of the cup. The soldier sat still, his head in his hands.
"No," he answered heavily, "I cannot take it. I am not worthy. Can a man take a sacrament without confessing his sins?"
Father Courcy looked at him with pitying eyes. "I see," he said slowly; "I see, my son. You have a burden on your heart. Well, I will stay with you and try to lift it. But first I shall make my own vow."
He raised the cup toward the sky. A tiny brown wren sang canticles of rapture in the thicket. A great light came into the priest's face—a sun-ray from the east, far beyond the treetops.
"Blessed Jeanne d'Arc, I drink from thy fountain in thy name. I vow my life to thy cause. Aid me, aid this my son, to fight valiantly for freedom and for France. In the name of God, Amen."
The soldier looked up at him. Wonder, admiration, and shame were struggling in the look. Father Courcy wiped the empty cup carefully and put it back in his bag. Then he sat down beside the soldier, laying a fatherly hand on his shoulder.
"Now, my son, you shall tell me what is on your heart."
THE GREEN CONFESSIONAL
For a long time the soldier remained silent. His head was bowed. His shoulders drooped. His hands trembled between his knees. He was wrestling with himself.
"No," he cried, at last, "I cannot, I dare not tell you. Unless, perhaps"—his voice faltered—"you could receive it under the seal of confession? But no. How could you do that? Here in the green woods? In the open air, beside a spring? Here is no confessional."
"Why not?" asked Father Courcy. "It is a good place, a holy place. Heaven is over our heads and very near. I will receive your confession here."
The soldier knelt among the flowers. The priest pronounced the sacred words. The soldier began his confession:
"I, Pierre Duval, a great sinner, confess my fault, my most grievous fault, and pray for pardon." He stopped for a moment and then continued, "But first I must tell you, Father, just who I am and where I come from and what brings me here."
"Go on, Pierre Duval, go on. That is what I am waiting to hear. Be simple and very frank."
"Well, then, I am from the parish of Laucourt, in the pleasant country of the Barrois not far from Bar-sur-Aube. My word, but that is a pretty land, full of orchards and berry-gardens! Our old farm there is one of the prettiest and one of the best, though it is small. It was hard to leave it when the call to the colors came, two years ago. But I was glad to go. My heart was high and strong for France. I was in the Nth Infantry, We were in the centre division under General Foch at the battle of the Marne. Fichtre! but that was fierce fighting! And what a general! He did not know how to spell 'defeat.' He wrote it 'victory.' Four times we went across that cursed Marsh of St.-Gond. The dried mud was trampled full of dead bodies. The trickling streams of water ran red. Four times we were thrown back by the boches. You would have thought that was enough. But the general did not think so. We went over again on the fifth day, and that time we stayed. The Germans could not stand against us. They broke and ran. The roads where we chased them were full of empty wine-bottles. In one village we caught three officers and a dozen men dead drunk. Bigre! what a fine joke!"
Pierre, leaning back upon his heels, was losing himself in his recital. His face lighted up, his hands were waving. Father Courcy bent forward with shining eyes.
"Continue," he cried. "This is a beautiful confession—no sin yet. Continue, Pierre."
"Well, then, after that we were fighting here and there, on the Aisne, on the Ailette, everywhere. Always the same story—Germans rolling down on us in flood, green-gray waves. But the foam on them was fire and steel. The shells of the barrage swept us like hailstones. We waited, waited in our trenches, till the green-gray mob was near enough. Then the word came. Sapristi! We let loose with mitrailleuse, rifle, field-gun, everything that would throw death. It did not seem like fighting with men. It was like trying to stop a monstrous thing, a huge, terrible mass that was rushing on to overwhelm us. The waves tumbled and broke before they reached us. Sometimes they fell flat. Sometimes they turned and rushed the other way. It was wild, wild, like a change of the wind and tide in a storm, everything torn and confused. Then perhaps the word came to go over the top and at them. That was furious. That was fighting with men, for sure—bayonet, revolver, rifle-butt, knife, anything that would kill. Often I sickened at the blood and the horror of it. But something inside of me shouted: 'Fight on! It is for France. It is for "L'Alouette" thy farm; for thy wife, thy little ones. Will you let them be ruined by those beasts of Germans? What are they doing here on French soil? Brigands, butchers, apaches! Drive them out; and if they will not go, kill them so they can do no more shameful deeds. Fight on!' So I killed all I could."
The priest nodded his head grimly. "You were right, Pierre; your voice spoke true. It was a dreadful duty that you were doing. The Gospel tells us if we are smitten on one cheek we must turn the other. But it does not tell us to turn the cheek of a little child, of the woman we love, the country we belong to. No! that would be disgraceful, wicked, un-Christian. It would be to betray the innocent! Continue, my son."
"Well, then," Pierre went on, his voice deepening and his face growing more tense, "then we were sent to Verdun. That was the hottest place of all. It was at the top of the big German drive. The whole sea rushed and fell on us—big guns, little guns, poison-gas, hand-grenades, liquid fire, bayonets, knives, and trench-clubs. Fort after fort went down. The whole pack of hell was loose and raging. I thought of that crazy, chinless Crown Prince sitting in his safe little cottage hidden in the woods somewhere—they say he had flowers and vines planted around it—drinking stolen champagne and sicking on his dogs of death. He was in no danger. I cursed him in my heart, that blood-lord! The shells rained on Verdun. The houses were riddled; the cathedral was pierced in a dozen places; a hundred fires broke out. The old citadel held good. The outer forts to the north and east were taken. Only the last ring was left. We common soldiers did not know much about what was happening. The big battle was beyond our horizon. But that General Petain, he knew it all. Ah, that is a wise man, I can tell you! He sent us to this place or that place where the defense was most needed. We went gladly, without fear or holding back. We were resolute that those mad dogs should not get through. 'They shall not pass'! And they did not pass!"
"Glorious!" cried the priest, drinking the story in. "And you, Pierre? Where were you, what were you doing?"
"I was at Douaumont, that fort on the highest hill of all. The Germans took it. It cost them ten thousand men. The ground around it was like a wood-yard piled with logs. The big shell-holes were full of corpses. There were a few of us that got away. Then our company was sent to hold the third redoubt on the slope in front of Port de Vaux. Perhaps you have heard of that redoubt. That was a bitter job. But we held it many days and nights. The boches pounded us from Douaumont and from the village of Vaux. They sent wave after wave up the slope to drive us out. But we stuck to it. That ravine of La Caillette was a boiling caldron of men. It bubbled over with smoke and fire. Once, when their second wave had broken just in front of us, we went out to hurry the fragments down the hill. Then the guns from Douaumont and the village of Vaux hammered us. Our men fell like ninepins. Our lieutenant called to us to turn back. Just then a shell tore away his right leg at the knee. It hung by the skin and tendons. He was a brave lad. I could not leave him to die there. So I hoisted him on my back. Three shots struck me. They felt just like hard blows from a heavy fist. One of them made my left arm powerless. I sank my teeth in the sleeve of my lieutenant's coat as it hung over my shoulder. I must not let him fall off my back. Somehow—God knows how—I gritted through to our redoubt. They took my lieutenant from my shoulders. And then the light went out."