AFTER THE MARNE
Chichi also wished to return because Rene was now filling the greater part of her thoughts. Absence had shown her that she was really in love with him. Such a long time without seeing her little sugar soldier! . . . So the family abandoned their hotel life and returned to the avenue Victor Hugo.
Since the shock of the first September days, Paris had been gradually changing its aspect. The nearly two million inhabitants who had been living quietly in their homes without letting themselves be drawn into the panic, had accepted the victory with grave serenity. None of them could explain the exact course of the battle; they would learn all about it when it was entirely finished.
One September Sunday, at the hour when the Parisians are accustomed to take advantage of the lovely twilight, they had learned from the newspapers of the great triumph of the Allies and of the great danger which they had so narrowly escaped. The people were delighted, but did not, however, abandon their calm demeanor. Six weeks of war had radically changed the temperament of turbulent and impressionable Paris.
The victory was slowly restoring the Capital to its former aspect. A street that was practically deserted a few weeks before was now filled with transients. The shops were reopening. The neighbors accustomed to the conventional silence of their deserted apartment houses, again heard sounds of returning life in the homes above and below them.
Don Marcelo's satisfaction in welcoming his family home was considerably clouded by the presence of Dona Elena. She was Germany returning to the encounter, the enemy again established within his tents. Would he never be able to free himself from this bondage? . . . She was silent in her brother-in-law's presence because recent events had rather bewildered her. Her countenance was stamped with a wondering expression as though she were gazing at the upsetting of the most elemental physical laws. In reflective silence she was puzzling over the Marne enigma, unable to understand how it was that the Germans had not conquered the ground on which she was treading; and in order to explain this failure, she resorted to the most absurd suppositions.
One especially engrossing matter was increasing her sadness. Her sons. . . . What would become of her sons! Don Marcelo had never told her of his meeting with Captain von Hartrott. He was maintaining absolute silence about his sojourn at Villeblanche. He had no desire to recount his adventures at the battle of the Marne. What was the use of saddening his loved ones with such miseries? . . . He simply told Dona Luisa, who was alarmed about the possible fate of the castle, that they would not be able to go there for many years to come, because the hostilities had rendered it uninhabitable. A covering of zinc sheeting had been substituted for the ancient roof in order to prevent further injury from wind and rain to the wrecked interior. Later on, after peace had been declared, they would think about its renovation. Just now it had too many inhabitants. And all the ladies, including Dona Elena, shuddered in imagining the thousands of buried bodies forming their ghastly circle around the building. This vision made Frau von Hartrott again groan, "Ay, my sons!"
Finally, for humanity's sake, her brother-in-law set her mind at rest regarding the fate of one of them, the Captain von Hartrott. He was in perfect health at the beginning of the battle. He knew that this was so from a friend who had conversed with him . . . and he did not wish to talk further about him.
Dona Luisa was spending a part of each day in the churches, trying to quiet her uneasiness with prayer. These petitions were no longer vague and generous for the fate of millions of unknown men, for the victory of an entire people. With maternal self-centredness they were focussed on one single person--her son, who was a soldier like the others, and perhaps at this very moment was exposed to the greatest danger. The tears that he had cost her! . . . She had implored that he and his father might come to understand each other, and finally just as God was miraculously granting her supplication, Julio had taken himself off to the field of death.
Her entreaties never went alone to the throne of grace. Someone was praying near her, formulating identical requests. The tearful eyes of her sister were raised at the same time as hers to the figure of the crucified Savior. "Lord, save my son! . . . When uttering these words, Dona Luisa always saw Julio as he looked in a pale photograph which he had sent his father from the trenches--with kepis and military cloak, a gun in his right hand, and his face shadowed by a growing beard. "O Lord have mercy upon us!" . . . and Dona Elena was at the same time contemplating a group of officers with helmets and reseda uniforms reinforced with leather pouches for the revolver, field glasses and maps, with sword-belt of the same material.
Oftentimes when Don Marcelo saw them setting forth together toward Saint Honore d'Eylau, he would wax very indignant.
"They are juggling with God. . . . This is most unreasonable! How could He grant such contrary petitions? . . . Ah, these women!"
And then, with that superstition which danger awakens, he began to fear that his sister-in-law might cause some grave disaster to his son. Divinity, fatigued with so many contradictory prayers was going to turn His back and not listen to any of them. Why did not this fatal woman take herself off? . . .
He felt as exasperated at her presence in his home as he had at the beginning of hostilities. Dona Luisa was still innocently repeating her sister's statements, submitting them to the superior criticism of her husband. In this way, Don Marcelo had learned that the victory of the Marne had never really happened; it was an invention of the allies. The German generals had deemed it prudent to retire through profound strategic foresight, deferring till a little later the conquest of Paris, and the French had done nothing but follow them over the ground which they had left free. That was all. She knew the opinions of military men of neutral countries; she had been talking in Biarritz with some people of unusual intelligence; she knew what the German papers were saying about it. Nobody over there believed that yarn about the Marne. The people did not even know that there had been such a battle.
"Your sister said that?" interrupted Desnoyers, pale with wrath and amazement.
But he could do nothing but keep on longing for the bodily transformation of this enemy planted under his roof. Ay, if she could only be changed into a man! If only the evil genius of her husband could but take her place for a brief half hour! . . .
"But the war still goes on," said Dona Luisa in artless perplexity. "The enemy is still in France. . . . What good did the battle of the Marne do?"
She accepted his explanations with intelligent noddings of the head, seeming to take them all in, and an hour afterwards would be repeating the same doubts.
She, nevertheless, began to evince a mute hostility toward her sister. Until now, she had been tolerating her enthusiasms in favor of her husband's country because she always considered family ties of more importance than the rivalries of nations. Just because Desnoyers happened to be a Frenchman and Karl a German, she was not going to quarrel with Elena. But suddenly this forbearance had vanished. Her son was now in danger. . . . Better that all the von Hartrotts should die than that Julio should receive the most insignificant wound! . . . She began to share the bellicose sentiments of her daughter, recognizing in her an exceptional talent for appraising events, and now desiring all of Chichi's dagger thrusts to be converted into reality.
Fortunately La Romantica took herself off before this antipathy crystallized. She was accustomed to pass the afternoons somewhere outside, and on her return would repeat the news gleaned from friends unknown to the rest of the family.
This made Don Marcelo wax very indignant because of the spies still hidden in Paris. What mysterious world was his sister-in-law frequenting? . . .
Suddenly she announced that she was leaving the following morning; she had obtained a passport to Switzerland, and from there she would go to Germany. It was high time for her to be returning to her own; she was most appreciative of the hospitality shown her by the family. . . . And Desnoyers bade her good-bye with aggressive irony. His regards to von Hartrott; he was hoping to pay him a visit in Berlin as soon as possible.
One morning Dona Luisa, instead of entering the neighboring church as usual, continued on to the rue de la Pompe, pleased at the thought of seeing the studio once more. It seemed to her that in this way she might put herself more closely in touch with her son. This would be a new pleasure, even greater than poring over his photograph or re-reading his last letter.
She was hoping to meet Argensola, the friend of good counsels, for she knew that he was still living in the studio. Twice he had come to see her by the service stairway as in the old days, but she had been out.
As she went up in the elevator, her heart was palpitating with pleasure and distress. It occurred to the good lady that the "foolish virgins" must have had feelings like this when for the first time they fell from the heights of virtue.
The tears came to her eyes when she beheld the room whose furnishings and pictures so vividly recalled the absent. Argensola hastened from the door at the end of the room, agitated, confused, and greeting her with expressions of welcome at the same time that he was putting sundry objects out of sight. A woman's sweater lying on the divan, he covered with a piece of Oriental drapery--a hat trimmed with flowers, he sent flying into a far-away corner. Dona Luisa fancied that she saw a bit of gauzy feminine negligee embroidered in pink, flitting past the window frame. Upon the divan were two big coffee cups and bits of toast evidently left from a double breakfast. These artists! . . . The same as her son! And she was moved to compassion over the bad life of Julio's counsellor.
"My honored Dona Luisa. . . . My DEAR Madame Desnoyers. . . ."
He was speaking in French and at the top of his voice, looking frantically at the door through which the white and rosy garments had flitted. He was trembling at the thought that his hidden companion, not understanding the situation, might in a jealous fit, compromise him by a sudden apparition.
Then he spoke to his unexpected guest about the soldier, exchanging news with her. Dona Luisa repeated almost word for word the paragraphs of his letters so frequently read. Argensola modestly refrained from displaying his; the two friends were accustomed to an epistolary style which would have made the good lady blush.
"A valiant man!" affirmed the Spaniard proudly, looking upon the deeds of his comrade as though they were his own. "A true hero! and I, Madame Desnoyers, know something about what that means. . . . His chiefs know how to appreciate him." . . .
Julio was a sergeant after having been only two months in the campaign. The captain of his company and the other officials of the regiment belonged to the fencing club in which he had had so many triumphs.
"What a career!" he enthused. "He is one of those who in youth reach the highest ranks, like the Generals of the Revolution. . . . And what wonders he has accomplished!"
The budding officer had merely referred in the most casual way to some of exploits, with the indifference of one accustomed to danger and expecting the same attitude from his comrades; but his chum exaggerated them, enlarging upon them as though they were the culminating events of the war. He had carried an order across an infernal fire, after three messengers, trying to accomplish the same feat, had fallen dead. He had been the first to attack many trenches and had saved many of his comrades by means of the blows from his bayonet and hand to hand encounters. Whenever his superior officers needed a reliable man, they invariably said, "Let Sergeant Desnoyers be called!"
He rattled off all this as though he had witnessed it, as if he had just come from the seat of war, making Dona Luisa tremble and pour forth tears of joy mingled with fear over the glories and dangers of her son. That Argensola certainly possessed the gift of affecting his hearers by the realism with which he told his stories!
In gratitude for these eulogies, she felt that she ought to show some interest in his affairs. . . . What had he been doing of late?
"I, Madame, have been where I ought to be. I have not budged from this spot. I have witnessed the siege of Paris."
In vain, his reason protested against the inexactitude of that word, "siege." Under the influence of his readings about the war of 1870, he had classed as a siege all those events which had developed near Paris during the course of the battle of the Marne.
He pointed modestly to a diploma in a gold frame hanging above the piano against a tricolored flag. It was one of the papers sold in the streets, a certificate of residence in the Capital during the week of danger. He had filled in the blanks with his name and description of his person; and at the foot were very conspicuous the signatures of two residents of the rue de la Pompe--a tavern-keeper, and a friend of the concierge. The district Commissary of Police, with stamp and seal, had guaranteed the respectability of these honorable witnesses. Nobody could remain in doubt, after such precautions, as to whether he had or had not witnessed the siege of Paris. He had such incredulous friends! . . .
In order to bring the scene more dramatically before his amiable listener, he recalled the most striking of his impressions for her special benefit. Once, in broad daylight, he had seen a flock of sheep in the boulevard near the Madeleine. Their tread had resounded through the deserted streets like echoes from the city of the dead. He was the only pedestrian on the sidewalks thronged with cats and dogs.
His military recollections excited him like tales of glory.
"I have seen the march of the soldiers from Morocco. . . . I have seen the Zouaves in automobiles!"
The very night that Julio had gone to Bordeaux, he had wandered around till sunrise, traversing half of Paris, from the Lion of Belfort, to the Gare de l'Est. Twenty thousand men, with all their campaign outfit, coming from Morocco, had disembarked at Marseilles and arrived at the Capital, making part of the trip by rail and the rest afoot. They had come to take part in the great battle then beginning. They were troops composed of Europeans and Africans. The vanguard, on entering through the Orleans gate, had swung into rhythmic pace, thus crossing half Paris toward the Gare de l'Est where the trains were waiting for them.
The people of Paris had seen squadrons from Tunis with theatrical uniforms, mounted on horses, nervous and fleet, Moors with yellow turbans, Senegalese with black faces and scarlet caps, colonial artillerymen, and light infantry from Africa. These were professional warriors, soldiers who in times of peace, led a life of continual fighting in the colonies--men with energetic profiles, bronzed faces and the eyes of beasts of prey. They had remained motionlesss in the streets for hours at a time, until room could be found for them in the military trains. . . . And Argensola had followed this armed, impassive mass of humanity from the boulevards, talking with the officials, and listening to the primitive cries of the African warriors who had never seen Paris, and who passed through it without curiosity, asking where the enemy was.
They had arived in time to attack von Kluck on the banks of the Ourq, obliging him to fall back or be completely overwhelmed.
A fact which Argensola did not relate to his sympathetic guest was that his nocturnal excursion the entire length of this division of the army had been accompanied by the amiable damsel within, and two other friends--an enthusiastic and generous coterie, distributing flowers and kisses to the swarthy soldiers, and laughing at their consternation and gleaming white teeth.
Another day he had seen the most extraordinary of all the spectacles of the war. All the taxicabs, some two thousand vehicles, conveying battalions of Zouaves, eight men to a motor car, had gone rolling past him at full speed, bristling with guns and red caps. They had presented a most picturesque train in the boulevards, like a kind of interminable wedding procession. And these soldiers got out of the automobiles on the very edge of the battle field, opening fire the instant that they leaped from the steps. Gallieni had launched all the men who knew how to handle a gun against the extreme right of the adversary at the supreme moment when the most insignificant weight might tip the scales in favor of the victory which was hanging in the balance. The clerks and secretaries of the military offices, the orderlies of the government and the civil police, all had marched to give that final push, forming a mass of heterogenous colors.
And one Sunday afternoon when, with his three companions of the "siege" he was strolling with thousands of other Parisians through the Bois de Boulogne, he had learned from the extras that the combat which had developed so near to the city was turning into a great battle, a victory.
"I have seen much, Madame Desnoyers. . . . I can relate great events."
And she agreed with him. Of course Argensola had seen much! . . . And on taking her departure, she offered him all the assistance in her power. He was the friend of her son, and she was used to his petitions. Times had changed; Don Marcelo's generosity now knew no bounds . . . but the Bohemian interrupted her with a lordly gesture; he was living in luxury. Julio had made him his trustee. The draft from America had been honored by the bank as a deposit, and he had the use of the interest in accordance with the regulations of the moratorium. His friend was sending him regularly whatever money was needed for household expenses. Never had he been in such prosperous condition. War had its good side, too . . . but not wishing to break away from old customs, he announced that once more he would mount the service stairs in order to bear away a basket of bottles.
After her sister's departure, Dona Luisa went alone to the churches until Chichi in an outburst of devotional ardor, suddenly surprised her with the announcement:
"Mama, I am going with you!"
The new devotee was no longer agitating the household by her rollicking, boyish joy; she was no longer threatening the enemy with imaginary dagger thrusts. She was pale, and with dark circles under her eyes. Her head was drooping as though weighed down with a set of serious, entirely new thoughts on the other side of her forehead.
Dona Luisa observed her in the church with an almost indignant jealousy. Her headstrong child's eyes were moist, and she was praying as fervently as the mother . . . but it was surely not for her brother. Julio had passed to second place in her remembrance. Another man was now completely filling her thoughts.
The last of the Lacours was no longer a simple soldier, nor was he now in Paris. Upon her return from Biarritz, Chichi had listened anxiously to the reports from her little sugar soldier. Throbbing with eagerness, she wanted to know all about the dangers which he had been experiencing; and the young warrior "in the auxiliary service" told her of his restlessness in the office during the interminable days in which the troops were battling around Paris, hearing afar off the boom of the artillery. His father had wished to take him with him to Bordeaux, but the administrative confusion of the last hour had kept him in the capital.
He had done something more. On the day of the great crisis, when the acting governor had sent out all the available men in automobiles, he had, unasked, seized a gun and occupied a motor with others from his office. He had not seen anything more than smoke, burning houses, and wounded men. Not a single German had passed before his eyes, excepting a band of Uhlan prisoners, but for some hours he had been shooting on the edge of the road . . . and nothing more.
For a while, that was enough for Chichi. She felt very proud to be the betrothed of a hero of the Marne, even though his intervention had lasted but a few hours. In a few days, however, her enthusiasm became rather clouded.
It was becoming annoying to stroll through the streets with Rene, a simple soldier and in the auxiliary service, besides. . . . The women of the town, excited by the recollection of their men fighting at the front, or clad in mourning because of the death of some loved one, would look at them with aggressive insolence. The refinement and elegance of the Republican Prince seemed to irritate them. Several times, she overheard uncomplimentary words hurled against the "embusques."
The fact that her brother who was not French was in the thick of the fighting, made the Lacour situation still more intolerable. She had an "embusque" for a lover. How her friends would laugh at her! . . .
The senator's son soon read her thoughts and began to lose some of his smiling serenity. For three days he did not present himself at the Desnoyers' home, and they all supposed that he was detained by work at the office.
One morning as Chichi was going toward the Bois de Boulogne, escorted by one of the nut-brown maids, she noticed a soldier coming toward her. He was wearing a bright uniform of the new gray-blue, the "horizon blue" just adopted by the French army. The chin strap of his kepi was gilt, and on his sleeve there was a little strip of gold. His smile, his outstretched hands, the confidence with which he advanced toward her made her recognize him. Rene an officer! Her betrothed a sub-lieutenant!
"Yes, of course! I could do nothing else. . . . I had heard enough!"
Without his father's knowledge, and assisted by his friends, he had in a few days, wrought this wonderful transformation. As a graduate of the Ecole Centrale, he held the rank of a sub-lieutenant of the Reserve Artillery, and he had requested to be sent to the front. Good-bye to the auxiliary service! . . . Within two days, he was going to start for the war.
"You have done this!" exclaimed Chichi. "You have done this!"
Although very pale, she gazed fondly at him with her great eyes-- eyes that seemed to devour him with admiration.
"Come here, my poor boy. . . . Come here, my sweet little soldier! . . . I owe you something."
And turning her back on the maid, she asked him to come with her round the corner. It was just the same there. The cross street was just as thronged as the avenue. But what did she care for the stare of the curious! Rapturously she flung her arms around his neck, blind and insensible to everything and everybody but him.
"There. . . . There!" And she planted on his face two vehement, sonorous, aggressive kisses.
Then, trembling and shuddering, she suddenly weakened, and fumbling for her handkerchief, broke down in desperate weeping.