The forest presented a tragic desolation. A silent tempest had installed itself therein, placing everything in violent unnatural positions. Not a single tree still preserved its upright form and abundant foliage as in the days of peace. The groups of pines recalled the columns of ruined temples. Some were still standing erect, but without their crowns, like shafts that might have lost their capitals; others were pierced like the mouthpiece of a flute, or like pillars struck by a thunderbolt. Some had splintery threads hanging around their cuts like used toothpicks.
A sinister force of destruction had been raging among these beeches, spruce and oaks. Great tangles of their cut boughs were cluttering the ground, as though a band of gigantic woodcutters had just passed by. The trunks had been severed a little distance from the ground with a clean and glistening stroke, as though with a single blow of the axe. Around the disinterred roots were quantities of stones mixed with sod, stones that had been sleeping in the recesses of the earth and had been brought to the surface by explosions.
At intervals--gleaming among the trees or blocking the roadway with an importunity which required some zigzagging--was a series of pools, all alike, of regular geometrical circles. To Desnoyers, they seemed like sunken basins for the use of the invisible Titans who had been hewing the forest. Their great depth extended to their very edges. A swimmer might dive into these lagoons without ever touching bottom. Their water was greenish, still water--rain water with a scum of vegetation perforated by the respiratory bubbles of the little organisms coming to life in its vitals.
Bordering the hilly pathway through the pines, were many mounds with crosses of wood--tombs of French soldiers topped with little tricolored flags. Upon these moss-covered graves were the old kepis of the gunners. The ferocious wood-chopper, in destroying this woods, had also blindly demolished many of the ants swarming around the trunks.
Don Marcelo was wearing leggings, a broad hat, and on his shoulders, a fine poncho arranged like a shawl--garments which recalled his far-distant life on the ranch. Behind him came Lacour trying to preserve his senatorial dignity in spite of his gasps and puffs of fatigue. He also was wearing high boots and a soft hat, but he had kept to his solemn frock-coat in order not to abandon entirely his parliamentary uniform. Before them marched two captains as guides.
They were on a mountain occupied by the French artillery, and were climbing to the top where were hidden cannons and cannons, forming a line some miles in length. The German artillery had caused the woodland ruin around the visitors, in their return of the French fire. The circular pools were the hollows dug by the German shells in the limy, non-porous soil which preserved all the runnels of rain.
The visiting party had left their automobile at the foot of the mountain. One of the officers, a former artilleryman, explained this precaution to them. It was necessary to climb this roadway very cautiously. They were within reach of the enemy, and an automobile might attract the attention of their gunners.
"A little fatiguing, this climb," he continued. "Courage, Senator Lacour! . . . We are almost there."
They began to meet artillerymen, many of them not in uniform but wearing the military kepis. They looked like workmen from a metal factory, foundrymen with jackets and pantaloons of corduroy. Their arms were bare, and some had put on wooden shoes in order to get over the mud with greater security. They were former iron laborers, mobilized into the artillery reserves. Their sergeants had been factory overseers, and many of them officials, engineers and proprietors of big workshops.
Suddenly the excursionists stumbled upon the iron inmates of the woods. When these spoke, the earth trembled, the air shuddered, and the native inhabitants of the forest, the crows, rabbits, butterflies and ants, fled in terrified flight, trying to hide themselves from the fearful convulsion which seemed to be bringing the world to an end. Just at present, the bellowing monsters were silent, so that they came upon them unexpectedly. Something was sticking up out of the greenery like a gray beam; at other times, this apparition would emerge from a conglomeration of dry trunks. Around this obstacle was cleared ground occupied by men who lived, slept and worked about this huge manufactory on wheels.
The senator, who had written verse in his youth and composed oratorical poetry when dedicating various monuments in his district, saw in these solitary men on the mountain side, blackened by the sun and smoke, with naked breasts and bare arms, a species of priests dedicated to the service of a fatal divinity that was receiving from their hands offerings of enormous explosive capsules, hurling them forth in thunderclaps.
Hidden under the branches, in order to escape the observation of the enemy's birdmen, the French cannon were scattered among the hills and hollows of the highland range. In this herd of steel, there were enormous pieces with wheels reinforced by metal plates, somewhat like the farming engines which Desnoyers had used on his ranch for plowing. Like smaller beasts, more agile and playful in their incessant yelping, the groups of '75 were mingled with the terrific monsters.
The two captains had received from the general of their division orders to show Senator Lacour minutely the workings of the artillery, and Lacour was accepting their observations with corresponding gravity while his eyes roved from side to side in the hope of recognizing his son. The interesting thing for him was to see Rene . . . but recollecting the official pretext of his journey, he followed submissively from cannon to cannon, listening patiently to all explanations.
The operators next showed him the servants of these pieces, great oval cylinders extracted from subterranean storehouses called shelters. These storage places were deep burrows, oblique wells reinforced with sacks of stones and wood. They served as a refuge to those off duty, and kept the munitions away from the enemy's shell. An artilleryman exhibited two pouches of white cloth, joined together and very full. They looked like a double sausage and were the charge for one of the large cannons. The open packet showed some rose-colored leaves, and the senator greatly admired this dainty paste which looked like an article for the dressing table instead of one of the most terrible explosives of modern warfare.
"I am sure," said Lacour, "that if I had found one of these delicate packets on the street, I should have thought that it had been dropped from some lady's vanity bag, or by some careless clerk from a perfumery shop . . . anything but an explosive! And with this trifle that looks as if it were made for the lips, it is possible to blow up an edifice!" . . .
As they continued their visit of investigation, they came upon a partially destroyed round tower in the highest part of the mountain. This was the most dangerous post. From it, an officer was examining the enemy's line in order to gauge the correctness of the aim of the gunners. While his comrades were under the ground or hidden by the branches, he was fulfilling his mission from this visible point.
A short distance from the tower a subterranean passageway opened before their eyes. They descended through its murky recesses until they found the various rooms excavated in the ground. One side of the mountain cut in points formed its exterior facade. Narrow little windows, cut in the stone, gave light and air to these quarters.
An old commandant in charge of the section came out to meet them. Desnoyers thought that he must be the floorwalker of some big department store in Paris. His manners were so exquisite and his voice so suave that he seemed to be imploring pardon at every word, or addressing a group of ladies, offering them goods of the latest novelty. But this impression only lasted a moment. This soldier with gray hair and near-sighted glasses who, in the midst of war, was retaining his customary manner of a building director receiving his clients, showed on moving his arms, some bandages and surgical dressings within his sleeves, He was wounded in both wrists by the explosion of a shell, but he was, nevertheless, sticking to his post.
"A devil of a honey-tongued, syrupy gentleman!" mused Don Marcelo. "Yet he is undoubtedly an exceptional person!"
By this time, they had entered into the main office, a vast room which received its light through a horizontal window about ten feet wide and only a palm and a half high, reminding one of the open space between the slats of a Venetian blind. Below it was a pine table filled with papers and surrounded by stools. When occupying one of these seats, one's eyes could sweep the entire plain. On the walls were electric apparatus, acoustic tubes and telephones--many telephones.
The Commandant sorted and piled up the papers, offering the stools with drawing-room punctilio.
"Here, Senator Lacour."
Desnoyers, humble attendant, took a seat at his side. The Commandant now appeared to be the manager of a theatre, preparing to exhibit an extraordinary show. He spread upon the table an enormous paper which reproduced all the features of the plain extended before them--roads, towns, fields, heights and valleys. Upon this map was a triangular group of red lines in the form of an open fan; the vertex represented the place where they were, and the broad part of the triangle was the limit of the horizon which they were sweeping with their eyes.
"We are going to fire at that grove," said the artilleryman, pointing to one end of the map. "There it is," he continued, designating a little dark line. "Take your glasses."
But before they could adjust the binoculars, the Commandant placed a new paper on top of the map. It was an enormous and somewhat hazy photograph upon whose plan appeared a fan of red lines like the other one.
"Our aviators," explained the gunner courteously, "have taken this morning some views of the enemy's positions. This is an enlargement from our photographic laboratory. . . . According to this information, there are two German regiments encamped in that wood."
Don Marcelo saw on the print the spot of woods, and within it white lines which represented roads, and groups of little squares which were blocks of houses in a village. He believed he must be in an aeroplane contemplating the earth from a height of three thousand feet. Then he raised the glasses to his eyes, following the direction of one of the red lines, and saw enlarged in the circle of the glass a black bar, somewhat like a heavy line of ink--the grove, the refuge of the foe.
"Whenever you say, Senator Lacour, we will begin," said the Commandant, reaching the topmost notch of his courtesy. "Are you ready?"
Desnoyers smiled slightly. For what was his illustrious friend to make himself ready? What difference could it possibly make to a mere spectator, much interested in the novelty of the show? . . .
There sounded behind them numberless bells, gongs that called and gongs that answered. The acoustic tubes seemed to swell out with the gallop of words. The electric wire filled the silence of the room with the palpitations of its mysterious life. The bland Chief was no longer occupied with his guests. They conjectured that he was behind them, his mouth at the telephone, conversing with various officials some distance off. Yet the urbane and well-spoken hero was not abandoning for one moment his candied courtesy.
"Will you be kind enough to tell me when you are ready to begin?" they heard him saying to a distant officer. "I shall be much pleased to transmit the order."
Don Marcelo felt a slight nervous tremor near one of his legs; it was Lecour, on the qui vive over the approaching novelty. They were going to begin firing; something was going to happen that he had never seen before. The cannons were above their heads; the roughly vaulted roof was going to tremble like the deck of a ship when they shot over it. The room with its acoustic tubes and its vibrations from the telephones was like the bridge of a vessel at the moment of clearing for action. The noise that it was going to make! . . . A few seconds flitted by that to them seemed unusually long . . . and then suddenly a sound like a distant peal of thunder which appeared to come from the clouds. Desnoyers no longer felt the nervous twitter against his knee. The senator seemed surprised; his expression seemed to say, "And is that all? . . . The heaps of earth above them had deadened the report, so that the discharge of the great machine seemed no more than the blow of a club upon a mattress. Far more impressive was the scream of the projectile sounding at a great height but displacing the air with such violence that its waves reached even to the window.
It went flying . . . flying, its roar lessening. Some time passed before they noticed its effects, and the two friends began to believe that it must have been lost in space. "It will not strike . . . it will not strike," they were thinking. Suddenly there surged up on the horizon, exactly in the spot indicated over the blur of the woods, a tremendous column of smoke, a whirling tower of black vapor followed by a volcanic explosion.
"How dreadful it must be to be there!" said the senator.
He and Desnoyers were experiencing a sensation of animal joy, a selfish hilarity in seeing themselves in such a safe place several yards underground.
"The Germans are going to reply at any moment," said Don Marcelo to his friend.
The senator was of the same opinion. Undoubtedly they would retaliate, carrying on an artillery duel.
All of the French batteries had opened fire. The mountain was thundering, the shell whining, the horizon, still tranquil, was bristling with black, spiral columns. The two realized more and more how snug they were in this retreat, like a box at the theatre.
Someone touched Lacour on the shoulder. It was one of the captains who was conducting them through the front.
"We are going above," he said simply. "You must see close by how our cannons are working. The sight will be well worth the trouble."
Above? . . . The illustrious man was as perplexed, as astonished as though he had suggested an interplanetary trip. Above, when the enemy was going to reply from one minute to another? . . .
The captain explained that sub-Lieutenant Lacour was perhaps awaiting his father. By telephone they had advised his battery stationed a little further on; it would be necessary to go now in order to see him. So they again climbed up to the light through the mouth of the tunnel. The senator then drew himself up, majestically erect.
"They are going to fire at us," said a voice in his interior, "The foe is going to reply."
But he adjusted his coat like a tragic mantle and advanced at a circumspect and solemn pace. If those military men, adversaries of parliamentarism, fancied that they were going to laugh up their sleeve at the timidity of a civilian, he would show them their mistake!
Desnoyers could not but admire the resolution with which the great man made his exit from the shelter, exactly as if he were going to march against the foe.
At a little distance, the atmosphere was rent into tumultuous waves, making their legs tremble, their ears hum, and their necks feel as though they had just been struck. They both thought that the Germans had begun to return the fire, but it was the French who were shooting. A feathery stream of vapor came up out of the woods a dozen yards away, dissolving instantly. One of the largest pieces, hidden in the nearby thicket, had just been discharged. The captains continued their explanations without stopping their journey. It was necessary to pass directly in front of the spitting monster, in spite of the violence of its reports, so as not to venture out into the open woods near the watch tower. They were expecting from one second to another now, the response from their neighbors across the way. The guide accompanying Don Marcelo congratulated him on the fearlessness with which he was enduring the cannonading.
"My friend is well acquainted with it," remarked the senator proudly. "He was in the battle of the Marne."
The two soldiers evidently thought this very strange, considering Desnoyers' advanced age. To what section had he belonged? In what capacity had he served? . . .
"Merely as a victim," was the modest reply.
An officer came running toward them from the tower side, across the cleared space. He waved his kepi several times that they might see him better. Lacour trembled for him. The enemy might descry him; he was simply making a target of himself by cutting across that open space in order to reach them the sooner. . . . And he trembled still more as he came nearer. . . . It was Rene!
His hands returned with some astonishment the strong, muscular grasp. He noticed that the outlines of his son's face were more pronounced, and darkened with the tan of camp life. An air of resolution, of confidence in his own powers, appeared to emanate from his person. Six months of intense life had transformed him. He was the same but broader-chested and more stalwart. The gentle and sweet features of his mother were lost under the virile mask. . . . Lacour recognized with pride that he now resembled himself.
After greetings had been exchanged, Rene paid more attention to Don Marcelo than to his father, because he reminded him of Chichi. He inquired after her, wishing to know all the details of her life, in spite of their ardent and constant correspondence.
The senator, meanwhile, still under the influence of his recent emotion, had adopted a somewhat oratorical air toward his son. He forthwith improvised a fragment of discourse in honor of that soldier of the Republic bearing the glorious name of Lacour, deeming this an opportune time to make known to these professional soldiers the lofty lineage of his family.
"Do your duty, my son. The Lacours inherit warrior traditions. Remember our ancestor, the Deputy of the Convention who covered himself with glory in the defense of Mayence!"
While he was discoursing, they had started forward, doubling a point of the greenwood in order to get behind the cannons.
Here the racket was less violent. The great engines, after each discharge, were letting escape through the rear chambers little clouds of smoke like those from a pipe. The sergeants were dictating numbers, communicated in a low voice by another gunner who had a telephone receiver at his ear. The workmen around the cannon were obeying silently. They would touch a little wheel and the monster would raise its grey snout, moving it from side to side with the intelligent expression and agility of an elephant's trunk. At the foot of the nearest piece, stood the operator, rod in hand, and with impassive face. He must be deaf, yet his facial inertia was stamped with a certain authority. For him, life was no more than a series of shots and detonations. He knew his importance. He was the servant of the tempest, the guardian of the thunderbolt.
"Fire!" shouted the sergeant.
And the thunder broke forth in fury. Everything appeared to be trembling, but the two visitors were by this time so accustomed to the din that the present uproar seemed but a secondary affair.
Lacour was about to take up the thread of his discourse about his glorious forefather in the convention when something interfered.
"They are firing," said the man at the telephone simply.
The two officers repeated to the senator this news from the watch tower. Had he not said that the enemy was going to fire? . . . Obeying a sane instinct of preservation, and pushed at the same time by his son, he found himself in the refuge of the battery. He certainly did not wish to hide himself in this cave, so he remained near the entrance, with a curiosity which got the best of his disquietude.
He felt the approach of the invisible projectile, in spite of the roar of the neighboring cannon. He perceived with rare sensibility its passage through the air, above the other closer and more powerful sounds. It was a squealing howl that was swelling in intensity, that was opening out as it advanced, filling all space. Soon it ceased to be a shriek, becoming a rude roar formed by divers collisions and frictions, like the descent of an electric tram through a hillside road, or the course of a train which passes through a station without stopping.
He saw it approach in the form of a cloud, bulging as though it were going to explode over the battery. Without knowing just how it happened, the senator suddenly found himself in the bottom of the shelter, his hands in cold contact with a heap of steel cylinders lined up like bottles. They were projectiles.
"If a German shell," he thought, "should explode above this burrow . . . what a frightful blowing up!" . . .
But he calmed himself by reflecting on the solidity of the arched vault with its beams and sacks of earth several yards thick. Suddenly he was in absolute darkness. Another had sought refuge in the shelter, obstructing the light with his body; perhaps his friend Desnoyers.
A year passed by while his watch was registering a single second, then a century at the same rate . . . and finally the awaited thunder burst forth, making the refuge vibrate, but with a kind of dull elasticity, as though it were made of rubber. In spite of its thud, the explosion wrought horrible damage. Other minor explosions, playful and whistling, followed behind the first. In his imagination, Lacour saw the cataclysm--a writhing serpent, vomiting sparks and smoke, a species of Wagnerian monster that upon striking the ground was disgorging thousands of fiery little snakes, that were covering the earth with their deadly contortions. . . . The shell must have burst nearby, perhaps in the very square occupied by this battery.
He came out of the shelter, expecting to encounter a sickening display of dismembered bodies, and he saw his son smiling, smoking a cigar and talking with Desnoyers. . . . That was a mere nothing! The gunners were tranquilly finishing the charging of a huge piece. They had raised their eyes for a moment as the enemy's shell went screaming by, and then had continued their work.
"It must have fallen about three hundred yards away," said Rene cheerfully.
The senator, impressionable soul, felt suddenly filled with heroic confidence. It was not worth while to bother about his personal safety when other men--just like him, only differently dressed--were not paying the slightest attention to the danger.
And as the other projectiles soared over his head to lose themselves in the woods with the explosions of a volcano, he remained by his son's side, with no other sign of tension than a slight trembling of the knees. It seemed to him now that it was only the French missiles--because they were on his side--that were hitting the bull's eye. The others must be going up in the air and losing themselves in useless noise. Of just such illusions is valor often compounded! . . . "And is that all?" his eyes seemed to be asking.
He now recalled rather shamefacedly his retreat to the shelter; he was beginning to feel that he could live in the open, the same as Rene.
The German missiles were getting considerably more frequent. They were no longer lost in the wood, and their detonations were sounding nearer and nearer. The two officials exchanged glances. They were responsible for the safety of their distinguished charge.
"Now they are warming up," said one of them.
Rene, as though reading their thoughts, prepared to go. "Good-bye, father!" They were needing him in his battery. The senator tried to resist; he wished to prolong the interview, but found that he was hitting against something hard and inflexible that repelled all his influence. A senator amounted to very little with people accustomed to discipline. "Farewell, my boy! . . . All success to you! . . . Remember who you are!"
The father wept as he embraced his son, lamenting the brevity of the interview, and thinking of the dangers awaiting him.
When Rene had disappeared, the captains again recommended their departure. It was getting late; they ought to reach a certain cantonment before nightfall. So they went down the hill in the shelter of a cut in the mountain, seeing the enemy's shells flying high above them.
In a hollow, they came upon several groups of the famed seventy- fives spread about through the woods, hidden by piles of underbrush, like snapping dogs, howling and sticking up their gray muzzles. The great cannon were roaring only at intervals, while the steel pack of hounds were yelping incessantly without the slightest break in their noisy wrath--like the endless tearing of a piece of cloth. The pieces were many, the volleys dizzying, and the shots uniting in one prolonged shriek, as a series of dots unite to form a single line.
The chiefs, stimulated by the din, were giving their orders in yells, and waving their arms from behind the pieces. The cannon were sliding over the motionless gun carriages, advancing and receding like automatic pistols. Each charge dropped an empty shell, and introduced a fresh one into the smoking chamber.
Behind the battery, the air was racking in furious waves. With every shot, Lacour and his companion received a blow on the breast, the violent contact with an invisible hand, pushing them backward and forward. They had to adjust their breathing to the rhythm of the concussions. During the hundredth part of a second, between the passing of one aerial wave and the advance of the next, their chests felt the agony of vacuum. Desnoyers admired the baying of those gray dogs. He knew well their bite, extending across many kilometres. Now they were fresh and at home in their own kennels.
To Lacour it seemed as though the rows of cannon were chanting a measure, monotonous and fiercely impassioned that must be the martial hymn of the humanity of prehistoric times. This music of dry, deafening, delirious notes was awakening in the two what is sleeping in the depths of every soul--the savagery of a remote ancestry. The air was hot with acrid odors, pungent and brutishly intoxicating. The perfumes from the explosions were penetrating to the brain through the mouth, the eyes and the ears.
They began to be infected with the same ardor as the directors, shouting and swinging their arms in the midst of the thundering. The empty capsules were mounting up in thick layers behind the cannon. Fire! . . . always, fire!
"We must sprinkle them well," yelled the chiefs. "We must give a good soaking to the groves where the Boches are hidden."
So the mouths of '75 rained without interruption, inundating the remote thickets with their shells.
Inflamed by this deadly activity, frenzied by the destructive celerity, dominated by the dizzying sway of the ruby leaves, Lacour and Desnoyers found themselves waving their hats, leaping from one side to another as though they were dancing the sacred dance of death, and shouting with mouths dry from the acrid vapor of the powder. . . . "Hurrah! . . . Hurrah!"
The automobile rode all the afternoon long, stopping only when it met long files of convoys. It traversed uncultivated fields with skeletons of dwellings, and ran through burned towns which were no more than a succession of blackened facades.
"Now it is your turn," said the senator to Desnoyers. "We are going to see your son."
At nightfall, they ran across groups of infantry, soldiers with long beards and blue uniforms discolored by the inclemency of the weather. They were returning from the intrenchments, carrying over the hump of their knapsacks, spades, picks and other implements for removing the ground, that had acquired the importance of arms of combat. They were covered with mud from head to foot. All looked old in full youth. Their joy at returning to the cantonment after a week in the trenches, made them fill the silence of the plain with songs in time to the tramp of their nailed boots. Through the violet twilight drifted the winged strophes of the Marseillaise, or the heroic affirmations of the Chant du Depart.
"They are the soldiers of the Revolution," exclaimed Lacour with enthusiasm. "France has returned to 1792."
The two captains established their charges for the night in a half- ruined town where one of their divisions had its headquarters, and then took their leave. Others would act as their escort the following morning.
The two friends were lodging in the Hotel de la Siren, an old inn with its front gnawed by shell-fire. The proprietor showed them with pride a window broken in the form of a crater. This window had made the old tavern sign--a woman of iron with the tail of a fish-- sink into insignificance. As Desnoyers was occupying the room next to the one that had received the mark of the shell, the inn-keeper was anxious to point it out to them before they went to bed.
Everything was broken--walls, floor, roof. The furniture, a pile of splinters in the corner; the flowered wall paper, a fringe of tatters hanging from the walls. Through an enormous hole they could see the stars and feel the chill of the night. The owner stated that this destruction was not the work of the Germans, but was caused by a projectile from one of the seventy-fives when repelling the invaders from the village. And he beamed on the ruin with patriotic pride, repeating:
"There's a sample of French marksmanship for you! How do you like the workings of the seventy-fives? . . . What do you think of that now? . . ."
In spite of the fatigue of the journey, Don Marcelo slept badly, excited by the thought that his son was not far away.
An hour before daybreak, they left the village, in an automobile, guided by another official. On both sides of the road, they saw camps and camps. They left behind the parks of munitions, passed the third line of troops, and then the second. Thousands and thousands of men were bivouacking there in the open, improvising as best they could their habitations. These human ant-hills seemed vaguely to recall, with the variety of uniforms and races, some of the mighty invasions of history; but it was not a nation en marche. The exodus of people takes with it the women and children. Here there were nothing but men, men everywhere.
All kinds of housing ever used by humanity were here utilized, these military assemblages beginning with the cave. Caverns and quarries were serving as barracks. Some low huts recalled the American ranch; others, high and conical, were facsimiles of the gurbi of Africa. Many of the soldiers had come from the colonies; some had been living as business men in the new world, and upon having to provide a house more stable than the canvas tent, had recalled the architecture of the tribes with which they had had dealings. In this conglomerate of combatants, there were also Moors, blacks and Asiatics who were accustomed to live outside the cities and had acquired in the open a physical superiority which made them more masterful than the civilized peoples.
Near the river beds was flapping white clothing hung out to dry. Rows of men with bared breasts were out in the morning freshness, leaning over the streams, washing themselves with noisy ablutions followed by vigorous rubbings. . . . On a bridge was a soldier writing, utilizing a parapet as a table. . . . The cooks were moving around their savory kettles, and a warm exhalation of morning soup was mixed with the resinous perfume of the trees and the smell of the damp earth.
Long, low barracks of wood and zinc served the cavalry and artillery for their animals and stores. In the open air, the soldiers were currying and shoeing the glossy, plump horses which the trench-war was maintaining in placid obesity.
"If they had only been like that at the battle of the Marne!" sighed Desnoyers to his friend.
Now the cavalry was leading an existence of interminable rest. The troopers were fighting on foot, and finding it necessary to exercise their steeds to keep them from getting sick with their full mangers.
There were spread over the fields several aeroplanes, like great, gray dragon flies, poised for the flight. Many of the men were grouped around them. The farmers, transformed into soldiers, were watching with great admiration their comrade charged with the management of these machines. They looked upon him as one of the wizards so venerated and feared in all the countryside.
Don Marcelo was struck by the general transformation in the French uniforms. All were now clad in gray-blue, from head to foot. The trousers of bright scarlet cloth, the red kepis which he had hailed with such joy in the expedition of the Marne, no longer existed. All the men passing along the roads were soldiers. All the vehicles, even the ox-carts, were guided by military men.
Suddenly the automobile stopped before some ruined houses blackened by fire.
"Here we are," announced the official. "Now we shall have to walk a little."
The senator and his friend started along the highway.
"Not that way, no!" the guide turned to say grimly. "That road is bad for the health. We must keep out of the currents of air."
He further explained that the Germans had their cannon and intrenchments at the end of this highroad which sloped suddenly and again appeared as a white ribbon on the horizon line between two rows of trees and burned houses. The pale morning light with its hazy mist was sheltering them from the enemy's fire. On a sunny day, the arrival of their automobile would have been saluted with a shell. "That is war," he concluded. "One is always near to death without seeing it."
The two recalled the warning of the general with whom they had dined the day before: "Be very careful! The war of the trenches is treacherous."
In the sweep of plains unrolled before them, not a man was visible. It seemed like a country Sunday, when the farmers are in their homes, and the land scene lying in silent meditation. Some shapeless objects could be seen in the fields, like agricultural implements deserted for a day of rest. Perhaps they were broken automobiles, or artillery carriages destroyed by the force of their volleys.
"This way," said the officer who had added four soldiers to the party to carry the various bags and packages which Desnoyers had brought out on the roof of the automobile.
They proceeded in a single file the length of a wall of blackened bricks, down a steep hill. After a few steps the surface of the ground was about to their knees; further on, up to their waists, and thus they disappeared within the earth, seeing above their heads, only a narrow strip of sky. They were now under the open field, having left behind them the mass of ruins that hid the entrance of the road. They were advancing in an absurd way, as though they scorned direct lines--in zig-zags, in curves, in angles. Other pathways, no less complicated, branched off from this ditch which was the central avenue of an immense subterranean cavity. They walked . . . and walked . . . and walked. A quarter of an hour went by, a half, an entire hour. Lacour and his friend thought longingly of the roadways flanked with trees, of their tramp in the open air where they could see the sky and meadows. They were not going twenty steps in the same direction. The official marching ahead was every moment vanishing around a new bend. Those who were coming behind were panting and talking unseen, having to quicken their steps in order not to lose sight of the party. Every now and then they had to halt in order to unite and count the little band, to make sure that no one had been lost in a transverse gallery. The ground was exceedingly slippery, in some places almost liquid mud, white and caustic like the drip from the scaffolding of a house in the course of construction.
The thump of their footsteps, and the friction of their shoulders, brought down chunks of earth and smooth stones from the sides. Little by little they climbed through the main artery of this underground body and the veins connected with it. Again they were near the surface where it required but little effort to see the blue above the earth-works. But here the fields were uncultivated, surrounded with wire fences, yet with the same appearance of Sabbath calm. Knowing by sad experience, what curiosity oftentimes cost, the official would not permit them to linger here. "Keep right ahead! Forward march!"
For an hour and a half the party kept doggedly on until the senior members became greatly bewildered and fatigued by their serpentine meanderings. They could no longer tell whether they were advancing or receding, the sudden steeps and the continual turning bringing on an attack of vertigo.
"Have we much further to go?" asked the senator.
"There!" responded the guide pointing to some heaps of earth above them. "There" was a bell tower surrounded by a few charred houses that could be seen a long ways off--the remains of a hamlet which had been taken and retaken by both sides.
By going in a direct line on the surface they would have compassed this distance in half an hour. To the angles of the underground road, arranged to impede the advance of an enemy, there had been added the obstacles of campaign fortification, tunnels cut with wire lattice work, large hanging cages of wire which, on falling, could block the passage and enable the defenders to open fire across their gratings.
They began to meet soldiers with packs and pails of water who were soon lost in the tortuous cross roads. Some, seated on piles of wood, were smiling as they read a little periodical published in the trenches.
The soldiers stepped aside to make way for the visiting procession, bearded and curious faces peeping out of the alleyways. Afar off sounded a crackling of short snaps as though at the end of the winding lanes were a shooting lodge where a group of sportsmen were killing pigeons.
The morning was still cloudy and cold. In spite of the humid atmosphere, a buzzing like that of a horsefly, hummed several times above the two visitors.
"Bullets!" said their conductor laconically.
Desnoyers meanwhile had lowered his head a little. he knew perfectly well that insectivorous sound. The senator walked on more briskly, temporarily forgetting his weariness.
They came to a halt before a lieutenant-colonel who received them like an engineer exhibiting his workshops, like a naval officer showing off the batteries and turrets of his battleships. He was the Chief of the battalion occupying this section of the trenches. Don Marcelo studied him with special interest, knowing that his son was under his orders.
To the two friends, these subterranean fortifications bore a certain resemblance to the lower parts of a vessel. They passed from trench to trench of the last line, the oldest--dark galleries into which penetrated streaks of light across the loopholes and broad, low windows of the mitrailleuse. The long line of defense formed a tunnel cut by short, open spaces. They had to go stumbling from light to darkness, and from darkness to light with a visual suddenness very fatiguing to the eyes. The ground was higher in the open spaces. There were wooden benches placed against the sides so that the observers could put out the head or examine the landscape by means of the periscope. The enclosed space answered both for batteries and sleeping quarters.
As the enemy had been repelled and more ground had been gained, the combatants who had been living all winter in these first quarters, had tried to make themselves more comfortable. Over the trenches in the open air, they had laid beams from the ruined houses; over the beams, planks, doors and windows, and on top of the wood, layers of sacks of earth. These sacks were covered by a top of fertile soil from which sprouted grass and herbs, giving the roofs of the trenches, an appearance of pastoral placidity. The temporary arches could thus resist the shock of the obuses which went ploughing into the earth without causing any special damage. When an explosion was pounding too noisily and weakening the structure, the troglodytes would swarm out in the night like watchful ants, and skilfully readjust the roof of their primitive dwellings.
Everything appeared clean with that simple and rather clumsy cleanliness exercised by men living far from women and thrown upon their own resources. The galleries were something like the cloisters of a monastery, the corridors of a prison, and the middle sections of a ship. Their floors were a half yard lower than that of the open spaces which joined the trenches together. In order that the officers might avoid so many ups and downs, some planks had been laid, forming a sort of scaffolding from doorway to doorway.
Upon the approach of their Chief, the soldiers formed themselves in line, their heads being on a level with the waist of those passing over the planks. Desnoyers ran his eye hungrily over the file of men. Where could Julio be? . . .
He noticed the individual contour of the different redoubts. They all seemed to have been constructed in about the same way, but their occupants had modified them with their special personal decorations. The exteriors were always cut with loopholes in which there were guns pointed toward the enemy, and windows for the mitrailleuses. The watchers near these openings were looking over the lonely landscape like quartermasters surveying the sea from the bridge. Within were the armories and the sleeping rooms--three rows of berths made with planks like the beds of seamen. The desire for artistic ornamentation which even the simplest souls always feel, had led to the embellishment of the underground dwellings. Each soldier had a private museum made with prints from the papers and colored postcards. Photographs of soubrettes and dancers with their painted mouths smiled from the shiny cardboard, enlivening the chaste aspect of the redoubt.
Don Marcelo was growing more and more impatient at seeing so many hundreds of men, but no Julio. The senator, complying with his imploring glance, spoke a few words to the chief preceding him with an aspect of great deference. The official had at first to think very hard to recall Julio to mind, but he soon remembered the exploits of Sergeant Desnoyers. "An excellent soldier," he said. "He will be sent for immediately, Senator Lacour. . . . He is on duty now with his section in the first line trenches."
The father, in his anxiety to see him, proposed that they betake themselves to that advanced site, but his petition made the Chief and the others smile. Those open trenches within a hundred or fifty yards from the enemy, with no other defence but barbed wire and sacks of earth, were not for the visits of civilians. They were always filled with mud; the visitors would have to crawl around exposed to bullets and under the dropping chunks of earth loosened by the shells. None but the combatants could get around in these outposts.
"It is always dangerous there," said the Chief. "There is always random shooting. . . . Just listen to the firing!"
Desnoyers indeed perceived a distant crackling that he had not noted before, and he felt an added anguish at the thought that his son must be in the thick of it. Realization of the dangers to which he must be daily exposed, now stood forth in high relief. What if he should die in the intervening moments, before he could see him? . . .
Time dragged by with desperate sluggishness for Don Marcelo. It seemed to him that the messenger who had been despatched for him would never arrive. He paid scarcely any attention to the affairs which the Chief was so courteously showing them--the caverns which served the soldiers as toilet rooms and bathrooms of most primitive arrangement, the cave with the sign, "Cafe de la Victoire," another in fanciful lettering, "Theatre." . . . Lacour was taking a lively interest in all this, lauding the French gaiety which laughs and sings in the presence of danger, while his friend continued brooding about Julio. When would he ever see him?
They stopped near one of the embrasures of a machine-gun position stationing themselves at the recommendations of the soldiers, on both sides of the horizontal opening, keeping their bodies well back, but putting their heads far enough forward to look out with one eye. They saw a very deep excavation and the opposite edge of ground. A short distance away were several rows of X's of wood united by barbed wire, forming a compact fence. About three hundred feet further on, was a second wire fence. There reigned a profound silence here, a silence of absolute loneliness as though the world was asleep.
"There are the trenches of the Boches," said the Commandant, in a low tone.
"Where?" asked the senator, making an effort to see.
The Chief pointed to the second wire fence which Lacour and his friend had supposed belonged to the French. It was the German intrenchment line.
"We are only a hundred yards away from them," he continued, "but for some time they have not been attacking from this side."
The visitors were greatly moved at learning that the foe was such a short distance off, hidden in the ground in a mysterious invisibility which made it all the more terrible. What if they should pop out now with their saw-edged bayonets, fire-breathing liquids and asphyxiating bombs to assault this stronghold! . . .
From this window they could observe more clearly the intensity of the firing on the outer line. The shots appeared to be coming nearer. The Commandant brusquely ordered them to leave their observatory, fearing that the fire might become general. The soldiers, with their customary promptitude, without receiving any orders, approached their guns which were in horizontal position, pointing through the loopholes.
Again the visitors walked in single file, going down into cavernous spaces that had been the old wine-cellars of former houses. The officers had taken up their abode in these dens, utilizing all the residue of the ruins. A street door on two wooden horses served as a table; the ceilings and walls were covered with cretonnes from the Paris warehouses; photographs of women and children adorned the side wall between the nickeled glitter of telegraphic and telephonic instruments.
Desnoyers saw above one door an ivory crucifix, yellowed with years, probably with centuries, transmitted from generation to generation, that must have witnessed many agonies of soul. In another den he noticed in a conspicuous place, a horseshoe with seven holes. Religious creeds were spreading their wings very widely in this atmosphere of danger and death, and yet at the same time, the most grotesque superstitions were acquiring new values without any one laughing at them.
Upon leaving one of the cells, in the middle of an open space, the yearning father met his son. He knew that it must be Julio by the Chief's gesture and because the smiling soldier was coming toward him, holding out his hands; but this time his paternal instinct which he had heretofore considered an infallible thing, had given him no warning. How could he recognize Julio in that sergeant whose feet were two cakes of moist earth, whose faded cloak was a mass of tatters covered with mud, even up to the shoulders, smelling of damp wool and leather? . . . After the first embrace, he drew back his head in order to get a good look at him without letting go of him. His olive pallor had turned to a bronze tone. He was growing a beard, a beard black and curly, which reminded Don Marcelo of his father-in-law. The centaur, Madariaga, had certainly come to life in this warrior hardened by camping in the open air. At first, the father grieved over his dirty and tired aspect, but a second glance made him sure that he was now far more handsome and interesting than in his days of society glory.
"What do you need? . . . What do you want?"
His voice was trembling with tenderness. He was speaking to the tanned and robust combatant in the same tone that he was wont to use twenty years ago when, holding the child by the hand, he had halted before the preserve cupboards of Buenos Aires.
"Would you like money? . . ."
He had brought a large sum with him to give to his son, but the soldier gave a shrug of indifference as though he had offered him a plaything. He had never been so rich as at this moment; he had a lot of money in Paris and he didn't know what to do with it--he didn't need anything.
"Send me some cigars . . . for me and my comrades."
He was constantly receiving from his mother great baskets full of choice goodies, tobacco and clothing. But he never kept anything; all was passed on to his fellow-warriors, sons of poor families or alone in the world. His munificence had spread from his intimates to the company, and from that to the entire battalion. Don Marcelo divined his great popularity in the glances and smiles of the soldiers passing near them. He was the generous son of a millionaire, and this popularity seemed to include even him when the news went around that the father of Sergeant Desnoyers had arrived-- a potentate who possessed fabulous wealth on the other side of the sea.
"I guessed that you would want cigars," chuckled the old man.
And his gaze sought the bags brought from the automobile through the windings of the underground road.
All of the son's valorous deeds, extolled and magnified by Argensola, now came trooping into his mind. He had the original hero before his very eyes.
"Are you content, satisfied? . . . You do not repent of your decision?"
"Yes, I am content, father . . . very content."
Julio spoke without boasting, modestly. His life was very hard, but just like that of millions of other men. In his section of a few dozens of soldiers there were many superior to him in intelligence, in studiousness, in character; but they were all courageously undergoing the test, experiencing the satisfaction of duty fulfilled. The common danger was helping to develop the noblest virtues of these men. Never, in times of peace, had he known such comradeship. What magnificent sacrifices he had witnessed!
"When all this is over, men will be better . . . more generous. Those who survive will do great things."
Yes, of course, he was content. For the first time in his life he was tasting the delights of knowing that he was a useful being, that he was good for something, that his passing through the world would not be fruitless. He recalled with pity that Desnoyers who had not known how to occupy his empty life, and had filled it with every kind of frivolity. Now he had obligations that were taxing all his powers; he was collaborating in the formation of a future. He was a man at last!
"I am content," he repeated with conviction.
His father believed him, yet he fancied that, in a corner of that frank glance, he detected something sorrowful, a memory of a past which perhaps often forced its way among his present emotions. There flitted through his mind the lovely figure of Madame Laurier. Her charm was, doubtless, still haunting his son. And to think that he could not bring her here! . . . The austere father of the preceding year contemplated himself with astonishment as he caught himself formulating this immoral regret.
They passed a quarter of an hour without loosening hands, looking into each other's eyes. Julio asked after his mother and Chichi. He frequently received letters from them, but that was not enough for his curiosity. He laughed heartily at hearing of Argensola's amplified and abundant life. These interesting bits of news came from a world not much more than sixty miles distant in a direct line . . . but so far, so very far away!
Suddenly the father noticed that his boy was listening with less attention. His senses, sharpened by a life of alarms and ambushed attacks, appeared to be withdrawing itself from the company, attracted by the firing. Those were no longer scattered shots; they had combined into a continual crackling.
The senator, who had left father and son together that they might talk more freely, now reappeared.
"We are dismissed from here, my friend," he announced. "We have no luck in our visits."
Soldiers were no longer passing to and fro. All had hastened to their posts, like the crew of a ship which clears for action. While Julio was taking up the rifle which he had left against the wall, a bit of dust whirled above his father's head and a little hole appeared in the ground.
"Quick, get out of here!" he said pushing Don Marcelo.
Then, in the shelter of a covered trench, came the nervous, very brief farewell. "Good-bye, father," a kiss, and he was gone. He had to return as quickly as possible to the side of his men.
The firing had become general all along the line. The soldiers were shooting serenely, as though fulfilling an ordinary function. It was a combat that took place every day without anybody's knowing exactly who started it--in consequence of the two armies being installed face to face, and such a short distance apart. . . . The Chief of the battalion was also obliged to desert his guests, fearing a counter-attack.
Again the officer charged with their safe conduct put himself at the head of the file, and they began to retrace their steps through the slippery maze. Desnoyers was tramping sullenly on, angry at the intervention of the enemy which had cut short his happiness.
Before his inward gaze fluttered the vision of Julio with his black, curly beard which to him was the greatest novelty of the trip. He heard again his grave voice, that of a man who has taken up life from a new viewpoint.
"I am content, father . . . I am content."
The firing, growing constantly more distant, gave the father great uneasiness. Then he felt an instinctive faith, absurd, very firm. He saw his son beautiful and immortal as a god. He had a conviction that he would come out safe and sound from all dangers. That others should die was but natural, but Julio! . . .
As they got further and further away from the soldier boy, Hope appeared to be singing in his ears; and as an echo of his pleasing musings, the father kept repeating mentally:
"No one will kill him. My heart which never deceives me, tells me so. . . . No one will kill him!"