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MARTIN, rolled up in his bedroll on the floor of the empty hayloft, woke with a start.
"Say, Howe!" Tom Randolph, who lay next him, was pressing his hand. "I think I heard a shell go over."
As he spoke there came a shrill, loudening whine, and an explosion that shook the barn. A little dirt fell down on Martin's face.
"Say, fellers, that was damn near," came a voice from the floor of the barn.
"We'd better go over to the quarry."
"Oh, hell, I was sound asleep!"
A vicious shriek overhead and a shaking snort of explosion.
"Gee, that was in the house behind us. . ."
"I smell gas.
"Ye damn fool, it's carbide."
"One of the Frenchmen said it was gas."
"All right, fellers, put on your masks."
Outside there was a sickly rough smell in the air that mingled strangely with the perfume of the cool night, musical with the gurgling of the stream through the little valley where their barn was. They crouched in a quarry by the roadside, a straggling, half-naked group, and watched the flashes in the sky northward, where artillery along the lines kept up a continuous hammering drum-beat. Over their head shells shrieked at two-minute intervals, to explode with a rattling ripping sound in the village on the other side of the valley.
"Damn foolishness," muttered Tom Randolph in his rich Southern voice. "Why don't those damn gunners go to sleep and let us go to sleep? . . . They must be tired like we are."
A shell burst in a house on the crest of the hill opposite, so that they saw the flash against the starry night sky. In the silence that followed, the moaning shriek of a man came faintly across the valley.
Martin sat on the steps of the dugout, looking up the shattered shaft of a tree, from the top of which a few ribbons of bark fluttered against the mauve evening sky. In the quiet he could hear the voices of men chatting in the dark below him, and a sound of someone whistling as he worked. Now and then, like some ungainly bird, a high calibre shell trundled through the air overhead; after its noise had completely died away would come the thud of the explosion. It was like battledore and shuttlecock, these huge masses whirling through the evening far above his head, now from one side, now from the other. It gave him somehow a cosy feeling of safety, as if he were under some sort of a bridge over which freight-cars were shunted madly to and fro.
The doctor in charge of the post came up and sat beside Martin. He was a small brown man with slim black moustaches that curved like the horns of a long-horn steer. He stood on tip-toe on the top step and peered about in every direction with an air of ownership, then sat down again and began talking briskly.
"We are exactly four hundred and five metres from the Boche. . . . Five hundred metres from here they are drinking beer and saying, 'Hoch der Kaiser.'"
"About as much as we're saying 'Vive la République,' I should say."
"Who knows? But it is quiet here, isn't it? It's quieter here than in Paris."
"The sky is very beautiful to-night."
"They say they're shelling the Etat-Major to-day. Damned embusqués; it'll do them good to get a bit of their own medicine."
Martin did not answer. He was crossing in his mind the four hundred and five metres to the first Boche listening-post. Next beyond the abris was the latrine from which a puff of wind brought now and then a nauseous stench. Then there was the tin roof, crumpled as if by a hand, that had been a cook shack. That was just behind the second line trenches that zig-zagged in and out of great abscesses of wet, upturned clay along the crest of a little hill. The other day he had been there, and had clambered up the oily clay where the boyau had caved in, and from the level of the ground had looked for an anxious minute or two at the tangle of trenches and pitted gangrened soil in the direction of the German outposts. And all along these random gashes in the mucky clay were men, feet and legs huge from clotting after clotting of clay, men with greyish-green faces scarred by lines of strain and fear and boredom as the hillside was scarred out of all semblance by the trenches and the shell-holes.
"We are well off here," said the doctor again. "I have not had a serious case all day."
"Up in the front line there's a place where they've planted rhubarb. . . . You know, where the hillside is beginning to get rocky."
"It was the Boche who did that. . . . We took that slope from them two months ago. . . . How does it grow?"
"They say the gas makes the leaves shrivel," said Martin, laughing.
He looked long at the little ranks of clouds that had begun to fill the sky, like ruffles on a woman's dress. Might not it really be, he kept asking himself, that the sky was a beneficent goddess who would stoop gently out of the infinite spaces and lift him to her breast, where he could lie amid the amber-fringed ruffles of cloud and look curiously down at the spinning ball of the earth? It might have beauty if he were far enough away to clear his nostrils of the stench of pain.
"It is funny," said the little doctor suddenly, "to think how much nearer we are, in state of mind, in everything, to the Germans than to anyone else."
"You mean that the soldiers in the trenches are all further from the people at home than from each other, no matter what side they are on."
The little doctor nodded.
"God, it's so stupid! Why can't we go over and talk to them? Nobody's fighting about anything. . . . God, it's so hideously stupid!" cried Martin, suddenly carried away, helpless in the flood of his passionate revolt.
"Life is stupid," said the little doctor sententiously.
Suddenly from the lines came a splutter of machine-guns.
"Evensong!" cried the little doctor. "Ah, but here's business. You'd better get your car ready, my friend."
The brancardiers set the stretcher down at the top of the steps that led to the door of the dugout, so that Martin found himself looking into the lean, sensitive face, stained a little with blood about the mouth, of the wounded man. His eyes followed along the shapeless bundles of blood-flecked uniform till they suddenly turned away. Where the middle of the man had been, where had been the curved belly and the genitals, where the thighs had joined with a strong swerving of muscles to the trunk, was a depression, a hollow pool of blood, that glinted a little in the cold diffusion of grey light from the west.
The rain beat hard on the window-panes of the little room and hissed down the chimney into the smouldering fire that sent up thick green smoke. At a plain oak table before the fireplace sat Martin Howe and Tom Randolph, Tom Randolph with his sunburned hands with their dirty nails spread flat and his head resting on the table between them, so that Martin could see the stiff black hair on top of his head and the dark nape of his neck going into shadow under the collar of the flannel shirt.
"Oh, God, it's too damned absurd! An arrangement for mutual suicide and no damned other thing," said Randolph, raising his head.
"A certain jolly asinine grotesqueness, though. I mean, if you were God and could look at it like that . . . Oh, Randy, why do they enjoy hatred so?"
"A question of taste . . . as the lady said when she kissed the cow."
"But it isn't. It isn't natural for people to hate that way, it can't be. It even disgusts the perfectly stupid damn-fool people, like Higgins, who believes that the Bible was written in God's own handwriting and that the newspapers tell the truth."
"It makes me sick at ma stomach, Howe, to talk to one of those Hun-hatin' women, if they're male or female."
"It is a stupid affair, la vie, as the doctor at P.I. said yesterday. . . ."
"Hell, yes. . ."
They sat silent, watching the rain beat on the window, and run down in sparkling finger-like streams.
"What I can't get over is these Frenchwomen." Randolph threw back his head and laughed. "They're so bloody frank. Did I tell you about what happened to me at that last village on the Verdun road?"
"I was lyin' down for a nap under a plumtree, a wonderfully nice place near a li'l brook an' all, an' suddenly that crazy Jane. . . . You know the one that used to throw stones at us out of that broken-down house at the corner of the road. . . . Anyway, she comes up to me with a funny look in her eyes an' starts makin' love to me. I had a regular wrastlin' match gettin' away from her."
"Funny position for you to be in, getting away from a woman."
"But doesn't that strike you funny? Why, down where I come from a drunken mulatto woman wouldn't act like that. They all keep up a fake of not wantin' your attentions." His black eyes sparkled, and he laughed his deep ringing laugh, that made the withered woman smile as she set an omelette before them.
"Voilà, messieurs," she said with a grand air, as if it were a boar's head that she was serving.
Three French infantrymen came into the café, shaking the rain off their shoulders.
"Nothing to drink but champagne at four francs fifty," shouted Howe. "Dirty night out, isn't it?"
"We'll drink that, then!"
Howe and Randolph moved up and they all sat at the same table.
"Fortune of war?"
"Oh, the war, what do you think of the war?" cried Martin.
"What do you think of the peste? You think about saving your skin."
"What's amusing about us is that we three have all saved our skins together," said one of the Frenchmen.
"Yes. We are of the same class," said another, holding up his thumb. "Mobilised same day." He held up his first finger. "Same company." He held up a second finger. "Wounded by the same shell. . . . Evacuated to the same hospital. Convalescence at same time. . Réformé to the same depôt behind the lines."
"Didn't all marry the same girl, did you, to make it complete?" asked Randolph.
They all shouted with laughter until the glasses along the bar rang.
"You must be Athos, Porthos, and d'Artagnan."
"We are," they shouted.
"Some more champagne, madame, for the three musketeers," sang Randolph in a sort of operatic yodle.
"All I have left is this," said the withered woman, setting a bottle down on the table.
"Is that poison?"
"It's cognac, it's very good cognac," said the old woman seriously.
"C'est du cognac! Vive le roi cognac!" everybody shouted.
"Au plein de mon cognac
Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Au plein de mon cognac
Qu'il fait bon dormir."
"Down with the war! Who can sing the 'Internationale'?"
"Not so much noise, I beg you, gentlemen," came the withered woman's whining voice. "It's after hours. Last week I was fined. Next time I'll be closed up."
The night was black when Martin and Randolph, after lengthy and elaborate farewells, started down the muddy road towards the hospital. They staggered along the slippery footpath beside the road, splashed every instant with mud by camions, huge and dark, that roared grindingly by. They ran and skipped arm-in-arm and shouted at the top of their lungs:
"Auprès de ma blonde,
Qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Auprès de ma blonde,
Qu'il fait bon dormir."
A stench of sweat and filth and formaldehyde caught them by the throat as they went into the hospital tent, gave them a sense of feverish bodies of men stretched all about them, stirring in pain.
"A car for la Bassée, Ambulance 4," said the orderly. Howe got himself up off the hospital stretcher, shoving his flannel shirt back into his breeches, put on his coat and belt and felt his way to the door, stumbling over the legs of sleeping brancardiers as he went. Men swore in their sleep and turned over heavily. At the door he waited a minute, then shouted:
"Too damn sleepy," came Randolph's voice from under a blanket.
"I've got cigarettes, Tom. I'll smoke 'em all up if you don't come."
"All right, I'll come."
"Less noise, name of God!" cried a man, sitting up on his stretcher.
After the hospital, smelling of chloride and blankets and reeking clothes, the night air was unbelievably sweet. Like a gilt fringe on a dark shawl, a little band of brightness had appeared in the east.
"Some dawn, Howe, ain't it?"
As they were going off, their motor chugging regularly, an orderly said:
"It's a special case. Go for orders to the commandant."
Colours formed gradually out of chaotic grey as the day brightened. At the dressing-station an attendant ran up to the car.
"Oh, you're for the special case? Have you anything to tie a man with?"
"It's nothing. He just tried to stab the sergeant-major."
The attendant raised a fist and tapped on his head as if knocking on a door. "It's nothing. He's quieter now."
"What caused it?"
"Who knows? There is so much. . . . He says he must kill everyone. . ."
"Are you ready?"
A lieutenant of the medical corps came to the door and looked out. He smiled reassuringly at Martin Howe. "He's not violent any more. And we'll send two guardians."
A sergeant came out with a little packet which he handed to Martin.
"That's his. Will you give it to them at the hospital at Fourreaux? And here's his knife. They can give it back to him when he gets better. He has an idea he ought to kill everyone he sees. . . . Funny idea."
The sun had risen and shone gold across the broad rolling lands, so that the hedges and the poplar-rows cast long blue shadows over the fields. The man, with a guardian on either side of him who cast nervous glances to the right and to the left, came placidly, eyes straight in front of him, out of the dark interior of the dressing-station. He was a small man with moustaches and small, goodnatured lips puffed into an o-shape. At the car he turned and saluted.
"Good-bye, my lieutenant. Thank you for your kindness," he said.
"Good-bye, old chap," said the lieutenant.
The little man stood up in the car, looking about him anxiously.
"I've lost my knife. Where's my knife?"
The guards got in behind him with a nervous, sheepish air. They answered reassuringly, "The driver's got it. The American's got it."
The orderly jumped on the seat with the two Americans to show the way. He whispered in Martin's ear:
"He's crazy. He says that to stop the war you must kill everybody, kill everybody."
In an open valley that sloped between hills covered with beech-woods, stood the tall abbey, a Gothic nave and apse with beautifully traced windows, with the ruin of a very ancient chapel on one side, and crossing the back, a well-proportioned Renaissance building that had been a dormitory. The first time that Martin saw the abbey, it towered in ghostly perfection above a low veil of mist that made the valley seem a lake in the shining moonlight. The lines were perfectly quiet, and when he stopped the motor of his ambulance, he could hear the wind rustling among the beech-woods. Except for the dirty smell of huddled soldiers that came now and then in drifts along with the cool woodscents, there might have been no war at all. In the soft moonlight the great traceried windows and the buttresses and the high-pitched roof seemed as gorgeously untroubled by decay as if the carvings on the cusps and arches had just come from under the careful chisels of the Gothic workmen.
"And you say we ye progressed," he whispered to Tom Randolph.
"God, it is fine."
They wandered up and down the road a long time, silently, looking at the tall apse of the abbey, breathing the cool night air, moist with mist, in which now and then was the huddled, troubling smell of soldiers. At last the moon, huge and swollen with gold, set behind the wooded hills, and they went back to the car, where they rolled up in their blankets and went to sleep.
Behind the square lantern that rose over the crossing, there was a trap door in the broken tile roof, from which you could climb to the observation post in the lantern. Here, half on the roof and half on the platform behind the trap door, Martin would spend the long summer afternoons when there was no call for the ambulance, looking at the Gothic windows of the lantern and the blue sky beyond, where huge soft clouds passed slowly over, darkening the green of the woods and of the weed-grown fields of the valley with their moving shadows.
There was almost no activity on that part of the front. A couple of times a day a few snapping discharges would come from the seventy-fives of the battery behind the abbey, and the woods would resound like a shaken harp as the shells passed over to explode on the crest of the hill that blocked the end of the valley where the Boches were.
Martin would sit and dream of the quiet lives the monks must have passed in their beautiful abbey so far away in the Forest of the Argonne, digging and planting in the rich lands of the valley, making flowers bloom in the garden, of which traces remained in the huge beds of sunflowers and orange marigolds that bloomed along the walls of the Dormitory. In a room in the top of the house he had found a few torn remnants of books; there must have been a library in the old days, rows and rows of musty-smelling volumes in rich brown calf worn by use to a velvet softness, and in cream-coloured parchment where the fingermarks of generations showed brown; huge psalters with notes and chants illuminated in green and ultramarine and gold; manuscripts out of the Middle Ages with strange script and pictures in pure vivid colours; lives of saints, thoughts polished by years of quiet meditation of old divines; old romances of chivalry; tales of blood and death and love where the crude agony of life was seen through a dawn-like mist of gentle beauty.
"God! if there were somewhere nowadays where you could flee from all this stupidity, from all this cant of governments, and this hideous reiteration of hatred, this strangling hatred . . ." he would say to himself, and see himself working in the fields, copying parchments in quaint letterings, drowsing his feverish desires to calm in the deep-throated passionate chanting of the endless offices of the Church.
One afternoon towards evening as he lay on the tiled roof with his shirt open so that the sun warmed his throat and chest, half asleep in the beauty of the building and of the woods and the clouds that drifted overhead, he heard a strain from the organ in the church: a few deep notes in broken rhythm that filled him with wonder, as if he had suddenly been transported back to the quiet days of the monks. The rhythm changed in an instant, and through the squeakiness of shattered pipes came a swirl of fake-oriental ragtime that resounded like mocking laughter in the old vaults and arches. He went down into the church and found Tom Randolph playing on the little organ, pumping desperately with his feet.
"Hello! Impiety I call it; putting your lustful tunes into that pious old organ."
"I bet the ole monks had a merry time, lecherous ole devils," said Tom, playing away.
"If there were monasteries nowadays," said Martin, "I think I'd go into one."
"But there are. I'll end up in one, most like, if they don't put me in jail first. I reckon every living soul would be a candidate for either one if it'd get them out of this God-damned war."
There was a shriek overhead that reverberated strangely in the vaults of the church and made the swallows nesting there fly in and out through the glassless windows. Tom Randolph stopped on a wild chord.
"Guess they don't like me playin'."
"That one didn't explode though."
"That one did, by gorry," said Randolph, getting up off the floor, where he had thrown himself automatically. A shower of tiles came rattling off the roof, and through the noise could be heard the frightened squeaking of the swallows.
"I am afraid that winged somebody."
"They must have got wind of the ammunition dump in the cellar."
"Hell of a place to put a dressing-station--over an ammunition dump!"
The whitewashed room used as a dressing-station had a smell of blood stronger than the chloride. A doctor was leaning over a stretcher on which Martin caught a glimpse of two naked legs with flecks of blood on the white skin, as he passed through on his way to the car.
"Three stretcher-cases for Les Islettes. Very softly," said the attendant, handing him the papers.
Jolting over the shell-pitted road, the car wound slowly through unploughed weed-grown fields. At every jolt came a rasping groan from the wounded men.
As they came back towards the front posts again, they found all the batteries along the road firing. The air was a chaos of explosions that jabbed viciously into their ears, above the reassuring purr of the motor. Nearly to the abbey a soldier stopped them.
"Put the car behind the trees and get into a dugout. They're shelling the abbey."
As he spoke a whining shriek grew suddenly loud over their heads. The soldier threw himself flat in the muddy road. The explosion brought gravel about their ears and made a curious smell of almonds.
Crowded in the door of the dugout in the hill opposite they watched the abbey as shell after shell tore through the roof or exploded in the strong buttresses of the apse. Dust rose high above the roof and filled the air with an odour of damp tiles and plaster. The woods resounded in a jangling tremor, with the batteries that started firing one after the other.
"God, I hate them for that!" said Randolph between his teeth.
"What do you want? It's an observation post."
"I know, but damn it!"
There was a series of explosions; a shell fragment whizzed past their heads.
"It's not safe there. You'd better come in all the way," someone shouted from within the dugout.
"I want to see; damn it. . . . I'm goin' to stay and see it out, Howe. That place meant a hell of a lot to me." Randolph blushed as he spoke.
Another bunch of shells crashing so near together they did not hear the scream. When the cloud of dust blew away, they saw that the lantern had fallen in on the roof of the apse, leaving only one wall and the tracery of a window, of which the shattered carving stood out cream-white against the reddish evening sky.
There was a lull in the firing. A few swallows still wheeled about the walls, giving shrill little cries.
They saw the flash of a shell against the sky as it exploded in the part of the tall roof that still remained. The roof crumpled and fell in, and again dust hid the abbey.
"Oh, I hate this!" said Tom Randolph. "But the question is, what's happened to our grub? The popote is buried four feet deep in Gothic art. . . . Damn fool idea, putting a dressing-station over an ammunition dump."
"Is the car hit?" The orderly came up to them.
"Don't think so."
"Good. Four stretcher-cases for 42 at once."
At night in a dugout. Five men playing cards about a lamp-flame that blows from one side to the other in the gusty wind that puffs every now and then down the mouth of the dugout and whirls round it like something alive trying to beat a way out.
Each time the lamp blows the shadows of the five heads writhe upon the corrugated tin ceiling. In the distance, like kettle-drums beaten for a dance, a constant reverberation of guns.
Martin Howe, stretched out in the straw of one of the bunks, watches their faces in the flickering shadows. He wishes he had the patience to play too. No, perhaps it is better to look on; it would be so silly to be killed in the middle of one of those grand gestures one makes in slamming the card down that takes the trick. Suddenly he thinks of all the lives that must, in these last three years, have ended in that grand gesture. It is too silly. He seems to see their poor lacerated souls, clutching their greasy dogeared cards, climb to a squalid Valhalla, and there, in tobacco-stinking, sweat-stinking rooms, like those of the little cafés behind the lines, sit in groups of five, shuffling, dealing, taking tricks, always with the same slam of the cards on the table, pausing now and then to scratch their louse-eaten flesh.
At this moment, how many men, in all the long Golgotha that stretches from Belfort to the sea, must be trying to cheat their boredom and their misery with that grand gesture of slamming the cards down to take a trick, while in their ears, like tom-toms, pounds the death-dance of the guns.
Martin lies on his back looking up at the curved corrugated ceiling of the dugout, where the shadows of the five heads writhe in fantastic shapes. Is it death they are playing, that they are so merry when they take a trick?