Page 12 of 24
At breakfast next morning Doggie searched the courtyard in vain for the slim figure of the girl. Yesterday she had stood just outside the kitchen door. To-day her office was usurped by a hefty cook with the sleeves of his grey shirt rolled up and his collar open and vast and tight-hitched braces unromantically strapped all over him. Doggie felt a pang of disappointment and abused the tea. Mo Shendish stared, and asked what was wrong with it.
"Rotten," said Doggie.
"You can't expect yer slap-up City A.B.C. shops in France," said Mo.
Doggie, who was beginning to acquire a sense of rueful humour, smiled and was appeased.
It was only in the afternoon that he saw the girl again. She was standing in the doorway of the house, with her hand on her bosom, as though she had just come out to breathe fresh air, when Doggie and his two friends emerged from the yard. As their eyes met, she greeted him with her sad little smile. Emboldened, he stepped forward.
"Bon jour, mademoiselle."
"Bon jour, monsieur."
"I hope madame your aunt is better to-day."
She seemed to derive some dry amusement from his solicitude.
"Alas, no, monsieur."
"Yesterday you filled our tea-kettles."
"But, monsieur," she replied primly, "I am not the vivandire of the regiment."
"That's a pity," laughed Doggie.
Then he became aware of the adjacent forms and staring eyes of Phineas and Mo, who for the first time in their military career beheld him on easy terms with a strange and prepossessing young woman. After a second's thought he came to a diplomatic decision.
"Mademoiselle," said he, in his best Durdlebury manner, "may I dare to present my two comrades, my best friends in the battalion, Monsieur McPhail, Monsieur Shendish?"
She made them each a little formal bow, and then, somewhat maliciously, addressing McPhail, as the bigger and the elder of the two:
"I don't yet know the name of your friend."
Phineas put his great hand on Doggie's shoulder.
"James Marmaduke Trevor."
"Otherwise called Doggie, miss," said Mo.
She made a little graceful gesture of non-comprehension.
"Non compree?" asked Mo.
Phineas explained, in his rasping and consciously translated French:
"It is a nickname of the regiment. Doggie."
The flushed and embarrassed subject of the discussion saw her lips move silently to the word.
"But his name is Trevor. Monsieur Trevor," said Phineas.
"Monsieur Trevor," she repeated imitatively. "And yours, monsieur?"
"Mac-Fle; c'est assez difficile. And yours?"
Mo guessed. "Shendish," said he.
She repeated that also, whereat Mo grinned fatuously, showing his little yellow teeth beneath his scrubby red moustache.
"My friends call me Mo," said he.
She grasped his meaning. "Mo," she said; and she said it so funnily and softly, and with ever so little a touch of quizzicality, that the sentimental warrior roared with delight.
"You've got it right fust time, miss."
From her two steps' height of vantage, she looked down on the three upturned British faces---and her eyes went calmly from one to the other.
She turned to Doggie. "One would say, monsieur, that you were the Three Musketeers."
"Possibly, mademoiselle," laughed Doggie. He had not felt so light-hearted for many months. "But we lack a d'Artagnan."
"When you find him, bring him to me," said the girl.
"Mademoiselle," said Phineas gallantly, "we would not be such imbeciles."
At that moment the voice of Toinette came from within.
"Ma'amselle Jeanne! Ma'amselle Jeanne!"
"Oui, oui, j'y viens," she cried. "Bon soir, messieurs," and she was gone.
Doggie looked into the empty vestibule and smiled at the friendly brandy cask. Provided it is pronounced correctly, so as to rhyme with the English "Anne," it is a very pretty name. Doggie thought she looked like Jeanne---a Jeanne d'Arc of this modern war.
"Yon's a very fascinating lassie," Phineas remarked soberly, as they started on their stroll. "Did you happen to observe that all the time she was talking so prettily she was looking at ghosts behind us?"
"Do you think so?" asked Doggie, startled.
"Man, I know it," replied Phineas.
"Ghosts be blowed!" cried Mo Shendish. "She's a bit of orl right, she is. What I call class. Doesn't chuck 'erself at yer 'ead, like some of 'em, and, on the other 'and, has none of yer blooming stand-orfishness. See what I mean?" He clutched them each by an arm---he was between them. "Look 'ere. How do you think I could pick up this blinking lingo---quick?"
"Make violent love to Toinette and ask her to teach you. There's nothing like it," said Doggie.
"The nice old lady in the kitchen."
Mo flung his arm away. "Oh, go and boil yourself!" said he.
But the making of love to the old woman in the kitchen led to possibilities of which Mo Shendish never dreamed. They never dawned on Doggie until he found himself at it that evening.
It was dusk. The men were lounging and smoking about the courtyard. Doggie, who had long since exchanged poor Taffy Jones's imperfect penny whistle for a scientific musical instrument ordered from Bond Street, was playing, with his sensitive skill, the airs they loved. He had just finished "Annie Laurie"---"Man," Phineas used to declare, "when Doggie Trevor plays 'Annie Laurie,' he has the power to take your heart by the strings and drag it out through your eyes"---he had just come to the end of this popular and gizzard-piercing tune and received his meed of applause, when Toinette came out of the kitchen, two great zinc crocks in her hands, and crossed to the pump in the corner of the yard. Three or four would-be pumpers, among them Doggie, went to her aid.
"All right, mother, we'll see to it," said one of them.
So they pumped and filled the crocks, and one man got hold of one and Doggie got hold of another, and they carried them to the kitchen steps.
"Merci, monsieur," said Toinette to the first; and he went away with a friendly nod. But to Doggie she said, "Entrez, monsieur." And monsieur carried the two crocks over the threshold and Toinette shut the door behind him. And there, sitting over some needlework in a corner of the kitchen by a lamp, sat Jeanne.
She looked up rather startled, frowned for the brief part of a second, and regarded him inquiringly.
"I brought in monsieur to show him the photograph of mon petiot, the comrade who sent me the snuff," explained Toinette, rummaging in a cupboard.
"May I stay and look at it?" asked Doggie, buttoning up his tunic.
"Mais parfaitement, monsieur," said Jeanne. "It is Toinette's kitchen."
"Bien sr," said the old woman, turning with the photograph, that of a solid young infantryman. Doggie made polite remarks. Toinette put on a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles and scanned the picture. Then she handed it to Jeanne.
"Don't you think there is a great deal of resemblance?"
Jeanne directed a comparing glance at Doggie and smiled.
"Like two little soldiers in a pod," she said.
Toinette talked of her petiot who was at St. Mihiel. It was far away, very far. She sighed as though he were fighting remote in the Caucasus.
Presently came the sharp ring of a bell. Jeanne put aside her work and rose.
"It is my aunt who has awakened."
But Toinette was already at the door. "I will go up, Ma'amselle Jeanne. Do not derange yourself."
She bustled away. Once more the pair found themselves alone together.
"If you don't continue your sewing, mademoiselle," said Doggie, "I shall think that I am disturbing you, and must bid you good night."
Jeanne sat down and resumed her work. A sensation, more like laughter than anything else, fluttered round Doggie's heart.
"Voulez-vous vous asseoir, Monsieur---Trevor?"
"Vous tes bien aimable, Mademoiselle Jeanne," said Doggie, sitting down on a straight-backed chair by the oilcloth-covered kitchen table which was between them.
"May I move the lamp slightly?" he asked, for it hid her from his view.
He moved it somewhat to her left. It threw shadows over her features, accentuating their appealing sadness. He watched her, and thought of McPhail's words about the ghosts. He noted too, as the needle went in and out of the fabric, that her hands, though roughened by coarse work, were finely made, with long fingers and delicate wrists. He broke a silence that grew embarrassing.
"You seem to have suffered greatly, Mademoiselle Jeanne," he said softly.
Her lips quivered. "Mais oui, monsieur."
"Monsieur Trevor," he said.
She put her hands and needlework in her lap and looked at him full.
"And you too have suffered?"
"I? Oh no."
"But, yes. I have seen too much of it not to know. I see in the eyes. Your two comrades to-day---they are good fellows---but they have not suffered. You are different."
"Not a bit," he declared. "We're just little indistinguishable bits of the conglomerate Tommy."
"And I, monsieur, have the honour to say that you are different."
This was very flattering. More---it was sweet unction, grateful to many a bruise.
"How?" said he.
"You do not belong to their world. Your Tommies are wonderful in their kindness and chivalry---until I met them I had never seen an Englishman in my life---I had imbecile ideas---I thought they would be without manners---un peu insultants. I found I could walk among them, without fear, as if I were a princess. It is true."
"It is because you have the air of a princess," said Doggie; "a sad little disguised princess of a fairy-tale, who is recognized by all the wild boars and rabbits in the wood."
She glanced aside. "There isn't a woman in Frlus who is differently treated. I am only an ignorant girl, half bourgeoise, half peasant, monsieur, but I have my woman's knowledge---and I know there is a difference between you and the others. You are a son of good family. It is evident. You have a delicacy of mind and of feeling. You were not born to be a soldier."
"Mademoiselle Jeanne," cried Doggie, "do I appear as bad as that? Do you take me for an embusqu manqu?"
Now an embusqu is a slacker who lies in the safe ambush of a soft job. And an embusqu manqu is a slacker who fortuitously has failed to win the fungus wreath of slackerdom.
She flushed deep red.
"Je ne suis pas malhonnte, monsieur."
Doggie spread himself elbow-wise over the table. The girl's visible register of moods was fascinating.
"Pardon, Mademoiselle Jeanne. You are quite right. But it's not a question of what I was born to be---but what I was trained to be. I wasn't trained to be a soldier. But I do my best."
She looked at him waveringly.
"Forgive me, mademoiselle."
"But you flash out on the point of honour."
Doggie laughed. "Which shows that I have the essential of the soldier."
Doggie's manner was not without charm. She relented.
"You know very well what I mean," she said rebukingly. "And you don't deserve that I should tell it to you. It was my intention to say that you have sacrificed many things to make yourself a simple soldier."
"Only a few idle habits," said Doggie.
"You joined, like the rest, as a volunteer."
"You abandoned everything to fight for your country?"
Under the spell of her dark eyes Doggie spoke according to Phineas after the going West of Taffy Jones, "I think, Mademoiselle Jeanne, it was rather to fight for my soul."
She resumed her sewing. "That's what I meant long ago," she remarked with the first draw of the needle. "No one could fight for his soul without passing through suffering." She went on sewing. Doggie, shrinking from a reply that might have sounded fatuous, remained silent; but he realized a wonderful faculty of comprehension in Jeanne.
After awhile he said: "Where did you learn all your wisdom, Mademoiselle Jeanne?"
"At the convent, I suppose. My father gave me a good education."
"An English poet has said, 'Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers'"---Doggie had rather a fight to express the meaning exactly in French---"You don't gather wisdom in convents."
"It is true. Since then I have seen many things."
She stared across the room, not at Doggie, and he thought again of the ghosts.
"Tell me some of them, Mademoiselle Jeanne," he said in a low voice.
She shot a swift glance at him and met his honest brown eyes.
"I saw my father murdered in front of me," she said in a harsh voice.
"My God!" said Doggie.
"It was on the Retreat. We lived in Cambrai, my father and mother and I. He was a lawyer. When we heard the Germans were coming, my father, somewhat of an invalid, decided to fly. He had heard of what they had already done in Belgium. We tried to go by train. Pas moyen. We took to the road, with many others. We could not get a horse---we had postponed our flight till too late. Only a handcart, with a few necessaries and precious things. And we walked until we nearly died of heat and dust and grief. For our hearts were very heavy, monsieur. The roads, too, were full of the English in retreat. I shall not tell you what I saw of the wounded by the roadside. I sometimes see them now in my dreams. And we were helpless. We thought we would leave the main roads, and at last we got lost and found ourselves in a little wood. We sat down to rest and to eat. It was cool and pleasant, and I laughed, to cheer my parents, for they knew how I loved to eat under the freshness of the trees." She shivered. "I hope I shall never have to eat a meal in a wood again. We had scarcely begun when a body of cavalry, with strange pointed helmets, rode along the path and, seeing us, halted. My mother, half dead with terror, cried out, 'Mon Dieu, ce sont des Uhlans!' The leader, I suppose an officer, called out something in German. My father replied. I do not understand German, so I did not know and shall never know what they said. But my father protested in anger and stood in front of the horse making gestures. And then the officer took out his revolver and shot him through the heart, and he fell dead. And the murderer turned his horse's head round and he laughed. He laughed, monsieur."
"Damn him!" said Doggie, in English. "Damn him!"
He gazed deep into Jeanne's dark tearless eyes. She continued in the same even voice:
"My mother became mad. She was a peasant, a Bretonne, where the blood is fierce, and she screamed and clung to the bridle of the horse. And he rode her down and the horse trampled on her. Then he pointed at me, who was supporting the body of my father, and three men dismounted. But suddenly he heard something, gave an order, and the men mounted again, and they all rode away laughing and jeering, and the last man, in bad French, shouted at me a foul insult. And I was there, Monsieur Trevor, with my father dead and my mother stunned and bruised and bleeding."
Doggie, sensitive, quivered to the girl's tragedy: he said, with tense face:
"God give me strength to kill every German I see!"
She nodded slowly. "No German is a human being. If I were God, I would exterminate the accursed race like wolves."
"You are right," said Doggie. A short silence fell. He asked: "What happened then?"
"Mon Dieu, I almost forget. I was overwhelmed with grief and horror. Some hours afterwards a small body of English infantry came---many of them had bloodstained bandages. An officer who spoke a little French questioned me. I told him what had happened. He spoke with another officer, and because I recognized the word 'Uhlans,' I knew they were anxious about the patrol. They asked me the way to some place---I forget where. But I was lost. They looked at a map. Meanwhile my mother had recovered consciousness. I gave her a little wine from the bottle we had opened for our repast. I happened to look at the officer and saw him pass his tongue over his cracked lips. All the men had thrown themselves down by the side of the road. I handed him the bottle and the little tin cup. To my surprise, he did not drink. He said: 'Mademoiselle, this is war, and we are all in very great peril. My men are dying of thirst, and if you have any more of the wine, give it to them and they will do their utmost to conduct your mother and yourself to a place of safety.' Alas! there were only three bottles in our little basket of provisions. Naturally I gave it all---together with the food. He called a sergeant, who took the provisions and distributed them, while I was tending my mother. But I noticed that the two officers took neither bite nor sup. It was only afterwards, Monsieur Trevor, that I realized I had seen your great English gentlemen.... Then they dug a little grave, for my father.... It was soon finished ... the danger was grave ... and some soldiers took a rope and pulled the handcart, with my mother lying on top of our little possessions, and I walked with them, until the whole of my life was blotted out with fatigue. We got on to the Route Nationale again and mingled again with the Retreat. And in the night, as we were still marching, there was a halt. I went to my mother. She was cold, monsieur, cold and stiff. She was dead."
She paused tragically. After a few moments she continued:
"I fainted. I do not know what happened till I recovered consciousness at dawn. I found myself wrapped in one of our blankets, lying under the handcart. It was the market-square of a little town. And there were many---old men and women and children, refugees like me. I rose and found a paper---a leaf torn from a notebook---fixed to the handcart. It was from the officer, bidding me farewell. Military necessity forced him to go on with his men---but he had kept his word, and brought me to a place of safety.... That is how I first met the English, Monsieur Trevor. They had carried me, I suppose, on the handcart, all night, they who were broken with weariness. I owe them my life and my reason."
"And your mother?"
"How should I know? Elle est reste l-bas," she replied simply.
She went on with her sewing. Doggie wondered how her hand could be so steady. There was a long silence. What words, save vain imprecations on the accursed race, were adequate? Presently her glance rested for a second or two on his sensitive face.
"Why do you not smoke, Monsieur Trevor?"
"Of course. It calms the nerves. I ought not to have saddened you with my griefs."
Doggie took out his pink packet and lit a cigarette.
"You are very understanding, Mademoiselle Jeanne. But it does a selfish man like me good to be saddened by a story like yours. I have not had much opportunity in my life of feeling for another's suffering. And since the war---I am abruti."
"You? Do you think if I had not found you just the reverse, I should have told you all this?"
"You have paid me a great compliment, Mademoiselle Jeanne." Then, after awhile, he asked, "From the market-square of the little town you found means to come here?"
"Alas, no!" she said, putting her work in her lap again. "I made my way, with my handcart---it was easy---to our original destination, a little farm belonging to the eldest brother of my father. The Farm of La Folette. He lived there alone, a widower, with his farm-servants. He had no children. We thought we were safe. Alas! news came that the Germans were always advancing. We had time to fly. All the farm-hands fled, except Pre Grigou, who loved him. But my uncle was obstinate. To a Frenchman, the soil he possesses is his flesh and his blood. He would die rather than leave it. And my uncle had the murder of my father and mother on his brain. He told Pre Grigou to take me away, but I stayed with him. It was Pre Grigou who forced us to hide. That lasted two days. There was a well in the farm, and one night Pre Grigou tied up my money and my mother's jewellery and my father's papers, enfin, all the precious things we had, in a packet of waterproof and sank it with a long string down the well, so that the Germans could not find it. It was foolish, but he insisted. One day my uncle and Pre Grigou went out of the little copse where we had been hiding, in order to reconnoitre, for he thought the Germans might be going away; and my uncle, who would not listen to me, took his gun. Presently I heard a shot---and then another. You can guess what it meant. And soon Pre Grigou came, white and shaking with terror. 'Il en a tu un, et on l'a tu!'"
"My God!" said Doggie again.
"It was terrible," she said. "But they were in their right."
"We lay hidden until it was dark---how they did not find us I don't know---and then we escaped across country. I thought of coming here to my Aunt Morin, which is not far from La Folette, but I reflected that soon the Boches would be here also. And we went on. We got to a high road---and once more I was among troops and refugees. I met some kind folks in a carriage, a Monsieur and Madame Tarride, and they took me in. And so I got to Paris, where I had the hospitality of a friend of the Convent who was married."
"And Pre Grigou?"
"He insisted on going back to bury my uncle. Nothing could move him. He had not parted from him all his life. They were foster-brothers. Where he is now, who knows?" She paused, looked again at her ghosts, and continued: "That is all, Monsieur Trevor. The Germans passed through here and repassed on their retreat, and, as soon as it was safe, I came to help my aunt, who was souffrante, and had lost her son. Also because I could not live on charity on my friend, for, voyez-vous, I was without a sou---all my money having been hidden in the well by Pre Grigou."
Doggie leant his elbows on the table.
"And you have come through all that, Mademoiselle Jeanne, just as you are------?"
"How, just as I am?"
"So gentle and kind and comprehending?"
Her cheek flushed. "I am not the only Frenchwoman who has passed through such things and kept herself proud. But the struggle has been very hard."
Doggie rose and clenched his fists and rubbed his head from front to back in his old indecisive way, and began to swear incoherently in English. She smiled sadly.
"Ah, mon pauvre ami!"
He wheeled round: "Why do you call me 'mon pauvre ami'?"
"Because I see that you would like to help me and you can't."
She rose too, startled, on quick defensive. He said, in reply to her glance:
"Why shouldn't I call you Jeanne?"
"You haven't the right."
"What if I gain it?"
"I don't know," said Doggie.
The door burst suddenly open and the anxious face of Mo Shendish appeared.
"'Ere, you silly cuckoo, don't yer know you're on guard to-night? You've just got about thirty seconds."
"Good lord!" cried Doggie, "I forgot. Bon soir, mademoiselle. Service militaire," and he rushed out.
Mo lingered, with a grin, and jerked a backward thumb.
"If it weren't for old Mo, miss, I don't know what would happen to our friend Doggie. I got to look after him like a baby, I 'ave. He's on to relieve guard, and if old Mac---that's McPhail"---she nodded recognition of the name---"and I hadn't remembered, miss, he'd 'ave been in what yer might call a 'ole. Compree?"
"Oui. Yes," she said. "Garde. Sentinelle."
"Sentinel. Sentry. Right."
"He---was---late," she said, picking out her few English words from memory.
"Yuss," grinned Mo.
"Ah! oui, je comprends," smiled Jeanne. "Merci, monsieur, et bon soir."
"Good night, miss," said Mo.
Some time later he disturbed Phineas, by whose side he slept, from his initial preparation for slumber.
"Mac! Is there any book I could learn this blinking lingo from?"
"Try Ovid---'Art of Love,'" replied Phineas sleepily.