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A Glimpse of the French Line

I

The French soldiers are grand. They are grand. There is no other word to express it. It is not merely their bravery. All races have shown bravery in this war. But it is their solidity, their patience, their nobility. I could not conceive anything finer than the bearing of their officers. It is proud without being arrogant, stern without being fierce, serious without being depressed. Such, too, are the men whom they lead with such skill and devotion. Under the frightful hammer-blows of circumstance, the national characters seem to have been reversed. It is our British soldier who has become debonair, light-hearted and reckless, while the Frenchman has developed a solemn stolidity and dour patience which was once all our own. During a long day in the French trenches, I have never once heard the sound of music or laughter, nor have I once seen a face that was not full of the most grim determination.

Germany set out to bleed France white. Well, she has done so. France is full of widows and orphans from end to end. Perhaps in proportion to her population she has suffered the most of all. But in carrying out her hellish mission Germany has bled herself white also. Her heavy sword has done its work, but the keen French rapier has not lost its skill. France will stand at last, weak and tottering, with her huge enemy dead at her feet. But it is a fearsome business to see--such a business as the world never looked upon before. It is fearful for the French. It is fearful for the Germans. May God's curse rest upon the arrogant men and the unholy ambitions which let loose this horror upon humanity! Seeing what they have done, and knowing that they have done it, one would think that mortal brain would grow crazy under the weight. Perhaps the central brain of all was crazy from the first. But what sort of government is it under which one crazy brain can wreck mankind!

If ever one wanders into the high places of mankind, the places whence the guidance should come, it seems to me that one has to recall the dying words of the Swedish Chancellor who declared that the folly of those who governed was what had amazed him most in his experience of life. Yesterday I met one of these men of power--M. Clemenceau, once Prime Minister, now the destroyer of governments. He is by nature a destroyer, incapable of rebuilding what he has pulled down. With his personal force, his eloquence, his thundering voice, his bitter pen, he could wreck any policy, but would not even trouble to suggest an alternative. As he sat before me with his face of an old prizefighter (he is remarkably like Jim Mace as I can remember him in his later days), his angry grey eyes and his truculent, mischievous smile, he seemed to me a very dangerous man. His conversation, if a squirt on one side and Niagara on the other can be called conversation, was directed for the moment upon the iniquity of the English rate of exchange, which seemed to me very much like railing against the barometer. My companion, who has forgotten more economics than ever Clemenceau knew, was about to ask whether France was prepared to take the rouble at face value, but the roaring voice, like a strong gramophone with a blunt needle, submerged all argument. We have our dangerous men, but we have no one in the same class as Clemenceau. Such men enrage the people who know them, alarm the people who don't, set every one by the ears, act as a healthy irritant in days of peace, and are a public danger in days of war.

      *       *       *       *       *
But this is digression. I had set out to say something of a day's experience of the French front, though I shall write with a fuller pen when I return from the Argonne. It was for Soissons that we made, passing on the way a part of the scene of our own early operations, including the battlefield of Villers Cotteret--just such a wood as I had imagined. My companion's nephew was one of those Guards' officers whose bodies rest now in the village cemetery, with a little British Jack still flying above them. They lie together, and their grave is tended with pious care. Among the trees beside the road were other graves of soldiers, buried where they had fallen. 'So look around--and choose your ground--and take your rest.'

Soissons is a considerable wreck, though it is very far from being an Ypres. But the cathedral would, and will, make many a patriotic Frenchman weep. These savages cannot keep their hands off a beautiful church. Here, absolutely unchanged through the ages, was the spot where St. Louis had dedicated himself to the Crusade. Every stone of it was holy. And now the lovely old stained glass strews the floor, and the roof lies in a huge heap across the central aisle. A dog was climbing over it as we entered. No wonder the French fight well. Such sights would drive the mildest man to desperation. The abbé, a good priest, with a large humorous face, took us over his shattered domain. He was full of reminiscences of the German occupation of the place. One of his personal anecdotes was indeed marvellous. It was that a lady in the local ambulance had vowed to kiss the first French soldier who re-entered the town. She did so, and it proved to be her husband. The abbé is a good, kind, truthful man--but he has a humorous face.

A walk down a ruined street brings one to the opening of the trenches. There are marks upon the walls of the German occupation. 'Berlin--Paris,' with an arrow of direction, adorns one corner. At another the 76th Regiment have commemorated the fact that they were there in 1870 and again in 1914. If the Soissons folk are wise they will keep these inscriptions as a reminder to the rising generation. I can imagine, however, that their inclination will be to whitewash, fumigate, and forget.

A sudden turn among some broken walls takes one into the communication trench. Our guide is a Commandant of the Staff, a tall, thin man with hard, grey eyes and a severe face. It is the more severe towards us as I gather that he has been deluded into the belief that about one out of six of our soldiers goes to the trenches. For the moment he is not friends with the English. As we go along, however, we gradually get upon better terms, we discover a twinkle in the hard, grey eyes, and the day ends with an exchange of walking-sticks and a renewal of the Entente. May my cane grow into a marshal's baton.

      *        *        *        *        *
A charming young artillery subaltern is our guide in that maze of trenches, and we walk and walk and walk, with a brisk exchange of compliments between the '75's' of the French and the '77's' of the Germans going on high over our heads. The trenches are boarded at the sides, and have a more permanent look than those of Flanders. Presently we meet a fine, brown-faced, upstanding boy, as keen as a razor, who commands this particular section. A little further on a helmeted captain of infantry, who is an expert sniper, joins our little party. Now we are at the very front trench. I had expected to see primeval men, bearded and shaggy. But the 'Poilus' have disappeared. The men around me were clean and dapper to a remarkable degree. I gathered, however, that they had their internal difficulties. On one board I read an old inscription, 'He is a Boche, but he is the inseparable companion of a French soldier.' Above was a rude drawing of a louse.

I am led to a cunning loop-hole, and have a glimpse through it of a little framed picture of French countryside. There are fields, a road, a sloping hill beyond with trees. Quite close, about thirty or forty yards away, was a low, red-tiled house. 'They are there,' said our guide. 'That is their outpost. We can hear them cough.' Only the guns were coughing that morning, so we heard nothing, but it was certainly wonderful to be so near to the enemy and yet in such peace. I suppose wondering visitors from Berlin are brought up also to hear the French cough. Modern warfare has certainly some extraordinary sides.

Now we are shown all the devices which a year of experience has suggested to the quick brains of our Allies. It is ground upon which one cannot talk with freedom. Every form of bomb, catapult, and trench mortar was ready to hand. Every method of cross-fire had been thought out to an exact degree. There was something, however, about their disposition of a machine gun which disturbed the Commandant. He called for the officer of the gun. His thin lips got thinner and his grey eyes more austere as we waited. Presently there emerged an extraordinarily handsome youth, dark as a Spaniard, from some rabbit hole. He faced the Commandant bravely, and answered back with respect but firmness. 'Pourquoi?' asked the Commandant, and yet again 'Pourquoi?' Adonis had an answer for everything. Both sides appealed to the big Captain of Snipers, who was clearly embarrassed. He stood on one leg and scratched his chin. Finally the Commandant turned away angrily in the midst of one of Adonis' voluble sentences. His face showed that the matter was not ended. War is taken very seriously in the French army, and any sort of professional mistake is very quickly punished. I have been told how many officers of high rank have been broken by the French during the war. The figure was a very high one. There is no more forgiveness for the beaten General than there was in the days of the Republic when the delegate of the National Convention, with a patent portable guillotine, used to drop in at headquarters to support a more vigorous offensive.

      *       *       *       *       *
As I write these lines there is a burst of bugles in the street, and I go to my open window to see the 41st of the line march down into what may develop into a considerable battle. How I wish they could march down the Strand even as they are. How London would rise to them! Laden like donkeys, with a pile upon their backs and very often both hands full as well, they still get a swing into their march which it is good to see. They march in column of platoons, and the procession is a long one, for a French regiment is, of course, equal to three battalions. The men are shortish, very thick, burned brown in the sun, with never a smile among them--have I not said that they are going down to a grim sector?--but with faces of granite. There was a time when we talked of stiffening the French army. I am prepared to believe that our first expeditionary force was capable of stiffening any conscript army, for I do not think that a finer force ever went down to battle. But to talk about stiffening these people now would be ludicrous. You might as well stiffen the old Guard. There may be weak regiments somewhere, but I have never seen them.

I think that an injustice has been done to the French army by the insistence of artists and cinema operators upon the picturesque Colonial corps. One gets an idea that Arabs and negroes are pulling France out of the fire. It is absolutely false. Her own brave sons are doing the work. The Colonial element is really a very small one--so small that I have not seen a single unit during all my French wanderings. The Colonials are good men, but like our splendid Highlanders they catch the eye in a way which is sometimes a little hard upon their neighbours. When there is hard work to be done it is the good little French piou-piou who usually has to do it. There is no better man in Europe. If we are as good--and I believe we are--it is something to be proud of.

      *        *        *        *        *
But I have wandered far from the trenches of Soissons. It had come on to rain heavily, and we were forced to take refuge in the dugout of the sniper. Eight of us sat in the deep gloom huddled closely together. The Commandant was still harping upon that ill-placed machine gun. He could not get over it. My imperfect ear for French could not follow all his complaints, but some defence of the offender brought forth a 'Jamais! Jamais! Jamais!' which was rapped out as if it came from the gun itself. There were eight of us in an underground burrow, and some were smoking. Better a deluge than such an atmosphere as that. But if there is a thing upon earth which the French officer shies at it is rain and mud. The reason is that he is extraordinarily natty in his person. His charming blue uniform, his facings, his brown gaiters, boots and belts are always just as smart as paint. He is the Dandy of the European war. I noticed officers in the trenches with their trousers carefully pressed. It is all to the good, I think. Wellington said that the dandies made his best officers. It is difficult for the men to get rattled or despondent when they see the debonair appearance of their leaders.

Among the many neat little marks upon the French uniforms which indicate with precision but without obtrusion the rank and arm of the wearer, there was one which puzzled me. It was to be found on the left sleeve of men of all ranks, from generals to privates, and it consisted of small gold chevrons, one, two, or more. No rule seemed to regulate them, for the general might have none, and I have heard of the private who wore ten. Then I solved the mystery. They are the record of wounds received. What an admirable idea! Surely we should hasten to introduce it among our own soldiers. It costs little and it means much. If you can allay the smart of a wound by the knowledge that it brings lasting honour to the man among his fellows, then surely it should be done. Medals, too, are more freely distributed and with more public parade than in our service. I am convinced that the effect is good.

      *        *        *        *        *
The rain has now stopped, and we climb from our burrow. Again we are led down that endless line of communication trench, again we stumble through the ruins, again we emerge into the street where our cars are awaiting us. Above our heads the sharp artillery duel is going merrily forward. The French are firing three or four to one, which has been my experience at every point I have touched upon the Allied front. Thanks to the extraordinary zeal of the French workers, especially of the French women, and to the clever adaptation of machinery by their engineers, their supplies are abundant. Even now they turn out more shells a day than we do. That, however, excludes our supply for the Fleet. But it is one of the miracles of the war that the French, with their coal and iron in the hands of the enemy, have been able to equal the production of our great industrial centres. The steel, of course, is supplied by us. To that extent we can claim credit for the result.

And so, after the ceremony of the walking-sticks, we bid adieu to the lines of Soissons. To-morrow we start for a longer tour to the more formidable district of the Argonne, the neighbour of Verdun, and itself the scene of so much that is glorious and tragic.

II.

There is a couplet of Stevenson's which haunts me, 'There fell a war in a woody place--in a land beyond the sea.' I have just come back from spending three wonderful dream days in that woody place. It lies with the open, bosky country of Verdun on its immediate right, and the chalk downs of Champagne upon its left. If one could imagine the lines being taken right through our New Forest or the American Adirondacks it would give some idea of the terrain, save that it is a very undulating country of abrupt hills and dales. It is this peculiarity which has made the war on this front different to any other, more picturesque and more secret. In front the fighting lines are half in the clay soil, half behind the shelter of fallen trunks. Between the two the main bulk of the soldiers live like animals of the woodlands, burrowing on the hillsides and among the roots of the trees. It is a war by itself, and a very wonderful one to see. At three different points I have visited the front in this broad region, wandering from the lines of one army corps to that of another. In all three I found the same conditions, and in all three I found also the same pleasing fact which I had discovered at Soissons, that the fire of the French was at least five, and very often ten shots to one of the Boche. It used not to be so. The Germans used to scrupulously return shot for shot. But whether they have moved their guns to the neighbouring Verdun, or whether, as is more likely, all the munitions are going there, it is certain that they were very outclassed upon the three days (June 10, 11, 12) which I allude to. There were signs that for some reason their spirits were at a low ebb. On the evening before our arrival the French had massed all their bands at the front, and, in honour of the Russian victory, had played the Marseillaise and the Russian National hymn, winding up with general shoutings and objurgations calculated to annoy. Failing to stir up the Boche, they had ended by a salute from a hundred shotted guns. After trailing their coats up and down the line they had finally to give up the attempt to draw the enemy. Want of food may possibly have caused a decline in the German spirit. There is some reason to believe that they feed up their fighting men at the places like Verdun or Hooge, where they need all their energy, at the expense of the men who are on the defensive. If so, we may find it out when we attack. The French officers assured me that the prisoners and deserters made bitter complaints of their scale of rations. And yet it is hard to believe that the fine efforts of our enemy at Verdun are the work of half-starved men.

      *        *        *        *        *
To return to my personal impressions, it was at Chalons that we left the Paris train--a town which was just touched by the most forward ripple of the first great German floodtide. A drive of some twenty miles took us to St. Menehould, and another ten brought us to the front in the sector of Divisional-General H. A fine soldier this, and heaven help Germany if he and his division get within its borders, for he is, as one can see at a glance, a man of iron who has been goaded to fierceness by all that his beloved country has endured. He is a man of middle size, swarthy, hawk-like, very abrupt in his movements, with two steel grey eyes, which are the most searching that mine have ever met. His hospitality and courtesy to us were beyond all bounds, but there is another side to him, and it is one which it is wiser not to provoke. In person he took us to his lines, passing through the usual shot-torn villages behind them. Where the road dips down into the great forest there is one particular spot which is visible to the German artillery observers. The General mentioned it at the time, but his remark seemed to have no personal interest. We understood it better on our return in the evening.

Now we found ourselves in the depths of the woods, primeval woods of oak and beech in the deep clay soil that the great oak loves. There had been rain and the forest paths were ankle deep in mire. Everywhere, to right and left, soldiers' faces, hard and rough from a year of open air, gazed up at us from their burrows in the ground. Presently an alert, blue-clad figure stood in the path to greet us. It was the Colonel of the sector. He was ridiculously like Cyrano de Bergerac as depicted by the late M. Coquelin, save that his nose was of more moderate proportion. The ruddy colouring, the bristling feline full-ended moustache, the solidity of pose, the backward tilt of the head, the general suggestion of the bantam cock, were all there facing us as he stood amid the leaves in the sunlight. Gauntlets and a long rapier--nothing else was wanting. Something had amused Cyrano. His moustache quivered with suppressed mirth, and his blue eyes were demurely gleaming. Then the joke came out. He had spotted a German working party, his guns had concentrated on it, and afterwards he had seen the stretchers go forward. A grim joke, it may seem. But the French see this war from a different angle to us. If we had the Boche sitting on our heads for two years, and were not yet quite sure whether we could ever get him off again, we should get Cyrano's point of view. Those of us who have had our folk murdered by Zeppelins or tortured in German prisons have probably got it already.

     *       *       *       *       *
We passed in a little procession among the French soldiers, and viewed their multifarious arrangements. For them we were a little break in a monotonous life, and they formed up in lines as we passed. My own British uniform and the civilian dresses of my two companions interested them. As the General passed these groups, who formed themselves up in perhaps a more familiar manner than would have been usual in the British service, he glanced kindly at them with those singular eyes of his, and once or twice addressed them as 'Mes enfants.' One might conceive that all was 'go as you please' among the French. So it is as long as you go in the right way. When you stray from it you know it. As we passed a group of men standing on a low ridge which overlooked us there was a sudden stop. I gazed round. The General's face was steel and cement. The eyes were cold and yet fiery, sunlight upon icicles. Something had happened. Cyrano had sprung to his side. His reddish moustache had shot forward beyond his nose, and it bristled out like that of an angry cat. Both were looking up at the group above us. One wretched man detached himself from his comrades and sidled down the slope. No skipper and mate of a Yankee blood boat could have looked more ferociously at a mutineer. And yet it was all over some minor breach of discipline which was summarily disposed of by two days of confinement. Then in an instant the faces relaxed, there was a general buzz of relief and we were back at 'Mes enfants' again. But don't make any mistake as to discipline in the French army.

Trenches are trenches, and the main specialty of these in the Argonne is that they are nearer to the enemy. In fact there are places where they interlock, and where the advanced posts lie cheek by jowl with a good steel plate to cover both cheek and jowl. We were brought to a sap-head where the Germans were at the other side of a narrow forest road. Had I leaned forward with extended hand and a Boche done the same we could have touched. I looked across, but saw only a tangle of wire and sticks. Even whispering was not permitted in these forward posts.

      *        *        *        *        *
When we emerged from these hushed places of danger Cyrano took us all to his dug-out, which was a tasty little cottage carved from the side of a hill and faced with logs. He did the honours of the humble cabin with the air of a seigneur in his château. There was little furniture, but from some broken mansion he had extracted an iron fire-back, which adorned his grate. It was a fine, mediaeval bit of work, with Venus, in her traditional costume, in the centre of it. It seemed the last touch in the picture of the gallant, virile Cyrano. I only met him this once, nor shall I ever see him again, yet he stands a thing complete within my memory. Even now as I write these lines he walks the leafy paths of the Argonne, his fierce eyes ever searching for the Boche workers, his red moustache bristling over their annihilation. He seems a figure out of the past of France.

That night we dined with yet another type of the French soldier, General A., who commands the corps of which my friend has one division. Each of these French generals has a striking individuality of his own which I wish I could fix upon paper. Their only common point is that each seems to be a rare good soldier. The corps general is Athos with a touch of d'Artagnan. He is well over six feet high, bluff, jovial, with huge, up-curling moustache, and a voice that would rally a regiment. It is a grand figure which should have been done by Van Dyck with lace collar, hand on sword, and arm akimbo. Jovial and laughing was he, but a stern and hard soldier was lurking behind the smiles. His name may appear in history, and so may Humbert's, who rules all the army of which the other's corps is a unit. Humbert is a Lord Robert's figure, small, wiry, quick-stepping, all steel and elastic, with a short, sharp upturned moustache, which one could imagine as crackling with electricity in moments of excitement like a cat's fur. What he does or says is quick, abrupt, and to the point. He fires his remarks like pistol shots at this man or that. Once to my horror he fixed me with his hard little eyes and demanded 'Sherlock Holmes, est ce qu'il est un soldat dans l'armée Anglaise?' The whole table waited in an awful hush. 'Mais, mon general,' I stammered, 'il est trop vieux pour service.' There was general laughter, and I felt that I had scrambled out of an awkward place.

And talking of awkward places, I had forgotten about that spot upon the road whence the Boche observer could see our motor-cars. He had actually laid a gun upon it, the rascal, and waited all the long day for our return. No sooner did we appear upon the slope than a shrapnel shell burst above us, but somewhat behind me, as well as to the left. Had it been straight the second car would have got it, and there might have been a vacancy in one of the chief editorial chairs in London. The General shouted to the driver to speed up, and we were soon safe from the German gunners. One gets perfectly immune to noises in these scenes, for the guns which surround you make louder crashes than any shell which bursts about you. It is only when you actually see the cloud over you that your thoughts come back to yourself, and that you realise that in this wonderful drama you may be a useless super, but none the less you are on the stage and not in the stalls.

      *        *        *        *        *
Next morning we were down in the front trenches again at another portion of the line. Far away on our right, from a spot named the Observatory, we could see the extreme left of the Verdun position and shells bursting on the Fille Morte. To the north of us was a broad expanse of sunny France, nestling villages, scattered châteaux, rustic churches, and all as inaccessible as if it were the moon. It is a terrible thing this German bar--a thing unthinkable to Britons. To stand on the edge of Yorkshire and look into Lancashire feeling that it is in other hands, that our fellow-countrymen are suffering there and waiting, waiting, for help, and that we cannot, after two years, come a yard nearer to them--would it not break our hearts? Can I wonder that there is no smile upon the grim faces of these Frenchmen! But when the bar is broken, when the line sweeps forward, as most surely it will, when French bayonets gleam on yonder uplands and French flags break from those village spires--ah, what a day that will be! Men will die that day from the pure, delirious joy of it. We cannot think what it means to France, and the less so because she stands so nobly patient waiting for her hour.

Yet another type of French general takes us round this morning! He, too, is a man apart, an unforgettable man. Conceive a man with a large broad good-humoured face, and two placid, dark seal's eyes which gaze gently into yours. He is young and has pink cheeks and a soft voice. Such is one of the most redoubtable fighters of France, this General of Division D. His former staff officers told me something of the man. He is a philosopher, a fatalist, impervious to fear, a dreamer of distant dreams amid the most furious bombardment. The weight of the French assault upon the terrible labyrinth fell at one time upon the brigade which he then commanded. He led them day after day gathering up Germans with the detached air of the man of science who is hunting for specimens. In whatever shell-hole he might chance to lunch he had his cloth spread and decorated with wild flowers plucked from the edge. If fate be kind to him he will go far. Apart from his valour he is admitted to be one of the most scientific soldiers of France.

From the Observatory we saw the destruction of a German trench. There had been signs of work upon it, so it was decided to close it down. It was a very visible brown streak a thousand yards away. The word was passed back to the '75's' in the rear. There was a 'tir rapide' over our heads. My word, the man who stands fast under a 'tir rapide,' be he Boche, French or British, is a man of mettle! The mere passage of the shells was awe-inspiring, at first like the screaming of a wintry wind, and then thickening into the howling of a pack of wolves. The trench was a line of terrific explosions. Then the dust settled down and all was still. Where were the ants who had made the nest? Were they buried beneath it? Or had they got from under? No one could say.

There was one little gun which fascinated me, and I stood for some time watching it. Its three gunners, enormous helmeted men, evidently loved it, and touched it with a swift but tender touch in every movement. When it was fired it ran up an inclined plane to take off the recoil, rushing up and then turning and rattling down again upon the gunners who were used to its ways. The first time it did it, I was standing behind it, and I don't know which moved quickest--the gun or I.

French officers above a certain rank develop and show their own individuality. In the lower grades the conditions of service enforce a certain uniformity. The British officer is a British gentleman first, and an officer afterwards. The Frenchman is an officer first, though none the less the gentleman stands behind it. One very strange type we met, however, in these Argonne Woods. He was a French-Canadian who had been a French soldier, had founded a homestead in far Alberta, and had now come back of his own will, though a naturalised Briton, to the old flag. He spoke English of a kind, the quality and quantity being equally extraordinary. It poured from him and was, so far as it was intelligible, of the woolly Western variety. His views on the Germans were the most emphatic we had met. 'These Godam sons of'--well, let us say 'Canines!' he would shriek, shaking his fist at the woods to the north of him. A good man was our compatriot, for he had a very recent Legion of Honour pinned upon his breast. He had been put with a few men on Hill 285, a sort of volcano stuffed with mines, and was told to telephone when he needed relief. He refused to telephone and remained there for three weeks. 'We sit like a rabbit in his hall,' he explained. He had only one grievance. There were many wild boars in the forest, but the infantry were too busy to get them. 'The Godam Artillaree he get the wild pig!' Out of his pocket he pulled a picture of a frame-house with snow round it, and a lady with two children on the stoop. It was his homestead at Trochu, seventy miles north of Calgary.

       *        *        *        *        *
It was the evening of the third day that we turned our faces to Paris once more. It was my last view of the French. The roar of their guns went far with me upon my way. Soldiers of France, farewell! In your own phrase I salute you! Many have seen you who had more knowledge by which to judge your manifold virtues, many also who had more skill to draw you as you are, but never one, I am sure, who admired you more than I. Great was the French soldier under Louis the Sun-King, great too under Napoleon, but never was he greater than to-day.

And so it is back to England and to home. I feel sobered and solemn from all that I have seen. It is a blind vision which does not see more than the men and the guns, which does not catch something of the terrific spiritual conflict which is at the heart of it.

  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
  --He is trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored.
We have found no inspired singer yet, like Julia Howe, to voice the divine meaning of it all--that meaning which is more than numbers or guns upon the day of battle. But who can see the adult manhood of Europe standing in a double line, waiting for a signal to throw themselves upon each other, without knowing that he has looked upon the most terrific of all the dealings between the creature below and that great force above, which works so strangely towards some distant but glorious end?

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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