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Chapter XI. At the House of the Barrier

A narrow path led up to the house. It was flanked on both sides by barbed wire, and progress through it was slow. The wind caught my rain cape and tore it against the barbs. I had to be disentangled. The sentries saluted, and the low door, through which the officers were obliged to stoop to enter, was opened by an orderly from within.

We entered The House of the Mill of Saint ----.

The House of the Mill of Saint ---- was less pretentious than its name. Even at its best it could not have been imposing. Now, partially destroyed and with its windows carefully screened inside by grain sacks nailed to the frames for fear of a betraying ray of light, it was not beautiful. But it was hospitable. A hanging lamp in its one livable room, a great iron stove, red and comforting, and a large round table under the lamp made it habitable and inviting. It was Belgian artillery headquarters, and I was to meet here Colonel Jacques, one of the military idols of Belgium, the hero of the Congo, and now in charge of Belgian batteries. In addition, since it was midnight, we were to sup here.

We were expected, and Colonel Jacques himself waited inside the living-room door. A tall man, as are almost all the Belgian officers--which is curious, considering that the troops seem to be rather under average size--he greeted us cordially. I fancied that behind his urbanity there was the glimmer of an amused smile. But his courtesy was beautiful. He put me near the fire and took the next chair himself.

I had a good chance to observe him. He is no longer a young man, and beyond a certain military erectness and precision in his movements there is nothing to mark him the great soldier he has shown himself to be.

"We are to have supper," he said smilingly in French. "Provided you have brought something to eat with you!"

"We have brought it," said Captain F----.

The officers of the staff came in and were formally presented. There was much clicking of heels, much deep and courteous bowing. Then Captain F---- produced his box of biscuits, and from a capacious pocket of his army overcoat a tin of bully beef. The House of the Mill of Saint ---- contributed a bottle of thin white native wine and, triumphantly, a glass. There are not many glasses along the front.

There was cheese too. And at the end of the meal Colonel Jacques, with great empressement, laid before me a cake of sweet chocolate.

I had to be shown the way to use the bully beef. One of the hard flat biscuits was split open, spread with butter and then with the beef in a deep layer. It was quite good, but what with excitement and fatigue I was not hungry. Everybody ate; everybody talked; and, after asking my permission, everybody smoked. I sat near the stove and dried my steaming boots.

Afterward I remembered that with all the conversation there was very little noise. Our voices were subdued. Probably we might have cheered in that closed and barricaded house without danger. But the sense of the nearness of the enemy was over us all, and the business of war was not forgotten. There were men who came, took orders and went away. There were maps on the walls and weapons in every corner. Even the sacking that covered the windows bespoke caution and danger.

Here it was too near the front for the usual peasant family huddled round its stove in the kitchen, and looking with resignation on these strange occupants of their house. The humble farm buildings outside were destroyed.

I looked round the room; a picture or two still hung on the walls, and a crucifix. There is always a crucifix in these houses. There was a carbine just beneath this one.

Inside of one of the picture frames one of the Colonel's medals had been placed, as if for safety.

Colonel Jacques sat at the head of the table and beamed at us all. He has behind him many years of military service. He has been decorated again and again for bravery. But, perhaps, when this war is over and he has time to look back he will smile over that night supper with the first woman he had seen for months, under the rumble of his own and the German batteries.

It was time to go to the advance trenches. But before we left one of the officers who had accompanied me rose and took a folded paper from a pocket of his tunic. He was smiling.

"I shall read," he said, "a little tribute from one of Colonel Jacques' soldiers to him."

So we listened. Colonel Jacques sat and smiled; but he is a modest man, and his fingers were beating a nervous tattoo on the table. The young officer stood and read, glancing up now and then to smile at his chief's embarrassment. The wind howled outside, setting the sacks at the windows to vibrating.

This is a part of the poem:

                  III

  "Comme chef nous avons l'homme a la hauteur
  Un homme aime et adore de tous
  L'Colonel Jacques; de lui les hommes sont fous
  En lui nous voyons l'embleme de l'honneur.
  Des compagnes il en a des tas: En Afrique
  Haecht et Dixmude, Ramsdonck et Sart-Tilmau
  Et toujours premier et toujours en avant
  Toujours en tet' de son beau regiment,
           Toujours railleur
           Chef au grand coeur.

                  REFRAIN
       "L'Colo du 12me passe
         Regardez ce vaillant
         Quand il crie dans l'espace
         Joyeus'ment 'En avant!'
         Ses hommes, la mine heureuse
         Gaiment suivent sa trace
         Sur la route glorieuse.
         Saluez-le, l'Colo du 12me passe.

            "AD. DAUVISTER,
                        "SOUS-LIEUTENANT."

We applauded. It is curious to remember how cheerful we were, how warm and comfortable, there at the House of the Mill of Saint ----, with war only a step away now. Curious, until we think that, of all the created world, man is the most adaptable. Men and horses! Which is as it should be now, with both men and horses finding themselves in strange places, indeed, and somehow making the best of it.

The copy of the poem, which had been printed at the front, probably on an American hand press, was given to me with Colonel Jacques' signature on the back, and we prepared to go. There was much donning of heavy wraps, much bowing and handshaking. Colonel Jacques saw us out into the wind-swept night. Then the door of the little house closed again, and we were on our way through the barricade.

Until now our excursion to the trenches, aside from the discomfort of the weather and the mud, had been fairly safe, although there was always the chance of a shell. To that now was to be added a fresh hazard--the sniping that goes on all night long.

Our car moved quietly for a mile, paralleling the trenches. Then it stopped. The rest of the journey was to be on foot.

All traces of the storm had passed, except for the pools of mud, which, gleaming like small lakes, filled shell holes in the road. An ammunition lorry had drawn up in the shadow of a hedge and was cautiously unloading. Evidently the night's movement of troops was over, for the roads were empty.

A few feet beyond the lorry we came up to the trenches. We were behind them, only head and shoulders above.

There was no sign of life or movement, except for the silent fusees that burst occasionally a little to our right. Walking was bad. The Belgian blocks of the road were coated with slippery mud, and from long use and erosion the stones themselves were rounded, so that our feet slipped over them. At the right was a shallow ditch three or four feet wide. Immediately beyond that was the railway embankment where, as Captain F---- had explained, the Belgian Army had taken up its position after being driven back across the Yser.

The embankment loomed shoulder high, and between it and the ditch were the trenches. There was no sound from them, but sentries halted us frequently. On such occasions the party stopped abruptly--for here sentries are apt to fire first and investigate afterward--and one officer advanced with the password.

There is always something grim and menacing about the attitude of the sentry as he waits on such occasions. His carbine is not over his shoulder, but in his hands, ready for use. The bayonet gleams. His eyes are fixed watchfully on the advance. A false move, and his overstrained nerves may send the carbine to his shoulder.

We walked just behind the trenches in the moonlight for a mile. No one said anything. The wind was icy. Across the railroad embankment it chopped the inundation into small crested waves. Only by putting one's head down was it possible to battle ahead. From Dixmude came the intermittent red flashes of guns. But the trenches beside us were entirely silent.

At the end of a mile we stopped. The road turned abruptly to the right and crossed the railroad embankment, and at this crossing was the ruin of what had been the House of the Barrier, where in peaceful times the crossing tender lived.

It had been almost destroyed. The side toward the German lines was indeed a ruin, but one room was fairly whole. However, the door had been shot away. To enter, it was necessary to lift away an extemporised one of planks roughly nailed together, which leaned against the aperture.

The moving of the door showed more firelight, and a very small, shaded and smoky lamp on a stand. There were officers here again. The little house is slightly in front of the advanced trenches, and once inside it was possible to realise its exposed position. Standing as it does on the elevation of the railroad, it is constantly under fire. It is surrounded by barbed wire and flanked by trenches in which are mitrailleuses.

The walls were full of shell holes, stuffed with sacks of straw or boarded over. What had been windows were now jagged openings, similarly closed. The wind came through steadily, smoking the chimney of the lamp and making the flame flicker.

There was one chair.

I wish I could go farther. I wish I could say that shells were bursting overhead, and that I sat calmly in the one chair and made notes. I sat, true enough, but I sat because I was tired and my feet were wet. And instead of making notes I examined my new six-guinea silk rubber rain cape for barbed-wire tears. Not a shell came near. The German battery across had ceased firing at dusk that evening, and was playing pinochle four hundred yards away across the inundation. The snipers were writing letters home.

It is true that any time an artilleryman might lose a game and go out and fire a gun to vent his spleen or to keep his hand in. And the snipers might begin to notice that the rain was over, and that there was suspicious activity at the House of the Barrier. And, to take away the impression of perfect peace, big guns were busy just north and south of us. Also, just where we were the Germans had made a terrific charge three nights before to capture an outpost. But the fact remains that I brought away not even a bullet hole through the crown of my soft felt hat.

Mary Roberts Rinehart