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Chapter XXIII. The Little "Sick and Sorry" House

And now it was seven o'clock, and raining. Dinner was to be at eight. I had before me a drive of nine miles along those slippery roads. It was dark and foggy, with the ground mist of Flanders turning to a fog. The lamps of the car shining into it made us appear to be riding through a milky lake. Progress was necessarily slow.

One of the English officers accompanied me.

"I shall never forget the last time I dined out here," he said as we jolted along. "There is a Belgian battery just behind the house. All evening as we sat and talked I thought the battery was firing; the house shook under tremendous concussion. Every now and then Mrs. K---- or Miss C---- would get up and go out, coming back a few moments later and joining calmly in the conversation.

"Not until I started back did I know that we had been furiously bombarded, that the noise I had heard was shells breaking all about the place. A 'coal-box,' as they call them here, had fallen in the garden and dug a great hole!"

"And when the young ladies went out, were they watching the bombs burst?" I inquired.

"Not at all," he said. "They went out to go into the trenches to attend to the wounded. They do it all the time."

"And they said nothing about it!"

"They thought we knew. As for going into the trenches, that is what they are there to do."

My enthusiasm for mutton began to fade. I felt convinced that I should not remain calm if a shell fell into the garden. But again, as happened many times during those eventful weeks at the front, my pride refused to allow me to turn back. And not for anything in the world would I have admitted being afraid to dine where those two young women were willing to eat and sleep and have their being day and night for months.

"But of course," I said, "they are well protected, even if they are at the trenches. That is, the Germans never get actually into the town."

"Oh, don't they?" said the officer. "That town has been taken by the Germans five times and lost as many. A few nights ago they got over into the main street and there was terrific hand-to-hand fighting."

"Where do they go at such times?" I asked.

"I never thought about it. I suppose they get into the cellar. But if they do it is not at all because they are afraid."

We went on, until some five of the nine miles had been traversed.

I have said before that the activity at the front commences only with the falling of night. During the day the zone immediately back of the trenches is a dead country. But at night it wakens into activity. Soldiers leave the trenches and fresh soldiers take their places, ammunition and food are brought up, wires broken during the day by shells are replaced, ambulances come up and receive their frightful burdens.

Now we reached the zone of night activity. A travelling battery passed us, moving from one part of the line to another; the drivers, three to each gun, sat stolidly on their horses, their heads dropped against the rain. They appeared out of the mist beside us, stood in full relief for a moment in the glow of the lamps, and were swallowed up again.

At three miles from our destination, but only one mile from the German lines, it was necessary to put out the lamps. Our progress, which had been dangerous enough before, became extremely precarious. It was necessary to turn out for teams and lorries, for guns and endless lines of soldiers, and to turn out a foot too far meant slipping into the mud. Two miles and a half from the village we turned out too far.

There was a sickening side slip. The car turned over to the right at an acute angle and there remained. We were mired!

We got out. It was perfectly dark. Guns were still passing us, so that it was necessary to warn the drivers of our wrecked car. The road was full of shell holes, so that to step was to stumble. The German lines, although a mile away, seemed very near. Between the road and the enemy was not a tree or a shrub or a fence--only the line of the railway embankment which marked the Allies' trenches. To add to the dismalness of the situation the Germans began throwing the familiar magnesium lights overhead. The flares made the night alike beautiful and fearful. It was possible when one burst near to see the entire landscape spread out like a map--ditches full of water, sodden fields, shell holes in the roads which had become lakes, the long lines of poplars outlining the road ahead. At one time no less than twenty starlights hung in the air at one time. When they went out the inky night seemed blacker than ever. I stepped off the road and was almost knee-deep in mud at once.

The battery passed, urging its tired horses to such speed as was possible. After it came thousands of men, Belgian and French mostly, on their way out of the trenches.

We called for volunteers from the line to try to lift the car onto the road. But even with twenty men at the towing rope it refused to move. The men were obliged to give it up and run on to catch their companies.

Between the fusees the curious shuffling of feet and a deeper shadow were all that told of the passage of these troops. It was so dark that one could see no faces. But here and there one saw the light of a cigarette. The mere hardship of walking for miles along those roads, paved with round stones and covered with mud on which their feet slipped continually, must have been a great one, and agonizing for feet that had been frosted in the water of the trenches.

Afterward I inquired what these men carried. They loomed up out of the night like pack horses. I found that each soldier carried, in addition to his rifle and bayonet, a large knapsack, a canteen, a cartridge pouch, a brown haversack containing tobacco, soap, towel and food, a billy-can and a rolled blanket.

German batteries were firing intermittently as we stood there. The rain poured down. I had dressed to go out to tea and wore my one and only good hat. I did the only thing that seemed possible--I took off that hat and put it in the automobile and let the rain fall on my unprotected head. The hat had to see me through the campaign, and my hair would stand water.

At last an armoured car came along and pulled the automobile onto the road. But after a progress of only ten feet it lapsed again, and there remained.

The situation was now acute. It was impossible to go back, and to go ahead meant to advance on foot along roads crowded with silent soldiers--meant going forward, too, in a pouring rain and in high-heeled shoes. For that was another idiocy I had committed.

We started on, leaving the apologetic chauffeur by the car. A few feet and the road, curving to the right, began to near the German line. Every now and then it was necessary to call sharply to the troops, or struggling along through the rain they would have crowded us off knee-deep into the mud.

"Attention!" the officer would call sharply. And for a time we would have foot room. There were no more horses, no more guns--only men, men, men. Some of them had taken off their outer coats and put them shawl-fashion over their heads. But most of them walked stolidly on, already too wet and wretched to mind the rain.

The fog had lifted. It was possible to see that sinister red streak that follows the firing of a gun at night. The rain gave a peculiar hollowness to the concussion. The Belgian and French batteries were silent.

We seemed to have walked endless miles, and still there was no little town. We went over a bridge, and on its flat floor I stopped and rested my aching feet.

"Only a little farther now," said the British officer cheerfully.

"How much farther?"

"Not more than a mile,"

By way of cheering me he told me about the town we were approaching--how the road we were on was its main street, and that the advanced line of trenches crossed at the railroad near the foot of the street.

"And how far from that are the German trenches?" I asked nervously.

"Not very far," he said blithely. "Near enough to be interesting."

On and on. Here was a barn.

"Is this the town?" I asked feebly.

"Not yet. A little farther!"

I was limping, drenched, irritable. But now and then the absurdity of my situation overcame me and I laughed. Water ran down my head and off my nose, trickled down my neck under my coat. I felt like a great sponge. And suddenly I remembered my hat.

"I feel sure," I said, stopping still in the road, "that the chauffeur will go inside the car out of the rain and sit on my hat."

The officer thought this very likely. I felt extremely bitter about it. The more I thought of it the more I was convinced that he was exactly the sort of chauffeur who would get into a car and sit on an only hat.

At last we came to the town--to what had been a town. It was a town no longer. Walls without roofs, roofs almost without walls. Here and there only a chimney standing of what had been a home; a street so torn up by shells that walking was almost impossible--full of shell-holes that had become graves. There were now no lights, not even soldiers. In the silence our footsteps re-echoed against those desolate and broken walls.

A day or two ago I happened on a description of this town, written by a man who had seen it at the time I was there.

"The main street," he writes, "is like a great museum of prehistoric fauna. The house roofs, denuded of tiles and the joists left naked, have tilted forward on to the sidewalks, so that they hang in mid-air like giant vertebrae.... One house only of the whole village of ---- had been spared."

We stumbled down the street toward the trenches and at last stopped before a house. Through boards nailed across what had once been windows a few rays of light escaped. There was no roof; a side wall and an entire corner were gone. It was the residence of the ladies of the decoration.

Inside there was for a moment an illusion of entirety. The narrow corridor that ran through the centre of the house was weatherproof. But through some unseen gap rushed the wind of the night. At the right, warm with lamplight, was the reception room, dining room and bedroom--one small chamber about twelve by fifteen!

What a strange room it was, furnished with odds and ends from the shattered houses about! A bed in the corner; a mattress on the floor; a piano in front of the shell-holed windows, a piano so badly cracked by shrapnel that panels of the woodwork were missing and keys gone; two or three odd chairs and what had once been a bookcase, and in the centre a pine table laid for a meal.

Mrs. K----, whose uncle was a cabinet minister, was hurrying in with a frying-pan in her hand.

"The mutton!" she said triumphantly, and placed it on the table, frying-pan and all. The other lady of the decoration followed with the potatoes, also in the pan in which they had been cooked.

We drew up our chairs, for the mutton must not be allowed to get cold.

"It's quite a party, isn't it?" said one of the hostesses, and showed us proudly the dish of fruit on the centre of the table, flanked by bonbons and nuts which had just been sent from England.

True, the fruit was a little old and the nuts were few; but they gave the table a most festive look.

Some one had taken off my shoes and they were drying by the fire, stuffed with paper to keep them in shape. My soaking outer garments had been carried to the lean-to kitchen to hang by the stove, and dry under the care of a soldier servant who helped with the cooking. I looked at him curiously. His predecessor had been killed in the room where he stood.

The German batteries were firing, and every now and then from the trenches at the foot of the street came the sharp ping of rifles. No one paid any attention. We were warm and sheltered from the wind. What if the town was being shelled and the Germans were only six hundred feet away? We were getting dry, and there was mutton for dinner.

It was a very cheerful party--the two young ladies, and a third who had joined them temporarily, a doctor who was taking influenza and added little to the conversation, the chauffeur attached to the house, who was a count in ordinary times, a Belgian major who had come up from the trenches to have a real meal, and the English officer who had taken me out.

Outside the door stood the major's Congo servant, a black boy who never leaves him, following with dog-like fidelity into the trenches and sleeping outside his door when the major is in billet. He had picked him up in the Congo years before during his active service there.

The meal went on. The frying-pan was passed. The food was good and the talk was better. It was indiscriminately rapid French and English. When it was English I replied. When it was French I ate.

The hostess presented me with a shrapnel case which had arrived that day on the doorstep.

"If you are collecting trophies," said the major, "I shall get you a German sentry this evening. How would you like that?"

There was a reckless twinkle in the major's eye. It developed that he had captured several sentries and liked playing the game.

But I did not know the man. So I said: "Certainly, it would be most interesting."

Whereupon he rose. It took all the combined effort of the dinner party to induce him to sit down and continue his meal. He was vastly disappointed. He was a big man with a humorous mouth. The idea of bringing me a German sentry to take home as a trophy appealed to him.

The meal went on. No one seemed to consider the circumstances extraordinary. Now and then I remembered the story of the street fighting a few nights before. I had an idea that these people would keep on eating and talking English politics quite calmly in the event of a German charge. I wondered if I could live up to my reputation for courage in such a crisis.

Mary Roberts Rinehart