The first part of the meal over, the hostess picked up a nut and threw it deftly at a door leading into the lean-to-kitchen.
"Our table bell," she explained to me. And, true enough, a moment later the orderly appeared and carried out the plates.
Then we had dessert, which was fruit and candy, and coffee.
And all the time the guns were firing, and every opening of the door into the corridor brought a gale of wind into the room.
Suddenly it struck me that hardly a foot of the plaster interior of that room was whole. The ceiling was riddled. So were the walls.
"Shrapnel," said the major, following my gaze. "It gets worse every day."
"I think the ceiling is going to fall," said one of the hostesses.
True enough, there was a great bulge in the centre. But it held for that night. It may be holding now.
Everybody took a hand at clearing the table. The lamp was burning low, and they filled it without putting it out. One of the things that I have always been taught is never to fill a lighted lamp. I explained this to them carefully. But they were quite calm. It seems at the front one does a great many extraordinary things. It is part and parcel of that utter indifference to danger that comes with war.
Now appeared the chauffeur, who brought the information that the car had been dragged out of the mud and towed as far as the house.
"Towed?" I said blankly.
"Towed, madame. There is no more petrol."
The major suggested that we kill him at once. But he was a perfectly good chauffeur and young. Also it developed that he had not sat on my hat. So we let him live.
"Never mind," said Miss C----; "we can give you the chauffeur's bed and he can go somewhere else."
But after a time I decided that I would rather walk back than stay overnight in that house. For the major explained that at eleven o'clock the batteries behind the town would bombard the German trenches and the road behind them, along which they had information that an ammunition train would pass.
"Another night in the cellar!" said some one. "That means no one will need any beds, for there will be a return fire, of course."
"Is there no petrol to be had?" I inquired anxiously.
None, of course. There had been shops in the town, and presumably petrol and other things. But now there was nothing but ruined walls and piles of brick and mortar. However, there was a cellar.
My feet were swollen and painful, for the walk had been one long agony. I was chilled, too, from my wetting, in spite of the fire. I sat by the tiny stove and tried to forget the prospect of a night in the cellar, tried to ignore the pieces of shell and shrapnel cases lined up on the mantelpiece, shells and shrapnel that had entered the house and destroyed it.
The men smoked and talked. An officer came up from the trenches to smoke his after-dinner pipe, a bearded individual, who apologised for his muddy condition. He and the major played a duet. They made a great fuss about their preparation for it. The stool must be so, the top of the cracked piano raised. They turned and bowed to us profoundly. Then sat down and played--CHOP STICKS!
But that was only the beginning. For both of them were accomplished musicians. The major played divinely. He played a Rhapsodie Hongroise, the Moonlight Sonata, one of the movements of the Sonata Appassionata. He played without notes, a bulldog pipe gripped firmly in his teeth, blue clouds encircling his fair hair. Gone was the reckless soldier who would have taken his life in his hands for the whim of bringing in a German sentry. Instead there was a Belgian whose ruined country lay behind him, whose people lay dead in thousands of hideous graves, whose heart was torn and aching with the things that it knew and buried. We sat silent. His pipe died in his mouth; his eyes, fixed on the shell-riddled wall, grew sombre. When the music ceased his hands still lay lingeringly on the keys. And, beyond the foot of the street, the ominous guns of the army that had ruined his country crashed steadily.
We were rather subdued when the music died away. But he evidently regretted having put a weight on the spirits of the party. He rose and brought me a charming little water-colour sketch he had made of the bit of No Man's Land in front of his trench, with the German line beyond it.
"By the way," he said in his exact English, "I went to art school in Dresden with an American named Reinhart. Afterward he became a great painter--Charles Stanley Reinhart. Is he by any chance a relative?"
"Charles Stanley Reinhart is dead," I said. "He was a Pittsburgher, too, but the two families are connected only by marriage."
"Dead! So he is dead too! Everybody is dead. He--he was a very nice boy."
Suddenly he stood up and stretched his long arms.
"It was a long time ago," he said. "Now I go for the sentry."
They caught him at the door, however, and brought him back.
"But it is so simple," he protested. "No one is hurt. And the American lady--"
The American lady protested.
"I don't want a German sentry," I said. "I shouldn't know what to do with a German sentry if I had one."
So he sat down and explained his method to me. I wish I could tell his method here. It sounded so easy. Evidently it was a safety-valve, during that long wait of the deadlock, for his impetuous temperament. One could picture him sitting in his trench day after day among the soldiers who adored him, making little water-colour sketches and smoking his bulldog pipe, and then suddenly, as now, rising and stretching his long arms and saying:
"Well, boys, I guess I'll go out and bring one in."
And doing it.
I was taken for a tour of the house--up a broken staircase that hung suspended, apparently from nothing, to what had been the upper story.
It was quite open to the sky and the rain was coming in. On the side toward the German line there was no wall. There were no partitions, no windows, only a few broken sticks of what had been furniture. And in one corner, partly filled with rain water, a child's cradle that had miraculously escaped destruction.
Downstairs to the left of the corridor was equal destruction. There was one room here that, except for a great shell-hole and for a ceiling that was sagging and almost ready to fall, was intact. Here on a stand were surgical supplies, and there was a cot in the corner. A soldier had just left the cot. He had come up late in the afternoon with a nosebleed, and had now recovered.
"It has been a light day," said my guide. "Sometimes we hardly know which way to turn--when there is much going on, you know. Probably to-night we shall be extremely busy."
We went back into the living room and I consulted my watch. It was half past ten o'clock. At eleven the bombardment was to begin!
The conversation in the room had turned to spies. Always, everywhere, I found this talk of spies. It appeared that at night a handful of the former inhabitants of the town crept back from the fields to sleep in the cellars of what had been their homes, and some of them were under suspicion.
"Every morning," said Miss C----, "before the German bombardment begins, three small shells are sent over in quick succession. Then there is about fifteen minutes' wait before the real shelling. I am convinced that it is a signal to some one to get out."
The officers pooh-poohed the idea. But Miss C---- stuck to her point.
"They are getting information somehow," she said. "You may laugh if you like. I am sure I am right."
Later on an officer explained to me something about the secret service of the war.
"It is a war of spies," he said. "That is one reason for the deadlock. Every movement is reported to the other side and checkmated almost before it begins. In the eastern field of war the system is still inadequate; that accounts for the great movements that have taken place there."
Perhaps he is right. It sounds reasonable. I do not know with what authority he spoke. But certainly everywhere I found this talk of spies. One of the officers that night told of a recent experience of his.
"I was in a church tower at ----," he said. "There were three of us. We had been looking over toward the German lines. Suddenly I looked down into the street below. Some one with an electric flash was signalling across. It was quite distinct. All of us saw it. There was an answer from the German trenches immediately. While one of us kept watch on the tower the others rushed down into the street. There was no one there. But it is certain that that sort of thing goes on all the time."
A quarter to eleven!
Suddenly the whole thing seemed impossible--that the noise at the foot of the street was really guns; that I should be there; that these two young women should live there day and night in the midst of such horrors. For the whole town is a graveyard. Bodies in numbers have been buried in shell-holes and hastily covered, or float in the stagnant water of the canal. Every heavy rain uncovers shallow graves in the fields, allowing a dead arm, part of a rotting trunk, to show.
And now, after this lapse of time, it still seems incredible. Are they still there? Report has it that the Germans captured this town and held it for a time, only to lose it later. What happened to the little "sick and sorry" house during those fearful days? Did the German officers sit about that pine table and throw a nut to summon an orderly? Did they fill the lamp while it was lighted, and play on the cracked piano, and pick up shrapnel cases as they landed on the doorstep and set them on the mantel?
Ten minutes to eleven!
The chauffeur came to the door and stuck his head in.
"I have found petrol in a can in an empty shed," he explained. "It is now possible to go."
We went. We lost no time on the order of our going. The rain was over, but the fog had descended again. We lighted our lamps, and were curtly ordered by a sentry to put them out. In the moment that they remained alight, carefully turned away from the trenches, it was possible to see the hopeless condition of the street.
At last we reached a compromise. One lamp we might have, but covered with heavy paper. It was very little. The car bumped ominously, sagged into shell-holes.
I turned and looked back at the house. Faint rays of light shone through its boarded windows. A wounded soldier had been brought up the street and stood, leaning heavily on his companion, at the doorstep. The door opened, and he was taken in.
Good-bye, little "sick and sorry" house, with your laughter and tears, your friendly hands, your open door! Good-bye!
Five minutes later, as we reached the top of the Street, the bombardment began.
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