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   Chapter 16 No.16

Everyman's Land By A. M. Williamson Characters: 17172

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Since I wrote you last, Padre, I have been in the trenches-real, live trenches, not the faded, half-filled-up ghosts of trenches where men fought long ago. I had to give my word not to tell or write any one just where these trenches are, so I won't put details in black and white, even in pages which are only for you and me. I keep this book that you gave me in my hand-bag, and no eyes but mine see it-unless, dear Padre, you come and look over my shoulder while I scribble, as I often feel you do! Still-something might happen: an automobile accident; or the bag might be lost or stolen, though it's not a gorgeously attractive one, like that in which Mother Beckett carries Jim's letters.

It was the day after Lunéville and Gerbéviller. We started out once again from Nancy, no matter in which direction, but along a wonderful road. Not that the scenery was beautiful. We didn't so much as think of scenery. The thrill was in the passing show, and later in the "camouflage." We were going to be given a glimpse of the Front which the communiqués (when they mention it at all nowadays) speak of as calm. Its alleged "calmness" gave us non-combatants our chance to pay it a visit; but many wires had been pulled to get us there, and we had dwindled to a trio, consisting of Father Beckett, Brian, and me. Mother Beckett is not made for trenches, even the calmest, and there was no permission for the occupants of the Red Cross taxi, who are not officially of our party. They have their own police pass for the war-zone, but all special plums are for the Becketts, shared by the O'Malleys; and this visit to the trenches was an extra-special superplum.

All along the way, coming and going, tearing to meet us, or leaving us behind, splashed with gray mud after a night of rain, motor-lorries sped. They carried munitions or food to the front, or brought back tired soldiers bound for a place of rest, and their roofs were marvellously "camouflaged" in a blend of blue and green paint splotched with red. For aeroplanes they must have looked, in their processions, like drifting mist over meadowland. Shooting in and out among them, like slim gray swordfish in a school of porpoise, were military cars crowded with smart officers who saluted the lieutenant escorting us, and stared in surprise at sight of a woman. A sprinkling of these officers were Americans, and they would have astonished us more than we astonished them had we not known that we should see Americans. They were to be, indeed, the "feature" of the great show; and though Mr. Beckett was calm in manner to match the Front, I knew from his face that he was deeply moved by the thought of seeing "boys from home" fighting for France as his dead son had fought.

At each small village we saw soldiers who had been sent to the "back of the Front" for a few days' change from the trenches. They lounged on long wooden benches before humble houses where they had logement; they sat at tables borrowed from kitchens, earnestly engaged at dominoes or manille, or they played boules in narrow grass alleys beside the muddy road. For them we had packed all vacant space in the auto with a cargo of cigarettes; and white teeth flashed and blue arms waved in gratitude as we went by. I think Father Beckett was happier than he had been since we left Paris.

At last we came to a part of the road that was "camouflaged" with a screen of branches fixed into wire. There was no great need of it in these days, our lieutenant explained, but Heaven knew when it might be urgently wanted again: perhaps to-morrow! And this was where we said "au revoir" to our car. She was wheeled out of the way on to a strip of damp grass, under a convenient group of trees where no prowling enemy plane might "spot" her; and we set out to walk for a short distance to what had once been a farmhouse. Now, what was left of it had another use. A board walk (well above the mud), which led to the new, unpainted door, was guarded by sentinels, and explanations were given and papers shown before a rather elderly French captain appeared to greet us. Arrangements had been made for our reception, but we had to be identified; and when all was done we were given a good welcome. Also we were given helmets, and I was vain enough to fancy I had never worn a more becoming hat.

Besides our own escort-the lieutenant who had brought us from Nancy-we had a captain and a lieutenant to guide us into the "calmness" of the trenches (the captain and a lieutenant for Mr. Beckett and Brian, the other lieutenant for me) and one would have thought that they had never before seen a woman in or out of a helmet! Down in a deep cellar-like hole, which they called "l'anti-chambre," all three officers coached Father Beckett and me in trench manners. As for Brian, it was clear to them that he was no stranger to trench life, and their treatment of him was perfect. They made no fuss, as tactless folk do over blind men; but, while feigning to regard him as one of themselves, they slily watched and protected his movements as a proud mother might the first steps of a child.

On we went from the antichambre into a long mouldy passage dug deep into the earth. It was the link between trenches; and now and then a sentinel popped out from behind a queer barrier built up as a protection against "les éclats d'obus." "This is the way the wounded come back," said one of the lieutenants, "when there are any wounded. Just now (or you would not be here, Mademoiselle) there is"-he finished in English-"nothing doing."

I laughed. "Who taught you that?"

"You will see," he replied, making a nice little mystery. "You will see who taught it to me-and then some!"

That was a beautiful ending for the sentence, and his American accent was perfect, even if the meaning of the poor man's quotation was a little uncertain!

We turned several times, and I had begun to think of the Minotaur's labyrinth, when the passage knotted itself into a low-roofed room, open at both ends, save for bomb screens, with a trench leading dismally off from an opposite doorway. "When is a door not a door?" was a conundrum of my childhood, and I think the answer was: "When it's ajar." But nowadays there is a better réplique: A door is not a door when it's a dug-out. It is then a hole, kept from falling in upon itself by a log of wood or anything handy. This time, the "anything handy" seemed to be part of an old wheelbarrow, and on top were some sandbags. In the room, which was four times as long as it was broad, and twelve times longer than high, a few vague soldier-forms crouched over a meal on the floor, their tablecloth being a Paris newspaper. They scrambled to their feet, but could not stand upright, and to see their stooping salute to stooping officers in the smoky twilight, was like a vision in a dark, convex mirror.

As we wound our way past the screen at the far end of the cellar dining-room, my lieutenant explained the method in placing each pare-éclat, as he called the screen. "You see, Mademoiselle, if a bomb happened to break through and kill us, the screen would save the men beyond," he said; then, remembering with a start that he was talking to a woman, he hurried to add: "Oh, but we shall not be killed. Have no fear. There's nothing of that sort on our programme to-day-at least, not where we shall take you."

"Do I look as if I were afraid?" I asked.

"No, you look very brave, Mademoiselle," he flattered me. "I'm sure it is more than the helmet which gives you that look. I believe, if you were allowed you would go on past the safety zone."

"Where does the safety zone end?" I curiously questioned.

"It is different on different days. If you had come yesterday, you could have had a good long promenade. Indeed that was what we hoped, when we arranged to entertain your party. But unfortunately the gentlemen in the opposing trenches discovered that Les Sammies had arrived on our secteur. They wanted to give them a reception, and so-your walk has to be shortened, Mademoiselle."

Suddenly I felt sick. I had the sensation S?ur Julie described herself as feeling when she met the giant German officers. But it was not fear. "Do you mean-while we're here, safe-like tourists on a pleasure jaunt," I stammered, "that American soldiers are being killed-in the trenches close by? It's horrible! I can't--"

"Il ne faut pas se faire de la bile, as our poilus say, when they mean 'Don't worry,' Mademoiselle," the lieutenant soothed me. "If there were any killing along this secteur you would hear the guns boom,

n'est-ce-pas? You had not stopped to think of that. There was a little affair at dawn, I don't conceal it from you. A surprise-a coup de main against the Americans the Boches intended. They thought, as all has been quiet on our Front for so long, we should expect nothing. But the surprise didn't work. They got as good as they sent, and no one on our side was killed. That I swear to you, Mademoiselle! There were a few wounded, yes, but no fatalities. The trouble is that now things have begun to move, they may not sit still for long, and we cannot take risks with our visitors. The mountain must come to Mahomet. That is, les Sammies must call upon you, instead of you upon them. The reception room is chez nous Fran?ais. It is ready, and you will see it in a moment."

Almost as he spoke we came to a dug-out of far more imposing architecture than the hole between trenches which we had seen. We had to stoop to go in, but once in we could stand upright, even Brian, who towered several inches above the other men. The place was lighted with many guttering candles, and tears sprang to my eyes at the pathos of the decorations. Needless to explain that the French and American flags which draped the dark walls were there in our honour! Also there were a Colonel, a table, benches, chairs, some glasses, and one precious bottle of champagne, enough for a large company to sip, if not to drink, each other's health. Hardly had we been introduced to the decorations, including the Colonel, when the Americans began to arrive, three young officers and two who had hardened into warlike middle age. It was heart-warming to see them meet Mr. Beckett, and their chivalric niceness to Brian and me was somehow different from any other niceness I remember-except Jim's.

Not that one of the men looked like Jim, or had a voice like his: yet, when they spoke, and smiled, and shook hands, I seemed to see Jim standing behind them, smiling as he had smiled at me on our one day together. I seemed to hear his voice in an undertone, as if it mingled with theirs, and I wondered if Jim's father had the same almost supernatural impression that his son had come into the dug-out room with that little band of his countrymen.

It is strange how a woman can be homesick for a man she has known only one day; but she can-she can-for a Jim Beckett! He was so vital, so central in life, known even for a day, that after his going the world is a background from which his figure has been cut out, leaving a blank place. These jolly, brave American soldier-men made me want so desperately to see Jim that I wished a bomb would drop in-just a small bomb, touching only me, and whisking me away to the place where he is. In body he could not forgive me, of course, for what I've done; but in spirit he might forgive my spirit if it travelled a long way to see his!

I am almost sure that the Americans did bring Jim back to Father Beckett, as to me, for though he was cheerful, and even made jokes to show that he mustn't be treated as a mourner, there was one piteous sign of emotion which no self-control could hide. I saw his throat work-the throat of an old man-his "Adam's apple" going convulsively up and down like a tossed ball in a fountain jet. Then, lest I should sob while his eyes were dry, I looked away.

We all had champagne out of the marvellous bottle which had been hoarded during long months in case of "a great occasion," and we economized sips but not healths. We drank to each one of the Allies in turn, and to a victorious peace. Then the officers-French and American-began telling us trench tales-no grim stories, only those at which we could laugh. One was what an American captain called a "peach"; but it was a Frenchman who told it: the American contingent have had no such adventures yet.

The thing happened some time ago, before the "liveliness" died down along this secteur. One spring day, in a rainy fog like a gray curtain, a strange pair of legs appeared, prowling alongside a French trench. They were not French legs; but instantly two pairs of French arms darted out under the stage-drop of fog to jerk them in. Down came a feldwebel on top of them, squealing desolately "Kamerad!" He squealed many more guttural utterances, but not one of the soldiers in blue helmets, who soon swarmed round him, could understand a word he said. "Why the crowd?" wondered the Captain of the company, appearing from a near-by dug-out. The queer quarry was dragged to the officer's feet, and fortunately the Captain, an Alsatian, had enough German for a catechism.

"What were you doing close to our lines?" he demanded.

"Oh, Herr Captain, I did not know they were your lines. I thought they were ours. In our trench we are hungry, very hungry. I thought in the mist I could safely go a little way and seek for some potatoes. Where we are they say there was once a fine potato field. Not long ago, one of our men came back with half a dozen beauties. Ah, they were good! I was empty enough to risk anything, Herr Captain. But I had no luck. And, worse still, the fog led me astray. Spare my life, sir!"

"We will spare you what is worth more than a little thing like your life," said the Captain. "We'll spare you some of our good food, to show you that we French do not have to gnaw our finger-nails, like you miserable Boches. Men, take this animal away and feed it!"

The men obeyed, enjoying the joke. The dazed Kamerad was stuffed with sardines, meat, bread, and butter (of which he had forgotten the existence), delicious cheese, and chocolates. At last the magic meal was topped off with smoking hot black coffee, a thimbleful of brandy, and-a cigar! Tobacco and cognac may have been cheap, but they made the feldwebel feel as if he had died and gone to heaven.

When he had eaten till his belt was tight for the first time in many moons, back he was hustled to the Captain.

"Well-you have had something better than potatoes? Bon! Now, out of this, quicker than you came! Your mother may admire your face, but we others, we have seen enough of it."

"But, Herr Captain," pleaded the poor wretch, loth to be banished from Paradise, "I am your prisoner."

"Not at all," coolly replied the officer. "We can't be bothered with a single prisoner. What is one flea on a blanket? Another time, if we come across you again with enough of your comrades to make the game worth while, why then, perhaps we may give ourselves the pain of keeping you. You've seen that we have enough food to feed your whole trench, and never miss it."

Away flew the German over the top, head over heels, not unassisted: and after they had laughed awhile, his hosts and foes forgot him. But not so could he forget them. That night, after dark, he came trotting back with fifteen friends, all crying "Kamerad!" eager to deliver themselves up to captivity for the flesh-pots of Egypt.

"But-we're not to go without a glimpse of the Sammies, are we?" I asked, when stories and champagne were finished.

The "Sammies'" officers laughed. "The boys don't love that name, you know! But it sticks like a burr. It's harder to get rid of than the Boches. As for seeing them-(the boys, not the Boches!) well--" And a consultation followed.

The trenches beyond our dug-out drawing room could not be guaranteed "safe as the Bank of England" for non-combatants that day, and no one wanted to be responsible for our venturing farther. Still, if we couldn't go to the boys, a "bunch" of the boys could come to us. A lieutenant dashed away, and presently returned with six of the tallest, brownest, best-looking young men I ever saw. Their khaki and their beautiful new helmets were so like British khaki and helmets that I shouldn't have been expert enough to recognize them as American. But somehow the merest amateur would never have mistaken those boys for their British brothers. I can't tell where the difference lay. All I can say is that it was there. Were their jaws squarer? No, it couldn't have been that, for British jaws are firm enough, and have need to be, Heaven knows! Were their chins more prominent? But millions of British chins are prominent. My brain collapsed in the strain after comparisons, abandoned the effort and drank in a draught of rich, ripe American slang as a glorious pick-me-up. No wonder the French officers in liaison have caught the new "code." The coming of those brown boys with their bright and glittering teeth and witty words made up to us for miles of trenches we hadn't seen. Gee, but they were bully! Oh, boy! Get hep to that!

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