Birds of a Feather: I. Four of a Kind





UNDER the pavilion of the Gare du Nord, Papa Charles waited patiently for Chignole and Flagada, with whom he was to take the six-o’clock train for Plessis-Belleville. He had parted from them about midnight, after the Bassinets’ dinner; a gay little dinner, at which M. Bassinet, slightly elevated, had proposed a number of rococo toasts to victory, to the soldiers ‘on the job,’ and especially to the aviators — ‘those heerroes!’ and Flagada had captured the assembly with several monologues in his best vein.

The ladies had not been so merry. Madame Bassinet bitterly bewailed her sauces, which disappointed her fastidious palate. ‘But it is all your fault. A good dinner must not be kept waiting, and you were a full hour late.’

‘I have already told you, Mârne Bassinet, that these children had their little special engagements. I know what it is to be young. Listen, gentlemen: I, — yes, I —’ And M. Bassinet was in the middle of one of his raciest stories before a withering glance from his wife could warn him of Sophie’s presence.

‘O little daughter, little daughter, do hurry up and get married! Then I shan’t have to be forever twisting my tongue seven times over, before I dare speak.’

‘But, papa, is it I who make the delay? As far as I am concerned, it cannot be too soon. And — I think Chignole agrees with me.’

Chignole did not answer; he closed his eyes, the better to commune with his soul, and bent his head in fervent acquiescence. If the truth were told, he was a bit ashamed and secretly reproached himself: ‘You have been outrageously silly, my poor Chignole, to let your head be turned till you forgot your own little Paris, Sophie, the good work-a-day life. Of course, it was the fault, of that damnable climate of the Côte d’Azur, that goes to your head like a slow waltz or like one of Papa Charles’s amber-tipped cigarettes. Yes, I confess; I was an ass. It is risky for a man to look on at such a fairy show as that; he wants to be somebody. — And because I dressed the part, I thought I was the hero. — Ah! such an idiot!’

No; Sophie was not to be compared to those women down there: to those parasites, languidly parading their insatiable curiosity and their sensual nostalgia; those seaside belles, with their painted faces, flaunting their brazen wretchedness in the sun; those boldeyed women of Piedmont gathering tuberoses in the gardens of Cimiez.

No, she was not at all complex, the little stenographer; but he knew her to be so loyal, so sincere, so devoted, so truly his own, that he could not but prefer her to those others.

‘It is quite true, my children, I don’t, deny it ; we might have taken advantage of Chignole’s convalescent leave, to celebrate your marriage; but primo, our ace has decided to cut it short in order to go back immediately with his chief; and deusio, we are at war. A conventional Paris wedding — how dull! I have therefore decided.’ — M. Bassinet lifted an Olympian eyebrow and emptied his glass. — ‘You are never billeted on the firing-line; always some kilometres behind; so, the moment you are settled in your new quarters, we plan to arrive in the neighboring town, and there, close to the front, as gay as you please, you shall be joined together. I have said it.’

‘And what if someone rings the concierge’s bell while I am gone?’

‘Mâme Bassinet, we can pay for a substitute. What is the sense of putting away money for our funeral, these twenty years, if we may not nibble at it in honor of little daughter and her aviator?’

Time dragged, for Papa Charles. ‘They must have forgotten to wake them. Devil take it! —we shall come out of this with eight days’ close arrest.’

Cool as a cucumber, his tall figure swinging along jauntily, he resumed his stroll on the platform.

‘Hue, Lolotte! — Hue!’ M. Bassinet., with a flourish of his whip, urged on Lolotte, who described an elegant, arc and drew up at the curb.

‘Here we are!' Chignole and Flagada hurtled through the carriage door.

‘Don’t forget that we hit the hay rather late, old man; it took a bit. of coaxing to get us up this morning.’

‘Not to mention the fact, that the ladies could n’t let their Chignole go till they had hugged him, all round. Over and over, I protested, “You will spoil that boy!” but it was no use talking. They could n’t part from him. — Women, you understand’ — M. Bassinet shrugged his shoulders, a gesture of disillusion; then, ‘My dear aces, don’t, let me delay you. I won’t say, “Good luck,” that’s a hoodoo; but I’ll think it. You are off, eh? Get at their insides — as far as it ’ll go—for you, and for the old jackasses like me who can’t do it. And Chignole, my boy, if ever you find yourself strapped, if you need a little chink, just drop me a line, “Pursetorpedoed.” I shall understand.’

Arm in arm, the three friends entered the station. Chignole let his bag fall on the toes of a civilian, and the delicate little joke appealed to them all immensely.

M. Bassinet watched them disappear. ‘Poor lads! Brave lads!’ — With his coat-cuff he tried to wipe away the tears that would come.

Plessis-Belleville. They leave the station, turn their backs on the village, and follow the long road leading to the offices of the Réserve Générale d’Aviation (R.G.A.).

‘It’s agreed, Flagada? We don’t separate? I was to pass on to a Spad with Chignole, but I shall ask to stay on the Voisin. Really, you know, I do like my old cuckoo — we shall probably get our chance at night-flying.’ Flagada stammered his thanks, but Papa Charles cut him short. ‘You’d better let me pull that off with the commandant. The stunt will be to make sure of the delivery of the busses, and get to the front before evening.’


‘And, I say, Flagada! don’t load up here with an observer. We’ll try to find somebody in the squadron, who’ll fit in with us.’

‘Somebody who can see a joke — what? I did n’t go to war to be bored.’

Rotary motors were detonating; stationary engines purring; the air reeked with the smell of burning oil; motorcyclists, dispatch-bearers, raced toward the hangars; mechanics worked at the planes with the apparent carelessness which characterizes sustained activity. Near the shed where the anemometers and weather-gauges were set up, a group of pilots discussed the latest news by telephone from the meteorological stations.

After breakfast Papa Charles and Flagada submitted themselves to the many formalities of the organization. Chignole scrutinized the machines, detecting every possible flaw. He bound the piano wires near the propeller with twisted thread, so that if they snapped they should not get within the swing of its orbit and cause an accident. He regulated the indicators along the rim, and set in the cockpit a box containing thirteen grains of salt, the mascot that never fails.

They’re off! The engines revolve. Papa Charles, his hand on the gasthrottle, listens carefully, then switches off. The purr of Flagada’s machine sounds normal.



Papa Charles signs to the mechanics to remove the blocks.

One minute,’ cries Chignole; ‘ there’s the commandant.’

They wait for him, and he comes running. ‘If you have to land en route, look out for jarring on bare ground. Two of your comrades were killed between Vauchamps and Champaubert. Careful, eh? Cut out the drinks.’

‘That’s what we’re here for, sir.’

Two hundred metres! On the right, Paris, in a veil of tawny clouds. On the left, Ermenonville, the Isle of Poplars, the empty tomb of Jean-Jacques, and the willows that bewitched Corot. Farther off, Nanteuil, Villers-Cotterets, Soissons — the Boches.

‘Flagada is n’t half bad,’ said Chignole complacently, pointing to their friend who flew in their wake.

Meaux; they are following the Petit. Morin. Papa Charles studies the route carefully.

‘There it is.’


‘Where they came a cropper.’

In a meadow at the edge of the stream, a shattered aeroplane made the sign of the cross.

‘Wheels in air — a regular somersault ! — Engine topsy-turvy. — They must have been green hands, those fellows.’

The biplanes descended in a spiral to salute the dead bird, then rose again and flew for Vertus and Bar-le-Duc, where they were to learn their ultimate destination. Contrary to habit, Papa Charles and Chignole were silent . Their flight absorbed them, possessed them. As sailors feel the lure of the sea when they hear the booming of the great deep in the shrouds, at the crossing of the bar, so these two, once again free in space, were seized with passionate desire to ride the air. They longed to mount up forever, always higher, toward the light, in the enthralling dash of the machine.


‘Oh, yes; we all know! You are aces and we are two-spots. Nobody denies it. But when it comes to night-flying — we’re always at your service, messieurs les chasseurs!’

Although he had been in Bar-le-Duc hardly more than fifteen minutes, Chignole had already contrived to stir up a dispute about the respective merits of battle-planes and bombing-planes. At the pilots’ mess, before a noisy but sympathetic audience, he sang the praises of the biplane with the wide wing-span.

‘I know; I know; you fly zebras and we, elephants. Just the same, Papa Charles and I are still willing to do our climbing in the old family bus. — You saw?— Papa Charles was a trifle close for landing; he cut off the gas, but the mill1 would n’t stop. If we’d been on one of your planes that, go slashing through the air like a razor, we should have been sliced off like a head of lettuce — while on ours we stood the shock as easily as a bird!’

‘Pour him out a drink — Then he’ll give you a rest from his airy romancing.’

Enter Papa Charles with Flagada.

‘I have the orders. We rendezvous at Nancy, to-morrow.’

‘Our old crowd?’

‘Perhaps; we shall see; we should worry. This evening a squadron of Farmans is to bomb behind the front at Verdun. The commandant has asked us to join, as it is not complete.’

‘And you accepted with enthusiasm.’


‘Then, I pause in my discourse.’

‘I was about to suggest it.’

A pale row of acetylene lamps marked the starting-line. The two biplanes were side by side, their engines at low speed. Flagada and Papa Charles, smoking a last cigarette, placidly studied their maps. Chignole flitted nervously from one to the other.

‘I don’t think it prudent for Flagada to fly alone.’

‘I would rather be alone than with an observer whom I don’t know.’

‘But how about the bombs?’

‘The mechanics have placed a release close to my hand.’

‘Just the same, — remember what I say, — I know a little something about night attacks; I’ve been there before, young fellah; you have n’t.’

And Chignole swelled his chest and eyed his comrade with a fatherly air.

‘The Farmans don’t take any chances.’

‘Hop on, Chignole!’ And to Flagada Papa Charles shouted, ‘I shall show a light from time to time. Try to follow us.’ ‘Zou!’

With the noise of their motors enhanced tenfold by the stillness of the night, the two machines leaped toward the huge, overgrown, yellow moon that seemed to smother out the stars scattered over the sky.

‘Clear weather; luck’s with us!’

‘I’d prefer a few clouds. They’re going to wing us, over the lines — and we’re not so very far away from them.'

Papa Charles pointed out to his companion the bluish flashes from the firing of the big guns.

‘Do you see t he Farmans?’

‘No; but they ought to be caught in the searchlights by now.’

Before them, the spindles of light, wavered, crossed, pursued their fleet prey, and tried to clutch it.

‘Those searchlights are on autos; they’re feeble things; we should worry!’

But suddenly a beam whose brilliancy eclipsed the others ran up the sky. It turned, hesitated, lost its way, then discovered their machine and held it.

‘Now’s the time to show them we’re not rookies!’

‘Take your place for the tango!’

Papa Charles pulled the joy-stick; the aeroplane nosed up, leaped, took a tail-dive of several hundred metres. But the ray of light held on. Clinging to his course like an old sea-dog to the rudder, Papa Charles repeated the same manœuvre with variations. He would run down in daring glissades, then turn abruptly and dart up again. And always the white ray caught them again and blinded them. The anti-aircraft guns began to volley fiercely; their aim was getting dangerously accurate; the fliers could already feel the shock of exploding shells.

‘What’s got into them, anyhow?’ growled Chignole, his face buried in his arms.

‘They think they’ve got us, that’s what! I can’t see any more.’

Behind them Flagada, helpless, looked on at this duel between the dizzy moth and the devouring light. With eyes bursting in his head, he turned, swayed, climbed, fell back again into the entangling net of implacable light, that was driving him to destruction.

‘What to do! — What to do!’

The horror of the situation stupefied him. He looked down, despairing, on the bright spot, from which the deadly rays diverged. Then, suddenly, an idea flashed into his head. ‘Yes; at least I can try it.’

With the boldness of desperation he cut off the gas and dived at the searchlight. With every light out and engine stopped, he slid invisible and silent, till, at a low altitude, he poised above the projector and at one stroke released the bombs.

Brown! Brown! — Nothing more. — Darkness.

‘Flagada! I guess I ’ve put them to sleep — what!’ And he turned on the wing, gained the landing-place, and awaited the return of his friends.

They were not long in coming. Chignole, greatly excited, fell upon him. ‘Heh, old boy! We’ve had the most fantastic adventure — you could never imagine. We were caught by a searchli —’

But Flagada interrupted him: ‘No, no; let me off this time. You always have some tall yarn — ’

‘You mean to say you did n’t see us?

— A searchlight caught us, drowned us — then — all of a sudden — it went out. You saw nothing? — Papa Charles will bear me out.’

‘No, nothing. Sweet evening for a débutant — what?’

And Flagada, walking at a tranquil pace toward the billets, rejoiced that his friends did not know they owed their lives to him.

‘Put up the busses. Run a flashlight over the engines. Ease up my rudder.

— Fill her up for ten o’clock.'

The mechanics obeyed, and their dusky silhouettes stood out, huge, against the machines shining white under the moon. Papa Charles, seated on a can of petrol, was peeling off his leather suit. Chignole, in a brown study, scratched himself behind his ear, rubbed his nose — always signs of deep perplexity with him.

‘Do we go bye-low?’

‘What’s struck you, you dumb old oyster? Have you swallowed the cuckoo’s joy-stick?’

‘The matter with me, Papa Charles, is that I don’t like mysteries; and we are swimming up to our eyes in a mystery.’

‘I don’t get you.’

‘You don’t? Then I suppose you find it quite natural that the searchlight should suddenly let us go, at the very moment when it had us at its mercy?’

‘Oh, well, something happened, of course; but I’m not going to make myself sick hunting for the wherefore of the why. Let’s go to bed, that’s what we need.’

Night! the limitless plain mingling with the sky; a convoy climbing the sunken road that runs along the plateau; axle-trees groaning, wheels creaking, horses neighing, men swearing. The hangars thrust their massive, regular profiles into the gray picture, their silvered roofs billowing in the wind. A few lights mark the village of Béhone; a ray of moonlight, twinkles on the weathercock on its clock-tower. The big gun keeps up its steady hammering in the giant forge that flushes red on the horizon.

‘Yesterday, little old Paris—day before yesterday, back from Nice,’ murmured Chignole. ‘To-day, apprenticed to death. —I’m not grousing; far from it! Still, I will confess, I was afraid to come back to the front. Yes, afraid of being afraid. I got rusty in hospital, and then I had a taste of a lot of amazing things I’d never known before — and it bored me to think of leaving all that. What can you expect! I’m no hero; I ’ve never had the training and education that give a man the nerve to react properly to such experiences. It’s not hard for you two fellows to be courageous. Often, I’ve watched you, Papa Charles; more than once, during a raid, it almost got your goat. But then, you were not alone: Chignole was behind you with his eye peeled, and you pulled yourself together and posed — for the public! The first time a fellow leaves home, he does n’t mind; he’s curious, like everybody else; he wants to see what war’s like. Then he’s wounded, and sent back to the rear; he stops there a bit, and then’s the time, old boy, when you suck the juice out of life and try all the fool things it has to offer. Me! I actually wept the first time I rode again in the Metro — and when I saw the wafflewoman at the corner of rue Coustou. Then, when you’re sitting calmly at a little table on the Boulevard, with a glass of something cool in front of you, you find yourself thinking, “To-morrow I chuck all this.” Well, old man, believe me, you feel as if your trousers were ripping up the back; and you’re not, happy about the way you’ll break into the game when you get back to the front.’

Papa Charles turned round, took Chignole by the shoulders, studied him, tried to read his eyes, and exclaimed in a hoarse, troubled voice, ‘Yes; it’s true, Chignole; it’s all true. But now that you’re back — how do you feel?’

‘Ah, good old top! It’s better than it ever was. What a fool I was to dread it! How could I be such an idiot! Scare’s all gone! Like a miracle! The instant. I was in the bus — finished and done with!—everything else forgotten. It seemed to me I had always been a soldier, and would go on being one forever. The memory of the happy hours back there — pftt — gone! as at a wave of the wizard’s wand. — “ Vanish, little rabbit!” — Mama, Sophie, — perhaps it’s silly, — but they hold only the second place in my thoughts, behind something I can’t explain, something that overshadows all the rest. — Don’t you know? — At midday, in full sunshine, what do you see? — The sun! — Nothing else. Well! just like that, my past dissolves, disappears, like the houses, the trees, the whole earth, under a dazzling light. Tell me what’s the matter with me, Papa Charles.’

‘I know—but there aren’t any words for it. — La Patrie — France — the holy War — ’

‘Yes; I believe that we’ve had the luck to be born at the supreme moment to accomplish great things.’

They were silent, oppressed by an indefinable emotion. The wind dried the beads of sweat on their temples; the wind, that brings sick vapors from the furnaces of the battlefield, acrid odors of exploded shells and the stench of rotting flesh. Side by side they listened, deeply moved, to the voice of the great gun, now dull and distant, calling, calling them, as if it were the wounded earth that groaned.

In the tent, they undressed quickly, for the dampness oozed through the canvas. Flagada was already sleeping peacefully.

‘Well, I know I’m a bore, but the story of the searchlight is yet to be explained,’ said Chignole, hitching up his suspenders with a characteristic gesture.

‘It’s certainly extraordinary that Flagada saw nothing.’

‘Especially — come to think of it — as he was smiling when he answered our questions — a little as if he had a joke on us.’

‘Well, why should n’t he smile? There was nothing to cry about. Pshaw! We shall guess the riddle sooner or later, — more likely later. Douse the glim!’

Papa Charles slid shivering between the stiff, cold sheets. Chignole went to the table and took up the lamp.

‘What am I stepping on? — Oh! Flagada’s flight memorandum.’

‘His flight-book? Pass it over! Let’s see what he’s put down about this evening’s bombardment.’

Papa Charles turned the pages quickly, Chignole leaning over him with the light: —

‘Bombardment behind the front, Verdun. Duration: 3 hours, 10 minutes. Dropped six bombs on the Boche searchlight that was bothering my pals.'

They looked at each other with wet eyes. Flagada snored.


‘Get up, lazy-bones!’

‘What! What is it?’

Flagada and Chignole, waking with a jump, stared bewildered at Papa Charles as he slipped off his helmet and rubber coat all shiny with rain.

‘While you were snoozing, I took a taxi and sized up the weather. Clouds at one hundred metres. Nothing doing.’

‘Nancy is n’t far.’

‘What if it isn’t? We must see where we’re going, just the same, when we skirt the St. Mihiel ridge. As for flying at one hundred metres — when I want to cut the grass, I don’t take out a new machine. It’s all very well to have dual ignition; I want to know all about it before I let myself in for its eccentricities.’

‘So — we’re expected to get up?’

‘It would seem to be indicated. It’s almost noon, and you run a strong risk of not finding a crumb at the mess.’

‘We should worry! We’ll blow ourselves in for a tip-top dinner this evening; we’ll pull it off somehow, but I can’t get up a thrill over it just this minute, Papa Charles,’ yawned Chignole, trying to stretch himself awake. ‘Golly, but I slept! and I had a peacherino of a dream. I was sprouting wings. I soared! — I soared! — scattering all the little busses behind me as I flew.’

‘Our Chignole as a rival of the Angel Gabriel — fine subject for a picture! Well, my children, I also dreamed.’ Papa Charles fixed his eye on Flagada, but his voice was not quite steady. ‘A very queer dream. I saw us, yesterday evening, caught in the searchlight, blinded, done for, about to crash in a tail-spin. But a pal who was following us caught on to the situation. Despising cannon and machine-guns, indifferent to the possible smash, never stopping to count the cost, he shut off the engine and dropped down over the searchlight. And he placed his bombs so well that the horrible light was snuffed out — and we are alive. I ask you, Chignole, what you would call the fellow who would do that?’

Silence — Flagada concealing his embarrassment very clumsily and Chignole much affected.

‘I should call him a man in a thousand! I should call him Flagada!’ Then, as the latter tried to protest, ‘Hypocrite! Sly dog! You make me sick! I shan’t play with you any more.’

He leaped out of bed to hug his friend, while Papa Charles, who had got there first, gripped Flagada’s hands affectionately, saying, —

‘We have known one another only two days, and already we owe our lives to you. How can we ever pay our debt ? ’ ‘By never mentioning it to me again — it is agreed — never to anyone.’ And Flagada began to pull on his socks.

Down the muddy road they go, the road that leads from Béhone to Bar-leDuc. Chignole, who is his own valet, has a horror of soiling his boots, and avoids the puddles with catlike agility, grumbling as he hops, —

‘This bath-water is sickening. I never saw so much rain. We sure have a grouch against the Weather Man for leaving the sluices open all the time. Still, it’s worse in the trenches, so don’t let’s whine.’

’An imperative Klaxon warns them to get out of the way of a rapidly moving truck, which stops when it comes up with them.

Will you come in?’ cries the American chauffeur, in English.

With pleasure,’ replies Papa Charles, in the same language.

‘Anything for practice in the foreign tongues,’ murmurs Chignole, hoisting himself, along with his companions, into the car full of pilots of the American Escadrille. There are introductions, hearty claps on friendly shoulders, cordial greetings. Papa Charles converses; Flagada and Chignole offer their opinions freely. By the time they reach Bar-le-Duc they are all bosom friends, for Papa Charles has started the popular refrain, —

‘ Take me in your arms and say you love me ,’ —

which the Americans take up in chorus; and they cannot part until they have had several drinks all round.

‘My, but I’m hungry! I could relish a little snack of something.’ Chignole clicked his teeth suggestively.

‘I know where there’s a cake-shop; follow me,’ replied Flagada.

‘You know these diggings?’

‘Yes; I used to come here — before the war.’

The cake-shop. A customer leaning on the counter eating with gusto. Huge, lean, all legs, his long nose sticking out like a handle above his long neck, he recalls the picture of the heron in the fable. With entire calmness, methodically, without effort, he ingulfs quantities of cakes, expediting their disappearance with frequent potations of sweetened wine.

‘Have you any more frangipanes, dear madame?’ he asks the proprietress, with an agreeable smile.

‘Only one, monsieur.’

‘Excellent; that will make it come out just even. A dozen, is n’t it?’

He seizes the cake, gloats over it a moment, and in one bite it is gone.

Chignole has been staring with round eyes. ‘Will you take a look at our brother over there! Where does he put it all? Thin as a breath of wind! Whew! He likes frangipanes — what! Can you imagine what machine he flies? Where does he find a cockpit big enough to stretch his spindle-shanks? Let’s get out of here! He might mistake us for cream-cakes.’

Flagada leads them through the labyrinth of the streets.

‘Where are you taking us?’

‘To a café, — our kind, — Café des Oiseaux.’

A huge hall. The walls are lined with showcases, in which are displayed the stuffed birds that give the place its name.

‘He knows the ropes, our friend. O Papa Charles, what do you call that bird with the big eyes?’

‘A grand-duke.’

‘I have my doubts. He doesn’t seem at his ease. Heh! What’s struck you, Flagada? Don’t faint, what!

‘A poster! — A poster!’ stammered Flagada, his eyes glued to an old faded programme that hangs against a partition.

‘What does it say?— Grand Concert — June 15, 1914. — That’s not to-day, unluckily. One of those nifty shows — I love that kind.'

Flagada underlined with his finger a name printed on the programme: —


Lightning-Change Artist

‘You know him, that barn-stormer?’

‘Yes; that’s to say — a little. — It’s me.’ He hesitated; then, brokenly, ‘Yes; in civil life, that’s what I am. A clown at three francs a ticket, performing in the provinces and at wedding breakfasts. Lightning-Change Artist! A tenth-rate sub-Max Dearly,2 dragging his painted wretchedness and his sinister gayety from one green-room to the next. If only I were sure I had talent! But there you are! Nothing is less certain. Now and then, not often, I was conscious of being bad enough to hiss; and there were times when the public confirmed my severe but just judgment of myself. I need only change my trade. — Quite true! Only — there you are again — I love the boards. My kind of fool is a fool for life. I ’d sooner be a prompter or a property man than quit the stage. You see, your new companion is an acquisition. He’s not commonplace — Lightning-Change Artist.’ He laughed a forced laugh, mournfully, then sat down at a table and became lost in thought.

Enter a motorcyclist and runs to Papa Charles.

‘The Chief of the Centre gave me this for you. A dispatch from G.H.Q. The reply to the request he telegraphed this morning, following your report.’

‘Sshh!’ Papa Charles went up to the poster and pinned the open dispatch on it. ‘Flagada, — look here, old man.’

Under the name ‘Pataques,’ on the yellow page of the official telegram, they read,—

‘Is cited in the order of the day: —

‘X—, pilot in the escadrille V.B.

— Under particularly dangerous circumstances, exposed himself of his own accord to save two of his companions who were about to succumb. Succeeded fully, thanks to his courage and coolness.’

Flagada trembled and tried to speak, but emotion choked him, and, to save the situation, Chignole babbled,—

‘Since you love the theatre, behold, you have your reward!’


The three friends were seated in one of the restaurants of Bar-le-Duc, where they had finally secured a table after interminable altercations, in the course of which promises alternated with threats.

‘Oh, very well! believe it or not, as you please, the theatre has no more thrills for me.’ Chignole, in difficulties with a bone from which he could not suck the marrow, paused a moment, then continued, ‘The theatre! — It’s nothing but lies; that’s what disillusioned me. Still, when I was a kid, I adored it. But something happened that gave me cold feet. If you like, I’ll tell you in five secs.’

‘Anecdote!’ smiled Papa Charles.

‘Don’t be too spiteful before a poor tyro; remember that I’m here, Flagada murmured apprehensively.

‘Well, here goes! I was somewhere about fourteen and I was working at the upper end of the rue de Belleville, in the rue des Envierges, Naturally, I used to go to the old theatre of the neighborhood, whose posters advertised the shadiest melodramas in letters of blood. And what fate decreed, befel swiftly.’

‘You fell in love with a star.’

‘It was my first offense. Yes; I became infatuated with the ingénue. Ah, my dear fellows! — Marvelous! — but she was marvelous! — One of those blondes — ’

‘Our Chignole already had a taste for blondes!’

‘ And then — as for talent — extraordinary! As Fanfan in “The Two Kids,” she moved the whole house to tears, and Limace received every variety of abuse and vegetables. After having brooded long in my heart over this grand passion, I decided to unveil to her my secret soul.’

‘In the words of Lagardère —’

‘Don’t interrupt. — I wrote her a letter carefully phrased. I might as well make a clean breast of it. I finished it this way; “ You will easily recognize the admirer who will have the honor to present to you his distinguished salutations at the end of the performance. During your great lovescene of the eleventh act, he will put his legs over the edge of the proscenium rail — ” ’

‘Irresistible attitude!’

‘At midnight, very much excited, quite upset, and almost ready to throw a fit, I turned my steps toward the green-room door, which I had so often eyed with longing. Issued forth: the young hero, a regular masher; the villain, sinister; the heavy father, venerable; the duenna, sweet as sugar; the financier, all importance; the soubrette, amiable; the machinists, noisy, and the prompter, negligible. Finally, there appeared a woman; the smoky argand lamp over the entrance lighted up her features only too well. I recognized my ingénue, but without wig, without make-up, unadorned, showing all her years. Oh, imagine the disaster! She might have been her mother — at the very least. I left, disgusted, and I have always held a grudge against the theatre for destroying my first illusion.’

They sat silent, each one haunted by the ghost of his vanished youth. It touched them lightly, wrapped them round, caressed them, then vanished like smoke. But even when it had vanished, they felt it still, for it had left its perfume.

Papa Charles was the first to shake off the spell.

‘The bill — let’s get a move on. We must be in bed early; the barometer is still going up. There’s more than a chance that to-morrow morning the sky’ll be clear; and in that case we’ll breakfast at Nancy.’

Just as they were leaving the hotel, one of their neighbors at table said to them, ‘You’re going back to Béhone? Look out for aviatiks.’


‘They’re out almost every evening. Look sharp! They’ve no sense of humor.’

Flagada, astonished, was about to ask for fuller details, when Chignole murmured in his ear,—

‘Keep your shirt on. He’s a little fresh, that fellow. Aviatiks! To-night! What a crazy idea!’

They went down the avenue de la Gare at a brisk step. The night was clear.

‘You see! I was right. The weather is fine; no clouds; a splendid night.’

‘The moonlight flows down the steep blue roofs,’ chanted Flagada.

‘Halt!’ cried Chignole suddenly.

‘What’s got you?’

‘Down there in the square — a patrol — military caps, white brassards, police.'

‘What of it?’

‘You know very well we have no business in the streets at this hour.’

‘Let’s go back the way we came. We can go single file by the station — hide behind a tree — I think we can work it.

‘It would mean fifteen days arrest, if those little chaps caught us. And the Provost Marshal will make it thirty days, and the military governor will raise it to sixty. — That’s the tariff.’

The two patrols, approaching each other, were about to bag their helpless victims, when an automobile came down a cross street toward them, at a smart pace. Papa Charles leaped to meet it, waving his cap desperately.

‘Aviation!’ he roared.

The car stopped.

‘Comrade!’ cried the chauffeur.

A pleasant voice issued from the lowered carriage-hood: ‘Be so kind as to get in, gentlemen.’

The patrols came on at double-quick. ‘Stop! Stop!’

But the chauffeur, by a clever turn, escaped the mounted police, and the motor lost itself in the labyrinth of narrow streets.

The excitement over, the three companions turned as one man to the unknown who had pulled them out of this scrape; but they could not make him out under the closed top.

‘Thank your lucky stars — not me. I’ve just come back from escorting an officer of the flying squadron, one of my friends — and I’m fortunate to arrive at the psychological moment. A little more, and undoubtedly you’d have been taken prisoners by the aviatiks.’

‘What’s that you say?’

‘Yes; that’s our nickname here for the police, because of their frequent raids. We are often the victims, for your true policeman is without pity. It’s an innocent title that hurts no one. — But pardon me, I had forgotten that I am not yet presented.’

He scratched a match, lifted his cap, and in the ‘grand manner,’ announced himself: —

‘Vicomte Jean-Léon de La Guérynière.’

‘Oh, the guy of the cake-shop, who ate cream-cakes by the dozen! Well, friend Vicomte, you sure have a stomach!’ cried Chignole, tapping him on the belly.

And when Papa Charles voiced their gratitude, their new acquaintance protested, —

‘What sort of a cad should I have been to act otherwise? In aviation we must stand by — the wings! We have to be good sports.’

‘You’re an observer, aren’t you?’ inquired Flagada.

‘Yes; I’m here at the annex of the R.G.A., on the lookout for a good pilot. Up to now, I’ve had only make-believes, nuts who landed on their front wheels. You can understand — I am quite willing to be scattered to the four winds by the Germans, but by a pal — it’s not a pleasant thought.'

‘Well, Vicomte, I am looking for an observer. — My references? — Two hundred and seventeen hours of flight, and yesterday evening an escapade of which these gentlemen have a rather exaggerated idea. Will you make a fourth at whist? Will you change our three-handed game into a parti carré — of aces?’

The Vicomte scratched another match and studied the faces of the trio.— ‘I’m your man. It’s a go!'

‘There’s just one hitch,’ began Chignole. ‘Each one of us has a fighting name. We must baptize the Vicomte.

— I have it! We’ll call you Frangipane! — You don’t mind?’

‘Hurrah for Frangipane!’

‘And the Boches had better look out

— the real ones, not the aviatiks.’

Four pairs of hands clasped.

‘Red — it’s rather giddy —’

‘Don’t you think gray would be more serviceable?’

‘Well — how about tricolor?’

‘Tricolor—there’s no need to proclaim it — we wear it on our hearts, Mârne Bassinet,’ her husband interposed sententiously, as he knocked his pipe lightly on his sole to expel the ashes.

Seated about the lamp, the three women were choosing worsteds to make a muffler.

‘Daisy stitch or Tunisian?’

‘Chatterboxes! Here it’s taken you an hour of talk to come to an agreement. Our Chignole’s knitting might have been half finished by now.’

‘Pull the latch, Monsieur Bassinet, don’t you hear the bell? — Ten o’clock. It’s old Fondu.’

A slim silhouette is framed in the square panes of the lodge door. There is a timid knock.

‘Come in, Fondu, come in, old boy.’

M. Fondu, in the employ of the City of Paris (Sewerage Department), replies to the invitation and creeps over to the stove. He is a slender little man, grotesque, of no particular age. He floats about in a great-coat of antique pattern which sweeps his heels. On his sharp knees he balances a stove-pipe hat, which, at the time of mobilization, made him the butt of the hoodlums of the neighborhood. He gazes complacently at his little-finger-nail, which he always keeps very long. He coughs, and murmurs, ‘And our aces? — Any news?’

‘Not yet. They only left yesterday morning. Besides, I have an idea they were going to stop off en route for a little spree. They’ve a jolly good right to it. The poor devils at the front must have their fun. They ought, not to have anything to regret, if they should never come back — eh, Fondu?’

The old gentleman clucks, opens his mouth three times to speak, clucks again, and is silent. Sophie’s nimble crochet needle races along the stitches; Madame Bassinet and ‘Mama Chignole,’ wind off a skein; M. Bassinet sucks his pipe; M. Fondu contemplates his feet. Little by little a strange purring invades the silence.


With one bound they are at the window. Overhead, there are stars that leave their places in the sky and stray among the constellations.

‘The airplanes of the fortifications.’

The women, touched to silence by a common thought, draw close together, fearfully. The men shake their heads, subdued by the sense of their unimportance.

‘Ah, Fondu! We are nothing but useless old fools.’

(To be continued)

  1. The engine, in aviation slang.
  2. The reader may here substitute the name of his favorite music-hall artist. — THE EDITORS.