Birds of a Feather: Ii. The Climbers
TRANSLATED BY FLORENCE CONVERSE
I. THE TARGET
‘No use talking, our Papa Charles is a regular astrologer,’ grinned Chignole. He’s like Nostradamus: he always gets there. He has only to prophecy fine weather, to bring on a flood!’
The canvas of the tent resounded with the rain.
‘It’s not yet to-morrow, and you’d much better go to sleep; for if you don’t get up instantly in the morning, I shall pitch a glass of water in your face.’
‘You won’t need to, Papa Charles. That’s already being attended to.’
The rain was running through the canvas and dripping on Chignole’s bed.
‘Flagada! I’m taking a footbath!’ cried the Lightning-Change Artist, sitting up.
‘Glory! But this place is an aquarium.’
It was raining on Frangipane’s bed also, falling on his face; and he, fast, asleep, was batting at it automatically, as if it were a fly. All of a sudden, he awoke with a snort, and the four began to consult together.
’Not very thrilling to spend the night moving beds.'
‘Let Flagada give us his repertoire.'
‘Without music? There would be no point.'
‘Do any of you gentlemen know Venice?’ suggested Frangipane. ‘For I should be delighted to reminisce with you. Ah, the Lido! the Lido!’
‘Stow the Lido, Vicomte, you’re talking to beggars. But it occurs to me, since we’re four, now’s the time for a first-rate game of bridge.’
They dressed quickly. An upturned box served for a table; the beds were soft chairs; a candle, stuck awry in a bottle, shed a feeble light and wept tears of wax.
‘A heart,’ Flagada declared prudently.
‘No bid,’ said Papa Charles, shutting up his hand with a snap.
‘No trump,’ announced Flagada, peremptorily.
‘I come back. Here goes, my lad!’ cried Chignole, ever readyfor any risk.
They arrived safely at Nancy the next morning. The journey was devoid of incident, except for Papa Charles and Chignole, who were bound to fly over the Roman Camp, to find out if the Boches have all the ammunition they need.
At the headquarters of the squadron they were assigned to an escadrille and set out promptly to present, themselves at it. Crossing the plateau, they met several old friends.
‘So you’re going to keep on in the Voisin? Night-flying’s a soft snap. - Have you heard—L-, the little live wire? Went to pieces yesterday. It was partly his fault; he had only two days on a Spad and he wanted to show off, to astonish the officers. He went up zoum — the engine gave out — down he came on one wing. Ah, my children! They mopped him up with blotting-paper!’ Then, jumping without transition to another subject, ‘The cake-shop in the Rue des Dominicains, where we ate such good cream-tarts, is closed, or rather, opened — cut in two by a 380.’
‘Just my luck!' murmured Frangipane.
After breakfast, when they were taking a constitutional in the pine wood, they exchanged impressions of the escadrille.
‘Of course, it’s very flattering to tumble into a squad of aces, but it’s rather embarrassing.’
1 With all these Legions of Honor, we look like thirty cents.’
‘We really must pull off something clever.’
Chignole slashed with his cane at all the little weeds within his reach, pulled his nose reflectively, then paused. ‘I have an idea, but it’s not to the point.'
‘Out with it. Let’s see if it’s any good.’
‘You may have noticed at table that the conversation has turned on a very dangerous anti-aircraft battery of the Boches, which brought down several —'
‘Exordium — Yes ?’
‘That’s all. If we could demolish it our reputation would be made — what?’
‘So that’s your great idea? — Congratulations! It did n’t hurt you much! Our squad has n’t been waiting round for Chignole and Company to show them how to destroy a battery. They ’ve got no results from bombing it; why should we do any better?'
‘It’s queer how ideas come to me when I’m ragged,’Chignole announced philosophically. ‘Behold my visions! — I see a machine flying over the aforesaid battery at twilight. What happens?’
‘The battery fires.’
‘But as night is coming on — What do we see?’
‘The flash of the shells,’ answered Papa Charles, suddenly interested.
‘Second vision! Another machine prowling over the lines. It notes the exact position of the battery by the flashes from the guns, and signals the range to our artillery by wireless.’
‘Come on, fellahs!’ cried Papa Charles. And they went back to the hangars at the double quick.
When the captain’s consent had been obtained, Chignole superintended the installation of the wireless. It was agreed that Flagada’s machine should serve as target; and to handle it with the least effort, they put in as little weight as possible: the exact allowance of petrol and oil — no more.
The afternoon arrived. A last telephone call to the artillery of the sector, to make sure of a good connection, and Papa Charles started up first, to try his luck. The late spring had not yet altered the face of the country. The forests were still black; the grayish meadows and the bare fields still showed their furrows in sharp relief. Nevertheless, the sun was painting Nancy with the tenderest tints of his palette; the bell-towers were rose, the roofs dove-colored, the golden gates of Jean Lamour were burnished new.
‘Now I’ve got my bearings,’ cried Chignole. ‘There’s the rue St. Jean, — the rue du Pont-Mouja, — la Pépinière. She climbs!—Two thousand metres. Great sport, Papa Charles!’
A machine appeared above Malzéville and dived toward the lines.
‘It’s Flagada. — Forward, march!’
They pass the trenches. They unwind the antennæ of the wireless. The details of the landscape dissolve, little by little, but certain landmarks remain visible. The target plane circles, dips very low, like a bird hesitating above its nest.
‘Ready!’ Chignole taps the key, and sends up the signals agreed on.
Suddenly a flash, followed by several others, streaks across the dusk. Chignole locates them on his map.
‘Square 97.’ He presses the key twice.
A few seconds, and two explosions show him that our artillery has obeyed.
The target plane is now being harassed at close quarters by the shrapnel.
‘What have the poor nuts been drinking!’
‘If the gunners reduce the range — they’re done for.’
Suddenly the flashes mingle with the yellow smoke of our shells.
‘Fire like hell!’ shrieks Chignole, hitting the key a smashing blow. ‘ Forward, boys! and let her rip! Don’t be stingy with the shells.’
The battery site disappears in a cloud of smoke which reddens in spots. The target plane gets no more shots, and the white puff-balls of the last shrapnel dissolve little by little.
‘I think the Boches will be quiet for a little while. Fall in, mates, for a tango celebration.’
Papa Charles cuts down the gas and indulges his biplane in various weird and clever stunts. Flagada does likewise; and in the calm, serene, violet evening the two victorious taxis return to their stable, cutting capers to relieve their drivers’ feelings.
Their captain, an ace whom nothing, not even honors, could surprise, gave them his felicitations. Then, addressing himself specially to Frangipane he said, ‘Let’s see, my friend, you’re only a débutant; you must have had a bad quarter of an hour. How did you feel?’
And Frangipane, with his quizzical and slightly reserved air, replied, ‘To tell the truth, captain, I’ve never had any emotions except at Venice. I say! — “On such a night,” on the steps of the Church of the Scalzi—a woman—'
‘Good night!’ snapped the captain, and beat a retreat, muttering, ‘ I’ve had some freaks in this squad — but this guy — !’
II. GAME’S UP
‘The war gets worse and worse,’Chignole announced in melancholy tones, scraping the mud off his boots with the point of his knife. ‘Last year, it was comparatively easy to bring down sausages. You remember, Papa Charles? ’
The latter, buried in a newspaper, assented with a grunt. Flagada, astride his bed, was carefully paring his almond-shaped nails, while Frangipane, shifting from one leg to the other, munched a biscuit.
‘I say, gang! why don’t you take an interest in what I’m saying?’ sputtered Chignole. ‘For heaven’s sake, what’s vour grouch? You need n’t act so sulky.’ And pointing out of the window at the great fat yellowish sausage suspended over the lines, ‘Don’t tell me you can look at that swollen gullet without boiling over.'
After this outburst, he retired into wrathful silence.
Papa Charles threw aside his paper, caught Frangipane by the arm as he was making for the door, signed to Flagada and Chignole to sit down by him and then began seriously, in a low voice: —
‘Let’s talk it out. As for setting fire to them in the daytime, that sort of thing’s ended; those good old times are over—no use harking back to them. Still, on a fine night, when the details of the landscape were absolutely clear, it might not be impossible to succeed.'
‘Yes; but when we’d retrieved the sausage, we’d have to go down to at least a hundred metres.’
‘Behind the Boches’ lines.’
‘And what if there’s a breakdown?'
‘We stay there. — Conclusion?’
‘ We ’ll do it this evening. It’s a go!'
When the captain was consulted, he protested vehemently; but he knewhow obstinate they were. And they did not let him alone until they had obtained his consent; on one or two points, however, he was firm.
‘Granted, on two conditions: one machine only; you can decide among you which goes. And — you’re not to go up unless I’m there. — Understand?’
‘Oh, captain! You’re an ace!’
And Chignole saluted, flushing with delight.
The air was soft; the night was clear; the moon in all her splendor blotted out the stars caught in the ring of her white light. The wind blew lightly on the guy-ropes that held the hangars taut. In the one barrack that was lighted, shadows passed now and then across the window-screen.
‘ Let me lake your place, Chignolc.’
‘ Awfully sorry, Vicomte, but not this time.’
‘Papa Charles thought of the expedition; it’s natural he should go — but you —?’
‘You, who are engaged,’ added Flagada.
‘Save your breath, my friends. In the first place, everybody’s more or less engaged; secondly, Papa Charles without me would not be Papa Charles; finally, now that I’m reinstated in aviation, I want to show them that I’m as fit as I ever was. ’Nough said.’
They left the hut, and as they passed the headquarters tent, Papa Charles lifted the tent-flap.
‘We’re leaving, captain!'
‘ Wait, I want to see for myself.’ He appeared in his dressing-gown, scrutinized the horizon carefully, and turned his electric lamp on the barograph. ‘Go ahead, boys; but if, when you’re up, you find it the least bit hazy, if the engine doesn’t work just right, don’t hesitate: return at once.’
They shook hands silently.
‘Geta move on, Mimile!’ cried Chignole, entering the hangar.
Mimile, the mechanician, jumped from the cockpit, where he had been napping with one eye open. As he was lighting the acetylene torches, the sentry post turned on the searchlight.
‘Is it all ready?’
‘Would I be snoring if it was n’t?’
‘Right you are, Mr. Mimile.’
While the travelers were settling themselves, Flagada and Frangipane looked over the exposed parts of the controls. They clambered up on the footboards.
‘Here,’ said Frangipane to Chignole, giving him a pocketbook. ‘A thousand francs in Boche banknotes. It may be useful.’
‘ Here,’ said Flagada to Papa Charles, handing him a Browning. ‘The latest plaything of the year—eight balls in three seconds. It may be useful.’
‘Were there ever such pals!’ murmured Chignole, overwhelmed.
And Papa Charles started off abruptly to hide his feelings.
They left the earth. The houses of Nancy cast their pointed shadows on the pallid streets. The curves of the Meurthe toward Tomblaine were shining like polished steel. At the factories of Dombasle, tongues of fire shot up into the sky.
‘Don’t mistake the Moselle for the Meurthe.’
‘ I ’m skirting the Marne-Rhine canal. Look at the revolution-counter. The hand’s jumping. ’
‘ Yes; the mill’s making a funny noise.’
4 It’s not normal. Shall we go back ?’
Go back? The thought chilled them. Their pride was hard hit. What would their comrades think, and the captain ? They would have to confess that luck had deserted them. Already they felt humiliated, degraded.
‘We should worry! Let’s go on.’
Above the lines. A few shells, but as the moon is full, the searchlights are not so intense and the aim is wide.
‘I’ll make a loop to fool them.'
They go rambling above the pool of Lindre. They fly over Dieuze, Morhange, then take the direction of Chateau-Sâlins.
Papa Charles slackens his speed. ‘Do you hear? Skipping?'
‘A little water in the carburetor. She’ll win out. Don’t you worry!’
They descend. Chignole scans the landscape. In a glade is a kind of dome, white under the moon.
‘There’s the objective.’
With gas cut off, the biplane slides down noiselessly. Papa Charles makes the contact from time to time, to be sure of the connection.
‘Eighty metres. Not yet. Don’t be in a hurry. Don’t miss it. Get your rockets ready.’
But to volplane better he has shortened his dive too much, and ihe propeller stops, in spite of all his efforts to make the engine go again. In their desperation they stand almost upright in the cockpit.
Papa Charles noses up; the machine clears the trees and lands right-side up in a meadow. They are on the edge of a village whose first houses they can just make out. Nothing stirs. They venture to breathe.
‘Talk about adventures! ’
‘Hurry up down there! Let’s get out.’
As soon as he touched the engine, Chignole’s dexterity came back to him. He took the nuts out of the cover of the distributor, feverishly.
‘I knew it! The distributor arm is fouled; the ebonite box is n’t tight, the coils are covered with oil and the mill turns too slow to make a spark.’
‘How much time will it take?’
‘To dry it out? We must have a fire, first thing.’
‘Time, I ask you — how much time?'
‘Look! — Will you look!’
The sky was paling; the moon was fading; the stars were going out; the leaves trembled under the wind of dawn.
‘Day!’ murmured Chignole softly, bending his head. ‘Game’s up! - Prisoners!’
‘Never!’ and Papa Charles patted the trigger of the pistol in his pocket.
The machine had long been swallowed up in the night, but Frangipane and Flagada did not dream of leaving the plateau. They walked up and down restlessly, their hands in their pockets, stopping only to light fresh cigarettes. Mimile consulted his watch every few minutes, and put it to his ear to make sure that it was going.
‘Are you sure they took their map?’
‘Yes, Flagada; and Chignole even pasted at the top the ten-thousandth detail as to the position of the sausage.’
‘You did n’t forget to fill her up with water ?'
‘What? That radiator dribbled up to the time they left.’
‘They’ll have crossed the lines by now.’
‘They’ll have made the goal—’
‘Not yet. Papa Charles is much too clever to give his scheme away to them at once.’
‘Did you examine the magneto carefully?’
‘As I would for myself; as if I myself were going to fly the bus.’
The night freshened. A cock on the Malzéville farm invited his brothers to sing matins. The captain came toward them, still in his dressing-gown, his field-glasses slung over his shoulder.
‘You’ve not yet seen signs of German shelling, over the lines?’
‘No, sir; nothing.’
‘They won’t be long, now.’
One by one the squad arrived, in slippers, their tunics thrown over their shoulders hastily.
‘When did they go up?’
‘At half-past two, sir.’
‘Twenty minutes past four. They ought to be in sight. Telephone the artillery; doubtless the observers can give us news.’
A secretary ran to headquarters. The sky, emptied of its stars, was gray, but where it touched the earth, it was turning to rose. It was as if a huge fire kindled the horizon. Golden beams arose on all sides, sprung as if from magic fireworks.
Eyes questioned the void; hearts were wrung with an unreasoning anguish.
The artillery telephoned, ‘Nothing to report.’
‘ If they’re not herein ten minutes — ’ The captain ended his sentence with a significant shrug.
Yonder in the light of the dawn, the enemy sausage swayed heavily.
They looked at one another and said nothing Death was passing by.
III. GO DOWN! THEY’RE ASKING FOR YOU
Seated on the grass, at the foot of the biplane, Chignole was mechanically plucking the little Easter daisies. He awaited, with resignation, the stroke of Fate and the orders of his companion. Papa Charles, his face distorted with helpless rage, sputtered meaningless phrases between drawn lips.
‘Set fire to the cuckoo—save ourselves — there’s the forest — hide — till to-night — cross the lines.’
Chignole rose calmly, thrust the posies into his pocket, scratched a match, and unscrewed the stopper of the petrol tank.
‘Stop!' cried Papa Charles in a shaking voice, hesitant in the face of the irreparable. ‘Let’s try once more to start her. Hurry!’
In the pale morning, while Chignole, groping, did his best to buck up the engine, Papa Charles, in the cockpit, with one hand on the control, the other at the trigger of the machine-gun, waited for the enemy. Before them, a road bordered with trees; on the right and behind, a wood; on the left, fifty metres away, the village. Daylight kindled the window-panes; horses neighed; a bell rang.
‘I’ve cleaned the distributor as well as I can. Open the petrol.’
Just then, a sharp little trumpet shook out the tripping notes of the German réveillé. Papa Charles smothered an oath and gnawed his fingers till they bled. Chignole, glued to the propeller, cranked it violently. The engine responded with a hoarse sigh.
‘She speaks! Up, my beauty!’
Chignole, dripping with sweat, covered with oil and axle-grease, his gaze fixed, his hair blowing in the wind, hideous and superb, recranks the screw with the energy of despair. Explosions in the cylinder! Irregular — then rhythmic! — In the doorway of a house a soldier, a Boche, appears. He stands amazed at sight of the tricolor on the aeroplane, but pulls himself together and aims his gun.
‘Tac — tac — tac — tac! ’
Papa Charles has fired. Like wheat before the scythe, the soldier drops, head first, arms extended crosswise. The biplane spins. Chignole comes aboard with a flying leap and seizes the machine-gun, while his comrade grips the steering gear. The curtain of trees approaches with terrible rapidity.
‘What do you bet we make our getaway?’
The trees! The trees! Will it be a smashup? Papa Charles shuts his eyes instinctively and pulls the joy-stick toward him. The machine hesitates, seems to hang motionless, to gather itself together like a horse at a fence. Papa Charles opens his eyes. The wheels are brushing the green treetops. Cleared! He noses down lightly to prevent a slip. Down on the road there is a whirlwind of dust where the automobiles are dashing after them.
‘Whoop-la! Hi! you boobies!’ chortles Chignole.
In climbing, they have come back again over the village, where an enemy battalion, evidently quartered there, takes them for a target.
‘Save your bullets, gawks!’
At a window of the house on whose threshold they had so lately landed, women are waving frantic handkerchiefs.
‘ Vive la France! We shall meet again soon!'
Papa Charles, in fine fettle, whirls, turns, capers, always following the homeward road. At eight hundred metres, Chignole lets out a yell which drowns the roar of the engine.
‘Golly, old chap! we’re going to make a good job of it after all! Fine work! ’
Below them the sausage — their German sausage — soars peacefully.
‘Do you get her?’
‘I think so.’
Papa Charles dives at full speed. The balloon swells beneath their eyes as they make their dizzy descent. Papa Charles flattens out abruptly. Chignole launches the incendiary rockets. They turn over on the wing to get the effect - and a thick black smoke, fringed with purple, envelops the balloon, which makes several plunges; then — bursts.
1 Go down! They’re asking for you! ’ declaims Chignole in the tone of a funeral oration.
‘They have n’t wasted our time. They’ll be suffocated, poor devils!’
‘If you want my advice, don’t say anything about this to the others; they’d never believe you.’
Then they abandoned themselves to the sweet satisfaction of having escaped a great danger. All the reflections which they were unable to indulge in at the crucial moment beset them now that they were safe.
‘Prisoners! ’ thought Chignole. 4 What a dirty trick! And me just about to be married. What a bouquet for a bridegroom! And my poor Sophie laid on the shelf.’ But his natural optimism soon got the upper hand. ‘Still, it would have been better than being knifed. And besides, there’s always a way to manage. Birds like us would n’t stay long in their clutches. We should soon have been singing the Chant du Départ.'
‘Prisoners!’ thought Papa Charles. ‘What should I have done if the bus had left us in the lurch? Sold my skin dearly — fired my last cartridge? — Yes; but even so, Chignole would have been shot. — Surrender? — Jail until the end of the war.’
A series of unpleasant images passed before his mind, and he smiled happily at the sunny land of France, beckoning them, calling them.
‘Here’s where we break our necks. — There’s a barrage of Fokkers over the lines.’
‘Six! That’s a little too much. Any more petrol?’
‘Enough for an hour.'
‘We’ll make it!’
They refused combat, made a left oblique, and crossed the Seille above Marsal. The Fokkers turned at the same angle; but they were embarrassed in their chase by having the sun directly in their faces.
‘They’re not gaining on us.’
‘No, but another squad is coming to meet us.’
‘Six behind, three in front! It’s getting unhealthy.'
‘What’s the name of the place we’re flying over?’
‘Well, we’re headed for its cemetery, all right; but we’re not the only ones that’ll sleep there. — Pigs!’
Papa Charles plunged, stood up on end and turned and charged into the troop of six. His manœuvre was so unexpected that the Boches could not turn, for fear of going down together. They were obliged to scatter, and Papa Charles profited by the ensuing confusion to make for the frontier, while Chignole covered their retreat with repeated salvoes. The Boches, however, did not consider themselves beaten, and forming anew in a semi-circle, they charged the biplane.
‘They won’t get us; there are the trenches.’
‘Yes, but look!’
Right above them a machine approached at frantic speed, and with the wind in its favor.
‘That one will get us, sure!’
But Chignole had seized his fieldglasses.
‘No; Papa Charles, that one won’t get us — for that one — is Frangipane and Flagada.’
Above their own ground, they let themselves go in fantastic gyrations, as if in a drunken machine, and landed with engine stopped, in perfect form.
When the captain came up to compliment them, Chignole drew from his pocket the flowers which he had put there.
‘Pardon us for being late, but we stopped to pick these. It occurs to me you might like to send this bouquet to your wife, captain. It’s from Lorraine. She won’t find these flowers at the florists’ in little old Paris, and I’m sure they’ll give her pleasure.’
IV. CHIGNOLE GETS MARRIED
‘Don’t lean out of the window, little daughter. Look out for trains coming from the opposite direction, and for cinders from the engine. You’d be a lovely sight if you came to your wedding with an eye as big as that—’
M. Bassinet showed Sophie his two fists clasped together to make his effect; then, satisfied by his unanswerable argument, he retired deeper into his corner, chewing his pipe which had been out some time. Opposite him, his wife slept noisily, her double chin propped on her breast which was upheld by her corsets. Beside her, M. Fondu was squeezed up, asleep; but always dignified, he held clasped on his knees the stovepipe hat which he could not bear to trust to the net overhead. He dared not lean back against the cushions of the compartment, lest he crack his shirt-front; and his body bounced and rattled with the motion of the train.
In the opposite corner, ‘Maman Chignole’ slept, her head in a black muslin scarf which set off her silvery hair. Now and then, the weary lines about her mouth would vanish, and she would smile lingeringly at her dream — her son. Although M. Bassinet was bored by the silence and felt the need of exchanging opinions with someone, he did not venture to wake them; but turned once more to Sophie: —
‘How you do persist in looking out of the window! Really child, it’s high time you got married; there’s no living with you any more.'
But the girl, with eyes half closed by the wind that blew her blonde curls, followed the course of the train anxiously, trying hard to decipher the names of the stations which they passed without stopping.
‘Nancy, papa! — Here’s Nancy!’
M. Bassinet rammed his pipe with a powerful thumb, and woke the sleepers.
‘ Well! We’ve come through without a collision! — Mâme Bassinet, I’m not finding fault, but ever since we left the Gare de l‘Est, what have n’t you given us in the way of music! The orchestra of the Garde Republicaine is n’t in it with you! — But let’s be serious. We’re here. We must be ready for anything. The bundles are numbered — everybody carry his own!’
They were bumping over the switches. The brakes squeaked; the wheels slowed up. M. Bassinet polished the buttons of his raiment with his sleeve, settled his cravat, and gave his glazed hat a rakish tilt.
‘Let’s be getting out. The head of the family first.’ Then, with a severe countenance, ‘We must mind our manners; here, we are at the front.'
The mechanics, who had got up early on purpose, were decorating the interior of the hangar called ‘Bessonneau,’ after its builder, where the religious ceremony was to take place. Chignole’s officers, wishing to show him a special mark of their affection and esteem, had decided to give him an out-and-out ‘aviation’ wedding, and therefore to celebrate it in his unit.
A biplane spread its wings above the altar where the priest was to officiate. Behind him, in the alcove, ‘Fatty’ and ‘Hurricane Harry’ repeated one last time, under their breath, a ‘Panis angelicus.’ ‘Fatty’ was a little rolypoly man, with a head like a billiard ball, eyes like marbles, a pot-belly, and legs the shape of stovepipes. A chorister in a church at Versailles, he had a pleasant, though nasal voice. ‘Hurricane Harry’ had been conceived all in one dimension: he was long, with a big nose as sharp as a razor. He did not walk — he cleft, he pricked, he pierced. A musical clown in civil life, he was a virtuoso upon a violin made of a cigarbox, a broom-handle, and strings of a sort. These two, pilot and observer respectively in Chignole’s squad, had planned an agreeable surprise for him, by combining their talents.
Midday: automobiles, animated groups, hubbub. The procession made its way with solemnity from the mayor’s house to the hangar. At the head walked the Bassinet of this great occasion, apoplectic in an extremely tall celluloid collar, his eye moist, his moustache bristling with emotion. Sophie’s little gloved hand lay lightly on his great knotty arm; her blonde hair was braided In a crown; although embarrassed, yet she smiled under her veil.
‘The pretty little darling!’ exclaimed Mimile as she passed by. ‘She’s like a flower! I can understand that kind of marriage.’
Behind, Chignole strutted to conceal his anguish. The violent beating of his heart shook his decorations on their new ribbons. He escorted Madame Bassinet, scintillating in her trained dress of garnet velvet, trimmed with bugles. A huge bird brooded on her hat.
Dazzled, staggered, upset by this adventure, for which forty years of office life had left him unprepared, M. Fondu felt as if a trap-door would open and swallow him up at his next step. Nevertheless, in his best manner, he gave his arm to ’Maman Chignole,’ very distinguished in her neat and simple toilette. Behind came Papa Charles, Frangipane, Flagada, and the noisy crowd of all their comrades, in variegated uniforms.
The ceremony began. ‘Fatty’s’ sacred song, assisted by the accompaniment of ‘Hurricane Harry,’ rose sublime above the bent heads. The big guns, faraway, played a basso profunda.
‘Those guys sure can warble!' murmured Chignole, gazing, deeply moved, at the little figure, so white and delicate, which knelt beside him.
M. Bassinet contemplated the captain, the officers, counted up the crosses, the medals, the palms, and plumed himself on the honor which was being paid his family. Ah, if the lodgers in the house could see all this! They would undoubtedly pay up more promptly, and not invoke the moratorium. They would have some respect for their concierges.
Madame Bassinet wept silently. Her tears fell on the fine missal which she had not carried since her marriage, and which still smelt of the camphor from the wardrobe in which she kept her old treasures. ‘Maman Chignole’ prayed. M. Fondu rolled his bewildered eyes.
Immediately after the benediction there was a sudden hurly-burly, and an excited secretary made his way to the captain.
‘Communication from G.H.Q. In reprisal for the bombarding of open towns, a raid on Metz.’
The chief raised his hand, and the hangar was emptied immediately. Everybody hustled, running to his own machine. ‘Hurricane Harry’ tossed his violin to M. Fondu, who was gaping at all this madness. ‘Fatty’ hummed the words of the Marseillaise to the tune of the Veni Creator. Chignole, caught in the general fever, would have darted off despite Sophie, whose fingers clung to his hand, but the captain called him back peremptorily.
‘Ah, no, my boy, not you — you’re on leave. To-day you belong to your wife. France would not have you so unfaithful.’
While the planes, with engines purring gayly, rose one by one, drunken with sun and light, and dived toward the frontier between the Moselle and the Seille, Chignole and the civilians went down to Nancy. He was happy — yes, he was happy — but why did the ring that shone on his finger suddenly feel heavy? Ah, it is hard to love, to bind one’s self, and to fight!
That night, the dining-room of the hotel, where the wedding feast took place, was stormed by the same noisy band of the morning. They sat down, and Frangipane was already casting longing eyes at a cake plate.
‘Two people are absent,’ M. Bassinet announced, pointing to the empty places.
There was an abrupt silence, then the voice of Papa Charles rose, deep and sad: ‘It is “Fatty” and “Hurricane Harry.” They will not be here. They were left behind.’
The deep forest is stirred this evening by a thousand noises. The wind flutters the flames of torches held by soldiers in gray-green uniform. They light up fitfully a tragic tangle of wood and metal that men are methodically trying to clear up. In its fall, the aeroplane has mowed down branches of trees, and the earth is strewn with leaves and twigs. Someone gives brief commands. More lights are brought and the corpses are revealed. Death has respected their faces. With eyes closed, they seem to sleep. The bodies are imprisoned within the machine, which holds them as if it would never let them go. The lugubrious workmen try to free them from their bonds, but they are so crushed in their fur coats that there is no chance of getting them out whole. The linen of the wings hangs in rags, tattered and torn. A cockade in three colors, almost whole, waves from the top of a pine tree, like a challenge to fate. A saw creaks on a small aluminum bar beneath which an arm is caught. The clenched hand, on which the blood has dried in blackish flakes, still threatens. Now, on the stretchers, there are only two dead weights that make the bearers stagger.
Ditches at the edge of a sunken road. The smell of upturned earth, of trampled moss, of torn roots losing their sap. A picket doing the fast honors to the dead. ‘Fatty’ and ‘Hurricane Harry’ rest in German soil.
The dinner proceeded. Flagada went through his repertoire, and then imitated Mayol and Sarah Bernhardt in turn. The captain made a little speech in honor of the bride and groom: a simple little speech, but it touched all hearts.
M. Bassinet would have responded with the formal address which he had prepared beforehand and learned by heart; but the champagne, although it made him very happy, had wiped the words from his memory. Nevertheless, he rose, his goblet trembling in his hand.
‘Captain, I shall say nothing; but my silence will speak. Do you understand my silence?’
And he sat down amid loud applause, under the impression that he had been quoting from Lamartine.
‘I’m so glad he stopped there,’ murmured Madame Bassinet in Papa Charles’s ear. ‘If he had once twisted himself up in his words, the war would have ended before he got through.’
‘Maman Chignole’ gazed down at the photograph-brooch which fastened her waist, and smiled at the twin medallions of her husband and her son. They did not look like father and child, but like two brothers. How proud the dear departed would have been to be present at this glorification of his little son! But would his happiness be unsullied, complete? Would he not resent with her the grim sadness masked beneath this festival? For many of these merry-makers the hours are numbered. His son perhaps is one of them.
‘Poor darling! I wish I might keep you; defend you! If it were only blood that were needed, would that they might take the blood of us who have lived, who are worn out! Would that the parents might be sacrificed, the children spared! Not him — me — me — no longer good for anything — not him!'
This is what the imperceptible quiver of her lips really said.
M. Fondu, emerging from his confusion, was even about to get on his feet, when he conceived the original idea of questioning Flagada about aviation. And Flagada, fluent to a degree, drowned him beneath the flood of slang current in the fifth arm of the service. M. Fondu, submerged, had only the strength to stammer, ‘G-g-gas!’
Frangipane gathered together by ingenious manœuvres the plates of cakes, passed them in review, made his choice, and provisioned himself for a future emergency.
Suddenly the sinister bellowing of a siren hushed the voices, arrested the laughter.
‘One blast. — That’s only one plane.’
They went to the windows, and saw a biplane of the guard rise from the plateau, and, passing over them, light its beacons to salute them. The searchlights revolved; in the direction of the lines there were flashes from shells.
‘ It ought to be visible. The call came from Frouard. — Now! — the plateau battery is firing!’
But, immediately, the firing began to come at longer intervals. The hammering died away — stopped.
‘Merely a warning. — A stray plane, or a witty Boche, come to remind us that it’s time to leave our young couple.’ And the captain gave the signal for breaking up.
The night was mild and white. The cathedral threw the lengthening shadow of its little bell-towers on the stones of the square. Night lamps revealed peaceful interiors between the half-open Persian blinds. The wind brought with it the smell of lilacs and acacias from the gardens. The intoxication of spring touched the young men, brushing them lightly. The moon, the lights, and the sweet smells bewitched them, mingling so indistinguishably that the darkness seemed mauve because it smelt of lilacs, and the night was pale because it was fragrant with acacia. Just when they had crossed the bridge of Essey, a carriage drew up, with Mimile crouching rabbit-fashion on the footboard.
‘Cap’n there?’ he cried.
‘Yes. Anything the matter?’
‘The Boche who flew over, dropped a bag that fell on the 75 near the telemeter. There was a letter in it which announced that ‘Fatty’ and ‘Hurricane Harry’ had been brought down by one of their men and killed in the fall.’
Death, forgotten for the moment, gripped them anew. They felt her very close to them, prowling near them, in the dark corners, in the echo of their footsteps. Their shoulders drooped and they stared at the ground as if they had stumbled upon their own graves. Presently, as they climbed up the hillside by slippery bypaths, the trio, the rear-guard, exchanged ideas.
‘Funny to be only three of us!’
‘Chignole’s a quitter.’
‘You’ll see, he won’t be the same. Idiotic idea to get married during the war. Chignole’s a fool.’
But Papa Charles shook his head. ‘No. no; the fool is the wisest of us. If Chignole stays out here, — when it’s over, — at least he won’t die utterly. He’s the only one of us four to give hostages to fortune, and he’ll fight all the better because he’s defending his own interests, his own property, in concrete form.’
‘Just the same, old chap, a bird ought not to have a string round its claw. By jinks, we have our feelings too — you bet! — but no ties for mine; it only makes the struggle more painful and difficult. If we’re going to be sparrows — better have sparrows’ hearts.’
Chignole and Sophie were lingering behind the hotel, in the arbor in the garden.
‘Above all, my pet, don’t worry. The war won’t last as long as the taxes. When the play is played out, I shall fall on my feet and get a good job. You see what fine friends I have. Don’t be scared. The Boches won’t get me. In the first place, Papa Charles is an ace — and besides, he’s a lucky dog. — Me, too.’
Sophie believed in him. He was no longer the common, bumptious kid, her rather vulgar comrade of Montmartre, her noisy escort on suburban Sundays, grumbling because he had to carry the crochet-bag of lunch. War had transformed him. He had gained in dignity and manliness, and had acquired a determined carriage, vigorous and erect. He was strong; he was handsome; he had fulfilled her dream of him; and she seemed to herself a very poor little thing beside his splendor.
‘ My husband — you are my husband now! ’
‘Little wife! Little, little wife!’
Her fingers played with his hair.
A tremendous explosion shook the air.
‘The 380’s over Nancy!’
A shell had knocked out the front of the hotel, so that from top to bottom the rooms were entirely disclosed. Firemen with hatchets, soldiers with torches, ran about in the ruins, mingling with the guests of the hotel, who had been caught in their night clothes. ‘ Maman Chignole ' had found her children unharmed, like herself. On the first floor M. Bassinet, in his drawers, but with his glazed hat shoved firmly down on his ears, held up a sheet before Madame Bassinet, to hide her scanty apparel from the crowd.
‘The Kaiser must have heard we were spending the night here.’
As for M. Fondu, he had tumbled downstairs into the cellar, and awaited the turn of events, at the bottom of a trunk.
The railroad station at Nancy. Before the ticket-window, M. Bassinet, passing his retinue in review.
‘Come, come, children! No sadness! Self-control’s the word! Take pattern by yours truly. What if last night, we experienced unpleasant sensations! Nevertheless, what glory for us — civilians! Ah, ah! Think of the tales I shall tell my cronies in town! And the absolute proofs I can produce of the truth of what I tell them!’
He drew from the depths of his vestpocket a piece of a shell.
‘You must have it mounted as a cravat pin, father-in-law.’
‘I also can show proofs,’ murmured the plaintive M. Fondu, mournfully displaying his stovepipe hat reduced to an accordion.
‘Step lively, please,’ said a guard.
The Paris express at half-past seven in the morning.
‘Let’s choose a compartment well toward the middle of the car, between the trucks. Get in first, Sophie, so we can hand you the bundles. Oh, little daughter, little daughter — but you are absent-minded this morning! However, everybody understands!’ added M. Bassinet, a merry twinkle in his eye.
At the bottom of his heart the good man had little desire to laugh, but he knew he must be diverting, or the parting would be gloomy.
‘Monsieur Papa Charles, you won’t forget to give my regards to your captain and your comrades, especially Messieurs Flagada and Frangipane. However, I shall come back. When I am with you I feel young again. Great guns! I could almost believe that I also — yes, even I — belonged to the aviation corps and that I was going to smack their dirty mugs!’
During this harangue, Chignole had surreptitiously joined Sophie in the compartment. They smiled at each other, and held back their tears for each other’s sake.
4 You ’ll write me often ? ’
‘You’ll be careful?’
‘He’ll be prudent, dear little madame, I promise you,’ declared Papa Charles, putting his head in at the window.
Madame Bassinet and ‘Maman Chignole’ pretended to follow M. Bassinet’s patriotic discourse religiously, but in reality they did not hear him at all. They felt frightfully alone, shut up within themselves.
Sophie no longer belongs to you, Madame Bassinet, but to this young man who loves her and who, involuntarily, already makes her suffer, since he must stay here, and she must leave him.
And you, ‘Maman Chignole,’ already widowed, henceforth you will have no child. You have given your son twenty years of your life, the most beautiful years; you even gave up the idea of marrying again, for his sake; and now his heart turns first to Sophie. He belongs to his wife and to the war. What of your share in him, paid for by your toil, your unhappiness, your self-sacrifice? Shut up in themselves, they felt frightfully alone, and they drew close together—two poor forlorn old women.
‘All aboard!' Doors slammed; there were cries, whistles, the noise of escaping steam, wavings of handkerchiefs, good-byes. Then a great silence beneath the station’s smoky canopy. Yonder, where the rails seem to join, an indistinct mass diminishes, fades, and disappears around the first turn.
In the motor-car which is taking them back to the plateau, Papa Charles respects Chignole’s silence. The fields of rye, beneath the wind, look like the sea in autumn, silver-green. In the blossoming hedges, butterflies, giddy with sunshine, rest heavily on the flower-petals. Large stones, where lizards are sunning themselves, seem encrusted with emeralds. Water runs through the trembling grass. The two men felt as if they tasted and savored the life of every living thing, breathing in the summer with all their strength, as if it were a heavy perfume.
‘Your turn on patrol,’ said the secretary when they got back to the escadrille.
‘So much the better.’
Occupation, work, that’s the antidote for homesickness. Hardly had they come up to their biplane when Chignole began to call, ‘Mimile! Mimile!—I bet that blockhead is still lying out on the grass, gazing up into the trees. Will you look at the mill! Covered with oil! — Mimile!’
‘You know very well that he went up with me yesterday.’
‘What of that? Would it break his back to give it a brushing up? One more lazybones born on a Sunday. I’ll give him a piece of my mind. I don’t go up in a bus in that condition.’
‘Yes, you do. Listen: the train for Paris stops at the Frouard station some little time, to punch the tickets. Well — during our patrol — an easy loop — and whoop! We’ll dive over them and give them a surprise.’
‘ Papa Charles, you ’re an ace of aces! ’
M. Bassinet had substituted carpetslippers for his boots.
‘Come, make yourselves comfortable! Mâme Bassinet, don’t you want to take off your corsets? — No? I won’t insist, but you don’t know how to travel. Fondu, suppose you take advantage of the stop to give me the basket.’
‘You’re going to begin to eat already ? ’
‘Mâme Bassinet, when we eat we don’t think; it’s always that way.’
Sophie had not taken her eyes from the plateau at the foot of which the train had halted.
‘There they are! There they are!’
‘What? Who?’ cried M. Bassinet, with his mouth full and a wine bottle between his knees.
An airplane rose, went down again, turned in graceful evolutions. With one bound, M. Bassinet was at the door. ‘It’s they! It’s they, sure enough! I can make out the figure on their cockpit.’ Every head went out of the window. ‘Yes, ladies and gentlemen,’ he explained to the neighboring compartments, ‘it’s my son-in-law and his boss. In other words, two aces, up there, giving you this grand free exhibition.’
There was a cry of horror.
‘Don’t look, little daughter; don’t look!’ shouted M. Bassinet, covering Sophie’s face with his hands.
The biplane was crashing down in flames.
The sun, already high above the horizon, heated the strata of air unequally, and besides, the biplane was very unsteady, as there was almost no wind.
‘Would n’t this jar you!’
‘See her toboggan!’
With no air to hold up its wings, the machine fell straight down like a stone, and grazed the bell-tower of Dommartemont.
‘Papa Charles, you must acknowledge, that that’s no way to enter a church.’
Papa Charles by light, combined movements of joy-stick and rudderbar, subdued the restive bird as a horseman alternately pulls on the bit and gives the horse his head.
‘Luckily the engine’s holding out. But for that we should go head over heels, and then what!’
‘Five hundred metres — it’s working. We’ll push toward the lines to see if there are any Boches reported — then half a turn — and we’ll make for Frouard.’
‘As you like. But do you think we’ll catch their train ?'
‘You don’t allow for the fact that we are frisking along at one hundred and thirty an hour, Mister Chignole.’
A road over which vehicles creep. A village of ruined houses. A mangled forest. Fields torn by shells which have turned up from the depths of the earth a bright clay, whose color glares sharply against the uniform brown of the soil. Before them, at their level, four white puff-balls bloom and burst. Chignole examines the sector carefully with his field-glass.
‘Nothing in sight. Still, let’s examine that little bundle of filth over yonder.’
They dive towards a black cloud with copper-colored edges, which spread over the blue. They turn around it, fly over it, then, letting themselves fall into the very middle of it, they go through it from one side to the other.
‘Empty as an open purse!’
Next, with the wind at their backs, they return above Nancy. The fortress of Frouard traces upon the surrounding forest the regular star of its fortifications, like a seal in soft wax. The shining parallel rails follow the windings of the river. The train has stopped at the little station.
‘ Do we go down ?'
‘Sure! We want them to know it’s really us.’
The earth approaches. The train grows larger.
‘Go to it, old chap! Do your prettiest!’
The biplane noses up, makes a loop, then glides easily on one wing. They see handkerchiefs and hats waving along the length of the train.
‘I say, Chignole, they ’re in the fourth car, are n’t they?’ No answer. ‘You might speak when you’re spoken to.’
Papa Charles looks round, but sees Chignole’s feet where his face should be; for he is lying flat on his stomach in the cockpit, his head hidden among the cylinders.
4 What’s happened ? ’
Chignole comes to his knees, his nose sniffing the air uneasily.
’It may be only a notion, but it smells like something burning.’
The words are not out of his mouth when a white jet of flame spurts from the engine and licks at the upper plane.
Fire! — Their throats contract, their eyes start, their hands clench. — Fire! — A vision of horror, wakened by memories! — Fire! To fall like a torch! — To explode like a comet! — Fire! — Comrades roasted; the flames contending for them in the midst of charred rubbish, with the oil and the burning petrol pouring over them, from the staved-in tanks! Fire! — Fire!
Papa Charles plays his last trick. He closes the petrol and blocks the gasthrottle to the last notch, trying in this way, by a violent inhalation, at one breath to exhaust the petrol from the cylinders and to hinder the fire.
‘Nothing doing! It’s a rubber pipe for carrying the oil that has slipped, and the exhaust has fired it.'
The flame, waving and spreading nimbly, licks the flippers and the elevator, whose linen is beginning to peel off. Papa Charles prefers a smash to a bonfire. He pushes the rudder-bar as far to one side as it will go and pushes the control-stick to the opposite side. There is a glissade, the biplane drops over the wood like a meteor. There is a crash, an explosion, a series of bumps, then silence.
Papa Charles opens his eyes, which he had closed in terror. He is astride the upper branch of a pine. Beside him. Chignole, suspended by the slack of his trousers, waggles his arms and legs as if swimming. Below them, their machine is burning up.
‘Well! — She flew!’
‘Ah, Papa Charles, now I know there’s a good God!’
On the station platform, after a moment of stupor, the travelers gaze compassionately at the Bassinets. ‘ Maman Chignole ’ and Madame Bassinet have put aside their own grief, to care for Sophie, whose fixed eyes betray her anguish of mind. M. Fondu turns his hat in his hand and murmurs disconnected words. M. Bassinet had cursed high heaven, but now he is weeping heavily, noisily, as men weep who are unused to tears.
’All aboard! All aboard! No one can stay here! Military territory!’ cry the military police.
They get back into their compartments mechanically, like herded cattle. But while the train puffs, an automobile comes up with a rush. Flagada is driving, and beside him Frangipane, standing up, crazy with joy, flourishes his hat.
‘They’re all right! They’re saved!’
Everybody embraces everybody else, and M. Bassinet, with tears still undried, begins to scold his party.
' What’s the matter with you? I told you they’d come out right-side up.’
‘Yes, yes; how foolish of us to cry!' sobs M. Fondu.
(To be continued.)