One Man's Initiation-1917 - novelonlinefull.com
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"And down with the Boches."
In the pale yellow light that came from among the dark clouds that pa.s.sed over the sky, the wine had the chilly gleam of yellow diamonds.
"Ah, you should have seen that road in 1916," said the schoolmaster, drawing a hand over his watery blue eyes. "That, you know, is the Voie Sacree, the sacred way that saved Verdun. All day, all day, a double line of camions went up, full of ammunition and ravitaillement and men."
"Oh, the poor boys, we saw so many go up," came the voice, dry as the rustling of the wind in the vine-leaves, of the grey old woman who stood leaning against the schoolmaster's chair, looking out through a gap in the trellis at the rutted road so thick with dust, "and never have we seen one of them come back."
"It was for France."
"But this was a nice village before the war. From Verdun to Bar-le-Duc, the Courrier des Postes used to tell us, there was no such village, so clean and with such fine orchards." The old woman leaned over the schoolmaster's shoulder, joining eagerly in the conversation.
"Even now the fruit is very fine," said Martin.
"But you soldiers, you steal it all," said the old woman, throwing out her arms. "You leave us nothing, nothing."
"We don't begrudge it," said the schoolmaster, "all we have is our country's."
"We shall starve then...."
As she spoke the gla.s.ses on the table shook. With a roar of heavy wheels and a grind of gears a camion went by.
"O good G.o.d!" The old woman looked out on to the road with terror in her face, blinking her eyes in the thick dust.
Roaring with heavy wheels, grinding with gears, throbbing with motors, camion after camion went by, slowly, stridently. The men packed into the camions had broken through the canvas covers and leaned out, waving their arms and shouting.
"Oh, the poor children," said the old woman, wringing her hands, her voice lost in the roar and the shouting.
"They should not destroy property that way," said the schoolmaster....
"Last year it was dreadful. There were mutinies."
Martin sat, his chair tilted back, his hands trembling, staring with compressed lips at the men who jolted by on the strident, throbbing camions. A word formed in his mind: tumbrils.
In some trucks the men were drunk and singing, waving their bidons in the air, shouting at people along the road, crying out all sorts of things: "Get to the front!" "Into the trenches with them!" "Down with the war!" In others they sat quiet, faces corpse-like with dust. Through the gap in the trellis Martin stared at them, noting intelligent faces, beautiful faces, faces brutally gay, miserable faces like those of sobbing drunkards.
At last the convoy pa.s.sed and the dust settled again on the rutted road.
"Oh, the poor children!" said the old woman. "They know they are going to death."
They tried to hide their agitation. The schoolmaster poured out more wine.
"Yes," said Martin, "there are fine orchards on the hills round here."
"You should be here when the plums are ripe," said the schoolmaster.
A tall bearded man, covered with dust to the eyelashes, in the uniform of a commandant, stepped into the garden.
"My dear friends!" He shook hands with the schoolmaster and the old woman and saluted the two Americans. "I could not pa.s.s without stopping a moment. We are going up to an attack. We have the honour to take the lead."
"You will have a gla.s.s of wine, won't you?"
"With great pleasure."
"Julie, fetch a bottle, you know which.... How is the morale?"
"I thought they looked a little discontented."
"No.... It's always like that.... They were yelling at some gendarmes.
If they strung up a couple it would serve them right, dirty beasts."
"You soldiers are all one against the gendarmes."
"Yes. We fight the enemy but we hate the gendarmes." The commandant rubbed his hands, drank his wine and laughed.
"Hah! There's the next convoy. I must go."
The commandant shrugged his shoulders, clicked his heels together at the garden gate, saluted, smiling, and was gone.
Again the village street was full of the grinding roar and throb of camions, full of a frenzy of wheels and drunken shouting.
"Give us a drink, you."
"We're the train de luxe, we are."
"Down with the war!"
And the old grey woman wrung her hands and said:
"Oh, the poor children, they know they are going to death!"
Martin, rolled up in his bedroll on the floor of the empty hayloft, woke with a start.
"Say, Howe!" Tom Randolph, who lay next him, was pressing his hand. "I think I heard a sh.e.l.l go over."
As he spoke there came a shrill, loudening whine, and an explosion that shook the barn. A little dirt fell down on Martin's face.
"Say, fellers, that was d.a.m.n near," came a voice from the floor of the barn.