The Street of the First Shell - I
"Be of Good Cheer, the Sullen Month will die,
And a young Moon requite us by and by:
Look how the Old one, meagre, bent, and wan
With age and Fast, is fainting from the sky."
The room was already dark. The high roofs opposite cut off what little remained of the December daylight. The girl drew her chair nearer the window, and choosing a large needle, threaded it, knotting the thread over her fingers. Then she smoothed the baby garment across her knees, and bending, bit off the thread and drew the smaller needle from where it rested in the hem. When she had brushed away the stray threads and bits of lace, she laid it again over her knees caressingly. Then she slipped the threaded needle from her corsage and passed it through a button, but as the button spun down the thread, her hand faltered, the thread snapped, and the button rolled across the floor. She raised her head. Her eyes were fixed on a strip of waning light above the chimneys. From somewhere in the city came sounds like the distant beating of drums, and beyond, far beyond, a vague muttering, now growing, swelling, rumbling in the distance like the pounding of surf upon the rocks, now like the surf again, receding, growling, menacing. The cold had become intense, a bitter piercing cold which strained and snapped at joist and beam and turned the slush of yesterday to flint. From the street below every sound broke sharp and metallic—the clatter of sabots, the rattle of shutters or the rare sound of a human voice. The air was heavy, weighted with the black cold as with a pall. To breathe was painful, to move an effort.
In the desolate sky there was something that wearied, in the brooding clouds, something that saddened. It penetrated the freezing city cut by the freezing river, the splendid city with its towers and domes, its quays and bridges and its thousand spires. It entered the squares, it seized the avenues and the palaces, stole across bridges and crept among the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter, grey under the grey of the December sky. Sadness, utter sadness. A fine icy sleet was falling, powdering the pavement with a tiny crystalline dust. It sifted against the window-panes and drifted in heaps along the sill. The light at the window had nearly failed, and the girl bent low over her work. Presently she raised her head, brushing the curls from her eyes.
"Don't forget to clean your palette."
He said, "All right," and picking up the palette, sat down upon the floor in front of the stove. His head and shoulders were in the shadow, but the firelight fell across his knees and glimmered red on the blade of the palette-knife. Full in the firelight beside him stood a colour-box. On the lid was carved,
École des Beaux Arts
This inscription was ornamented with an American and a French flag.
The sleet blew against the window-panes, covering them with stars and diamonds, then, melting from the warmer air within, ran down and froze again in fern-like traceries.
A dog whined and the patter of small paws sounded on the zinc behind the stove.
"Jack, dear, do you think Hercules is hungry?"
The patter of paws was redoubled behind the stove.
"He's whining," she continued nervously, "and if it isn't because he's hungry it is because—"
Her voice faltered. A loud humming filled the air, the windows vibrated.
"Oh, Jack," she cried, "another—" but her voice was drowned in the scream of a shell tearing through the clouds overhead.
"That is the nearest yet," she murmured.
"Oh, no," he answered cheerfully, "it probably fell way over by Montmartre," and as she did not answer, he said again with exaggerated unconcern, "They wouldn't take the trouble to fire at the Latin Quarter; anyway they haven't a battery that can hurt it."
After a while she spoke up brightly: "Jack, dear, when are you going to take me to see Monsieur West's statues?"
"I will bet," he said, throwing down his palette and walking over to the window beside her, "that Colette has been here to-day."
"Why?" she asked, opening her eyes very wide. Then, "Oh, it's too bad!—really, men are tiresome when they think they know everything! And I warn you that if Monsieur West is vain enough to imagine that Colette—"
From the north another shell came whistling and quavering through the sky, passing above them with long-drawn screech which left the windows singing.
"That," he blurted out, "was too near for comfort."
They were silent for a while, then he spoke again gaily: "Go on, Sylvia, and wither poor West;" but she only sighed, "Oh, dear, I can never seem to get used to the shells."
He sat down on the arm of the chair beside her.
Her scissors fell jingling to the floor; she tossed the unfinished frock after them, and putting both arms about his neck drew him down into her lap.
"Don't go out to-night, Jack."
He kissed her uplifted face; "You know I must; don't make it hard for me."
"But when I hear the shells and—and know you are out in the city—"
"But they all fall in Montmartre—"
"They may all fall in the Beaux Arts; you said yourself that two struck the Quai d'Orsay—"
"Jack, have pity on me! Take me with you!"
"And who will there be to get dinner?"
She rose and flung herself on the bed.
"Oh, I can't get used to it, and I know you must go, but I beg you not to be late to dinner. If you knew what I suffer! I—I—cannot help it, and you must be patient with me, dear."
He said, "It is as safe there as it is in our own house."
She watched him fill for her the alcohol lamp, and when he had lighted it and had taken his hat to go, she jumped up and clung to him in silence. After a moment he said: "Now, Sylvia, remember my courage is sustained by yours. Come, I must go!" She did not move, and he repeated: "I must go." Then she stepped back and he thought she was going to speak and waited, but she only looked at him, and, a little impatiently, he kissed her again, saying: "Don't worry, dearest."
When he had reached the last flight of stairs on his way to the street a woman hobbled out of the house-keeper's lodge waving a letter and calling: "Monsieur Jack! Monsieur Jack! this was left by Monsieur Fallowby!"
He took the letter, and leaning on the threshold of the lodge, read it:
"I believe Braith is dead broke and I'm sure Fallowby is. Braith swears he isn't, and Fallowby swears he is, so you can draw your own conclusions. I've got a scheme for a dinner, and if it works, I will let you fellows in.
"P.S.—Fallowby has shaken Hartman and his gang, thank the Lord! There is something rotten there,—or it may be he's only a miser.
"P.P.S.—I'm more desperately in love than ever, but I'm sure she does not care a straw for me."
"All right," said Trent, with a smile, to the concierge; "but tell me, how is Papa Cottard?"
The old woman shook her head and pointed to the curtained bed in the lodge.
"Père Cottard!" he cried cheerily, "how goes the wound to-day?"
He walked over to the bed and drew the curtains. An old man was lying among the tumbled sheets.
"Better?" smiled Trent.
"Better," repeated the man wearily; and, after a pause, "Have you any news, Monsieur Jack?"
"I haven't been out to-day. I will bring you any rumour I may hear, though goodness knows I've got enough of rumours," he muttered to himself. Then aloud: "Cheer up; you're looking better."
"And the sortie?"
"Oh, the sortie, that's for this week. General Trochu sent orders last night."
"It will be terrible."
"It will be sickening," thought Trent as he went out into the street and turned the corner toward the rue de Seine; "slaughter, slaughter, phew! I'm glad I'm not going."
The street was almost deserted. A few women muffled in tattered military capes crept along the frozen pavement, and a wretchedly clad gamin hovered over the sewer-hole on the corner of the Boulevard. A rope around his waist held his rags together. From the rope hung a rat, still warm and bleeding.
"There's another in there," he yelled at Trent; "I hit him but he got away."
Trent crossed the street and asked: "How much?"
"Two francs for a quarter of a fat one; that's what they give at the St. Germain Market."
A violent fit of coughing interrupted him, but he wiped his face with the palm of his hand and looked cunningly at Trent.
"Last week you could buy a rat for six francs, but," and here he swore vilely, "the rats have quit the rue de Seine and they kill them now over by the new hospital. I'll let you have this for seven francs; I can sell it for ten in the Isle St. Louis."
"You lie," said Trent, "and let me tell you that if you try to swindle anybody in this quarter the people will make short work of you and your rats."
He stood a moment eyeing the gamin, who pretended to snivel. Then he tossed him a franc, laughing. The child caught it, and thrusting it into his mouth wheeled about to the sewer-hole. For a second he crouched, motionless, alert, his eyes on the bars of the drain, then leaping forward he hurled a stone into the gutter, and Trent left him to finish a fierce grey rat that writhed squealing at the mouth of the sewer.
"Suppose Braith should come to that," he thought; "poor little chap;" and hurrying, he turned in the dirty passage des Beaux Arts and entered the third house to the left.
"Monsieur is at home," quavered the old concierge.
Home? A garret absolutely bare, save for the iron bedstead in the corner and the iron basin and pitcher on the floor.
West appeared at the door, winking with much mystery, and motioned Trent to enter. Braith, who was painting in bed to keep warm, looked up, laughed, and shook hands.
The perfunctory question was answered as usual by: "Nothing but the cannon."
Trent sat down on the bed.
"Where on earth did you get that?" he demanded, pointing to a half-finished chicken nestling in a wash-basin.
"Are you millionaires, you two? Out with it."
Braith, looking a little ashamed, began, "Oh, it's one of West's exploits," but was cut short by West, who said he would tell the story himself.
"You see, before the siege, I had a letter of introduction to a 'type' here, a fat banker, German-American variety. You know the species, I see. Well, of course I forgot to present the letter, but this morning, judging it to be a favourable opportunity, I called on him.
"The villain lives in comfort;—fires, my boy!—fires in the ante-rooms! The Buttons finally condescends to carry my letter and card up, leaving me standing in the hallway, which I did not like, so I entered the first room I saw and nearly fainted at the sight of a banquet on a table by the fire. Down comes Buttons, very insolent. No, oh, no, his master, 'is not at home, and in fact is too busy to receive letters of introduction just now; the siege, and many business difficulties—'
"I deliver a kick to Buttons, pick up this chicken from the table, toss my card on to the empty plate, and addressing Buttons as a species of Prussian pig, march out with the honours of war."
Trent shook his head.
"I forgot to say that Hartman often dines there, and I draw my own conclusions," continued West. "Now about this chicken, half of it is for Braith and myself, and half for Colette, but of course you will help me eat my part because I'm not hungry."
"Neither am I," began Braith, but Trent, with a smile at the pinched faces before him, shook his head saying, "What nonsense! You know I'm never hungry!"
West hesitated, reddened, and then slicing off Braith's portion, but not eating any himself, said good-night, and hurried away to number 470 rue Serpente, where lived a pretty girl named Colette, orphan after Sedan, and Heaven alone knew where she got the roses in her cheeks, for the siege came hard on the poor.
"That chicken will delight her, but I really believe she's in love with West," said Trent. Then walking over to the bed: "See here, old man, no dodging, you know, how much have you left?"
The other hesitated and flushed.
"Come, old chap," insisted Trent.
Braith drew a purse from beneath his bolster, and handed it to his friend with a simplicity that touched him.
"Seven sons," he counted; "you make me tired! Why on earth don't you come to me? I take it d——d ill, Braith! How many times must I go over the same thing and explain to you that because I have money it is my duty to share it, and your duty and the duty of every American to share it with me? You can't get a cent, the city's blockaded, and the American Minister has his hands full with all the German riff-raff and deuce knows what! Why don't you act sensibly?"
"I—I will, Trent, but it's an obligation that perhaps I can never even in part repay, I'm poor and—"
"Of course you'll pay me! If I were a usurer I would take your talent for security. When you are rich and famous—"
"All right, only no more monkey business."
He slipped a dozen gold pieces into the purse, and tucking it again under the mattress smiled at Braith.
"How old are you?" he demanded.
Trent laid his hand lightly on his friend's shoulder. "I'm twenty-two, and I have the rights of a grandfather as far as you are concerned. You'll do as I say until you're twenty-one."
"The siège will be over then, I hope," said Braith, trying to laugh, but the prayer in their hearts: "How long, O Lord, how long!" was answered by the swift scream of a shell soaring among the storm-clouds of that December night.