The Street of the First Shell - II
West, standing in the doorway of a house in the rue Serpentine, was speaking angrily. He said he didn't care whether Hartman liked it or not; he was telling him, not arguing with him.
"You call yourself an American!" he sneered; "Berlin and hell are full of that kind of American. You come loafing about Colette with your pockets stuffed with white bread and beef, and a bottle of wine at thirty francs and you can't really afford to give a dollar to the American Ambulance and Public Assistance, which Braith does, and he's half starved!"
Hartman retreated to the curbstone, but West followed him, his face like a thunder-cloud. "Don't you dare to call yourself a countryman of mine," he growled,—"no,—nor an artist either! Artists don't worm themselves into the service of the Public Defence where they do nothing but feed like rats on the people's food! And I'll tell you now," he continued dropping his voice, for Hartman had started as though stung, "you might better keep away from that Alsatian Brasserie and the smug-faced thieves who haunt it. You know what they do with suspects!"
"You lie, you hound!" screamed Hartman, and flung the bottle in his hand straight at West's face. West had him by the throat in a second, and forcing him against the dead wall shook him wickedly.
"Now you listen to me," he muttered, through his clenched teeth. "You are already a suspect and—I swear—I believe you are a paid spy! It isn't my business to detect such vermin, and I don't intend to denounce you, but understand this! Colette don't like you and I can't stand you, and if I catch you in this street again I'll make it somewhat unpleasant. Get out, you sleek Prussian!"
Hartman had managed to drag a knife from his pocket, but West tore it from him and hurled him into the gutter. A gamin who had seen this burst into a peal of laughter, which rattled harshly in the silent street. Then everywhere windows were raised and rows of haggard faces appeared demanding to know why people should laugh in the starving city.
"Is it a victory?" murmured one.
"Look at that," cried West as Hartman picked himself up from the pavement, "look! you miser! look at those faces!" But Hartman gave him a look which he never forgot, and walked away without a word. Trent, who suddenly appeared at the corner, glanced curiously at West, who merely nodded toward his door saying, "Come in; Fallowby's upstairs."
"What are you doing with that knife?" demanded Fallowby, as he and Trent entered the studio.
West looked at his wounded hand, which still clutched the knife, but saying, "Cut myself by accident," tossed it into a corner and washed the blood from his fingers.
Fallowby, fat and lazy, watched him without comment, but Trent, half divining how things had turned, walked over to Fallowby smiling.
"I've a bone to pick with you!" he said.
"Where is it? I'm hungry," replied Fallowby with affected eagerness, but Trent, frowning, told him to listen.
"How much did I advance you a week ago?"
"Three hundred and eighty francs," replied the other, with a squirm of contrition.
"Where is it?"
Fallowby began a series of intricate explanations, which were soon cut short by Trent.
"I know; you blew it in;—you always blow it in. I don't care a rap what you did before the siege: I know you are rich and have a right to dispose of your money as you wish to, and I also know that, generally speaking, it is none of my business. But now it is my business, as I have to supply the funds until you get some more, which you won't until the siege is ended one way or another. I wish to share what I have, but I won't see it thrown out of the window. Oh, yes, of course I know you will reimburse me, but that isn't the question; and, anyway, it's the opinion of your friends, old man, that you will not be worse off for a little abstinence from fleshly pleasures. You are positively a freak in this famine-cursed city of skeletons!"
"I am rather stout," he admitted.
"Is it true you are out of money?" demanded Trent.
"Yes, I am," sighed the other.
"That roast sucking pig on the rue St. Honoré,—is it there yet?" continued Trent.
"Wh—at?" stammered the feeble one.
"Ah—I thought so! I caught you in ecstasy before that sucking pig at least a dozen times!"
Then laughing, he presented Fallowby with a roll of twenty franc pieces saying: "If these go for luxuries you must live on your own flesh," and went over to aid West, who sat beside the wash-basin binding up his hand.
West suffered him to tie the knot, and then said: "You remember, yesterday, when I left you and Braith to take the chicken to Colette."
"Chicken! Good heavens!" moaned Fallowby.
"Chicken," repeated West, enjoying Fallowby's grief;—"I—that is, I must explain that things are changed. Colette and I—are to be married—"
"What—what about the chicken?" groaned Fallowby.
"Shut up!" laughed Trent, and slipping his arm through West's, walked to the stairway.
"The poor little thing," said West, "just think, not a splinter of firewood for a week and wouldn't tell me because she thought I needed it for my clay figure. Whew! When I heard it I smashed that smirking clay nymph to pieces, and the rest can freeze and be hanged!" After a moment he added timidly: "Won't you call on your way down and say bon soir? It's No. 17."
"Yes," said Trent, and he went out softly closing the door behind.
He stopped on the third landing, lighted a match, scanned the numbers over the row of dingy doors, and knocked at No. 17.
"C'est toi Georges?" The door opened.
"Oh, pardon, Monsieur Jack, I thought it was Monsieur West," then blushing furiously, "Oh, I see you have heard! Oh, thank you so much for your wishes, and I'm sure we love each other very much,—and I'm dying to see Sylvia and tell her and—"
"And what?" laughed Trent.
"I am very happy," she sighed.
"He's pure gold," returned Trent, and then gaily: "I want you and George to come and dine with us to-night. It's a little treat,—you see to-morrow is Sylvia's fête. She will be nineteen. I have written to Thorne, and the Guernalecs will come with their cousin Odile. Fallowby has engaged not to bring anybody but himself."
The girl accepted shyly, charging him with loads of loving messages to Sylvia, and he said good-night.
He started up the street, walking swiftly, for it was bitter cold, and cutting across the rue de la Lune he entered the rue de Seine. The early winter night had fallen, almost without warning, but the sky was clear and myriads of stars glittered in the heavens. The bombardment had become furious—a steady rolling thunder from the Prussian cannon punctuated by the heavy shocks from Mont Valérien.
The shells streamed across the sky leaving trails like shooting stars, and now, as he turned to look back, rockets blue and red flared above the horizon from the Fort of Issy, and the Fortress of the North flamed like a bonfire.
"Good news!" a man shouted over by the Boulevard St. Germain. As if by magic the streets were filled with people,—shivering, chattering people with shrunken eyes.
"Jacques!" cried one. "The Army of the Loire!"
"Eh! mon vieux, it has come then at last! I told thee! I told thee! To-morrow—to-night—who knows?"
"Is it true? Is it a sortie?"
Some one said: "Oh, God—a sortie—and my son?" Another cried: "To the Seine? They say one can see the signals of the Army of the Loire from the Pont Neuf."
There was a child standing near Trent who kept repeating: "Mamma, Mamma, then to-morrow we may eat white bread?" and beside him, an old man swaying, stumbling, his shrivelled hands crushed to his breast, muttering as if insane.
"Could it be true? Who has heard the news? The shoemaker on the rue de Buci had it from a Mobile who had heard a Franctireur repeat it to a captain of the National Guard."
Trent followed the throng surging through the rue de Seine to the river.
Rocket after rocket clove the sky, and now, from Montmartre, the cannon clanged, and the batteries on Montparnasse joined in with a crash. The bridge was packed with people.
Trent asked: "Who has seen the signals of the Army of the Loire?"
"We are waiting for them," was the reply.
He looked toward the north. Suddenly the huge silhouette of the Arc de Triomphe sprang into black relief against the flash of a cannon. The boom of the gun rolled along the quay and the old bridge vibrated.
Again over by the Point du Jour a flash and heavy explosion shook the bridge, and then the whole eastern bastion of the fortifications blazed and crackled, sending a red flame into the sky.
"Has any one seen the signals yet?" he asked again.
"We are waiting," was the reply.
"Yes, waiting," murmured a man behind him, "waiting, sick, starved, freezing, but waiting. Is it a sortie? They go gladly. Is it to starve? They starve. They have no time to think of surrender. Are they heroes,—these Parisians? Answer me, Trent!"
The American Ambulance surgeon turned about and scanned the parapets of the bridge.
"Any news, Doctor," asked Trent mechanically.
"News?" said the doctor; "I don't know any;—I haven't time to know any. What are these people after?"
"They say that the Army of the Loire has signalled Mont Valérien."
"Poor devils." The doctor glanced about him for an instant, and then: "I'm so harried and worried that I don't know what to do. After the last sortie we had the work of fifty ambulances on our poor little corps. To-morrow there's another sortie, and I wish you fellows could come over to headquarters. We may need volunteers. How is madame?" he added abruptly.
"Well," replied Trent, "but she seems to grow more nervous every day. I ought to be with her now."
"Take care of her," said the doctor, then with a sharp look at the people: "I can't stop now—good-night!" and he hurried away muttering, "Poor devils!"
Trent leaned over the parapet and blinked at the black river surging through the arches. Dark objects, carried swiftly on the breast of the current, struck with a grinding tearing noise against the stone piers, spun around for an instant, and hurried away into the darkness. The ice from the Marne.
As he stood staring into the water, a hand was laid on his shoulder. "Hello, Southwark!" he cried, turning around; "this is a queer place for you!"
"Trent, I have something to tell you. Don't stay here,—don't believe in the Army of the Loire:" and the attaché of the American Legation slipped his arm through Trent's and drew him toward the Louvre.
"Then it's another lie!" said Trent bitterly.
"Worse—we know at the Legation—I can't speak of it. But that's not what I have to say. Something happened this afternoon. The Alsatian Brasserie was visited and an American named Hartman has been arrested. Do you know him?"
"I know a German who calls himself an American;—his name is Hartman."
"Well, he was arrested about two hours ago. They mean to shoot him."
"Of course we at the Legation can't allow them to shoot him off-hand, but the evidence seems conclusive."
"Is he a spy?"
"Well, the papers seized in his rooms are pretty damning proofs, and besides he was caught, they say, swindling the Public Food Committee. He drew rations for fifty, how, I don't know. He claims to be an American artist here, and we have been obliged to take notice of it at the Legation. It's a nasty affair."
"To cheat the people at such a time is worse than robbing the poor-box," cried Trent angrily. "Let them shoot him!"
"He's an American citizen."
"Yes, oh yes," said the other with bitterness. "American citizenship is a precious privilege when every goggle-eyed German—" His anger choked him.
Southwark shook hands with him warmly. "It can't be helped, we must own the carrion. I am afraid you may be called upon to identify him as an American artist," he said with a ghost of a smile on his deep-lined face; and walked away through the Cours la Reine.
Trent swore silently for a moment and then drew out his watch. Seven o'clock. "Sylvia will be anxious," he thought, and hurried back to the river. The crowd still huddled shivering on the bridge, a sombre pitiful congregation, peering out into the night for the signals of the Army of the Loire: and their hearts beat time to the pounding of the guns, their eyes lighted with each flash from the bastions, and hope rose with the drifting rockets.
A black cloud hung over the fortifications. From horizon to horizon the cannon smoke stretched in wavering bands, now capping the spires and domes with cloud, now blowing in streamers and shreds along the streets, now descending from the housetops, enveloping quays, bridges, and river, in a sulphurous mist. And through the smoke pall the lightning of the cannon played, while from time to time a rift above showed a fathomless black vault set with stars.
He turned again into the rue de Seine, that sad abandoned street, with its rows of closed shutters and desolate ranks of unlighted lamps. He was a little nervous and wished once or twice for a revolver, but the slinking forms which passed him in the darkness were too weak with hunger to be dangerous, he thought, and he passed on unmolested to his doorway. But there somebody sprang at his throat. Over and over the icy pavement he rolled with his assailant, tearing at the noose about his neck, and then with a wrench sprang to his feet.
"Get up," he cried to the other.
Slowly and with great deliberation, a small gamin picked himself out of the gutter and surveyed Trent with disgust.
"That's a nice clean trick," said Trent; "a whelp of your age! You'll finish against a dead wall! Give me that cord!"
The urchin handed him the noose without a word.
Trent struck a match and looked at his assailant. It was the rat-killer of the day before.
"H'm! I thought so," he muttered.
"Tiens, c'est toi?" said the gamin tranquilly.
The impudence, the overpowering audacity of the ragamuffin took Trent's breath away.
"Do you know, you young strangler," he gasped, "that they shoot thieves of your age?"
The child turned a passionless face to Trent. "Shoot, then."
That was too much, and he turned on his heel and entered his hotel.
Groping up the unlighted stairway, he at last reached his own landing and felt about in the darkness for the door. From his studio came the sound of voices, West's hearty laugh and Fallowby's chuckle, and at last he found the knob and, pushing back the door, stood a moment confused by the light.
"Hello, Jack!" cried West, "you're a pleasant creature, inviting people to dine and letting them wait. Here's Fallowby weeping with hunger—"
"Shut up," observed the latter, "perhaps he's been out to buy a turkey."
"He's been out garroting, look at his noose!" laughed Guernalec.
"So now we know where you get your cash!" added West; "vive le coup du Père François!"
Trent shook hands with everybody and laughed at Sylvia's pale face.
"I didn't mean to be late; I stopped on the bridge a moment to watch the bombardment. Were you anxious, Sylvia?"
She smiled and murmured, "Oh, no!" but her hand dropped into his and tightened convulsively.
"To the table!" shouted Fallowby, and uttered a joyous whoop.
"Take it easy," observed Thorne, with a remnant of manners; "you are not the host, you know."
Marie Guernalec, who had been chattering with Colette, jumped up and took Thorne's arm and Monsieur Guernalec drew Odile's arm through his.
Trent, bowing gravely, offered his own arm to Colette, West took in Sylvia, and Fallowby hovered anxiously in the rear.
"You march around the table three times singing the Marseillaise," explained Sylvia, "and Monsieur Fallowby pounds on the table and beats time."
Fallowby suggested that they could sing after dinner, but his protest was drowned in the ringing chorus—
Formez vos bataillons!"
Around the room they marched singing,
with all their might, while Fallowby with very bad grace, hammered on the table, consoling himself a little with the hope that the exercise would increase his appetite. Hercules, the black and tan, fled under the bed, from which retreat he yapped and whined until dragged out by Guernalec and placed in Odile's lap.
"And now," said Trent gravely, when everybody was seated, "listen!" and he read the menu.
Beef Soup à la Siège de Paris.
Sardines à la père Lachaise.
Rôti (Red Wine).
Fresh Beef à la sortie.
Canned Beans à la chasse-pot,
Canned Peas Gravelotte,
Cold Corned Beef à la Thieis,
Stewed Prunes à la Garibaldi.
Dried prunes—White bread,
Pipes and Cigarettes.
Fallowby applauded frantically, and Sylvia served the soup.
"Isn't it delicious?" sighed Odile.
Marie Guernalec sipped her soup in rapture.
"Not at all like horse, and I don't care what they say, horse doesn't taste like beef," whispered Colette to West. Fallowby, who had finished, began to caress his chin and eye the tureen.
"Have some more, old chap?" inquired Trent.
"Monsieur Fallowby cannot have any more," announced Sylvia; "I am saving this for the concierge." Fallowby transferred his eyes to the fish.
The sardines, hot from the grille, were a great success. While the others were eating Sylvia ran downstairs with the soup for the old concierge and her husband, and when she hurried back, flushed and breathless, and had slipped into her chair with a happy smile at Trent, that young man arose, and silence fell over the table. For an instant he looked at Sylvia and thought he had never seen her so beautiful.
"You all know," he began, "that to-day is my wife's nineteenth birthday—"
Fallowby, bubbling with enthusiasm, waved his glass in circles about his head to the terror of Odile and Colette, his neighbours, and Thorne, West and Guernalec refilled their glasses three times before the storm of applause which the toast of Sylvia had provoked, subsided.
Three times the glasses were filled and emptied to Sylvia, and again to Trent, who protested.
"This is irregular," he cried, "the next toast is to the twin Republics, France and America?"
"To the Republics! To the Republics!" they cried, and the toast was drunk amid shouts of "Vive la France! Vive l'Amérique! Vive la Nation!"
Then Trent, with a smile at West, offered the toast, "To a Happy Pair!" and everybody understood, and Sylvia leaned over and kissed Colette, while Trent bowed to West.
The beef was eaten in comparative calm, but when it was finished and a portion of it set aside for the old people below, Trent cried: "Drink to Paris! May she rise from her ruins and crush the invader!" and the cheers rang out, drowning for a moment the monotonous thunder of the Prussian guns.
Pipes and cigarettes were lighted, and Trent listened an instant to the animated chatter around him, broken by ripples of laughter from the girls or the mellow chuckle of Fallowby. Then he turned to West.
"There is going to be a sortie to-night," he said. "I saw the American Ambulance surgeon just before I came in and he asked me to speak to you fellows. Any aid we can give him will not come amiss."
Then dropping his voice and speaking in English, "As for me, I shall go out with the ambulance to-morrow morning. There is of course no danger, but it's just as well to keep it from Sylvia."
West nodded. Thorne and Guernalec, who had heard, broke in and offered assistance, and Fallowby volunteered with a groan.
"All right," said Trent rapidly,—"no more now, but meet me at Ambulance headquarters to-morrow morning at eight."
Sylvia and Colette, who were becoming uneasy at the conversation in English, now demanded to know what they were talking about.
"What does a sculptor usually talk about?" cried West, with a laugh.
Odile glanced reproachfully at Thorne, her fiancé.
"You are not French, you know, and it is none of your business, this war," said Odile with much dignity.
Thorne looked meek, but West assumed an air of outraged virtue.
"It seems," he said to Fallowby, "that a fellow cannot discuss the beauties of Greek sculpture in his mother tongue, without being openly suspected."
Colette placed her hand over his mouth and turning to Sylvia, murmured, "They are horridly untruthful, these men."
"I believe the word for ambulance is the same in both languages," said Marie Guernalec saucily; "Sylvia, don't trust Monsieur Trent."
"Jack," whispered Sylvia, "promise me—"
A knock at the studio door interrupted her.
"Come in!" cried Fallowby, but Trent sprang up, and opening the door, looked out. Then with a hasty excuse to the rest, he stepped into the hallway and closed the door.
When he returned he was grumbling.
"What is it, Jack?" cried West.
"What is it?" repeated Trent savagely; "I'll tell you what it is. I have received a dispatch from the American Minister to go at once and identify and claim, as a fellow-countryman and a brother artist, a rascally thief and a German spy!"
"Don't go," suggested Fallowby.
"If I don't they'll shoot him at once."
"Let them," growled Thorne.
"Do you fellows know who it is?"
"Hartman!" shouted West, inspired.
Sylvia sprang up deathly white, but Odile slipped her arm around her and supported her to a chair, saying calmly, "Sylvia has fainted,—it's the hot room,—bring some water."
Trent brought it at once.
Sylvia opened her eyes, and after a moment rose, and supported by Marie Guernalec and Trent, passed into the bedroom.
It was the signal for breaking up, and everybody came and shook hands with Trent, saying they hoped Sylvia would sleep it off and that it would be nothing.
When Marie Guernalec took leave of him, she avoided his eyes, but he spoke to her cordially and thanked her for her aid.
"Anything I can do, Jack?" inquired West, lingering, and then hurried downstairs to catch up with the rest.
Trent leaned over the banisters, listening to their footsteps and chatter, and then the lower door banged and the house was silent. He lingered, staring down into the blackness, biting his lips; then with an impatient movement, "I am crazy!" he muttered, and lighting a candle, went into the bedroom. Sylvia was lying on the bed. He bent over her, smoothing the curly hair on her forehead.
"Are you better, dear Sylvia?"
She did not answer, but raised her eyes to his. For an instant he met her gaze, but what he read there sent a chill to his heart and he sat down covering his face with his hands.
At last she spoke in a voice, changed and strained,—a voice which he had never heard, and he dropped his hands and listened, bolt upright in his chair.
"Jack, it has come at last. I have feared it and trembled,—ah! how often have I lain awake at night with this on my heart and prayed that I might die before you should ever know of it! For I love you, Jack, and if you go away I cannot live. I have deceived you;—it happened before I knew you, but since that first day when you found me weeping in the Luxembourg and spoke to me, Jack, I have been faithful to you in every thought and deed. I loved you from the first, and did not dare to tell you this—fearing that you would go away; and since then my love has grown—grown—and oh! I suffered!—but I dared not tell you. And now you know, but you do not know the worst. For him—now—what do I care? He was cruel—oh, so cruel!"
She hid her face in her arms.
"Must I go on? Must I tell you—can you not imagine, oh! Jack—"
He did not stir; his eyes seemed dead.
"I—I was so young, I knew nothing, and he said—said that he loved me—"
Trent rose and struck the candle with his clenched fist, and the room was dark.
The bells of St. Sulpice tolled the hour, and she started up, speaking with feverish haste,—"I must finish! When you told me you loved me—you—you asked me nothing; but then, even then, it was too late, and that other life which binds me to him, must stand for ever between you and me! For there is another whom he has claimed, and is good to. He must not die,—they cannot shoot him, for that other's sake!"
Trent sat motionless, but his thoughts ran on in an interminable whirl.
Sylvia, little Sylvia, who shared with him his student life,—who bore with him the dreary desolation of the siege without complaint,—this slender blue-eyed girl whom he was so quietly fond of, whom he teased or caressed as the whim suited, who sometimes made him the least bit impatient with her passionate devotion to him,—could this be the same Sylvia who lay weeping there in the darkness?
Then he clinched his teeth. "Let him die! Let him die!"—but then,—for Sylvia's sake, and,—for that other's sake,—Yes, he would go,—he must go,—his duty was plain before him. But Sylvia,—he could not be what he had been to her, and yet a vague terror seized him, now all was said. Trembling, he struck a light.
She lay there, her curly hair tumbled about her face, her small white hands pressed to her breast.
He could not leave her, and he could not stay. He never knew before that he loved her. She had been a mere comrade, this girl wife of his. Ah! he loved her now with all his heart and soul, and he knew it, only when it was too late. Too late? Why? Then he thought of that other one, binding her, linking her forever to the creature, who stood in danger of his life. With an oath he sprang to the door, but the door would not open,—or was it that he pressed it back,—locked it,—and flung himself on his knees beside the bed, knowing that he dared not for his life's sake leave what was his all in life.