The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter I. The Trench
A young man was shaving. His feet rested upon a broad plank embedded in mud, and the tiny glass in which he saw himself hung upon a wall of raw, reeking earth. A sky, somber and leaden, arched above him, and now and then flakes of snow fell in the sodden trench, but John Scott went on placidly with his task.
The face that looked back at him had been changed greatly in the last six months. The smoothness of early youth was gone--for the time--and serious lines showed about the mouth and eyes. His cheeks were thinner and there was a slight sinking at the temples, telling of great privations, and of dangers endured. But the features were much stronger. The six months had been in effect six years. The boy of Dresden had become the man of the trenches.
He finished, rubbed his hand over his face to satisfy himself that the last trace of young beard and mustache was gone, put away his shaving materials in a little niche that he had dug with his own hands in the wall of the trench, and turned to the Englishman.
"Am I all right, Carstairs?" he asked.
"You do very well. There's mud on your boots, but I suppose you can't help it. The melting snow in our trench makes soggy footing in spite of all we can do. But you're trim, Scott. That new gray uniform with the blue threads running through it becomes you. All the Strangers are thankful for the change. It's a great improvement over those long blue coats and baggy red trousers."
"But we don't have any chance to show 'em," said Wharton, who sat upon a small stool, reading a novel. "Did I ever think that war would come to this? Buried while yet alive! A few feet of cold and muddy trench in which to pass one's life! This is an English story I'm reading. The lovely Lady Ermentrude and the gallant Sir Harold are walking in the garden among the roses, and he's about to ask her the great question. There are roses, roses, and the deep green grass and greener oaks everywhere, with the soft English shadows coming and going over them. The birds are singing in the boughs. I suppose they're nightingales, but do nightingales sing in the daytime? And when I shut my book I see only walls of raw, red earth, and a floor, likewise of earth, but stickier and more hideous. Even the narrow strip of sky above our heads is the color of lead, and has nothing soft about it."
"If you'll stand up straight," said John, "maybe you'll see the rural landscape for which you're evidently longing."
"And catch a German bullet between the eyes! Not for me. While I was taking a trip down to the end of our line this morning I raised my head by chance above the edge of the trench, and quick as a wink a sharpshooter cut off one of my precious brown locks. I could have my hair trimmed that way if I were patient and careful enough. Ah, here comes a messenger!"
They heard a roar that turned to a shriek, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a black shadow passing over their heads. Then a huge shell burst behind them, and the air was filled with hissing fragments of steel. But in their five feet of earth they were untouched, although horrible fumes as of lyddite or some other hideous compound assailed them.
"This is the life," said Wharton, resuming his usual cheerfulness. "I take back what I said about our beautiful trench. Just now I appreciate it more than I would the greenest and loveliest landscape in England or all America. Oh, it's a glorious trench! A splendid fortress for weak human flesh, finer than any castle that was ever built!"
"Don't be dithyrambic, Wharton," said Carstairs. "Besides the change is too sudden. It hasn't been a minute since you were pouring abuse upon our safe and happy little trench."
"It's time for the Germans to begin," said John, looking at his watch. "We'd better lie close for the next hour."
They heard the shrieking of more shells and soon the whole earth rocked with the fire of the great guns. The hostile trenches were only a few hundred yards in front of them, but the German batteries all masked, or placed in pits, were much further away. The French cannon were stationed in like fashion behind their own trenches.
John and his comrades, for the allotted hour, hugged the side of the trench nearest to the Germans. The shells from the heavy guns came at regular intervals. Far in the rear men were killed and others were wounded, but no fragment of steel dropped in their trench. There was not much danger unless one of the shells should burst almost directly over their heads, and they were so used to these bombardments that they paid little attention to them, except to keep close as long as they lasted.
Wharton resumed his novel, Carstairs, sitting on one end of a rude wooden bench, began a game of solitaire, and John, at the other end, gave himself over to dreaming, which the regulated thunder of many cannon did not disturb at all.
It had been months now since he had parted with Philip and Julie Lannes. He had seen Philip twice since, but Julie not at all When the German army made a successful stand near the river Aisne, and both sides went into trenches, Lannes had come in the Arrow and, in reply to John's restrained but none the less eager questions, had said that Julie was safe in Paris again with her mother, Antoine Picard and the faithful Suzanne. She had wanted to return to the front as a Red Cross nurse, but Madame Lannes would not let her go.
A month later he saw Lannes again and Julie was still in the capital, but he inferred from Philip's words rather than his tone that she was impatient. Thousands of French girls were at the front, attending to the wounded, and sharing hardship and danger. John knew that Julie had a will like her brother's and he believed that, in time, she would surely come again to the battle lines.
The thought made him smile, and he felt a light glow pass over his face. He knew it was due to the belief that he would see Julie once more, and yet the trenches now extended about four hundred miles across Northern France and Belgium. The chances seemed a hundred to one against her arrival in the particular trench, honored by the presence of the Strangers, but John felt that in reality they were a hundred to one in favor of it. He wished it so earnestly that it must come true.
"You're smiling, Scott," said Carstairs. "A good honest English penny for your thoughts."
"What do I care for money? What could I do with it if I had it, held here between walls of mud only four feet apart?"
"At least," interrupted Wharton, "the high cost of living is not troubling us. Next month's rent may come from where it pleases. It doesn't bother me."
A messenger turned the angle of the trench and summoned John to the presence of his commander, Captain Colton, who was about three hundred yards away. Young Scott, stooping in order to keep his head covered well, started down the trench. The artillery fire was at its height. The waves of air followed one another with great violence, and the fumes of picric acid and of other acids that he did not know became very strong. But he scarcely noticed it. The bombardment was all in the day's work, and when the Germans ceased, the French, after a decent interval, would begin their own cannonade, carried on at equal length.
John thought little of the fire of the guns, now almost a regular affair like the striking of a clock, but force of habit kept his head down and no German sharpshooter watching in the trench opposite had a chance at him. He advanced through a vast burrow. Trenches ran parallel, and other trenches cut across them. One could wander through them for miles. Most of them were uncovered, but others had roofs, partial or complete, of thatch or boards or canvas. Many had little alcoves and shelves, dug out by the patient hands of the soldiers, and these niches contained their most precious belongings.
Back of the trenches often lay great heaps of refuse like the kitchen middens of primeval man. Attempts at coziness had achieved a little success in some places, but nearly everywhere the abode of burrowing soldiers was raw, rank and fetid. Heavy and hideous odors arose from the four hundred miles of unwashed armies. Men lived amid disease, dirt and death. Civilization built up slowly through painful centuries had come to a sudden stop, and once more they were savages in caves seeking to destroy one another.
This, at least, was the external aspect of it, but the flower of civilization was still sound at the stem. When the storm was over it would grow and bloom again amid the wreckage. French and Germans, in the intervals of battle, were often friendly with each other. They listened to the songs of the foe, and sometimes at night they talked together. John recognized the feeling. He knew that man at the core had not really returned to a savage state, and a soldier, but not a believer in war, he looked forward to the time when the grass should grow again over the vast maze of trenches.
A shell bursting almost overhead put all such thoughts out of his mind for the present. A hot piece of metal shooting downward struck on the bottom of the trench and lay there hissing. John stepped over it and passed on.
The cannonade was at its height, and he noticed that it was heavier than usual. Perhaps the increase of volume was due to the presence of some great dignitary, the Kaiser himself maybe, or the Crown Prince, or the Chief of the General Staff. But it was only a flitting thought. The subject did not interest him much.
The sky was turning darker and the heavy flakes of snow fell faster. John looked up apprehensively. Snow now troubled him more than guns. It was no welcome visitor in the trenches where it flooded some of them so badly as it melted that the men were compelled to move.
As he walked along he was hailed by many friendly voices. He was well known in that part of the gigantic burrow, and the adaptable young American had become a great favorite, not only with the Strangers, but with his French comrades. Fleury, coming out of a transverse cut, greeted him. The Savoyard had escaped during the fighting on the Aisne, and had rejoined the command of General Vaugirard, wounded in the arm, but now recovered.
"Duty?" he said to John.
"Yes. Captain Colton has sent for me, but I don't know what he wants."
"Don't get yourself captured again. Twice is enough."
"I won't. There isn't much taking of prisoners while both sides keep to their holes."
Fleury disappeared in one of the earthy aisles, and John went on, turning a little later into an aisle also, and arriving at Captain Cotton's post.
Daniel Colton had for his own use a wooden bench three feet long, set in an alcove dug in the clay. Some boards and the arch of the earth formed an uncertain shelter. An extra uniform hung against the wall of earth, and he also had a tiny looking-glass and shaving materials. He was as thin and dry as ever, addicted to the use of words of one syllable, and sparing even with them.
John saluted. He had a great respect and liking for his captain.
"Sit down," said Captain Colton, making room on the bench.
"Know well a man named Weber?"
"Yes," replied John in surprise. He had not thought of the Alsatian in days, and yet they had been together in some memorable moments.
"Thought you'd say so. Been here an hour. Asks for you. Must see you, he says."
"I'll be glad to meet him again, sir. I've a regard for him. We've shared some great dangers. You've heard that he was in the armored automobile with Carstairs, Wharton and myself that time we ran it into the river?"
Captain Colton nodded.
"Then we were captured and both escaped during the fighting along the Marne. Lannes took me away in his aeroplane, but we missed Weber. I thought, though, that he'd get back to us, and I'm glad, very glad that he's here."
"See him now," said Colton, "and find out what he wants."
He blew a whistle, and an orderly appeared, saluting.
"Bring Weber," said the captain.
The orderly returned with Weber, the two coming from one of the narrow aisles, and John rose impulsively to meet the Alsatian. But before offering his hand Weber saluted the captain.
"Go ahead. Tell all," said Colton briefly.
Weber first shook John's hand warmly. Evidently he had not been living the life of the trenches, as he looked fresh, and his cheeks were full of color. His gray uniform, with the blue threads through it, was neat and clean, and his black pointed beard was trimmed like that of a painter with money.
"We're old comrades in war, Mr. Scott," he said, "and I'm glad, very glad to find you again. You and Lannes left me rather abruptly that time near the Marne, but it was the only thing you could do. If by an effort of the mind I could have sent a wireless message to you I'd have urged you to instant flight. I hid in the bushes, in time reached one of our armies, and since then I've been a bearer of dispatches along the front. I heard some time back that you were still alive, but my duty hitherto has kept me from seeing you. Now, it sends me to you."
His tone, at first eager and joyous, as was fitting in an old friend meeting an old friend, now became very grave, and John looked at him with some apprehension. Captain Colton motioned to a small stool.
"Sit down," he said to Weber. Then he offered the Alsatian a match and a cigarette which were accepted gratefully. He made the same offer to John, who shook his head saying that he did not smoke. The captain took two or three deliberate puffs, and contemplated Weber who had made himself comfortable on the stool.
"Military duty?" he asked. "If so, Scott's concern is my concern too."
"That is quite true, Captain Colton," said Weber, respectfully. "As Mr. Scott is under your command you have a right to know what message I bring."
"Knew you'd see it," said Colton, taking another puff at his cigarette. "There! Germans have ceased firing!"
"And our men begin!" said John.
The moment the distant German thunder ceased the French reply, nearer at hand and more like a rolling crash, began. It would continue about an hour, that is until nightfall, unless the heavy clouds and falling snow brought darkness much earlier than usual. The flakes were coming faster, but the three were protected from them by the rude board shelter. John again glanced anxiously at Weber. He felt that his news was of serious import.
"I saw your friend Lieutenant Philip Lannes about three weeks ago at a village called Catreaux, lying sixty miles west of us," said Weber. "He had just made a long flight from the west, where he had observed much of the heavy fighting around Ypres, and also had been present when the Germans made their great effort to break through to Dunkirk and Calais. I hear that he had more than a messenger's share in these engagements, throwing some timely bombs."
"Was he well when you saw him?" asked John. "He had not been hurt? He had not been in any accident?"
"He was in the best of health, bard and fit. But his activities in the Arrow had diminished recently. Snow, rain, icy hail make difficulties and dangers for aviators. But we wander. He had not heard from his mother, Madame Lannes, or his sister, the beautiful Mademoiselle Julie, for a long time, and he seemed anxious about them."
"He himself took Mademoiselle Julie back to Paris in the Arrow," said John.
"So he told me. They arrived safely, as you know, but Lannes was compelled to leave immediately for the extreme western front. The operations there were continuous and so exacting that he has been unable to return to Paris. He has not heard from his mother and sister in more than two months, and his great anxiety about them is quite natural."
"But since the retreat of the Germans there is no danger in Paris save from an occasional bomb."
"No. But a few days after seeing Lannes my own duties as a messenger carried me back to Paris, and I took it upon myself to visit Lannes' house. I had two objects, both I hope justifiable. I wanted to take to them good news of Lannes and I wanted to take to Lannes good news of them."
"You found them there?" said John, his anxiety showing in his tone.
"I did. But a letter from Lannes, by good luck, had just come through the day before. It was a noble letter. It expressed the fine spirit of that brave young man, a spirit universal now throughout France. He said the fighting had been so severe and the wounded were so many that all Frenchwomen who had the skill and strength to help must come to the hospitals, where the hurt in scores of thousands were lying."
"Did he mention any point to which she was to come?"
"A village just behind the fortress of Verdun. To say that she was willing was not enough. A great spirit, a magnificent spirit, Mr. Scott. The soul of chivalry may dwell in the heart of a young girl. She was eager to go. Madame, her mother, would have gone too, but she was ill, so she remained in the house, while the beautiful Mademoiselle Julie departed with the great peasant, Antoine Picard, and his daughter Suzanne."
"Do you know how they went?"
"By rail, I think, as far as they could go, and thence they were to travel by motor to the tiny village of Chastel, their destination. Knowing your interest in Mademoiselle Julie, I thought it would not displease you to hear this. Chastel is no vast distance from this point."
A blush would have been visible on John's face had he not been tanned so deeply, but he felt no resentment. Captain Colton took his cigarette from his lips and said tersely:
"Every man likes a pretty face. Man who doesn't--no man at all."
"I agree with you, Captain Colton," said Weber heartily. "When I no longer notice a beautiful woman I think it will be time for me to die. But I take no liberty, sir, when I say that in all the garden of flowers Mademoiselle Julie Lannes is the rarest and loveliest. She is the delicate and opening rose touched at dawn with pearly dew."
"A poet, Weber! A poet!" interjected Captain Colton.
"No, sir, I but speak the truth," said Weber seriously. "Mademoiselle Julie Lannes, though a young girl but yet, promises to become the most beautiful woman in Europe, and beauty carries with it many privileges. Men may have political equality, but women can never have an equality of looks."
"Right, Weber," said Captain Colton.
John's pulses had begun to leap. Julie was coming back to the front, and she would not be so far away. Some day he might see her again. But he felt anxiety.
"Is the journey to Chastel safe, after she leaves the railway?" he asked of Weber.
"Is anything safe now?"
"Nothing in Europe," interjected Captain Colton.
"But I don't think Mademoiselle Lannes will incur much danger," said Weber. "It's true, roving bands of Uhlans or hussars sometimes pass in our rear, but it's likely that she and other French girls going to the front march under strong escort."
His tone was reassuring, but his words left John still troubled.
"My object in telling you of Mademoiselle Lannes' movements, Mr. Scott," continued Weber, "was to enable you to notify Lieutenant Lannes of her exact location in case you should see him. Knowing your great friendship I thought it inevitable that you two should soon meet once more. If so, tell him that his sister is at Chastel. He will be glad to know of her arrival and, work permitting, will hurry to her there."
"Gladly I'll do it," said John. "I wish I could see Philip now."
But when he said "Philip" he was thinking of Julie, although the bond of friendship between him and young Lannes had not diminished one whit.
"And now," said Weber, "with Captain Colton's permission I'll go. My duties take me southward, and night is coming fast."
"And it will be dark, cold and snowy," said John, shivering a little. "These trenches are not exactly palace halls, but I'd rather be in them now than out there on such a night."
The dusk had come and the French fire was dying. In a few more minutes it would cease entirely, and then the French hour with the guns having matched the German hour, the night would be without battle.
But the silence that succeeded the thunder of the guns was somber. In all that terrible winter John had not seen a more forbidding night. The snow increased and with it came a strong wind that reached them despite their shelter. The muddy trenches began to freeze lightly, but the men's feet broke through the film of ice and they walked in an awful slush. It seemed impossible that the earth could ever have been green and warm and sunny, and that Death was not always sitting at one's elbow.
The darkness was heavy, but nevertheless as they talked they did not dare to raise their heads above the trenches. The German searchlights might blaze upon them at any moment, showing the mark for the sharpshooters. But Captain Colton pressed his electric torch and the three in the earthy alcove saw one another well.
"Will you go to Chastel yourself?" asked John of Weber.
"Not at present. I bear a message which takes me in the Forest of Argonne, but I shall return along this line in a day or two, and it may be that I can reach the village. If so, I shall tell Mademoiselle Julie and the Picards that I have seen you here, and perhaps I can communicate also with Lannes."
"I thank you for your kindness in coming to tell me this."
"It was no more than I should have done. I knew you would be glad to hear, and now, with your permission, Captain Colton, I'll go."
"Take narrow, transverse trench, leading south. Good of you to see us," said the captain of the Strangers.
The Alsatian shook hands with John and disappeared in the cut which led a long distance from the front. Colton extinguished the torch and the two sat a little while in the darkness. Although vast armies faced one another along a front of four hundred miles, little could be heard where John and his captain sat, save the sighing of the wind and the faint sound made by the steady fall of the snow, which was heaping up at their feet.
Not a light shone in the trench. John knew that innumerable sentinels were on guard, striving to see and hear, but a million or two million men lay buried alive there, while the snow drifted down continually. The illusion that the days of primeval man had come back was strong upon him again. They had become, in effect, cave-dwellers once more, and their chief object was to kill. He listened to the light swish of the snow, and thought of the blue heights into which he had often soared with Lannes.
Captain Colton lighted another cigarette and it glowed in the dark.
"Uncanny," he said.
"I find it more so than usual tonight," said John. "Maybe it's the visit of Weber that makes me feel that way, recalling to me that I was once a man, a civilized human being who bathed regularly and who put on clean clothes at frequent intervals."
"Such days may come again--for some of us."
"So they may. But it's ghastly here, holed up like animals for the winter."
"Comparison not fair to animals. They choose snug dens. Warm leaves and brush all about 'em."
"While we lie or stand in mud or snow. After all, Captain, the animals have more sense in some ways than we. They kill one another only for food, while we kill because of hate or ignorance."
"I suppose so. Hear that! It's a pleasant sound."
"So it is. Makes me think of home."
Some one further down the trench was playing a mouth organ. It was merely a thin stream of sound, but it had a soft seductive note. The tune was American, a popular air. It was glorified so far away and in such terrible places, and John suddenly grew sick for home and the pleasant people in the sane republic beyond the seas. But he crushed the emotion and listened in silence as the player played on.
"A hundred of those little mouth-organs reached our brigade this morning," said Colton. "Men in the trenches must have something to lift up their minds, and little things outside current of war will do it."
It was a long speech for him to make and John felt its truth, but he atoned for it by complete silence while they listened to many tunes, mostly American, played on the mouth-organ. John's mind continually went back to the great republic overseas, so safe and so sane. While he was listening to the thin tinkle in the dark and snowy trench his friends were going to the great opera house in New York to hear "Aida" or "Lohengrin" maybe. And yet he would not have been back there. The wish did not occur to him. Through the dark and the snow he saw the golden hair and the deep blue eyes of Julie Lannes float before him, and it pleased him too to think that he was a minute part in the huge event now shaking the world.
A sudden white light blazed through the snow, and then was gone, like a flash of lightning.
"German searchlight seeking us out," said Colton.
"I wonder what they want," said John. "They can't be thinking of a rush on such a night as this."
"Don't know, but must be on guard. Better return to your station and warn everybody as you go along. You can use your torch, but hold it low."
As John walked back he saw by the light of his little electric torch men sound asleep on the narrow shelves they had dug in the side of the trench, their feet and often a shoulder covered with the drifting snow. Strange homes were these fitted up with the warriors' arms and clothes, and now and then with some pathetic little gift from home.
He met other men on guard like himself walking up and down the trench and also carrying similar torches. He found Carstairs and Wharton still awake, and occupied as they were when he had left them.
"What was it, Scott?" asked Carstairs. "Has the British army taken Berlin?"
"No, nor has the German army taken London."
"Good old London! I'd like to drop down on it for a while just now."
"They say that at night it's as black as this trench. Zeppelins!"
"I could find my way around it in the dark. I'd go to the Ritz or the Carlton and order the finest dinner for three that the most experienced chef ever heard of. You don't know how good a dinner I can give--if I only have the money. I invite you both to become my guests in London as soon as this war is over and share my gustatory triumph."
"I accept," said John.
"And I too," said Wharton, "though we may have to send to Berlin for our captive host."
"Never fear," said Carstairs. "I wasn't born to be taken. What did Captain Colton want with you, Scott, if it's no great military or state secret?"
"To see Fernand Weber, the Alsatian, whom you must remember."
"Of course we recall him! Didn't we take that dive in the river together? But he's an elusive chap, regular will-o'-the-wisp, messenger and spy of ours, and other things too, I suppose."
"He's done me some good turns," said John. "Been pretty handy several times when I needed a handy man most. He brought news that Mademoiselle Julie Lannes and her servants, the Picards, father and daughter, are on their way to or are at Chastel, a little village not far from here, where the French have established a huge hospital for the wounded. She left Paris in obedience to a letter from her brother, and we are to tell Philip if we should happen to see him."
"Pretty girl! Deucedly pretty!" said Carstairs.
"I don't think the somewhat petty adjective 'pretty' is at all adequate," said John with dignity.
"Maybe not," said Carstairs, noticing the earnest tone in his comrade's voice. "She's bound to become a splendid woman. Is Weber still with the captain?"
"No, he's gone on his mission, whatever it is."
"A fine night for travel," said Wharton sardonically. "A raw wind, driving snow, pitchy darkness, slush and everything objectionable underfoot. Yet I'd like to be in Weber's place. A curse upon the man who invented life in the trenches! Of all the dirty, foul, squalid monotony it is this!"
"You'll have to curse war first," said John. "War made the trench."
"Here comes a man with an electric torch," said Carstairs. "Something is going to happen in our happy lives."
They saw the faint glimmer of the torch held low, and an orderly arrived with a message from Captain Colton, commanding them to wake everybody and to stand to their arms. Then the orderly passed quickly on with similar orders for others.
"Old Never Sleep," said Carstairs, referring to Colton, "thinks we get too much rest. Why couldn't he let us tuck ourselves away in our mud on a night like this?"
"I fancy it's not restlessness," said John. "The order doubtless comes from a further and higher source. Good old Papa Vaugirard is not more than a quarter of a mile away."
"I hear they had to enlarge the trench for him," grumbled Carstairs. "He's always bound to keep us stirring."
"But he watches over us like a father. They say his troops are in the best condition of all."
The three young men traveled about the vast burrow along the main trenches, the side trenches and those connecting. The order to be on guard was given everywhere, and the men dragged themselves from their sodden beds. Then they took their rifles and were ready. But it was dark save for the glimmer of the little pocket electrics.
The task finished, the three returned to their usual position. John did not know what to expect. It might be a device of Papa Vaugirard to drag them out of a dangerous lethargy, but he did not think so. A kind heart dwelled in the body of the huge general, and he would not try them needlessly on a wild and sullen night. But whatever the emergency might be the men were ready and on the right of the Strangers was that Paris regiment under Bougainville. What a wonderful man Bougainville had proved himself to be! Fiery and yet discreet, able to read the mind of the enemy, liked by his men whom nevertheless he led where the danger was greatest. John was glad that the Paris regiment lay so close.
"Nothing is going to happen," said Carstairs. "Why can't I lay me down on my little muddy shelf and go to sleep? Nobody would send a dog out on such a night!"
"Man will often go where a dog won't," said Wharton, sententiously.
"And the night is growing worse," continued Carstairs. "Hear that wind howl! Why, it's driving the snow before it in sheets! The trenches won't dry out in a week!"
"You might be worth hearing if you'd only quit talking and say something, Carstairs," said Wharton.
"If you obeyed that rule, Wharton, you'd be known as the dumb man."
John stood up straight and looked over the trench toward the German lines, where he saw nothing. The night filled with so much driving snow had become a kind of white gloom, less penetrable than the darkness.
Only that shifting white wall met his gaze, and listen as he would, he could hear nothing. The feeling of something sinister and uncanny, something vast and mighty returned. Man had made war for ages, but never before on so huge a scale.
"Well, Sister Anna, otherwise John Scott, make your report," said Carstairs lightly. "What do you see?"
"Only a veil of snow so thick that my eyes can't penetrate it."
"And that's all you will see. Papa Vaugirard is a good man and he cares for his many children, but he's making a mistake tonight."
"I think not," said John, dropping suddenly back into the trench. A blinding white glare, cutting through the gloom of the snow, had dazzled him for a moment.
"The searchlight again!" exclaimed Wharton.
"And it means something," said John.
The blaze, whiter and more intense than usual, played for a few minutes over the French trenches, sweeping to right and left and back again and then dying away at a far distant point. After it came the same white gloom and deep silence.
"Just a way of greeting," said Carstairs.
"I think not," said John. "Papa Vaugirard makes few mistakes. To my mind the intensity of the silence is sinister. Often we hear the Germans singing in their trenches, but now we hear nothing."
Another half-hour of the long and trying waiting followed. Then the white light flared again for a moment, and powerful lights behind the French lines flared back, but did not go out. The great beams, shooting through the white gloom, disclosed masses of men in gray uniforms and spiked helmets rushing forward.