The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter III. Julie's Coming
That day, the next night and the next day passed without any event save the usual desultory firing of cannon and rifles. Many men were killed and more were wounded by the sharpshooters. Little battles were fought at distant points along the lines, the Allies winning some while the Germans were victorious in others, but the result was nothing. The deadlock was unbroken.
Meanwhile the weather turned somewhat warmer and the melting snow poured fresh deluges of water into the trenches. Most of it was pumped out, but it would sink back into the ground and return. John again gave thanks for the splendid pair of high boots that he wore, and also he often searched the air for Lannes. But he saw no sign of the lithe and swift Arrow and his anxiety for Julie increased steadily. She must now be at Chastel, but he had not yet found any excuse that would release him from the trenches and let him go there.
He inquired for Weber, but no one had seen or heard of him again. No doubt he was far away on some perilous mission, serving France on the ground as Lannes served her in the air.
Young Kratzek in the hospital was improving fast and John secured leave of absence long enough to see him once. He was fervent in his gratitude and renewed his promises that somehow and somewhere he would surely repay young Scott. News that he was alive, but a prisoner, had reached the German lines and already an exchange for him had been arranged, the Germans, owing to his rank, being willing to return a French brigadier in his place. The prospect filled him with happiness and he talked much. John noticed once more how very young he was, not much more than seventeen, and with manners decidedly boyish. He had the utmost confidence in the success of Germany and Austria, despite the check at the Marne, and talked freely of another advance. John led him adroitly to his cousin of Auersperg, of whom he wished to hear more. He soon discovered that Auersperg was a very great prince to Kratzek.
"I stand in some awe of him. I need scarcely tell you that Herr Scott, my captor," he said, "because he represents so much. Ah, the history and the legends clustering about our house, that goes far back into the dim ages! The Auerspergs were counts and princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and they have been grand dukes. They have decided the choice of more than one emperor at Frankfort, and they have stood with the highest when they were crowned at Augsburg. Please don't think I am boasting for myself, Herr Scott, it is only for my cousin, the august Prince Karl, hochwohlgeboren!"
"I understand," said John, smiling. "But I want to tell you, Leopold Kratzek, that I'm hochwohlgeboren myself."
"Why, how is that? You are neither German nor Austrian."
"No, I'm American, but I'm very highborn nevertheless. There are a hundred millions of us and all of us are very highborn not excepting our colored people, many of whom are descended from African princes who have a power over their people not approached by either of the kaisers."
The boy smiled.
"Now, I know you jest," he said. "You have no classes, but I've heard that all of you claim to be kings."
John saw that he had made no impression upon him. Frank, honest and brave, an Auersperg was nevertheless in the boy's mind an Auersperg, something superior, a product of untold centuries, a small and sublimated group of the human race to which nothing else could aspire, not even talent, learning, courage and honesty. To all Auerspergs, Napoleon and Shakespeare were mere men of genius, to be patronized. John smiled, too. He did not feel hurt at all. In his turn he felt a superiority, a superiority of perception, and a superiority in the sense of proportion.
"Prince Karl of Auersperg is always resolved to maintain his pride of blood, is he not?" he asked.
"He considers it his duty. The head of a house that has been princely for fifteen centuries could not do less. He could never forget or forgive an insult to his person."
"If he were insulted he would hold that all the Auerspergs who were now living and all who had lived in the last fifteen hundred years were insulted also."
"Undoubtedly!" replied Kratzek, with great emphasis.
"I merely wished to know," said John, gravely, "in order that I may know how to bear myself in case I should meet Prince Karl of Auersperg"--he had not told that he had met him already--"and now I'm going to tell you good-by, Leopold. I think it likely that I shall be sent away on a mission and before I return it is probable that you will be exchanged."
"Good-by, Mr. Scott. Don't forget my promise. If you should ever fall into our hands please try to communicate with me."
John returned to his trench. He had been very thoughtful that day, and he had evolved a plan. A considerable body of wounded soldiers were to be sent to Chastel, and as they must have a guard he had asked Captain Colton to use his influence with General Vaugirard and have him appointed a member of the guard.
Now he found Captain Colton sitting in his little alcove smoking one of his eternal cigarettes and looking very contented. He took an especially long puff when he saw John and looked at him quizzically.
"Well, Scott!" he said.
"Well, sir!" said John.
"General Vaugirard thinks your desire to guard wounded, see to their welfare, great credit to you."
"I thank him, sir, through you."
"Approve of such zeal myself."
"I thank you in person."
"Did not tell him--French girl, Mademoiselle Julie Lannes, also going to Chastel to attend to wounded. Handsome girl, wonderfully handsome girl, don't you think so, Scott?"
"I do, sir," said John, reddening.
"You and she--going to Chastel about same time. Remarkable coincidence, but nothing in it, of course, just coincidence."
"It's not a coincidence, sir. You've always been a friend to me. Captain Colton, and I'm willing to tell you that I've sought this mission to Chastel because Mademoiselle Julie Lannes is there, or is going there, and for no other reason whatever. I'm afraid she's in danger, and anyway I long for a sight of her face as we long for the sun after a storm."
Captain Colton, with his cigarette poised between his thumb and forefinger, looked John up and down.
"Good!" he said. "Frank statement of truth--I knew already. Nothing for you to be ashamed of. If girl beautiful and noble as Mademoiselle Julie Lannes looked at me as she has looked at you I'd break down walls and run gantlets to reach her. Go, John, boy. Luck to you in all the things in which you wish luck."
He held out his hand and John wrung it. And so, the terse captain himself had a soft heart which he seldom showed!
The convoy started the next morning, John with five soldiers in an armored automobile bringing up the rear. There were other men on the flank and in front, and a captain commanded. The day was wintry and gloomy. Heavy clouds obscured the sky, and the slush was deep in the roads. A desolate wind moaned through the leafless trees, and afar the cannon grumbled and groaned.
But neither the somber day nor the melancholy convoy affected John's spirits. Chastel, a village of light--light for him--would be at the end of his journey.
Despite mud, slush and snow, traveling was pleasant. The automobile had made wonderful changes. One could go almost anywhere in it, and its daring drivers whisked it gaily over fields, through forests and up hills, which in reality could be called mountains. War had merely increased their enterprise, and they took all kinds of risks, usually with success.
John was very comfortable now, as he leaned back in the armored car, driven by a young Frenchman. He wore a heavy blue overcoat over his uniform, and his only weapon was a powerful automatic revolver in his belt, but it was enough. The ambulances, filled with wounded, stretched a half-mile in front of him, but he had grown so used to such sights that they did not move him long. Moreover in this war a man was not dead until he was dead. The small bullets of the high-powered rifle either killed or harmed but little. It was the shrapnel that tore.
The road led across low hills, and down slopes which he knew were kissed by a warm sun in summer. It was here that the vines flourished, but the snow could not hide the fact that it was torn and trampled now. Huge armies had surged back and forth over it, and yet John, who was of a thoughtful mind, knew that in a few more summers it would be as it had been before. In this warm and watered France Nature would clothe the earth in a green robe which winter itself could not wholly drive away.
A reader of history, he knew that Europe had been torn and ravaged by war, times past counting, and yet geologically it was among the youngest and freshest of lands. Everything would pass and new youth would take the place of the youth that the shells and bullets were now carrying away.
He shook himself. Reflections like these were for men of middle years. The tide of his own youth flowed back upon him and the world, even under snow and with stray guns thundering behind him, was full of splendor. Moreover, there was the village of Chastel before him! Chastel! Chastel! He had never heard of it until two or three days ago, and yet it now loomed in his mind as large as Paris or New York. Julie must have arrived already, and he would see her again after so many months of hideous war, but deep down in his mind persisted the belief that she should not have come. Lannes must have had some reason that he could not surmise, or he would not have written the letter asking her to meet him at Chastel.
The village, he learned from one of the men in the automobile, was only ten miles away and it was built upon a broad, low hill at the base of which a little river flowed. It was very ancient. A town of the Belgae stood there in Caesar's time, but it contained not more than two thousand inhabitants, and its chief feature was a very beautiful Gothic cathedral.
John's automobile could have reached Chastel in less than an hour, despite the snow and the slush, but the train of the wounded was compelled to move slowly, and he must keep with it. Meanwhile he scanned the sky with powerful glasses, which he had been careful to secure after his escape from Auersperg. Nearly all officers carried strong glasses in this war, and yet even to the keenest eyes the hosts of the air were visible only in part.
John now and then saw telephone wires running through the clumps of forest and across the fields. There was a perfect web of them, reaching all the way from Alsace and the Forest of Argonne to the sea. Generals talked to one another over them, and over these wires the signal officers sent messages to the men in the batteries telling them how to fire their guns.
The telegraph, too, was at work. The wires were clicking everywhere, and the air was filled also with messages which went on no wires at all, but which took invisible wings unto themselves. The wireless, despite its constant use, remained a mystery and wonder to John. One of his most vivid memories was that night on the roof of the chateau, when Wharton talked through space to the German generals, and learned their plans.
He looked up now and his eyes were shut, but he almost fancied that he could see the words passing in clouds over his head, written on nothing, but there, nevertheless, the most mysterious and, in some ways, the most powerful part of the hosts of the air, the hosts that within a generation had changed the ways of armies and battles. He opened his eyes and found himself searching for aeroplanes, the most tangible portion of those hosts of the air, with which man had to fight. He saw several behind him, where the French and German lines almost met, but there was no shape resembling the Arrow.
The aeroplanes and Zeppelins had been much less active since winter had come in full tide. They were essentially birds of sunshine and fair weather, liking but little clouds and storms. And as the skies still looked very threatening John judged that they would not be abroad much that day. The conditions were far from promising, as a heavy massing of the clouds in the southwest indicated more snow.
"There is Chastel, sir," said Mallet, his chauffeur. "You can see the steeple of the cathedral shining through the clouds."
John's eyes followed the pointing finger, and he caught a high gleam, although all beneath was a mass of floating gray mist. But he knew it was a few beams of the sun piercing through the clouds and striking upon some solid object. He put the glasses to his eyes and then he was able to discern an old, old town, standing on a cliff above a stream that he would have called a creek at home. Some of the houses were of stone, and others were of timber and concrete, but it was evident that war had passed already over Chastel. As he rode nearer he beheld buildings ruined by shells or fire. Many of them seemed to be razed almost level with the ground. The evidences of battle were everywhere. He surmised that it had been held for a while by the Germans on their retreat from the Marne, and that the lighting there had been desperate.
In the lower ground on the near side of the stream were many small board houses arranged in a square, and these he knew were the hospital. He would remain there until the last of the wounded were discharged, and then he would enter Chastel. Mallet informed him that his surmises were correct and he saw for himself that the head of the train had already turned into the square around which the little board houses were built.
The transferring of the hurt, took nearly all the morning, and John faithfully performed his part. There was Chastel only a few hundred yards away, now clearly visible despite the massive clouds that floated persistently across the sky. Yet he made no attempt to reach it until his work was done, nor did he speak of it, not even to the chauffeur, Mallet, of whom he had made a good friend.
Near noon, the task finished, he ate luncheon and started toward Chastel. His orders from Captain Colton allowed him much liberty, and he was not compelled to account to anyone, when he chose to enter the town. He crossed the stream, muddy from the melting snow, on a small stone bridge, which he believed from its steep arch must date almost back to the time of the Romans, and pausing on the other side looked up once more at Chastel. He had no doubt that, seen in the sunshine and as it was, it had been both picturesque and beautiful. But now it lay half in ruins, under a sullen sky, and he beheld no sign of life. Just above him within its grounds stood a large chateau, that had been riven through and through by shells. The walls looked as if they were ready to fall apart and John shivered a little. Farther on was a public building of some kind, destroyed by fire, all save the walls which stood, blackened and desolate, and now he saw that the cathedral too had been damaged.
A flake of snow, large and damp, settled on his hand. The clouds were massing, directly over his head, and he feared another fall. It was unfortunate, but nothing could drive him back, and finding a flight of stone steps he ascended them and entered the village.
Chastel had looked somber from the plain below, where some of the effect, John had thought, might be due to distance, but here it was a silent ruin, tragic and terrible. Over this village, once so neat and trim, as he could easily see, war had swept in its most hideous fashion. Houses were riddled and the gray light showed through them from wall to wall where the great shells had passed. A bronze statue standing in a fountain in the center of the little place or square had been struck, and it lay prone and shattered in the water.
The first flakes of the new snow began to fall, and the sinister sky, heavy with clouds, took on the darkness of twilight, although night was far away. Yet the huge rents and holes in the houses and the fallen masonry seemed to grow more distinct in the gloom. The village consisted chiefly of one long street, and as John looked up and down it, he did not see a single human being. Nothing was visible to him but the iron hoof of war crushing everything under it, and he shuddered violently.
The snow began to drive, whipped by a bitter wind, and he drew the heavy blue overcoat closely about him. The shuddering which was not of the snow and the cold, passed, but his heart was ice. The abandoned town over which Germans and French had fought oppressed him like a nightmare. What had become of Julie? Why had Philip asked her to meet him at such a place? There was the hospital, but it was in the plain below, where lights now shone faintly through the heavy gray air and the driving snow.
Surely Lannes could not have made any mistake! John had learned to trust his judgment thoroughly and Philip, too, knew the country so well. If he had sent for Julie to come to Chastel he must have had a good reason for it, although the snow was bound to delay the coming of the Arrow to meet her. If she had reached Chastel she would remain there, and not go to the hospital in the plain below. She trusted her brother as implicitly as John did.
John, taking thought with himself, concluded that she must be now in the village. It was not possible that Chastel, silent as it was and desolate as it seemed, could be entirely deserted. Although leaving ruin behind, the fury of battle had passed and some of the people would return to their homes. Chastel lay behind the French lines, a great hospital camp was not far away, and the fear of further German invasion could not be present now.
He put one hand in his overcoat pocket over the butt of the automatic, and then, remembering how General Vaugirard whistled, he too whistled, not for want of thought but to encourage himself, to make his heart beat a little less violently, and to hear a cheerful sound where there was nothing else but the soft swish of the snow and the desolate moaning of the wind among the ruins.
He walked down the main street, and unconsciously stopped whistling. Then the awful silence and desolation brooded over him again. The storm was thickening, and the lights in the plain below were entirely gone now. He was not yet able to find any proof of human life in Chastel, and, after all, the fighting in the town might have been so recent and so fierce that not one of the inhabitants yet dared to return. The thought made his heart throb painfully. What, then, had become of Julie?
He stopped before the cathedral, and looked up at the lofty Gothic spire which seemed to tower above the whirling snow. As well as he could see some damage had been done to the roof by shells, but the beautiful stained-glass windows were uninjured. He stood there gazing, and he knew in his heart that he was looking for a sign, like that which he and Lannes had seen on the Arc de Triomphe when the fortunes of France seemed lost forever.
A stalwart figure suddenly emerged from the white gloom and heavy hands were laid upon him. John's own fingers in his overcoat pocket tightened over the automatic, but the hands on his shoulders were those of friendship.
"Ah, it is thou, Monsieur Scott!" exclaimed a deep voice. "The master has not come but thou art thrice welcome in his place!"
It was Picard, no less than Antoine Picard himself, looming white and gigantic through the storm, and John could not doubt the genuine warmth in his voice. He was in truth welcome and he knew it. As Picard's hands dropped from his shoulders he seized them in his and wrung them hard.
"Mademoiselle Julie!" he exclaimed. "What of her? Did she come? Or have you only come in her place?"
"She is here, sir! In the church with Suzanne, my daughter. We arrived two hours ago. I wanted to go on to the camp that we could see in the plain below, but Mademoiselle Lannes would not hear of it. It was here that Monsieur Philip wished her to meet him, and if she went on he would miss her. We expected to find food and rooms, but, my God, sir, the town is deserted! Most of the houses have been shot to pieces by the artillery and if people are here we cannot find them. Because of that we have taken shelter, for the present, in the church."
But John in his eagerness was already pushing open one of the huge bronze doors, and Picard, brushing some of the snow from his clothes, followed him. The door swung shut behind them both, and he stood beside one of the pews staring into the dusky interior.
But his eyes became used to the gloom, and soon it did not seem so somber as it was outside. Instead the light from the stained-glass windows made the mists and shadows luminous. A nave, the lofty pillars dividing it from the side aisles, the choir and the altar emerged slowly into view. From the walls pictures of the Madonna and the saints, unstained and untouched, looked down upon him. One of the candles near the altar had been lighted, and it burned with a steady, beckoning flame.
The cathedral, a great building for a small town, as happens so often in Europe, presented a warm and cheerful interior to John. It seemed to him soon after the huge bronze door sank into place behind him that war, cold, desolation and loneliness were shut out. The luminous glow streaming through the stained glass windows and the candle burning near the altar were beacons.
Then he saw Julie, sitting wrapped in a heavy cloak, in one of the pews before the choir, and the grim Suzanne, also shrouded in a heavy cloak, sat beside her. John's heart was in a glow. He knew now that he loved his comrade Philip's sister. Two or three of the golden curls escaping from her hood, fell down her back, and they were twined about his heart. He knew too that it was not the light from the stained windows, but Julie herself who had filled the church with splendor. She was to John a young goddess, perfect in her beauty, one who could do no wrong. His love had all the tenderness and purity of young love, the poetic love that comes only to youth.
But when he realized that Julie Lannes had become so much to him he felt a sudden shyness, and he let the gigantic Picard lead the way. They had made no noise in opening and closing the door, and their boots had been soundless on the stone floor.
"The American, Lieutenant Scott, Mademoiselle," said Picard respectfully.
John saw her little start of surprise, but when she stood up she was quite self-possessed. Her color was a little deeper than usual, but it might be the luminous glow from the stained-glass windows, or the cloak of dark red which wrapped her from chin to feet may have given that added touch.
She had been weary and anxious, and John thought he detected a gleam of welcome in her glance. At least it pleased him to think so. The stern Suzanne had given him a startled look, but the glance seemed to John less hostile than it used to be.
"I was told, Miss Lannes," said John in English, "that you had received a letter from your brother, Philip, to meet him here in Chastel. One Weber, an Alsatian, an able and trustworthy man whom I know, gave me the news."
It had often been his habit, when speaking his own language, to call her, American fashion, "Miss" instead of "Mademoiselle," and now she smiled at the little, remembered touch.
"It was Mr. Weber who brought the letter to me in Paris, Mr. Scott," she said. "You know it was my wish to serve our brave soldiers hurt in battle, and I was not surprised that the letter from Philip should come."
"In what manner did you arrive here?"
"In a small automobile. It is standing behind the cathedral now. Antoine is an excellent driver. But, Oh, Mr. Scott, it has been a strange and lonely ride! Once we thought we were going to be captured. As we passed through a forest Antoine was quite sure that he caught a gleam of German lances far away, but much too near for assurance, and he drove the motor forward at a great rate."
"And then you arrived in Chastel?"
"Yes, Mr. Scott, then we came to Chastel."
"But you did not see what you expected to see."
She shivered and the brilliant color left her face for a moment.
"No, Mr. Scott, I did not find what I thought would be here. Philip had not come, but that did not alarm me so much, and I knew that for awhile the snow had made the flight of aeroplanes impossible. No, it was not the absence of Philip that filled me with terror. Surely when he sent for me he did not anticipate such fighting as must have occurred here so recently."
"He would never have drawn you into danger."
"I know it, and that is why I am so puzzled and so full of apprehension. The sight of Chastel appalls me and it has had its influence upon Antoine and Suzanne, strong as they are. We saw ruins, Mr. Scott, the terrible path of battle, and no human being until you came."
"I had the same feeling myself, nor did I see life either until I met Antoine, Miss Julie, if I may call you so instead of Miss Lannes?"
"Yes, of course, Mr. Scott. But what does it mean? Why haven't the people come back?"
They were still talking in English, and Suzanne's customary look had returned to her face in all its grimness, but they went on, unmindful of her.
"I confess, Miss Julie, I don't understand it," replied John. "The fighting here seems to have occurred within the last two or three days. It is behind our lines and I did not hear of it, but so much has happens of which we do not hear, and there has been so much shifting of the lines in recent days that a battle could easily have occurred at Chastel without my knowledge. And the shock of cannon fire with the enormous guns now used is so tremendous that the fleeing people may not have recovered from it yet. Doubtless they will return tomorrow or the next day."
"I hope so, Mr. Scott. A ruined town with nobody in it oppresses terribly."
A sudden thought stabbed at John's heart. It was possible that the people of Chastel did not return because they were fearing another attack. If Antoine had caught the gleam of German lances in the wood then a considerable German force might be behind the French lines. Snowstorms formed a good cover for secret operations.
Julie noticed the passing shadow in his face and she knew it to be the sign of alarm.
"What is it, Mr. Scott?" she asked. "Do you know of any danger?"
"No," he replied truthfully, because he had dismissed his thought as incredible, "but you will not remain here, Miss Julie. You and your servant will go to the hospital camp, will you not? It is not much more than a mile beyond the river."
But to his surprise she shook her head.
"I must stay in Chastel," she said. "It is here that Philip wished me to come, and if I am not here when he arrives he will not know where to find me. And there is no danger. You know that, Mr. Scott. If Antoine really saw German lances as he claims, it is no proof that German horsemen will come to Chastel, running into danger. What have they to gain by raiding a ruined town?"
"There is much reason in what you say. Certainly it would avail the Germans nothing to gallop through shattered Chastel in a snowstorm. But you can't spend the night in the church. I've no doubt that we can find bed and board for all of us in some abandoned house."
The driving snow had reconciled John somewhat to the idea of Julie passing the night in Chastel. The road leading down to the river was steep and the bridge over which he had crossed was narrow with a very high arch. A motor might easily miss the way in the darkening storm, and then meet disaster.
Julie looked at him inquiringly as if she wished his indorsement of her plan, although her lips were closed tightly.
"Of course you'll stay, Miss Julie," he said, "and I'll stay too, although I'm not invited."
"You're invited now."
"Thanks. Consider me a follower, or rather a dragoman, to use the eastern term."
Then he said to Antoine in French:
"Mademoiselle Lannes is resolved to remain tonight in Chastel. She thinks that if her brother were to come her absence would upset all his plans."
Picard nodded. His was the soul of loyalty.
"It is right," he said. "It is here that Monsieur Philip expects to find her and we can guard her."
John liked the inclusive "we."
"And now to work, Antoine and Suzanne," he said. "We've agreed that we can't spend the night in the cathedral. Perhaps there is no better refuge so far as the storm is concerned, but a pew is not a good bed, except for hardened old soldiers like you and me, Antoine."
"No, Mr. Scott, it is not."
"Then I suggest that we leave Mademoiselle Lannes and Suzanne here while we look for shelter."
But Julie would not agree. They must all go out together. What was a little snow? Should a Lannes mind it? She drew her great red cloak more closely around her and led the way from the choir to the bronze doors, the others following in silence.
John felt that Julie had shown much decision and firmness. When she had declared that she would not remain in the church her tone and manner were wonderfully like those of her brother Philip. She was altogether worthy of the name of Lannes, and the fact appealed strongly to young Scott, who liked strength and courage.
When they were outside they saw that the storm had increased. The snow was driving so thickly that they could not see fifty yards ahead, and their quest of a house for the night would be difficult. But the lofty steeple of the church with its protecting cross still towered above them and John felt, if their search was vain, that the cathedral would always be there to shelter them. Doubtless the provident Picard also had provisions in the motor.
"I believe you told me your machine was behind the cathedral, Antoine," he said. "We ought first to take a look at it, and see that it's all right."
"That's very true, sir," replied Picard. "Shall we not go there and see it, Mademoiselle Julie?"
She nodded and they passed to the rear of the cathedral, where the machine stood under a shed. It was a small limousine with a powerful body, and John, although knowing little of automobiles, liked its looks.
"How about the gasoline supply?" he asked Picard.
"Enough, sir, for a long journey."
"You've brought food?"
"Food and wine both, sir, under the seats."
"That's very good, but I knew you'd be far-seeing, Picard. If we don't find a good place we can take the supplies and return to the cathedral."
"But we will find lodgings, Sir Jean the Scott," said Julie, catching the trick of the name from her brother. "I command you to lead the way and discover them."
Her dark red cloak was now white with the driven snow, and her face, rosy with the cold, looked from a dark red hood, also turned white. John saw that her eyes laughed. He realized suddenly that she felt neither fear nor apprehension. He had discovered a new quality, the same heroic soul that her brother Philip had, the unquenchable courage of the great marshal. He realized that she found a certain enjoyment in the situation, that the spirit of adventure was upon her. His own pulses leaped and his soul responded.
"Come on," he said in a strong voice. "If there's a habitation in this place fit for you I'll find it." John had resumed command, but Julie walked at his elbow, a brave and strong lieutenant. The two Picards followed close behind. Suzanne, at this moment, when the resources of Scott were needed so much, had relaxed somewhat of her grimness. She and Antoine said nothing as they bent their heads to the snow. Unconsciously they had resigned decision and leadership to the young pair who walked before them.
John glanced toward the river and the plain beyond, but he merely looked into a wall, cold, white and impenetrable. No ray of light or life came from it. The hospital camp had been blotted out completely. But from the north came a faint sullen note, and he knew that it was the throb of a great gun. Julie heard it too.
"They're still firing," she said.
"Yes, but it may not be snowing so hard a few miles away from here. I discovered when I was up in the air with Philip that the air moves in eddies and gusts and currents like the ocean, and that it has bays and straits, and this may be a narrow strait of snow that envelops us here. Hear that! Guns to the south, too! One side is shelling the other's trenches. You remember how it was in all the long fighting that we call the Battle of the Marne. Day and night, night and day the guns thundered and crashed. I seemed when I slept to hear 'em in my dreams. They never stopped."
"It makes me, too, think of that time, Mr. Scott, except that this is winter and that was summer. The cloud of battle is just the same."
"But the results are much less. It's a deadlock, and has been a deadlock for months. I don't expect anything decisive until spring, and maybe not then. Here is a good house, Miss Julie. It looks as if the mayor, or Chastel's banker might have lived here. Suppose we try it."
But the house had been stripped. All the rooms were cold and bare, and in the rear a huge shell had exploded leaving yawning gaps in the walls, through which the snow was driving fast. Julie shivered.
"Let's go away from it," she said. "I couldn't sleep in this house. It's continually talking to us in a language I don't like to hear."
"I don't hear its talk," said John, "but I see its ghosts walking, and I'm as anxious to get away from it as you are."
Nor were Antoine and Suzanne reluctant, and they hurried out to enter another house which had suffered a similar fate. They passed through a half-dozen, all torn and shattered by monster shells, and at last they came to one which had before it a stretch of grass, a pebbled walk, a fountain, now dry, and benches painted green, under their covering of snow.
"An inn!" said John. "This is surely Chastel's hotel. Either the de l'Europe, the Grand or the Hollande, because more than half the hotels in Europe bear one or the other of those names. Is it not fitting, Miss Julie, that we should enter and take our rest in an inn?"
She looked at it with sparkling eyes. Again the spirit of adventure was high within her.
"It seems to be undamaged," she said. "Perhaps we'll find someone there."
John shook his head.
"No, Miss Julie," he said, "I'm convinced that it's silent and alone. You'll observe that no smoke is rising from any of its chimneys, and every window that we can see is dark."
"What do you say, Antoine, and you Suzanne?" asked Julie.
"It is evident, since the inn has no other guests, that we have been sent here by the Supreme Power, for what purpose I know not," replied Suzanne, devoutly.
"Then there is no need to delay longer," said John, and, leading the way up the pebbled walk, he pushed open the central door.