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The Hosts of the Air

The Hosts of the Air

Author:Joseph A. Altsheler


A young man was shaving. His feet rested upon a broad plank embedded inmud, 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...
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  A young man was shaving. His feet rested upon a broad plank embedded inmud, 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 andthen flakes of snow fell in the sodden trench, but John Scott went onplacidly with his task.

  The face that looked back at him had been changed greatly in the lastsix months. The smoothness of early youth was gone--for the time--andserious lines showed about the mouth and eyes. His cheeks were thinnerand there was a slight sinking at the temples, telling of greatprivations, and of dangers endured. But the features were much stronger.The six months had been in effect six years. The boy of Dresden hadbecome the man of the trenches.

  He finished, rubbed his hand over his face to satisfy himself that thelast trace of young beard and mustache was gone, put away his shavingmaterials in a little niche that he had dug with his own hands in thewall 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'thelp it. The melting snow in our trench makes soggy footing in spite ofall we can do. But you're trim, Scott. That new gray uniform with theblue threads running through it becomes you. All the Strangers arethankful for the change. It's a great improvement over those long bluecoats and baggy red trousers."

  "But we don't have any chance to show 'em," said Wharton, who sat upon asmall stool, reading a novel. "Did I ever think that war would come tothis? Buried while yet alive! A few feet of cold and muddy trench inwhich to pass one's life! This is an English story I'm reading. Thelovely _Lady Ermentrude_ and the gallant _Sir Harold_ are walking in thegarden among the roses, and he's about to ask her the great question.There are roses, roses, and the deep green grass and greener oakseverywhere, with the soft English shadows coming and going over them.The birds are singing in the boughs. I suppose they're nightingales, butdo nightingales sing in the daytime? And when I shut my book I see onlywalls of raw, red earth, and a floor, likewise of earth, but stickierand more hideous. Even the narrow strip of sky above our heads is thecolor of lead, and has nothing soft about it."

  "If you'll stand up straight," said John, "maybe you'll see the rurallandscape for which you're evidently longing."

  "And catch a German bullet between the eyes! Not for me. While I wastaking a trip down to the end of our line this morning I raised my headby chance above the edge of the trench, and quick as a wink asharpshooter cut off one of my precious brown locks. I could have myhair trimmed that way if I were patient and careful enough. Ah, herecomes a messenger!"

  They heard a roar that turned to a shriek, and caught a fleeting glimpseof a black shadow passing over their heads. Then a huge shell burstbehind them, and the air was filled with hissing fragments of steel. Butin their five feet of earth they were untouched, although horrible fumesas of lyddite or some other hideous compound assailed them.

  "This is the life," said Wharton, resuming his usual cheerfulness. "Itake back what I said about our beautiful trench. Just now I appreciateit more than I would the greenest and loveliest landscape in England orall America. Oh, it's a glorious trench! A splendid fortress for weakhuman flesh, finer than any castle that was ever built!"

  "Don't be dithyrambic, Wharton," said Carstairs. "Besides the change istoo sudden. It hasn't been a minute since you were pouring abuse uponour 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 rockedwith the fire of the great guns. The hostile trenches were only a fewhundred yards in front of them, but the German batteries all masked, orplaced in pits, were much further away. The French cannon were stationedin like fashion behind their own trenches.

  John and his comrades, for the allotted hour, hugged the side of thetrench nearest to the Germans. The shells from the heavy guns came atregular intervals. Far in the rear men were killed and others werewounded, but no fragment of steel dropped in their trench. There was notmuch danger unless one of the shells should burst almost directly overtheir heads, and they were so used to these bombardments that they paidlittle attention to them, except to keep close as long as they lasted.

  Wharton resumed his novel, Carstairs, sitting on one end of a rudewooden bench, began a game of solitaire, and John, at the other end,gave himself over to dreaming, which the regulated thunder of manycannon 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 Germanarmy made a successful stand near the river Aisne, and both sides wentinto trenches, Lannes had come in the _Arrow_ and, in reply to John'srestrained but none the less eager questions, had said that Julie wassafe in Paris again with her mother, Antoine Picard and the faithfulSuzanne. 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 wasimpatient. Thousands of French girls were at the front, attending to thewounded, and sharing hardship and danger. John knew that Julie had awill like her brother's and he believed that, in time, she would surelycome 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, andyet the trenches now extended about four hundred miles across NorthernFrance and Belgium. The chances seemed a hundred to one against herarrival in the particular trench, honored by the presence of theStrangers, but John felt that in reality they were a hundred to one infavor of it. He wished it so earnestly that it must come true.

  "You're smiling, Scott," said Carstairs. "A good honest English pennyfor your thoughts."

  "What do I care for money? What could I do with it if I had it, heldhere between walls of mud only four feet apart?"

  "At least," interrupted Wharton, "the high cost of living is nottroubling us. Next month's rent may come from where it pleases. Itdoesn't bother me."

  A messenger turned the angle of the trench and summoned John to thepresence of his commander, Captain Colton, who was about three hundredyards away. Young Scott, stooping in order to keep his head coveredwell, started down the trench. The artillery fire was at its height. Thewaves of air followed one another with great violence, and the fumes ofpicric 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, wouldbegin their own cannonade, carried on at equal length.

  John thought little of the fire of the guns, now almost a regular affairlike the striking of a clock, but force of habit kept his head down andno German sharpshooter watching in the trench opposite had a chance athim. He advanced through a vast burrow. Trenches ran parallel, and othertrenches cut across them. One could wander through them for miles. Mostof them were uncovered, but others had roofs, partial or complete, ofthatch or boards or canvas. Many had little alcoves and shelves, dug outby the patient hands of the soldiers, and these niches contained theirmost precious belongings.

  Back of the trenches often lay great heaps of refuse like the kitchenmiddens of primeval man. Attempts at coziness had achieved a littlesuccess in some places, but nearly everywhere the abode of burrowingsoldiers was raw, rank and fetid. Heavy and hideous odors arose from thefour hundred miles of unwashed armies. Men lived amid disease, dirt anddeath. Civilization built up slowly through painful centuries had cometo a sudden stop, and once more they were savages in caves seeking todestroy one another.

  This, at least, was the external aspect of it, but the flower ofcivilization was still sound at the stem. When the storm was over itwould grow and bloom again amid the wreckage. French and Germans, in theintervals of battle, were often friendly with each other. They listenedto 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 reallyreturned to a savage state, and a soldier, but not a believer in war, helooked forward to the time when the grass should grow again over thevast maze of trenches.

  A shell bursting almost overhead put all such thoughts out of his mindfor the present. A hot piece of metal shooting downward struck on thebottom of the trench and lay there hissing. John stepped over it andpassed on.

  The cannonade was at its height, and he noticed that it was heavier thanusual. Perhaps the increase of volume was due to the presence of somegreat dignitary, the Kaiser himself maybe, or the Crown Prince, or theChief of the General Staff. But it was only a flitting thought. Thesubject 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. Itwas no welcome visitor in the trenches where it flooded some of them sobadly as it melted that the men were compelled to move.

  As he walked along he was hailed by many friendly voices. He was wellknown in that part of the gigantic burrow, and the adaptable youngAmerican had become a great favorite, not only with the Strangers, butwith 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 totheir holes."

  Fleury disappeared in one of the earthy aisles, and John went on,turning a little later into an aisle also, and arriving at CaptainCotton's post.

  Daniel Colton had for his own use a wooden bench three feet long, set inan alcove dug in the clay. Some boards and the arch of the earth formedan uncertain shelter. An extra uniform hung against the wall of earth,and he also had a tiny looking-glass and shaving materials. He was asthin and dry as ever, addicted to the use of words of one syllable, andsparing 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.

  John sat.

  "Know well a man named Weber?"

  "Yes," replied John in surprise. He had not thought of the Alsatian indays, 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, hesays."

  "I'll be glad to meet him again, sir. I've a regard for him. We'veshared some great dangers. You've heard that he was in the armoredautomobile with Carstairs, Wharton and myself that time we ran it intothe river?"

  Captain Colton nodded.

  "Then we were captured and both escaped during the fighting along theMarne. Lannes took me away in his aeroplane, but we missed Weber. Ithought, though, that he'd get back to us, and I'm glad, very glad thathe'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 narrowaisles, and John rose impulsively to meet the Alsatian. But beforeoffering 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 livingthe life of the trenches, as he looked fresh, and his cheeks were fullof color. His gray uniform, with the blue threads through it, was neatand clean, and his black pointed beard was trimmed like that of apainter with money.

  "We're old comrades in war, Mr. Scott," he said, "and I'm glad, veryglad to find you again. You and Lannes left me rather abruptly that timenear the Marne, but it was the only thing you could do. If by an effortof the mind I could have sent a wireless message to you I'd have urgedyou to instant flight. I hid in the bushes, in time reached one of ourarmies, 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 hithertohas kept me from seeing you. Now, it sends me to you."

  His tone, at first eager and joyous, as was fitting in an old friendmeeting an old friend, now became very grave, and John looked at himwith some apprehension. Captain Colton motioned to a small stool.

  "Sit down," he said to Weber. Then he offered the Alsatian a match and acigarette which were accepted gratefully. He made the same offer toJohn, who shook his head saying that he did not smoke. The captain tooktwo or three deliberate puffs, and contemplated Weber who had madehimself 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 Ibring."

  "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 athand and more like a rolling crash, began. It would continue about anhour, that is until nightfall, unless the heavy clouds and falling snowbrought darkness much earlier than usual. The flakes were coming faster,but the three were protected from them by the rude board shelter. Johnagain glanced anxiously at Weber. He felt that his news was of seriousimport.

  "I saw your friend Lieutenant Philip Lannes about three weeks ago at avillage called Catreaux, lying sixty miles west of us," said Weber. "Hehad just made a long flight from the west, where he had observed much ofthe heavy fighting around Ypres, and also had been present when theGermans 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? Hehad 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 difficultiesand dangers for aviators. But we wander. He had not heard from hismother, 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,"_ saidJohn.

  "So he told me. They arrived safely, as you know, but Lannes wascompelled to leave immediately for the extreme western front. Theoperations there were continuous and so exacting that he has been unableto return to Paris. He has not heard from his mother and sister in morethan two months, and his great anxiety about them is quite natural."

  "But since the retreat of the Germans there is no danger in Paris savefrom an occasional bomb."

  "No. But a few days after seeing Lannes my own duties as a messengercarried 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 tothem good news of Lannes and I wanted to take to Lannes good news ofthem."

  "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 throughthe day before. It was a noble letter. It expressed the fine spirit ofthat brave young man, a spirit universal now throughout France. He saidthe fighting had been so severe and the wounded were so many that allFrenchwomen who had the skill and strength to help must come to thehospitals, 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 waswilling 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 waseager to go. Madame, her mother, would have gone too, but she was ill,so she remained in the house, while the beautiful Mademoiselle Juliedeparted with the great peasant, Antoine Picard, and his daughterSuzanne."

  "Do you know how they went?"

  "By rail, I think, as far as they could go, and thence they were totravel by motor to the tiny village of Chastel, their destination.Knowing your interest in Mademoiselle Julie, I thought it would notdisplease you to hear this. Chastel is no vast distance from thispoint."

  A blush would have been visible on John's face had he not been tanned sodeeply, but he felt no resentment. Captain Colton took his cigarettefrom 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 nolonger 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 flowersMademoiselle Julie Lannes is the rarest and loveliest. She is thedelicate 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. "MademoiselleJulie Lannes, though a young girl but yet, promises to become the mostbeautiful woman in Europe, and beauty carries with it many privileges.Men may have political equality, but women can never have an equality oflooks."

  "Right, Weber," said Captain Colton.

  John's pulses had begun to leap. Julie was coming back to the front, andshe would not be so far away. Some day he might see her again. But hefelt anxiety.

  "Is the journey to Chastel safe, after she leaves the railway?" he askedof Weber.

  "Is anything safe now?"

  "Nothing in Europe," interjected Captain Colton.

  "But I don't think Mademoiselle Lannes will incur much danger," saidWeber. "It's true, roving bands of Uhlans or hussars sometimes pass inour rear, but it's likely that she and other French girls going to thefront 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 herexact location in case you should see him. Knowing your great friendshipI 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 herarrival 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 offriendship between him and young Lannes had not diminished one whit.

  "And now," said Weber, "with Captain Colton's permission I'll go. Myduties 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 themnow than out there on such a night."

  The dusk had come and the French fire was dying. In a few more minutesit would cease entirely, and then the French hour with the guns havingmatched the German hour, the night would be without battle.

  But the silence that succeeded the thunder of the guns was somber. Inall that terrible winter John had not seen a more forbidding night. Thesnow increased and with it came a strong wind that reached them despitetheir shelter. The muddy trenches began to freeze lightly, but the men'sfeet broke through the film of ice and they walked in an awful slush. Itseemed impossible that the earth could ever have been green and warm andsunny, and that Death was not always sitting at one's elbow.

  The darkness was heavy, but nevertheless as they talked they did notdare to raise their heads above the trenches. The German searchlightsmight blaze upon them at any moment, showing the mark for thesharpshooters. But Captain Colton pressed his electric torch and thethree 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 ofArgonne, but I shall return along this line in a day or two, and it maybe that I can reach the village. If so, I shall tell Mademoiselle Julieand the Picards that I have seen you here, and perhaps I can communicatealso 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 tohear, 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 leda long distance from the front. Colton extinguished the torch and thetwo sat a little while in the darkness. Although vast armies faced oneanother along a front of four hundred miles, little could be heard whereJohn and his captain sat, save the sighing of the wind and the faintsound made by the steady fall of the snow, which was heaping up at theirfeet.

  Not a light shone in the trench. John knew that innumerable sentinelswere on guard, striving to see and hear, but a million or two millionmen lay buried alive there, while the snow drifted down continually. Theillusion that the days of primeval man had come back was strong upon himagain. They had become, in effect, cave-dwellers once more, and theirchief 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 withLannes.

  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 visitof Weber that makes me feel that way, recalling to me that I was once aman, a civilized human being who bathed regularly and who put on cleanclothes 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 thewinter."

  "Comparison not fair to animals. They choose snug dens. Warm leaves andbrush all about 'em."

  "While we lie or stand in mud or snow. After all, Captain, the animalshave more sense in some ways than we. They kill one another only forfood, while we kill because of hate or ignorance."

  "Mostly 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 wasmerely a thin stream of sound, but it had a soft seductive note. Thetune was American, a popular air. It was glorified so far away and insuch terrible places, and John suddenly grew sick for home and thepleasant people in the sane republic beyond the seas. But he crushed theemotion and listened in silence as the player played on.

  "A hundred of those little mouth-organs reached our brigade thismorning," said Colton. "Men in the trenches must have something to liftup 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 heatoned for it by complete silence while they listened to many tunes,mostly American, played on the mouth-organ. John's mind continually wentback to the great republic overseas, so safe and so sane. While he waslistening to the thin tinkle in the dark and snowy trench his friendswere 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 wishdid not occur to him. Through the dark and the snow he saw the goldenhair and the deep blue eyes of Julie Lannes float before him, and itpleased him too to think that he was a minute part in the huge event nowshaking the world.

  A sudden white light blazed through the snow, and then was gone, like aflash of lightning.

  "German searchlight seeking us out," said Colton.

  "I wonder what they want," said John. "They can't be thinking of a rushon such a night as this."

  "Don't know, but must be on guard. Better return to your station andwarn everybody as you go along. You can use your torch, but hold itlow."

  As John walked back he saw by the light of his little electric torch mensound asleep on the narrow shelves they had dug in the side of thetrench, 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 trenchand also carrying similar torches. He found Carstairs and Wharton stillawake, and occupied as they were when he had left them.

  "What was it, Scott?" asked Carstairs. "Has the British army takenBerlin?"

  "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 theCarlton and order the finest dinner for three that the most experiencedchef ever heard of. You don't know how good a dinner I can give--if Ionly have the money. I invite you both to become my guests in London assoon 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 ourcaptive host."

  "Never fear," said Carstairs. "I wasn't born to be taken. What didCaptain Colton want with you, Scott, if it's no great military or statesecret?"

  "To see Fernand Weber, the Alsatian, whom you must remember."

  "Of course we recall him! Didn't we take that dive in the rivertogether? But he's an elusive chap, regular will-o'-the-wisp, messengerand spy of ours, and other things too, I suppose."

  "He's done me some good turns," said John. "Been pretty handy severaltimes when I needed a handy man most. He brought news that MademoiselleJulie Lannes and her servants, the Picards, father and daughter, are ontheir way to or are at Chastel, a little village not far from here,where the French have established a huge hospital for the wounded. Sheleft Paris in obedience to a letter from her brother, and we are to tellPhilip if we should happen to see him."

  "Pretty girl! Deucedly pretty!" said Carstairs.

  "I don't think the somewhat petty adjective 'pretty' is at alladequate," said John with dignity.

  "Maybe not," said Carstairs, noticing the earnest tone in his comrade'svoice. "She's bound to become a splendid woman. Is Weber still with thecaptain?"

  "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 objectionableunderfoot. Yet I'd like to be in Weber's place. A curse upon the man whoinvented life in the trenches! Of all the dirty, foul, squalid monotonyit 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 isgoing to happen in our happy lives."

  They saw the faint glimmer of the torch held low, and an orderly arrivedwith a message from Captain Colton, commanding them to wake everybodyand to stand to their arms. Then the orderly passed quickly on withsimilar orders for others.

  "Old Never Sleep," said Carstairs, referring to Colton, "thinks we gettoo much rest. Why couldn't he let us tuck ourselves away in our mud ona night like this?"

  "I fancy it's not restlessness," said John. "The order doubtless comesfrom a further and higher source. Good old Papa Vaugirard is not morethan 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 thebest condition of all."

  The three young men traveled about the vast burrow along the maintrenches, the side trenches and those connecting. The order to be onguard was given everywhere, and the men dragged themselves from theirsodden beds. Then they took their rifles and were ready. But it was darksave for the glimmer of the little pocket electrics.

  The task finished, the three returned to their usual position. John didnot know what to expect. It might be a device of Papa Vaugirard to dragthem out of a dangerous lethargy, but he did not think so. A kind heartdwelled in the body of the huge general, and he would not try themneedlessly on a wild and sullen night. But whatever the emergency mightbe the men were ready and on the right of the Strangers was that Parisregiment under Bougainville. What a wonderful man Bougainville hadproved himself to be! Fiery and yet discreet, able to read the mind ofthe enemy, liked by his men whom nevertheless he led where the dangerwas greatest. John was glad that the Paris regiment lay so close.

  "Nothing is going to happen," said Carstairs. "Why can't I lay me downon my little muddy shelf and go to sleep? Nobody would send a dog out onsuch a night!"

  "Man will often go where a dog won't," said Wharton, sententiously.

  "And the night is growing worse," continued Carstairs. "Hear that windhowl! Why, it's driving the snow before it in sheets! The trenches won'tdry out in a week!"

  "You might be worth hearing if you'd only quit talking and saysomething, 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 Germanlines, where he saw nothing. The night filled with so much driving snowhad become a kind of white gloom, less penetrable than the darkness.

  Only that shifting white wall met his gaze, and listen as he would, hecould hear nothing. The feeling of something sinister and uncanny,something vast and mighty returned. Man had made war for ages, but neverbefore on so huge a scale.

  "Well, Sister Anna, otherwise John Scott, make your report," saidCarstairs 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 caresfor his many children, but he's making a mistake tonight."

  "I think not," said John, dropping suddenly back into the trench. Ablinding white glare, cutting through the gloom of the snow, had dazzledhim 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 minutesover the French trenches, sweeping to right and left and back again andthen dying away at a far distant point. After it came the same whitegloom and deep silence.

  "Just a way of greeting," said Carstairs.

  "I think not," said John. "Papa Vaugirard makes few mistakes. To my mindthe intensity of the silence is sinister. Often we hear the Germanssinging in their trenches, but now we hear nothing."

  Another half-hour of the long and trying waiting followed. Then thewhite light flared again for a moment, and powerful lights behind theFrench lines flared back, but did not go out. The great beams, shootingthrough the white gloom, disclosed masses of men in gray uniforms andspiked helmets rushing forward.