Dick turned the corner of the traverse and continued along the trench walking on the duckboard. He came to a periscope, looked through it a moment; then he got up on the step and peered over the parapet. In front of him beneath a dingy sky was Beaumont Hamel; to his left the tragic hill of Thiepval. Dick stared at them through his field glasses, his throat straining with sadness.
He went on along the trench, and found the others waiting for him in the next traverse. He was full of excitement and he wanted to communicate it to them, to make them understand about this, though actually Abe North had seen battle service and he had not.
“This land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer,” he said to Rosemary. She looked out obediently at the rather bare green plain with its low trees of six years’ growth. If Dick had added that they were now being shelled she would have believed him that afternoon. Her love had reached a point where now at last she was beginning to be unhappy, to be desperate. She didn’t know what to do — she wanted to talk to her mother.
“There are lots of people dead since and we’ll all be dead soon,” said Abe consolingly.
Rosemary waited tensely for Dick to continue.
“See that little stream — we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”
“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco —”
“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”
“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty- five.”
“No, he didn’t — he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle — there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”
“You want to hand over this battle to D. H. Lawrence,” said Abe.
“All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love,” Dick mourned persistently. “Isn’t that true, Rosemary?”
“I don’t know,” she answered with a grave face. “You know everything.”
They dropped behind the others. Suddenly a shower of earth gobs and pebbles came down on them and Abe yelled from the next traverse:
“The war spirit’s getting into me again. I have a hundred years of Ohio love behind me and I’m going to bomb out this trench.” His head popped up over the embankment. “You’re dead — don’t you know the rules? That was a grenade.”
Rosemary laughed and Dick picked up a retaliatory handful of stones and then put them down.
“I couldn’t kid here,” he said rather apologetically. “The silver cord is cut and the golden bowl is broken and all that, but an old romantic like me can’t do anything about it.”
“I’m romantic too.”
They came out of the neat restored trench, and faced a memorial to the Newfoundland dead. Reading the inscription Rosemary burst into sudden tears. Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel, and she liked Dick’s telling her which things were ludicrous and which things were sad. But most of all she wanted him to know how she loved him, now that the fact was upsetting everything, now that she was walking over the battlefield in a thrilling dream.
After that they got in their car and started back toward Amiens. A thin warm rain was falling on the new scrubby woods and underbrush and they passed great funeral pyres of sorted duds, shells, bombs, grenades, and equipment, helmets, bayonets, gun stocks and rotten leather, abandoned six years in the ground. And suddenly around a bend the white caps of a great sea of graves. Dick asked the chauffeur to stop.
“There’s that girl — and she still has her wreath.”
They watched as he got out and went over to the girl, who stood uncertainly by the gate with a wreath in her hand. Her taxi waited. She was a red-haired girl from Tennessee whom they had met on the train this morning, come from Knoxville to lay a memorial on her brother’s grave. There were tears of vexation on her face.
“The War Department must have given me the wrong number,” she whimpered. “It had another name on it. I been lookin’ for it since two o’clock, and there’s so many graves.”
“Then if I were you I’d just lay it on any grave without looking at the name,” Dick advised her.
“You reckon that’s what I ought to do?”
“I think that’s what he’d have wanted you to do.”
It was growing dark and the rain was coming down harder.
She left the wreath on the first grave inside the gate, and accepted Dick’s suggestion that she dismiss her taxi-cab and ride back to Amiens with them.
Rosemary shed tears again when she heard of the mishap — altogether it had been a watery day, but she felt that she had learned something, though exactly what it was she did not know. Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy — one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.
Amiens was an echoing purple town, still sad with the war, as some railroad stations were:— the Gare du Nord and Waterloo station in London. In the daytime one is deflated by such towns, with their little trolley cars of twenty years ago crossing the great gray cobble-stoned squares in front of the cathedral, and the very weather seems to have a quality of the past, faded weather like that of old photographs. But after dark all that is most satisfactory in French life swims back into the picture — the sprightly tarts, the men arguing with a hundred Voilàs in the cafés, the couples drifting, head to head, toward the satisfactory inexpensiveness of nowhere. Waiting for the train they sat in a big arcade, tall enough to release the smoke and chatter and music upward and obligingly the orchestra launched into “Yes, We Have No Bananas,”— they clapped, because the leader looked so pleased with himself. The Tennessee girl forgot her sorrow and enjoyed herself, even began flirtations of tropical eye-rollings and pawings, with Dick and Abe. They teased her gently.
Then, leaving infinitesimal sections of Wurtemburgers, Prussian Guards, Chasseurs Alpins, Manchester mill hands and old Etonians to pursue their eternal dissolution under the warm rain, they took the train for Paris. They ate sandwiches of mortadel sausage and bel paese cheese made up in the station restaurant, and drank Beaujolais. Nicole was abstracted, biting her lip restlessly and reading over the guide-books to the battle-field that Dick had brought along — indeed, he had made a quick study of the whole affair, simplifying it always until it bore a faint resemblance to one of his own parties.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50