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THE three planes gleamed like mica in the intense blue of the sky. Round about the shrapnel burst in little puffs like cotton-wool. A shout went up from the soldiers who stood in groups in the street of the ruined town. A whistle split the air, followed by a rending snort that tailed off into the moaning of a wounded man.
"By damn, they're nervy. They dropped a bomb."
"I should say they did."
"The dirty bastards, to get a fellow who's going on permission. Now if they beaded you on the way back you wouldn't care."
In the sky an escadrille of French planes had appeared and the three German specks had vanished, followed by a trail of little puffs of shrapnel. The indigo dome of the afternoon sky was full of a distant snoring of motors.
The train screamed outside the station and the permissionaires ran for the platform, their packed musettes bouncing at their hips.
The dark boulevards, with here and there a blue lamp lighting up a bench and a few tree-trunks, or a faint glow from inside a closed caf where a boy in shirt-sleeves is sweeping the floor. Crowds of soldiers, Belgians, Americans, Canadians, civilians with canes and straw hats and well-dressed women on their arms, shop-girls in twos and threes laughing with shrill, merry voices; and everywhere girls of the street, giggling alluringly in hoarse, dissipated tones, clutching the arms of drunken soldiers, tilting themselves temptingly in men's way as they walk along. Cigarettes and cigars make spots of reddish light, and now and then a match lighted makes a man's face stand out in yellow relief and glints red in the eyes of people round about.
Drunk with their freedom, with the jangle of voices, with the rustle of trees in the faint light, with the scents of women's hair and cheap perfumes, Howe and Randolph stroll along slowly, down one side to the shadowy columns of the Madeleine, where a few flower-women still offer roses, scenting the darkness, then back again past the Opra towards the Porte St. Martin, lingering to look in the offered faces of women, to listen to snatches of talk, to chatter laughingly with girls who squeeze their arms with impatience.
"I'm goin' to find the prettiest girl in Paris, and then you'll see the dust fly, Howe, old man."
The hors d'oeuvres came on a circular three-tiered stand; red strips of herrings and silver anchovies, salads where green peas and bits of carrot lurked under golden layers of sauce, sliced tomatoes, potato salad green-specked with parsley, hard-boiled eggs barely visible under thickness of vermilion-tinged dressing, olives, radishes, discs of sausage of many different forms and colours, complicated bundles of spiced salt fish, and, forming the apex, a fat terra-cotta jar of pâté de foie gras. Howe poured out pale-coloured Chablis.
"I used to think that down home was the only place they knew how to live, but oh, boy . . ." said Tom Randolph, breaking a little loaf of bread that made a merry crackling sound.
"It's worth starving to death on singe and pinard for four months."
After the hors d'oeuvres had been taken away, leaving them Rabelaisianly gay, with a joyous sense of orgy, came sole hidden in a cream-coloured sauce with mussels in it.
"After the war, Howe, ole man, let's riot all over Europe; I'm getting a taste for this sort of livin'."
"You can play the fiddle, can't you, Tom?"
"Enough to scrape out Auprès de ma blonde on a bet."
"Then we'll wander about and you can support me. Or else I'll dress as a monkey and you can fiddle and I'll gather the pennies."
"By gum, that'd be great sport."
"Look, we must have some red wine with the veal."
"Let's have Mâcon."
"All the same to me as long as there's plenty of it."
Their round table with its white cloth and its bottles of wine and its piles of ravished artichoke leaves was the centre of a noisy, fantastic world. Ever since the orgy of the hors d'ueuvres things had been evolving to grotesqueness, faces, whites of eyes, twisted red of lips, crow-like forms of waiters, colours of hats and uniforms, all involved and jumbled in the melée of talk and clink and clatter.
The red hand of the waiter pouring the Chartreuse, green like a stormy sunset, into small glasses before them broke into the vivid imaginings that had been unfolding in their talk through dinner. No, they had been saying, it could not go on; some day amid the rending crash of shells and the whine of shrapnel fragments, people everywhere, in all uniforms, in trenches, packed in camions, in stretchers, in hospitals, crowded behind guns, involved in telephone apparatus, generals at their dinner-tables, colonels sipping liqueurs, majors developing photographs, would jump to their feet and burst out laughing at the solemn inanity, at the stupid, vicious pomposity of what they were doing. Laughter would untune the sky. It would be a new progress of Bacchus. Drunk with laughter at the sudden vision of the silliness of the world, officers and soldiers, prisoners working on the roads, deserters being driven towards the trenches would throw down their guns and their spades and their heavy packs, and start marching, or driving in artillery waggons or in camions, staff cars, private trains, towards their capitals, where they would laugh the deputies, the senators, the congressmen, the M.P.'s out of their chairs, laugh the presidents and the prime ministers, and kaisers and dictators out of their plush-carpeted offices; the sun would wear a broad grin and would whisper the joke to the moon, who would giggle and ripple with it all night long. . . . The red hand of the waiter, with thick nails and work-swollen knuckles, poured Chartreuse into the small glasses before them.
"That," said Tom Randolph, when he had half finished his liqueur, "is the girl for me."
"But, Tom, she's with a French officer."
"They're fighting like cats and dogs. You can see that, can't you?"
"Yes," agreed Howe vaguely.
"Pay the bill. I'll meet you at the corner of the boulevard." Tom Randolph was out of the door. The girl, who had a little of the aspect of a pierrot, with dark skin and bright lips and gold-yellow hat and dress, and the sour-looking officer who was with her, were getting up to go.
At the corner of the boulevard Howe heard a woman's voice joining with Randolph's rich laugh.
"What did I tell you? They split at the door and here we are, Howe. . . . Mademoiselle Montreil, let me introduce a friend. Look, before it's too late, we must have a drink."
At the café table next to them an Englishman was seated with his head sunk on his chest.
"Oh, I say, you woke me up."
"No harm. Jolly good thing."
They invited him over to their table. There was a moist look about his eyes and a thickness to his voice that denoted alcohol.
"You mustn't mind me. I'm forgetting. . . . I've been doing it for a week. This is the first leave I've had in eighteen months. You Canadians?"
"No. Ambulance service; Americans."
"New at the game then. You're lucky. . . . Before I left the front I saw a man tuck a hand-grenade under the pillow of a poor devil of a German prisoner. The prisoner said, 'Thank you.' The grenade blew him to hell! God! Know anywhere you can get whisky in this bloody town?"
"We'll have to hurry; it's near closing-time."
They started off, Randolph and the girl talking intimately, their heads close together, Martin supporting the Englishman.
"I need a bit o' whisky to put me on my pins."
They tumbled into the seats round a table at an American bar.
The Englishman felt in his pocket.
"Oh, I say," he cried, "I've got a ticket to the theatre. It's a box. . . . We can all get in. Come along; let's hurry."
They walked a long while, blundering through the dark streets, and at last stopped at a blue-lighted door.
"Here it is; push in."
"But there are two gentlemen and a lady already in the box, meester."
"No matter, there'll be room." The Englishman waved the ticket in the air.
The little round man with a round red face who was taking the tickets stuttered in bad English and then dropped into French. Meanwhile, the whole party had filed in, leaving the Englishman, who kept waving the ticket in the little man's face.
Two gendarmes, the theatre guards, came up menacingly; the Englishman's face wreathed itself in smiles; he linked an arm in each of the gendarmes', and pushed them towards the bar.
"Come drink to the Entente Cordiale. . . . Vive la France!"
In the box were two Australians and a woman who leaned her head on the chest of one and then the other alternately, laughing so that you could see the gold caps in her black teeth.
They were annoyed at the intrusion that packed the box insupportably tight, so that the woman had to sit on the men's laps, but the air soon cleared in laughter that caused people in the orchestra to stare angrily at the box full of noisy men in khaki. At last the Englishman came, squeezing himself in with a finger mysteriously on his lips. He plucked at Martin's arm, a serious set look coming suddenly over his grey eyes. "It was like this"--his breath laden with whisky was like a halo round Martin's head--"the Hun was a nice little chap, couldn't 'a' been more than eighteen; had a shoulder broken and he thought that my pal was fixing the pillow. He said 'Thank you' with a funny German accent. . . . Mind you, he said 'Thank you'; that's what hurt. And the man laughed. God damn him, he laughed when the poor devil said 'Thank you.' And the grenade blew him to hell."
The stage was a glare of light in Martin's eyes; he felt as he had when at home he had leaned over and looked straight into the headlight of an auto drawn up to the side of the road. Screening him from the glare were the backs of people's heads: Tom Randolph's head and his girl's, side by side, their cheeks touching, the pointed red chin of one of the Australians and the frizzy hair of the other woman.
In the entr'acte they all stood at the bar, where it was very hot and an orchestra was playing and there were many men in khaki in all stages of drunkenness, being led about by women who threw jokes at each other behind the men's backs.
"Here's to mud," said one of the Australians. "The war'll end when everybody is drowned in mud."
The orchestra began playing the Madelon and everyone roared out the marching song that, worn threadbare as it was, still had a roistering verve to it that caught people's blood.
People had gone back for the last act. The two Australians, the Englishman, and the two Americans still stood talking.
"Mind you, I'm not what you'd call susceptible. I'm not soft. I got over all that long ago." The Englishman was addressing the company in general. "But the poor beggar said 'Thank you.'"
"What's he saying?" asked a woman, plucking at Martin s arm.
"He's telling about a German atrocity."
"Oh, the dirty Germans! What things they've done!" the woman answered mechanically.
Somehow, during the entr'acte, the Australians had collected another woman; and a strange fat woman with lips painted very small, and very large bulging eyes, had attached herself to Martin. He suffered her because every time he looked at her she burst out laughing.
The bar was closing. They had a drink of champagne all round that made the fat woman give little shrieks of delight. They drifted towards the door, and stood, a formless, irresolute group, in the dark street in front of the theatre.
Randolph came up to Martin.
"Look. We're goin'. I wonder if I ought to leave my money with you . . ."
"I doubt if I'm a safe person to-night.""
"All right. I'll take it along. Look . . . let's meet for breakfast."
"At the Café de la Paix."
"All right. If she is nice I'll bring her."
"She looks charming."
Tom Randolph pressed Martin's hand and was off. There was a sound of a kiss in the darkness.
"I say, I've got to have something to eat," said the Englishman. "I didn't have a bit of dinner. I say-- mangai, mangai." He made gestures of putting things into his mouth in the direction of the fat woman.
The three women put their heads together. One of them knew a place, but it was a dreadful place. Really, they mustn't think that. . . . She only knew it because when she was very young a man had taken her there who wanted to seduce her.
At that everyone laughed and the voices of the women rose shrill.
"All right, don't talk; let's go there," said one of the Australians. "We'll attend to the seducing."
A thick woman, a tall comb in the back of her high-piled black hair, and an immovable face with jaw muscled like a prize-fighter's, served them with cold chicken and ham and champagne in a room with mouldering greenish wall-paper lighted by a red-shaded lamp.
The Australians ate and sang and made love to their women. The Englishman went to sleep with his head on the table.
Martin leaned back out of the circle of light, keeping up a desultory conversation with the woman beside him, listening to the sounds of the men's voices down corridors, of the front door being opened and slammed again and again, and of forced, shrill giggles of women.
"Unfortunately, I have an engagement to-night," said Martin to the woman beside him, whose large spherical breasts heaved as she talked, and who rolled herself nearer to him invitingly, seeming with her round pop-eyes and her round cheeks to be made up entirely of small spheres and large soft ones.
"Oh, but it is too late. You can break it."
"It's at four o'clock."
"Then we have time, ducky."
"It's something really romantic, you see."
"The young are always lucky." She rolled her eyes in sympathetic admiration.
"This will be the fourth night this week that I have not made a sou . . . . I'll chuck myself into the river soon."
Martin felt himself softening towards her. He slipped a twenty-franc note in her hand.
"Oh, you are too good. You are really galant homme, you."
Martin buried his face in his hands, dreaming of the woman he would like to love to-night. She should be very dark, with red lips and stained cheeks, like Randolph's girl; she should have small breasts and slender, dark, dancer's thighs, and in her arms he could forget everything but the madness and the mystery and the intricate life of Paris about them. He thought of Montmartre, and Louise in the opera standing at her window singing the madness of Paris. . . .
One of the Australians had gone away with a little woman in a pink negligée. The other Australian and the Englishman were standing unsteadily near the table, each supported by a sleepy-looking girl. Leaving the fat woman sadly finishing the remains of the chicken, large tears rolling from her eyes, they left the house and walked for a long time down dark streets, three men and two women, the Englishman being supported in the middle, singing in a desultory fashion.
They stopped under a broken sign of black letters on greyish glass, within which one feeble electric light bulb made a red glow. The pavement was wet, and glimmered where it slanted up to the lamp-post at the next corner.
"Here we are. Come along, Janey," cried the Australian in a brisk voice.
The door opened and slammed again. Martin and the other girl stood on the pavement facing each other. The Englishman collapsed on the doorstep, and began to snore.
"Well, there's only you and me," she said.
"Oh, if you were only a person, instead of being a member of a profession----" said Martin softly.
"No, dearie. I must go," said Martin.
"As you will. I'll take care of your friend." She yawned.
He kissed her and stumbled down the dark stairs, his nostrils full of the smell of the rouge on her lips.
He walked a long while with his hat off, breathing deep of the sharp night air. The streets were black and silent. Intemperate desires prowled about him like cats in the darkness.
He woke up and stretched himself stiffly, smelling grass and damp earth. A pearly lavender mist was all about him, through which loomed the square towers of Notre Dame and the row of kings across the façade and the sculpture about the darkness of the doorways. He had lain down on his back on the little grass plot of the Parvis Notre Dame to look at the stars, and had fallen asleep.
It must be nearly dawn. Words were droning importunately in his head. "The poor beggar said 'Thank you' with a funny German accent and the grenade blew him to hell." He remembered the man he had once helped to pick up in whose pocket a grenade had exploded. Before that he had not realized that torn flesh was such a black red, like sausage meat.
"Get up, you can't lie there," cried a gendarme.
"Notre Dame is beautiful in the morning," said Martin, stepping across the low rail on to the pavement.
"Ah, yes; it is beautiful."
Martin Howe sat on the rail of the bridge and looked. Before him, with nothing distinct yet to be seen, were two square towers and the tracery between them and the row of kings on the façade, and the long series of flying buttresses of the flank, gleaming through the mist, and, barely visible, the dark, slender spire soaring above the crossing. So had the abbey in the forest gleamed tall in the misty moonlight; like mist, only drab and dense, the dust had risen above the tall apse as the shells tore it to pieces.
Amid a smell of new-roasted coffee he sat at a table and watched people pass briskly through the ruddy sunlight. Waiters in shirt-sleeves were rubbing off the other tables and putting out the chairs. He sat sipping coffee, feeling languid and nerveless. After a while Tom Randolph, looking very young and brown with his hat a little on one side, came along. With him, plainly dressed in blue serge, was the girl. They sat down and she dropped her head on his shoulder, covering her eyes with her dark lashes.
"Oh, I am so tired."
"Poor child! You must go home and go back to bed."
"But I've got to go to work."
"Poor thing." They kissed each other tenderly and languidly.
The waiter came with coffee and hot milk and little crisp loaves of bread.
"Oh, Paris is wonderful in the early morning!" said Martin.
"Indeed it is. . . . Good-bye, little girl, if you must go. We'll see each other again."
"You must call me Yvonne." She pouted a little. "All right, Yvonne." He got to his feet and pressed her two hands.
"Well, what sort of a time did you have, Howe?"
"Curious. I lost our friends one by one, left two women and slept a little while on the grass in front of Notre Dame. That was my real love of the night."
"My girl was charming. . . . Honestly, I'd marry her in a minute." He laughed a merry laugh.
"Let's take a cab somewhere."
They climbed into a victoria and told the driver to go to the Madeleine.
"Look, before I do anything else I must go to the hotel."
"Of course; you'd better go at once."
The cab rattled merrily along the streets where the early sunshine cast rusty patches on the grey houses and on the thronged fantastic chimney-pots that rose in clusters and hedges from the mansard roofs.