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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLorraine: A Romance - Chapter 29. The Message Of The Flag
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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 29. The Message Of The Flag Post by :noidle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :3125

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Lorraine: A Romance - Chapter 29. The Message Of The Flag

CHAPTER XXIX. THE MESSAGE OF THE FLAG

It was dawn when Lorraine awoke, stifling a cry of dismay. At the same moment she saw Jack, asleep, huddled into a corner of the post-chaise, his bloodless, sunken face smeared with the fine red dust that drifted in from the creaking wheels. Grahame, driving on the front seat, heard her move.

"Are you better?" he asked, cheerfully.

"Yes, thank you; I am better. Where are we?"

Grahame's face sobered.

"I'll tell you the truth," he said; "I don't know, and I can't find out. One thing is certain--we've passed the last German post, that is all I know. We ought to be near the frontier."

He looked back at Jack, smiled again, and lowered his voice:

"It's fortunate we have passed the German lines, because that last cavalry outpost took all my papers and refused to return them. I haven't an idea what to do now, except to go on as far as we can. I wish we could find a village; the horses are not exhausted, but they need rest."

Lorraine listened, scarcely conscious of what he said. She leaned over Jack, looking down into his face, brushing the dust from his brow with her finger-tips, smoothing his hair, with a timid, hesitating glance at Grahame, who understood and gravely turned his back.

Jack slept. She nestled down, pressing her soft, cool cheek close to his; her eyes drooped; her lips parted. So they slept together, cheek to cheek.

A mist drove across the meadows; from the plains, dotted with poplars, a damp wind blew in puffs, driving the fog before it until the blank vapour dulled the faint morning light and the dawn faded into a colourless twilight. Spectral poplars, rank on rank, loomed up in the mist, endless rows of them, fading from sight as the vapours crowded in, appearing again as the fog thinned in a current of cooler wind.

Grahame, driving slowly, began to nod in the thickening fog. At moments he roused himself; the horses walked on and the wheels creaked in the red dust. Hour after hour passed, but it grew no lighter. Drowsy and listless-eyed the horses toiled up and down the little hills, and moved stiffly on along the interminable road, shrouded in a gray fog that hid the very road-side shrubbery from sight, choked thicket and grove, and blotted the grimy carriage windows.

Jack was awakened with startling abruptness by Grahame, who shook his shoulders, leaning into the post-chaise from the driver's seat.

"There's something in front, Marche," he said. "We've fallen in with a baggage convoy, I fancy. Listen! Don't you hear the camp-wagons? Confound this fog! I can't see a rod ahead."

Lorraine, also now wide awake, leaned from the window. The blank vapour choked everything. Jack rubbed his eyes; his limbs ached; he could scarcely move. Somebody was running on the road in front--the sound of heavy boots in the dust came nearer and nearer.

"Look out!" shouted Grahame, in French; "there's a team here in the road! Passez au large!"

At the sound of his voice phantoms surged up in the mist around them; from every side faces looked into the carriage windows, passing, repassing, disappearing, only to appear again--ghostly, shadowy, spectral.

"Soldiers!" muttered Jack.

At the same instant Grahame seized the lines and wheeled his horses just in time to avoid collision with a big wagon in front. As the post-chaise passed, more wagons loomed up in the fog, one behind another; soldiers took form around them, voices came to their ears, dulled by the mist.

Suddenly a pale shaft of light streamed through the fog above; the restless, shifting vapours glimmered; a dazzling blot grew from the mist. It was the sun. Little by little the landscape became more distinct; the pallid, watery sky lightened; a streak of blue cut the zenith. Everywhere in the road great, lumbering wagons stood, loaded with straw; the sickly morning light fell on silent files of infantry, lining the road on either hand.

"It's a convoy of wounded," said Grahame. "We're in the middle of it. Shall we go back?"

A wagon in front of them started on; at the first jolt a cry sounded from the straw, another, another--the deep sighs of the dying, the groans of the stricken, the muttered curses of teamsters--rose in one terrible plaint. Another wagon started--the wounded wailed; another started--another--another--and the long train creaked on, the air vibrating with the weak protestations of miserable, mangled creatures tossing their thin arms towards the sky. And now, too, the soldiers were moving out into the road-side bushes, unslinging rifles and fixing bayonets; a mounted officer galloped past, shouting something; other mounted officers followed; a bugle sounded persistently from the distant head of the column.

Everywhere soldiers were running along the road now, grouping together under the poplar-trees, heads turned to the plain. Some teamsters pushed an empty wagon out beyond the line of trees and overturned it; others stood up in their wagons, reins gathered, long whips swinging. The wounded moaned incessantly; some sat up in the straw, heads turned also towards the dim, gray plain.

"It's an attack," said Grahame, coolly. "Marche, we're in for it now!"

After a moment, he added, "What did I tell you? Look there!"

Out on the plain, where the mist was clearing along the edge of a belt of trees, something was moving.

"What is it?" asked Lorraine, in a scarcely audible voice.

Before Grahame could speak a tumult of cries and groans burst out along the line of wagons; a bugle clanged furiously; the teamsters shouted and pointed with their whips.

Out of the shadow of the grove two glittering double lines of horsemen trotted, halted, formed, extended right and left, and trotted on again. To the right another darker and more compact square of horsemen broke into a gallop, swinging a thicket of lances above their heads, from which fluttered a mass of black and white pennons.

"Cuirassiers and Uhlans!" muttered Grahame, under his breath. He stood up in his seat; Jack rose also, straining his eyes, but Lorraine hid her face in her hands and crouched in the chaise, her head buried in the cushions.

The silence was enervating; even the horses turned their gentle eyes wonderingly to that line of steel and lances; even the wounded, tremulous, haggard, held their breath between clenched teeth and stiff, swollen lips.

"Nom de Dieu! Serrez les rangs, tas de bleus!" yelled an officer, riding along the edge of the road, revolver in one hand, naked sabre flashing in the other.

A dozen artillerymen were pushing a mitrailleuse up behind the overturned wagon. It stuck in the ditch.

"A nous, la ligne!" they shouted, dragging at the wheels until a handful of fantassins ran out and pulled the little death machine into place.

"Du calme! Du calme! Ne tirez pas trop vite, menagez vos cartouches! Tenez ferme, mes enfants!" said an old officer, dismounting and walking coolly out beyond the line of trees.

"Oui! oui! comptez sur nous! Vive le Colonel!" shouted the soldiers, shaking their chassepots in the air.

On came the long lines, distinct now--the blue and yellow of the Uhlans, the white and scarlet of the cuirassiers, plain against the gray trees and grayer pastures. Suddenly a level sheet of flame played around the stalled wagons; the smoke gushed out over the dark ground; the air split with the crash of rifles. In the uproar bugles blew furiously and the harsh German cavalry trumpets, peal on peal, nearer, nearer, nearer, answered their clangour.

"Hourra! Preussen!"

The deep, thundering shout rose hoarsely through the rifles' roaring fusillade; horses reared; teamsters lashed and swore, and the rattle of harness and wheel broke out and was smothered in the sheeted crashing of the volleys and the shock of the coming charge.

And now it burst like an ocean roller, smashing into the wagon lines, a turmoil of smoke and flashes, a chaos of maddened, plunging horses and bayonets, and the flashing downward strokes of heavy sabres. Grahame seized the reins, and lashed his horses; a cuirassier drove his bloody, foam-covered charger into the road in front and fell, butchered by a dozen bayonets.

Three Uhlans followed, whirling their lances and crashing through the lines, their frantic horses crazed by blows and wounds. More cuirassiers galloped up; the crush became horrible. A horse and steel-clad rider were hurled bodily under the wagon-wheels--an Uhlan, transfixed by a bayonet, still clung to his shattered lance-butt, screaming, staggering in his stirrups. Suddenly the window of the post-chaise was smashed in and a horse and rider pitched under the wheels, almost overturning carriage and occupants.

"Easy, Marche!" shouted Grahame. "Don't try to get out!"

Jack heard him, but sprang into the road. For an instant he reeled about in the crush and smoke, then, stooping, he seized a prostrate man, lifted him, and with one tremendous effort pitched him into the chaise.

Grahame, standing up in the driver's seat, watched him in amazement for a moment; but his horses demanded all his attention now, for they were backing under the pressure of the cart in front.

As for Jack, once in the chaise again he pulled the unconscious man to the seat, calling Lorraine to hold him up. Then he tore the Uhlan's helmet from the stunned man's head and flung it out into the road; after it he threw sabre and revolver.

"Give me that rug!" he cried to Lorraine, and he seized it and wrapped it around the Uhlan's legs.

Grahame had managed to get clear of the other wagon now and was driving out into the pasture, almost obscured by rifle smoke.

"Oh, Jack!" faltered Lorraine--"it is Rickerl!"

It was Rickerl, stunned by the fall from his horse, lying back between them.

"They'd kill him if they saw his uniform!" muttered Jack. "Hark! the French are cheering! They've repulsed the charge! Grahame, do you hear?--do you hear?"

"I hear!" shouted Grahame. "These horses are crazy; I can't hold them."

The troops around them, hidden in the smoke, began to cheer frantically; the mitrailleuse whirred and rolled out its hail of death.

"Vive la France! Mort aux Prussiens!" howled the soldiers. A mounted officer, his cap on the point of his sabre, his face laid open by a lance-thrust, stood shouting, "Vive la Nation! Vive la Nation!" while a boyish bugler shook his brass bugle in the air, speechless with joy.

Grahame drove the terrified horses along the line of wagons for a few paces, then, wheeling, let them gallop straight out into the pasture on the left of the road, where a double line of trees in the distance marked the course of a parallel road.

The chaise lurched and jolted; Rickerl, unconscious still, fell in a limp heap, but Jack and Lorraine held him up and watched the horses, now galloping under slackened reins.

"There are houses there! Look!" cried Grahame. "By Jove, there's a Luxembourg gendarme, too. I--I believe we're in Luxembourg, Marche! Upon my soul, we are! See! There is a frontier post!"

He tried to stop the horses; two strange-looking soldiers, wearing glossy shakos and white-and-blue aiguillettes, began to bawl at him; a group of peasants before the cottages fled, screaming.

Grahame threw all his strength into his arms and dragged the horses to a stand-still.

"Are we in Luxembourg?" he called to the gendarmes, who ran up, gesticulating violently. "Are we? Good! Hold those horses, if you please, gentlemen. There's a wounded man here. Carry him to one of those houses. Marche, lift him, if you can. Hello! his arm is broken at the wrist. Go easy--you, I mean--Now!"

Lorraine, aided by Jack, stepped from the post-chaise and stood shivering as two peasants came forward and lifted Rickerl. When they had taken him away to one of the stone houses she turned quietly to a gendarme and said: "Monsieur, can you tell me where the Emperor is?"

"The Emperor?" repeated the gendarme. "The Emperor is with his army, below there along the Meuse. They are fighting--since four this morning--at Sedan."

He pointed to the southeast.

She looked out across the wide plain.

"That convoy is going to Sedan," said the gendarme. "The army is near Sedan; there is a battle there."

"Thank you," said Lorraine, quietly. "Jack, the Emperor is near Sedan."

"Yes," he nodded; "we will go when you can stand it."

"I am ready. Oh, we must not wait, Jack; did you not see how they even attacked the wounded?"

He turned and looked into her eyes.

"It is the first French cheer I have heard," she continued, feverishly. "They beat back those Prussians and cheered for France! Oh, Jack, there is time yet! France is rising now--France is resisting. We must do our part; we must not wait. Jack, I am ready!"

"We can't walk," he muttered.

"We will go with the convoy. They are on the way to Sedan, where the Emperor is. Jack, they are fighting at Sedan! Do you understand?"

She came closer, looking up into his troubled eyes.

"Show me the box," she whispered.

He drew the flat steel box from his coat.

After a moment she said, "Nothing must stop us now. I am ready!"

"You are not ready," he replied, sullenly; "you need rest."

"'Tiens ta Foy,' Jack."

The colour dyed his pale cheeks and he straightened up. "Always, Lorraine."

Grahame called to them from the cottage: "You can get a horse and wagon here! Come and eat something at once!"

Slowly, with weary, drooping heads, they walked across the road, past a wretched custom-house, where two painted sentry-boxes leaned, past a squalid barnyard full of amber-coloured, unsavoury puddles and gaunt poultry, up to the thatched stone house where Grahame stood waiting. Over the door hung a withered branch of mistletoe, above this swung a sign:

ESTAMINET.

"Your Uhlan is in a bad way, I think," began Grahame; "he's got a broken arm and two broken ribs. This is a nasty little place to leave him in."

"Grahame," said Jack, earnestly, "I've got to leave him. I am forced to go to Sedan as soon as we can swallow a bit of bread and wine. The Uhlan is my comrade and friend; he may be more than that some day. What on earth am I to do?"

They followed Grahame into a room where a table stood covered by a moist, unpleasant cloth. The meal was simple--a half-bottle of sour red wine for each guest, a fragment of black bread, and a ragout made of something that had once been alive--possibly a chicken, possibly a sheep.

Grahame finished his wine, bolted a morsel or two of bread and ragout, and leaned back in his chair with a whimsical glance at Lorraine.

"Now, I'll tell you what I'll do, Marche," he said. "My horses need rest, so do I, so does our wounded Uhlan. I'll stay in this garden of Eden until noon, if you like, then I'll drive our wounded man to Diekirch, where the Hotel des Ardennes is as good an inn as you can find in Luxembourg, or in Belgium either. Then I'll follow you to Sedan."

They all rose from the table; Lorraine came and held out her hand, thanking Grahame for his kindness to them and to Rickerl.

"Good-by," said Grahame, going with them to the door. "There's your dog-cart; it's paid for, and here's a little bag of French money--no thanks, my dear fellow; we can settle all that later. But what the deuce you two children are going to Sedan for is more than my old brains can comprehend."

He stood, with handsome head bared, and bent gravely over Lorraine's hands--impulsive little hands, now trembling, as the tears of gratitude trembled on her lashes.

And so they drove away in their dog-cart, down the flat, poplar-bordered road, silent, deeply moved, wondering what the end might be.

The repeated shocks, the dreadful experiences and encounters, the indelible impressions of desolation and grief and suffering had deadened in Lorraine all sense of personal suffering or grief. For her land and her people her heart had bled, drop by drop--her sensitive soul lay crushed within her. Nothing of selfish despair came over her, because France still stood. She had suffered too much to remember herself. Even her love for Jack had become merely a detail. She loved as she breathed--involuntarily. There was nothing new or strange or sweet in it--nothing was left of its freshness, its grace, its delicacy. The bloom was gone.

In her tired breast her heart beat faintly; its burden was the weary repetition of a prayer--an old, old prayer--a supplication--for mercy, for France, and for the salvation of its people. Where she had learned it she did not know; how she remembered it, why she repeated it, minute by minute, hour by hour, she could not tell. But it was always beating in her heart, this prayer--old, so old!--and half forgotten--


"'To Thee, Mary, exalted--
To Thee, Mary, exalted--'"


Her tired heart took up the rhythm where her mind refused to follow, and she leaned on Jack's shoulder, looking out over the gray land with innocent, sorrowful eyes.

Vaguely she remembered her lonely childhood, but did not grieve; vaguely she thought of her youth, passing away from a tear-drenched land through the smoke of battles. She did not grieve--the last sad tear for self had fallen and quenched the last smouldering spark of selfishness. The wasted hills of her province seemed to rise from their ashes and sear her eyes; the flames of a devastated land dazzled and pained her; every drop of French blood that drenched the mother-land seemed drawn from her own veins--every cry of terror, every groan, every gasp, seemed wrenched from her own slender body. The quiet, wide-eyed dead accused her, the stark skeletons of ravaged houses reproached her.

She turned to the man she loved, but it was the voice of a dying land that answered, "Come!" and she responded with all a passion of surrender. What had she accomplished as yet? In the bitterness of her loneliness she answered, "Nothing." She had worked by the wayside as she passed--in the field, in the hospital, in the midst of beleaguered soldiers. But what was that? There was something else further on that called her--what she did not know, and yet she knew it was waiting somewhere for her. "Perhaps it is death," she mused, leaning on Jack's shoulder. "Perhaps it is _his death." That did not frighten her; if it was to be, it would be; but, through it, through the hideous turmoil of fire and blood and pounding guns and shouting--through death itself--somewhere, on the other side of the dreadful valley of terror, lay salvation for the mother-land. Thither they were bound--she and the man she loved.

All around them lay the flat, colourless plains of Luxembourg; to the east, the wagon-train of wounded crawled across the landscape under a pallid sky. The road now bore towards the frontier again; Jack shook the reins listlessly; the horse loped on. Slowly they approached the border, where, on the French side, the convoy crept forward enveloped in ragged clouds of dust. Now they could distinguish the drivers, blue-bloused and tattered, swinging their long whips; now they saw the infantry, plodding on behind the wagons, stringing along on either flank, their officers riding with bent heads, the red legs of the fantassins blurred through the red dust.

At the junction of the two roads stood a boundary post. A slovenly Luxembourg gendarme sat on a stone under it, smoking and balancing his rifle over both knees.

"You can't pass," he said, looking up as Jack drew rein. A moment later he pocketed a gold piece that Jack offered, yawned, laughed, and yawned again.

"You can buy contraband cigars at two sous each in the village below," he observed.

"What news is there to tell?" demanded Jack.

"News? The same as usual. They are shelling Strassbourg with mortars; the city is on fire. Six hundred women and children left the city; the International Aid Society demanded it."

Presently he added: "A big battle was fought this morning along the Meuse. You can hear the guns yet."

"I have heard them for an hour," replied Jack.

They listened. Far to the south the steady intonation of the cannon vibrated, a vague sustained rumour, no louder, no lower, always the same monotonous measure, flowing like the harmony of flowing water, passionless, changeless, interminable.

"Along the Meuse?" asked Jack, at last.

"Yes."

"Sedan?"

"Yes, Sedan."

The slow convoy was passing now; the creak of wheel and the harsh scrape of axle and spring grated in their ears; the wind changed; the murmur of the cannonade was blotted out in the trample of hoofs, the thud of marching infantry.

Jack swung his horse's head and drove out across the boundary into the French road. On every side crowded the teams, where the low mutter of the wounded rose from the foul straw; on every side pressed the red-legged infantry, rifles _en bandouliere_, shrunken, faded caps pushed back from thin, sick faces.

"My soldiers!" murmured Lorraine, sitting up straight. "Oh, the pity of it!--the pity!"

An officer passed, followed by a bugler. He glanced vacantly at Jack, then at Lorraine. Another officer came by, leading his patient, bleeding horse, over which was flung the dusty body of a brother soldier.

The long convoy was moving more swiftly now; the air trembled with the cries of the mangled or the hoarse groans of the dying. A Sister of Mercy--her frail arm in a sling--crept on her knees among the wounded lying in a straw-filled cart. Over all, louder, deeper, dominating the confusion of the horses and the tramp of men, rolled the cannonade. The pulsating air, deep-laden with the monstrous waves of sound, seemed to beat in Lorraine's face--the throbbing of her heart ceased for a moment. Louder, louder, nearer, more terrible sounded the thunder, breaking in long, majestic reverberations among the nearer hills; the earth began to shake, the sky struck back the iron-throated echoes--sounding, resounding, from horizon to horizon.

And now the troops around them were firing as they advanced; sheeted mist lashed with lightning enveloped the convoy, through which rang the tremendous clang of the cannon. Once there came a momentary break in the smoke--a gleam of hills, and a valley black with men--a glimpse of a distant town, a river--then the stinging smoke rushed outward, the little flames leaped and sank and played through the fog. Broad, level bands of mist, fringed with flame, cut the pasture to the right; the earth rocked with the stupendous cannon shock, the ripping rifle crashes chimed a dreadful treble.

There was a bridge there in the mist; an iron gate, a heavy wall of masonry, a glimpse of a moat below. The crowded wagons, groaning under their load of death, the dusty infantry, the officers, the startled horses, jammed the bridge to the parapets. Wheels splintered and cracked, long-lashed whips snapped and rose, horses strained, recoiled, leaped up, and fell scrambling and kicking.

"Open the gates, for God's sake!" they were shouting.

A great shell, moaning in its flight above the smoke, shrieked and plunged headlong among the wagons. There came a glare of blinding light, a velvety white cloud, a roar, and through the gates, no longer choked, rolled the wagon-train, a frantic stampede of men and horses. It caught the dog-cart and its occupants with it; it crushed the horse, seized the vehicle, and flung it inside the gates as a flood flings driftwood on the rocks.

Jack clung to the reins; the wretched horse staggered out into the stony street, fell, and rolled over stone-dead.

Jack turned and caught Lorraine in both arms, and jumped to a sidewalk crowded with soldiers, and at the same time the crush of wagons ground the dog-cart to splinters on the cobble-stones. The crowd choked every inch of the pavement--women, children, soldiers, shouting out something that seemed to move the masses to delirium. Jack, his arm around Lorraine, beat his way forward through the throng, murmuring anxiously, "Are you hurt, Lorraine? Are you hurt?" And she replied, faintly, "No, Jack. Oh, what is it? What is it?"

Soldiers blocked his way now, but he pushed between them towards a cleared space on a slope of grass. Up the slope he staggered and out on to a stone terrace above the crush of the street. An officer stood alone on the terrace, pulling at some ropes around a pole on the parapet.

"What--what is that?" stammered Lorraine, as a white flag shot up along the flag-staff and fluttered drearily over the wall.

"Lorraine!" cried Jack; but she sprang to the pole and tore the ropes free. The white flag fell to the ground.

The officer turned to her, his face whiter than the flag. The crowd in the street below roared.

"Monsieur," gasped Lorraine, "France is not conquered! That flag is the flag of dishonour!"

They stared at each other in silence, then the officer stepped to the flag-pole and picked up the ropes.

"Not that!--not that!" cried Lorraine, shuddering.

"It is the Emperor's orders."

The officer drew the rope tight--the white flag crawled slowly up the staff, fluttered, and stopped.

Lorraine covered her eyes with her hands; the roar of the crowd below was in her ears.

"O God!--O God!" she whispered.

"Lorraine!" whispered Jack, both arms around her.

Her head fell forward on her breast.

Overhead the white flag caught the breeze again, and floated out over the ramparts of Sedan.

"By the Emperor's orders," said the officer, coming close to Jack.

Then for the first time Jack saw that it was Georges Carriere who stood there, ghastly pale, his eyes fixed on Lorraine.

"She has fainted," muttered Jack, lifting her. "Georges, is it all over?"

"Yes," said Georges, and he walked over to the flag-pole, and stood there looking up at the white badge of dishonour.

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