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A Hilltop on the Marne by Mildred Aldrich

A bicyclist in the ambulance corps


I

passed a strangely quiet morning. But the excitement was not all over. It was just after lunch that Amelie came running down the road to say that we were to have a cantonnement de regiment on our hill for the night and perhaps longer--French reinforcements marching out from the south of Paris; that they were already coming over the crest of the hill to the south and could be seen from the road above; that the advance scouts were already here. Before she had done explaining, an officer and a bicyclist were at the gate. I suppose they came here because it was the only house on the road that was open. I had to encounter the expressions of astonishment to which I am now quite accustomed--a foreigner in a little hole on the road to the frontier, in a partially evacuated country. I answered all the usual questions politely; but when he began to ask how many men I could lodge, and how much room there was for horses in the outbuildings, Amelie sharply interfered, assuring him that she knew the resources of the hamlet better than I did, that she was used to "this sort of thing" and "madame was not"; and simply whisked him off.

I can assure you that, as I watched the work of billeting a regiment in evacuated houses, I was mighty glad that I was here, standing, a willing hostess, at my door, but giving to my little house a personality no unoccupied house can ever have to a passing army. They made quick work, and no ceremony, in opening locked doors

and taking possession. It did not take the officer who had charge of the billeting half an hour, notebook in hand, to find quarters for his horses as well as his men. Before the head of the regiment appeared over the hill names were chalked up on all the doors, and the number of horses on every door to barn and courtyard, and the fields selected and the number of men to be camped all over the hill. Finally the officer returned to me. I knew by his manner that Amelie, who accompanied him, had been giving him a "talking to."

"If you please, madame," he said, "I will see now what you can do for us"; and I invited him in.

I don't suppose I need to tell you that you would get very little idea of the inside of my house from the outside. I am quite used now to the little change of front in most people when they cross the threshold. The officer nearly went on tiptoes when he got inside. He mounted the polished stairs gingerly, gave one look at the bedroom part-way up, touched his cap, and said: "That will do for the chef-major. We will not trouble you with any one else. He has his own orderly, and will eat outside, and will be no bother. Thank you very much, madame"; and he sort of slid down the stairs, tiptoed out, and wrote in chalk on the gatepost, "Weitzel."

By this time the advance guard was in the road and I could not resist going out to talk to them. They had marched out from the south of Paris since the day before,--thirty-six miles,--without an idea that the battle was going on the Marne until they crossed the hill at Montry and came in sight of its smoke. I tell you their faces were wreathed with smiles when they discovered that we knew the Germans were retreating.

Such talks as I listened to that afternoon--only yesterday--at my gate, from such a fluent, amusing, clever French chap,--a bicyclist in the ambulance corps,--of the crossing the Meuse and the taking, losing, re-taking, and re-losing of Charleroi. Oddly enough these were the first real battle tales I had heard.

It suddenly occurred to me, as we chatted and laughed, that all the time the English were here they had never once talked battles. Not one of the Tommies had mentioned the fighting. We had talked of "home," of the girls they had left behind them, of the French children whom the English loved, of the country, its customs, its people, their courage and kindness, but not one had told me a battle story of any kind, and I had not once thought of opening the subject. But this French lad of the ambulance corps, with his Latin eloquence and his national gift of humor and graphic description, with a smile in his eyes, and a laugh on his lips, told me stories that made me see how war affects men, and how often the horrible passes across the line into the grotesque. I shall never forget him as he stood at the gate, leaning on his wheel, describing how the Germans crossed the Meuse--a feat which cost them so dearly that only their superior number made a victory out of a disaster.


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