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CHAPTER III The Cross of the Legion of Honor
 That night just before falling asleep Nona Davis had an unexpected flash of thought. It was odd that Lieutenant Hume, who had been a friend in need, should turn out to be such a well-educated and attractive fellow. Moreover, how did it happen that he was a British officer? Now and then for some especial act of valor, or for some especial ability, a man was raised from the ranks. Yet Nona did not believe either of these things to have happened in Lieutenant Hume’s case.
What was the answer to the puzzle? He was the son of a gardener and she herself had seen his mother Susan, a comfortable old lady with twinkling brown eyes, red cheeks, a large bosom and a round waist to match. Surely it was difficult to conceive of her as the mother of such a son![39] And especially in England where it was so difficult to rise above one’s environment.
Although tired and sleepy, Nona devoted another ten minutes to her riddle. Then all at once the answer appeared plain enough. Lieutenant Hume had doubtless been brought up as the foster brother of a boy of nobler birth and greater riches than he himself possessed. Then, doubtless, seeing his unusual abilities, he had been given unusual opportunities. Nona had read English novels in which just such interesting situations occurred, so she felt rather pleased with her own discernment. However, if it were possible to introduce the subject without being rude, she intended to make sure of her impression by questioning Lieutenant Hume. One might so easily begin by discussing English literature, a subject certainly broad enough in itself. Then one could mention a particular book, where a foster brother played a conspicuous part. But while trying to recall a story with just the exact situation she required, Nona went to sleep.
She and Barbara shared the same room.[40] But fortunately no one of her other friends had been so severe as Eugenia. However, after the departure of the two young men, realizing that she had been tiresome, Nona had been sufficiently contrite to appease even Eugenia.
The next morning at déjeuner Dick Thornton declared that Nona’s adventure had really resulted in good fortune for all of them. More than most things he had desired to attend the review of the fresh troops about to leave Paris for the firing line. Moreover, it would be uncommonly interesting to see the presentation of the decorations by the French President. And if Nona had not chanced to meet Lieutenant Hume and his friend, neither of these opportunities would have been theirs. Dick had no chance of securing the special invitations and tickets necessary for seats in the reviewing stand. Privately Dick had intended escaping from the four girls to witness the scene alone. But now as Lieutenant Hume had invited all of them it would be unnecessary to make this confession.
[41]
The review was to take place on a level stretch of country just outside Paris between St. Cloud and the Bois.
Having in some magical fashion secured two antiquated taxicabs, Lieutenant Hume arrived next day at the pension. He and Nona and Eugenia started off in one of them, with Barbara, Mildred and Dick in the other.
During the ride into the country Lieutenant Hume talked the greater part of the time about his friend, Captain Castaigne, whom Nona and Eugenia had met the evening before. The two men had only known each other since the outbreak of the war, yet a devoted friendship had developed between them.
Indeed, Nona smiled to herself over Lieutenant Hume’s enthusiasm; it was so unlike an Englishman to reveal such deep feeling. But for the time being Captain Henri Castaigne was one of the idols of Paris. The day’s newspapers were full of the gallant deed that had won him the right to the military order France holds most dear, “The Cross of the Legion of Honor.”
[42]
Nevertheless, during the early part of the conversation Eugenia scarcely listened. She was too busily and happily engaged in watching the sights about her. Paris was having a curious effect upon the New England girl, one that she did not exactly understand. She was both shocked and fascinated by it.
In the first place, she had not anticipated liking Paris. She had only consented to make the trip because they were in need of rest and the other girls had chosen Paris. Everything she had ever heard or read concerning Paris had made her feel prejudiced against the city. Moreover, it was totally unlike Eastport, Massachusetts, where Eugenia had been born and bred and where she had received most of her ideas of life.
Yet there was no denying that there was something about Paris that took hold even of Eugenia Peabody’s repressed imagination.
It was a brilliant autumn afternoon. The taxicab rattled along the Champs Elysées, under the marvelous Arc de Triomphe[43] and then turned into the wooded spaces of the Bois.
Every now and then Eugenia found a lump rising in her throat and her heart beating curiously fast. It was all so beautiful, both in art and nature. Surely it was impossible to believe that there could be an enemy mad enough to destroy a city that could never be restored to its former loveliness.
Perchance the war had purified Paris, taking away its uglier side in the healing influence of patriotism. For even Eugenia’s New England eyes and conscience could find but little to criticize. Naturally many of the costumes worn by the young women she considered reprehensible. The colors were too bright, the skirts were too short. French women were really too stylish for her severer tastes. For there was little black to be seen. This was a gala afternoon, so whatever one’s personal sorrow, today Paris honored the living.
Before Eugenia consented to listen Lieutenant Hume had arrived in the middle of his story, and then she listened only half-heartedly.[44] She was interested chiefly because the young Captain she had met the evening before was so far from one’s idea of a hero. He was more like a figure of a manikin dressed to represent an officer and set up in a shop window. His features were too perfect, he was too graceful, too debonair! But in truth Eugenia’s idea of a soldier must still have been represented by the type of man who, shouldering a musket and still in his farmer’s clothes, marched out to meet the enemy at Bunker Hill.
Some day Eugenia would learn that it takes all manner of men and women to make a world. And that there are worthwhile people and things that do not come from Boston.
“He was in the face of the enemy’s fire when a shell exploded under his horse,” Lieutenant Hume explained. “He and the horse were shot twenty feet in the air. When they came down to earth again there was an immense hole in the ground beneath them and both man and horse were plunged into it. Rather like having one’s grave dug ahead of time, isn’t it?”
[45]
Nona nodded, leaning across from her seat in the cab with her golden brown eyes darkening with excitement and her hands clasped tight together in her lap.
Eugenia kept her eyes upon her even while giving her attention to the narrative. Personally she considered Nona unusually pretty and attractive and the idea worried her now and then. For there were to be no romances if she could prevent them while the four American Red Cross girls were in Europe. If they wished such undesirable possessions as husbands they must wait and marry their own countrymen.
“But Captain Castaigne was not hurt? So he still managed to carry the messages to his General?” Nona demanded. She was much interested in getting the details of the story before seeing its hero again.
Robert Hume was talking quietly. Nevertheless it was self-evident that he was only pretending to his casual tone.
“Of course Captain Castaigne was injured. There would have been no reason why any notice should have been taken of him if he had only done his ordinary duty.[46] Fact is, when he crawled out he was covered with blood and nearly dead. The horse was killed outright and Henri almost so. Nevertheless he managed to run on foot under heavy fire to headquarters with his message. No one knows how he accomplished it and he knows least of all. He simply is the kind of fellow who does the thing he starts out to do. We Anglo-Saxons don’t always understand the iron purpose under the charm and good looks these French fellows have. But fortunately we don’t often use cavalrymen now for carrying despatches. Motor cars do the work better when there is no telephone connection.”
“Yes, and I’m truly glad,” Nona murmured softly. She was thinking of how many gallant young cavalry officers both in France and England those first terrible months of the war had cut down, before the lessons of the new warfare had been learned.
But Eugenia had now awakened to a slight interest in the conversation.
“Your young friend looks fit enough now,” she remarked dryly.
[47]
The English officer was not pleased with Eugenia’s tone. “Nevertheless, Captain Castaigne has been dangerously ill in a hospital for many months, although he is returning to his regiment tomorrow.”
After this speech there was no further opportunity for conversation. The two cabs had driven through the Bois and were now in sight of the field where the review was to be held.
Drawn up at the left were two new regiments about to depart for the front. Most of the soldiers were boys of nineteen who would have finished their terms of military service in the following year, but because of necessity were answering France’s call today. They were wearing the new French uniform of gray, which is made for real service, and not the old-fashioned one with the dark-blue coat and crimson trousers. These too often formed conspicuous targets for the enemy’s guns.
Across from the recruits stood another line of about fifty men. They were old men with gray hair. If their shoulders were still erect and their heads up it was not[48] because this was now their familiar carriage. It was because this great day had inspired them. For they were the old soldiers who had been gallant fighters in 1870, when France had fought her other war with Germany. Now they were too old to be sent to the firing line. Nevertheless, each one of them was privately armed and ready to defend his beloved Paris to the last gasp should the enemy again come to possess it.
Between the two lines and on horseback were President Poincaré, France’s new war minister and half a dozen other members of the Cabinet.
Then standing in a small group separated from the others were the soldiers who were about to be decorated for especial bravery.
While Lieutenant Hume was struggling to find places for his guests, Nona was vainly endeavoring to discover the young French officer whom she had met so unexpectedly the evening before. She was anxious to point him out to Mildred and Dick and Barbara.
But after they were seated it was Eugenia[49] who found him first. Captain Castaigne was wearing an ordinary service uniform with no other decorations besides the emblems of his rank.
Then a few moments later President Poincaré and his staff dismounted.
The four American girls were distinctly disappointed by the French President’s appearance. He is a small, stout man with a beard, very middle class and uninteresting looking. Yet he has managed to hold France together in times of peace and of war.
This was indeed a great day for Paris. Rarely are medals for bravery bestowed upon the soldiers save near the scene of battle by the officers in command. Yet there was little noise and shouting among the crowd as there had been the evening before. They were unusually silent, the women and girls not trying now to keep back the tears.
Sixty-four buglers sounded a salute. Then President Poincaré marched forward and shook hands with every soldier in the group of twelve. Eleven of them were to[50] receive the new French decoration which is known as the “Croix de Guerre.” This is a medal formed of two crossed swords and having a profile of a figure representing the French Republic in the center. But Captain Castaigne alone was to be honored with the Cross of the Legion of Honor.
First President Poincaré pinned the medal on the breast of a boy sentry. He had stood at the mouth of a trench as the Germans approached, and though wounded in half a dozen places had continued to fire until his companions had been warned of the attack.
Then one after the other each soldier received his country’s thanks and the recognition of his especial bravery until at length President Poincaré came to young Captain Castaigne.
One does not know exactly what it was in the young man’s appearance that touched the older man. Perhaps when you learn to know more of his character you will be better able to understand. For after the President had bestowed the higher decoration upon the young captain, he leaned over and kissed him.
[51]
Eugenia Peabody had an excellent view of the entire proceeding. Though her lips curled sarcastically, strangely enough her eyes felt absurdly misty. She much disliked this French custom of the men kissing each other, for Eugenia believed very little in kissing between either men or women. Nevertheless, she did feel disturbed by the whole performance, and hoped that her friends were too much engaged to pay attention to her. Above all things Eugenia desired that Barbara Meade should not observe her weakness. She knew Barbara would never grow weary hereafter of referring to the amazement of Eugenia’s giving way to tears in public and without any possible excuse.
Ten minutes later the review began with a blare of trumpets. Then gravely the new regiments passed before the President and his officers. Afterwards they marched away until a cloud of dust hid them and there was nothing for the spectators to do but return to their own homes.
Nevertheless, the young French Captain managed to make his way to his English[52] friend. He appeared as indifferent and as debonair as he had the evening before. One could never have guessed that he had just received the greatest honor of his life, and an honor given to but few men.
Reference to his decoration he pretended not to be able to understand, although Mildred, Barbara and Dick tried to compliment him with their best school French.
But beyond inclining her head frostily, Eugenia made no attempt at a further acquaintance with the young soldier.
However, several times when he believed no one was observing him, Captain Castaigne stole a furtive glance at Eugenia.
She was somewhat better looking than she had been the evening before, yet she was by no means a beauty. Moreover, she was still a puzzle.
Then the boy—for after all he was only twenty-three—swallowed a laugh. At last he had found a real place for Eugenia. No wonder he had thought of his former colonel. Recently he had learned that a regiment of women in Paris were in training as soldiers. He could readily behold Eugenia in command.
[53]
The other three American girls were charming and he was glad to have met them. But Eugenia he trusted he might never see again. He was glad to be returning to the firing line next day. Let heaven preserve him from further acquaintance with such an unattractive person!
 


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