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CHAPTER VI The Chateau
 Next morning Mildred and Eugenia went over the field hospital with a French officer who had been sent to receive them.
Barbara and Nona, therefore, undertook the unpacking and arranging of their belongings and also the task of preparing lunch, which was to be a light one. Indeed, all the household arrangements must be of the simplest, so that the girls might have their strength and enthusiasm to give to the work of nursing.
But because they had gotten up soon after daylight, Nona and Barbara found that they had two hours of freedom which might be spent in investigating the neighborhood. So putting on ordinary clothes instead of their nursing uniforms, they set out for a walk.
“I suppose,” Barbara suggested, making[79] an odd grimace, “that there is no special harm in our walking through the estate of the countess and possibly looking at the chateau if we chance to be in the vicinity. I don’t believe that we can do much strolling about here without encroaching on her place. From what Fran?ois told us yesterday she owns most of the countryside.”
Nona laughed. “That is possibly an exaggeration. Still, I would like to see the old chateau immensely. In spite of Eugenia, I agree with you that we may be permitted to humbly gaze upon it without attempting to speak to any one. I wonder in which direction we ought to go to discover it?”
The girls had gone several yards now and Barbara stopped and wheeled about.
“There is a pine forest over there to the left that is so lovely it won’t matter if it brings us out at the end of nowhere. Only we ought to drop bits of paper behind us like Hop o’ My Thumb for fear of getting lost.”
“I have a fairly good bump of locality,” the other girl answered.
[80]
Then in spite of the fact that they were two feminine persons, neither of the girls spoke again until they had walked at least a mile. Having come unexpectedly upon a shining pool of water, it was then impossible not to utter exclamations of delight.
Nona dropped down on her knees and stared into the depth of it. “Have you read ‘Peleas and Melisande,’ Barbara?” she asked. “It opens in the most exquisite fashion with Melisande gazing down into the depth of the pool and crying over something she has lost. One never knows exactly what it is, but I always thought the entire story meant a reaching after the light. I suppose that is what war is, though it is a cruel and horrible way of searching for it.”
Barbara nodded, although she did not know exactly what her friend was talking about. There was a poetic streak in Nona Davis that no other one of the four girls possessed. During her lonely childhood she seemed to have read an odd assortment of books. Of course she had not the real information that Eugenia had, but what she[81] knew was more fascinating, at least according to Barbara Meade’s ideas.
“Well, I hope that war may never cross the border line into these forests,” Nona added thoughtfully, “although I can imagine any one who knew them could play hide and seek with an enemy for a long time. There is a little hut over there that seems deserted; let’s go and see it.”
As Barbara had been standing she of course had a better view than her companion, but Nona obediently followed her.
The little hut was empty. It was merely a tumbledown shack of logs and stones. However, some one must have inhabited it at one time or another, because there were signs of a fire and a few old pots and pans, weather beaten and rusty, that had been left about. Moreover, there was a moth-eaten fur rug that may have formed a bed.
Yet it was lonely and uncomfortable looking, so the girls did not care to linger. Besides, if they were to see the old French chateau during the morning they must find a place where it was more likely to be.
[82]
Discovering a path that appeared to have been more used than any other, they followed it. In ten minutes after they came to the edge of the clearing and there about a quarter of a mile beyond was the outline of the chateau.
“I suppose it is intruding to go nearer,” Barbara said plaintively, “but I can’t get the least satisfaction from this bird’s-eye view.”
“No doubt of it,” Nona answered, “yet I propose that we take the risk. These are war times and very few servants are left about any of the old places, so we may escape without being seen. I feel it is our duty, as long as Eugenia is not along, to see all that we can before our work begins. Then we’ll have no chance.”
The chateau was in a measure a disappointment, because after all it looked more like an old-time fortress than a dwelling house, and besides was dreadfully dilapidated.
“But once one was accustomed to this idea, it really became more interesting,” Nona finally argued.
[83]
A part of the chateau must have been erected in the fourteenth or fifteenth century when feudal warfare was still carried on in France. The stone tower had loopholes for windows with iron bars across, so that the approach of an enemy could be discovered and he might be attacked with slight danger to the inmates of the castle. This tower was in a fairly good state of preservation, but the rest of the house, where the living apartments were situated, was almost a ruin. There were signs of poverty everywhere. The servants’ quarters were deserted, there were no stables, nothing to suggest the prosperity that should accompany so famous a possession as the old chateau represented.
Indeed, the two American girls were so engaged in discussing the situation that they were not aware of anyone approaching. Unexpectedly they found a woman past middle age moving slowly toward them. She was alone save that she was accompanied by an immense silver-gray dog, which to Nona’s gratification she held by a leash. For in spite of her bravery in other[84] matters, Nona was ridiculously and unreasonably fearful of dogs.
“Gracious!” Barbara whispered, half amused and half terror-stricken. “That must be the mythical countess herself. Shades of Eugenia, what shall we say or do?”
But the older woman gave them little opportunity for a decision.
She was small and slender, dressed in black, with a lace shawl over her head coming down into a point upon her forehead. Underneath were masses of carefully arranged snow-white hair. The Countess’ face was almost as white as her hair; there was nothing that gave it color save her lips and a pair of somber dark eyes. Her expression was sad and aloof.
She must have recognized the two girls as Americans and known for what purpose they had just come to the neighborhood. Nevertheless, she passed by them without speaking, save for a slight inclination of her head. In spite of her kindness the evening before, assuredly she had no desire for further acquaintance.
When she was out of hearing Barbara[85] and Nona gazed at each other like two forward children.
Then Barbara took off the small silk cap she was so fond of wearing.
“I am taking it off to Eugenia, Nona,” she explained. “Thank fortune, I did not intrude my western personality upon the great lady. I can just imagine how she would have treated me if I had undertaken to thank her for her kindness and what she would have thought about American girls in general. Eugenia put it mildly. Well, as a greater person than I am once remarked, ‘it takes all kinds of people to make a world.’ And methinks before this war nursing experience is over we shall have met a good many varieties. But let us get back to the little blue and gray farmhouse as soon as possible. Goodness knows, I would rather live in it than in a tumble-down chateau! Besides, I wish to apologize to Eugenia.”
However, the girls had only started on their return journey when some one came hobbling along behind them.
It was Fran?ois and he carried a basket on his arm.
[86]
Nona inquired a shorter way home and the old man explained that as he was on the way to their house, he would like to be permitted to accompany them. There was a road that was only half as long as the route they had taken.
Naturally the girls were glad enough for the old man’s escort, especially as he was full of reminiscences of the neighborhood which he loved dearly to impart.
In his basket was another offering from the countess. Old Fran?ois explained that if she had passed them without seeming to notice their presence, it was not that she intended being unkind. She was lonely and depressed. All her kinspeople were at the front as well as her only son, who was the last to bear the family name. Moreover, they had been poor before, but now that all their farm people had gone off to the war and there was no one left to work in the fields, where was a single franc to come from? Besides, were not the Germans so near the line that if the worst took place they would overrun the countryside and destroy the little that was left?
[87]
Finally the girls discovered that the old man and his mistress were actually the only two persons remaining in the old chateau. When Fran?ois was compelled to be away the countess had only her great dog for protection.
The picture was a pathetic one and Nona and Barbara felt less aggrieved by the older woman’s coldness. One could hardly wonder that she did not care to meet or talk to strangers.
“But aren’t you afraid to be here on this great place alone, Fran?ois?” Nona asked, more to persuade the old man to go on talking than because she was interested in her question.
The old peasant shook his head enigmatically. But he was a garrulous old fellow and immensely pleased with Nona’s ability to speak French.
“We will be in no danger,” he said, bobbing his head and then shrugging his old shoulders until all his bent-over body seemed to be moving at once, “even if the barbarians should devastate our land. If this should happen the American girls[88] must flee to old Fran?ois for protection. They could say what they liked about the Red Cross insuring them from danger, he knew a better way.” But what the way was Fran?ois would not tell, although both girls teased and implored him to confide in them all the way back to the “House with the Blue Front Door.”


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