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CHAPTER XIV The Parting of the Ways
 The two girls reached the farmhouse in a shorter time than they had believed possible and at once rushed upstairs to their rooms. There they dragged out their suit-cases, and Mildred’s and Eugenia’s as well, and began packing them with the clothes they felt to be absolutely necessary for their work.
They knew the wounded must first be removed from the field hospital, with only the nurse and doctors who would have charge of them. But there would also be other motor cars to transport the additional nurses, physicians and hospital assistants. Moreover, since all the tents and the supplies must afterwards be gotten away this would surely require a fair amount of time. So in case they were late and missed the first of the departing cars, they would certainly be stored away in one of the later ones.
[178]
“I do wish we had asked Eugenia and Mildred to wait until we returned to the hospital before they leave,” Barbara called from beneath the bed in Mildred’s room, where she was dragging out a pair of shoes.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference if we had asked,” Nona answered. “Mildred is to go in one of the first motor ambulances with the wounded, as she has charge of two critically ill soldiers. And of course Eugenia will do whatever she thinks wisest. Certainly she won’t wait for us if she thinks it best to go first.”
“I am not so sure of that,” Barbara replied, and then there was a silence lasting for several moments.
Afterwards Barbara and Nona wondered why they were not more frightened during this half hour. The fact is that they had not yet appreciated the seriousness of the French retreat, nor the great task of moving the field hospital beyond the present danger line.
Moreover, they were too busy to think clearly on any subject, and a time of action is seldom a time of fear.
[179]
Except for the two girls moving hastily about, the little farmhouse was delightfully quiet and peaceful after the dreadful morning at the hospital. Once the thought flashed through Barbara Meade’s mind: “If only they might stay here in the little ‘House with the Blue Front Door’ and take their chances with the enemy!” They would be under the protection of the Red Cross. However, as they had received their orders from an authority higher than Eugenia’s, like soldiers they must do as they were commanded, without considering their personal inclinations.
So Barbara, having finished Mildred’s packing, took her suit-case downstairs by the front door. She then went up for Eugenia’s, which Nona had by this time completed. It was heavier than the other and she staggered a little and had to stop to recover her breath after she had placed it alongside Mildred’s.
Therefore, she chanced to be standing just beside the front door when the first knocking on the outside began. Nona had drawn a great, old-fashioned bolt across[180] the door after entering, chiefly with the idea that they should not be disturbed at their tasks.
Barbara did not open the door at once.
This knocking was not of an ordinary kind, such as one would expect from a visitor. It was very insistent, never stopping for a second; it was indeed, a kind of hurried tattoo.
“Who is there?” Barbara demanded. But before any one else could reply Nona called from upstairs.
“Please don’t open the door, Barbara, at least not until we are about to start. There isn’t an instant to waste in talking to any one.”
In consequence Barbara turned away, but immediately after she recognized the voice of old Fran?ois.
“Open, open!” he shouted, first in French and then in English, having acquired a few words from his four American girl friends.
Then Barbara drew back the latch and Fran?ois tumbled in.
The old fellow’s brown face was ashen and the pupils of his little black eyes were dilated with fear.
[181]
He had evidently been running until he was almost out of breath.
“The French are retreating, all our army at once: They are tramping, tramping through the fields and the woods. Madame the Countess says you are to come to the chateau immediately. Soon the Germans will be here and then——”
The old French peasant flung out his withered hands and rolled his eyes upward. Words failed to express his pent-up emotions.
But Barbara shook her head quietly.
“You are very kind, Fran?ois. Tell the Countess Amélie we are most grateful for her thought of us. But we are going to the rear with the field hospital staff and in any case we should be safe as Red Cross nurses. Go back to her now, for she needs you more than we do. This must be a terrible experience for her.”
Old Fran?ois straightened his crooked back against the front door, which he had most carefully closed after entering.
“But you must come and at once, Mademoiselle. For the Countess is ill, perhaps[182] dying from the shock of the news we have just received,” he insisted. “Her son’s, Captain Henri’s, regiment has been destroyed. Some of the men have been taken prisoners, the others killed or wounded. And we have had no word from our young captain since the fighting began.”
The old servant’s face worked with emotion and his eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” Barbara murmured pitifully, and then realizing the inadequacy of words at such a time, turned to Nona, who had at this instant come downstairs, carrying her own and Barbara’s bags.
“What shall we do, Nona?” Barbara demanded. “We should have started back to the field hospital before this. And yet if we go now and leave the Countess ill with no one to look after her, it seems too cruel! Suppose I go with Fran?ois and you return to the hospital and explain what has delayed me. Tell Eugenia where I am. Somehow I feel that perhaps the Countess Amélie needs my care more than the soldiers do today. There are so many other nurses to look after them, while she is old and alone.”
[183]
Nona’s dark eyes looked troubled, nevertheless she shook her head.
“I don’t agree with you, Barbara. We ought to be at our posts. We have promised our services to the soldiers; besides, I could not let you go alone to the Countess. Don’t you know that when the German soldiers overrun this countryside the chateau will be one of the first places to be seized? It is the most important house in the neighborhood and the German officers are sure to take up their headquarters there.” Nona held out her hand to Fran?ois.
“I too am sorrier than I can say, but we can’t do what you ask of us,” she declared, “we must go back to our work. Please try and make the Countess Amélie understand. Now good-by, Fran?ois, and may we meet again in happier times. You must move away from the door and let us be off, for we are dreadfully late already from talking to you.”
But old Fran?ois did not stir.
“You have lived in Madame’s house, you have eaten of her food, and yet when[184] she may be dying you will not serve her. Because you wear on your arm the badge of the Croix de Rouge, does it mean that you care only for soldiers? Because Madame is a woman and an old one, you feel no interest in her! Truly if she dies this war will have killed her, for one does not die only from wounds of the flesh.”
Barbara’s blue eyes had slowly filled with tears during the old peasant’s speech. But now a resolute line formed about the corners of her pretty mouth that only showed there occasionally.
“I am going to the Countess, Nona,” she remarked quietly. “You must do whatever your conscience prompts you to do. Mine tells me that we have accepted a great deal from the Countess and now she needs me more than any one else. If the hospital staff consider me a deserter, I cannot help it. Besides, I almost promised Eugenia that I would go to the Countess Amélie if the Germans conquered this part of the countryside. It was for another reason I promised, but tell her, please, and she will understand. Good-by; I’ll join you[185] as soon as possible. Don’t worry about me.”
Barbara stooped and picked up her bag.
“I’ll find my way to the chateau alone. Fortunately, I know the way,” she added. “Fran?ois, you must go with Miss Davis, so as to carry the other suit-cases. Then you’ll come back to Madame as quickly as possible.”
Taking a watch out of her pocket, Nona now glanced at it.
“I am coming with you, Barbara. Already we are nearly an hour behind the time when the field hospital expected to be on its way. If I return now I shall either find that everybody and everything has departed, or else it will merely be an additional trouble to dispose of me at the last. A day’s loss of my services cannot make such a great difference. So we can first find out how greatly the Countess Amélie needs us, and then tomorrow, one or both of us must somehow manage to rejoin the army. The French retreat may not be so universal as we fear.”
By this time the blue front door had been[186] flung open by Fran?ois, so that outside the girls could hear the tramping of many feet. But the feet were moving with a rhythmical swing that proved the French soldiers were at least retreating in good order. So far there had been no rout by the enemy.
Now Fran?ois was in the greatest hurry of the three. He had taken Barbara’s bag out of her hand and now laid hold of Nona’s. Then he set off, trotting so rapidly down the path, in spite of his age and crooked legs, that the two girls could scarcely keep up with him. Afterwards he led their way into the woods, skirting along by the edge of the trees and keeping safely out of sight of the soldiers, although numbers of them were marching through the same woods on the farther side.
It was by this time early in the afternoon, but the girls found the chateau undisturbed. Indeed, the autumn sun shone down upon it with the same tranquillity as though the world had been at peace instead of war. Across the neglected lawn a peacock stalked as majestically and disdainfully as if the old gardens had been[187] filled with the belles and beaus in the silks and satins of a more picturesque age.
However, the two American girls were living in a too tragically workaday world. They had no thought and no time for beauty, since a shorter and more compelling word urged them on.
The lower part of the old chateau was deserted, and as neither Nona nor Barbara knew the way upstairs, Fran?ois preceded them. He opened first the door of the Countess Amélie’s room, but found it empty. Without hesitating, he then turned and walked quickly down a narrow corridor to another room at almost the opposite end of the house. Knocking at this door and receiving no answer, he crept in softly, beckoning to the two girls to follow him.
But this room was so vast that neither Nona nor Barbara immediately discovered its occupant. Evidently it was a man’s room and must have covered the entire southern end of the chateau. Yet it was almost bare of furniture of a conventional kind. On the walls old muskets hung and bayonets of a bygone generation. The floor[188] was of stone, uncarpeted, and there were only two chairs, a tall chest of drawers and a single iron bed in the apartment. If the young Captain Castaigne was a dandy, as Eugenia considered him, certainly there was nothing about his room to suggest it!
But Barbara was first to reach the bed, because she first saw that the Countess Amélie had thrown herself upon it. She may have fainted earlier in the day and thus alarmed Fran?ois, but at present she showed no signs of serious illness. Her face was drawn with suffering, nevertheless she attempted to rise and speak to her guests as soon as Barbara approached. The Countess Amélie belonged to the ancient aristocracy of France whose women went to the guillotine with smiles upon their faces. It was a part of their pride of class not to betray their deeper emotions.
Yet Barbara found the small hand held out to her extremely cold, and it was with an effort that the older woman found herself able to stand.
“I am more than glad you have been able to reach the chateau, Miss Meade,”[189] she began. “Doubtless you know as well as I do that our French army is in retreat and that the German army may occupy this neighborhood at any hour. But where are your other two friends? I promised my son that in case of danger I would send for you. He could not contemplate the thought of your being alone if the barbarians overwhelmed us.”
The Countess spoke quietly enough, yet there was bitter antagonism in her voice. One could hardly expect a French woman to feel otherwise at an hour like this. Remember also that this was a portion of France near the border of Alsace-Lorraine, which the Germans took as a part of their booty at the close of the Franco-Prussian war.
The French people had not recovered from the bitterness of that defeat when the great war began.
Barbara was looking somewhat nonplussed at finding that the Countess was not in need of her services as a nurse, so she allowed Nona to join her and make the first reply.
[190]
“We were under the impression that you were ill and needed us, or we should not have come,” Nona answered. “The field hospital has been moved and we intended leaving with them, so we should have been as safe as possible. Our friends, Miss Thornton and Miss Peabody, have gone on with the staff. Still, we appreciate your wishing to protect us,” she ended gently.
In reality, both Nona and Barbara were deeply chagrined at the position in which they now found themselves. Yet there was no doubt that the older woman had meant to be kind. Besides, nothing could be gained by making a protest now.
Both girls accompanied the Countess Amélie out of the room.
“I am alone here, except for Fran?ois,” she explained. “If the Germans come this way, doubtless my chateau will be one of the first places which they will require for their own use. Therefore, it is necessary that we be ready to leave at once. You need not be frightened; Fran?ois, will go with us, and there is a secret passage leading away from the chateau, through which[191] we can make our escape without danger. I am going to ask you to help me pack a small store of provisions, as I think we will be happier with work to occupy our hands.”
Not a word of her anguish over her son’s uncertain fate, nor a protest at being forced in her old age to turn her back upon the home of her ancestors! Surely this was aristocracy of the spirit as well as of class, Nona and Barbara both thought to themselves, although neither said a word to the other upon the subject.
That afternoon, between five and six o’clock, Fran?ois brought word that the German army had captured the last line of French trenches and would soon overflow into the countryside.
Ten minutes later the Countess Amélie, Nona, Barbara and Fran?ois, voluntarily deserting the chateau, started upon an uncertain journey to overtake the retreating French army.


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