In the old drawing-room with twenty others, the wandering officer lay down to sleep on the floor, and thought of old wars that came to the cities of France a long while ago. To just such houses as this, he thought, men must have come before and gone on next day to fight in other centuries; it seemed to him that it must have been more romantic then. Who knows?
He had a bit of carpet to lie on. A few more officers came in in the early part of the night, and talked a little and lay down. A few candles were stuck on tables here and there. Midnight would have struck from the towers had any clock been left to strike in Peronne. Still talk went on in low voices here and there. The candles burned low and were fewer. Big shadows floated along those old high walls. Then the talk ceased and everyone was still: nothing stirred but the shadows. An officer muttered in sleep of things far thence, and was silent. Far away shells thumped faintly. The shadows, left to themselves, went round and round the room, searching in every corner for something that was lost. Over walls and ceiling they went and could not find it. The last candle was failing. It flared and guttered. The shadows raced over the room from comer to corner. Lost, and they could not find it. They hurried desperately in those last few moments. Great shadows searching for some little thing. In the smallest nook they sought for it. Then the last candle died. As the flame went up with the smoke from the fallen wick all the great shadows turned and mournfully trailed away.
As you come to Arras by the western road, by the red ramparts and the Spanish gate, Arras looks like a king. With such a dignity as clings to the ancient gateway so might a king be crowned; with such a sweep of dull red as the old ramparts show, so might he be robed; but a dead king with crowned skull. For the ways of Arras are empty but for brown soldiers, and her houses are bare as bones.
Arras sleeps profoundly, roofless, windowless, carpetless; Arras sleeps as a skeleton sleeps, with all the dignity of former days about it, but the life that stirs in its streets is not the old city’s life, the old city is murdered. I came to Arras and went down a street, and saw back gardens glinting through the bare ribs of the houses. Garden after garden shone, so far as it could, though it was in October and after four years of war; but what was left of those gardens shining there in the sun was like sad faces trying to smile after many disasters.
I came to a great wall that no shell had breached. A cascade of scarlet creeper poured over it, as though on the other side some serene garden grew, where no disaster came, tended by girls who had never heard of war, walking untrodden paths. It was not so. But one’s fancy, weary of ruin, readily turns to such scenes wherever facts are hidden, though but by a tottering wall, led by a few bright leaves or the glimpse of a flower.