I spoke of the rebuilding of his house no more, I spoke no more of the new Croisilles shining through future years; for these were not the things that he saw in the future, and these were not the hopes of the poor old man. He had one dark hope of the future, and no others. He hoped to see the Kaiser hung for the wrong he had done to Croisilles. It was for this hope he lived.
Madame or senor of whatever far country, who may chance to see these words, blame not this old man for the fierce hope he cherished. It was the only hope he had. You, Madame, with your garden, your house, your church, the village where all know you, you may hope as a Christian should, there is wide room for hope in your future. You shall see the seasons move over your garden, you shall busy yourself with your home, and speak and share with your neighbours innumerable small joys, and find consolation and beauty, and at last rest, in and around the church whose spire you see from your home. You, senor, with your son perhaps growing up, perhaps wearing already some sword that you wore once, you can turn back to your memories or look with hope to the future with equal ease.
The man that I met in Croisilles had none of these things at all. He had that one hope only.
Do not, I pray you, by your voice or vote, or by any power or influence that you have, do anything to take away from this poor old Frenchman the only little hope he has left. The more trivial his odd hope appears to you compared with your own high hopes that come so easily to you amongst all your fields and houses, the more cruel a thing must it be to take it from him.
I learned many things in Croisilles, and the last of them is this strange one the old man taught me. I turned and shook hands with him and said good-bye, for I wished to see again our old front line that we used to hold over the hill, now empty, silent at last. “The Boche is defeated,” I said.
“Vaincu, vaincu,” he repeated. And I left him with something almost like happiness looking out of his tearful eyes.
The trees grew thinner and thinner along the road, then ceased altogether, and suddenly we saw Albert in the wood of the ghosts of murdered trees, all grey and deserted.
Descending into Albert past trees in their agony we came all at once on the houses. You did not see them far off as in other cities; we came on them all at once as you come on a corpse in the grass.
We stopped and stood by a house that was covered with plaster marked off to look like great stones, its pitiful pretence laid bare, the slates gone and the rooms gone, the plaster all pitted with shrapnel. Near it lay an iron railing, a hand-rail blown there from the railway bridge; a shrapnel bullet had passed through its twisted stem as though it had gone through butter. And beside the hand-rail lay one of the great steel supports of the bridge that had floated there upon some flaming draught; the end of it bent and splayed as though it had been a slender cane that someone had shoved too hard into the earth.