They passed several small houses and farms, in front of each of which was stationed a sentry. Once, from the hills behind, a great white-winged aeroplane glided over his head on its way to make a reconnaissance. Queerest sight of all, here and there were peasants at work in the fields. One old man leaned upon his spade and watched as the car passed. Not a dozen yards from him was a great hole in the ground where a shell had burst, and a little further away a barn in ruins. The car was forced to stop here to let a cavalcade of ammunition waggons pass by. Surgeon-Major Thomson leaned from his seat and spoke to the old man.
“You are not afraid of the German shells, then?” he asked.
“Monsieur,” the old man answered, “one must live or die—it does not matter which. For the rest, if one is to live, one must eat. Therefore I work. Four sons I have and a nephew away yonder,” he added, waving his hand southwards. “That is why I dig alone. Why do you not send us more soldiers, Monsieur l’Anglais?”
“Wait but a little time longer,” Thomson answered cheerfully.
The old man looked sadly at his ruined barn.
“It is always ‘wait,’” he muttered, “and one grows old and tired. Bonjour, monsieur!”
The car passed on again and suddenly dropped into a little protected valley. They came to a standstill before a tiny chateau, in front of which stretched what might once have been an ornamental garden, but which was now torn to pieces by gun carriages, convoy waggons, and every description of vehicle. From the top of the house stretched many wires. A sentry stood at the iron gates and passed Major Thomson after a perfunctory challenge. An office with mud-stained boots and wind-tossed hair, who looked as though he had been out all night, stood on the steps of the house and welcomed Thomson.
“Hullo, Major,” he called out, “just across, eh?”
“This moment,” Thomson assented. “Anything fresh?”
“Nothing to speak of,” the other replied. “We’ve just had a message in that the French have been giving them a knock. We’ve had a quiet time the last two days. They’re bringing up some more Bavarians, we think.”
“Do you think I could have a few words with the General?” Major Thomson asked.
“Come in and have some coffee. Yes, he’ll see you, of course. He is in his own room with two of the flying men, just for the moment. I’ll let you know when you can go in.”
They passed into an apartment which had once been the dining-room of the chateau, and in which a long table was laid. One or two staff officers greeted Thomson, and the man who had brought him in attended to his wants.
“The General had his breakfast an hour ago,” the latter observed. “We’re pretty well forward here and we have to keep on the qui vive. We got some shells yesterday dropped within a quarter of a mile of us. I think we’re going to try and give them a push back on the left flank. I’ll go in and see about you, Thomson.”