The first part of the meal over, the hostess picked up a nut and threw it deftly at a door leading into the lean-to-kitchen.
“Our table bell,” she explained to me. And, true enough, a moment later the orderly appeared and carried out the plates.
Then we had dessert, which was fruit and candy, and coffee.
And all the time the guns were firing, and every opening of the door into the corridor brought a gale of wind into the room.
Suddenly it struck me that hardly a foot of the plaster interior of that room was whole. The ceiling was riddled. So were the walls.
“Shrapnel,” said the major, following my gaze. “It gets worse every day.”
“I think the ceiling is going to fall,” said one of the hostesses.
True enough, there was a great bulge in the centre. But it held for that night. It may be holding now.
Everybody took a hand at clearing the table. The lamp was burning low, and they filled it without putting it out. One of the things that I have always been taught is never to fill a lighted lamp. I explained this to them carefully. But they were quite calm. It seems at the front one does a great many extraordinary things. It is part and parcel of that utter indifference to danger that comes with war.
Now appeared the chauffeur, who brought the information that the car had been dragged out of the mud and towed as far as the house.
“Towed?” I said blankly.
“Towed, madame. There is no more petrol.”
The major suggested that we kill him at once. But he was a perfectly good chauffeur and young. Also it developed that he had not sat on my hat. So we let him live.
“Never mind,” said Miss C——; “we can give you the chauffeur’s bed and he can go somewhere else.”
But after a time I decided that I would rather walk back than stay overnight in that house. For the major explained that at eleven o’clock the batteries behind the town would bombard the German trenches and the road behind them, along which they had information that an ammunition train would pass.
“Another night in the cellar!” said some one. “That means no one will need any beds, for there will be a return fire, of course.”
“Is there no petrol to be had?” I inquired anxiously.
None, of course. There had been shops in the town, and presumably petrol and other things. But now there was nothing but ruined walls and piles of brick and mortar. However, there was a cellar.
My feet were swollen and painful, for the walk had been one long agony. I was chilled, too, from my wetting, in spite of the fire. I sat by the tiny stove and tried to forget the prospect of a night in the cellar, tried to ignore the pieces of shell and shrapnel cases lined up on the mantelpiece, shells and shrapnel that had entered the house and destroyed it.