At last the noise of feet began to die away, and the uneven groping tread of the twelve Americans to sound more distinctly for the lessening of the surrounding turmoil. And in another few seconds Bruce came to a halt—not to an abrupt stop, as when he had allowed an enemy squad to pass in front of him, but a leisurely checking of speed, to denote that he could go no farther with the load he was helping to haul.
Mahan put out his free hand. It encountered the American wires. Bruce had stopped at the spot where the party had cut a narrow path through the entanglement on the outward journey. Alone, the dog could easily have passed through the gap, but he could not be certain of pulling Mahan with him. Wherefore the halt.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The last of the twelve men scrambled down to safety, in the American first-line trench, Bruce among them. The lieutenant went straight to his commanding officer, to make his report. Sergeant Mahan went straight to his company cook, whom he woke from a snoreful sleep. Presently Mahan ran back to where the soldiers were gathered admiringly around Bruce.
The Sergeant carried a chunk of fried beef, for which he had just given the cook his entire remaining stock of cigarettes.
“Here you are, Bruce!” he exclaimed. “The best in the shop is none too good for the dog that got us safe out of that filthy mess. Eat hearty!”
Bruce did not so much as sniff at the (more or less) tempting bit of meat. Coldly he looked up at Mahan. Then, with sensitive ears laid flat against his silken head, in token of strong contempt, he turned his back on the Sergeant and walked away.
Which was Bruce’s method of showing what he thought of a human fool who would give him a command and who would then hold so tightly to him that the dog could hardly carry out the order.
In the background lay a landscape that had once been beautiful. In the middle distance rotted a village that had once been alive. In the foreground stood an edifice that had once been a church. The once-beautiful landscape had the look of a gigantic pockmarked face, so scored was it by shell-scar and crater. Its vegetation was swept away. Its trees were shattered stumps. Its farmsteads were charred piles of rubble.
The village was unlike the general landscape, in that it had never been beautiful. In spite of globe-trotters’ sentimental gush, not all villages of northern France were beautiful. Many were built for thrift and for comfort and for expediency; not for architectural or natural loveliness.
But this village of Meran-en-Laye was not merely deprived of what beauty it once might or might not have possessed. Except by courtesy it was no longer a village at all. It was a double row of squalid ruins, zig-zagging along the two sides of what was left of its main street. Here and there a cottage or tiny shop or shed was still habitable. The rest was debris.