Not two miles away lay his home. Metre by metre, Joffre’s “nibbling” had forced the Boches back over the death-sown fields of the Argonne. And now as he sat in his cunningly hidden nest aloft in a treetop, observer for a battery of 75’s, his telescope, wandering from the German trenches, brought home so close that he seemed almost to be standing in his own garden.
It was so close, he thought—just over there. And it was so good to be able to watch little Marie playing at the door, and to peep inside into the kitchen where Jeanne was working—or to follow her from room to room as her slim figure flitted past the windows.
He had worried so when “Papa” Joffre’s masterly retreat had left her there alone. But this was the fourth day now that he had kept watch over her, and soon, he said to himself with a smile—soon that little home was sure to lie back of the French lines in safety.
The day was quiet. Only intermittently a cannon barked or a rifle spat across the wire entanglements. And all the morning he had sat watching Marie’s flaxen tresses bobbing among the rose bushes—and dreaming of when the war ended.
And suddenly the picture changed.
Marie has dropped her dolls and is racing into the kitchen. The door slams. He almost hears the bolt shot to, he thinks. And a squad of Uhlans rides into the yard.
For months past he had driven that picture from his mind. It couldn’t be—oh! it couldn’t be. And now in sight of home it came in grim reality. So close—and yet as well be at the ends of the earth with that German line between them.
He steadied the telescope in time to see a gun butt smash in the door and the officer stride in. The German batteries opened with a crash. A charge was coming. But he had no eyes for the enemy. He felt, rather than saw, a gray-green wave with a crest of steel flow up from the German trenches and over the “dead man’s land.” And instinctively he shot orders into the transmitter at his lips.
“Two hundred metres.”
“One hundred and seventy-five metres—left.”
And as the little puffs of shrapnel began to blossom over the gray-green wave, his gaze swung back to the little cottage.
And then he forgot the Germans—forgot his comrades in the endangered trench—forgot war—everything. For a figure—a woman’s figure—struggling—fell past a window in the arms of a uniformed figure.
He thought a scream came to his ears. For one insane second he started down from his station: he must go; he was so close. She needed him. And then as his eyes fell on the struggle below he realized how far it was—how helpless he was. And——
But there was a way. And he began to snap orders into the transmitter.
“One thousand five hundred metres—eight degrees left.”
A puff rose on the highway running past his home.
“One thousand six hundred metres.”
And a shell exploded at the little stable.
“One thousand six hundred and fifty metres”—he shot another order over the wire—and another—and another—and then:
“Battery, fire!” And with a cry, fell headlong from the treetop as the little home and its tragedy vanished in a whirl of smoke and wreckage.