Before the Dawn by G. Ranger Wormser

He had gotten as far as the cross-roads. He could not go on. His feet ached; his eyes hurt with the incessant effort of trying to penetrate the obliterating dark. Where the three roads met he stopped.

Above him the black, unlighted skies. Before him mile upon mile of deep, shadow-stained plain. Somewhere beyond the plain, at the foot of the hills, lay Charvel. Jans was waiting for him at Charvel. His orders to meet Jans were urgent; but now he could not go further. Jans would have to wait until morning, when, by the light of day, he could again find the way which he had so completely lost in the night.

He sank down at the base of the crucifix. It loomed in a ghostly, gray mass against the muddy white of the wind-driven clouds. He pulled his coat collar up about his ears. His eyes were raised to where he thought to see the dimly defined Christ figure; but the pitch black gloom drenched opaquely over everything. There was something mysterious; something remote, about the cross. He imagined peasants kneeling before it in awed reverence, gabbling their prayers. The ignorance of such idolatry! Their prayers had not been proof against the enemies' bullets; and still they prayed. Tired as he was, he laughed aloud.

"Why do you laugh?"

He started to his feet. The voice, quiet and deep, came from directly behind him. He had not conceived the possibility of any human thing lurking so dangerously near. He peered blindly through the obscuring dark.

"Who's there?" He questioned, his fingers involuntarily closing tautly about the butt of the revolver at his belt.

"You, too, ask questions, eh?" The voice went on. "I can almost make out the shape of you. Do you see me?"

It seemed to him then that by carefully tracing the sound of the voice he could dimly define the outline of a man's form lying close within the murked, smudging shadow of the crucifix.

"Yes, I think now I almost see you." His tone was anything but assured. "What are you doing here?"

"What is there to do but sleep?" The muttered words were half defiant. "Name of a dog! it was your laughter that woke me. Why did you laugh?"

"If I weren't so tired, I might explain it to you." He hesitated a second, playing for time. "I was thinking—drawing up a mental picture of the ignorant peasant praying here before your back-rest."

"My back-rest?" The man's voice was sleepily puzzled. "It's this cross you mean, eh? Well, never mind, my fine fellow. It has comfort—And that's something to be grateful for."

"Not the sort of splintery comfort I'd choose."

He wondered what sort of a man this was. He was used to judging men at sight. He cursed inwardly the unlighted night.

"I'm not spending my time out here from choice—I can tell you that! This does for me well enough. I told you, didn't I, that I was asleep until your stupid laughing woke me? Sacré, why did you have to laugh? What's the joke, eh?"

"Perhaps it's my natural humor; even when I'm dead tired." He grinned to himself. He had reached his decision. This sleepy fool sounded safe enough; besides the question itself was non-committal. He asked it: "Say, do you know the way to Charvel?"

"You're miles from Charvel, my friend. You've surely lost all sense of direction."

"Right. I don't know where I'm at. It's this damned blackness. Never saw such an infernal night. Started to walk from Chalet Corneille this afternoon. Didn't count on its getting dark so early. Then I lost my way. Been wandering about for hours. Probably in a circle. And now I'm half dead. God! I'm all in!"

"It's almost morning. If you wait for the light, you'll not miss your road again; but I shouldn't counsel you to try to find it till dawn."

He wondered if he dared to go to sleep with this man beside him. There were the papers carefully concealed in his right boot-leg; the papers Jans was waiting for. The man sounded plain-spoken and courteous enough, considering he had been aroused from supposedly sound slumber. He felt he wasn't a soldier. That is, he couldn't be one of Their men. He knew what Their men were like. Despite Their world reputation he had heard they were anything but courteous. But then one never knew. And anyway hadn't this man spoken to him in irreproachable French? Still, French was the language of the country and his own gift of languages was rather pronounced. Of course it tended to make him a bit suspicious; but logically he couldn't lay much stress on it. If only he had gotten beyond Their lines before night, everything would have been all right. As it was he must have been wandering round and round, covering the self-same ground and getting no nearer to Charvel, where Jans was waiting for him and the papers.

Taking all in all into consideration, he decided it best not to let himself sleep; even if the staying awake was not an easy plan for a man utterly tired. He would have to do it somehow or other.

"You're a native of these parts?" He asked, trying to keep any trace of speculation as to what the man really was out of his voice.

"Sacré, but I thought you were about to sleep." The tone sounded as if it might be angry. "I assure you it will soon be morning."

"Don't feel like sleeping. If you don't want to talk I can easily be quiet."

"No—no! It makes no difference to me. I've had my forty winks. We'll talk, if you want. Not that I was ever one for doing much talking. I'm too little of a fool for that—still—Why don't you lean back here beside me against this beam?"

He wriggled backwards and propped his drooping head stiffly against the wood of the cross.

"I can't see you at all." He closed his eyes; it wasn't worth the throbbing strain of it to try to penetrate the obliterating, dripping darkness. He couldn't do it. "I'd like to see you."

"I'd like to see you, my friend. But what good are wishes, eh? Do you say you live at Chalet Corneille?"

On the instant he was alert.

"Why do you ask?"

"Curiosity, my friend. I know of some good people there by name of Fornier. Perhaps they might be friends of yours."

"Don't think I know them." He paused to collect his wits. He had been startled by the man's suave question. He wondered if he was going to try to trap him. He thought he couldn't have done it more neatly himself. This job of stalling when he was almost too tired to think wasn't an easy thing to do. He called upon his imagination. "I'm an artist," he lied smoothly. "Sent over here to paint war scenes. I couldn't miss the chance of a ransacked village. Its picturesque value is tremendous. I've just finished my painting of Chalet Corneille."

He waited tentatively. Surely if the man were just some simple, sleepy fool he'd say something now to give an inkling of what he was.

"One week ago it was splashed in blood—Soldiers too, in their way, are artists," was all he said.

"Then you're not a soldier?"

"What made you think I was?"

"I don't know what you are," he answered truthfully; and then quite frankly he came back with the man's own question. "Did you say you lived in Chalet Corneille?"

"No—I asked if you knew people there by name of Fornier?"

"Mighty few folk left there now." The picture of the razed town came before him. "Some old men waiting for the lost ones to come back to them; some young children and three or four sisters of charity. And then this morning I saw a woman—she wasn't much more than a girl—she had a face you couldn't forget. They told me about her at the inn, where I breakfasted."

"Tell me," the man suggested grudgingly; "we're comfortable enough. Dawn's a long way off, and I suppose you want to talk."

"There isn't much to tell. She left the town; was driven out of it with the others. Unlike them, she came back. God knows what she wanted to do that for! They told me of her goodness; and her beauty and her kindness. They dwelt on it at great length. Don't know as I blame them for harping on all that. And now it seems the spirit of the war has lit upon even her. She's changed—they say she's absolutely no good these days. Steals—lies—has done everything, as near as I can make out, excepting commit murder. But you ought to have seen her face. I'll wager that once seen, it would rise to haunt any one. I don't care who it'd be. It was beautiful—but—"

He felt the man look up at the sky and the ghostly, gray mass of the crucifix stretching across it.

"Strange creatures, these peasant people." The man's words were speculative. "Dumb kind of beasts—these soil-tillers—the best of them. Got nothing in their lives but work and religion. Don't know as I blame you for laughing when you looked up there. Sacré, but there is nothing real about religion to me!"

"You're right." He stifled a yawn. "All that sort of thing went out of the world years ago. Thinking people aren't religious nowadays. It doesn't give them enough food for logical thought. It's all too palpably obvious and absurd for an intelligent person to bother with."

"Rather a strange view for an artist, my friend, is it not?"

"What do you mean?"

"Thought you fellows traded on the beauty of faith, the talk of priests, and all that sort of thing."

"Good Lord, no." His voice was energetic enough now. He was becoming interested. "All this belief in God and man and the innate good, and the rest of it, is tommyrot—That's what it is! And the soul within you—and the teachings of Christ"—he paused to regain his breath. "We'd know those things all right enough, if they were real. We'd see them, wouldn't we, if they were real? They'd happen—They couldn't help but happen—every day. But they don't, and so they're just talked about. I tell you if there were such things, we'd know it!"

"Yes—yes—Surely we would see it—some time."

"I haven't had more than the average University education," he went on. "But I've seen men and women, and I know that some of them are bad, and some of them are good, and that's all there is to it. If a man wants to be a liar—he'll lie. What's going to make him tell the truth, I'd like to know?"

"It doesn't sound like artistic idealism, this talk of yours."

"What do I care for any kind of idealism? There's too much of the poppycock—too many of those long-haired, long-winded donkeys playing the miniature creator for my taste. Lord, but I'd like to see an army of them in the field!"

"You speak like a soldier, my friend."

"I'm proud, sir, of being a soldier!"

In a flash he realized what he had said. Beneath his breath he cursed furiously. Never before had he been guilty of such blatant stupidity. A sudden anger welled within him against this man who had caught him in his lie. Yet the man seemed harmless and indifferent enough. Perhaps he could still get out of it. What in the name of heaven had drawn the truth from him? He glanced up at the crucifix and his cursing abruptly stopped. He fell to wondering if he had better strike out again in the dark. He couldn't tell who the man was, and he had the papers to guard. Dawn wasn't a long way off. He wondered if he ought to chance it.

"See here"—the man's voice caught in on his train of thought. "I know what's going through your head. You didn't want me to know that you were a soldier. I wasn't going to tell you, either. But I'm one, too. Only I'm not one of Them; not one of that blood-thirsty, blood-drunk canaille. You're not either. I knew the minute I heard you speak. And see here, I pretended at first that I didn't want to talk. But it wasn't true. I was starving for a word with one of my own kind. I told you I was comfortable, didn't I? I told you I was asleep? Well—I lied. I've been writhing here for hours. I'm in agony. My leg's shot off—that's what They did to me. I've been lying in this place for a day and a half. A peasant stopped to pray here to-night. He gave me some water; but he was afraid to touch me." A sob vibrated hoarsely in the man's throat. "My brother, I want your hand."

Without hesitation he put out his hand, his fingers fumbling over the hard earth, until at last they found and grasped the man's hand.

"Is there anything I can do?" He asked.

"No, it's too dark. We must wait for the dawn. Then if you'll help me along the road a bit"—His voice trailed off into silence.

So they sat there.

"There's some one coming," he said.

He felt the man try to struggle to a sitting position.

"No use," he moaned. "I couldn't see through the dark, anyway. Sacré, didn't I try it before, when you came along?"

Breathlessly they waited. There was nothing pleasant about this meeting people one couldn't see. It was just luck that the man beside him hadn't been one of Them. He wondered if the approaching person would stop before the crucifix or would go on.

The footsteps came nearer and nearer. Louder and louder they grew until the sound of them echoed clatteringly through the silence of the night. Then sudden deafening stillness.

As yet he could make out no form. He wondered what was happening. Slowly he realized that the gloom-merged mass of the crucifix had been seen and that the feet were coming toward it. A long half minute and then something soft and cold brushed his cheek. A quick, half-smothered cry. A woman had reached him with her outstretched hands. Her fingers had touched his face.

"Mon Dieu!" She whispered. "Then I am not alone? Mon Dieu! Who are you?"

He answered her.

"I've lost my way. I'm waiting for the dawn."

"You will not hurt me?" Her whimpered words betrayed her fear. "You will let me stay to wait the daylight with you?"

"That makes three of us," he said, "waiting for morning."

"Non—non; how is it then three?"

"My brother here—you—and—I."

"Mon Dieu! Such a darkness. Tell me, it is a sign of luck, is it not, to meet with two brothers?"

"Well," his tone was apologetic. "We're not blood-brothers—just—" He hesitated.

"Ah!" She breathed softly. "Is it, as the curé says, 'a Brotherhood of man'?"

He could not explain to himself why he should so resent her comparing him to her priest.

"It is a brotherhood of understanding," he said. "It is because we are friends."

"Friends?" She questioned.

"Of course," he stated emphatically. And at the same time he wondered at his own vehemence. Why should he call this man, whom he could not even see, his friend? "Surely you do not think that I could sit here in the dark, holding my enemy by the hand?"

"But no," she muttered as though to herself. "No hands are given in this time of war. No hands but the hands of hate."

For the first time the man spoke.

"Hate has made men of us. Sacré, but is there anything greater than hate?"

"Mon Dieu! It is all so cruel—this hate that has crippled our men. Look you, you two brothers—I would avenge them as you avenge them, but voilà—there is so little—so pitifully little that I can do!"

"Will you sit beside me?" The man asked gently. "I'd move, if I could, but They've shot off my leg, and moving isn't easy."

"The barbarians have caught you too?" She sank to her knees beside them. "How I loathe Them! Ah, how I detest Them! They burned my home—They drove me out of Chalet Corneille—my father and my mother and I. We fled by the light of our flaming farm-houses. I thought that bad, but it wasn't the worst. That came when They took me away with them. What I have been through! It is as if I had suffered and suffered; and now there is nothing left me to feel but hatred. And I've been back there, thinking my people might come for me. Mais, they never came, and so I must go on. I've an aunt in Charvel. There's just a chance—But even if I do find a home, I'll still hate those soldiers. I'd kill Them if I could. I pray to Christ that some day I may kill to avenge."

"Is that what you're here for?"

"I'm here to await the dawn."

"Madame is religious?"

"The sisters and the curé were my only teachers."

"And now before the crucifix, Madame prays Christ for the power to kill?"

"Non—non," her voice rose shrilly. "There is no Christ here on this cross. The canaille pulled him down and dragged him away in the dirt when They passed. There were peasants who begged Them to leave the figure, but They left only the cross—and once—three days after They had defiled it—I saw a spy crucified there. I helped cut him down. Now it's empty!"

"Sacré, it is like Them," the man said. "I'd wondered why the cross was bare. I'm not one of your believers, but I can see how it would hurt a good woman like you."

"A good woman?" She questioned vaguely, as if in her innocence all were good. "Mon Dieu, I only know that it hurt."

He looked up at the crucifix. The sky was slowly, very slowly, lightening.

"It will soon be day," he said.

They were silent. And in the stillness they could feel the expectancy of dawn; the terse waiting for the light. The eager, anticipating stare of each was fixed upon the other's face.

The black of the sky merged very gradually into a pale, sickly gray. Far to the east quivered a thin streak of yellow light.

The three drab shadows of them cowered beneath the cross.

Mauve and pink and golden light spread slowly over the firmament.

"No, it can't be!" He muttered, his eyes upon the man's face—this man whom he had sat with those long hours before the dawn, whose hand he still held in his. He thought he caught the man's whispered "sacré!"

The woman was the first to speak.

"Voilà!" She taunted. "But it is—oh, so pretty! A French soldier with a leg shot off and a German officer to nurse him. You two—you who spoke of hate, do you still sit hand in hand?"

"The girl from Chalet Corneille!" He had known he would not forget her face.

"The dark has made cowards of you," she mocked. "Before the morning you clung together. But now it is dawn!" Her voice rang out bitterly, brutally clear. "Did not one of you ask, 'Is there anything greater than hate'?"

"Sacré! What you say is just." The wounded man's eyes were raised to glance at the light-quivering firmament. Slowly the eyes caught the sight of something else. Very gradually they took in that unexpected thing. Mechanically the words were jerked out: "It—was—I—who—asked—" A sudden pause—a quick gasp—"God forgive me—it—was—I!"

The uncanniness of the words shocked him. In spite of himself, his own eyes followed the man's wide stare; followed it from the eastern horizon, over the shimmering sky; followed it until he reached the crucifix. The hand, which, at the girl's words, had half-heartedly sought his pistol, shook now as he crossed himself.

Was it the smudging shadows, the still unlighted mass of them up there on the arms of the crucifix? Would shadows take on so the semblance of the human body?

"If there were such things—we'd know it—" Fragments of their talk in the night came vividly back to him. "If these things were real—sometimes—we'd see it!"

The girl dropped to her knees. Her hands were clinched over her heaving breast; her gaze riveted itself upon that mass of shadows, high up on the cross; that mass of shadows so mysteriously like the dimly defined Christ figure.

With a hoarse, racking sob that shook his whole frame, the wounded soldier fell upon his face. Quickly the officer bent over him, his hand on the shaking shoulder, his breath coming and going in short, rasping gasps. Motionless he stood there, moving only to catch hold of the girl's fingers, that reached up and clung to his.

The faint, cold light of early morning tinged across the gray-white of the sky. Daybreak lighted the three grouped figures huddled so close together beneath the crucifix. Dawn showed clearly the brown wooden cross and the great half-ripped out nails that had once held the Christ.