No shells were falling in Nivelle
as they left the car on the outskirts of the town
and entered the long main street. That was all
of Nivelle, a long, treeless main street from
which branched a few alleys.
Smouldering debris of what had been
houses illuminated the street. There were no
other lights. Nothing stirred except a gaunt cat
flitting like a shadow along the gutter. There
was not a sound save the faint stirring of the cinders
over which pale flames played fitfully.
Abandoned trenches ditched the little
town in every direction; temporary shelters made of
boughs, sheds, and broken-down wagons stood along the
street. Otherwise, all impedimenta, materials,
and stores had apparently been removed by the retreating
columns. There was little wreckage except the
burning debris of the few shell-struck houses a
few rags, a few piles of firewood, a bundle of straw
and hay here and there.
High, mounting toward the stars, the
ancient tower with its gilded hippogriff dominated
the place a vast, vague shape brooding over
the single mile-long street and grimy alleys branching
Nobody guarded the portal; the ancient
doors stood wide open; pitch darkness reigned within.
“Do you know the way?” whispered the airman.
“Yes. Take hold of my hand.”
He dared not use his flash. Carrying
bundle and bombsack under one arm, he sought for her
hand and encountered it. Cool, slim fingers closed
After a few moments’ stealthy advance, she whispered:
“Here are the stairs. Be careful; they
She started upward, feeling with her
feet for every stone step. The ascent appeared
to be interminable; the narrowing stone spiral seemed
to have no end. Her hand grew warm within his
But at last they felt a fresh wind
blowing and caught a glimpse of stars above them.
Then, tier on tier, the bells of the
carillon, fixed to their great beams, appeared above
them a shadowy, bewildering wilderness of
bells, rising, rank above rank, until they vanished
in the darkness overhead. Beside them, almost
touching them, loomed the great bell Clovis, a gigantic
mass bulking enormously in that shadowy place.
A sonorous wind flowed through the
open tower, eddying among the bells a strong,
keen night wind blowing from the north.
The airman walked to the south parapet
and looked down. Below him in the starlight,
like an indistinct map spread out, lay the Nivelle
redoubt and the trench with its gabions, its
sand bags, its timbers, its dugouts.
Very far away to the southeast they
could see the glare of rockets and exploding shells,
but the sound of the bombardment did not reach them.
North, a single searchlight played and switched across
the clouds; west, all was dark.
“They’ll arrive just before
dawn,” said the airman, placing his sack of
bombs on the pavement under the parapet. “Come,
little bell-mistress, take me to see your keyboard.”
“It is below a few
steps. This way if you will follow
She turned to the stone stairs again,
descended a dozen steps, opened a door on a narrow
And there, in the starlight, he saw
the keyboard and the bewildering maze of wires running
up and branching like a huge web toward the tiers of
He looked at the keyboard curiously.
The little mistress of the bells displayed the two
wooden gloves with which she encased her hands when
she played the carillon.
“It would be impossible for
one to play unless one’s hands are armoured,”
“It is almost a lost art,”
he mused aloud, “ this playing the
carillon this wonderful bell-music of the
middle ages. There are few great bell-masters
in this day.”
“Few,” she said dreamily.
“And” he turned
and stared at her “few mistresses
of the bells, I imagine.”
“I think I am the only one in
France or in Flanders.... And there are few carillons
left. The Huns are battering them down. Towers
of the ancient ages are falling everywhere in Flanders
and in France under their shell fire. Very soon
there will be no more of the old carillons left;
no more bell-music in the world.” She sighed
heavily. “It is a pity.”
She seated herself at the keyboard.
“Dare I play?” she asked, looking up over
“No; it would only mean a shell from the Huns.”
She nodded, laid the wooden gloves
beside her and let her delicate hands wander over
the mute keys.
Leaning beside her the airman quietly
explained the plan they were to follow.
“With dawn they will come creeping
into Nivelle the Huns,” he said.
“I have one of their officers’ uniforms
in that bundle above. I shall try to pass as
a general officer. You see, I speak German.
My education was partly ruined in Germany. So
I’ll get on very well, I expect.
“And directly under us is the
trench and the main redoubt. They’ll occupy
that first thing. They’ll swarm there the
whole trench will be crawling with them. They’ll
install their gas cylinders at once, this wind being
“But with sunrise the wind changes and
whether it changes or not, I don’t care,”
he added. “I’ve got them at last where
I want them.”
The girl looked up at him. He
smiled that terrifying smile of his:
“With the explosion of my first
bomb among their gas cylinders you are to start these
bells above us. Are you afraid?”
“You are to play ‘La Brabançonne.’
That is the signal to our trenches.”
“I have often played it,” she said coolly.
“Not in the teeth of a barbarian
army. Not in the faces of a murderous soldiery.”
The girl sat quite still for a few
moments; then looking up at him, and very pale in
“Do you think they will tear me to pieces, monsieur?”
“I mean to hold those stairs
with my sack of bombs until our people enter the trenches.
If they can do it in an hour we will be all right.”
“It is only a half-hour affair
from our salient. I allow our people an hour.”
“But if, even now, you had rather go back ”
“There is no disgrace in going back.”
“You said once, ’anybody
can weep for friend and country. Few avenge either.’
I am happy to be among the few.”
He nodded. After a moment he said:
“I’ll bet you something.
My country is all right, but it’s sick.
It’s got a nauseous dose of verbiage to spew
up something it’s swallowed something
about being too proud to fight.... My brother
and I couldn’t stand it, so we came to France....
He was in the photo air service. He was in mufti and
about two miles up, I believe. Six Huns went
for him.... And winged him. He had to land
behind their lines.... In mufti.... Well I’ve
never found courage to hear the details. I can’t
stand them yet.”
“Your brother is dead, monsieur?”
she asked timidly.
“Oh, yes. With circumstances.
Well, then after that, from an ordinary,
commonplace man I became a machine for the extermination
of vermin. That’s all I am an
animated magazine of Persian powder or I
do it in any handy way. It’s not a sporting
proposition, you see, just get rid of them any old
way. You don’t understand, do you?”
“But it’s slow work slow
work,” he muttered vaguely, “ and
the world is crawling crawling with them.
But if God guides my bomb this time and if I hit one
of their gas cylinders that ought
to be worth while.”
In the starlight his features became
tense and terrible; she shivered in her threadbare
After a few moments’ silence
he went away up the steps to put on his German uniform.
When he descended again she had a troubled question
for him to answer:
“But how shall you account for
me, a French girl, monsieur, if they come to the belfry?”
A heavy flush darkened his face:
“Little mistress of the bells,
I shall pretend to be what the Huns are. Do you
know how they treat French women?”
“I have heard,” she said faintly.
“Then if they come and find
you here as my prisoner they
will think they understand.”
The colour flamed in her face and
she bowed it, resting her elbows on the keyboard.
“Come,” he said, “don’t
be distressed. Does it matter what a Hun thinks?
Come; let’s be cheerful. Can you hum for
me ’La Brabançonne’?”
She did not reply.
“Well, never mind,” he
said. “But it’s a grand battle anthem....
We Americans have one.... It’s out of fashion.
And after all, I had rather hear ‘La Brabançonne’
when the time comes.... What a terrible admission!
But what Americans have done to my country is far more
terrible. The nation’s sick sick!...
I prefer ‘La Brabançonne’ for
the time being.”
The Prussians entered Nivelle
a little before dawn. The airman had been watching
the street below. Down there in the slight glow
from the cinders of what once had been a cottage a
cat had been squatting, staring at the bed of coals,
as though she were once more installed upon the family
Then something unseen as yet by the
airman attracted the animal’s attention.
Alert, crouching, she stared down the vista of dark,
deserted houses, then turned and fled like a ghost.
For a long while the airman perceived
nothing. Suddenly close to the house façades
on either side of the street, shadowy forms came gliding
They passed the glowing embers and
went on toward Sainte-Lesse; jaegers, with knapsacks
on back and rifles trailing; and on their heads oddly
shaped pot helmets with battered looking visors.
One or two motorcyclists followed,
whizzing through the desolate street and into the
After a few minutes, out of the throat
of the darkness emerged a solid column of infantry.
In a moment, beneath the bell tower, the ground was
swarming with Huns; every inch of the earth became
infested with them; fields, hedges, alleys crawled
alive with Germans. They overran every road,
every street, every inch of open country; their wagons
choked the main thoroughfare, they were already establishing
themselves in the redoubt below, in the trench, running
in and out of dugouts and all over scarp, counter-scarp,
parades and parapet, ant-like in energy, busy with
machine gun, trench mortar, installing telephones,
searchlights, periscopes, machine guns.
Automobiles arrived two
armoured cars and grey passenger machines in which
there were officers.
The airman laid his hand on Maryette’s arm.
he said, “German officers are coming into the
tower. I want them to find you in my arms when
they come up into this belfry. Understand me,
and forgive me.”
“I understand,” she whispered.
“Play your part bravely. Will you?”
He put his arms around her; they stood rigid, listening.
“Now!” he whispered, and drew her close,
Spurred boots clattered on the stone floor:
“Herr Je!” exclaimed an
astonished voice. Somebody laughed. But the
airman coolly pushed the girl aside, and as the faint
grey light of dawn fell on his field uniform bearing
the ribbon of the iron cross, two pairs of spurred
heels hastily clinked together and two hands flew to
the oddly shaped helmet visors.
“Also!” exclaimed the
airman in a mincing Berlin accent. “When
I require a corps of observers I usually send my aide.
That being now quite perfectly understood, you gentlemen
will give yourselves the trouble to descend as you
have come. Further, you will place a sentry at
the tower door, and inform enquirers that General
Count von Gierdorff and his staff are occupying the
Nivelle belfry for purposes of observation.”
The astounded officers saluted steadily;
and if they imagined that the mythical staff of this
general officer was clustered aloft somewhere up there
where the bells hung it was impossible to tell by the
strained expressions on their wooden countenances.
However, it was evidently perfectly
plain to them what the high Excellenz was about in
this vaulted room where wires led aloft to an unseen
carillon on the landing in the belfry above.
The airman nodded; they went.
And when their clattering steps echoed far below on
the spiral stone stairs, the airman motioned to the
little bell-mistress. She followed him up the
short flight to where the bells hung.
“We’re in for it now,”
he said. “If High Command comes into this
place to investigate then I shall have to hold those
stairs.... It’s growing quite light in
the east. Which way is the wind?”
“North,” she said in a
steady voice. She was terribly pale.
He went to the parapet and looked
over, half wondering, perhaps, whether he would receive
a rifle shot through the head.
Far below at the foot of the bell-tower
the dimly discerned Nivelle redoubt, swarming
with men, was being armed; and, to the south, wired
he thought, but could not see distinctly.
Then, as the dusk of early dawn grew
greyer, the first rifle shots rattled out in the west.
The French salient was saluting the wire-stringers.
Back under shelter they tumbled; whistles
sounded distantly; a trench mortar crashed; then the
accentless tattoo of machine guns broke from every
“The east is turning a little
yellow,” he said calmly. “I believe
this matter is going through. Toss some dust
into the air. Which way?”
“North,” said the girl.
“Good. I think they’re
placing their cylinders. I think I can see them
laying their coils. I’m certain of it.
The airman was becoming excited and
his voice trembled a little with the effort to control
“It’s growing pink in
the east. Try a handful of dust again,”
he suggested almost gaily.
“North,” she said briefly, watching the
“Luck’s with us!
Look at the east! If their High Command keeps
his nose out of this place! if he does! Look
at the east, little bell-mistress! It’s
all gold! There’s pink up higher. I
can see a faint tinge of blue, too. Can you?”
“I think so.”
A minute dragged like a year in prison. Then:
“Try the wind again,” he said in a strained
“Oh, luck! Luck!”
he muttered, slinging his sack of bombs over his shoulder.
“We’ve got them! We’ve certainly
got them! What’s that! An airplane!
Look, little girl one of our planes is up.
There’s another! Which way is the wind?”
“Got ’em!” he snapped
between his teeth. “Run over to the stairs.
Listen! Is anybody coming up?”
“I can hear nothing.”
“Stand there and listen.
Never mind the row the guns are making; listen for
somebody on the stairs. Look how light it’s
getting! The sun will push up before many minutes.
We’ve got ’em! Got ’em! Wet
your finger and try the wind!”
“North here, too. What
do you know about that! Luck! Luck’s
with us! And we’ve got ’em !”
he lifted his clenched hand and laughed at her.
“Like that!” he said, his blue eyes blazing.
“They’re getting ready to gas below.
Look at ’em! Glory to God! I can see
two cylinders directly under me. They’re
manning the nozzles! Every man is masking at his
post! Anybody on the stairs! Any sound?”
“Are you certain?”
“It is as still as death below.”
“Try the dust. The wind’s changing,
I think. Quick! Which way?”
“Oh, glory! Glory to God!
They feel it below! They know. The wind has
changed. Off came their respirators. No gas
this morning, eh? Yes, by God, there will be
gas enough for all !”
He caught up a bomb, leaned over the
parapet, held it aloft, poised, aiming steadily for
one second of concentrated cooerdination of mind and
muscle. Then straight down he launched it.
The cylinder beneath him was shattered and a green
geyser of gas burst from it deluging the trench.
Already a second bomb followed the
first, then another, and then a third; and with the
last report another cylinder in the trench below burst
into thick green billows of death and flowed over
the ground, west.
Two more bombs whirled down, bursting
on a machine gun; then the airman turned with a cry
of triumph, and at the same instant the sun rose above
the hills and flung a golden ray straight across his
To Maryette the man stood transfigured,
like the Blazing Guardian of the Flaming Sword.
“Ring out your Brabançonne!”
he cried. “Let the Huns hear the war song
of the land they’ve trampled! Now!
Little bell-mistress, arm your white hands with your
wooden gloves and make this old carillon speak in brass
He caught her by the arm; they ran
down the short flight of steps; she drew on her wooden
gloves and sprang to the keyboard.
“I’ll hold the stairs!”
he cried. “I can hold these stairs for an
hour against the whole world in arms. Now, then!
Above the roaring confusion and the
explosions far below, from high up in the sky a clear
bell note floated as though out of Heaven itself another,
others, crystalline clear, imperious, filling all the
sky with their amazing and terrible beauty.
The mistress of the bells struck the
keyboard with armoured hands beautiful,
slender, avenging hands; the bells above her crashed
out into the battle-song of Flanders, filling sky
and earth with its splendid defiance of the Hun.
The airman, bomb in hand, stood at
the head of the stone stairs; the ancient tower rocked
with the fiercely magnificent anthem of revolt the
war cry of a devastated land the land that
died to save the world the martyr, Belgium,
still prone in the deathly trance awaiting her certain
The rising sun struck the tower where
three score ancient bells poured from metal throats
their heavenly summons to battle!
The Hun heard it, tumbling, clawing,
strangling below in the hellish vapours of his own
death-fog; and now, from the rear his sky-guns hurled
shrapnel at the carillon in the belfry of Nivelle.
Clouds possessed the tower soft,
white, fleecy clouds rolling, unfolding, floating
about the ancient buttresses and gargoyles. An
iron hail rained on slate and parapet and resounding
bell-metal. But the bells pealed and pealed in
clear-voiced beauty, and Clovis, the great iron giant,
hung, scarcely sonorous under the shrapnel rain.
Suddenly there were bayonets on the
stairs the clatter of heavy feet alien
faces on the threshold. Then a bomb flew, and
the terrible crash cleared the stairs.
Twice more the clatter came with the
clank of bayonets and guttural cries; but both died
out in the infernal roar of the grenades exploding
inside that stony spiral. And no more bayonets
flickered on the stairs.
The airman, frozen to a statue, listened.
Again and again he thought he could hear bugles, but
the roar from below blotted out the distant call.
She turned her head, her hands still
striking the keyboard. He spoke through the confusion
of the place:
“Sound the tocsin!”
Then Clovis thundered from the belfry
like a great gun fired, booming out over the world.
Around the iron colossus shrapnel swept in gusts; Clovis
thundered on, annihilating all sound except his own
tremendous voice, heedless of shell and bullet, disdainful
of the hell’s shambles below, where masked French
infantry were already leaping the parapets of Nivelle
Redoubt into the squirming masses below.
The airman shouted at her through the tumult:
“They murdered my brother.
Did I tell you? They hacked him to slivers with
their bayonets. I’ve settled the reckoning
down in the gas there their own green gas,
damn them! You don’t understand what I say,
do you? He was my brother ”
A frightful explosion blew in the
oubliette; the room rattled and clattered with shrapnel.
The airman swayed where he stood in
the swirling smoke, lurched up against the stone coping,
slid down to his knees.
When his eyes opened the little bell-mistress
was bending over him.
“They got me,” he gasped.
All the front of his tunic was sopping red.
“They said it meant the cross if
I made good.... Are you hurt?”
“Oh, no!” she whispered. “But
“Go on and play!” he whispered with a
“But you ”
“The Brabançonne! Quick!”
She went, whimpering. Standing
before the keyboard she pulled on her wooden gloves
and struck the keys.
Out over the infernal uproar below
pealed the bells; the morning sky rang with the noble
summons to all brave men. Once more the ancient
tower trembled with the mighty out-crash of the battle
With the last note she turned and
looked down at him where he lay against the wall.
He opened his glazing eyes and tried to smile at her.
“Bully,” he whispered.
“Could you recite the words to
me just so I could hear them on my way West?”
She left the keyboard, came and dropped
on her knees beside him; and closing her eyes to check
the tears sang in a low, tremulous, girlish voice,
De Lonlay’s words, to the battle anthem of revolution.
“Bully,” he sighed. And spoke no
more on earth.
But the little mistress of the bells did not know
his soul had passed.
And the French officer who came leaping
up the stairs, pistol lifted, halted in astonishment
to see a dead man lying beside a sack of bombs and
a young girl on her knees beside him, weeping and tremblingly
intoning “La Brabançonne.”