"Then you are a guest from the front, and you will have lunch with Louis and me. Madame Barre is also gone for the day. Will you see our house?" She led him through the low door into a living room, unpainted, uncarpeted, light and airy. There were coloured war posters on the clean board walls, brass shell cases full of wild flowers and garden flowers, canvas camp-chairs, a shelf of books, a table covered by a white silk shawl embroidered with big butterflies. The sunlight on the floor, the bunches of fresh flowers, the white window curtains stirring in the breeze, reminded Claude of something, but he could not remember what.
"We have no guest room," said Mlle. de Courcy. "But you will come to mine, and Louis will bring you hot water to wash."
In a wooden chamber at the end of the passage, Claude took off his coat, and set to work to make himself as tidy as possible. Hot water and scented soap were in themselves pleasant things. The dresser was an old goods box, stood on end and covered with white lawn. On it there was a row of ivory toilet things, with combs and brushes, powder and cologne, and a pile of white handkerchiefs fresh from the iron. He felt that he ought not to look about him much, but the odor of cleanness, and the indefinable air of personality, tempted him. In one corner, a curtain on a rod made a clothes-closet; in another was a low iron bed, like a soldier's, with a pale blue coverlid and white pillows. He moved carefully and splashed discreetly. There was nothing he could have damaged or broken, not even a rug on the plank floor, and the pitcher and hand-basin were of iron; yet he felt as if he were imperiling something fragile.
When he came out, the table in the living room was set for three. The stout old dame who was placing the plates paid no attention to him,--seemed, from her expression, to scorn him and all his kind. He withdrew as far as possible out of her path and picked up a book from the table, a volume of Heine's Reisebilder in German.
Before lunch Mlle. de Courcy showed him the store room in the rear, where the shelves were stocked with rows of coffee tins, condensed milk, canned vegetables and meat, all with American trade names he knew so well; names which seemed doubly familiar and "reliable" here, so far from home. She told him the people in the town could not have got through the winter without these things. She had to deal them out sparingly, where the need was greatest, but they made the difference between life and death. Now that it was summer, the people lived by their gardens; but old women still came to beg for a few ounces of coffee, and mothers to get a can of milk for the babies.
Claude's face glowed with pleasure. Yes, his country had a long arm. People forgot that; but here, he felt, was some one who did not forget. When they sat down to lunch he learned that Mlle. de Courcy and Madame Barre had been here almost a year now; they came soon after the town was retaken, when the old inhabitants began to drift back. The people brought with them only what they could carry in their arms.
"They must love their country so much, don't you think, when they endure such poverty to come back to it?" she said. "Even the old ones do not often complain about their dear things--their linen, and their china, and their beds. If they have the ground, and hope, all that they can make again. This war has taught us all how little the made things matter. Only the feeling matters."
Exactly so; hadn't he been trying to say this ever since he was born? Hadn't he always known it, and hadn't it made life both bitter and sweet for him? What a beautiful voice she had, this Mlle. Olive, and how nobly it dealt with the English tongue. He would like to say something, but out of so much . . . what? He remained silent, therefore, sat nervously breaking up the black war bread that lay beside his plate.