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Action Front Boyd Cable

An Open Town

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"Yesterday hostile artillery shelled the town of ---- some miles behind our lines, without military result. Several civilians were killed."--EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH.

Two officers were cashing checks in the Bank of France and chatting with the cashier, who was telling them about a bombardment of the town the day before. The bank had removed itself and its business to the underground vaults, and the large room on the ground floor, with its polished mahogany counters, brass grills and desks, loomed dim and indistinct in the light which filtered past the sandbags piled outside. The walls bore notices with a black hand pointing downwards to the cellar steps, and the big room echoed eerily to the footsteps of customers, who tramped across the tiled floor and disappeared downstairs to the vaults.

"One shell," the cashier was saying, "fell close outside there," waving a hand up the cellar steps. "Bang! crash! we feel the building shake--so." His hands left their task of counting notes, seized an imaginary person by the lapels of an imaginary coat and shook him violently.

"The noise, the great c-r-rash, the shoutings, the little squeals, and then the peoples running, the glasses breaking--tinkle--tinkle--you have seen the smoke, thick black smoke, and smelling--pah!"

He wrinkled his nose with disgust. "At first--for one second--I think the bank is hit; but no, it is the street outside. Little stones--yes, and splinters, through the windows; they come and hit all round, inside--rap, rap, rap!" His darting hand played the splinters' part, indicating with little pointing stabs the ceiling and the walls. "Mademoiselle there, you see? yes! one little piece of shell," and he held finger and thumb to illustrate an inch-long fragment.

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The two officers looked at Mademoiselle, an exceedingly pretty young girl, sitting composedly at a typewriter. There was a strip of plaster marring the smooth cheek, and at the cashier's words she looked round at the young officers, flashed them a cheerful smile, and returned to her hammering on the key-board.

"My word, Mademoiselle," said one of the officers. "Near thing, eh? I wonder you are not scared to carry on."

The girl turned a slightly puzzled glance on them.

"Monsieur means," explained the cashier friendlily to her, "is it that you have no fear--peur, to continue the affairs?"

Mademoiselle smiled brightly and shook her head. "But no," she said cheerfully, "it is nossings," and went back to her work.

"Jolly plucky girl, I think," said the officer. "Nearly as plucky as she is pretty. I say, old man, my French isn't up to handling a compliment like that; see if you can--"

He did not finish the sentence, for at that moment there was a faint far-off bang, and they sensed rather than felt a faint quiver in the solid earth beneath their feet. The cashier held up one hand and stood with head turned sideways in an attitude of listening.

"You hear?" he said, arching his eyebrows.

"What was it?" said the officer. "Sounded like a door banging upstairs."

"No, no," said the cashier. "They have commenced again. It is the same hour as last time, and the time before."

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