Part 6 out of 7
behind my best. It's not one o'clock.'
The next I knew I was lying flat on a pad of snow easing my cramped
legs, while Wake shouted in my ear that we were in for something bad.
I was aware of a driving blizzard, but I had no thought of anything
but the blessed relief from pain. I lay for some minutes on my back
with my legs stiff in the air and the toes turned inwards, while my
muscles fell into their proper place.
It was certainly no spot to linger in. We looked down into a trough of
driving mist, which sometimes swirled aside and showed a knuckle of
black rock far below. We ate some chocolate, while Wake shouted in my
ear that now we had less step-cutting. He did his best to cheer me,
but he could not hide his anxiety. Our faces were frosted over like a
wedding-cake and the sting of the wind was like a whiplash on our
The first part was easy, down a slope of firm snow where steps were
not needed. Then came ice again, and we had to cut into it below the
fresh surface snow. This was so laborious that Wake took to the rocks
on the right side of the couloir, where there was some shelter from
the main force of the blast. I found it easier, for I knew something
about rocks, but it was difficult enough with every handhold and
foothold glazed. Presently we were driven back again to the ice, and
painfully cut our way through a throat of the ravine where the sides
narrowed. There the wind was terrible, for the narrows made a kind of
funnel, and we descended, plastered against the wall, and scarcely
able to breathe, while the tornado plucked at our bodies as if it
would whisk us like wisps of grass into the abyss.
After that the gorge widened and we had an easier slope, till suddenly
we found ourselves perched on a great tongue of rock round which the
snow blew like the froth in a whirlpool. As we stopped for breath,
Wake shouted in my ear that this was the Black Stone.
'The what?' I yelled.
'The Schwarzstein. The Swiss call the pass the Schwarzsteinthor. You
can see it from Grunewald.'
I suppose every man has a tinge of superstition in him. To hear that
name in that ferocious place gave me a sudden access of confidence. I
seemed to see all my doings as part of a great predestined plan.
Surely it was not for nothing that the word which had been the key of
my first adventure in the long tussle should appear in this last
phase. I felt new strength in my legs and more vigour in my lungs. 'A
good omen,' I shouted. 'Wake, old man, we're going to win out.'
'The worst is still to come,' he said.
He was right. To get down that tongue of rock to the lower snows of
the couloir was a job that fairly brought us to the end of our tether.
I can feel yet the sour, bleak smell of wet rock and ice and the hard
nerve pain that racked my forehead. The Kaffirs used to say that there
were devils in the high berg, and this place was assuredly given over
to the powers of the air who had no thought of human life. I seemed to
be in the world which had endured from the eternity before man was
dreamed of. There was no mercy in it, and the elements were pitting
their immortal strength against two pigmies who had profaned their
sanctuary. I yearned for warmth, for the glow of a fire, for a tree or
blade of grass or anything which meant the sheltered homeliness of
mortality. I knew then what the Greeks meant by panic, for I was
scared by the apathy of nature. But the terror gave me a kind of
comfort, too. Ivery and his doings seemed less formidable. Let me but
get out of this cold hell and I could meet him with a new confidence.
Wake led, for he knew the road and the road wanted knowing. Otherwise
he should have been last on the rope, for that is the place of the
better man in a descent. I had some horrible moments following on when
the rope grew taut, for I had no help from it. We zigzagged down the
rock, sometimes driven to the ice of the adjacent couloirs, sometimes
on the outer ridge of the Black Stone, sometimes wriggling down little
cracks and over evil boiler-plates. The snow did not lie on it, but
the rock crackled with thin ice or oozed ice water. Often it was only
by the grace of God that I did not fall headlong, and pull Wake out of
his hold to the bergschrund far below. I slipped more than once, but
always by a miracle recovered myself. To make things worse, Wake was
tiring. I could feel him drag on the rope, and his movements had not
the precision they had had in the morning. He was the mountaineer, and
I the novice. If he gave out, we should never reach the valley.
The fellow was clear grit all through. When we reached the foot of the
tooth and sat huddled up with our faces away from the wind, I saw that
he was on the edge of fainting. What that effort Must have cost him in
the way of resolution you may guess, but he did not fail till the
worst was past. His lips were colourless, and he was choking with the
nausea of fatigue. I found a flask of brandy in his pocket, and a
mouthful revived him.
'I'm all out,' he said. 'The road's easier now, and I can direct YOU
about the rest . . . You'd better leave me. I'll only be a drag. I'll
come on when I feel better.'
'No, you don't, you old fool. You've got me over that infernal
iceberg, and I'm going to see you home.'
I rubbed his arms and legs and made him swallow some chocolate. But
when he got on his feet he was as doddery as an old man. Happily we
had an easy course down a snow gradient, which we glissaded in very
unorthodox style. The swift motion freshened him up a little, and he
was able to put on the brake with his axe to prevent us cascading into
the bergschrund. We crossed it by a snow bridge, and started out on
the seracs of the Schwarzstein glacier.
I am no mountaineer--not of the snow and ice kind, anyway--but I have
a big share of physical strength and I wanted it all now. For those
seracs were an invention of the devil. To traverse that labyrinth in a
blinding snowstorm, with a fainting companion who was too weak to jump
the narrowest crevasse, and who hung on the rope like lead when there
was occasion to use it, was more than I could manage. Besides, every
step that brought us nearer to the valley now increased my eagerness
to hurry, and wandering in that maze of clotted ice was like the
nightmare when you stand on the rails with the express coming and are
too weak to climb on the platform. As soon as possible I left the
glacier for the hillside, and though that was laborious enough in all
conscience, yet it enabled me to steer a straight course. Wake never
spoke a word. When I looked at him his face was ashen under a gale
which should have made his cheeks glow, and he kept his eyes half
closed. He was staggering on at the very limits of his endurance . . .
By and by we were on the moraine, and after splashing through a dozen
little glacier streams came on a track which led up the hillside. Wake
nodded feebly when I asked if this was right. Then to my joy I saw a
I untied the rope and Wake dropped like a log on the ground. 'Leave
me,' he groaned. 'I'm fairly done. I'll come on later.' And he shut
My watch told me that it was after five o'clock.
'Get on my back,' I said. 'I won't part from you till I've found a
cottage. You're a hero. You've brought me over those damned mountains
in a blizzard, and that's what no other man in England would have
done. Get up.'
He obeyed, for he was too far gone to argue. I tied his wrists
together with a handkerchief below my chin, for I wanted my arms to
hold up his legs. The rope and axes I left in a cache beneath the
pine-tree. Then I started trotting down the track for the nearest
My strength felt inexhaustible and the quicksilver in my bones drove
me forward. The snow was still falling, but the wind was dying down,
and after the inferno of the pass it was like summer. The road wound
over the shale of the hillside and then into what in spring must have
been upland meadows. Then it ran among trees, and far below me on the
right I could hear the glacier river churning in its gorge' Soon
little empty huts appeared, and rough enclosed paddocks, and presently
I came out on a shelf above the stream and smelt the wood-smoke of a
I found a middle-aged peasant in the cottage, a guide by profession in
summer and a woodcutter in winter.
'I have brought my Herr from Santa Chiara,' I said, 'over the
Schwarzsteinthor. He is very weary and must sleep.'
I decanted Wake into a chair, and his head nodded on his chest. But
his colour was better.
'You and your Herr are fools,' said the man gruffly, but not unkindly.
'He must sleep or he will have a fever. The Schwarzsteinthor in this
devil's weather! Is he English?'
'Yes,' I said, 'like all madmen. But he's a good Herr, and a brave
We stripped Wake of his Red Cross uniform, now a collection of sopping
rags, and got him between blankets with a huge earthenware bottle of
hot water at his feet. The woodcutter's wife boiled milk, and this,
with a little brandy added, we made him drink. I was quite easy in my
mind about him, for I had seen this condition before. In the morning
he would be as stiff as a poker, but recovered.
'Now I'm off for St Anton,' I said. 'I must get there tonight.'
'You are the hardy one,' the man laughed. 'I will show you the quick
road to Grunewald, where is the railway. With good fortune you may get
the last train.'
I gave him fifty francs on my Herr's behalf, learned his directions
for the road, and set off after a draught of goat's milk, munching my
last slab of chocolate. I was still strung up to a mechanical
activity, and I ran every inch of the three miles to the Staubthal
without consciousness of fatigue. I was twenty minutes too soon for
the train, and, as I sat on a bench on the platform, my energy
suddenly ebbed away. That is what happens after a great exertion. I
longed to sleep, and when the train arrived I crawled into a carriage
like a man with a stroke. There seemed to be no force left in my
limbs. I realized that I was leg-weary, which is a thing you see
sometimes with horses, but not often with men.
All the journey I lay like a log in a kind of coma, and it was with
difficulty that I recognized my destination, and stumbled out of the
train. But I had no sooner emerged from the station of St Anton than I
got my second wind. Much snow had fallen since yesterday, but it had
stopped now, the sky was clear, and the moon was riding. The sight of
the familiar place brought back all my anxieties. The day on the Col
of the Swallows was wiped out of my memory, and I saw only the inn at
Santa Chiara, and heard Wake's hoarse voice speaking of Mary. The
lights were twinkling from the village below, and on the right I saw
the clump of trees which held the Pink Chalet.
I took a short cut across the fields, avoiding the little town. I ran
hard, stumbling often, for though I had got my mental energy back my
legs were still precarious. The station clock had told me that it was
nearly half-past nine.
Soon I was on the high-road, and then at the Chalet gates. I heard as
in a dream what seemed to be three shrill blasts on a whistle. Then a
big car passed me, making for St Anton. For a second I would have
hailed it, but it was past me and away. But I had a conviction that my
business lay in the house, for I thought Ivery was there, and Ivery
was what mattered.
I marched up the drive with no sort of plan in my head, only a blind
rushing on fate. I remembered dimly that I had still three cartridges
in my revolver.
The front door stood open and I entered and tiptoed down the passage
to the room where I had found the Portuguese Jew. No one hindered me,
but it was not for lack of servants. I had the impression that there
were people near me in the darkness, and I thought I heard German
softly spoken. There was someone ahead of me, perhaps the speaker, for
I could hear careful footsteps. It was very dark, but a ray of light
came from below the door of the room. Then behind me I heard the hall
door clang, and the noise of a key turned in its lock. I had walked
straight into a trap and all retreat was cut off.
My mind was beginning to work more clearly, though my purpose was
still vague. I wanted to get at Ivery and I believed that he was
somewhere in front of me. And then I thought of the door which led
from the chamber where I had been imprisoned. If I could enter that
way I would have the advantage of surprise.
I groped on the right-hand side of the passage and found a handle. It
opened upon what seemed to be a dining-room, for there was a faint
smell of food. Again I had the impression of people near, who for some
unknown reason did not molest me. At the far end I found another door,
which led to a second room, which I guessed to be adjacent to the
library. Beyond it again must lie the passage from the chamber with
the rack. The whole place was as quiet as a shell.
I had guessed right. I was standing in the passage where I had stood
the night before. In front of me was the library, and there was the
same chink of light showing. Very softly I turned the handle and
opened it a crack . . .
The first thing that caught my eye was the profile of Ivery. He was
looking towards the writing-table, where someone was sitting.
The Underground Railway
This is the story which I heard later from Mary . . .
She was at Milan with the new Anglo-American hospital when she got
Blenkiron's letter. Santa Chiara had always been the place agreed
upon, and this message mentioned specifically Santa Chiara, and fixed
a date for her presence there. She was a little puzzled by it, for she
had not yet had a word from Ivery, to whom she had written twice by
the roundabout address in France which Bommaerts had given her. She
did not believe that he would come to Italy in the ordinary course of
things, and she wondered at Blenkiron's certainty about the date.
The following morning came a letter from Ivery in which he ardently
pressed for a meeting. It was the first of several, full of strange
talk about some approaching crisis, in which the forebodings of the
prophet were mingled with the solicitude of a lover.
'The storm is about to break,' he wrote, 'and I cannot think only of
my own fate. I have something to tell you which vitally concerns
yourself. You say you are in Lombardy. The Chiavagno valley is within
easy reach, and at its head is the inn of Santa Chiara, to which I
come on the morning of March 19th. Meet me there even if only for half
an hour, I implore you. We have already shared hopes and confidences,
and I would now share with you a knowledge which I alone in Europe
possess. You have the heart of a lion, my lady, worthy of what I can
Wake was summoned from the _Croce Rossa_ unit with which he was
working at Vicenza, and the plan arranged by Blenkiron was faithfully
carried out. Four officers of the Alpini, in the rough dress of
peasants of the hills, met them in Chiavagno on the morning of the
18th. It was arranged that the hostess of Santa Chiara should go on a
visit to her sister's son, leaving the inn, now in the shuttered quiet
of wintertime, under the charge of two ancient servants. The hour of
Ivery's coming on the 19th had been fixed by him for noon, and that
morning Mary would drive up the valley, while Wake and the Alpini went
inconspicuously by other routes so as to be in station around the
place before midday.
But on the evening of the 18th at the Hotel of the Four Kings in
Chiavagno Mary received another message. It was from me and told her
that I was crossing the Staub at midnight and would be at the inn
before dawn. It begged her to meet me there, to meet me alone without
the others, because I had that to say to her which must be said before
Ivery's coming. I have seen the letter. It was written in a hand which
I could not have distinguished from my own scrawl. It was not exactly
what I would myself have written, but there were phrases in it which
to Mary's mind could have come only from me. Oh, I admit it was
cunningly done, especially the love-making, which was just the kind of
stammering thing which I would have achieved if I had tried to put my
feelings on paper. Anyhow, Mary had no doubt of its genuineness. She
slipped off after dinner, hired a carriage with two broken-winded
screws and set off up the valley. She left a line for Wake telling him
to follow according to the plan--a line which he never got, for his
anxiety when he found she had gone drove him to immediate pursuit.
At about two in the morning of the 19th after a slow and icy journey
she arrived at the inn, knocked up the aged servants, made herself a
cup of chocolate out of her tea-basket and sat down to wait on my
She has described to me that time of waiting. A home-made candle in a
tall earthenware candlestick lit up the little _salle-a-manger_, which
was the one room in use. The world was very quiet, the snow muffled
the roads, and it was cold with the penetrating chill of the small
hours of a March night. Always, she has told me, will the taste of
chocolate and the smell of burning tallow bring back to her that
strange place and the flutter of the heart with which she waited. For
she was on the eve of the crisis of all our labours, she was very
young, and youth has a quick fancy which will not be checked.
Moreover, it was I who was coming, and save for the scrawl of the
night before, we had had no communication for many weeks . . . She tried
to distract her mind by repeating poetry, and the thing that came into
her head was Keats's 'Nightingale', an odd poem for the time and
There was a long wicker chair among the furnishings of the room, and
she lay down on it with her fur cloak muffled around her. There were
sounds of movement in the inn. The old woman who had let her in, with
the scent of intrigue of her kind, had brightened when she heard that
another guest was coming. Beautiful women do not travel at midnight
for nothing. She also was awake and expectant.
Then quite suddenly came the sound of a car slowing down outside. She
sprang to her feet in a tremor of excitement. It was like the Picardy
chateau again--the dim room and a friend coming out of the night. She
heard the front door open and a step in the little hall . . .
She was looking at Ivery. . . . He slipped his driving-coat off as he
entered, and bowed gravely. He was wearing a green hunting suit which
in the dusk seemed like khaki, and, as he was about my own height, for
a second she was misled. Then she saw his face and her heart stopped.
'You!' she cried. She had sunk back again on the wicker chair.
'I have come as I promised,' he said, 'but a little earlier. You will
forgive me my eagerness to be with you.'
She did not heed his words, for her mind was feverishly busy. My
letter had been a fraud and this man had discovered our plans. She was
alone with him, for it would be hours before her friends came from
Chiavagno. He had the game in his hands, and of all our confederacy
she alone remained to confront him. Mary's courage was pretty near
perfect, and for the moment she did not think of herself or her own
fate. That came later. She was possessed with poignant disappointment
at our failure. All our efforts had gone to the winds, and the enemy
had won with contemptuous ease. Her nervousness disappeared before the
intense regret, and her brain set coolly and busily to work.
It was a new Ivery who confronted her, a man with vigour and purpose
in every line of him and the quiet confidence of power. He spoke with
a serious courtesy.
'The time for make-believe is past,' he was saying. 'We have fenced
with each other. I have told you only half the truth, and you have
always kept me at arm's length. But you knew in your heart, my dearest
lady, that there must be the full truth between us some day, and that
day has come. I have often told you that I love you. I do not come now
to repeat that declaration. I come to ask you to entrust yourself to
me, to join your fate to mine, for I can promise you the happiness
which you deserve.'
He pulled up a chair and sat beside her. I cannot put down all that he
said, for Mary, once she grasped the drift of it, was busy with her
own thoughts and did not listen. But I gather from her that he was
very candid and seemed to grow as he spoke in mental and moral
stature. He told her who he was and what his work had been. He claimed
the same purpose as hers, a hatred of war and a passion to rebuild the
world into decency. But now he drew a different moral. He was a
German: it was through Germany alone that peace and regeneration could
come. His country was purged from her faults, and the marvellous
German discipline was about to prove itself in the eye of gods and
men. He told her what he had told me in the room at the Pink Chalet,
but with another colouring. Germany was not vengeful or vainglorious,
only patient and merciful. God was about to give her the power to
decide the world's fate, and it was for him and his kind to see that
the decision was beneficent. The greater task of his people was only
That was the gist of his talk. She appeared to listen, but her mind
was far away. She must delay him for two hours, three hours, four
hours. If not, she must keep beside him. She was the only one of our
company left in touch with the enemy . . .
'I go to Germany now,' he was saying. 'I want you to come with me--to
be my wife.'
He waited for an answer, and got it in the form of a startled
'To Germany? How?'
'It is easy,' he said, smiling. 'The car which is waiting outside is
the first stage of a system of travel which we have perfected.' Then
he told her about the Underground Railway--not as he had told it to
me, to scare, but as a proof of power and forethought.
His manner was perfect. He was respectful, devoted, thoughtful of all
things. He was the suppliant, not the master. He offered her power and
pride, a dazzling career, for he had deserved well of his country, the
devotion of the faithful lover. He would take her to his mother's
house, where she would be welcomed like a princess. I have no doubt he
was sincere, for he had many moods, and the libertine whom he had
revealed to me at the Pink Chalet had given place to the honourable
gentleman. He could play all parts well because he could believe in
himself in them all.
Then he spoke of danger, not so as to slight her courage, but to
emphasize his own thoughtfulness. The world in which she had lived was
crumbling, and he alone could offer a refuge. She felt the steel
gauntlet through the texture of the velvet glove.
All the while she had been furiously thinking, with her chin in her
hand in the old way . . . She might refuse to go. He could compel her,
no doubt, for there was no help to be got from the old servants. But
it might be difficult to carry an unwilling woman over the first
stages of the Underground Railway. There might be chances . . .
Supposing he accepted her refusal and left her. Then indeed he would
be gone for ever and our game would have closed with a fiasco. The
great antagonist of England would go home rejoicing, taking his
sheaves with him.
At this time she had no personal fear of him. So curious a thing is
the human heart that her main preoccupation was with our mission, not
with her own fate. To fail utterly seemed too bitter. Supposing she
went with him. They had still to get out of Italy and cross
Switzerland. If she were with him she would be an emissary of the
Allies in the enemy's camp. She asked herself what could she do, and
told herself 'Nothing.' She felt like a small bird in a very large
trap, and her chief sensation was that of her own powerlessness. But
she had learned Blenkiron's gospel and knew that Heaven sends amazing
chances to the bold. And, even as she made her decision, she was aware
of a dark shadow lurking at the back of her mind, the shadow of the
fear which she knew was awaiting her. For she was going into the
unknown with a man whom she hated, a man who claimed to be her lover.
It was the bravest thing I have ever heard of, and I have lived my
life among brave men.
'I will come with you,' she said. 'But you mustn't speak to me,
please. I am tired and troubled and I want peace to think.'
As she rose weakness came over her and she swayed till his arm caught
her. 'I wish I could let you rest for a little,' he said tenderly,
'but time presses. The car runs smoothly and you can sleep there.'
He summoned one of the servants to whom he handed Mary. 'We leave in
ten minutes,' he said, and he went out to see to the car.
Mary's first act in the bedroom to which she was taken was to bathe
her eyes and brush her hair. She felt dimly that she must keep her
head clear. Her second was to scribble a note to Wake, telling him
what had happened, and to give it to the servant with a tip.
'The gentleman will come in the morning,' she said. 'You must give it
him at once, for it concerns the fate of your country.' The woman
grinned and promised. It was not the first time she had done errands
for pretty ladies.
Ivery settled her in the great closed car with much solicitude, and
made her comfortable with rugs. Then he went back to the inn for a
second, and she saw a light move in the _salle-a-manger_. He returned
and spoke to the driver in German, taking his seat beside him.
But first he handed Mary her note to Wake. 'I think you left this
behind you,' he said. He had not opened it.
Alone in the car Mary slept. She saw the figures of Ivery and the
chauffeur in the front seat dark against the headlights, and then they
dislimned into dreams. She had undergone a greater strain than she
knew, and was sunk in the heavy sleep of weary nerves.
When she woke it was daylight. They were still in Italy, as her first
glance told her, so they could not have taken the Staub route. They
seemed to be among the foothills, for there was little snow, but now
and then up tributary valleys she had glimpses of the high peaks. She
tried hard to think what it could mean, and then remembered the
Marjolana. Wake had laboured to instruct her in the topography of the
Alps, and she had grasped the fact of the two open passes. But the
Marjolana meant a big circuit, and they would not be in Switzerland
till the evening. They would arrive in the dark, and pass out of it in
the dark, and there would be no chance of succour. She felt very
lonely and very weak.
Throughout the morning her fear grew. The more hopeless her chance of
defeating Ivery became the more insistently the dark shadow crept over
her mind. She tried to steady herself by watching the show from the
windows. The car swung through little villages, past vineyards and
pine-woods and the blue of lakes, and over the gorges of mountain
streams. There seemed to be no trouble about passports. The sentries
at the controls waved a reassuring hand when they were shown some card
which the chauffeur held between his teeth. In one place there was a
longish halt, and she could hear Ivery talking Italian with two
officers of Bersaglieri, to whom he gave cigars. They were
fresh-faced, upstanding boys, and for a second she had an idea of
flinging open the door and appealing to them to save her. But that
would have been futile, for Ivery was clearly amply certificated. She
wondered what part he was now playing.
The Marjolana route had been chosen for a purpose. In one town Ivery
met and talked to a civilian official, and more than once the car
slowed down and someone appeared from the wayside to speak a word and
vanish. She was assisting at the last gathering up of the threads of a
great plan, before the Wild Birds returned to their nest. Mostly these
conferences seemed to be in Italian, but once or twice she gathered
from the movement of the lips that German was spoken and that this
rough peasant or that black-hatted bourgeois was not of Italian blood.
Early in the morning, soon after she awoke, Ivery had stopped the car
and offered her a well-provided luncheon basket. She could eat
nothing, and watched him breakfast off sandwiches beside the driver.
In the afternoon he asked her permission to sit with her. The car drew
up in a lonely place, and a tea-basket was produced by the chauffeur.
Ivery made tea, for she seemed too listless to move, and she drank a
cup with him. After that he remained beside her.
'In half an hour we shall be out of Italy,' he said. The car was
running up a long valley to the curious hollow between snowy saddles
which is the crest of the Marjolana. He showed her the place on a road
map. As the altitude increased and the air grew colder he wrapped the
rugs closer around her and apologized for the absence of a
foot-warmer. 'In a little,' he said, 'we shall be in the land where
your slightest wish will be law.'
She dozed again and so missed the frontier post. When she woke the car
was slipping down the long curves of the Weiss valley, before it
narrows to the gorge through which it debouches on Grunewald.
'We are in Switzerland now,' she heard his voice say. It may have been
fancy, but it seemed to her that there was a new note in it. He spoke
to her with the assurance of possession. They were outside the country
of the Allies, and in a land where his web was thickly spread.
'Where do we stop tonight?' she asked timidly.
'I fear we cannot stop. Tonight also you must put up with the car. I
have a little errand to do on the way, which will delay us a few
minutes, and then we press on. Tomorrow, my fairest one, fatigue will
There was no mistake now about the note of possession in his voice.
Mary's heart began to beat fast and wild. The trap had closed down on
her and she saw the folly of her courage. It had delivered her bound
and gagged into the hands of one whom she loathed more deeply every
moment, whose proximity was less welcome than a snake's. She had to
bite hard on her lip to keep from screaming.
The weather had changed and it was snowing hard, the same storm that
had greeted us on the Col of the Swallows. The pace was slower now,
and Ivery grew restless. He looked frequently at his watch, and
snatched the speaking-tube to talk to the driver. Mary caught the word
'Do we go by St Anton?' she found voice to ask.
'Yes,' he said shortly.
The word gave her the faintest glimmering of hope, for she knew that
Peter and I had lived at St Anton. She tried to look out of the
blurred window, but could see nothing except that the twilight was
falling. She begged for the road-map, and saw that so far as she could
make out they were still in the broad Grunewald valley and that to
reach St Anton they had to cross the low pass from the Staubthal. The
snow was still drifting thick and the car crawled.
Then she felt the rise as they mounted to the pass. Here the going was
bad, very different from the dry frost in which I had covered the same
road the night before. Moreover, there seemed to be curious obstacles.
Some careless wood-cart had dropped logs on the highway, and more than
once both Ivery and the chauffeur had to get out to shift them. In one
place there had been a small landslide which left little room to pass,
and Mary had to descend and cross on foot while the driver took the
car over alone. Ivery's temper seemed to be souring. To the girl's
relief he resumed the outside seat, where he was engaged in constant
argument with the chauffeur.
At the head of the pass stands an inn, the comfortable hostelry of
Herr Kronig, well known to all who clamber among the lesser peaks of
the Staubthal. There in the middle of the way stood a man with a
'The road is blocked by a snowfall,' he cried. 'They are clearing it
now. It will be ready in half an hour's time.'
Ivery sprang from his seat and darted into the hotel. His business was
to speed up the clearing party, and Herr Kronig himself accompanied
him to the scene of the catastrophe. Mary sat still, for she had
suddenly become possessed of an idea. She drove it from her as
foolishness, but it kept returning. Why had those tree-trunks been
spilt on the road? Why had an easy pass after a moderate snowfall been
A man came out of the inn-yard and spoke to the chauffeur. It seemed
to be an offer of refreshment, for the latter left his seat and
disappeared inside. He was away for some time and returned shivering
and grumbling at the weather, with the collar of his greatcoat turned
up around his ears. A lantern had been hung in the porch and as he
passed Mary saw the man. She had been watching the back of his head
idly during the long drive, and had observed that it was of the round
bullet type, with no nape to the neck, which is common in the
Fatherland. Now she could not see his neck for the coat collar, but
she could have sworn that the head was a different shape. The man
seemed to suffer acutely from the cold, for he buttoned the collar
round his chin and pulled his cap far over his brows.
Ivery came back, followed by a dragging line of men with spades and
lanterns. He flung himself into the front seat and nodded to the
driver to start. The man had his engine going already so as to lose no
time. He bumped over the rough debris of the snowfall and then fairly
let the car hum. Ivery was anxious for speed, but he did not want his
neck broken and he yelled out to take care. The driver nodded and
slowed down, but presently he had got up speed again.
If Ivery was restless, Mary was worse. She seemed suddenly to have
come on the traces of her friends. In the St Anton valley the snow had
stopped and she let down the window for air, for she was choking with
suspense. The car rushed past the station, down the hill by Peter's
cottage, through the village, and along the lake shore to the Pink
Ivery halted it at the gate. 'See that you fill up with petrol,' he
told the man. 'Bid Gustav get the Daimler and be ready to follow in
half in hour.'
He spoke to Mary through the open window.
'I will keep you only a very little time. I think you had better wait
in the car, for it will be more comfortable than a dismantled house. A
servant will bring you food and more rugs for the night journey.'
Then he vanished up the dark avenue.
Mary's first thought was to slip out and get back to the village and
there to find someone who knew me or could take her where Peter lived.
But the driver would prevent her, for he had been left behind on
guard. She looked anxiously at his back, for he alone stood between
her and liberty.
That gentleman seemed to be intent on his own business. As soon as
Ivery's footsteps had grown faint, he had backed the car into the
entrance, and turned it so that it faced towards St Anton. Then very
slowly it began to move.
At the same moment a whistle was blown shrilly three times. The door
on the right had opened and someone who had been waiting in the
shadows climbed painfully in. Mary saw that it was a little man and
that he was a cripple. She reached a hand to help him, and he fell on
to the cushions beside her. The car was gathering speed.
Before she realized what was happening the new-comer had taken her
hand and was patting it.
* * * * *
About two minutes later I was entering the gate of the Pink Chalet.
The Cage of the Wild Birds
'Why, Mr Ivery, come right in,' said the voice at the table. There was
a screen before me, stretching from the fireplace to keep off the
draught from the door by which I had entered. It stood higher than my
head but there were cracks in it through which I could watch the room.
I found a little table on which I could lean my back, for I was
dropping with fatigue.
Blenkiron sat at the writing-table and in front of him were little
rows of Patience cards. Wood ashes still smouldered in the stove, and
a lamp stood at his right elbow which lit up the two figures. The
bookshelves and the cabinets were in twilight.
'I've been hoping to see you for quite a time.' Blenkiron was busy
arranging the little heaps of cards, and his face was wreathed in
hospitable smiles. I remember wondering why he should play the host to
the true master of the house.
Ivery stood erect before him. He was rather a splendid figure now that
he had sloughed all disguises and was on the threshold of his triumph.
Even through the fog in which my brain worked it was forced upon me
that here was a man born to play a big part. He had a jowl like a
Roman king on a coin, and scornful eyes that were used to mastery. He
was younger than me, confound him, and now he looked it.
He kept his eyes on the speaker, while a smile played round his mouth,
a very ugly smile.
'So,' he said. 'We have caught the old crow too. I had scarcely hoped
for such good fortune, and, to speak the truth, I had not concerned
myself much about you. But now we shall add you to the bag. And what a
bag of vermin to lay out on the lawn!' He flung back his head and
'Mr Ivery--' Blenkiron began, but was cut short.
'Drop that name. All that is past, thank God! I am the Graf von
Schwabing, an officer of the Imperial Guard. I am not the least of the
weapons that Germany has used to break her enemies.'
'You don't say,' drawled Blenkiron, still fiddling with his Patience
The man's moment had come, and he was minded not to miss a jot of his
triumph. His figure seemed to expand, his eye kindled, his voice rang
with pride. It was melodrama of the best kind and he fairly rolled it
round his tongue. I don't think I grudged it him, for I was fingering
something in my pocket. He had won all right, but he wouldn't enjoy
his victory long, for soon I would shoot him. I had my eye on the very
spot above his right ear where I meant to put my bullet . . . For I was
very clear that to kill him was the only way to protect Mary. I feared
the whole seventy millions of Germany less than this man. That was the
single idea that remained firm against the immense fatigue that
pressed down on me.
'I have little time to waste on you,' said he who had been called
Ivery. 'But I will spare a moment to tell you a few truths. Your
childish game never had a chance. I played with you in England and I
have played with you ever since. You have never made a move but I have
quietly countered it. Why, man, you gave me your confidence. The
American Mr Donne . . .'
'What about Clarence?' asked Blenkiron. His face seemed a study in
'I was that interesting journalist.'
'Now to think of that!' said Blenkiron in a sad, gentle voice. 'I
thought I was safe with Clarence. Why, he brought me a letter from old
Joe Hooper and he knew all the boys down Emporia way.'
Ivery laughed. 'You have never done me justice, I fear; but I think
you will do it now. Your gang is helpless in my hands. General Hannay
. . .' And I wish I could give you a notion of the scorn with which he
pronounced the word 'General'.
'Yes--Dick?' said Blenkiron intently.
'He has been my prisoner for twenty-four hours. And the pretty Miss
Mary, too. You are all going with me in a little to my own country.
You will not guess how. We call it the Underground Railway, and you
will have the privilege of studying its working. . . . I had not
troubled much about you, for I had no special dislike of you. You are
only a blundering fool, what you call in your country easy fruit.'
'I thank you, Graf,' Blenkiron said solemnly.
'But since you are here you will join the others . . . One last word. To
beat inepts such as you is nothing. There is a far greater thing. My
country has conquered. You and your friends will be dragged at the
chariot wheels of a triumph such as Rome never saw. Does that
penetrate your thick skull? Germany has won, and in two days the whole
round earth will be stricken dumb by her greatness.'
As I watched Blenkiron a grey shadow of hopelessness seemed to settle
on his face. His big body drooped in his chair, his eyes fell, and his
left hand shuffled limply among his Patience cards. I could not get my
mind to work, but I puzzled miserably over his amazing blunders. He
had walked blindly into the pit his enemies had dug for him. Peter
must have failed to get my message to him, and he knew nothing of last
night's work or my mad journey to Italy. We had all bungled, the whole
wretched bunch of us, Peter and Blenkiron and myself . . . I had a
feeling at the back of my head that there was something in it all that
I couldn't understand, that the catastrophe could not be quite as
simple as it seemed. But I had no power to think, with the insolent
figure of Ivery dominating the room . . . Thank God I had a bullet
waiting for him. That was the one fixed point in the chaos of my mind.
For the first time in my life I was resolute on killing one particular
man, and the purpose gave me a horrid comfort.
Suddenly Ivery's voice rang out sharp. 'Take your hand out of your
pocket. You fool, you are covered from three points in the walls. A
movement and my men will make a sieve of you. Others before you have
sat in that chair, and I am used to take precautions. Quick. Both
hands on the table.'
There was no mistake about Blenkiron's defeat. He was done and out,
and I was left with the only card. He leaned wearily on his arms with
the palms of his hands spread out.
'I reckon you've gotten a strong hand, Graf,' he said, and his voice
was flat with despair.
'I hold a royal flush,' was the answer.
And then suddenly came a change. Blenkiron raised his head, and his
sleepy, ruminating eyes looked straight at Ivery.
'I call you,' he said.
I didn't believe my ears. Nor did Ivery.
'The hour for bluff is past,' he said.
'Nevertheless I call you.'
At that moment I felt someone squeeze through the door behind me and
take his place at my side. The light was so dim that I saw only a
short, square figure, but a familiar voice whispered in my ear. 'It's
me--Andra Amos. Man, this is a great ploy. I'm here to see the end
No prisoner waiting on the finding of the jury, no commander expecting
news of a great battle, ever hung in more desperate suspense than I
did during the next seconds. I had forgotten my fatigue; my back no
longer needed support. I kept my eyes glued to the crack in the screen
and my ears drank in greedily every syllable.
Blenkiron was now sitting bolt upright with his chin in his hands.
There was no shadow of melancholy in his lean face.
'I say I call you, Herr Graf von Schwabing. I'm going to put you wise
about some little things. You don't carry arms, so I needn't warn you
against monkeying with a gun. You're right in saying that there are
three places in these walls from which you can shoot. Well, for your
information I may tell you that there's guns in all three, but they're
covering _you_ at this moment. So you'd better be good.'
Ivery sprang to attention like a ramrod. 'Karl,' he cried. 'Gustav!'
As if by magic figures stood on either side of him, like warders by a
criminal. They were not the sleek German footmen whom I had seen at
the Chalet. One I did not recognize. The other was my servant, Geordie
He gave them one glance, looked round like a hunted animal, and then
steadied himself. The man had his own kind of courage.
'I've gotten something to say to you,' Blenkiron drawled. 'It's been a
tough fight, but I reckon the hot end of the poker is with you. I
compliment you on Clarence Donne. You fooled me fine over that
business, and it was only by the mercy of God you didn't win out. You
see, there was just the one of us who was liable to recognize you
whatever way you twisted your face, and that was Dick Hannay. I give
you good marks for Clarence . . . For the rest, I had you beaten flat.'
He looked steadily at him. 'You don't believe it. Well, I'll give you
proof. I've been watching your Underground Railway for quite a time.
I've had my men on the job, and I reckon most of the lines are now
closed for repairs. All but the trunk line into France. That I'm
keeping open, for soon there's going to be some traffic on it.'
At that I saw Ivery's eyelids quiver. For all his self-command he was
'I admit we cut it mighty fine, along of your fooling me about
Clarence. But you struck a bad snag in General Hannay, Graf. Your
heart-to-heart talk with him was poor business. You reckoned you had
him safe, but that was too big a risk to take with a man like Dick,
unless you saw him cold before you left him . . . He got away from this
place, and early this morning I knew all he knew. After that it was
easy. I got the telegram you had sent this morning in the name of
Clarence Donne and it made me laugh. Before midday I had this whole
outfit under my hand. Your servants have gone by the Underground
Railway--to France. Ehrlich--well, I'm sorry about Ehrlich.'
I knew now the name of the Portuguese Jew.
'He wasn't a bad sort of man,' Blenkiron said regretfully, 'and he was
plumb honest. I couldn't get him to listen to reason, and he would
play with firearms. So I had to shoot.'
'Dead?' asked Ivery sharply.
'Ye-es. I don't miss, and it was him or me. He's under the ice
now--where you wanted to send Dick Hannay. He wasn't your kind, Graf,
and I guess he has some chance of getting into Heaven. If I weren't a
hard-shell Presbyterian I'd say a prayer for his soul.'
I looked only at Ivery. His face had gone very pale, and his eyes were
wandering. I am certain his brain was working at lightning speed, but
he was a rat in a steel trap and the springs held him. If ever I saw a
man going through hell it was now. His pasteboard castle had crumbled
about his ears and he was giddy with the fall of it. The man was made
of pride, and every proud nerve of him was caught on the raw.
'So much for ordinary business,' said Blenkiron. 'There's the matter
of a certain lady. You haven't behaved over-nice about her, Graf, but
I'm not going to blame you. You maybe heard a whistle blow when you
were coming in here? No! Why, it sounded like Gabriel's trump. Peter
must have put some lung power into it. Well, that was the signal that
Miss Mary was safe in your car . . . but in our charge. D'you
He did. The ghost of a flush appeared in his cheeks.
'You ask about General Hannay? I'm not just exactly sure where Dick is
at the moment, but I opine he's in Italy.'
I kicked aside the screen, thereby causing Amos almost to fall on his
'I'm back,' I said, and pulled up an arm-chair, and dropped into it.
I think the sight of me was the last straw for Ivery. I was a wild
enough figure, grey with weariness, soaked, dirty, with the clothes of
the porter Joseph Zimmer in rags from the sharp rocks of the
Schwarzsteinthor. As his eyes caught mine they wavered, and I saw
terror in them. He knew he was in the presence of a mortal enemy.
'Why, Dick,' said Blenkiron with a beaming face, 'this is mighty
opportune. How in creation did you get here?'
'I walked,' I said. I did not want to have to speak, for I was too
tired. I wanted to watch Ivery's face.
Blenkiron gathered up his Patience cards, slipped them into a little
leather case and put it in his pocket.
'I've one thing more to tell you. The Wild Birds have been summoned
home, but they won't ever make it. We've gathered them in--Pavia, and
Hofgaard, and Conradi. Ehrlich is dead. And you are going to join the
rest in our cage.'
As I looked at my friend, his figure seemed to gain in presence. He
sat square in his chair with a face like a hanging judge, and his
eyes, sleepy no more, held Ivery as in a vice. He had dropped, too,
his drawl and the idioms of his ordinary speech, and his voice came
out hard and massive like the clash of granite blocks.
'You're at the bar now, Graf von Schwabing. For years you've done your
best against the decencies of life. You have deserved well of your
country, I don't doubt it. But what has your country deserved of the
world? One day soon Germany has to do some heavy paying, and you are
the first instalment.'
'I appeal to the Swiss law. I stand on Swiss soil, and I demand that I
be surrendered to the Swiss authorities.' Ivery spoke with dry lips
and the sweat was on his brow.
'Oh, no, no,' said Blenkiron soothingly. 'The Swiss are a nice people,
and I would hate to add to the worries of a poor little neutral state
. . . All along both sides have been outside the law in this game, and
that's going to continue. We've abode by the rules and so must you . . .
For years you've murdered and kidnapped and seduced the weak and
ignorant, but we're not going to judge your morals. We leave that to
the Almighty when you get across Jordan. We're going to wash our hands
of you as soon as we can. You'll travel to France by the Underground
Railway and there be handed over to the French Government. From what I
know they've enough against you to shoot you every hour of the day for
I think he had expected to be condemned by us there and then and sent
to join Ehrlich beneath the ice. Anyhow, there came a flicker of hope
into his eyes. I daresay he saw some way to dodge the French
authorities if he once got a chance to use his miraculous wits.
Anyhow, he bowed with something very like self-possession, and asked
permission to smoke. As I have said, the man had his own courage.
'Blenkiron,' I cried, 'we're going to do nothing of the kind.'
He inclined his head gravely towards me. 'What's your notion, Dick?'
'We've got to make the punishment fit the crime,' I said. I was so
tired that I had to form my sentences laboriously, as if I were
speaking a half-understood foreign tongue.
'I mean that if you hand him over to the French he'll either twist out
of their hands somehow or get decently shot, which is far too good for
him. This man and his kind have sent millions of honest folk to their
graves. He has sat spinning his web like a great spider and for every
thread there has been an ocean of blood spilled. It's his sort that
made the war, not the brave, stupid, fighting Boche. It's his sort
that's responsible for all the clotted beastliness . . . And he's never
been in sight of a shell. I'm for putting him in the front line. No, I
don't mean any Uriah the Hittite business. I want him to have a
sporting chance, just what other men have. But, by God, he's going to
learn what is the upshot of the strings he's been pulling so merrily
. . . He told me in two days' time Germany would smash our armies to
hell. He boasted that he would be mostly responsible for it. Well, let
him be there to see the smashing.'
'I reckon that's just,' said Blenkiron.
Ivery's eyes were on me now, fascinated and terrified like those of a
bird before a rattlesnake. I saw again the shapeless features of the
man in the Tube station, the residuum of shrinking mortality behind
his disguises. He seemed to be slipping something from his pocket
towards his mouth, but Geordie Hamilton caught his wrist.
'Wad ye offer?' said the scandalized voice of my servant. 'Sirr, the
prisoner would appear to be trying to puishon hisself. Wull I search
After that he stood with each arm in the grip of a warder.
'Mr Ivery,' I said, 'last night, when I was in your power, you
indulged your vanity by gloating over me. I expected it, for your
class does not breed gentlemen. We treat our prisoners differently,
but it is fair that you should know your fate. You are going into
France, and I will see that you are taken to the British front. There
with my old division you will learn something of the meaning of war.
Understand that by no conceivable chance can you escape. Men will be
detailed to watch you day and night and to see that you undergo the
full rigour of the battlefield. You will have the same experience as
other people, no more, no less. I believe in a righteous God and I
know that sooner or later you will find death--death at the hands of
your own people--an honourable death which is far beyond your deserts.
But before it comes you will have understood the hell to which you
have condemned honest men.'
In moments of great fatigue, as in moments of great crisis, the mind
takes charge and may run on a track independent of the will. It was
not myself that spoke, but an impersonal voice which I did not know, a
voice in whose tones rang a strange authority. Ivery recognized the
icy finality of it, and his body seemed to wilt, and droop. Only the
hold of the warders kept him from falling.
I, too, was about at the end of my endurance. I felt dimly that the
room had emptied except for Blenkiron and Amos, and that the former
was trying to make me drink brandy from the cup of a flask. I
struggled to my feet with the intention of going to Mary, but my legs
would not carry me . . . I heard as in a dream Amos giving thanks to an
Omnipotence in whom he officially disbelieved. 'What's that the auld
man in the Bible said? Now let thou thy servant depart in peace.
That's the way I'm feelin' mysel'.' And then slumber came on me like
an armed man, and in the chair by the dying wood-ash I slept off the
ache of my limbs, the tension of my nerves, and the confusion of my
The Storm Breaks in the West
The following evening--it was the 20th day of March--I started for
France after the dark fell. I drove Ivery's big closed car, and within
sat its owner, bound and gagged, as others had sat before him on the
same errand. Geordie Hamilton and Amos were his companions. From what
Blenkiron had himself discovered and from the papers seized in the
Pink Chalet I had full details of the road and its mysterious stages.
It was like the journey of a mad dream. In a back street of a little
town I would exchange passwords with a nameless figure and be given
instructions. At a wayside inn at an appointed hour a voice speaking a
thick German would advise that this bridge or that railway crossing
had been cleared. At a hamlet among pine woods an unknown man would
clamber up beside me and take me past a sentry-post. Smooth as
clockwork was the machine, till in the dawn of a spring morning I
found myself dropping into a broad valley through little orchards just
beginning to blossom, and I knew that I was in France. After that,
Blenkiron's own arrangements began, and soon I was drinking coffee
with a young lieutenant of Chasseurs, and had taken the gag from
Ivery's mouth. The bluecoats looked curiously at the man in the green
ulster whose face was the colour of clay and who lit cigarette from
cigarette with a shaky hand.
The lieutenant rang up a General of Division who knew all about us. At
his headquarters I explained my purpose, and he telegraphed to an Army
Headquarters for a permission which was granted. It was not for
nothing that in January I had seen certain great personages in Paris,
and that Blenkiron had wired ahead of me to prepare the way. Here I
handed over Ivery and his guard, for I wanted them to proceed to
Amiens under French supervision, well knowing that the men of that
great army are not used to let slip what they once hold.
It was a morning of clear spring sunlight when we breakfasted in that
little red-roofed town among vineyards with a shining river looping at
our feet. The General of Division was an Algerian veteran with a brush
of grizzled hair, whose eye kept wandering to a map on the wall where
pins and stretched thread made a spider's web.
'Any news from the north?' I asked.
'Not yet,' he said. 'But the attack comes soon. It will be against our
army in Champagne.' With a lean finger he pointed out the enemy
'Why not against the British?' I asked. With a knife and fork I made a
right angle and put a salt dish in the centre. 'That is the German
concentration. They can so mass that we do not know which side of the
angle they will strike till the blow falls.'
'It is true,' he replied. 'But consider. For the enemy to attack
towards the Somme would be to fight over many miles of an old
battle-ground where all is still desert and every yard of which you
British know. In Champagne at a bound he might enter unbroken country.
It is a long and difficult road to Amiens, but not so long to Chilons.
Such is the view of Petain. Does it convince you?'
'The reasoning is good. Nevertheless he will strike at Amiens, and I
think he will begin today.'
He laughed and shrugged his shoulders. '_Nous verrons_. You are
obstinate, my general, like all your excellent countrymen.'
But as I left his headquarters an aide-de-camp handed him a message on
a pink slip. He read it, and turned to me with a grave face.
'You have a flair, my friend. I am glad we did not wager. This morning
at dawn there is great fighting around St Quentin. Be comforted, for
they will not pass. Your _Marechal_ will hold them.'
That was the first news I had of the battle.
At Dijon according to plan I met the others. I only just caught the
Paris train, and Blenkiron's great wrists lugged me into the carriage
when it was well in motion. There sat Peter, a docile figure in a
carefully patched old R.F.C. uniform. Wake was reading a pile of
French papers, and in a corner Mary, with her feet up on the seat, was
We did not talk much, for the life of the past days had been so hectic
that we had no wish to recall it. Blenkiron's face wore an air of
satisfaction, and as he looked out at the sunny spring landscape he
hummed his only tune. Even Wake had lost his restlessness. He had on a
pair of big tortoiseshell reading glasses, and when he looked up from
his newspaper and caught my eye he smiled. Mary slept like a child,
delicately flushed, her breath scarcely stirring the collar of the
greatcoat which was folded across her throat. I remember looking with
a kind of awe at the curve of her young face and the long lashes that
lay so softly on her cheek, and wondering how I had borne the anxiety
of the last months. Wake raised his head from his reading, glanced at
Mary and then at me, and his eyes were kind, almost affectionate. He
seemed to have won peace of mind among the hills.
Only Peter was out of the picture. He was a strange, disconsolate
figure, as he shifted about to ease his leg, or gazed incuriously from
the window. He had shaved his beard again, but it did not make him
younger, for his face was too lined and his eyes too old to change.
When I spoke to him he looked towards Mary and held up a warning
'I go back to England,' he whispered. 'Your little _mysie_ is going to
take care of me till I am settled. We spoke of it yesterday at my
cottage. I will find a lodging and be patient till the war is over.
And you, Dick?'
'Oh, I rejoin my division. Thank God, this job is over. I have an easy
_trund_ now and can turn my attention to straight-forward soldiering.
I don't mind telling you that I'll be glad to think that you and Mary
and Blenkiron are safe at home. What about you, Wake?'
'I go back to my Labour battalion,' he said cheerfully. 'Like you, I
have an easier mind.'
I shook my head. 'We'll see about that. I don't like such sinful
waste. We've had a bit of campaigning together and I know your
'The battalion's quite good enough for me,' and he relapsed into a
Mary had suddenly woke, and was sitting upright with her fists in her
eyes like a small child. Her hand flew to her hair, and her eyes ran
over us as if to see that we were all there. As she counted the four
of us she seemed relieved.
'I reckon you feel refreshed, Miss Mary,' said Blenkiron. 'It's good
to think that now we can sleep in peace, all of us. Pretty soon you'll
be in England and spring will be beginning, and please God it'll be
the start of a better world. Our work's over, anyhow.'
'I wonder,' said the girl gravely. 'I don't think there's any
discharge in this war. Dick, have you news of the battle? This was the
'It's begun,' I said, and told them the little I had learned from the
French General. 'I've made a reputation as a prophet, for he thought
the attack was coming in Champagne. It's St Quentin right enough, but
I don't know what has happened. We'll hear in Paris.'
Mary had woke with a startled air as if she remembered her old
instinct that our work would not be finished without a sacrifice, and
that sacrifice the best of us. The notion kept recurring to me with an
uneasy insistence. But soon she appeared to forget her anxiety. That
afternoon as we journeyed through the pleasant land of France she was
in holiday mood, and she forced all our spirits up to her level. It
was calm, bright weather, the long curves of ploughland were beginning
to quicken into green, the catkins made a blue mist on the willows by
the watercourses, and in the orchards by the red-roofed hamlets the
blossom was breaking. In such a scene it was hard to keep the mind
sober and grey, and the pall of war slid from us. Mary cosseted and
fussed over Peter like an elder sister over a delicate little boy. She
made him stretch his bad leg full length on the seat, and when she
made tea for the party of us it was a protesting Peter who had the
last sugar biscuit. Indeed, we were almost a merry company, for
Blenkiron told stories of old hunting and engineering days in the
West, and Peter and I were driven to cap them, and Mary asked
provocative questions, and Wake listened with amused interest. It was
well that we had the carriage to ourselves, for no queerer rigs were
ever assembled. Mary, as always, was neat and workmanlike in her
dress; Blenkiron was magnificent in a suit of russet tweed with a
pale-blue shirt and collar, and well-polished brown shoes; but Peter
and Wake were in uniforms which had seen far better days, and I wore
still the boots and the shapeless and ragged clothes of Joseph Zimmer,
the porter from Arosa.
We appeared to forget the war, but we didn't, for it was in the
background of all our minds. Somewhere in the north there was raging a
desperate fight, and its issue was the true test of our success or
failure. Mary showed it by bidding me ask for news at every
stopping-place. I asked gendarmes and _Permissionnaires_, but I
learned nothing. Nobody had ever heard of the battle. The upshot was
that for the last hour we all fell silent, and when we reached Paris
about seven o'clock my first errand was to the bookstall.
I bought a batch of evening papers, which we tried to read in the
taxis that carried us to our hotel. Sure enough there was the
announcement in big headlines. The enemy had attacked in great
strength from south of Arras to the Oise; but everywhere he had been
repulsed and held in our battle-zone. The leading articles were
confident, the notes by the various military critics were almost
braggart. At last the German had been driven to an offensive, and the
Allies would have the opportunity they had longed for of proving their
superior fighting strength. It was, said one and all, the opening of
the last phase of the war.
I confess that as I read my heart sank. If the civilians were so
over-confident, might not the generals have fallen into the same trap?
Blenkiron alone was unperturbed. Mary said nothing, but she sat with
her chin in her hands, which with her was a sure sign of deep
Next morning the papers could tell us little more. The main attack had
been on both sides of St Quentin, and though the British had given
ground it was only the outposts line that had gone. The mist had
favoured the enemy, and his bombardment had been terrific, especially
the gas shells. Every journal added the old old comment--that he had
paid heavily for his temerity, with losses far exceeding those of the
Wake appeared at breakfast in his private's uniform. He wanted to get
his railway warrant and be off at once, but when I heard that Amiens
was his destination I ordered him to stay and travel with me in the
afternoon. I was in uniform myself now and had taken charge of the
outfit. I arranged that Blenkiron, Mary, and Peter should go on to
Boulogne and sleep the night there, while Wake and I would be dropped
at Amiens to await instructions.
I spent a busy morning. Once again I visited with Blenkiron the little
cabinet in the Boulevard St Germain, and told in every detail our work
of the past two months. Once again I sat in the low building beside
the Invalides and talked to staff officers. But some of the men I had
seen on the first visit were not there. The chiefs of the French Army
had gone north.
We arranged for the handling of the Wild Birds, now safely in France,
and sanction was given to the course I had proposed to adopt with
Ivery. He and his guard were on their way to Amiens, and I would meet
them there on the morrow. The great men were very complimentary to us,
so complimentary that my knowledge of grammatical French ebbed away
and I could only stutter in reply. That telegram sent by Blenkiron on
the night of the 18th, from the information given me in the Pink
Chalet, had done wonders in clearing up the situation.
But when I asked them about the battle they could tell me little. It
was a very serious attack in tremendous force, but the British line
was strong and the reserves were believed to be sufficient. Petain and
Foch had gone north to consult with Haig. The situation in Champagne
was still obscure, but some French reserves were already moving thence
to the Somme sector. One thing they did show me, the British
dispositions. As I looked at the plan I saw that my old division was
in the thick of the fighting.
'Where do you go now?' I was asked.
'To Amiens, and then, please God, to the battle front,' I said.
'Good fortune to you. You do not give body or mind much rest, my
After that I went to the _Mission Anglaise_, but they had nothing
beyond Haig's communique and a telephone message from G.H.Q. that the
critical sector was likely to be that between St Quentin and the Oise.
The northern pillar of our defence, south of Arras, which they had
been nervous about, had stood like a rock. That pleased me, for my old
battalion of the Lennox Highlanders was there.
Crossing the Place de la Concorde, we fell in with a British staff
officer of my acquaintance, who was just starting to motor back to
G.H.Q. from Paris leave. He had a longer face than the people at the
'I don't like it, I tell you,' he said. 'It's this mist that worries
me. I went down the whole line from Arras to the Oise ten days ago. It
was beautifully sited, the cleverest thing you ever saw. The outpost
line was mostly a chain of blobs--redoubts, you know, with
machine-guns--so arranged as to bring flanking fire to bear on the
advancing enemy. But mist would play the devil with that scheme, for
the enemy would be past the place for flanking fire before we knew
it. . . Oh, I know we had good warning, and had the battle-zone manned
in time, but the outpost line was meant to hold out long enough to get
everything behind in apple-pie order, and I can't see but how big
chunks of it must have gone in the first rush. . . . Mind you, we've
banked everything on that battle-zone. It's damned good, but if it's
gone--'He flung up his hands.
'Have we good reserves?' I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
'Have we positions prepared behind the battle-zone?'
'I didn't notice any,' he said dryly, and was off before I could get
more out of him.
'You look rattled, Dick,' said Blenkiron as we walked to the hotel.
'I seem to have got the needle. It's silly, but I feel worse about
this show than I've ever felt since the war started. Look at this city
here. The papers take it easily, and the people are walking about as
if nothing was happening. Even the soldiers aren't worried. You may
call me a fool to take it so hard, but I've a sense in my bones that
we're in for the bloodiest and darkest fight of our lives, and that
soon Paris will be hearing the Boche guns as she did in 1914.'
'You're a cheerful old Jeremiah. Well, I'm glad Miss Mary's going to
be in England soon. Seems to me she's right and that this game of ours
isn't quite played out yet. I'm envying you some, for there's a place
waiting for you in the fighting line.'
'You've got to get home and keep people's heads straight there. That's
the weak link in our chain and there's a mighty lot of work before
'Maybe,' he said abstractedly, with his eye on the top of the Vendome
The train that afternoon was packed with officers recalled from leave,
and it took all the combined purchase of Blenkiron and myself to get a
carriage reserved for our little party. At the last moment I opened
the door to admit a warm and agitated captain of the R.F.C. in whom I
recognized my friend and benefactor, Archie Roylance.
'Just when I was gettin' nice and clean and comfy a wire comes tellin'
me to bundle back, all along of a new battle. It's a cruel war, Sir.'
The afflicted young man mopped his forehead, grinned cheerfully at
Blenkiron, glanced critically at Peter, then caught sight of Mary and
grew at once acutely conscious of his appearance. He smoothed his
hair, adjusted his tie and became desperately sedate.
I introduced him to Peter and he promptly forgot Mary's existence. If
Peter had had any vanity in him it would have been flattered by the
frank interest and admiration in the boy's eyes. 'I'm tremendously
glad to see you safe back, sir. I've always hoped I might have a
chance of meeting you. We want you badly now on the front. Lensch is
gettin' a bit uppish.'
Then his eye fell on Peter's withered leg and he saw that he had
blundered. He blushed scarlet and looked his apologies. But they
weren't needed, for it cheered Peter to meet someone who talked of the
possibility of his fighting again. Soon the two were deep in
technicalities, the appalling technicalities of the airman. It was no
good listening to their talk, for you could make nothing of it, but it
was bracing up Peter like wine. Archie gave him a minute description
of Lensch's latest doings and his new methods. He, too, had heard the
rumour that Peter had mentioned to me at St Anton, of a new Boche
plane, with mighty engines and stumpy wings cunningly cambered, which
was a devil to climb; but no specimens had yet appeared over the line.
They talked of Bali, and Rhys Davids, and Bishop, and McCudden, and
all the heroes who had won their spurs since the Somme, and of the new
British makes, most of which Peter had never seen and had to have
explained to him.
Outside a haze had drawn over the meadows with the twilight. I pointed
it out to Blenkiron.
'There's the fog that's doing us. This March weather is just like
October, mist morning and evening. I wish to Heaven we could have some
good old drenching spring rain.'
Archie was discoursing of the Shark-Gladas machine.
'I've always stuck to it, for it's a marvel in its way, but it has my
heart fairly broke. The General here knows its little tricks. Don't
you, sir? Whenever things get really excitin', the engine's apt to
quit work and take a rest.'
'The whole make should be publicly burned,' I said, with gloomy
'I wouldn't go so far, sir. The old Gladas has surprisin' merits. On
her day there's nothing like her for pace and climbing-power, and she
steers as sweet as a racin' cutter. The trouble about her is she's too
complicated. She's like some breeds of car--you want to be a
mechanical genius to understand her . . . If they'd only get her a
little simpler and safer, there wouldn't be her match in the field.
I'm about the only man that has patience with her and knows her
merits, but she's often been nearly the death of me. All the same, if
I were in for a big fight against some fellow like Lensch, where it
was neck or nothing, I'm hanged if I wouldn't pick the Gladas.'
Archie laughed apologetically. 'The subject is banned for me in our
mess. I'm the old thing's only champion, and she's like a mare I used
to hunt that loved me so much she was always tryin' to chew the arm
off me. But I wish I could get her a fair trial from one of the big
pilots. I'm only in the second class myself after all.'
We were running north of St just when above the rattle of the train
rose a curious dull sound. It came from the east, and was like the low
growl of a veld thunderstorm, or a steady roll of muffled drums.
'Hark to the guns!' cried Archie. 'My aunt, there's a tidy bombardment
goin' on somewhere.'
I had been listening on and off to guns for three years. I had been
present at the big preparations before Loos and the Somme and Arras,
and I had come to accept the racket of artillery as something natural
and inevitable like rain or sunshine. But this sound chilled me with
its eeriness, I don't know why. Perhaps it was its unexpectedness, for
I was sure that the guns had not been heard in this area since before
the Marne. The noise must be travelling down the Oise valley, and I
judged there was big fighting somewhere about Chauny or La Fere. That
meant that the enemy was pressing hard on a huge front, for here was
clearly a great effort on his extreme left wing. Unless it was our
counter-attack. But somehow I didn't think so.
I let down the window and stuck my head into the night. The fog had
crept to the edge of the track, a gossamer mist through which houses
and trees and cattle could be seen dim in the moonlight. The noise
continued--not a mutter, but a steady rumbling flow as solid as the
blare of a trumpet. Presently, as we drew nearer Amiens, we left it
behind us, for in all the Somme valley there is some curious
configuration which blankets sound. The countryfolk call it the
'Silent Land', and during the first phase of the Somme battle a man in
Amiens could not hear the guns twenty miles off at Albert.
As I sat down again I found that the company had fallen silent, even
the garrulous Archie. Mary's eyes met mine, and in the indifferent
light of the French railway-carriage I could see excitement in them--I
knew it was excitement, not fear. She had never heard the noise of a
great barrage before. Blenkiron was restless, and Peter was sunk in
his own thoughts. I was growing very depressed, for in a little I
would have to part from my best friends and the girl I loved. But with
the depression was mixed an odd expectation, which was almost
pleasant. The guns had brought back my profession to me, I was moving
towards their thunder, and God only knew the end of it. The happy
dream I had dreamed of the Cotswolds and a home with Mary beside me
seemed suddenly to have fallen away to an infinite distance. I felt
once again that I was on the razor-edge of life.
The last part of the journey I was casting back to rake up my
knowledge of the countryside. I saw again the stricken belt from Serre
to Combles where we had fought in the summer of '17. I had not been
present in the advance of the following spring, but I had been at
Cambrai and I knew all the down country from Lagnicourt to St Quentin.
I shut my eyes and tried to picture it, and to see the roads running
up to the line, and wondered just at what points the big pressure had
come. They had told me in Paris that the British were as far south as
the Oise, so the bombardment we had heard must be directed to our
address. With Passchendaele and Cambrai in my mind, and some notion of
the difficulties we had always had in getting drafts, I was puzzled to
think where we could have found the troops to man the new front. We
must be unholily thin on that long line. And against that awesome
bombardment! And the masses and the new tactics that Ivery had bragged
When we ran into the dingy cavern which is Amiens station I seemed to
note a new excitement. I felt it in the air rather than deduced it
from any special incident, except that the platform was very crowded
with civilians, most of them with an extra amount of baggage. I
wondered if the place had been bombed the night before.
'We won't say goodbye yet,' I told the others. 'The train doesn't
leave for half an hour. I'm off to try and get news.'
Accompanied by Archie, I hunted out an R.T.O. of my acquaintance. To
my questions he responded cheerfully.
'Oh, we're doing famously, sir. I heard this afternoon from a man in
Operations that G.H.Q. was perfectly satisfied. We've killed a lot of
Huns and only lost a few kilometres of ground . . . You're going to your
division? Well, it's up Peronne way, or was last night. Cheyne and
Dunthorpe came back from leave and tried to steal a car to get up to
it . . . Oh, I'm having the deuce of a time. These blighted civilians
have got the wind up, and a lot are trying to clear out. The idiots
say the Huns will be in Amiens in a week. What's the phrase? "_Pourvu
que les civils tiennent._" 'Fraid I must push on, Sir.'
I sent Archie back with these scraps of news and was about to make a
rush for the house of one of the Press officers, who would, I thought,
be in the way of knowing things, when at the station entrance I ran
across Laidlaw. He had been B.G.G.S. in the corps to which my old
brigade belonged, and was now on the staff of some army. He was
striding towards a car when I grabbed his arm, and he turned on me a
very sick face.
'Good Lord, Hannay! Where did you spring from? The news, you say?' He
sank his voice, and drew me into a quiet corner. 'The news is
'They told me we were holding,' I observed.
'Holding be damned! The Boche is clean through on a broad front. He
broke us today at Maissemy and Essigny. Yes, the battle-zone. He's
flinging in division after division like the blows of a hammer. What
else could you expect?' And he clutched my arm fiercely. 'How in God's
name could eleven divisions hold a front of forty miles? And against
four to one in numbers? It isn't war, it's naked lunacy.'
I knew the worst now, and it didn't shock me, for I had known it was
coming. Laidlaw's nerves were pretty bad, for his face was pale and
his eyes bright like a man with a fever.
'Reserves!' and he laughed bitterly. 'We have three infantry divisions
and two cavalry. They're into the mill long ago. The French are coming
up on our right, but they've the devil of a way to go. That's what I'm
down here about. And we're getting help from Horne and Plumer. But all
that takes days, and meantime we're walking back like we did at Mons.
And at this time of day, too . . . Oh, yes, the whole line's retreating.
Parts of it were pretty comfortable, but they had to get back or be
put in the bag. I wish to Heaven I knew where our right divisions have
got to. For all I know they're at Compiegne by now. The Boche was over
the canal this morning, and by this time most likely he's across the
At that I exclaimed. 'D'you mean to tell me we're going to lose
'Peronne!' he cried. 'We'll be lucky not to lose Amiens! . . . And on
the top of it all I've got some kind of blasted fever. I'll be raving
in an hour.'
He was rushing off, but I held him.
'What about my old lot?' I asked.
'Oh, damned good, but they're shot all to bits. Every division did
well. It's a marvel they weren't all scuppered, and it'll be a flaming
miracle if they find a line they can stand on. Westwater's got a leg
smashed. He was brought down this evening, and you'll find him in the
hospital. Fraser's killed and Lefroy's a prisoner--at least, that was
my last news. I don't know who's got the brigades, but Masterton's
carrying on with the division . . . You'd better get up the line as fast
as you can and take over from him. See the Army Commander. He'll be in
Amiens tomorrow morning for a pow-wow.'
Laidlaw lay wearily back in his car and disappeared into the night,
while I hurried to the train.
The others had descended to the platform and were grouped round
Archie, who was discoursing optimistic nonsense. I got them into the
carriage and shut the door.
'It's pretty bad,' I said. 'The front's pierced in several places and
we're back to the Upper Somme. I'm afraid it isn't going to stop
there. I'm off up the line as soon as I can get my orders. Wake,
you'll come with me, for every man will be wanted. Blenkiron, you'll
see Mary and Peter safe to England. We're just in time, for tomorrow
it mightn't be easy to get out of Amiens.'
I can see yet the anxious faces in that ill-lit compartment. We said
goodbye after the British style without much to-do. I remember that
old Peter gripped my hand as if he would never release it, and that
Mary's face had grown very pale. If I delayed another second I should
have howled, for Mary's lips were trembling and Peter had eyes like a
wounded stag. 'God bless you,' I said hoarsely, and as I went off I
heard Peter's voice, a little cracked, saying 'God bless you, my old
* * * * *
I spent some weary hours looking for Westwater. He was not in the big
clearing station, but I ran him to earth at last in the new hospital
which had just been got going in the Ursuline convent. He was the most
sterling little man, in ordinary life rather dry and dogmatic, with a
trick of taking you up sharply which didn't make him popular. Now he
was lying very stiff and quiet in the hospital bed, and his blue eyes
were solemn and pathetic like a sick dog's.
'There's nothing much wrong with me,' he said, in reply to my
question. 'A shell dropped beside me and damaged my foot. They say
they'll have to cut it off . . . I've an easier mind now you're here,
Hannay. Of course you'll take over from Masterton. He's a good man but
not quite up to his job. Poor Fraser--you've heard about Fraser. He
was done in at the very start. Yes, a shell. And Lefroy. If he's alive
and not too badly smashed the Hun has got a troublesome prisoner.'
He was too sick to talk, but he wouldn't let me go.
'The division was all right. Don't you believe anyone who says we
didn't fight like heroes. Our outpost line held up the Hun for six
hours, and only about a dozen men came back. We could have stuck it
out in the battle-zone if both flanks hadn't been turned. They got
through Crabbe's left and came down the Verey ravine, and a big wave
rushed Shropshire Wood . . . We fought it out yard by yard and didn't
budge till we saw the Plessis dump blazing in our rear. Then it was
about time to go . . . We haven't many battalion commanders left.
Watson, Endicot, Crawshay . . .' He stammered out a list of gallant
fellows who had gone.
'Get back double quick, Hannay. They want you. I'm not happy about
Masterton. He's too young for the job.' And then a nurse drove me out,
and I left him speaking in the strange forced voice of great weakness.
At the foot of the staircase stood Mary.
'I saw you go in,' she said, 'so I waited for you.'
'Oh, my dear,' I cried, 'you should have been in Boulogne by now. What
madness brought you here?'
'They know me here and they've taken me on. You couldn't expect me to
stay behind. You said yourself everybody was wanted, and I'm in a
Service like you. Please don't be angry, Dick.'
I wasn't angry, I wasn't even extra anxious. The whole thing seemed to
have been planned by fate since the creation of the world. The game we
had been engaged in wasn't finished and it was right that we should
play it out together. With that feeling came a conviction, too, of
ultimate victory. Somehow or sometime we should get to the end of our
pilgrimage. But I remembered Mary's forebodings about the sacrifice
required. The best of us. That ruled me out, but what about her?
I caught her to my arms. 'Goodbye, my very dearest. Don't worry about
me, for mine's a soft job and I can look after my skin. But oh! take
care of yourself, for you are all the world to me.'
She kissed me gravely like a wise child.
'I am not afraid for you,' she said. 'You are going to stand in the
breach, and I know--I know you will win. Remember that there is
someone here whose heart is so full of pride of her man that it hasn't
room for fear.'
As I went out of the convent door I felt that once again I had been
given my orders.
* * * * *
It did not surprise me that, when I sought out my room on an upper
floor of the Hotel de France, I found Blenkiron in the corridor. He
was in the best of spirits.
'You can't keep me out of the show, Dick,' he said, 'so you needn't
start arguing. Why, this is the one original chance of a lifetime for
John S. Blenkiron. Our little fight at Erzerum was only a side-show,
but this is a real high-class Armageddon. I guess I'll find a way to
make myself useful.'
I had no doubt he would, and I was glad he had stayed behind. But I
felt it was hard on Peter to have the job of returning to England
alone at such a time, like useless flotsam washed up by a flood.
'You needn't worry,' said Blenkiron. 'Peter's not making England this
trip. To the best of my knowledge he has beat it out of this township
by the eastern postern. He had some talk with Sir Archibald Roylance,
and presently other gentlemen of the Royal Flying Corps appeared, and
the upshot was that Sir Archibald hitched on to Peter's grip and
departed without saying farewell. My notion is that he's gone to have
a few words with his old friends at some flying station. Or he might
have the idea of going back to England by aeroplane, and so having one
last flutter before he folds his wings. Anyhow, Peter looked a mighty
happy man. The last I saw he was smoking his pipe with a batch of
young lads in a Flying Corps waggon and heading straight for Germany.'
How an Exile Returned to His Own People
Next morning I found the Army Commander on his way to Doullens.
'Take over the division?' he said. 'Certainly. I'm afraid there isn't
much left of it. I'll tell Carr to get through to the Corps
Headquarters, when he can find them. You'll have to nurse the
remnants, for they can't be pulled out yet--not for a day or two.
Bless me, Hannay, there are parts of our line which we're holding with
a man and a boy. You've got to stick it out till the French take over.
We're not hanging on by our eyelids--it's our eyelashes now.'
'What about positions to fall back on, sir?' I asked.
'We're doing our best, but we haven't enough men to prepare them.' He
plucked open a map. 'There we're digging a line--and there. If we can
hold that bit for two days we shall have a fair line resting on the
river. But we mayn't have time.'
Then I told him about Blenkiron, whom of course he had heard of. 'He
was one of the biggest engineers in the States, and he's got a nailing
fine eye for country. He'll make good somehow if you let him help in
'The very fellow,' he said, and he wrote an order. 'Take this to Jacks
and he'll fix up a temporary commission. Your man can find a uniform
somewhere in Amiens.'
After that I went to the detail camp and found that Ivery had duly
'The prisoner has given no trouble, sirr,' Hamilton reported. 'But
he's a wee thing peevish. They're saying that the Gairmans is gettin'
on fine, and I was tellin' him that he should be proud of his ain
folk. But he wasn't verra weel pleased.'
Three days had wrought a transformation in Ivery. That face, once so
cool and capable, was now sharpened like a hunted beast's. His
imagination was preying on him and I could picture its torture. He,
who had been always at the top directing the machine, was now only a
cog in it. He had never in his life been anything but powerful; now he
was impotent. He was in a hard, unfamiliar world, in the grip of
something which he feared and didn't understand, in the charge of men
who were in no way amenable to his persuasiveness. It was like a proud
and bullying manager suddenly forced to labour in a squad of navvies,
and worse, for there was the gnawing physical fear of what was coming.
He made an appeal to me.
'Do the English torture their prisoners?' he asked. 'You have beaten
me. I own it, and I plead for mercy. I will go on my knees if you
like. I am not afraid of death--in my own way.'
'Few people are afraid of death--in their own way.'
'Why do you degrade me? I am a gentleman.'
'Not as we define the thing,' I said.
His jaw dropped. 'What are you going to do with me?' he quavered.
'You have been a soldier,' I said. 'You are going to see a little
fighting--from the ranks. There will be no brutality, you will be
armed if you want to defend yourself, you will have the same chance of
survival as the men around you. You may have heard that your
countrymen are doing well. It is even possible that they may win the
battle. What was your forecast to me? Amiens in two days, Abbeville in
three. Well, you are a little behind scheduled time, but still you are
prospering. You told me that you were the chief architect of all this,
and you are going to be given the chance of seeing it, perhaps of
sharing in it--from the other side. Does it not appeal to your sense
He groaned and turned away. I had no more pity for him than I would
have had for a black mamba that had killed my friend and was now
caught to a cleft tree. Nor, oddly enough, had Wake. If we had shot
Ivery outright at St Anton, I am certain that Wake would have called
us murderers. Now he was in complete agreement. His passionate hatred
of war made him rejoice that a chief contriver of war should be made
to share in its terrors.
'He tried to talk me over this morning,' he told me. 'Claimed he was
on my side and said the kind of thing I used to say last year. It made
me rather ashamed of some of my past performances to hear that
scoundrel imitating them . . . By the way, Hannay, what are you going to
do with me?'
'You're coming on my staff. You're a stout fellow and I can't do
'Remember I won't fight.'
'You won't be asked to. We're trying to stem the tide which wants to
roll to the sea. You know how the Boche behaves in occupied country,
and Mary's in Amiens.'
At that news he shut his lips.
'Still--' he began.
'Still,' I said. 'I don't ask you to forfeit one of your blessed
principles. You needn't fire a shot. But I want a man to carry orders
for me, for we haven't a line any more, only a lot of blobs like
quicksilver. I want a clever man for the job and a brave one, and I
know that you're not afraid.'
'No,' he said. 'I don't think I am--much. Well. I'm content!'
I started Blenkiron off in a car for Corps Headquarters, and in the
afternoon took the road myself. I knew every inch of the country--the
lift of the hill east of Amiens, the Roman highway that ran straight
as an arrow to St Quentin, the marshy lagoons of the Somme, and that
broad strip of land wasted by battle between Dompierre and Peronne. I
had come to Amiens through it in January, for I had been up to the
line before I left for Paris, and then it had been a peaceful place,
with peasants tilling their fields, and new buildings going up on the
old battle-field, and carpenters busy at cottage roofs, and scarcely a
transport waggon on the road to remind one of war. Now the main route
was choked like the Albert road when the Somme battle first
began--troops going up and troops coming down, the latter in the last
stage of weariness; a ceaseless traffic of ambulances one way and
ammunition waggons the other; busy staff cars trying to worm a way
through the mass; strings of gun horses, oddments of cavalry, and here
and there blue French uniforms. All that I had seen before; but one
thing was new to me. Little country carts with sad-faced women and
mystified children in them and piles of household plenishing were
creeping westward, or stood waiting at village doors. Beside these
tramped old men and boys, mostly in their Sunday best as if they were
going to church. I had never seen the sight before, for I had never
seen the British Army falling back. The dam which held up the waters
had broken and the dwellers in the valley were trying to save their
pitiful little treasures. And over everything, horse and man, cart and
wheelbarrow, road and tillage, lay the white March dust, the sky was
blue as June, small birds were busy in the copses, and in the corners
of abandoned gardens I had a glimpse of the first violets.
Presently as we topped a rise we came within full noise of the guns.
That, too, was new to me, for it was no ordinary bombardment. There
was a special quality in the sound, something ragged, straggling,
intermittent, which I had never heard before. It was the sign of open
warfare and a moving battle.
At Peronne, from which the newly returned inhabitants had a second
time fled, the battle seemed to be at the doors. There I had news of
my division. It was farther south towards St Christ. We groped our way
among bad roads to where its headquarters were believed to be, while
the voice of the guns grew louder. They turned out to be those of
another division, which was busy getting ready to cross the river.
Then the dark fell, and while airplanes flew west into the sunset
there was a redder sunset in the east, where the unceasing flashes of
gunfire were pale against the angry glow of burning dumps. The sight
of the bonnet-badge of a Scots Fusilier made me halt, and the man
turned out to belong to my division. Half an hour later I was taking
over from the much-relieved Masterton in the ruins of what had once
been a sugar-beet factory.
There to my surprise I found Lefroy. The Boche had held him prisoner
for precisely eight hours. During that time he had been so interested
in watching the way the enemy handled an attack that he had forgotten
the miseries of his position. He described with blasphemous admiration
the endless wheel by which supplies and reserve troops move up, the
silence, the smoothness, the perfect discipline. Then he had realized
that he was a captive and unwounded, and had gone mad. Being a
heavy-weight boxer of note, he had sent his two guards spinning into a
ditch, dodged the ensuing shots, and found shelter in the lee of a
blazing ammunition dump where his pursuers hesitated to follow. Then
he had spent an anxious hour trying to get through an outpost line,
which he thought was Boche. Only by overhearing an exchange of oaths
in the accents of Dundee did he realize that it was our own . . . It was
a comfort to have Lefroy back, for he was both stout-hearted and
resourceful. But I found that I had a division only on paper. It was
about the strength of a brigade, the brigades battalions, and the
* * * * *
This is not the place to write the story of the week that followed. I
could not write it even if I wanted to, for I don't know it. There was
a plan somewhere, which you will find in the history books, but with
me it was blank chaos. Orders came, but long before they arrived the
situation had changed, and I could no more obey them than fly to the
moon. Often I had lost touch with the divisions on both flanks.
Intelligence arrived erratically out of the void, and for the most
part we worried along without it. I heard we were under the
French--first it was said to be Foch, and then Fayolle, whom I had met
in Paris. But the higher command seemed a million miles away, and we
were left to use our mother wits. My problem was to give ground as
slowly as possible and at the same time not to delay too long, for
retreat we must, with the Boche sending in brand-new divisions each
morning. It was a kind of war worlds distant from the old trench
battles, and since I had been taught no other I had to invent rules as
I went along. Looking back, it seems a miracle that any of us came out
of it. Only the grace of God and the uncommon toughness of the British
soldier bluffed the Hun and prevented him pouring through the breach
to Abbeville and the sea. We were no better than a mosquito curtain
stuck in a doorway to stop the advance of an angry bull.
The Army Commander was right; we were hanging on with our eyelashes.
We must have been easily the weakest part of the whole front, for we
were holding a line which was never less than two miles and was often,
as I judged, nearer five, and there was nothing in reserve to us
except some oddments of cavalry who chased about the whole
battle-field under vague orders. Mercifully for us the Boche
blundered. Perhaps he did not know our condition, for our airmen were
magnificent and you never saw a Boche plane over our line by day,
though they bombed us merrily by night. If he had called our bluff we
should have been done, but he put his main strength to the north and
the south of us. North he pressed hard on the Third Army, but he got
well hammered by the Guards north of Bapaume and he could make no
headway at Arras. South he drove at the Paris railway and down the
Oise valley, but there Petain's reserves had arrived, and the French
made a noble stand.
Not that he didn't fight hard in the centre where we were, but he
hadn't his best troops, and after we got west of the bend of the Somme
he was outrunning his heavy guns. Still, it was a desperate enough
business, for our flanks were all the time falling back, and we had to
conform to movements we could only guess at. After all, we were on the
direct route to Amiens, and it was up to us to yield slowly so as to
give Haig and Petain time to get up supports. I was a miser about
every yard of ground, for every yard and every minute were precious.
We alone stood between the enemy and the city, and in the city was
If you ask me about our plans I can't tell you. I had a new one every
hour. I got instructions from the Corps, but, as I have said, they
were usually out of date before they arrived, and most of my tactics I
had to invent myself. I had a plain task, and to fulfil it I had to
use what methods the Almighty allowed me. I hardly slept, I ate
little, I was on the move day and night, but I never felt so strong in
my life. It seemed as if I couldn't tire, and, oddly enough, I was
happy. If a man's whole being is focused on one aim, he has no time to
worry . . . I remember we were all very gentle and soft-spoken those
days. Lefroy, whose tongue was famous for its edge, now cooed like a
dove. The troops were on their uppers, but as steady as rocks. We were
against the end of the world, and that stiffens a man . . .
Day after day saw the same performance. I held my wavering front with
an outpost line which delayed each new attack till I could take its
bearings. I had special companies for counter-attack at selected
points, when I wanted time to retire the rest of the division. I think
we must have fought more than a dozen of such little battles. We lost
men all the time, but the enemy made no big scoop, though he was
always on the edge of one. Looking back, it seems like a succession of
miracles. Often I was in one end of a village when the Boche was in
the other. Our batteries were always on the move, and the work of the
gunners was past praising. Sometimes we faced east, sometimes north,
and once at a most critical moment due south, for our front waved and
blew like a flag at a masthead . . . Thank God, the enemy was getting
away from his big engine, and his ordinary troops were fagged and poor
in quality. It was when his fresh shock battalions came on that I held
my breath . . . He had a heathenish amount of machine-guns and he used
them beautifully. Oh, I take my hat off to the Boche performance. He
was doing what we had tried to do at the Somme and the Aisne and Arras
and Ypres, and he was more or less succeeding. And the reason was that
he was going bald-headed for victory.
The men, as I have said, were wonderfully steady and patient under the
fiercest trial that soldiers can endure. I had all kinds in the
division--old army, new army, Territorials--and you couldn't pick and
choose between them. They fought like Trojans, and, dirty, weary, and
hungry, found still some salt of humour in their sufferings. It was a
proof of the rock-bottom sanity of human nature. But we had one man
with us who was hardly sane. . . .
In the hustle of those days I now and then caught sight of Ivery. I
had to be everywhere at all hours, and often visited that remnant of
Scots Fusiliers into which the subtlest brain in Europe had been
drafted. He and his keepers were never on outpost duty or in any
counter-attack. They were part of the mass whose only business was to
retire discreetly. This was child's play to Hamilton, who had been out
since Mons; and Amos, after taking a day to get used to it, wrapped
himself in his grim philosophy and rather enjoyed it. You couldn't
surprise Amos any more than a Turk. But the man with them, whom they
never left--that was another matter.
'For the first wee bit,' Hamilton reported, 'we thocht he was gaun
daft. Every shell that came near he jumped like a young horse. And the
gas! We had to tie on his mask for him, for his hands were
fushionless. There was whiles when he wadna be hindered from standin'
up and talkin' to hisself, though the bullets was spittin'. He was
what ye call demoralized . . . Syne he got as though he didna hear or
see onything. He did what we tell't him, and when we let him be he sat
down and grat. He's aye greetin' . . . Queer thing, sirr, but the
Gairmans canna hit him. I'm aye shakin' bullets out o' my claes, and
I've got a hole in my shoulder, and Andra took a bash on his tin that
wad hae felled onybody that hadna a heid like a stot. But, sirr, the
prisoner taks no scaith. Our boys are feared of him. There was an
Irishman says to me that he had the evil eye, and ye can see for
yerself that he's no canny.'
I saw that his skin had become like parchment and that his eyes were
glassy. I don't think he recognized me.
'Does he take his meals?' I asked.
'He doesna eat muckle. But he has an unco thirst. Ye canna keep him
off the men's water-bottles.'
He was learning very fast the meaning of that war he had so
confidently played with. I believe I am a merciful man, but as I
looked at him I felt no vestige of pity. He was dreeing the weird he
had prepared for others. I thought of Scudder, of the thousand friends
I had lost, of the great seas of blood and the mountains of sorrow
this man and his like had made for the world. Out of the corner of my
eye I could see the long ridges above Combles and Longueval which the
salt of the earth had fallen to win, and which were again under the
hoof of the Boche. I thought of the distracted city behind us and what
it meant to me, and the weak, the pitifully weak screen which was all
its defence. I thought of the foul deeds which had made the German
name to stink by land and sea, foulness of which he was the
arch-begetter. And then I was amazed at our forbearance. He would go
mad, and madness for him was more decent than sanity.
I had another man who wasn't what you might call normal, and that was
Wake. He was the opposite of shell-shocked, if you understand me. He
had never been properly under fire before, but he didn't give a straw
for it. I had known the same thing with other men, and they generally
ended by crumpling up, for it isn't natural that five or six feet of
human flesh shouldn't be afraid of what can torture and destroy it.