THE PARTS MEN PLAY
ARTHUR BEVERLEY BAXTER
Author of “Merrie Gentlemen,” “The Airy Prince,” etc.
CHAPTER XXIII The Sentence
ON THE outskirts of a village near the junction of the British and French armies, two guards with
loaded rifles kept watch at the doors of a hut. The warm sunlight of May was bathing the fields in gold, where here and there a peasant woman could be
seen sprinkling seed into the furrows. Across a field, cutting its way through a farmyard, a light railway carried its occasional wobbling, narrowgauged traffic; and beside half-a-dozen huts soldiers were lollinginthewarmth of early afternoon, polishing accoutrements and exchanging the lazy philosophy of men resting after Herculean tasks. Elsewhere there was no sign of
war. Cattle browsed about the meadows, and the villagers, long since grown used to the presence of foreign soldiers, pursued their endless duties. A sergeant walked briskly from a cottage in the village and went directly to the field where lay the hut guarded by the sentries. “Fall in outside,” he said sharply, opening the door. Hatless, and with his dark hair seeming to cast the shadows that had gathered beneath his eyes, Dick Durwent emerged and took his place between the guards. “To receive the sentence of the court,” said the sergeant in answer to his questioning glance. “Escort and prisoner —’shun! Right turn. Quick march.” Past the lounging soldiers to the road, and on to the
village they marched. Women glanced up, curious as to the meaning of the little procession, but with a shrug of their shoulders resumed their work and soon forgot all about it. They halted outside the cottage from which the sergeant had come, and he entered it alone. A minute later he reappeared and marched them into the room where the court-martial had been held that morning. The three officers were sitting in the same places: a lieutenant-colonel, whose set, sun-tanned face told nothing; a captain whose firmness of jaw and steadiness of eye could not hide his twitching lip; and a subaltern, pale as Dick Durwent himself. As president of the court, the senior officer handed a sealed envelope to the prisoner. Not a word was spoken on either side. The sergeant’s command rang out, and the noise of metalled heels upon the floor was startlingly loud. Still without a word, carrying the unread sentence in his hand, Durwent was marched back to the hut. Again the women cast curious glances, and a little urchin in a cocked hat stood at the salute as they passed. When he was alone once more, Dick broke the seal of
the envelope, and without his face altering, except that the shadows grew darker beneath his eyes, he read the finding of the court. He was to be shot. He read it twice. With a long, quivering intake of the breath he tore the thing slowly into a dozen pieces and threw them in a corner. Walking to the end of the hut, he leaned against the ledge of a little window, and looked out towards the horizon where the great blue of the sky stooped to earth. There was the laughter of soldiers, and from an adjoining meadow came the neighing of a restive horse. The sunlight deepened, and from a hundred branches birds were trilling welcome to the promise of another summer. Two hours passed. The warmth of early afternoon was giving way to the cool mood of twilight. . . but the solitary figure had not moved.
■^INE days had passed when a motor-lorry drew up on the road, and the same sergeant ordered Dick Durwent to take his place outside the hut with his escort. The prisoner asked as to his destination, and was told that the sentence, having been confirmed, was to be promulgated before his unit. They had been travelling for half-an-hour when they reached a field in which Durwent saw two companies of his battalion drawn up in the form of a hollow square. Faint with shame, staggering under the hideous cruelty of the whole thing, he was marched into the centre and ordered to take a pace forward, while the commanding officer read
SYNOPSIS:—Lady Durwent, the commoner wife of an English peer, has two sons, Malcolm and Dick, and one daughter, Elise. When Malcolm has joined the Guards and Elise is a beautiful debxdante Lady Durwent gives a dinner in honor of a young American author, Austin Selwyn. The latter is attracted by Elise. He is invited to a house party at the Durwent country estate. During his stay there the war breaks out and in the course of a country walk with Elise Selwyn proposes and is refused. For the next two years Selwyn remains in London writing a series of anti-war articles for the American press. His agent in New York now suggests his returning to America to conduct a lecture tour under the auspices of a certain Mr. Benjamin. An air raid on London, the gallant fight of the wounded Selwyn to rescue a little girl from the ruins, the finding of her dead body, were part of the grim night, whose close found him in the military ward of a London hospital. There Elise visits him, and he announces his changed viewpoint and his intention of returning to America, where he finds himself looked upon as a pro-German. Over in the trenches Dick Durwent, to stifle a panic that comes, at times, to all men, drinks heavily of a supply of rum that fate has thrown in his way, and is discovered drunk on duty. He is sentenced at court martial to be shot.
the sentence of court-martial to the men: that Private Sherwood, being found guilty of drunkenness while on guard—it being further proved that he had obtained unlawful possession of the liquor—was to be shot at dawn, and that the sentence would be carried out the following morning. Although his senses reeled with the shock and ignominy of it all, the prisoner’s bearing showed no sign of it. With his head erect and his brow unmarred by a frown, he looked into the faces of the men whom he had lived and slept and fought beside; men with whom he had shared privation and danger; men who had been his comrades through it all. But as he searched their faces he felt an overpowering loneliness. In the eyes of every one there was horror. . . To be killed in battle—what was that? But to be shot like a cur in the grisly morning. . . . Yet, their horror, their anger, was against the military law— and was born of a fear that the same thing might come to them. It was that which cut him to the quick. . . It was not that he was to be shot the next day—but that they might meet a similar fate. That was the fear which drove the blood from their cheeks and left their lips parted in awe.
And then he saw a face which almost broke down his manhood, and sent scalding tears to the very brink. . . It was the face of the lad he had saved from deserting that terrible night. The boy’s agony was for him alone; it was pleading for understanding; it was trying to tell him that he would never forget; that he would not go to his death unmourned by one human heart. Dick looked away, but the solitude and the pain had passed. It was his last night. All evening the chaplain had been with him, offering the solace of divine mercy and forgiveness; but though he was grateful for the good man’s
ministrations, Durwent felt that he wanted to be alone. He hardly knew why; but there were many things to think of, things which would be remembered more easily if he were by himself.
.Towards eleven o’clock he made the request of the chaplain, who left him, promising to return shortly after midnight; and with his hands clasped behind his back, Dick walked slowly up and down the hut. His mind journeyed to Roselawn . . . and Elise. At least, and at the thought he struck his hands together with joy, she would never know. She would think he had died in China. For several minutes he walked without his thoughts taking any other form than that, but gradually the realization of his surroundings began to leave him. He was roaming through the woods with Elise; they were climbing a great tree for bird’s eggs; they were casting flies for trout in the stream that ran through their estate; they were riding across country on ponies that whinnied
with pleasure at the feel of the soft turf. But wherever his hungry imagination painted her, there was in her face the womanly tenderness that had always been hers in their companionship. He stopped in his walk and pressed his clenched fingers against his lips. She had always believed in him. Through all the hell in which the Fates had cast his destiny, she had been one star towards which he could grope. But now—a drunkard—a renegade soldier of a renegade battalion— to be shot. ... He had killed her trust! The horrors of the night closed on him like hounds on a dying stag. Uttering a dull cry of agony he staggered across the hut with outstretched hands. . . . and in the darkness his poor disordered fancy saw once more the vision of his sister’s face. It was as he had seen her when, as a boy bruised by life, he had gone to her for solace. She had not changed. She could not change. Her eyes, her lips were saying that in the morning she would stand beside him, holding his hand in hers, until the levelled rifles severed his soul and his body for eternity.
He sank to his knees, and for the first time in many years he prayed. It was a prayer to an unknown God, in words that were meaningless, disjointed things. It was a soul crying out to its source. . . a soul struggling towards the throne of Eternal Justice, through a darkness lit only by a sister’s love and the gratitude of an eighteenyear-old boy saved from shameful death.
'T'HE commands of the sergeant of the guard could be heard as sentries were changed. Durwent rose to his feet and tried to look from the window, but the night was as black as the grave which had already been dug for him. Once more there was no sound but the wind moaning about the deserted fields. “Mas’r Dick.” Dick’s body grew rigid. Was it a prank of his mind, or had he really heard the words? “Mas’r Dick.”
The door had opened an inch. His heart beat wildly, and he crouched close to the crevice. “Mathews!” he gasped. “Sh—sh!” An admonishing hand touched him. “Come close, sir. This is a dirty business, Mas’r Dick. If you hear me cough noticeable, get back and pretend like you’re asleep.”
“But—but, in God’s name, what are you doing there?” “I’m a-guarding you, sir. Sh -sh!” The old groom moved a couple of paces away from the door, humming a song about a coachman who loved a turnkey’s daughter. Almost mad with excitement, Dick stood in the darkness of the hut with his outstretched arms shaking and quivering. He was afraid he would shout, and bit his finger-nails to help to repress the wild desire. “Mas’r Dick.” In an instant he was crouching again by the door. “There’ll be a orficer’s inspection,” whispered the sentry, “a minute or two arter midnight. When that there little ceremony has took place, you and me is going for a walk.” "Where?” Continued on page 62
Continued, from page 23
“Anywheres, Mas’r Dick.”
“You mean—to escape?”
For a moment his pulses beat furiously with hope; but the realisation of what it meant for the old groom killed it like a sudden frost. “No, Mathews,” he whispered. “It isn’t fair to you. I am not going to try to escape. Give me your hand— I want to say good-bye.”
For answer, the imperturbable Mathews moved off again, and, in a soft but most unmusical bass, sang the second verse about the amorous coachman and the susceptible turnkey’s daughter. Dick listened—hanging greedily on every little sound with its atmosphere of Roselawn.
“Mas’r Dick.” Mathews had returned. “No argifyin’ won’t get you nowhere. If I have to knock you atwprt the ears agd drag you out by the ’eels, you’re cornin’ out of that there stall to-night. I aint goin’ for to see a Durwent made a target of. No, sir; not if I have to blow the whole army up and them frog-eaters along with ’em. Close that door, Mas’r Dick. I’ve got a contrairy temper, and can’t stand no argifyin’ like. Close that door, sir.”
A LMOST crazed with excitement, Dick -¿astrode about the hut. Even if he
were to get away, the chances of capture were overwhelming. But—to be shot in an open fight for freedom! That would be a thousand times better than death by an open grave. Freedom! The word was intoxication. To breathe the air of heaven once again—to feel the canopy of the stars —to smell the musk of flowers and new grass! If only for en hour; yet what an hour!
And then the chance, remote, but still within the realm of possibility, of reaching the front line, where men died like men. Of all the desires he had ever known, none ever gripped him like the longing for battle, where death and honor were inseparable.
But once more the thought of Mathews chilled his purpose. It would mean penal servitude or worse for the old groom, and he was not going to be the means of ruining him for his faithfulness. He could not stoop so low as that.
These and a hundred similar thoughts flashed through his mind, and he was no Bearer their solution when the door was
Siened and a sergeant shouted a command.
e started. For a second he thought that dawn might be breaking, and that his hour had arrived ; but an officer came up the âteps, and he saw with a quiver of relief that it was the nightly inspection. “Everything all right?”
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
“Where’s the chaplain?”
“He’ll be back directly, sir.”
“Food all right—everything possible being done for you?”
“I have no complaints, sir.”
In the light of the lamp held by the Sergeant the two men looked at each other. Without saying anything more, the officer glanced about the hut. “That will do, sergeant. Good-night.”
“Good-night, sir,” answered Durwent. The officer had hardly reached the door, where the sergeant had preceded him with the light, when he turned back impulsively and put out his hand. "I suppose this sort of thing is necessary,” he said hoarsely; “but it’s a damned rotten affair altogether.” They clasped hands; and, turning on his heel, the officer left the hut.
“Take every precaution, sergeant,” -Dick heard him say; “and send a runner to the chaplain with my compliments. Tell him he must not leave the prisoner.” “Very good, sir.”
Silence again—and the crunching of the sentries’ heels on the sparsely sprinkled pavel. The ordeal was becoming unbearable. Dick feared the passing of the minutes which would bring back the chaplain, and yet every minute seemed an eternity. The conflict ravaged his very soul. Was he to take the chance offered him by the strangest trick of Destiny, or remain and die like a rat caught in a trap? “Mas’r Dick.”
'T'HE door was quietly opened. The old groom’s hand fell on his arm and drew Mm firmly outwards. He tried to pull back, but with unexpected strength the older man exerted his pressure, until he found himself outside.
It was so dark that he could not see a yard ahead of him as Mathews, retaining his grip on Dick’s arm, led him towards the road. They were nearly clear of the field when the groom stopped abruptly, and they lay flat on the ground. It was the orderly officer and the sergeant returning from the inspection of a hut some distance off.
“Sentry.” The officer had paused opposite the hut where the prisoner had been.
“Yes, sir,” came the answer from the soldier still on guard at the other door.
“Has the chaplain returned?”
With an impatient exclamation, the officer went on towards the village; and, gaining their feet, the two men reached the road.
“There’s a path alongside, sir,” whispered Mathews, “and you and me is goin’ to put as much terry-firmy atwixt this village and us as our four legs can do. Now, sir, we’re off.”
With lowered heads, they broke into a run. Stumbling over unseen stones, lacerating their hands and faces against bushes which overhung the path, they ran on into the dark. Once a staff car passed them, and they huddled in a ditch; but it was only for a few seconds, and they were up again. Unless they were unfortunate enough to nin right into the arms of the military police the night was offering every chance of success. A barking dog warned them that they had come to the outskirts of another village. Leaving the road, they circled the place by tortuously making their way through uneven fields, until they thought it safe once more to take the
Sath. On they ran—past silent fields— y streams—by murky swamps.
Towards dawn Dick was faint with fatigue. The ordeal of the last month had cruelly sapped his vitality, and as he ran he found himself stumbling to his knees.
“Hold hard, sir,” said the groom, who was leading. “Another mile or so, and you and me, sir, will breathe ourselves proper.”
Only another mile—but a mile of utter anguish. Twice Dick fell, and the second time he could not rise Without assistance.
“Mas’r Dick,” pleaded the groom, "ook ’ee, sir. Up yonder hill somewheres about I knows there is a cornfield, for I have noted it many a time. We can’t
hide here, sir, in this stubble. Lean on me, Mas’r Dick—that’s the way. Now, sir, for England, ’orne, and beauty.” Struggling to retain his consciousness, Dick limped beside the old servitor, until, gaining the hill, they saw an abandoned cornfield. There was a roll of guns as they made their way info the field, and through the dense blackness of the night a few streaks of gray could be seen towards the east.
\X7TTH0ÜT a sound, Dick sank to the VV ground in complete exhaustion. The groom unstrapped his own greatcoat, which had been carried rolled and covered the lad with it. Taking a thermos bottle from his haversack, he poured some hot tea between Dick’s lips, and saw a little glow of warmth creep into the cheeks.
“Now, sir,” he said, “take a bit o’ this sandwich. ’Ave another swig o’ the tea. Bless my heart, sir, won’t them fellers be surprised when they finds as how they aint got no corpse for their funeral? That’s better, sir. I will say about army tea that even if it aint what my old woman would make, it’s rare strong, Mas’r Dick, rare strong and powerful, likewise and sim’lar.” “Mathews,” said Dick weakly, “how was it—you were on guard—last night? Was it just an accident?”
“Yes, sir. Just a accident. Well, not precisely a accident neither, sir. I be what the War Office calls ‘a headquarter troop,’ and do odd jobs behind the lines. Sometimes I dig graves, and other times I be a officer’s servant, and likewise do a turn of sentry-go. Well, sir, when I heard that you was a prisoner and were goin’ for to be shot, I persuades the corp’l to put me on guard, exchangin’ a diggin’ job with a bloke by the name o’ Griggs, so as not to incermode the records o’ the War Office. That’s all, sir. . There I were, and here we be, and arter you’ve had a sleep you and me will have a jaw on our immed’ate future. ’Ave a good snooze, Mas’r Dick, and I’ll keep an eye trimmed on the road.”
With the same boyishness he had shown that night in Selwyn’s rooms, Dick put out his hand and pressed the old groom’s arm. With a paternal air, Mathews patted the hand with his own and reached for his pipe, explaining that he would steal a smoke before daylight. But the lad did not hear him. He was lost in a deep, dreamless sleep.
CHAPTER XXV The Fight for the Bridge
IT WAS nearly noon when the tired youth awoke. He looked wonderingly about, and there was a haunting fear in his light eyes, like those of a stag that dreads the hunters. From the north there came the sound of drum-fire, a weird, almost tedious rhythm of guns working at a feverish pace; and the near-by road was a mass of jumbled traffic. Ambulances, supply-wagons, field-artillery, lorries, with jingling harness or snorting engines— streams of vehicles moved slowly up and down their channel. At a. reckless speed motor-cyclists, carrying urgent messages, swerved through it all; and in the ditches that ran alongside, refugees were stumbling on, fleeing from the new terror, their crouching, misshapen figures like players from a grotesque drama of the Macabre.
“The sausage-eaters,” said Mathews philosophically, “must be feelin’ their oats, sir.”
At the sound of the familiar voice the fear passed from Dick’s face. Memory had returned, and he smiled, though his body trembled as if with a chill. “I’m starved,” he said, “and I have nothing with me. How long did I sleep, Mathews?
“Pretty near seven hours, Mas’r Dick. Here you are, sir—feeding-time, and the bugle’s went.”
He handed Durwent a sandwich, which the young man devoured ravenously, washing it down with some cold tea. Mathews also munched at a sandwich, and through the corn-stalks they watched the two currents of war-traffic eddying past each other. There was a roar of engines behind them, and, flying low, a formation of sixteen British aeroplanes made in a straight line for the battle area.
With a map which the groom had thoughtfully borrowed from an officer the previous day, they managed to gain fairly accurate information as to their position. By calculation they figured out that they had travelled seventeen or eighteen miles during the night, and, identifying the main
road on which they had come, saw that after two or three miles it would take a rectangular turn to the right, running parallel to the line of battle. Four miles to the north-west of the turning-point there was a river, and this the fugitives decided to reach that night.
“If we can locate that,” said Dick eagerly, “it is bound to lead us into the French lines.”
“Werry good, sir,” said the groom, with an air of resignation. His contempt for maps and their unintelligibility was a deep-rooted one, but if his young master thought he could locate a river with one, he would keep an open mind on the subject until it had, at least, been given a fair trial.
“You see,” said Durwent, “a great many of these troops on the road are French, so when we follow that route we must get into French territory.”
“Yezzir,” said Mathews profoundly. “I won’t go for to say as ’ow you mayn’t be right. All the same, Mas’r Dick, when it comes to enterin’ the ring with them sausage-eaters I’d rather ’ave a dozen Lancashire or Devon lads about me than all the Frenchies you could put in Hyde Park. It aint that these here spec’mens don’t have a good sound heart as far as standing up and taking knocks is concerned but they be too frisky and skittish for my likin’. I see ’em all waving their arms like as if a carriage and pair has run away; and talkin’ all at once and together, likewise and sim’lar. Wot’s more, they does it in a lingo that no one can’t go for to make out, not even a Frenchy hisself, because I never see one Frog listenin’ to another-^ did you, sir? Wot’s more, sir, they gets all of a lather over things which is only fit for women-folk to worry on—such as w’ether a hen has laid its egg reg’lar; or the coffee, was it black enough? From wot I see as puts a Frog in a dither, I sez to myself that if you was to take him to a real hoss-race, he’d never a’-see’d the finish. No, sir; he’d be dead o’ heartfailure afore the hosses was off.”
TAICK smiled at the tremendous seriousness of the old groom, and lay back wearily on the ground. “We had better both turn in for another nap,” he said. “We’ll need all our strength to-night, and if we stay awake we’re sure to get hungry.” “Werry sound advice, Mas’r Dick,” said Mathews. “But would I be persumin’, sir, to ask you a favor? I got a letter yesterday from my old woman, and wot wi’ her writing and me being nought of a scholar, I was wondering, Mas’r Dick, if you would just acquaint me with any fac’s that you might think the old girl would like me for to know.”
“Willingly,” said Dick, taking a. sealed letter from the groom, who squatted solemnly on the ground, assuming an air of deep contemplation, as one who has to give an opinion on a hitherto unread masterpiece.
“It begins,” said Dick, with some difficulty making out the writing, which waa extremely small in some words and very large in others, and punctuated mainly with blots—“ ‘Dear Daddy’
“That,” said Mathews, “is conseckens o’ me bein’ sire to little Wellington.”
“Oh, yes,” said Dick. “ ‘Dear Daddy, there aint nothing to tell you Wellington has took the mumps and the cat had some more kittens’ ”—
“That’s a werry remark’ble cat,” observed Mathews. “I never see a animal so ambitious. Wot does the old girl say Wellington has took?”
By criky! I hope it don’t go for to make his nose no bigger. Wot a infant he is! Mumps. Go on, Mas’r Dick—the old girl ’s doin’ fine.”
“ ‘The day,’ ” resumed Dick—“ ‘ the day afor Tuesday come last week’ ”— Don’t pull up, sir,” said Mathews as Dick paused to re-read the puzzling words. “You has to take my old woman at a good clip to get her meanin’—but you’ll find it hid somewhere, Mas’r Dick. I never see the old girl come a cropper yet.”
With this to guide him, the reader found his place again with the aid of a blot, a half-inch square, which surrounded the first word. “ ‘The day afor Tuesday,’ ” he went on, “ ‘come last week Wellington and the rector’s boy Charlie fit.’ ”
“Werry good,” said Mathews approvingly.^ .
“ ‘Wellington’s nose were badly done in and he looks awful bad but the rector’s boy’ ”—
“Wot does she say about him?” asked Mathews, staring into space.
“ ‘The rector’s boy could not see out erf neither eye for three days.’ ”
REPRESSING a chuckle by a great effort, Mathews hastily fumbled for his corncob pipe, and placing it unlit in his mouth continued to look into space with a face that was almost purple from smothered exuberance.
“‘Milord and Lady,’” resumed Dick, “ ‘is just the same and Milord always asks how you was and will I remember him to
“A thoroughbred—that’s wot he is,” said Mathews, apparently addressing the distant refugees.
“ ‘Miss Elise was heer last week and is that sweet grown that all the woonded tommies fit with pillos to see who wud propos to her. There aint no news. Bertha the skullery maid marrid a hyland soldier and they are going for to keep a sweet-shop after the war. Wellington sprayned his ankil yesterday by clyming out of the windo where I had locked him in as he has the mumps.’ ”
“Wot a infant!” commented Mathews admiringly.
“ T am sending you a pareil and a picter of me and Wellington. We are very lonesum, daddy, and I’ll be reel glad when the war is over and you come back. It is awful lonesum and Wellington is to. This morning he cut his hand trying to carv our best chair into the shape of a horse. I am feeling fine and hope the reumatiz don’t worry you no more. With heeps of love from me and Wellington, your wife, Maggie.’ ”
It was a strange contrast in faces as the young man folded the letter and handed it back. In the countenance of the groom there tv as a sturdy pride in the epistolary achievement of his wife—a pride which he made a violent but unsuccessful effort to conceal. In the pale, handsome face of the young aristocrat there was a whimsical pathos. By the picture conjured Up in the crudely written letter he had seen his parents, his sister, the humble cottage of the groom, and the wife’s faithfulness and cheeriness. _ He had seen them, not as separate things, but hallowed and unified' by a common sacrifice for England.
FOR the first time since his escape Dick Durwent regretted it. He could see no safety ahead for Mathews, no matter how long they evaded arrest. Although a cool, fretful wind was blowing over the fields, the warm noon sun made his eyelids heavy.
Against the wish of the groom, he insisted upon spreading the greatcoat over them both, and in a few minutes maáter and man were resting side by side as comrades. “Mathews,” said Dick quietly.
“Give me your word that if you ever reach England you will never tell my family about this. They don’t know I am in France, and—”
“Mum as a oyster, sir—that’s the ticket. Werry good, Mas’r Dick. A oyster it is.” Ten minutes had passed without either of them speaking, when Mathews partially raised himself on one elbow. “If women,” he said ruminatingly, “was to have votes, my old girl would run for parlyment, sure as skittles. I wonder Mas’r Dick, if a feller who courted a girl in good faith, and arter a few years found she were Prime Minister of England—would that constitoof grounds for divorce?”
But Dick was asleep, and dreaming of days when happiness was in the air one breathed ; when brother and sister had revelled in nature’s carnival of seasons. After several minutes’ contemplation of the uncertainty of married life, the old groom followed him into a slumber which was unattended by dreams, but did not lack a sonorous serenade.
'TPHE night was streaked with tragedy as ■I the fugitives stole to the road. The drum-fire of the guns had grown to a roar, through which there came the blast and the crash of siege artillery, shaking the earth to its very foundations, as 5 the gases of hell had ignited and were bursting through. Like lightning striking low, the night was lit with flashes illuminating the fields and the roads about; and shells were screaming and whining through the air, winged, blood-sucking monsters crying for their prey. Across a yellow moon broken
clouds were driven on a gale that whipped the dust of the roads into moaning whirl-
Dense traffic moved sullenly on, the ghostly figures of drivers astride horses that whinnied in terror of the night. Not a light was shown. There were only the glimpses of the sickly moonlight and the flame-red flashes of the guns; and, unnoticed, Durwent and the groom followed beside a lorry.
Once, as they strode forward in the roar and horror of the dark, they heard the explosion of a shell that, by a trick of illluck, had found the road. There followed the shriek of wounded horses, quick commands penetrating the darkness. Corpses of men, dead horses, and shattered vehicles were drawn aside, and the long line that had been halted for four minutes closed the gap and moved on.
When they reached the turn in the road, they left the shadowy procession and made for the river by following a soft wagon-path that cut across the fields. For two hours they hurried on through the night’s madness. More than once they were almost thrown to the ground by the terrific explosion of heavy guns that had taken up positions by the path; and by the flashes in the fields they could see the weird figures of the gunners toiling at their work of death.
As they came to the river they caught a glimpse of colored flares not far ahead, and there came a momentary lull in the confused bombardment.
“Listen!” cried Dick.
From somewhere on the banks of the river there was the sound of rifle fir#1, and the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine-guns, like the rattle of riveters at work on a steel structure.
FOLLOWING a tow-path which ran by the river, they appeared to be entering a zone of comparative quiet. Although the sound of rifle-fire grew more clear, the noise of the guns came from behind them, but to the right and the left. For an hour they ran rapidly forward, and it seemed that the tide of battle had swept to the north, leaving this area denuded of troops. They saw neither guns nor infantry, although a renewed burst of machine-gun fire told them they were nearing their unknown destination.
They had not started from their hidingplace until nearly midnight, and as they reached a slight rise of the ground they could see that the darkness was slowly lifting with day’s approach.
“See, sir,” said the groom, pointing ahead, “yonder side o’ the river to the right.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Look’ee, Mas’r Dick. Follow the river. I think that that there gray streak
is a bridge.”
It was notr until they had gone ahead a considerable distance that Durwent could make out a heavy bridge spanning the river, which ran with a swift current, and was more than two hundred feet in width. A blurring red was tinting the black clouds in the east as they crept along the path, when they heard a sharp challenge. “Friends,” cried Dick, and halted. “Stand still until I give you the once over.” An American corporal, who had apparently been running and was out of breath, came up t5 them, carrying a revolver and looked closely into their faces.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Stragglers,” answer«! Durwent, “separated from our unit.”
“Where in Samhill is the rest of your army?”
“There are no troops back here for ten miles,” answered Dick.
The American took off his helmet and wiped his brow.
“Jumping Jehoshophat!” he exclaimed ruefully, “do I have to marathon ten miles and back? They sure are generous with exercise in the army. Say, you guys— if you’re on the level about being stragglers, and want a real honest-to-God showdown scrap, you hike over that bridge. Do you see that big tree over in the bush— can you make it out? Well, when you get across the river, just line your lamps on that tree, and after half a mile or so you’ll come to a sunken road. Report to Major Van Derwater, and tell him you’re the only army M’Goorty—that’s me—has found so far. And tell him I’ll discover the French admiral who is supposed to be bringing up reinforcements, if I have to search this whole one-horse country for him. You’d better get a move on before
the light comes up, for, believe me, Lizzie, those Boches can shoot, and if ever they See you coming across that bridge you may as well kiss yourselves good-bye.”
_ Having delivered himself of this expressive monologue, the corporal replaced the revolver in its holster and took a seaman’s hitch in his breeches. Again the machineguns spat out, the sound seeming to be borne on the wind as the barrels traversed the air.
“Gosh!” said the corporal, “but I’d give a year’s tips to see that scrap out. They had the bulge on us by about three to one, and we had to back up to keep the line straight, but now we’re holding them great. Say—we’ve got a bunch of bowhunks there who could shoot the wart off a snail. Some scrap—believe me. Well, so long.”
He had just started off at a run, when he stopped and turned around. “If you ever come to New York, look me up at the ‘Belmont.’ I’m a waiter there, and I can put you wise to a lot of things. Chin, Chin!”
“Cheerio!” answered Dick, as the energetic corporal disappeared.
“I’m getting hard o’ hearing,” said the old groom. “Leastways I aint sure I heerd him correct. Wot did he say?”
“Mathews!”—Dick turned to his servant, and his voice shook with excitement— “there’s a battle going on the other side of the river, and we’re to report to Major Van Derwater. By heavens, Mathews! I feel half mad with joy. They didn’t get us after all, did they? We sha’n’t be shot like curs, at any rate. Think of it, old man—we’ve won out! They can’t stop us now”— His words stopped suddenly. “Mathews,” he said, “you must not come. Stay here and join the reinforcements when they turn up. You have to consider your wife and little Wellington.”
For answer the groom started along the path towards the bridge, and Durwent Vas forced to break into a run before he could head him off.
“Mathews!” he said sternly.
“Mas’r Dick,” replied the groom, snorting violently, “you shouldn’t go for to insult me. Beggin’ your pardon and meaning no disrespeck, this here war is as much mine as yourn. Orders or no orders, I’m agoin’ to have a howdee with them sausageeaters, and as that there free-spoke young gen’l’man observed, the bridge aint exactly a chancery in the daylight. Come along, sir—argifyin’ don’t get nowhere.”
REALISING that further expostulation was useless, Dick followed the groom to the bridge, As they crossed it he noted that it was strongly built of steel, with supports that would bear the heaviest of weights. Gaining the opposite side, they waited as Dick took his bearings by the tree; and crossing a hardr chalky field, they stole towards the sunken road. They could hear the occasional crack of a rifle and there was the ping of a bullet passing over their heads as they pressed on through the lightening gloom.
A voice rang out, and they were questioned as to their identity. On being ordered to advance they jumped down into a sunken road which constituted an admirable trench, and were at once surrounded by American soldiers.
“I was ordered to report to Major Van Derwater,” said Durwent.
They were asked various questions, and were then escorted a few yards to the right, where an officer was looking over the bank which hid the road.
“British stragglers, sir,” said the sergeant who had taken charge of them.
“What unit are you from?” asked the officer. His voice was calm and deep, but gave no indication as to how he felt disposed towards the two fugitives. In answer to his question Dick gave the name of his battalion, and Mathews did the same. “How did you know my name?”
“We met your corporal, sir,” said Durwent.
“Where are your rifles?”
“Lost them, sir.”
“In what engagement were you cut off from your units?”
Dick tried to reply, but not only was he ignorant of the locality through which he had travelled, but his soul burned with resentment at being forced into lying. Mathews said nothing,and seemed quite untroubled. He was prepared to accept his young master’s choice of engagements for his own, no matter where or when it might have taken place.
“I don’t like this,” said the officer. “These men are a long way from the British lines, and are either deserters or worse. Guard them closely, and if things get hot, tie their arms together so they will give no trouble.”
“Very good, sir,” answered the sergeant, preparing to lead them away; but Durwent, whose blood had run cold with dismay at the officer’s words, struggled forward.
“Sir,” he cried, “if you think I’m not to be trusted, give me a dirty job—anything. A bombing-raid, or a patrol—I’ll do anything at all, sir, if you’ll only give me a chance.”
“Well spoke, Mas’r Dick,” said Mathews proudly. “Werry well spoke in-
The officer who had been about to issue a peremptory order, stopped at the sturdy honesty of the groom’s voice. “Send for Captain Selwyn,” he said. “You will find him at the creek.”
BY A creek that trickled across the road Captain Austin Selwyn was watching the brushwood which concealed the enemy. Beside him, lining the bank, every available man was on the alert, waiting the developments which would follow the raising of night’s curtain. In the misty gray of dawn they looked fabulous in size, and indistinct.
The night in January at the University Club in New York had marked a reconciliation between Selwyn and Van Derwater. With the issue between America and Germany so clearly defined, they had both lent their voices to the insistent demand for war. At first people had been incredulous, and hazarded the guess that the young author was endeavoring to cover his own tracks; but when he enlisted in the ranks at the outbreak of hostilities, they made a popular hero of him. They spoke of him as the Spirit of the Cause—but he paid little attention to the clamor. His joy in the prospect of action, and the release from all his mental tortures, had produced in him a kind of frenzy, that crystallised into an intense hatred of Germany.
The pendulum had swung to its extreme. Once a man animated with a passionate humanitarianism, in whom the spirit of universal brotherhood burned with an inextinguishable force, he had become a creature drunk with lust for revenge. Patriotism, Justice, Freedom—they were all catch-words to hide the brutal, primeval instinct to kill.
In the little thought which he permitted himself, Selwyn argued that the ignorance of many nations had made war possible, but only Germany had been vile enough to try to exploit it for the achievement of world-power. For that reason alone she was a thing of detestation.
His enthusiasm and quickly acquired knowledge of army routine marked him for promotion. He was given a commission, and at the request of Van Derwater was attached to the same regiment as himself. Together they had crossed to France, and were among the first American troops in action.
In the months that followed, Selwyn had revelled in the carnage and the excitement of war. He was reckless to the point of bravado, and his keen dramatic instinct drove him into unnecessary escapades where his senses could enjoy a thrill not far removed from insanity. Only when out of the line, when the mockery and the hideousness of the whole thing demanded his mind’s solution, would the mood of despondency return. But in the trenches he knew neither pity nor fear. Men fought for the privilege of serving under him, and with their instinct of euphony and love of the bizarre gave him the name of “Hell-fire.” He gloried in the physical ascendancy of it all—in the dangers—in the discomforts. He was an instrument of revenge, a weapon without feeling.
On the other hand, Van Derwater had undergone no appreciable change. He carried himself with the same dignity and formality as in his days at Washington— except when emergency would scatter the wits of his fellow - officers, and he woúld suddenly become a dynamic force, vigorous in conception and swift of action. Yet success or failure left him unmoved, once a crisis had passed. His men respected but did not understand him. They wove a legend about his name. They said he had come to France wanting to be killed but that no bullet could touch him. And even those who scoffed, when they saw him, unruffled and strangely solitary,
ñíoving about with almost ironic contempt Öf danger, wondered if there might not be Some truth in the story.
. “Major Van Derwater would like to speak to y ou right away, sir. ”
TELLING a non-commissioned officer to take his place, Selwyn followed the messenger along the road until they came ;to the spot which Van Derwater had chosen for his headquarters. Daylight was emerging from its retreat, and there was the [promise of a warm day in the glowing [east.
i “You sent for me, sir?” he said, j; “Yes. You might question these two [British stragglers. Their story is not straight, but they seem decent enough fellows. If you are not satisfied—” ; He was interrupted by an exclamation of •astonishment from Selwyn, who had noticed [the Englishmen for the first time.
Ï “Great Scott,” gasped Selwyn. “Dick •'Durwent!”
Dick looked up, and at the sight of the American’s face he uttered a cry of relief. “Is that really you, Selwyn? What luck! You remember Mathews at Roselawn, don’t you? You can say—”
“Good-morning, sir,” said the unperturbed groom. “This is a werry pleasant surprise, to be sure. How are you, sir?” “Van,” said Selwyn, after shaking hands with them both, “this is Lord Durwent’s son, and the other is his groom, Mathews. I will vouch for them absolutely.”
. “Good!” Van Derwater slightly inclined his head as an indication that he was satisfied. “We need every man. You had better take them in your section and equip them with rifles from casualties.”
A FEW minutes later, after he had procured food for the two men, who were growing weak with hunger, Selwyn resumed his post. The heavy grass fringing the bank made it possible to keep watch without being directly exposed as a target; but beyond a desultory rifle-fire about a mile on their right, there was no indication of enemy activity.
When Durwent had been equipped with a steel helmet and a rifle, Selwyn called him over to his side, and as concisely as possible explained the military situation. In the German attack against the French forces (with which the Americans were brigaded) the line had been swept back. Deep salients had been driven in on both their flanks, but they had received orders to hold the bridge at all costs, as, if a counter-attack could be launched, it would be an enfilading one made by troops brought across the river. Relying on their machine-gun and rifle fire to overcome the Americans’ resistance, the enemy’s artillery had been drawn into the deepening salients ; but in spite of all-day fighting the straggling line had held.
After a few questions from Durwent they relapsed into silence, gazing at the undulating expanse of country revealed by the ascending sun.
“Selwyn.” Dick cleared his throat nervously. “I must tell you the truth. You were decent enough to stand sponsor for Mathews and me, and I want you to know everything. The major was right. We’re not stragglers—we’re deserters.” Selwyn made no comment, and both men stared fixedly through the long grass that drooped with heavy dew.
“Yesterday morning,” said Durwent dully, “I was to have been shot. I was drunk in the line, and deserved it. It’s no use trying to excuse myself. I fancy my nerves were a bit gone after what we’d been through the last few months, but. . . Well, I suppose I am simply a failure, as that chap said in London—there isn’t much more to it than that. By a queer deal of the cards, Mathews was on guard, and helped me to escape. It was rotten of me to let him take the chance; but it’s been that way all through. Even at the end of everything—after being a waster and a rotter since I was a kid—I have to drag this poor chap down with me. Promise, Selwyn, if you come out of this alive, that you’ll fight this case for him.”
Selwyn murmured assent, but he was trying to shake off a haunting feeling that was enveloping him like a mist—a feeling that everything the young Englishman was saying he had heard before. It left him dazed, and made Durwent’s voice sound far away. He tried to dismiss it as an illogical prank of the mind, but the thing was relentless. He could not rid himself of the thought that some time in the past— months, years, perhaps centuries ago—
this pitiful scene had been enacted before.
It chilled his soul with its presage of disaster. He saw the hand of destiny, and everything in him rebelled against the inexorable cruelty of it all. It was infamous that any life should be dominated by a whim of the Fates; that any creature should enter this world with a silken cord about his throat. Destiny. Does it mould our lives; or do our lives, inundated with the forces of heredity, mould our destinies? He tried to grapple with the thought; but through the pain and confusion of his mind he could only feel the presence of unseen fingers spelling out the words written in a hidden past.
"I wonder,” said Durwent, after a pause of several minutes,, during which neither had spoken, “what happens when this is finished.”
“Do you mean—after death?” said Selwyn, forcing his mind clear of its clouds.
DURWENT nodded and leaned wearily with his arms on the bank. “I tried to think it out the night before I was to be shot,” he said. “I can’t just say what I did think—but I know there’s something after this world. Selwyn, is there a God? I wonder if there will be another chance for the men who have made a mess of things here.”
The American turned towards the young fellow, whose pale face looked singularly boyish, and had a wistfulness that touched him to his very heart. Durwent was gazing over the grass into the distance, oblivious of everything about him, and in the blue of his eyes, which borrowed lustre from the sun-strewn morning, there was the mysticism of one who is searching for the land which lies beyond this life’s horizon.
“I wonder,” repeated Durwent dreamily. Selwyn tried to frame words for a reply, but skilled as he was in the interpretation of thought, he was dumb in confession of his faith. He longed to speak the things which might have brought comfort to the lad’s harassed soul, but evérything which came to him, echoing from his former years, was so inadequate, so tinctured with smug complacency. Was there a God?
The question left him mute.
“There are times,” went on Durwent, almost to himself, “when my head is full of strange fancies—when I’m listening to music—or at dawn like this. While I was under arrest, a little French girl who had heard I was to die brought some flowers she had picked for me. When I think of that girl, and her flowers, and Elise, and the faithfulness of old Mathews, I do believe there is seme kind of a God. . . Selwyn” —unconsciously his hands stretched forward supplicatmgly, and there was a deep yearning in the softness of his voice— “surely these things can’t die? I haven’t heard enough music. . . There’s been so much that’s ugly and lonely in my life. . . Don’t you believe that we fellows who have failed will be able to have a little of the things we’ve missed down here?”
“Dick,” said Selwyn, hoarsely, “I believe”—
The words faltered on his lips, and in silence the two men stood together in the presence of the day’s birth. There was a strange calm in the air. The dew on the grass caught a faint sparkle from a ray of sunlight that penetrated the eastern skies.
THE Boches, sir! They’re coming!" The sergeant’s warning rang out, and in an instant the air was shattered with battle. Protected by the fire from a nest of machine-guns, the Germans launched a converging attack towards the bridge. Waiting until the advancing troops were too close to permit the aid of their own machine-gun fire, the Americans poured a deadly hail of bullets into their ranks. The attack broke, but fresh troops were thrown in, and the line was penetrated at several points.
Van Derwater rallied his men, directed the defence, and time after time organized or led counter-attacks which restored their position. His voice rose sonorously above everything. Hearing it, and seeing his powerful figure oblivious to the bullets which stung the air all about him, his men yelled that they could never be beaten as long as he led them.
Half mad with excitement, Selwyn repelled the attacks on his sector, though his casualties were heavy and ammunition was running low. Durwent’s mood of reverie had passed, and he fought with limitless energy. Once, when the Huns
had penetrated the road, one of their officers levelled a revolver on him, but discharged the bullet into the ground as the butt of Mathew’s rifle was brought smashing on his wrist. The old groom followed his master with eyes that saw only the danger hanging over him. For his own safety he gave no care, but wherever Dick stepped or turned, the groom was by his side, with his large, rough face set in a look that was like that of a mastiff protecting its young. .
Ás waves breaking against a rock, the Huns retreated, rallied, and attacked again and again, and each time the resistance was less formidable as the heroic little band grew smaller and the ugly story passed that ammunition was giving out.
They had just thrown back an assault, and Van Derwater had sent for his section commanders to advise an attack on the enemy in preference to waiting to be wiped out with no chance of successful resistance, when he heard a shout, and bullets spat over their heads. Turning swiftly about, they saw a tank lurching across the bridge. Amidst wild shouting from the Americans, the clumsy landship stumbled towards them, with bullets glancing harmlessly off its metal carcass. Lumbering on to the road, the tank stopped astride it.
T N ALMOST complete forgetfulness of the A impending enemy attack, the jubilant Americans crowded about the machine and cheered its occupants to the echo, as a small door was opened and two French faces could be seen. In a few words Van Derwater explained the situation, receiving the discouraging information that no troops were anywhere near the vicinity. The tank had been discovered by the exBelmont waiter and sent on to the bridge.
“Pass word along,” said Van Derwater crisply, “to prepare for an attack. The tank will go first, and when itisastride their machine-gun position we will go forward and drive them out of the brushwood into the open. Messieurs, the machine-guns are gathered there—straight across, about forty yards from the great tree.”
The Frenchmen tried to locate the spot indicated, but were obviously.puzzled and too excited to listen attentively. Van Derwater was about to repeat his instructions, when Dick Durwent shouldered his way into the group. Men’s voices were hushed at the sight of his eyes, blazing with a mingled yellow and blue glare.
In a bound he was on the bank, and stood exposed to the enemy’s fire. With something that was like a laugh and yet had an unearthly quality about it, he threw his helmet off and stood bareheaded in the golden sunlight. "En avant, les Alliesl” he cried. "Par ici. Suivez moi, mes amisi”
There was a grinding of the gears and a roar of machinery as the tank reared its head and lunged after him.
“Stop that man, Selwyn!”
\7”AN DERWATER’S voice rang out
’ just in time. The old groom had scrambled to the bank to follow his master, but four hands grasped him and pulled him back. With a moan he clung to the bank, following Dick with his eyes. And his face was the color of ashes.
With their voices almost rising to a scream, the chafing Americans watched the Englishman walk towards the enemy lines. Bullets hit the ground near his feet, but, untouched, he went on, with the metal monster following behind. Once he fell, and a hush came over the watchers; but he rose and limped on. His face pale and grim, Van Derwater moved among his men, urging them to wait; but they cursed and yelled at the delay.
Again Dick fell, and with difficulty stumbled to his feet. For a moment he swayed as if a heavy gale were blowing against him, and as his face turned towards his comrades they could see his lips parted in a strange smile. Raising his arm like one who is invoking vengeance, he staggered on, and by some miracle reached the very edge of the enemy’s position. There he collapsed, but rising once more, pointed ahead, and fell forward on his face.
With a roar the American torrent burst its bounds and swept towards the enemy. Selwyn leaped in advance of his men, his voice uttering a long, pulsating cry, like a bloodhound that has found its trail.
He did not see, over towards the centre, that Van Derwater had stopped half-way and had fallen to his knees, both hands covering his eyes.
To be Continued