Masks come off and guns roar in the smashing climax of this great secret service story
LIKE sleepwalkers we moved into the sharp air. Hussin led us out of an old postern and then through a place like an orchard to the shelter of some tall evergreen trees. There horses stood, champing quietly from their nosebags. “Good,” I thought; “a feed of oats before a big effort.”
There were nine beasts for nine riders. We mounted without a word and filed through a grove of trees to where a broken paling marked the beginning of cultivated land. There for the matter of twenty minutes Hussin chose to guide us through deep, clogging snow. He wanted to avoid any sound till we were well beyond earshot of the house. Then we struck a by-path which presently merged in a hard highway, running, as I judged, southwest by west. There we delayed nó longer, but galloped furiously into the dark.
I had got back all my exhilaration. Indeed I was intoxicated with the movement, and could have laughed out loud and sung. Under the black canopy of the night perils are either forgotten or terribly alive. Mine were forgotten. The darkness I galloped into led me to freedom and friends. Yes, and success, which I had not dared to hope and scarcely even to dream of.
Hussin rode first, with me at his side. I turned my head and saw Blenkiron behind me, evidently mortally unhappy about the pace we set and the mount he sat. He used to say that horse-exercise was good for his liver, but it was a gentle amble and a short gallop that he liked, and not this mad helter-skelter. His thighs were too round to fit a saddleleather. We passed a fire in a hollow, the bivouac of some Turkish unit, and all the horses shied violently. I knew by Blenkiron’s oaths that he had lost his stirrups and was sitting on his horse’s neck.
Beside him rode a tall figure swathed to the eyes in wrappings and wearing round his neck some kind of shawl whose ends floated behind him. Sandy, of course, had no European ulster, for it was months since he had worn proper clothes. I wanted to speak to him, but somehow I did not dare. His stillness forbade me. He was a wonderful fine horseman, with his firm English hunting seat; and it was as well, for he paid no attention to his beast. His head was still full of unquiet thoughts.
Then the air around me began to smell acrid and raw, and I saw that a fog was winding up from the hollows.
“Here’s the devil’s own luck,” I cried to Hussin. “Can you guide us in a mist?”
“I do not know.” He shook his head. “I had counted on seeing the shape of the hills.”
“We’ve a map and a compass, anyhow. But these make slow travelling. Pray God it lifts!”
Presently the black vapor changed to grey, and the day broke. It was little comfort. The fog rolled in waves to the horses’ ears, and riding at the head of the party I could but dimly see the next rank.
“It is time to leave the road,” said Hussin, “or we may meet inquisitive folk.”
We struck to the left, over ground which was for all the world like a Scotch moor. There were pools of rain on it, and masses of tangled snow-laden junipers, and long reefs
of wet slaty stone. It was bad going, and the fog made it hopeless to steer a good course. I had out the map and the compass, and tried to fix our route so as to round the flank of a spur of the mountains which separated us from the valley we were aiming at.
“There’s a stream ahead of us,” I said to Hussin. “Is it fordable?”
“It is only a trickle,” he said, coughing. “This accursed mist is from Eblis.” But I knew long before we reached it that it was no trickle. It was a hill stream coming down in spate, and, as I soon guessed, in a deep ravine. Presently we were at its edge, one long whirl of yeasty falls and brown rapids. We could as soon get horses over it as to the topmost cliffs of the Palantuken.
Hussin stared at it in consternation. “May Allah forgive my folly, for I should have known. We must return to the highway and find a bridge. My sorrow, that I should have led my lords so ill.”
Back over that moor we went with my spirits badly damped. We had none too long a start, and Hilda von Einem would rouse heaven and earth to catch us up. Hussin was forcing the pace, for his anxiety was as great as mine.
Before we reached the road the mist blew back and revealed a wedge of country right across to the hills beyond
the river. It was a clear view, every object standing out wet and sharp in the light of morning. It showed the bridge with horsemen drawn up across it, and it showed, too, cavalry pickets moving along the road.
They saw us at the same instant. A word was passed down the road, a shrill whistle blew, and the pickets put their horses at the bank and started across the moor.
“Did I not say this mist was from Eblis?” growled Hussin, as we swung round and galloped back on our tracks. “These cursed Zaptiehs have seen us, and our road is cut.”
I was for trying the stream at all costs, but Hussin pointed out that it would do us no good. The cavalry beyond the bridge were moving up the other bank. “There is a path through the hills that I know, but it must be travelled on foot. If we can increase our lead and the mist cloaks us, there is yet a chance.”
It was a weary business plodding up to the skirts of the hills. We had the pursuit behind us now, and that put an edge on every difficulty. There were long banks of broken screes, I remember, where the snow slipped in wreaths from under our feet. Great boulders had to be circumvented, and patches ol bog, where the streams from the snows first made contact with the plains, mired us to our girths. Happily the mist was down again, but this, though it hindered the chase, lessened the chances of Hussin finding the path.
He found it nevertheless. There was the gully and the rough mule-track leading upward. But there also had been a landslip, quite recent from the marks. A large scar of raw earth had broken across the hillside, which with the snow above it looked like a slice cut out of an iced chocolate cake.
We stared blankly for a second, till we recognized its hopelessness.
“I’m for trying the crags,” I said. “Where there once was a way another can be found.”
“And be picked off at their leisure by these marksmen,” said Hussin grimly. “Look!”
The mist had opened again, and a glance behind showed me the pursuit closing up on us. They were now less than three hundred yards off. We turned our horses and made off eastward along the skirts of the cliffs.
Then Sandy spoke for the first time. “I don’t know how you fellows feel, but I’m not going to be taken. There’s nothing much to do except to find a good place and put up a fight. We can sell our lives dearly.”
“That’s about all,” said Blenkiron cheerfully. He had suffered such tortures on that gallop that he welcomed any kind of stationary fight.
“Serve out the arms,” said Sandy.
The Companions all carried rifles slung across their shoulders. Hussin, from a deep saddlebag, brought out rifles and bandoliers for the rest of us. As I laid mine across my saddlebow I saw it was a German Mauser of the latest pattern.
“It’s hell-for-leather till we find a place for a stand,” said Sandy. “The game’s against us this time.”
Once more we entered the mist, and presently found better going on a long stretch of even slope. Then came a rise, and on the crest of it 1 saw the sun. Presently we dipped into bright daylight and looked down on a broad glen, with a road winding up it to a pass in the range. 1 had expected this. It was one way to the Palantuken pass, some miles south of the house where we had been lodged.
And then, as I looked southward, I saw what I had been watching for for days. A little hill split the valley, and on its top was a kranz of rocks. It was the castrol of my persistent dream.
On that I promptly took charge. “There’s our fort,” I cried. “If we once get there we can hold it for a week. Sit down and ride for it.”
We bucketed down that hillside like men possessed, even Blenkiron sticking on manfully among the twists and turns and slithers. Presently we were on the road and were racing past marching infantry and gun teams and empty wagons. I noted that most seemed to be moving downward and tew going up. Hussin screamed some words in Turkish that secured us a passage, but indeed our crazy speed left them staring. Out of a comer of my eyes I saw that Sandy had flung off most of his wrappings and seemed to be all a dazzle of rich color. But I had thought for nothing except the little hill, now almost fronting us across the shallow glen.
NO HORSES could breast that steep. We urged them into the hollow, and then hastily dismounted, humped the packs, and began to struggle up the side of the castrol. It was strewn with great boulders, which gave a kind oi cover that very soon was needed. For. snatching a glance back, I saw that our pursuers were on the road above us and were getting ready to shoot.
At normal times we would have been easy marks, but, fortunately, wisps and streamers of mist now clung about that hollow. The rest could fend for themselves, so I stuck to Blenkiron and dragged him. wholly breathless, by the least exposed route. Bullets spattered now and then against the rocks, and one sang unpleasantly near my head. In this way we covered throe-fourths of the distance, and had only
the bare dozen yards where the gradient eased off up to the edge of the kranz.
Blenkiron got hit in the leg, our only casualty. There was nothing for it but to carry him, so I swung him on my shoulders, and with a bursting heart did that last lap. It was hottish work, and the bullets were pretty thick about us, but we all got safely to the kranz and a short scramble took us over the edge. I laid Blenkiron inside the castrol and started to prepare our defense.
We had little time to do it. Out of the thin fog figures were coming, crouching in cover. The place we were in was a natural redoubt, except that there were no loopholes or sandbags. We had to show our heads over the rim to shoot, but the danger was lessened by the superb field óf fire given by those last dozen yards of glacis. I posted the men and waited, and Blenkiron, with a white face, insisted on taking his share, announcing that he used to be handy with a gun.
I gave the order that no man was to shoot till the enemy had come out of the rocks on to the glacis. The thing ran right round the top, and we had to watch all sides to prevent them getting us in flank or rear. Hussin’s rifle cracked out from the back, so my precautions had not been needless.
We were all three fair shots, though none of us up to Peter’s miraculous standard, and the Companions, too, made good practice. The Mauser was the weapon I knew best, and I didn’t miss much. The attackers never had a chance, for their only hope was to rush us by numbers, and, the whole party being not above two dozen, they were far too few. I think we killed three, for their bodies were left lying, and wounded at least six, while the rest fell back toward the road. In a quarter of an hour it was all over.
"They are dogs of Kurds,” I heard Hussin say fiercely. “Only a Kurdish ghiaour would fire on the livery of the Kaâba.”
Then I had a good look at Sandy. He had discarded shawls and wrappings and stood up in the strangest costume man ever wore in battle. Somehow he had procured fieldboots and an old pair of riding breeches. Above these, reaching well below his middle, he had a wonderful silken jibbah or ephod of a bright emerald. I call it silk, but it was like no silk I have ever known, so exquisite in the mesh, with such a sheen and depth in it. Some strange pattern was woven on the breast, which in the dim light I could not trace. I’ll warrant no rarer or costlier garment was ever exposed to lead on a bleak winter hill.
Sandy seemed unconscious of his garb. His eye, listless no more, scanned the hollow. “That’s only the overture,” he cried. “The opera will soon begin. We must put a breastwork up in these gaps or they'll pick us off from a thousand yards.”
I HAD meantime roughly dressed Blenkiron’s wound with a linen rag which Hussin provided. It was from a ricochet bullet which had chipped into his left shin. Then 1 took a hand with the others in getting up earthworks to complete the circuit of the defense. It was no easy job, for we wrought only with our knives and had to dig deep down below the snowy gravel. As we worked I took stock of our refuge.
The castrol was a rough circle about ten yards in diameter, its interior filled with boulders and loose stones, and its parapet about four feet high. The mist had cleared for a considerable space, and I could see the immediate surroundings. West, beyond the hollow was the road we had come, where now the remnants of the pursuit were clustered. North, the hill fell steeply to the valley bottom, but to the south, after a dip, there was a ridge which shut the view. East lay another fork of the stream, the chief fork I guessed, and it was evidently followed by the main road to the pass for I saw it crowded with transport. The two roads seemed to converge somewhere farther south out of my sight.
I guessed we could not be very far from the front, for the noise of guns sounded very near, both the sharp crack of the field-pieces and the deeper boom of the howitzers. More, I could hear the chatter of the machine-guns, a magpie note among the baying of hounds. I even saw the bursting of Russian shells, evidently trying to reach the main road. One big fellow—an 8-inch—landed not ten yards from a convoy to the east of us, and another in the hollow through which we had come. These were clearly ranging shots, and I wondered if the Russians had observation posts on the heights to mark them. If so, they might soon try a curtain, and we should be very near its edge. It would be an odd irony if we were the target of friendly shells.
“By the Lord Harry,” I heard Sandy say, “if we had a brace of machine guns we could hold this place against a division.”
“What price shells?” I asked. “If they get a gun up they can blow us to atoms in ten minutes.”
“Please God the Russians keep them too busy for that,” w'as nis answer.
With anxious eyes I watched our enemies on the road. They seemed to have grown in numbers. They were signalling, too, for a white flag fluttered. Then the mist rolled down on us again, and our prospect was limited to ten yards of vapor.
“Steady.” I cried; “they may try to rush us at any moment. Every man keep his eye on the edge of the fog, and shoot at the first sign.”
For nearly half an hour by my watch we waited in that queer white world, our eyes smarting with the strain of peering. The sound of the guns seemed to be hushed, and everything grown deathly quiet. Blenkiron’s squeal, as he knocked his wounded leg against a rock, made every man start.
HEN OUT of the mist there came a voice.
It was a woman’s voice, high, penetrating, and sweet, but it spoke in no tongue I knew. Only Sandy understood. He made a sudden movement as if to defend himself against a blow.
The speaker came into clear sight on the glacis a yard or two away. Mine was the first face she saw.
“I come to offer terms,” she said in English. “Will you permit me to enter?”
I could do nothing except take off my cap and say, “Yes, ma’am.” Blenkiron, snuggled up against the parapet, was cursing furiously below his breath.
She climbed up the kranz and stepped over the edge as lightly as a deer. Her clothes were strange—spurred boots and breeches over which fell a short green kirtle. A little cap skewered with a jewelled pin was on her head, and a cape of some coarse country cloth hung from her shoulders. She had rough gauntlets on her hands, and she carried for weapon a riding whip. The fog crystals clung to her hair, I remember, and a silvery film of fog lay on her garments.
I had never before thought of her as beautiful. Strange, uncanny, wonderful, if you like, but the word beauty had too kindly and human a sound for such a face. But as she stood with heightened color, her eyes like stars, her poise like a wild bird’s, 1 had to confess that she had her own loveliness. She might be a devil, but she was also a queen. I considered that there might be merits in the prospect of riding by her side into Jerusalem.
Sandy stood rigid, his face very grave and set. She held out both hands to him, speaking softly in Turkish. I noticed that the six Companions had disappeared from the castrol and were somewhere out of sight on the farther side.
I do not know what she said, but from her tone, and above all from her eyes, I judged that she was pleading—pleading for his return, for his partnership in her great adventure; pleading, for all I knew, for his love.
His expression was like a death-mask, his brows drawn tight in a little frown and his jaw rigid.
“Madam,” he said, “I ask you to tell your business quick and to tell it in English. My friends must hear it as well as me.”
“Your friends!” she cried. “What has a prince to do with these hirelings? Your slaves, perhaps, but not your friends.” “My friends,” Sandy repeated grimly. “You must know, madam, that I am a British officer.”
That was beyond doubt a clean staggering stroke. What she had thought of his origin God knows, but she had never dreamed of this. Her eyes grew larger and more lustrous, her lips parted as if to speak, but her voice failed her. Then by an effort she recovered herself, and out of that strange face went all the glow of youth and ardor. It was again the unholy mask I had first known.
“And these others?” she asked in a level voice.
“One is a brother officer of my regiment. The other is an Ameriam friend. But all three of us are on the same errand. We came east to destroy Greenmantle and your devilish ambitions. You have yourself destroyed your prophets, and now it is your turn to fail and disappear. Make no mistake, madam; that folly is over. I will tear this sacred garment into a thousand pieces and scatter them on the wind. The people wait today for the revelation, but none will come. You may kill us if you can, but we have at least crushed a lie and done sendee to our country.”
I WOULD not have taken my eyes from her face for a king’s ransom. I have written that she was a queen, and of that there is no manner of doubt. She had the soul of a conqueror, for not a flicker of weakness or disappointment marred her air. Only pride and the stateliest resolution looked out of her eyes.
“I said I came to offer terms. I will still offer them, though they are other than I thought. For the fat American, 1 will send him home safely to his own country. 1 do not make war on such as he. He is Germany’s foe, not mine. You,” she said, turning fiercely on me, “I will hang before dusk.”
Never in my life had I been so pleased. I had got my revenge at last. This woman had singled me out above the others as the object of her wrath, and I almost loved her for it.
She turned to Sandy, and the fierceness went out of her face.
“You seek truth,” she said. “So also do I, and if we use a lie it is only to break down a greater. You are of my household in spirit, and you alone of all men I have seen are fit to ride with me on my mission. Germany may fail, but I shall not fail. I offer you the greatest career that mortal has known. I offer you a task which will need every atom of brain and sinew and courage. Will you refuse that destiny?”
I do not know what effect this vaporing might have had in hot scented rooms, or in the languor of some rich garden; but on that cold hilltop it was as unsubstantial as the mist around us. It sounded not even impressive, only crazy.
“I stay with my friends,” said Sandy.
“Then I will offer more. I will save your friends. They, too, shall share in my triumph.”
This was too much for Blenkiron. He scrambled to his feet to speak the protest that had been wrung from his soul, forgot his game leg, and rolled back on the ground with a groan.
Then she seemed to make a last appeal. .She spoke in Turkish now, and I do not know what she said, but I judged it was the plea of a woman to her lover. Once more she was the proud beauty, but there was a tremor in her pride— I had almost written tenderness. To listen to her was like horrid treachery, like eavesdropping on something pitiful. I know my cheeks grew scarlet and Blenkiron turned away his head.
Sandy’s face did not move. He spoke in English.
“You can offer me nothing that I desire,” he said. “I am the servant of my country, and her enemies are mine. I can have neither part nor lot with you. That is my answer, Madam von Einem.”
Then her steely restraint broke. It was like a dam giving before a pent-up mass of iev water. She tore off one of her gauntlets and hurled it in his face. Implacable hate looked out of her eyes.
“I have done with you,” she cried. “You have scorned me. but you have dug your own grave.”
She leaped on the parapet and the next second was on the glacis. Once more the mist had fled, and across the hollow I saw a field gun in place and men around it who were not Turkish. She waved her hand to them, and hastened down the hillside.
But at that moment I heard the whistle of a long-range Russian shell. Among the boulders there was the dull shock of an explosion and a mushroom of red earth. It all passed in an instant of time: I saw the gunners on the road point their hands and I heard them cry; I heard too a kind of sob from Blenkiron—all this before I realized myself what had happened. The next thing I saw was Sandy, already beyond the glacis, leaping with great bounds down the hill. They were shooting at him, but he heeded them not. For the space of a minute he was out of sight, and his whereabouts was shown only by the patter of bullets.
Then he came back—walking quite slowly up the last slope, and he was carrying something in his arms. The enemy fired no more; they realized what had happened.
He laid his burden down gently in a corner of the castrol. The cap had fallen off, and the hair was breaking loose. The face was very white, but there was no wound or bruise on it.
“She was killed at once,” I heard him saying. “Her back was broken by a shell-fragment. Dick, we must bury her here . . . You see, she— she liked me. I can make her no return but this.”
We set the Companions to guard, and with infinite slowness, using our hands and our knives, we made a shallow grave below the eastern parapet. When it was done we covered her face with the linen cloak which Sandy had worn that morning. He lifted the body and laid it reverently in its place.
“I did not know that anything could be so light,” he said.
TT WASN’T for me to look on at that kind of scene, I went A to the parapet with Blenkiron’s field-glasses and had a stare at our friends on the road. There was no Turk there, and I guessed why, for it would not be easy to use the men of Islam against the wearer of the green ephod. The enemy were German or Austrian, and they had a field-gun. They seemed to have got it laid on our fort; but they were waiting. As I looked I saw behind them a massive figure I seemed to recognize. Stumm had come to see the destruction of his enemies.
To the east I saw another gun in the fields just below the main road. They had got us on both sides, and there was no way of escape. Hilda von Einem was to have a noble pyre and goodly company for the dark journey.
Dusk was falling now, a clear bright dusk where the stars pricked through a sheen of amethyst. The artillery were busy all around the horizon, and toward the pass on the other road, where Fort Palantuken stood, there was the dust and smoke of a furious bombardment. It seemed to me, too, that the guns on the other fronts had come nearer. Deve Boyun was hidden by a spur of hill, but up in the north white clouds, like the streamers of evening, were hanging over the Euphrates glen. The whole firmament hummed and twanged like a taut string that has been struck.
As I looked, the gun to the west fired—the gun where Stumm was. The shell dropped ten yards to our right. A second later another fell behind us.
Blenkiron had dragged himself to the parapet. I don’t suppose he had ever been shelled before, but his face showed curiosity rather than fear.
“Pretty poor shooting, I reckon,” he said.
“On the contrary,” I said, “they know their business. They’re bracketing—”
The words were not out of my mouth when one fell right among us. It struck the far rim of the castrol, shattering the rock, but bursting mainly outside. We all ducked, and barring some small scratches no one was a penny the worse. I remember that much of the débris fell on Hilda von Einem’s grave.
I pulled Blenkiron over the far parapet, and called on the rest to follow, meaning to take cover on the rough side of the hill. But as we showed ourselves shots rang out from our front, shots fired from a range of a few hundred yards. It was easy to see what had happened. Riflemen had been sent to hold us in rear. They would not assault so long as we remained in the castrol, but they would block any attempt to find safety outside it. Stumm and his gun had us at their mercy.
We crouched below the parapet again. “We may as well toss for it,” I said. “There’s only two ways —to stay here and be shelled or try to break through those fellows behind. Either’s pretty unhealthy.”
But I knew there was no choice. With Blenkiron crippled we were pinned to the castrol. Our numbers were up all right.
BUT no more shells fell.
The night grew dark and showed a field of glittering stars, for the air was sharpening again toward frost. We waited for an hour, crouching just behind the far parapets, but never came that ominous familiar whistle.
Then Sandy rose and stretched himself. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Let’s have out the food, Hussin. We’ve eaten nothing since before daybreak. I wonder what is the meaning of this respite?”
I fancied I knew.
“It’s Stumm’s way,” I said. “He wants to torture us. He’ll keep us hours on tenterhooks, while he sits over yonder exulting in what he thinks we’re enduring. He has just enough imagination for that ... He would rush us if he had the men. As it is, lie’s going to blow us to pieces, but do it slowly and smack his lips over it.”
Sandy yawned. “We’ll disappoint him, for we won’t be worried, old man. We three are beyond that kind of fear.”
“Meanwhile we’re going to do the best we can,” I said. “He’s got the exact range for his whizzbangs. We’ve got to lind a hole somewhere just outside the castrol, and some sort of head-cover. We’re bound to get damaged whatever happens, but we’ll stick it out to the end. When they think they have finished with us and rush the place, there may be one of us alive to put a bullet through old Stumm. What do you say?” They agreed, and after our meal Sandy and I crawled out to prospect, leaving the others on guard in case there should be an attack. We found a hollow in the glacis a little south of the castrol, and, working very quietly, managed to enlarge it and cut a kind of shallow cave in the hill. It would be no use against a direct hit, but it would give some cover from flying fragments. As I read the situation, Stumm could land as many shells as he pleased in the castrol and wouldn’t bother to attend to the flanks. When the bad shelling began there would be shelter for one or two in the cave.
Our enemies were watchful. The riflemen on the east burnt Verey flares at intervals, and Stumm’s lot sent up a great star-rocket. I remember that just before midnight hell broke loose round Fort Palantuken. No more Russian shells came into our hollow, but all the road to the east was under fire, and at the fort itself there was a shattering explosion and a queer scarlet glow which looked as if a magazine had been hit. For about two hours the firing was intense, and then it died down. But it was toward the north that I kept turning my head. There seemed to be something different in the sound there, something sharper in the report of the guns, as if shells were dropping in a narrow valley whose rock walls doubled the echo. Had the Russians by any blessed chance worked round that flank?
I got Sandy to listen, but he shook his head. “Those guns are a dozen miles off,” he said. “They’re no nearer than three days ago. But it looks as if the sportsmen on the south might have a chance. When they break through and stream down the valley, they’ll be puzzled to account for what remains of us . . . We’re no longer three adventurers in the enemy’s country. We’re the advance guard of the Allies. Our pals don’t know about us, and we’re going to be cut off, which has happened to advance guards before now. But all the same, we’re in our own battle-line again. Doesn’t that cheer you, Dick?”
It cheered me wonderfully, for I knew now what had been the weight on my heart ever since I accepted Sir Walter’s mission.
It was the loneliness of it. I was fighting far away from my friends, far away from the true fronts of battle. It was a sideshow which, whatever its importance, had none of the exhilaration of the main effort. But now we had come back to familiar ground. We were like the Highlanders cut off at Cité St. Auguste on the first day of Loos, or those Scots Guards at Festubert of whom I had heard. Only, the others did not know of it, would never hear of it. If Peter succeeded he might tell the tale, but most likely he was lying dead somewhere in the no-man’s-land between the lines. We should never be heard of again any more, but our work remained. Sir Walter would know that, and he would tell our few belongings that we had gone out in our country’s service.
We were in the castrol again, sitting under the parapets. The same thought must have been in Sandy’s mind, for he suddenly laughed.
“It’s a queer ending, Dick. We simply vanish into the infinite. If the Russians get through they will never recognize what is left of us among so much* of the wreckage of battle. The snow will soon cover us, and when the spring comes there will only be a few bleached bones. Upon my soul it is the kind of death I always wanted.” And he quoted softly to himself a verse of an old Scots ballad;
“Mony’s the ane for him maks mane,
But nane sail ken whar he is gane.
Ower his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sail blaw for evermair.”
“But our work lives,” I cried, with a sudden great gasp of happiness. “It’s the job that matters, not the men that do it. And our job’s done. We have won, old chap —won hands down—and there is no going back on that. We have won any way; and if Peter has had a slice of luck, we’ve scooped the pool . . . After all, we never expected to come out of this thing with our lives.”
Blenkiron, with his leg stuck out stiffly before him, was humming quietly to himself, as he often did when he felt cheerful.
“Feeling good?” I asked.
“Fine. I’m about the luckiest man on God’s earth, major. I’ve always wanted to get into a big show, but I didn’t see how it would come the way of a homely citizen like me, living in a steam-warmed house and going down town to my office every morning. I used to envy my old dad that fought at Chattanooga, and never forgot to tell you about it. But I guess Chattanooga was like a scrap in a Bowery bar compared to this. When I meet the old man in Glory he’ll have to listen some to me . . . ”
IT WAS just after Blenkiron spoke that we got a reminder of Stumm’s presence. The gun was well laid, for a shell plumped near the edge of the castrol. It made an end of one of the Companions who was on guard there, badly wounded another, and a fragment gashed my thigh. We took refuge in the shallow cave, but some wild shooting from the east side brought us back to the parapets for we feared an attack. None came, nor any more shells, and once again the night was quiet.
I asked Blenkiron if he had any near
“Why, no, except a sister’s son, a college boy who has no need of his uncle. It’s fortunate that we three have no wives. I haven’t any regrets, neither, for I’ve had a mighty deal out of life. I was thinking this morning that it was a pity I was going out when I had just got my duodenum to listen to reason. But I reckon that’s another of my mercies. The good God took away the pain in my stomach so that I might go to Him with a clear head and thankful heart.” “We’re lucky fellows,” said Sandy; “we’ve all had our whack. When I remember the good times I’ve had I could sing a hymn of praise. We’ve lived long enough to know ourselves, and to shape ourselves into some kind of decency. But think of those boys who have given their lives freely when they
Continued on page 33 scarcely knew what life meant. They were just at the beginning of the road, and they didn’t know what dreary bits lay before them. It was all sunshiny and brightcolored, and yet they gave it up without a moment’s doubt. And think of the men with wives and children and homes that were the biggest things in life to them. For fellows like us to shirk would be black cowardice. It’s small credit for us to stick it out. But when those others shut their teeth and went forward, they were blessed heroes . . . ’ After that we fell silent. A man’s thoughts at a time like that seem to be double-powered, and the memory becomes very sharp and clear. I don’t know what was in the others’ minds, but I know what filled my own.
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I fancy it isn’t the men who get most out of the world and are always buoyant and cheerful that most fear to die. Rather it is the weak-engined souls who go about with dull eyes, that cling most fiercely to life. They have not the joy of being alive which is a kind of earnest of immortality ... I know that my thoughts were chiefly about the jolly things that I had seen and done; not regret, but gratitude. The panorama of blue noons on the veld unrolled itself before me, and hunter’s nights in the bush, the taste of food and sleep, the bitter stimulus of dawn, the joy of wild adventure, the voices of old staunch friends. Hitherto the war had seemed to make a break with all that had gone before, but now the war was only part of the picture. I thought of my battalion, and the good fellows there, many of whom had fallen on the Loos parapets. I had never looked to come out of that myself. But I had been spared, and given the chance of a greater business, and I had succeeded. That was the tremendous fact, and my mood was humble gratitude to God, and exultant pride. Death was a small price to pay for it. As Blenkiron would have said, I had got good value in the deal . . .
The night was getting bitter cold, as happens before dawn. It was frost again, and the sharpness of it woke our hunger. I got out the remnants of the food and wine and we had a last meal. I remember we pledged each other as we drank.
“We have eaten our Passover Feast,” said Sandy. “When do you look for the end?” “After dawn,” I said. “Stumm wants daylight to get the full savor of his revenge.”
SLOWLY the sky passed from ebony to grey, and black shapes of hill outlined themselves against it. A wind blew down the valley, bringing the acrid smell of burning, but something too of the freshness of morn. It stirred strange thoughts in me and woke the old morning vigor of the blood which was never to be mine again. For the first time in that long vigil I was torn with a sudden regret.
“We must get into the cave before it is full light,” I said. “We had better draw lots for the two to go.”
The choice fell on one of the Companions and Blenkiron.
“You can count me out,” said the latter. “If it’s your wish to find a man to be alive when our friends come up to count their spoil, I guess I’m the worst of the lot. I’d prefer, if you don’t mind, to stay here. I’ve made my peace with my Maker, and I’d like to wait quietly on His call. I’ll play a game of Patience to pass the time.”
He would take no denial, so we drew again, and the lot fell to Sandy.
“If I’m the last to go,” he said, “I promise I don’t miss. Stumm won’t be long in following me.”
He shook hands with his cheery smile, and he and the Companion slipped over the parapet in the final shadows before dawn.
Blenkiron spread his Patience cards on a flat rock, and dealt out for the Double Napoleon. He was perfectly calm, and hummed to himself his only tune. For my-
self I was drinking in my last draught of the hill air. My contentment was going. I suddenly felt bitterly loath to die.
Something of the same kind must have passed through Blenkiron’s head. He j suddenly looked up and asked, “Sister Anne, I Sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?” ¡
I stood close to the parapet, watching every detail of the landscape as shown by the revealing daybreak. Up on the shoulders of the Palantuken, snowdrifts lipped over the edges of the cliffs. I wondered when they would come down as avalanches. There was a kind of croft on one hillside, and from a hut the smoke of breakfast was beginning to curl. Stumm’s gunners were awake and apparently holding council. Far down on the main road a convoy was moving—I heard the creak of the wheels two miles away, for the air was deathly still.
Then, as if a spring had been loosed, the world suddenly leaped to a hideous life. With a growl the guns opened round all the horizon. They were especially fierce to the south, where a rafale beat as I had never heard it before. The one glance I cast behind me showed the gap in the hills choked with fumes and dust.
But my eyes were on the north. From Erzerum city tall tongues of flames leaped from a dozen quarters. Beyond, toward the opening of the Euphrates glen, there was the sharp crack of field guns. I strained eyes and ears, mad with impatience, and I read the riddle.
“Sandy,” I yelled, “Peter has got through. The Russians are round the flank. The town is burning. Glory to God, we’ve won, we’ve won!”
And as I spoke the earth seemed to split beside me, and I was flung forward on the gravel which covered Hilda von Einem’s grave.
AS I picked myself up, and to my amazement found myself uninjured, I saw Blenkiron rubbing the dust out of his eyes and arranging a disordered card. He had stopped humming, and was singing aloud.
“Say, major,” he cried, “I believe this game of mine is coming out.”
I was now pretty well mad. The thought that old Peter had won, that we had won beyond our wildest dreams, that if we died there were those coming who would exact the uttermost vengeance, rode my brain like a fever. I sprang on the parapet and waved my hand to Stumm, shouting defiance. Rifle shots cracked out from behind, and I leaped back just in time for the next shell.
The charge must have been short, for it was a bad miss, landing somewhere on the glacis. The next was better and crashed on the near parapet, carving a great hole in the rocky kram. This time my arm hung limp, broken by a fragment of stone, but I felt no pain. Blenkiron seemed to bear a charmed life, for he was smothered in dust but unhurt. He blew the dust away from his cards very gingerly and went on playing.
“Sister Anne.” he asked, “do you see anybody coming?”
Then came a dud which dropped neatly inside on the soft ground. I was determined to break for the oj)en and chance the rifle fire, for if Stumm went on shooting the castrol was certain death. I caught Blenkiron round the middle, scattering his cards to the winds, and jumped over the parapet.
“Don’t apologize, Sister Anne,” said he. “The game was as good as won. But for God’s sake drop me, for if you wave me like the banner of freedom I ’ll get plugged sure and good.”
My one thought was to get cover for the next minutes, for I had an instinct that our vigil was near its end. The defenses of Erzerum were crumbling like sand castles, and it was a proof of the tenseness of my nerves that I seemed to be deaf to the sound. Stumm had seen us cross the parapet, and he started to sprinkle all the surroundings of the castrol. Blenkiron and I lay like a working party between the lines caught by machine-guns, taking a pull on ourselves as best we could. Sandy had some kind of cover, but we were on the bare farther slope, and the riflemen on that side might have had us at their mercy.
But no shots came from them. As I looked east, the hillside, which a little before had been held by our enemies, was as empty as the desert. And then I saw on the main road a sight which for a second time made me yell like a maniac. Down that glen came a throng of men and galloping limbers—a crazy, jostling crowd, spreading away beyond the road to the steep slopes, and leaving behind it many black dots to darken the snows. The gates of the south had yielded, and our friends were through them.
At that sight I forgot all about our danger. I didn’t give a cent for Stumm’s shells. I didn’t believe he could hit me. The fate which had mercifully preserved us for the first taste of victory would see us through to the end.
I remember bundling Blenkiron along the hill to find Sandy. But our news was anticipated. For down our own side glen came the same broken tumult of men. More; for at their backs, far up at the throat of the pass, I saw horsemen—the horsemen of the pursuit. Old Nicholas had flung his cavalry in.
Sandy was on his feet, with his lips set and his eye abstracted. If his face hadn’t been burned black by weather it would have been pale as a dishclout. A man like him doesn’t make up his mind for death and then be given his life again without being wrenched out of his bearings. I thought he didn’t understand what had happened, so I beat him on the shoulders.
“Man, d’you see?” I cried. “The Cossacks! The Cossacks! God! how they’re taking that slope ! They’re into them now. By Heaven, we’ll ride with them! We’ll get the gun horses !”
A LITTLE knoll prevented Stumm and his men from seeing what was happening farther up the glen, till the first wave of the rout was on them. He had gone on bombarding the castrol and its environs while the world was cracking over his head. The gun team was in the hollow below the road, and down the hill among the boulders we crawled, Blenkiron as lame as a duck, and me with a limp left arm.
The poor beasts were straining at their pickets and sniffing the morning wind, which brought down the thick fumes of the great bombardment and the indescribable babbling cries of a beaten army. Before we reached them that maddened horde had swept down on them, men panting and gasping in their flight, many of them bloody Irom wounds, many tottering in the first stages of collapse and death. I saw the horses seized by a dozen hands, and a desperate fight for their possession. But as we halted there our eyes were fixed on the battery on the road above us, for round it was now sweeping the van of the retreat.
I had never seen a rout before, when strong men come to the end of their tether and only their broken shadows stumble toward the refuge they never find. No more had Stumm, poor devil. I had no ill-will left for him, though coming down that hill I was rather hoping that the two of us might have a final scrap. He was a brute and a bully, but, by God ! he was a man. I heard his great roar when he saw the tumult, and the next I saw was his monstrous figure working at the gun. He swung it south and turned it on the fugitives.
But he never fired it. The press was on him, and the gun was swept sideways. He stood up, a foot higher than any of them, and he seemed to be trying to check the rush with his pistol. There is power in numbers, even though every unit is broken and fleeing. For a second to that wild crowd Stumm was the enemy, and they had strength enough to crush him. The wave flowed round and then across him. I saw the buttends of rifles crash on his head and shoulders, and the next second the stream had passed over his body . . .
That was God’s judgment on the man who had set himself above his kind.
Sandy gripped my shoulder and was shouting in my ear:
‘They’re coming, Dick. Look at the grey devils! Oh, God be thanked, it’s our friends!”
The next minute we were tumbling down the hillside, Blenkiron hopping on one leg between us. I heard dimly Sandy crying, “Oh, well done our side!” and Blenkiron declaiming, but I had no voice at all and no wish to shout. I know that tears were in my eyes, and that if I had been left alone I would have sat down and cried with pure thankfulness. For sweeping down the glen came a cloud of grey cavalry on little wiry horses, a cloud which stayed not for the rear of the fugitives, but swept on like a flight of rainbows, with the steel of their lanceheads glittering in the winter sun. They were riding for Erzerum.
Remember that for three months we had been with the enemy and had never seen the face of an Ally in arms. We had been cut off from the fellowship of a great cause, like a fort surrounded by an army. And now we were delivered, and there fell around us the warm joy of comradeship as well as the exultation of victory.
WE FLUNG caution to the winds and went stark mad. Sandy, still in his emerald coat and turban, was scrambling up the farther slope of the hollow', yelling greetings in every language known to man. The leader saw him, with a word checked his men for a moment—it was marvellous to see the horses reined in in such a breakneck ride— and from the squadron half a dozen troopers swung loose and wheeled toward us. Then a man in a grey overcoat and a sheepskin cap was on the ground beside us wringing our hands.
“You are safe, my old friends”—it was Peter’s voice that spoke—“I will take you back to our army, and get you breakfast.” “No, by the Lord, you won’t,” cried Sandy. “We’ve had the rough end of the job, and now we’ll have the fun. Look after Blenkiron and these fellow's of mine. I’m going to ride knee by knee with your sportsmen for the city.”
Peter spoke a word, and two of the Cossacks dismounted. The next I knew I was mixed up in the cloud of greycoats, galloping down the road up which the morning before we had strained to the castrol.
That was the great hour of my life, and to live through it was worth a dozen years of slavery. With a broken left arm I had little hold on my beast, so I trusted my neck to him and let him have his will. Black with
dirt and smoke, hatless, with no kind of uniform, I was a w'ilder figure than any Cossack. I soon was separated from Sandy, who had two hands and a better horse, and seemed resolute to press forward to the very van. That would have been suicide for me, and I had all I could do to keep my place in the bunch I rode w'ith.
But, great God! what an hour it was! There was loose shooting on our flank, but nothing to trouble us, though the gun team of some Austrian howitzer, struggling madly at a bridge, gave us a bit of a tussle. Everything flitted past me like smoke, or like the mad finale of a dream just before waking. I knew' the living movement under me, and the companionship of men, but all dimly, for at heart I was alone, grappling with the realization of a new world. I felt the shadows of the Palantuken glen fading, and the great burst of light as we emerged on the wider valley. Somewhere before us wras a pall of smoke seamed with red flames, and beyond the darkness of still higher hills. All tliat time I was dreaming, crooning daft catches of song to myself, so happy, so deliriously happy that I dared not try to think. I kept muttering a kind of prayer made up of Bible w'ords to Him who had shown me His goodness in the land of the living.
But as w'e drew' out from the skirts of the hills and began the long slope to the city, I w'oke to clear consciousness. I felt the smell of sheepskin and lathered horses, and above all the bitter smell of fire. Down in the trough lay Erzerum, now burning in many places, and from the east, past the silent forts, horsemen were closing in on it. I yelled to my comrades that we were nearest, that we w'ould be first in the city, and they nodded happily and shouted their strange w'ar-cries. As w'e topped the last ridge I saw below' me the van of our charge—a dark mass on the snow—while the broken enemy on both sides were flinging away their arms and scattering in the fields.
In the very front, now nearing the city ramparts, was one man. He was like the point of the steel spear soon to be driven home. In the clear morning air I could see that he did not wrear the uniform of the invaders. He was turbaned and rode like one possessed, and against the snow I caught the dark sheen of emerald. As he rode it seemed that the fleeing Turks were stricken still, and sank by the roadside with eyes strained after his unheeding figure . . .
Then I knew that the prophecy had been true, and that their prophet had not failed them. The long-looked-for revelation had come. Greenmantle had appeared at last to an awaiting people.