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THE hands of the clock pointed to a quarter past twelve. Funny, how my eyes kept coming back to that clock! There was a smell of warm gunpowder in the room, and the autumn sunshine, struggling feebly through the window, caught the blue edges of a little haze of smoke that hung lazily in the air by the desk in the corner. How close the room was! And how that clock face seemed to stare at me! I felt very sick . . . .
Lord! What a draught! A gust of icy air was raging in my face. The room was still swaying to and fro . . . .
I was in the front seat of a car beside Francis, who was driving. We were fairly flying along a broad and empty road, the tall poplars with which it was lined scudding away into the vanishing landscape as we whizzed by. The surface was terrible, and the car pitched this way and that as we tore along. But Francis had her well in hand. He sat at the wheel, very cool and deliberate and very grave, still in his officer's uniform, and his eyes had a cold glint that told me he was keyed up to top pitch.
We slackened speed a fraction to negotiate a turn off to the right down a side road. We seemed to take that corner on two wheels. A thin church spire protruded from the trees in the centre of the group of houses which we were approaching so furiously. The village was all but deserted: everybody seemed to be indoors at their midday meal, but Francis slowed down and ran along the dirty street at a demure pace. The village passed, he jammed down the accelerator and once more the car sprang forward.
The country was flat as a pancake, but presently the fields fell away a bit from the road with boulders and patches of gorse here and there. The next moment we were slackening speed. We drew up by a rough track which led off the road and vanished into a tangle of stunted trees and scrub growing across the yellow face of a sand-pit.
Francis motioned me to get out, and then sprang to the ground himself, leaving the engine throbbing. His face was grey and set.
"Stay here!" he whispered to me. "You've got your pistol? Good. If anybody attempts to interfere with you, shoot!" He dashed into the tangle and was swallowed up. I heard a whistle, and a whistle in answer, and a minute later he appeared again helping Monica through the thick undergrowth.
Monica looked as pretty as a picture in her dark green shooting suit and her muffler. She was as excited as a child at its first play.
"A car!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Francis, I'll sit beside you!"
My brother glanced at his watch.
"Twenty to one!" he murmured. He had a hunted look on his face. Monica saw it and it sobered her.
They got up in front, and I sat in the body of the car.
"Hang on to that!" said Francis, handing me over a leather case. I recognized it at a glance. It was Clubfoot's dispatch-box. Francis was thorough in everything.
Once more we dashed out along the desolate country roads. We saw hardly a soul. Houses were few and far between and, save for an occasional greybeard hoeing in the wet fields or an old woman hobbling along the road, the countryside seemed dead. In the cold air the engine ran splendidly, and Francis got every ounce of horse-power out of it.
On we rushed, the wind in our ears, the cold air in our faces, until we found ourselves racing along an avenue of old trees that led straight as an arrow right into the heart of the forest. It was as silent as the grave: the air was dank and chill and the trees dripped sorrowfully into the brimming ruts of the road.
We whizzed past many tracks leading into the depths of the forest, but it was not until the car had eaten up some five kilometres of the main road that Francis slowed to a halt. He consulted a map he pulled from his pocket, then glanced at his watch with puckered brow.
"I had hoped to take the car into the forest," he said, "but the roads are so soft we shan't get a yard. Still we can but try."
We went forward again, very slowly, to where a track ran off to the left. It was badly ploughed up, and the ruts were fully a foot deep. Monica and I got out to lighten the car, and Francis ran her in. But he hadn't gone five yards before the car was bogged up to the axles.
"We'll have to leave it," he said, jumping out. "It's ten minutes to two . . . we haven't a second to lose."
He pulled a cloth cap from the pocket of his military overcoat, then stripped off the coat, showing his ordinary clothes underneath, and very shiny black field-boots up to his knees. He put his helmet in the overcoat and made a roll of it, tucking it under his arm, and then donned his cap.
"Now," he said, "We'll have to run for it, Monica, I'm afraid: we must reach our cover while the light lasts or I shan't be able to find it and it will be dark in these woods in about two hours from now. Are you ready?"
We struck off the track into the forest. There was not much undergrowth, and the trees were not planted very close, so our way was not impeded. We jogged on over a carpet of wet leaves, stumbling over the roots of the trees, tearing our clothes on the brambles, bringing down showers of raindrops from the branches of pine or fir we brushed on our headlong course. Now a squirrel bolted up his tree, now a rabbit frisked back into his hole, now a soft-eyed deer crashed away into the bushes on our approach. The place was so still that it gave me confidence. There was not a trace of man now that we were away from the marks of his carts on the tracks, and I began to feel, in the presence of the stately, silent trees, that at last I was safe from the menace that had hung over me for so long.
We rested frequently, breathless and panting, a hand to the side. Monica was a marvel of endurance. Her boots were sopping, her skirt wet to the waist, her face was scratched, and her hair was coming down, but she never complained. Francis was seemingly tireless and was always the one to lead the way when we started afresh.
It was heavy going, for at every step our feet sank deep in the leaves. The forest was undulating with deep hollows and steep banks, which tried us a good deal. It soon became evident that we could not keep up the pace. Monica was tiring visibly, and I had had about enough; Francis, too, seemed done up. We slackened to a walk. We were toiling painfully up on of these steep banks when Francis, who was leading, held up his hand.
"Charlemagne's Ride!" he whispered as we came up. We looked down from the top of the bank and saw below us a broad forest glade, canopied by the thick branches of the ancient trees that met overhead, and leading up a slope, narrowing as it went, to a path that lost itself among the shadows that were falling fast upon the forest.
Francis clambered down the bank and we followed. Twilight reigned below in the glade under the lofty roof of branches and our feet rustled softly as we trod the leaves underfoot. It was a ghostly place, and Monica clutched my arm as we went quickly after Francis, who, striding rapidly ahead, threatened to be swallowed up in the shadows of the autumn evening. He led us up the slope and along the narrow path. A path struck off it, and he took it. It led us into a thicker part of the forest than we had yet struck, where there were great boulders protruding from the dripping bushes, and brambles grew so thick that in places they obscured the track.
The forest sloped up again, and in front of us was a steep bank, its sides dotted with great rocks and a tangle of brambles and undergrowth. Francis stooped between two boulders at the foot of the slope, then turning and beckoning us to follow, disappeared. Monica went in after him, and I came last. We were in a kind of narrow entrance, scooped out of the earth between the rocks, and it led down to a broad chamber, which had apparently been dug beneath some of the boulders, for, stretching out my hand, I found the roof was rock and damp to the touch.
Francis and Monica were standing in this chamber as I came down. Directly I entered I knew why they stood so still. A glimmer of light came from the farther end of the cave and a strange sound, a sort of strangled sobbing, reached our ears.
I crept forward in the dark in the direction of the light. My outstretched hands came upon a low opening. I stooped and, crawling round a rock, saw another chamber illuminated by a guttering candle stuck by its wax to the earthen wall. On the floor a man was lying, sobbing as though his heart would break. He was wearing some kind of military great-coat with a yellow stripe running down the back.
"Pst!" I called to him, drawing my pistol from my pocket. As I did so, Francis behind me touched my arm to let me know he was there.
"Pst!" I called again louder.
The man swung round on to his knees with a sudden, frightened spring. When he saw my pistol, he jerked his hands above his head. Dirty and unshaven, with the tears all wet on his face, he looked a woe-begone and tragic figure.
"Kamerad! Kamerad!" he muttered stupidly at me. "Napoo! Kaput! Englander!"
I gazed at the stranger, hardly able to believe my ears. That trench jargon in this place!
"Are you English?" I asked him.
At the sound of my voice he stared about him wildly.
"Ay, I be English, zur," he replied with a strong West Country burr, "God help me!" And, heedless of me and my pistol, he covered his face with his hands and burst into a wild fit of sobbing again, rocking himself to and fro in his grief.
"Go back to Monica!" I whispered to Francis. "I'll see to this fellow!"
I managed to pacify him presently. Habit is a tenacious ruler and, grotesque figures though we were, the "zur" he had addressed to me brought out the officer in me. I talked to him as I would have done to one of my own men, and he quietened down at last and looked up at me.
He was only a lad — I could tell that by the clearness of his skin and the brightness of his eyes — but his face was wan and wasted, and at the first glance he looked like a man of forty. Under his great-coat, which was German, he was clad in filthy rags which once had been a khaki uniform, as the cut — and nothing else — revealed.
He told me his simple story in his soft Somersetshire accent, just the plain tale of the fate that has overtaken thousands of our fellow-countrymen since the war began. His name was Maggs, Sapper Ebenezer Maggs, of the Royal Engineers, and he was captured near Mons in August, 1914, when out laying a line with a party. With a long train of British prisoners — "zum of 'em was terrible bad, zur, dying, as you might say" — he had been marched off to a town and paraded to the railway station through streets thronged with jeering German soldiery. In cattle trucks, the fit, the wounded, the dying and the dead herded together, without food or water, they had made their journey into Germany with hostile mobs at every station, once the frontier was past, brutal men and shrieking women, to whom not even the dying were sacred.
It was a terrible tale, that lost nothing of its horror from the simple, unadorned style of this West Country farmer's son. He had been one of the ragged, emaciated band of British prisoners of war who had shivered through that first long winter in the starvation camp of Friedrichsfeld, near Wesel. For two years he had endured the filthy food, the neglect, the harsh treatment, then a resourceful Belgian friend, whom he called John, in happier days a contraband runner on this very frontier, had shown him a means to escape. Five days before they had left the camp and separated, agreeing to meet at Charlemagne's Ride in the forest and try to force the frontier together. "John" had never come. For twenty-four hours Maggs had waited in vain, then his courage had forsaken him, and he had crept to that hole in his grief.
I went and fetched Francis and Monica. Maggs shrunk back as they came in.
"I bean't fit cumpany for no lady, zur," he whispered to me, "I be that durty, fair crawling I be . . . We couldn't keep clean nohow in that camp!"
All the good soldier's horror of dirt was in his voice.
"That's all right, Maggs," I answered soothingly, "she'll understand!"
We sat down on the floor in the light of Sapper Maggs' candle, and Francis and I reviewed our situation. The cave we were in . . . an old Smuggler's cache . . . was where Francis had spent several days during his different attempts to get across the frontier. The border line was only about a quarter of a mile distant and ran right through the forest. There was no live-wire fencing in the forest, such as the Germans have erected along the frontier between Holland and Belgium. The frontier was guarded by patrols. These patrols were posted four men to every two hundred yards along the line through the forest, so that two men, patrolling in pairs, covered a hundred yards apiece.
It was now half-past five in the evening. We both agreed that we should certainly make the attempt to cross the frontier that night. Francis nudged me, indicating the sapper with his eyes.
"Maggs," I said, "we are all in a bad way, but our case is more desperate than yours. I shall not tell you more than this, that, if we are caught, any of us three, we shall be shot, and anyone caught with us will fare the same. If you will take my advice, you will leave us and start off by yourself: the worst that can happen to you is to be sent back to your camp. You will be punished for running away, but you won't lose your life!"
Sapper Maggs shook his yellow head.
"I'll stay," he answered stolidly; "it's more cumfortable-like for us four to 'old together, and it's a better protection for the lady. I bean't afear'd of no Gers, I bean't! I'll go along o' yew officers and the lady, if yew don't mind, zur!"
So it was settled, and we four agreed to unite forces. Before we set out Francis wanted to go and reconnoitre. I thought he had done more than his share that day, and said so. But Francis insisted.
"I know my way blindfold about the forest, old man" he said "it'll be far safer for me than for you. I'll leave you the map and mark the route you are to follow, so that you can find the way if anything happens to me. If I'm not back by midnight, you ought certainly not to wait any longer, but make the attempt by yourselves."
My brother handed me back the document and went over the route we were to follow on the map. Then he deposited his bundle in the cave and declared himself ready.
"And don't forget old Clubfoot's box," he said by way of a parting injunction.
Monica took him out to the entrance of our refuge. She was dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief when she returned. To divert her thoughts, I questioned her about the events that had led to my rescue, and she told me how, at Francis' request, she had got all the servants out of the Castle on different pretexts. It was Francis who had got rid of the soldiers remaining as a guard.
"You remember the Captain of Köpenick trick," she said. "Well, Francis played it off on the sergeant and those six men. He slept at Cleves, had himself trimmed up at the barber's, bought those field-boots he is wearing, and stole that helmet and great-coat off the pegs in the passage at Schmidt's Café, where the officers always go and drink beer after morning parade. Then he drove out to the Castle — he knew that the place would be deserted once the shoot had started — and told the sergeant he had been sent from Goch to inspect the guard. I think he is just splendid! He inspected the men and cursed everybody up and down, and sent the sergeant out to the paddock with orders to drill them for two hours. Francis was telling me all about it as we came along. He says that if you can get hold of a uniform and hector a German enough, he will never call your bluff. Can you beat it?"
The hours dragged wearily on. We had no food, and Maggs, who had eaten the last of his provisions twenty-four hours before — the British soldier is a bad hoarder — soon consumed the last of my cigarettes. It was past ten o'clock when I heard a step outside. The next moment Francis came in, white and breathless.
"They're beating the forest for us," he panted. "The place is full of men. I had to crawl the whole way there and back, and I'm soaked to the skin."
I pointed to Monica, who was fast asleep, and he lowered his voice.
"Des," he said, "I've hoped as long as I dared, but now I believe the game's up. They're beating the forest in a great circle, soldiers and police and customs men. If we set out at once we can reach the frontier before they get here, but what's the use of that . . . every patrol is on the look-out for us . . . the forest seems ablaze with torches."
"We must try it, Francis," I said. "We haven't a dog's chance if we stay here!"
"I think you're right," he answered. "Well, here's the plan. There's a deep ravine that runs clear across the frontier. I spent an hour in it. They've built a plank bridge across the top just this side of the line, and the patrol comes to the ravine about every three minutes. It is practically impossible to get out of sight and sound along that ravine in three minutes, but . . . "
"Unless we could drar the patrol's attention away!" said Sapper Maggs.
But Francis ignored the interruption.
" . . . We can at least try it. Come on, we must be starting! Thank God, there's no moon; it's as dark as the devil outside!"
We roused up Monica and groped our way out of the cave into the black and dripping forest. Somewhere in the distance a faint glare reddened the sky. From time to time I thought I heard a shout, but it sounded far away.
We crawled stealthily forward, Francis in front, then Monica, Maggs and I last. In a few minutes we were wet through, and our hands, blue and dead with cold, were scratched and torn. Our progress was interminably slow. Every few yards Francis raised his hand and we stopped.
At last we reached the gloomy glade where, as Francis had told us, according to popular belief, the wraith of Charlemagne was still seen on the night of St. Hubert's Day galloping along with his ghostly followers of the chase. The rustling of leaves caught our ears; instantly we all lay prone behind a bank.
A group of men came swinging along the glade. One of them was singing an ancient German soldier song:
"Die Vöglein im Walde
Sie singen so schön
In der Heimat, in der Heimat,
Da gibt's ein Wiederseh'n."
"The relief patrol!" I whispered to Francis, as soon as they were past.
"The other lot they relieve will be back this way in a minute. We must get across quickly." My brother stood erect, and tiptoed swiftly across Charlemagne's Ride, and we followed.
We must have crawled for an hour before we came to the ravine. It was a deep, narrow ditch with steep sides, full of undergrowth and brambles. Now we could hear distinctly the voices of men all around us, as it seemed, and to right and to left and in front we caught at intervals glimpses of red flames through the trees. We could only proceed at a snail's pace lest the continual rustle of our footsteps should betray us. So each advanced a few paces in turn; then we all paused, and then the next one went forward. We could no longer crawl; the undergrowth was too thick for that; we had to go forward bent double.
We had progressed like this for fully half an hour when Francis, who was in front as usual, beckoned us to lie down. We all lay motionless among the brambles.
Then a voice somewhere above us said in German:
"And I'll have a man at the plank here, sergeant: he can watch the ravine."
Another voice answered:
"Very good, Herr Leutnant, but in that case the patrols to right and left need not cross the plank each time; they can turn when they come to the ravine guard."
The voices died away in a murmur. I craned my neck aloft. It was so dark, I could see nothing save the fretwork of branches against the night sky. I whispered to Francis, who was just in front of me:
"Unless we make a dash for it now that man will hear us rustling along!"
Francis held up a finger. I heard a heavy footstep along the bank above us.
"Too late!" my brother whispered back. "Do you hear the patrols?"
Footsteps crashing through the undergrowth resounded on the right and left.
"Cold work!" said a voice.
"Bitter!" came the answer, just above our heads.
The rustling began again on the right, and died away.
"They're closing in on the left!" Another voice this time.
"Heard anything, you?" from the voice above us.
"Not a thing!"
The rustling broke out once more on the left, and gradually became lost in the distance.
I felt a hot breath in my ear. Sapper Maggs stood by my side.
"There be a feller a-watching for us up there?" he whispered.
"If us could drar his 'tention away, yew could slip by, next time the patrols is past, couldn't 'ee?"
Again I nodded.
"It'd be worse for yew than for me, supposin' yew'd be ca-art, that's what t'other officer said, warn't it?"
And once more I nodded.
The hot whisper came again.
"I'll drar 'un off for ee, zur, nex' time the patrols pass. When I holler, yew and the others, yew run. Thirty-one forty-three Sapper Maggs, R.E., from Chewton Mendip . . . that's me . . . maybe yew'll let us have a bit o' writing to the camp."
I stretched out my hand in the darkness to stop him. He had gone.
I leant forward and whispered to Francis:
"When you hear a shout, we make a dash for it!"
I felt him look at me in surprise — it was too dark to see his face.
"Right!" he whispered back.
Now to the left we heard voices shouting and saw torches gleaming red among the trees. To right and rear answering shouts resounded.
Again the patrols met at the plank above our heads, and again their departing footsteps rustled in the leaves.
The murmur of voices grew nearer. We could faintly smell the burning resin of the torches.
Then a wild yell rent the forest. The voice above us shouted "Halt!" but the echo was lost in the deafening report of a rifle.
Francis caught Monica by the wrist and dragged her forward. We went plunging and crashing through the tangle of the ravine. We heard a second shot and a third, commands were shouted, the red glare deepened in the sky . . . .
Monica collapsed quite suddenly at my feet. She never uttered a sound, but fell prone, her face as white as paper. Without a word we picked her up between us and went on, stumbling, gasping, coughing, our clothes rent and torn, the blood oozing from the deep scratches on our faces and hands.
At length our strength gave out. We laid Monica down in the ravine and drew the under growth over her, then we crawled in under the brambles exhausted, beat.
Dawn was streaking the sky with lemon when a dog jumped sniffing down into our hiding-place. Francis and Monica were asleep.
A man stood at the top of the ravine looking down on us. He carried a gun over his shoulder.
"Have you had an accident?" he said kindly.
He spoke in Dutch.