The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter II. The Young Austrian
It seemed to John that the heavy German masses were almost upon them, when they were revealed in the glare of the searchlights, sweeping forward in solid masses, and uttering a tremendous hurrah. But the French lights continued to throw an intense vivid white blaze over the advancing columns, broad German faces and stalwart German figures standing out vividly. Officers, reckless of death, waving their swords and shouting the word of command, led them on.
The French field guns behind their trenches opened, sending showers of missiles over their heads and into the charging ranks, and the trenches themselves blazed with the fire of the rifles.
"A surprise that isn't a surprise?" shouted Carstairs. "They thought to catch us napping in the night and the snow!"
The battle spread with astonishing rapidity over a front of more than a mile, and in the driving snow and white gloom it assumed a frightful character. The German guns fired for a little while over their troops at the French artillery beyond, but soon ceased lest they pour shells into their own men, and the heavy French batteries ceased also, lest they, too, mow down friend as well as foe. But the light machine guns posted in the trenches kept up a rapid and terrible crackle. The front lines of the Germans were cut down again and again, always to be replaced by fresh men, who unflinchingly exposed their bodies to the deadly hail.
"The massed attack!" exclaimed Wharton. "What courage! Nobody was ever more willing to die for victory than these Germans!"
Even in the moment of danger and utmost excitement he could not refuse tribute to the enemy. Nevertheless he snatched up a rifle and was firing as fast as he could into the gray ranks. John and Carstairs were doing the same and the trench held by the Strangers was a continuous red blaze. There was so much fire and smoke and so much whirling snow that John could not see clearly. He was a prey to illusions. Now the Germans were apparently at the very edge of the trench, and then they were further away than he had first seen them. The white gloom was shot with a red haze, and the shouts of soldiers, the commands of officers and groans of wounded were mingled in a terrible turmoil of sound. But John knew that the Germans would be driven tack. Only surprise could have enabled them to win, and the vigilance of the French scouts had put their commanders on guard.
Captain Colton walked up and down the trench, his face ghastly white, although it was the flare of the searchlight and not any retreat of the blood that made it so. Now and then under the frightful crash of the rifles and machine guns he addressed brief words of warning and encouragement to his men:
"Don't raise your heads too high! Keep cool! Aim at something! Here they come again! Fire low!"
All of John's pulses were throbbing hard with excitement. He wished the Germans would go back, and his wish was prompted--less by the desire of victory than the sickening of his soul at so much slaughter. Why would their leaders continue to hurl these simple and honest peasants upon that invincible line of rifles and machine guns? The dead and wounded were piling up fast in the driving snow, but the willing servants of an emperor came on as steadily as ever to be killed. So much slaughter for so little purpose! The height of battle, excitement and danger, could not keep him from thinking of it.
Occasionally a man fell in the trench and lay in the mud and snow, but the others never ceased for a moment to send bullets into the gray masses which fell back only to come on again. Nothing but modern weapons, machine guns from which missiles fairly flowed in an unending stream, and rifles which a man fired as fast as he could pull the trigger could check them. "Why don't they stop! Why don't they stop!" John was shouting to himself through burned lips, and again he shuddered with sick horror, when he saw a whole line of men blown away, as if they had been grain swept by a tornado.
Once they came to the very edge of the trench to be slain there, and the body of a German fell in at John's very feet. He never knew how many times they charged, but human flesh and blood must yield, in the end, before unyielding steel, and at last through the crash and confusion the notes of trumpets sounded. Then the German masses melted away and the heavy white gloom once more enveloped the ground before the trenches from which came faint cries. The wounded lay thickly there with the dead, but neither side dared to go for them. An upright human figure would draw at once a hail of bullets.
Several machine guns still purred and crackled, but no reply came. Presently they, too, ceased, and the silence in front was complete, save for the faint groans and the swish of the drifting snow. John shivered, and it was not with cold. His feeling of horror was increasing. Many men had been killed and as many maimed, and he was sure that all of them had fallen for nothing.
"It's a victory," said Carstairs, "isolated and detached, but a victory nevertheless."
"So it is," said John, "but it's just a little segment on a vast curving line of four hundred miles. Maybe the Germans have taken a trench somewhere else."
"And maybe we have, at yet another point. This isn't much like the war we've read about, is it, Scott? A great battlefield, vast batteries blazing, long lines of infantry in brilliant uniforms advancing, twenty thousand cavalry charging at the gallop the earth reeling under the hoofs of their horses!"
"No, it's just murder in the dark."
"But a black night would oppress me less than the ghastly whitish glare of the snow. I can't see a thing out there, Scott, but those low sounds I hear appall me."
The wind and the fall of snow alike were increasing in violence. The great flakes poured in a feathery storm into the trench, and, before them, all things were hidden. John knew, too, that it was covering the many dead in their front with a blanket of white and that the wounded who were unable to crawl back would probably lie frozen beneath it in the morning. Once more that shiver of horror and utter repulsion seized him. Despite himself, he could not control it, and he merely remained quiet until his nerves became steady again.
But a low moaning just beyond the trench held his attention. It did not seem to him that it was more than a dozen feet away, and he felt a great sympathy and pity. He did not doubt that some German boy hurt terribly lay almost within reach of his arm. He moved once in order that he might not hear the dreadful sound, but an irresistible attraction drew him back. Then he heard it more plainly, but the thick pouring snow covered all things.
"Carstairs," he said, "I'm going to get a wounded man out there. I just can't stand it any longer."
"Don't be foolish. They may send a volley at any time through the snow, and one of their bullets is likely to get you."
"I'll chance it."
"It's against orders."
"I'm going anyhow. Maybe I've suddenly grown squeamish, but I mean to save that wounded German from freezing to death."
"Stop, Scott! You mustn't risk your life this way. I'll report you to Captain Colton!"
But it was too late. John had climbed up the side of the trench, and, standing in the deep snow, was feeling about for the one who groaned. Guided by the sound his hands soon touched a human body.
The fallen man was lying on his side and he was already half buried in the snow. John ran his hand along his arm and shoulder, and felt cold thick blood, clotting his sleeve. But he was yet alive, because he groaned again, and John believed from the quality of his voice that he was very young. The hurt was in the shoulder and the loss of blood had been great.
He knelt beside the wounded lad and spoke to him in English and French, and in German that he had learned recently. A faint reply came; but it was too low for him to understand. Then he knelt in the snow beside him and was just barely able to see that he had a blond youth younger than himself. Shots came from the German line as he knelt there, but they were merely random bullets whistling through the snowy gloom. He was made of tenacious material, and the danger from the flying bullets merely confirmed him in his purpose. Moreover, he could not bear to return, and listen to those groans so near him. He grasped the young German under the shoulders and dragged him to the edge of the trench. Then he called softly:
"Carstairs, Wharton! I've got him! Help me down!"
Carstairs and Wharton appeared and Carstairs said:
"Well, you light-headed Yankee, you have come back!"
"Yes, and I've brought with me what I went after. Help me down with him. Easy there now! He's hit hard in the shoulder!"
The two lifted him into the trench and John slid after him, just as a half-dozen random shots whistled over his head. There they drew the rescued youth into one of the alcoves dug in the wall and Carstairs flashed his electric torch on his face, revealing features boyish, delicate, and white as death now. His gray uniform was of richer material than usual and an iron cross was pinned upon his breast.
"A brave lad as the cross shows," said Carstairs, "and I should judge too from his appearance that he's of high rank. Maybe he's a prince or the son of a prince. You've already had adventures with two of them."
"One of whom I liked."
"He looks like a good fellow," said Wharton. "I'm glad you saved him. Rub his hands while I give him a taste of this."
John and Carstairs rubbed his palms until he opened his eyes, when Wharton put a flask to his lips and made him drink. He groaned again and tried to sit up.
"Just you lie still, Herr Katzenellenbogen," said Wharton. "You're in the hands of your friends, the enemy, but we're saving your life or rather it's been done already by the man on your left; name, John Scott; nationality, American; service, French."
Captain Colton appeared and threw a white light with his own electric torch upon the little group.
"What have you there?" he asked.
"Young German who lay groaning too near the edge of our trench," replied Carstairs. "Scott couldn't stand it, so he went out and brought him in. Fancy his name is Katzenellenbogen, Kaiserslautern, Hohenfriedberg, or something else short and simple."
Captain Colton permitted himself a grim smile.
"Your act of mercy, Scott, does honor to you," he said, "though it's no part of your business to get yourself killed helping a wounded enemy. Bring him round, then send him to hospital in rear."
He walked on, continuing his inspection of the Strangers although sure that no other attack would be made that night, and the three young men applied themselves with renewed energy to the revival of their injured captive. Wharton cut the uniform away from his shoulder and, after announcing that the bullet had gone entirely through, bound up the two wounds with considerable skill. Then he gave him another but small drink out of the flask and, as they saw the color come back into his face, they felt all the pleasure of a surgeon when he sees his efforts succeed. The boy glanced at his shoulder, and then gave the three a grateful look.
"You're all right," said Carstairs cheerfully in English. "You're guest or prisoner, whichever you choose to call it and we three are your hosts or captors. My name is Carstairs and these two assistants of mine are Wharton and Scott, distant cousins, that is to say, Yankees. It was Scott who saved you."
The boy smiled faintly. He was in truth handsome with a delicate fairness one did not see often among the Germans, who were generally cast in a sterner mold.
"And I am Leopold Kratzek," he replied in good English.
"Kratzek," said John. "Ah, you're an Austrian. Now I remember there's an Austrian field-marshal of that name."
"He is my father but he is in the East. My regiment was sent with an Austrian corp to the western front. It seems that I am in great luck. My wound is not mortal, but I should certainly have frozen to death out there if one of you had not come for me."
"Scott went, of course," said Carstairs. "He's an American and naturally a tuft-hunter. He's been making a long list of princely acquaintances recently, and he was bound to bring in the son of a field-marshal and make a friend of him, too."
"Shut up, Carstairs," said John. "You talk this way to hide your own imperfections. You know that at heart every Englishman is a snob."
"Snobby is as snobby does," laughed Carstairs. "Now, Kratzek, lie back again and we'll spread these blankets over you."
The young Austrian smiled.
"I've fallen into very good company," he said.
John, whose character was serious, felt some sadness as he looked at him. He remembered those gay Viennese who had set the torch of the great war, and how merry they were over it with their visions of quick victory and glory. Poor, gay, likable, light-headed Austrians! Brave but short-sighted, they were likely to suffer more than any other nation! The fair, handsome youth, wrapped now in the blankets, seemed to him to typify all the Austrian qualities.
"You'd better go to sleep if you can," said John. "We can't move you yet, but in time you'll reach a good hospital of ours in the rear."
"I'll obey you," said Kratzek, in the most tractable manner, and closing his eyes he soon fell asleep despite his wound.
"Now, having caught your Austrian, what are you going to do with him?" said Carstairs to John.
"Nothing for the present, but later on I'll have him taken down one of the transverse trenches to a hospital. Maybe you think I'm foolish, Carstairs, but I've an idea that I've made a friend, though I didn't have that purpose in view when I went out for him. I never think that anybody hates me unless he proves it. People as a rule don't take the time and trouble to hate and plot."
"You're right, Scott. Hating is a terribly tiresome business, and I notice that you're by nature friendly."
"Which may be because I'm American."
"Oh, well, we English are friendly, too."
"But seldom polite, although I think you're unaware of the latter fact."
"If a man doesn't know he's impolite, then he isn't. It's the intention that counts."
"We'll let it go, but I've a strong premonition that this Austrian boy is going to do me a great favor some day."
"I have premonitions, too, often, but they're invariably wrong. Now, I see an orderly coming. I hope he hasn't a message from Captain Colton for us to prowl around in the snow somewhere."
Happily, the message released them from further duty that night and bade them seek rest. Young Kratzek was lying in John's bed and was sleeping. He looked so young and so pale that the heart of his captor and rescuer was moved to pity. Light-headed the Austrians might be, but no one could deny them valor.
Just beyond the niche was another and smaller one, seldom used, owing to its extreme narrowness, but John decided that he could sleep in it. At any rate, if he fell off he would land in six or eight inches of soft snow.
The flakes were still coming down heavily. It was the biggest snow that he had yet seen in Europe and he believed that it would fall all night. They had plenty of blankets and spreading two on the shelf which was no broader than himself he lay down and put two more over him.
He was in a pleasant mental glow, because he had saved young Kratzek, forgetting the rest who lay out there under the snow. All his instincts were for mercy and gentleness, but like others, he was being hardened by war, or at least he was made forgetful. Resting in the earthen side of a trench, the horrors of the battle passed out of his mind. The white gloom was so heavy there that he could not see the other wall four feet away, and the falling flakes almost grazed his face as they passed, but he had a marvelous sense of comfort and ease, even of luxury. The caveman had fared no better, often worse, because he had no blankets, and John drew a deep sigh of content.
A gun thundered somewhere far back in the German lines, and a gun also far back in the French lines thundered in reply. Then came a random and scattering fire of rifles through the falling snow from both sides, but John was not disturbed in the least by these reports. He felt as safe in his narrow trench as if he had been a hundred miles from the field of battle, and compared, with the driving storm outside, his six feet by one of an earthen bed was all he wished. The pleasant warmth from the blankets flowed through his veins, and his limbs and senses relaxed. There was firing again, faint and from a distant point, but it was soothing now like the tune played on the little mouth-organ earlier in the evening, and he fell into a deep and peaceful slumber.
When he awoke in the morning the sun was shining in the trench, the bottom of which was covered with eight inches of snow, now slushy on top from the red beams. John felt himself restored and strong, and he stepped down into the snow and slush, having first tucked his blue-gray trousers into his high boots. He was lucky in the possession of a fine pair of boots that would turn the last drop of water, and in such times as these they were worth more than gold.
A shell screaming high overhead was his morning salutation, and then came other shells, desultory but noisy. John paid no more attention to them than if they had been distant bees buzzing. He looked at his young prisoner, Kratzek, and found that he was still sleeping, with a healthy color in his face. John was impressed anew by his youth. "Why do they let such babies come to the war?" he asked himself, but he added, "They're brave babies, though."
"Well, he's pulling along all right," said Carstairs. "I was up before you and I learned that Captain Colton sent a surgeon in the night to examine him. Wharton had done a good job with his bandages, he admitted, but he cleaned and dressed the wound and said the patient was in such a healthy condition that he would be entirely well again in a short time. He's only a young boy, isn't he, Scott?"
"Yes, I suppose that's why I have such a fatherly feeling for him."
"That, or because you brought him in from sure death. We're always attached to anyone we save."
"I mean to have him exchanged and sent back to his mother in Austria. He's bound to have a mother there and she'll thank me though she may never see me. I wish these pleasant Austrians had more sense."
Kratzek opened his eyes and looked blankly at the two young men. He strove to rise, but fell back with a low sigh of pain. Then he closed his eyes, but John saw the muscles of his face working.
"He's trying to remember," whispered Carstairs.
Memory came back to Kratzek in a few moments, and he opened his eyes again.
"I was saved by somebody last night and I think it was you," he said, looking at John. "I want to say to you that I am very grateful. I do not wish to appear boastful, but I have relatives in both the Austrian and German armies who are very powerful--ours is both a North German and South German house, and East German, too."
"That is, it's wohlgeboren and hochwohlgeboren," said Wharton, who appeared at that moment.
"Yes," said the Austrian boy, smiling faintly. "I am highborn and very highborn, although it's not my fault. You, I take it, by your accent, are American and these things, of course, don't count with you."
"I don't know, they seem to count pretty heavily with some of our women, if you can judge by the newspapers."
"Who are these men of whom you speak?" asked John.
"The chief is Prince Karl of Auersperg, who is not far from your front. I betray no military secret when I say that. I shall send word to him that you have saved my life, and, if you should fall a prisoner into German hands, he will do as much for you as you have done for me."
The Austrian boy did not notice the quick glances exchanged by the three, and he went on:
"Prince Karl of Auersperg is a general of ability, and owing to that and his very high birth, he has great influence with both emperors. You have nothing to fear from our brave Germans if you should fall into their hands, but I beg you in any event, to get word to the prince and to give him my name."
"I'll do it," replied John, but he soothed his conscience by telling himself that it was a white lie. If he should be captured for the third time Prince Karl of Auersperg was the last one whom he wanted to know of it. Neither was he pleased to hear that this medieval baron was again so near, although he did not realize why until later.
"We've talked enough now," said John, "and I'll see that food is sent you. Then it's off with you to the hospital. It's a French hospital, but they'll treat a German shoulder just as they would one of their own."
The life in the vast honeycomb of trenches was awakening fast. Two million men perhaps, devoted to the task of killing one another, crept from their burrows and stood up. Along the whole line almost of twenty score miles snow had fallen, but the rifles and cannon were firing already, spasmodic sharpshooting at some points, and fierce little battles at others.
John peered over the edge of the trench. A man was allowed to put his head in the German range but not his hand. So long as he lived he must preserve a hand which could pull the trigger or wield the bayonet.
They were not firing in the immediate front, and he had a good view of fields and low hills, deep in snow. Just before him the ground was leveled, and he saw many raised places in the snow there. He knew that bodies lay beneath, and once more he shuddered violently. But the world was full of beauty that morning. The sun was a vast sheet of gold, giving a luminous tint to the snow, and two clusters of trees, covered to the last bough and twig with snow, were a delicate tracery of white, shot at times by the sun with a pale yellow glow like that of a rose. On the horizon a faint misty smoke, the color of silver, was rising, and he knew that it came from the cooking fires of the Germans.
It reminded him that he was very hungry. Cave life under fire, if it did not kill a man, gave him a ferocious appetite, and turning into one of the transverse trenches he followed a stream of the Strangers who were already on the way to their hotel.
The narrow cut led them nearly a mile, and then they came out in a valley the edges of which were fringed with beeches. But in the wide space within the valley most of the snow had been cleared away and enormous automobile kitchens stood giving forth the pleasant odors of food and drink. At one side officers were already satisfying their hunger and farther on men were doing the same. They were within easy range of the German guns, but it was not the habit of either side to send morning shells unless a direct attack was to be made.
John had no thought of danger. Youth was youth and one could get hardened to anything. He had been surprised more than once in this war to find how his spirits could go from the depths to the heights and now they were of the best. He was full of life and the world was very beautiful that morning. It was the fair land of France again, but it was under a thick robe of snow, the golden tint on the white, as the large yellow sun slowly sailed clear of the high hills on their right.
General Vaugirard stood near the first of the wagons, drinking cup after cup of hot steaming coffee, and devouring thick slices of bread and butter. He wore a long blue overcoat over his uniform, and high boots. But the dominant note was given to his appearance by the thick white beard which seemed to be touched with a light silver frost. Under the great thatch of eyebrow the keen little eyes twinkled. He made John think of a huge, white and inoffensive bear.
The general's roving eye caught sight of Scott and he exclaimed:
"Come here, you young Yankee! I hear that you distinguished yourself last night by saving the life of one of our enemies, thus enabling him perhaps to fight against us once more."
"I beg your pardon, General," said John, "but I'm no Yankee."
"What, denying your birthright! I never heard an American do that before! Everybody knows you're a Yankee."
"Pardon me. General, you and all other Europeans make a mistake about the Yankees. At home the people of the Southern States generally apply it to those living in the Northern states, but in the North it is carried still further and is properly applied to the residents of the six New England states. I don't come from one of those states, and so I'm not in a real sense a Yankee."
"What, sir, have I, a Frenchman, to do with your local distinctions? Yankees you all are and Yankee you shall remain. It's a fine name, and from what I've seen in this war you're great fighting men, worthy to stand with Frenchmen."
"Thank you for the compliment, General," said John, smiling. "Hereafter I shall always remain a Yankee."
"And now do you and your friends take your food there with de Rougemont. I've had my breakfast, and a big and good one it was. I'm going to the edge of the hill and use my glasses."
He waddled away, looking more than ever an enormous, good-natured bear. John's heart, as always, warmed to him. Truly he was the father of his children, ten thousand or more, who fought around him, and for whose welfare he had a most vigilant eye and mind.
The three joined a group of the Strangers, Captain Colton at their head, and they stood there together, eating and drinking, their appetites made wonderfully keen by the sharp morning and a hard life in the open air. Bougainville, the little colonel, came from the next valley and remained with them awhile. He was almost the color of an Indian now, but his uniform was remarkably trim and clean and he bore himself with dignity. He was distinctly a personality and John knew that no one would care to undertake liberties with him.
In the long months following the battle on the Marne Bougainville had done great deeds. Again and again he had thrown his regiment into some weak spot in the line just at the right moment. He seemed, like Napoleon and Stonewall Jackson, to have an extraordinary, intuitive power of divining the enemy's intentions, and General Vaugirard, to whose command his regiment belonged, never hesitated to consult him and often took his advice. "Ah, that child of Montmartre!" he would say. "He will go far, if he does not meet a shell too soon. He keeps a hand of steel on his regiment, there is no discipline sterner than his, and yet his men love him."
Bougainville showed pleasure at seeing John again, and gave him his hand American fashion.
"We both still live," he said briefly.
"And hope for complete victory."
"We do," said Bougainville, earnestly, "but it will take all the strength of the allied nations to achieve it. Much has happened, Monsieur Scott, since we stood that day in the lantern of Basilique du Sacre-Coeur on the Butte Montmartre and saw the Prussian cavalry riding toward Paris."
"But what has happened is much less than that which will happen before this war is over."
"You speak a great truth, Monsieur Scott. And now I must go. Hearing that the Strangers were in this valley I wished to come and see with my own eyes that you were alive and well. I have seen and I am glad."
He saluted, Captain Colton and the others saluted in return, and then he walked over the hill to his own "children."
"An antique! An old Roman! Spirit defying death," said Captain Colton looking after him.
"He has impressed me that way, too, sir," said John. But his mind quickly left Bougainville, and turned to the message that Weber had brought the night before. He was glad that Julie Lannes would be so near again, and yet he was sorry. He had not been sorry when he first heard it, but the apprehension had come later. He tried to trace the cause, and then he remembered the name of Auersperg, the prince whom his cousin, the Austrian captive, had said was near. He sought to laugh at himself for his fears. The mental connection was too vague, he said, but the relieving laughter would not come.
John hoped that a lucky chance might bring Lannes, and involuntarily he looked up at the heavens. But they were clear of aeroplanes. The heavy snow of the night before had driven in the hosts of the air, and they had not reappeared.
Then John resolved to go to Chastel himself. He did not know how he would go or what he would do when he got there, but the impulse was strong and it remained with him.