The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter V. The Register
John and Julie in the smoking-room were not lonely. They talked of many of the events he had suggested, and of more. Two of the windows looked out upon the town instead of the river, but they could see little there save the towering spire of the cathedral and the blank and ruined walls. The snow was already very deep, but the fall was not diminishing. The gray gloom of coming twilight, however, was beginning to show through it and once more John returned silent thanks that he had come into Chastel and found Julie. He was serving vicariously for Philip who undoubtedly had been held back by the snow.
"It will be night soon," he said. "It's likely that the snow will cease in the morning, and then I'm quite sure that Philip will come for you. It must have been his intention for you to help at the hospital camp below."
"I think so, too."
"Then why not go there in the morning?"
"And he would miss me. He would be searching all Chastel for me, and perhaps would then go away, believing that I had not come."
He was about to say that Philip, missing her in the town would be sure to look for her in the hospital camp, but he forebore. It was very pleasant for them there in the hotel, and why hurry?
"At any rate, it would be unwise to leave tonight," he said. "I think Suzanne herself will agree with me in that statement. I'll ask her, as she'll be in here very soon now."
"Why so soon?"
"Because I've noticed that Suzanne, besides being your maid is also your chaperon."
"She's been that as far back as I can remember, and I believe a most excellent one. Suzanne, I know, loves me."
"I'm sure of it. I don't blame her."
"Look how the snow is leaping up against the window, Mr. John! Ah, Suzanne is ahead of your prediction! She's coming now."
Suzanne stood in the doorway. John surmised from her look that her distrust, at least in a mild form, had sent her there.
"Now that your maid can be with you," he said, "I think I'll take another look at the front of the hotel. Possibly, a new guest has arrived and registered since we last saw the bureau. Will you excuse me for a few minutes, Miss Julie?"
John was merely impelled by a sense of duty to take a look about the hotel, not that he expected to find anything, but because a good soldier should never neglect his scouting operations. He went first into the little lobby at the entrance, where the offices were. Antoine had lighted a candle and left it on the desk of the bureau. Otherwise he could have seen little in the room as the twilight was advancing fast, and the white gloom, made by the falling snow, was shading into gray.
He opened the front door. There was nothing in the street. The tower of the cathedral was almost hidden by the storm and the twilight and the gaunt ruins of the houses, covered now with snow, looked inexpressibly dreary and lonely. The dismal spectacle without heightened the bright gladness within, where he and Julie had sat face to face, only a narrow table between, and Antoine and Suzanne had served.
He stood awhile in the open door, the snow whirling now and then against him, and the faint mutter of great guns coming at almost regular intervals to his ears. He was trying to decide what to do, free from any influence, however noble, which might unconsciously turn him from his duty. His was in the nature of a roving commission, and yet he must not rove too far. He decided that if Lannes did not come in the morning he would insist upon Julie going with him to the hospital camp. It would be hard for him to go against her wishes, but he was bound to do it, and easy in little things, young John Scott had a will in greater affairs that could not be overborne.
But his heart remained singularly light. This was a good hotel, the Hotel de l'Europe. He had not found a finer or better in Europe. Others might be larger and more magnificent, but not one of them had offered him such light and hospitality at a time when they were needed most. He went back to the bureau, where the register still lay open. He had a vague impression that it was not lying just as they had left it, that it was turned much more to one side, and he glanced at the names, which a quaint fancy had made them write on the open page. His own name had been inscribed there last, and he started when he saw another written beneath it in a bold flowing hand. But the light was so dim that he could not at first make it out, and despite all his courage and power of will an uncanny feeling seized him. A chill ran along his spine, and his hair lifted a little.
With a cry of anger at himself, he seized the candle and held it over the page. Then he read the new name:
Fernand Weber, Paris and Alsace.
With another exclamation, but this time of relief, he put the candle back upon the desk. Two beads of perspiration that had formed upon his brow rolled from it, and fell upon the register. And Weber had come, too! He was not surprised at it. Since he was Lannes' messenger, and he was free to come and go as he pleased, it was altogether likely that he would appear in Chastel to see the reunion of brother and sister, and his work well done. Moreover, he was a man who knew. John had often noticed that Weber's characteristic was knowledge and now he would help them.
He lifted the candle high above his head and looked around the lobby, but there was no sign of the Alsatian. He must have gone outside again. Saying nothing to Julie or the Picards, John resolved to seek him. He needed his heavy overcoat and he was able to secure it unobserved, because Julie had gone up to her room, and Antoine and Suzanne had disappeared in the back regions of the hotel.
He had a faint hope that when he returned to the lobby he might find Weber there, but it was still lone and silent, and drawing the collar well about his ears and throat he thrust himself out into the snow. Turning his back to the driving flakes he walked eastward, searching everywhere through the advancing twilight. Weber, of course, knew of their presence in the hotel as he had seen their names on the register, and the lighted candle on the bureau. It must have been a sudden alarm that called him away so quickly, else he would have gone in at once, and have spoken to his friends.
Unfortunately the night was coming fast. Thick gray gloom clothed the whole east, and but little light showed in the west. Looking back he saw no light in the hotel, but that was to be expected, as Picard would certainly loop the curtains heavily over the windows. Out here in the ruined town much of his extraordinary buoyancy departed. The cold and the desolation of the world made him shiver a little. He thrust his hand into the pocket of his overcoat, and closed it upon the butt of the automatic.
He thought once of calling at the top of his voice for Weber, but instinctive caution kept him from doing so. Then he caught sight of a slender moving figure far ahead and feeling sure that it must be the Alsatian he hurried forward. The figure moved on as fast as he, but, eager in pursuit, he followed. It was shadowy and slim at the distance, but he knew that it was a human being, and either it was Weber or some man of Chastel returning to see what had happened to his town. In either event he wished to overtake him.
But the figure led him a long chase. The man seemed to be moving with some definite purpose, and kept a general course toward the east. Now John called out once or twice, though not loudly, but the stranger apparently did not hear him. Then he pushed the pursuit more vigorously, breaking into a run, and just beyond the eastern rim of Chastel, feeling sure now that it was the Alsatian, he called once more:
The man paused and he seemed to John to look back, but the snow drifted heavily between them just then, and when the cataract had passed he was again moving on, more slender and dim than ever. Beyond him lay a little wood, torn and mangled by shells and shrapnel, as the town had been, and John, afraid that he would lose him in it, ran as fast as he could through the deep snow, calling once more, and loudly now:
"Weber! Weber! Weber!"
The figure stopped at the edge of the wood and turned. John, holding up his hands to show that he meant no harm, continued his panting rush through the snow. The man stood upright, magnified into gigantic size by the half light and the storm, and, as John came close, he saw that in very truth it was Weber. His relief and joy were great. He did not know until then how anxious he was that the stranger should prove to be Weber, in whose skill and resource he had so much confidence.
"Weber! Weber!" he cried again. "It's Scott. Don't you know me, or am I so clothed in snow that nobody can recognize me?"
"I recognize you now, Mr. Scott," said Weber, "and glad am I to see that it's you. I was afraid that I was being followed by a German scout. I could have disposed of him, but it would not have saved me from his comrades."
"Comrades!" exclaimed John, as he shook his hand. "Why, are Germans about?"
"I think they are. At least, I've come out here to see. You'll forgive my jest, Mr. Scott, in writing my name under that of your party on the register, won't you? As Mademoiselle Lannes has doubtless told you, I carried the letter from her brother, directing her to join him in Chastel, and, as my duties permitted, I came here also to see that my work was effective. I'd have gone at once, but I heard suspicious sounds in front of the hotel, and I came out at once to investigate."
"What did you find?"
"Near the cathedral I saw footprints which the falling snow had covered but partially. No, it's not worth while to go back and investigate them. They're under an inch of snow now."
"Why did you think Germans had made them?"
Weber opened his gloved hand and disclosed something metallic, a spike from a German helmet.
"This," he said, "had become loosened and it fell from the cap of some careless fellow. It could have been there only a few minutes, because the snow had not yet covered it. I think a considerable party has got behind the French lines under cover of the storm and has passed through Chastel."
"But they must have gone on. Why would they remain in a ruined town like this?"
"I see no reason for their doing so, unless to seek shelter for a while in some buildings not wholly wrecked, just as you and Mademoiselle Lannes' party have done."
John felt a throb of alarm.
"Has the Hotel de l'Europe escaped their observation?" he asked.
"I think so. I did not notice any light myself when I approached it. But I had been in Chastel before, and of course knew of the house and its location. I went there at once, hoping that it had escaped destruction, and found my hopes justified. Has Mademoiselle Lannes heard anything from her brother? I did not see his name on the register?"
"He has not come, but the weather has made it impossible. Aeroplanes can't dare such snowstorms as this."
"That's true, but he's so wonderfully skillful and bold that he might get here in some fashion. Now I think we ought to make a good search among these ruins, Mr. Scott. It's more than likely that the Germans have passed on, but there's a chance that they will linger. You're armed, of course?"
"I've an automatic handy."
"So have I. Suppose we take a look in the wood here, and then we can search among those houses on our right."
The snow and the night, now at hand, biding them, they entered the little wood with confidence that they would fall into no trap. But it was empty, and returning to the edge of the town, they scouted cautiously all the way around it, finding no sign of either a friend or an enemy.
"We alone hold Chastel," said John, "and I think we'd better go back to the Hotel de l'Europe. I've been away a full two hours and Mademoiselle Lannes may be worried about my long absence, not about me personally, but because of what it might possibly signify."
"That's our obvious course," said Weber, "and as I've registered I'll sleep at the hotel also."
"You'll certainly be welcome," said John, as he led the way back to the Hotel de l'Europe. But as they were on the far side of the town, and the snow had grown deeper, it took them another half-hour to reach the building.
They stood just inside the door, brushing off the snow and shaking themselves. John glanced toward the door of the smoking-room but it was dark there. He was somewhat surprised. Julie had doubtless gone to bed, but Antoine, the grim and faithful, would be on watch.
"I expected Picard to meet us," he said.
"Probably they're all worn out, and anticipating no danger, have gone to sleep," said Weber.
The candle was still burning in the bureau, and John, picking it up, hurried into the smoking-room. A sudden, terrible fear had struck like a dagger at his heart. The silence, and the absence of Picard filled him with alarm. In the smoking-room he held the candle aloft, and then he uttered a cry.
The room was in a state of utter disorder. Chairs, tables and writing-desks were overturned, and glass was smashed. It was evident to both that a mighty struggle had taken place there, but no blood was shed. John's keen mind inferred at once that Picard had been set upon without warning by many men, but they had struggled to take him alive. Nothing else could account for the wrecked furniture, and the absence of red stains.
His fears now became a horrible certainty, and without a thought of Weber, rushing up the stairway, candle in hand, he knocked at the door of Julie's room, the room that she and Suzanne were to occupy together. There was no answer. He knocked again, loud and long. Still no answer and his heart froze within him. He threw the door open and rushed in, mechanically holding his candle aloft, and, by the dim light it shed, looked about him, aghast.
This room also was in disorder. A chair had been overturned and a mirror had been broken. There had been a struggle here too, and he had no doubt that Suzanne had fought almost as well as her father. But she and Julie were gone. To John the room fairly ached with emptiness.
He put the candle upon the dresser, sat down, dropped his face in his hands and groaned.
"Be of good courage, Mr. Scott," said Weber. "No great harm can have happened to Mademoiselle Lannes."
"It was the Germans whom you saw. They must have come here while we were looking for them on the outskirts of the town."
"It would seem so. But don't be downhearted, Mr. Scott. Doubtless they've made captives of Mademoiselle Lannes and her attendants, but they have not done any bodily harm even to the big Picard. The absence of all blood shows it. And the Germans would not injure a woman like Mademoiselle Lannes. A prisoner, she is safe in their hands, she can be rescued as she was once before or more likely be sent back to her own people."
"But, Weber, we do not know what will happen in a war like this, so vast, so confused, and with passions beginning to run so high. And I was away when she was taken! I who should have been on guard every moment! How can I ever meet Philip's look! How can I ever answer my own reproaches!"
"You have nothing with which to reproach yourself, Mr. Scott. You did what anyone naturally would have done under such circumstances. It has been a chance, the one dangerous possibility out of a hundred, that has gone against us."
John stood up. His despair was gone. All his natural courage came flowing back in a torrent, and Weber saw in his eyes the glow of a resolution, stern, tenacious and singularly like that of Lannes himself.
"I mean to get her back," he said quietly. "As you said, the one dangerous chance in a hundred has gene against us, and to offset it the one favorable chance in a hundred must come our way."
"What do you mean to do?"
"I don't know yet. But we can't remain in this hotel. It's no time to be seeking our comfort when our duty lies elsewhere."
He took the candle again, holding it in a hand that was perfectly steady, and led the way down the hall and the stairway to the little lobby. He did not speak, because he was trying to think rapidly and concisely. If he followed the strict letter of command he would return that night to the hospital camp, and yet he could remain and say that he was delayed by the enemy. He was willing to be untrue to his military duty for Julie's sake, and his conscience did not reproach him.
"Is the snow diminishing, Weber?" he asked, as they came again into the little lobby.
"Somewhat, I think, Mr. Scott," replied Weber as he went to the window. "Are you thinking of pursuit?"
"Such an idea has been in my mind."
"But where and how?"
"My thought is vague yet."
"It's like an Arctic land outside. All footsteps, whether of men or horses, have been hidden by the snow. There is certainly no trail for us to follow."
"I know it, Weber, but it seems to me that Mademoiselle Lannes is calling to me. She tells me to bring her back."
The Alsatian glanced at John, but the young man's face was earnest. It was evident that he believed what he said.
"Mademoiselle Lannes may be calling to you," he said, "but how can you go, and where?"
"I don't know," repeated John obstinately, "but I mean to find her."
He walked irresolutely back and forth and his eye fell upon the register again. Certainly it had been moved once more. He had remembered just how it lay after he saw Weber's name there, and now it was turned much further to one side. He snatched up the candle and held it over the open pages. Then he saw written in a heavy hand just beneath Weber's name:
Prince Karl of Auersperg, Zillenstein, Tyrol. Luitpold Helmuth Schwenenger, " " Captain Max Sanger, Dantzig, Prussia. Suite of His Highness, twenty persons.
John understood thoroughly. He uttered a fierce cry of anger and grief, and Weber looked eagerly over his shoulder.
"We know now who has come," he said.
"Yes, we know," exclaimed John, "and I could wish that it had been anybody else! I hate this man! To me he represents all that is evil in the Old World, the concentrated wickedness of feudalism and I fear him, though not for myself! Weber, I can't bear to think of Julie Lannes in his hands! If it were von Arnheim or that young Kratzek or any normal German it would be different, but this man, Auersperg, is not of our time! He belongs to an older and worse age!"
"He is very hard and determined," said Weber. "In my secret work for France I have seen him more than once, and I know his character and family history thoroughly. An immense pride of birth and blood. Great courage and resolution and a belief that he, as a prince of the old stock, entitled to what he wishes."
"Out of place in our day."
"It may be. But war favors his beliefs, and now he holds the whip hand. The beautiful Mademoiselle Julie was his prisoner for a short time before, and you will pardon me for telling you, what you must have surmised, Mr. Scott, that her youth, her marvelous beauty and her courage and spirit, so befitting one who bears the name of Lannes, have made a great appeal to His Highness. That is why, under the cover of storm and battle, he has carried her away."
"Not so bad as that, Mr. Scott. There are some things that even a prince would not dare in this comparatively mild age of ours. The Prince of Auersperg is a widower with no children. He will offer her a morganatic marriage."
"A morganatic marriage! And what is that? Neither the one nor the other. It's a disgrace for any woman! A mere halfway marriage!"
"It would be legal, and she'd have a title."
"A title! What would that amount to?"
"I've heard that you Americans are fond of titles, and that your rich women bring their daughters to Europe to marry them!"
"An infinitesimal minority, Weber. It's true that we have such foolish women, but the rest of us regard them with contempt."
"He could offer her vast wealth and even as a morganatic wife a great position."
"I think you're testing me. Weber, trying to see what I will say. Well, I will say this. I don't believe that Julie would accept Auersperg on any terms, not if he were to make her a real princess of the oldest princely house in the world, not if he were to lay the fortunes of the Rothschilds at her feet. She is of good French republican stock, and she is a thorough republican herself."
Weber smiled a little.
"Your faith in Mademoiselle Lannes is great," he said, "and I can see that it proceeds, in part at least, from a just and pure emotion."
John reddened. He saw that he had laid bare his soul, but he was not ashamed. Once more he strengthened his heart and now he resolved upon a plan.
"The snowfall is decreasing fast," he said. "Auersperg and his troop can't be far from here. The traveling is too hard for them to travel swiftly, even if they have automobiles. I shall go to the hospital camp, raise a force and search the country. The commandant will give me soldiers readily, because it would be worth while to capture such a man as Auersperg--behind our lines, too."
"I don't wish to discourage you," said Weber, "but I doubt whether you can find him."
"Maybe so and maybe not," said John, and then he remembered the automobile in which Julie and the Picards had come. Doubtless it was safe behind the cathedral where they had left it, and he could force it through the snow much faster than he could walk.
"Come!" he exclaimed to Weber. "I know of a way to save time."
He rushed through the snow to the rear of the cathedral and Weber, without question, followed him. The automobile was there, well supplied, and John sprang into the front seat. He was no skillful driver, but he had learned enough to manage a machine in some fashion, and powerful emotions were driving him on.
"Up, Weber!" he cried.
"Which way are you going?"
"To the hospital camp, of course, and we'll just touch the top of the high-arched bridge over the river! The snowfall is decreasing fast, and soon we'll be able to see a long distance."
"We can do so now, and the moon is coming out, too. Heavens, Mr. Scott, it's come too soon, because it shows us to the enemy!"
He pointed with a long and shaking finger. At the far end of the street a massive German column was emerging into view. John was startled.
"These are no raiders!" he exclaimed. "They must have broken through a portion of our lines and are attempting to flank other positions! But Chastel's hospitality for us is ended."
He put on full speed and drove the machine rapidly through the snow toward the river.
"We've another reason now why we should reach the camp!" he exclaimed. "Our people must be warned of the presence of the Germans in force in Chastel!"
There was a crash of rifle fire and bullets struck all about them. Two or three glanced off the side of the machine itself, which a moment or two later ran into a deep drift and stuck there, panting.
Weber sprang out and threw himself flat in the snow. John instinctively did the same, and the second volley fired with better aim riddled the machine. There was a heavy explosion, it turned on its side, its wheels revolving for a moment or two, and then it lay still, like a dying monster.
John sprang to his feet and rushed for the shelter of a building only a few yards away. He saw Weber's shadow flitting by his side, but when he reached cover he found that he had lost him. Doubtless in the excitement of the moment the Alsatian had found hiding elsewhere. He was sorry that they had become separated, but Weber had a great ability to take care of himself, and John was quite sure that he would escape. The task that lay upon him now was to make good his own flight.
The building, the shelter of which he had reached, was a low brick structure, already much damaged by shells and shrapnel. But the walls were thick enough to protect him for the moment from bullets, and flinging himself down in the deep snow he crouched in the shadow until he could regain sufficient breath for further flight. He heard more shots fired, but evidently random triggers only had been pulled, as no bullet struck near him.
The fall of snow ceased almost entirely, and the moon grew brighter and brighter. Chastel was a vast white ruin, tinted with silver, and as such it had an uncanny beauty of its own. But John, thankful that the snow was so deep, lay buried in it, where it had drifted against the wall. The Germans in a town so near the French lines were not likely to make a diligent search for a single man, and he felt that he was safe if he did not freeze to death.
Peeping above the snow he saw about fifty German infantrymen walk down the road toward the river, their heavy boots crunching in the snow. They were stalwart, ruddy fellows, boys of twenty-one or two--he knew now that boys did most of the world's fighting--and he liked their simple, honest faces. He felt anew that he did not hate the German people; instead he felt friendship for them, but he did hate more intensely than ever the medieval emperors and the little group of madmen about them who, almost without warning, could devote millions to slaughter. An intense democrat in the beginning and becoming more intense in the furnace of war, he believed that the young German peasants coming down the road would have much more chance before the Judgment Seat than the princes and generals who so lightly sent them there.
The soldiers went on a little distance beyond the edge of the town. The cessation of the snow and the brilliant moonlight enabled them to see far into the plain below, where the hospital camp lay. John, looking in the same direction, saw little wisps of smoke rising above the blur of the camp, but the distance was too great for him to detect anything else.
The low note of the trumpet called to the young troops, and they turned back into the town. John rose from his covert, brushed the snow from his clothing, beat his chest with his fists, and increased the circulation which would warm his body anew. Then he stood against the wall listening. He had no doubt that the Germans would go away presently--there was nothing to keep them in Chastel--and he made a sudden shift in his plans. He would go back to the Hotel de l'Europe, and stay there until day. Lannes would surely come in the morning. He had no doubt that at daybreak he would see the lithe and sinuous figure of the Arrow shooting down from the blue depths, and then he and her brother would go away in search of Julie. Looking down from the air and traveling at almost unbelievable speed, their chances of finding Auersperg's party would be a hundred times better than if he merely prowled along on the ground.
The thought was a happy one to him, and again there was a great uprising of youth and hope. But the hosts of the air were already at work to defeat his plan. The invisible powers which war could now use were ready when the storm died. Far away the wireless stations sputtered and crackled, and words carried on nothing, were passing directly over him. They made no mention of John Scott, but he was vitally involved in what they were planning. Down under the horizon little black dots that were aeroplanes had begun to rise and to look cautiously over a field, where wireless had already told them that something was done. Further away telephone and telegraph wires were humming with words, and all the hosts of the air were concentrating their energies upon Chastel.
John, having left the shelter of the wall, stepped into the road, where the snow had been trodden deep by the young Germans. From that point he could not see into Chastel, but a deep solemn note came from a far point to the east. It was the voice of a great gun carrying an immense distance in the night, and it struck like a hammer upon his heart. It seemed to him a warning that the path that way, the way Auersperg had undoubtedly gone with Julie, was barred.
He walked up the newly trodden road into Chastel, and then he darted back again to cover. He saw the gleam of many gray uniforms and he heard a clank which he knew could be made only by the wheels of cannon. The new forces of the enemy were coming and evidently they were now in great strength in Chastel and beyond it. John's heart leaped in alarm. It was a powerful flank movement, a daring and successful attempt under cover of the storm, and he recognized at once all his dangers.
Keeping as well under cover as he could, he turned and raced toward the bridge. He saw the misty smoke hovering over the hospital camp, and he did not believe that any adequate force to meet the Germans could be found there, but alarms could be sent in every direction.
He expected that more than one shot would be sent after his flying figure, but none came and his swift flight took him far toward the river. Then he saw a long line of dark forms before him and the flashing tips of bayonets. Holding his arms high above his head he shouted in French over and over again that he was a friend, and then ran almost directly into the arms of a short muscular man in the uniform of a French colonel.
"Bougainville!" he cried.
"Aye, Mr. Scott, it is I! My regiment is here and many others."
"Then look out. Chastel is full of Germans."
"It is for them that we've come!"