The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VI. John's Resolve
John stood weakly, and with heart palpitating, but it was only for a few moments. Strength poured back in a full tide, and he said to Bougainville:
"You'll let me go back with you?"
"Of course, but there's heavy fighting ahead. Messages warned us in the night that the Germans had broken through, and ever since the storm stopped the wireless has been talking to us, giving us the exact details. We've been marching for hours. My regiment was the first to cross the river but, as you see, others are close behind."
"And you command them all?"
The eyes of the former Apache of Montmartre glittered.
"Yes," he replied. "It was an honor that General Vaugirard assigned to me. I lead the vanguard."
Except the radiance from his eyes he showed no emotion. John noticed that his features were cast in the antique mold. The pallor and thinness of his face accentuated his powerful features, and once more John was reminded of the portraits of the young Napoleon. Could there be such a thing as reincarnation? But he remembered that while a new mind like Napoleon's might be possible a new career like Napoleon's was not. Then all thoughts of any kind upon the subject were driven from his mind by the flash of firing that came from Chastel.
The rifles were rattling fast, and with them soon came the heavy crash of artillery. Bougainville ran up and down his lines, but, to John's surprise, he was holding his men back, rather than urging them on. But he quickly saw the reason. He heard the hissing and shrieking of shells over his head and he saw them bursting in Chastel. The fire increased so fast and became so tremendous in volume that all the French lay down in the snow, and John put his fingers in his ears lest he be deafened.
He understood the purpose of the French commander. It was to hurl a continuous shower of steel upon the enemy, and then when it ceased the French were to charge. Raising his head a little he saw the ruined buildings of Chastel melting away entirely under the tremendous fire of the great French field guns. House after house was springing into flames and wall after wall was crumbling down in fragments. German guns were replying fast, but their position amid falling masonry was much worse than that of the French in the open.
John was lying in the snow near Bougainville, with the shells from both sides hissing and shrieking in a storm over their heads. He was used to being under fire and he knew that none of these missiles was intended for them, but he could not restrain a quiver of apprehension now and then, lest some piece of shrapnel, falling short, should find him. It was always the shrapnel with the hideous whine and shriek and its tearing wound that they dreaded most. The clean little rifle bullet, which if it did not kill did not hurt much, was infinitely more welcome.
"How long will this go on?" John asked of Bougainville; his voice could be heard as an undertone in the roar of the battle.
"Not long, because at present we have the advantage. The Germans know that they're worse off in the town than they would be outside. Our guns are bringing tons and tons of brick and stone about their ears. Hark to our splendid artillery, Mr. Scott! See how it sweeps Chastel!"
The French fire always increasing in volume was most accurate and deadly. The famous seventy-five-millimeter gun was again proving itself the most terrible of mobile field weapons. As walls fell, pyramids of fire shot up in many places, casting a sinister glow over the snowy earth. But above everything rose the lofty and beautiful spire of the Gothic cathedral, still untouched.
All the time the moonlight had been steadily growing more brilliant. Save where the burning houses and the flashing of the cannon cast a red glow a veil of silver mist, which brightened rather than obscured, hung over the snow. John distinctly saw Germans in the town and often, too, he saw them fall.
A man with a bugle was lying in the snow near Bougainville and the little colonel reached over and touched him. John saw the soldier put the instrument to his lips, as if he would make ready, and he knew that an important movement was at hand. He tautened his own figure that he might be ready. The artillery fire behind them ceased suddenly. The air there had been roaring with thunder, and then all at once it became as silent as the grave. The bugler leaped to his feet and blew a long and mellow note. The Bougainville regiment and other regiments both right and left sprang up and, with a short, fierce shout, rushed upon the town. John, his automatic in his hand, charged with them, keeping close to Bougainville.
A scattering fire of bullets carried away many, but John knew that he was not touched. Neither was Bougainville, who, like Bonaparte at Lodi or Arcola, was now leading his men in person, waving aloft a small sword, and continually shouting to his children to follow him. The French fell fast, but they reached the first line of the houses, and then they sent a deadly hail of their own bullets upon the defenders.
Every street and alley in Chastel was swept by the fire of the French. John heard above the crash of the rifles the incessant rattling of the machine guns, and then, as they opened out, the roar of the seventy-five-millimeters added to the terrible tumult. The Germans, withdrawing to the far edge and taking what shelter they could, replied, also with cannon, machine guns and rifles.
John saw Chastel already in ruins fairly melting away. Caught as it must have been in the former action it came tumbling, stone and brick walls and all to the ground. Detached fires were burning at many places, and a great pyramid of flame leaped up from a point where the Hotel de l'Europe stood. The cathedral alone, as if by some singular chance, seemed to be untouched. The lofty Gothic spire shot up in the silver moonlight, and towered white and peaceful over fighting Gaul and Teuton. John looked up at it more than once, as he fired a rifle, that he had picked up, down the street at the fleeting shadows.
He was filled with an unreasoning rage. He did not hate any one of the Germans who were fighting on the other side of Chastel, but the anger that seized him when he found Julie missing was still heavy upon him. Before, whenever he had fired at an enemy he had usually felt a secret hope that the bullet would miss, but now he prayed that every one would hit. Bougainville pulled him down. "Not too fast! Not too fast!" he said. "You're worth more alive than dead. We'll soon drive them from Chastel anyhow. The seventy-fives are doing the work."
Bougainville had read the story of the battle aright. The great seventy-five-millimeter guns were too much for the German force. As the houses of Chastel were swept away the enemy on the other side was left exposed, and the Germans, despite their courage and energy, were cut down fast. Aid for the French was coming continually. New regiments rushed up the snowy slopes. John heard a shout behind him, and Captain Colton and the Strangers coming from afar rushed into the battle. As they were about to swing past John joined Wharton and Carstairs.
"We thought you were gone forever this time," shouted Carstairs. "There seems to be a special Providence for you Yankees!"
"It's skill, not luck, that counts!" exclaimed Wharton.
John joined them, and Bougainville, taking command of the whole battle, directed the charge upon the town. The spirits of the French were at the highest, and shouting tremendously they soon passed through Chastel and drove the enemy beyond it, headlong into the forest. Having superior numbers now, a better knowledge of the ground and led by a man of genius like Bougainville, they soon broke up the German force, capturing a part of it, while the rest fleeing eastward, burst through the French trenches, and, after further heavy losses, succeeded in getting back to the main German army.
The pursuit was carried on some time by the French cavalry which had appeared as the last charge was made, but Bougainville, with the clear note of trumpets, recalled the infantry. He was satisfied with the victory that had been won in Chastel, and he did not wish to exhaust his troops with vain rushes in the deep snow.
The Strangers halted with the rest, and John, coming out of the red rage that had possessed his soul, saw that Captain Colton was uninjured and that Carstairs and Wharton, who stood near him, had only scratches.
"Grazed four times," said Carstairs happily. "The bullets knew a good man when they saw him, and turned aside just in time to give him slight but honorable wounds."
"Two scratches for me, too," said Wharton.
"Which proves what I told you," said Carstairs, "that it was often luck, not skill, that saved you."
"Both count," said Captain Colton, tersely. "Napoleon had immense skill. Suppose bad luck had sent a bullet into his heart in his first battle in Italy. Would have been forgotten in a day. And if no bullet had ever touched him, wouldn't have amounted to much, without immense skill."
"Do we go back to Chastel, sir?" asked John.
"Back to what's left of it. Not much, I think. See nothing but Gothic tower!"
John looked up. The great Gothic spire hung over a scene of desolation and ruin, now complete save for the cathedral itself. Otherwise not an undamaged house remained in Chastel. Fires still smoldered, and the largest of them all, marked where the Hotel de l'Europe had stood. The firing had ceased save for a distant murmur where the cavalry still pursued, and John choked as he gazed at ruined Chastel. He looked most often at the burning Hotel de l'Europe where he had spent such happy hours, the happiest, in truth, of his life, hours that glowed. He could see as vividly, as if it were all real again, Julie and himself at the little table by the window, and Antoine and Suzanne serving. He choked, and for a little while he could not reply to Wharton's question:
"Why, Scott, what's struck you? You look as if you had lost your last friend!"
"Wharton," replied John at last, "I found Mademoiselle Lannes and her servants, Antoine and Suzanne Picard here, come as requested by letter, to meet her brother Philip. I found them in the cathedral waiting, and we went to the Hotel de l'Europe, where she and I dined together."
"Good Heavens! You don't mean to say she was there under the awful fire of our guns?"
"No, else I should not have been with you. Weber, the trusty Alsatian, of whom you know, came to us in the town. It was he who had borne the letter from Philip to Mademoiselle Julie. We thought we saw Germans in the outskirts of Chastel. We did not find any, but when we came back to the Hotel de l'Europe, where we left them, Mademoiselle Julie and her servants, the Picards, were gone."
"Perhaps they were alarmed by the German advance and have taken refuge somewhere in the woods. If so, it will be easy to find them, Scott."
"No, they're not there. They're in the hands of the enemy. I shouldn't mind it so much if she were merely a captive of the Germans, but that man Auersperg has taken her again."
"How can you possibly know that to be true, Scott?"
Then John told the story of the register, and of the successive writing of the names. Cotton heard him, too, and his face was very grave.
"It's a pity Bougainville couldn't have come earlier," he said. "We might not only have saved Mademoiselle Julie but have captured this Prince of Auersperg as well. Then we should indeed have had a prize. But the wireless could not talk through all the storm and we had no warning of the German movement until the snowfall died down."
"What are we going to do?" asked John.
"We'll stay on the site of Chastel at least until morning, which can't be far away."
John looked at his watch.
"It will be daylight in two hours," he said.
"Oh, by the way," exclaimed Carstairs, "what became of Weber?"
"We were making our escape in Mademoiselle Lannes' automobile when we ran into a detachment of Germans. Our car was riddled; we both dodged for shelter and that was the last I saw of him."
"He escaped. I wager a pound to a shilling on it. The Alsatian not only has borrowed the nine lives of a cat, but he has nine original ones of his own."
"I feel sure, like you, Carstairs, that he has escaped and I certainly hope so. He's a clever man who has the faculty of turning up at the right time."
"It promises to be a clear dawn," said Wharton. "You may not believe it, Carstairs, but I'm a fine weather prophet in my own country, and if I can do so well there I ought at least to do as well with the low-grade weather supplied by an inferior continent like Europe."
"It's no wonder they call you a mad Yankee, Wharton. Low-grade weather! Have you any fog that can equal our London variety?"
"It's quality, not quantity that counts with a superior, intellectual people such as we are."
"Intellect! It's luck! I don't remember his name, but he was a discerning Frenchman, who said that a special Providence watched over drunken men and Americans."
"A special Providence watches over only those who have superior merit."
"I think," said John, "that I'm bound to take a little rest, if Captain Colton will let me."
"Oh, he'll let you if you ask him," said Carstairs. "You're a particular favorite of his, although I can't understand why. Wharton and I are much more deserving. But you do look all played out, old fellow."
John had sustained a sudden collapse. Intense emotion and immense physical exertion, continued so long, could be endured no longer, and he felt as if he would fall in the snow. But a portion of the victorious force was to remain at Chastel, and some tents had been pitched. Captain Colton readily gave John permission to enter one of them and roll himself in the blankets.
It was still an hour of dawn, but the night was light. Fires yet burned here and there in Chastel, where not a single building now stood unharmed, save the cathedral. The mutter of the cannon came from the vast front both to east and to west.
John looked into the great misty world and his face was turned toward the east. He had no doubt that Auersperg had gone in that direction with Julie, and he meant to find her. But how? He prayed silently for the coming of Lannes with the Arrow. For such a search as this the swift aeroplane could serve while one might plod in vain over the ground. Lannes would come before the next night! He must come! If he had made an appointment for such a meeting nothing could delay him more than a day.
He did not have any great fear for Julie's present safety. The modern civilized world had suddenly broken loose from many of its anchors, but so conspicuous a man as Auersperg could not stain his name with a deed that would brand him throughout Europe. Weber, however, had spoken of a morganatic marriage, and fearful pressure might be brought to bear. A country so energetic and advanced as Germany had clung, nevertheless, to many repellent principles of medievalism. A nation listened with calm acceptance and complacency, while its Kaiser claimed a partnership, and not altogether a junior partnership either, with the Almighty. Much could be forgiven to an Auersperg, the head of a house that had been princely more than a thousand years. John shuddered.
He had not gone to the tent at once as he intended. His nerves were yet leaping and he knew now that they must become quiet before he could sleep. Men were moving about him, carrying the wounded or helping with the camp, but they were only misty forms in the white gloom. Looking again toward the east he saw a silver bar appear just below the horizon. He knew it was the bright vanguard that heralded the coming sun, and his imaginative, susceptible mind beheld in it once more an omen. It beckoned him toward the east, and hope rose strong in his heart.
"Wharton," he said, "I suppose we'll stay awhile in Chastel."
"So I hear. Until noon at least."
"Then you wake me three hours from now. It will be enough sleep at such a time, and I want to be up when Lannes comes. You promise?"
"Certainly, Scott, I'll do it, though you'll probably swear at me for bothering you. Still, I'm ready to do any unpleasant duty for a friend when he asks it."
John laughed, went into the tent, rolled himself in the blankets and in a minute was fast asleep. In another minute, as it seemed, Wharton was pulling vigorously at his shoulder.
"Get up, Scott!" exclaimed Wharton. "Your three hours, and a half hour's grace that I allowed you, have passed. Didn't I tell you that you'd be ungrateful and that you'd fight against me for fulfilling your request! Open your eyes, man, and stand up!"
John sprang to his feet, shook his head violently several times, and then was wide awake.
"Thanks, Wharton," he said. "You're a true friend but you're a wretched reckoner of time."
"You said it was three hours and a half when in reality it was only three minutes and a half."
But a clear wintry sun was shining in at the door of the tent, and he saw its gold across the snow. Beyond was a kitchen automobile at which men were obtaining coffee and food.
"Has Lannes come?" asked John.
"Not yet, but of course he'll be here soon; by noon, I fancy."
John went out and took his breakfast with his comrades of the Strangers. The morning was uncommonly bright. There was not a trace of cloud in the heavens, which had turned to the soft, velvety blue that one sometimes sees in winter, and which can make a man fancy that it is summer when he looks up, rather than winter when he looks down.
While John ate and drank, he continually scanned the skies looking for the coming of the Arrow. He saw aeroplanes hovering here and there over the French and German lines, but none coming toward Chastel.
He had expected, too, that Weber might return in the morning, but he did not reappear and John felt a distinct disappointment. Many had been killed, but Wharton and Carstairs had reported that no body had resembled Weber's. Then it was certain that he had not fallen. Perhaps the Germans had driven him ahead of them, and he would rejoin the French at some distant point.
The morning passed, slow and bright, but it did not bring Lannes. General Vaugirard himself came about noon, a huge purring man in a huge puffing automobile. He cast an approving eye over Bougainville's work, and puffing his cheeks still wider whistled a low, musical note.
"It could not have been done better," he said. Then he caught sight of John and exclaimed:
"Ah, here is our young American, he who has been transformed into a good Frenchman! Glad am I to see you alive and unhurt, but I bring you news which is unpleasant. Ah, well, such is life! It must be expected in a war like this."
Alarm leaped up in John's heart. He felt instinctively that it concerned Lannes! Was he dead? But he steadied his voice and said:
"May I ask what it is, General?"
"That young friend of yours and great servant of his nation, Philip Lannes, the famous aviator. He has been wounded. No, don't be alarmed, it's not mortal, but it will keep him in hospital for some time. It happened two days ago, nearly a hundred miles west of here. He had just landed from his aeroplane, and he was fired at by some German skirmishers hidden in a wood. Fortunately French cavalry were near and drove off the Germans. Lannes is so young and so healthy that his recovery will be complete, though slow."
"What a misfortune at such a time!" exclaimed John.
"What do you mean by 'at such a time'?"
Then John related the presence of Julie Lannes in Chastel and the manner of her capture by Auersperg. He told, too, why she had come there.
General Vaugirard puffed out his huge cheeks and whistled a note or two.
"I can't understand why Lannes should have wanted her to come to such an exposed place," he said. "But youth is daring and doesn't always count the risks."
Youth was daring and John resolved that he would help to prove it.
"General," he said, "could I ask your aid in a little matter that concerns me?"
"If it is not to betray our army to the Germans I think you can."
"I want you to help me to become a spy. I'll make the request to Captain Colton, and then, if it's indorsed, I'll go eastward and see what I can find out about the Germans."
"But I understood that she was not a German."
John reddened from brow to chin.
"I admit that much," he said, "but at the same time I intend to serve France all I can. I might be of more help that way than as a mere minor officer in the trenches."
"If you're successful, yes; if caught, all's lost. Hard trade, that of spy."
"But I want to go, sir. I never wanted to do anything so much before in my life. You'll help me, won't you?"
"But how can you go among the Germans? Your German is not the best in the world."
"It's better than you think. I've been devoting most of my leisure to the study of it in the last six months. Besides there are subjects of Germany who do not speak German at all. I shall claim to be a native of French Lorraine. I learned French in my infancy and I speak it not like an American or an Englishman but like a Frenchman."
"That helps a lot. What's to be your new name?"
It was not a matter to which John had given any thought, but as he glanced at the ruined town the question solved itself.
"Chastel, Castel," he said. "I shall drop the 'h' and call myself Jean Louis Castel, born in French Lorraine in 1893, after that region had enjoyed for more than twenty years the glorious benefits of German military rule."
"Very well," said the General. "Now go and see Captain Colton."
Captain Colton's lips twisted into a crooked smile when he heard John. His glance was a mingling of sympathy and apprehension. He knew the great dangers of the quest, but he liked John Scott and he could understand.
"John," he said, calling him by his first name, "I would not send anybody upon such an errand as yours. You recognize the fact that the chances are about ten to one you'll find a bullet at the end of your search."
"I think I'll get through."
"It's a good thing to hope. I think I can procure this commission for you from General Vaugirard. But we'll go to him at once. We'll not let the grass grow--or rather, the snow melt under our feet while we're about it."
John did not tell him that he had already spoken to the general, as he wished the whole proceeding to be in perfect order.
General Vaugirard was by a fire which had been built in the Place near the shattered fountain. Wrapped in a huge overcoat he looked truly gigantic as he walked up and down thinking.
"Let me speak with him first," said Captain Colton.
John held back and saw the two talk together earnestly a minute or two. Then the big general beckoned to him and as John approached he said:
"The request that you have made through Captain Colton is granted. In a war like this is may be the good fortune of a spy to render a very great service."
"Thank you, sir," he said simply.
"I understand that you wish to start at once," continued the general. "Dress like a peasant, and look with all your eyes and listen with all your ears. And don't forget while you're seeking the enemy's secrets that all France loves a lover."
John flushed a deep red, and Vaugirard and Colton laughed. The general put his hand in the most kindly fashion upon John's shoulder.
"You are one of the bravest of my children," he said, "and I have an affection for thee, thou stalwart American youth. See to it that thou comest back again. Thy hand, Monsieur Jean Castel, for such, I hear, is to be your name."
John's hand was engulfed in the huge palm. General Vaugirard gave it a great shake and turned away. Then John and Captain Colton walked back to the place that had been allotted to the Strangers, where it soon became known to Wharton and Carstairs that their comrade would depart that night upon a quest, seemingly hopeless. They drew John aside:
"Scott," said Carstairs, "are you really going? It's certain death, you know."
"A German bullet or a German rope," said Wharton, "and you'll never be seen or heard of again. It's an ignominious end."
"As surely as the night comes I'm going," replied John to both questions. "I understand the risks and I take them."
"I knew the answer before I asked you," said Carstairs. "You Americans are really our children, though sometimes you're not very respectful to your parents. They call us prosaic, but I think we're really the most romantic of the races."
"It's proved," said Wharton, "when sober fellows like Scott go away on such errands. I think you'll win through, Scott, in the way you wish."
John knew that the good wishes of these two friends, so undemonstrative and so true, would follow him all the time and he choked a little. But when the lump in his throat was gone he spoke casually, as if he were not venturing into a region that was sown thick and deep with dragon's teeth.
At the advice of Captain Colton he slept several hours more that afternoon, and in the darkest part of the night, clothed simply like a peasant, but carrying a passport that would take him through the French lines, he said good-by to his friends, and, taking his life in his hands, departed upon his mission. Lest he be taken for a franc-tireur he was entirely unarmed, and he wore a thick blue blouse, gray trousers equally thick, and heavy boots. He also carried, carefully concealed about his person, a supply of gold and German notes, although there would not be much use for money in that region of the dragon's teeth into which he was venturing.
He re-crossed the little river on the same high-arched bridge by which he had come, skirted the hospital camp, and then bore off toward the east. It was past midnight, the skies were free from snow, but there were many low, hovering clouds which suited his purpose. He was still back of the French lines, but his pass would take him through them at any time he wished. The problem was how to pass those of Germany, and the difficulty was very great, because for a long distance here the hostile trenches were only three or four hundred yards apart.
He discerned to the eastward a dim line of hills which, as he knew, rose farther on into mountains, and it occurred to him that he might find it easier to get through in rough country than in the region of low, rounded hills, where he now stood. He carried a knapsack, well filled with food, a blanket roll, and now he resolved to push on all night and most of the following day, before passing the French lines.
Keeping a watchful eye he pursued his steady course across the hills. The depth of the snow impeded speed, but action kept his heart strong. The terrible waiting was over, he was at least trying to do something. Fresh interests sprang up also. It was a strange, white, misty world upon which he looked. He traveled through utter desolation, but to the east, inclining to the north was a limitless double line, which now and then broke into flashes of flame, while from points further back came that mutter of the big guns like the groanings of huge, primeval monsters.
It seemed to John barbarous and savage to the last degree. He knew that he was in one of the most densely populated and highly cultivated portions of the world, but the dragon's teeth were coming up more thickly even than in the time of old Cadmus.
He walked until it was almost morning without seeing a human being, and then, the snow having dragged on him so heavily, he felt that he must take rest. Crawling into a hole in the snow that he scraped out under a ledge, he folded himself between his blankets and went to steep.