The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VII. The Pursuit
John Scott would not perhaps have slept so well in a hole in the snow if he had not been inured to life in a trench, reeking in turn with mud, slush, ice and water. His present quarters were a vast improvement, dry and warm with the aid of the blankets, and he had crisp fresh air in abundance to breathe. Hence in such a place in the Inn of the Hedge and the Snow he slept longer than he had intended.
His will to awake at the rising of the sun was not sufficient. The soothing influence of warmth and the first real physical relaxation that he had enjoyed in three or four days overpowered his senses, and kept him slumbering on peacefully long after the early silver of the rising sun had turned to gold on the snow.
He had dug so deep a hole and he lay so close under the hedge that even a vigilant scout looking for an enemy might have passed within a dozen feet of him without seeing him. Another drift of snow falling after he had gone to sleep had covered up his footsteps and he was as securely hidden as if he had been a hundred miles, instead of only a scant two miles, from the double French and German line.
No human being noticed his presence. A small brown bird, much like the snowbird of his own land, hopped near, detected the human presence and then hopped deliberately away. Nobody was in the snowy fields. They were within range of the great German guns, and the peasants were gone. Had John been willing to search longer he could easily have found an abandoned house for shelter. As he had made mental notes before, Europe was now full of abandoned houses. In some regions rents must be extraordinarily low.
While he slept, firing was resumed at points on the long double line. Rifles flashed, and incautious heads or hands were struck, and somewhere or other the cannon were always muttering. But it was all in the day's work. Months of it had made his whole system physical and mental so used to it that it did not awaken him now.
Nevertheless the hosts of the air were uncommonly active while he slept. The wireless, sputtering and crackling, was carrying the news from general to general that a smart little action had been fought at Chastel, where another smart little action had been fought not long before, that the Germans had been overly daring and had paid for it.
Yet it was only an incident on a gigantic battle front that extended its mighty curving line from Switzerland to the sea, and soon the wireless and its older brother the telephone, and its oldest brother the telegraph, talked of other plans which would cause a much greater slaughter than at Chastel. Chastel itself, unless its beautiful Gothic cathedral brooding unharmed over the ruins could win it a word or two, would have no place at all in history. John himself was only one among eight or ten million armed men, and not a single one of all those millions knew that he lay there in the snow under the hedge.
The aeroplanes came out in the clear frosty blue, and both German and French machines sauntered lazily up and down the air lanes, but they did not risk encounters with one another. They were scouting with powerful glasses, or directing the fire of the batteries. One French machine circled directly over John, not more than two or three hundred feet away, but the man in it, keen of eye though he was, did not dream that one of the bravest of the Strangers lay asleep under the hedge beneath him.
The fleets of flyers were larger than usual, as if they were anxious to take the fresh air, after days of storm. But the most daring and skillful of all the airmen, Philip Lannes, was not there. He still lay in a hospital a hundred miles to the west, with a bullet wound in his shoulder, and while the time was to come when the Arrow under his practiced hand would once more be queen of the heavens, it was yet many days away.
The sun rose higher, suffusing the frosty blue heavens with a luminous golden glow, but John slept heavily on. He had not known how near to exhaustion was his nervous system. Perhaps it was less physical exhaustion than emotion, which can make huge drains upon the system. Now he was in the keeping of nature which was restoring all his powers of both mind and body, and keeping him there until he should again have all his strength and all the keenness of his faculties, needful for the great work that lay before him.
It was halfway toward noon when he awakened, remembered dimly in the first instant, and then comprehending everything in the second. He unrolled the blankets, slipped out of his lair and knew by the height of the sun that he had slept far beyond the time appointed for himself. But he did not worry over it. Barring a little stiffness, which he removed by flexing and tensing his muscles, he felt very strong and capable. The fresh air pouring into his lungs was so different from the corruption of the trenches that he seemed to be raised upon wings.
He resumed his walk toward the hills, and ate breakfast from his knapsack as he went along. Presently he noticed a large aeroplane circling over his head, and he felt sure that it was observing him. It was bound to be French or other French machines would attack it, and, after one glance, he walked slowly on. The machine followed him. He did not look up again, but he saw a great shadow on the snow that moved with his.
The knowledge that he was being watched and followed even by one of his own army was uncomfortable, and he felt a sensation of relief when he heard a swish and a swoop and the aeroplane alighted on the snow beside him. The man in the machine stepped out and asked:
"Who are you and where are you going?"
John did not altogether like his manner, which in his own idiom he styled "fresh."
"I've a name," he replied, "but it's none of your business, and I'm going somewhere, but that's none of your business either."
"They're both my business," said the man, drawing a revolver.
"Read that," said John, producing his passport.
The document stated simply that Jean Castel was engaged upon an important mission for France, and all were commanded to give him what help they could. It was signed by the fat and famous general of brigade, Vaugirard, and therefore it was a significant document.
"I apologize for brusqueness," said the aviator handsomely, "but the times are such that we forget our politeness. What can I do for you, Monsieur Jean Castel, who I am sure has another and more rightful name at other times."
"Just now Castel is my right name, and all friends of mine will call me by it. Thank you for your offer, but you can do nothing--"
John stopped suddenly as he glanced at the aeroplane poised like a huge bird in the snow.
"Yes, you can do something," he said. "I notice that your plane is big enough for two. I want to reach the mountains to the eastward without all this tremendous toiling through the snow. You can carry me there in an hour or two, and besides this passport I give you a password."
"What's the password?"
"Lannes! Philip Lannes, do you know him?"
"I have been up with him in the Arrow many times. I've fought the Taubes with him. I helped him destroy both a Zeppelin and a forty-two-centimeter gun."
"Then I know you. You are his friend John Scott, the American. I thought at first that you had the accent of North America. Oh, I know of you! We flying men are a close group, and what happens to one of us is not hidden long from the others. Your password is sufficient."
"You know then that Lannes is in a hospital with a bullet wound in his shoulder?"
"I heard it two days ago. A pity! A great pity! He'll be as well as ever in a month, but France needs her king of the air every day. My own name is Delaunois, and I'll put you down in those hills at whatever point you wish, Monsieur Jean Castel of America."
John smiled. Delaunois was a fine fellow after all.
"I can't give you an extra suit for flying," said Delaunois, "but your two blankets ought to protect you in the icy air. I'll not go very high, and an hour or a little more should put us in the heart of the hills."
"Good enough, and many thanks to you," said John.
They gave the machine the requisite push, sprang in and rose slowly above the snowy waste. It was a good aeroplane, and Delaunois was a good aviator, but John missed the Arrow and Philip. He knew that the heavens nowhere held such another pair. Alas! that Lannes should be laid up at such a time with a wound!
But he quickly called himself ungrateful. Delaunois had come at a most timely moment, and he was doing him a great service. It was very cold above the earth, as Delaunois had predicted, and he wrapped the blankets closely about himself, drawing one over his head and face, until he was completely covered except the eyes.
To the westward several other planes were hovering and to the eastward was another group which John knew to be German. But the flying machines did not seem disposed to enter into hostilities that morning, although John saw the double line of trenches blazing now and then with fire, and, at intervals, the heavy batteries on either side sent a stated number of shells at the enemy.
Seen from a height the opposing trenches appeared to be almost together, and the fire of the hostile marksmen blended into the same line of light. But John did not look at them long. He had seen so much of foul trenches for weary months that it was a pleasure to let the eye fill with something else.
He looked instead at the high hills which were fast coming near, and although covered with snow, with trees bare of leaves, they were a glorious sight, an intense relief to him after all that monotony of narrow mud walls. He knew that trenches or other earthworks ran among the hills also, but the nature of the ground compelled breaks, and it would be easier anyhow to pass through a forest or a ravine.
"Where do you wish me to put you down?" asked Delaunois.
"At some place in those low mountains there, where the German lines are furthest from ours."
"I think I know such a point. You won't mind my speaking of you as a spy, Mr. Jean Castel of America, will you?"
"Not at all, because that's what I am."
"Then don't take too big a risk. It hasn't been long since you were a boy, and I don't like to think of one so young being executed as a spy."
"I don't intend to be."
"It's likely that I may see Philip Lannes before long. I go westward in two or three days and I shall find a chance to visit him in the hospital. If I see him what shall I tell him about a young man whom we both know, one John Scott, an American?"
"You tell him that his sister, Mademoiselle Julie Lannes, came to the village of Chastel to meet him, in accordance with his written request, and while she was waiting for him with her servants, Antoine and Suzanne Picard, not knowing that he had been wounded since the writing of his letter, she was kidnapped and carried into Germany with the Picards by Prince Karl of Auersperg. Prince Karl is in love with her and intends to force her into a morganatic marriage. Otherwise she is safe. The American, John Scott, in addition to his duties as a spy for France, a country that he loves and admires, intends, if human endeavor can achieve it, to rescue Mademoiselle Lannes and bring her back to Paris."
Delaunois took one hand from the steering rudder and turned glistening eyes upon John.
"It's a knightly adventure," he said. "It will appeal to Frenchmen when they hear of it, and yet more to Frenchwomen. I should like to shake the hand of this American, John Scott, and since he is not here, I will, if you will let me, shake the hand of his nearest French relative, Jean Castel."
He opened his gloved palm and John's met it in a strong grasp.
"I'm glad," said Delaunois, "that I saw you, and that I am able to give you this lift. We're over the edge of the mountains now, and presently we'll cross the French lines. I think I'd better go up a considerable distance, as they won't know we're French, and they might give us a few shots."
The machine rose fast and it grew intensely cold. John looked down now upon a country, containing much forest for Europe, and sparsely inhabited. But he saw far beneath them trenches and other earthworks manned with French soldiers. Several officers were examining them through glasses, but Delaunois sailed gracefully over the line, circled around a slender peak where he was hidden completely from their view, and then dropped down in a forest of larch and pine. "So far as I know," he said, when the plane rested on the snow, "nobody has seen our descent. We're well beyond the French lines here, but you'll find German forts four or five miles ahead. As you see, this is exceedingly rough ground, not easy for men to occupy, and so the French stay on one side of this little cluster of mountains while the Germans keep to the other. And now, Monsieur Jean Castel, I leave you here, wishing you success in your quest, success in every respect."
Again the two strong hands met. A minute later the aeroplane rose in the air, carrying but one of the men, while Jean Castel, peasant of Lorraine, was left behind, standing in the snow, and feeling very grateful to Delaunois.
John watched the aeroplane disappear over the peak on its return journey, and then he walked boldly eastward toward the German lines. Modesty kept him from accepting Delaunois' tribute in full, but it had warmed his heart and strengthened his courage anew. Delaunois had considered it not a reckless quest, but high adventure with a noble impulse, and John's heart and spirit had responded quickly. Great deeds come from exaltation, and that mood was his.
He followed what seemed to be a little path under the snow, leading along the side of the mountain toward the eastward, the way he would go. Here portions of the earth were exposed, where the snow had already melted much under the heat of the high sun. Three or four hundred feet below a brook ran noisily over stones, but that was the only sound in the mountains. He felt though that the Germans must be somewhere near. Men with glasses might be watching him already.
He decided at once upon his role. In Europe peasants were often heavy and loutish. It was expected of them, and none would be heavier or more loutish than he. He thrust both hands in his pockets, and began to whistle familiar German songs and hymns, varying them now and then with a chanson or two that might have been sung for centuries in Lorraine.
The path led on across a little valley and then along the slope of another ridge. Under the increasing heat of the sun the snow was now melting much faster, and streams ran in every ravine. But the stalwart young peasant, Jean Castel of Lorraine, was sure of his footing, and he advanced steadily toward his goal.
Germans in rifle pits saw the figure coming their way, and several officers examined it critically with their glasses. All pronounced the stranger obviously a peasant, and they were equally sure that he could do them no harm. He was coming straight toward their pits and so they awaited him with some curiosity.
John presently caught the shimmer of sun on bayonets, and he knew now that he would soon reach the German earthworks. His first care after Delaunois left him, had been to destroy the passport that General Vaugirard had given him and there was not a scratch of writing about him to identify him as John Scott.
Whistling louder than ever, and looking vacant of countenance, he walked boldly toward the first rifle pit, and, when the sharp hail of the German sentry came, he promptly threw up his hands. An officer whom he took to be a lieutenant and four or five men came toward him. All wore heavy gray overcoats and they were really boys rather than men; not one of them, including the officers, seeming to be more than twenty. But they were large and muscular, heavily tanned by wind and snow and rain.
John had learned to read character, and as he walked carelessly toward them he nevertheless watched them keenly. And so watching he judged that they were honest youths, ready to like or hate, according to orders from the men higher up, but by nature simple and direct. He did not feel any fear of them.
"Halt!" said the officer, whom John judged to be a Saxon--he had seen his kind in Dresden and Leipsic.
John stopped obediently, and raised his hand in a clumsy military fashion, standing there while they looked him over.
"Now you can come forward, still with your hands up," said the officer, though not in any fierce manner, "and tell us who you are."
John advanced, and they quickly searched him, finding no weapon.
"You can take your hands down," said the officer. "Unarmed, I don't believe you'd be a match for our rifles. Now, who are you?"
"Jean Castel, sir, of Lorraine," replied John in German with a strong French accent.
"And what have you been doing here between our lines and those of the French?"
"I took some cattle across the mountains for the army and having sold them I was walking back home. In the storm last night I wandered through the lines into this very rough country and got lost."
"You do look battered. But you say you sold your cattle. Now what have you done with your money?"
The officer's tone had suddenly become suspicious, but John was prepared. Opening his heavy blouse he took from an inside pocket a handful of German gold and notes. The young lieutenant glanced at the money and his suspicions departed.
"It's good German," he said, "and I don't think a peasant like you could have got it unless he had something valuable to sell. Come, you shall go back with us and I'll turn you over to a higher officer. I'm Lieutenant Heinrich Schmidt, and we're part of a Saxon division."
John went with them without hesitation. In fact, he felt little fear. There was nothing to disprove his statements, and he was not one of those who looked upon Germans as barbarians. Experience had shown him that ordinary Germans had plenty of human kindness. He sniffed the pleasant odors that came from the kitchen automobiles near by, and remarked naively that he would be glad to share their rations until they passed him on.
"Very well, Castel," said Lieutenant Schmidt, "you shall have your share, but I must take you first to our colonel. He will have important questions to ask you."
"I'm ready," said John in an indifferent tone. But as he went with the men he noted as well as he could, without attracting attention to himself, the German position. Rifle pits and trenches appeared at irregular intervals, but the mountains themselves furnished the chief fortifications. In such country as this it would be difficult for either side to drive back the other, a fact which the enemies themselves seemed to concede, as there was no firing on this portion of the line. But at points far to the west the great guns muttered, and their faint echoes ran through the gorges.
The path led around one of the crests, and they came to a little cluster of tiny huts, which John knew to be the quarters of officers. Snug, too, they looked, with smoke coming out of stovepipes that ran through the roofs of several of them. A tall man, broad of shoulder, slender of waist, blue of eye, yellow of hair, and not more than thirty, came forward to meet them. John recognized at once a typical German officer of high birth, learned in his trade, arrogant, convinced of his own superiority, but brave and meaning to be fair.
"A peasant of Lorraine, sir," said Lieutenant Schmidt. "He says that his name is Jean Castel, and that he has been selling cattle. We found him wandering between the lines. He was unarmed and he has considerable money."
"Come closer," said the officer to John. "I'm Colonel Joachim Stratz, the commander of this regiment, and you must give a thorough account of yourself."
John advanced willingly and saluted, feeling that the glance Colonel Stratz bent upon him was heavy and piercing. Yet he awaited the result with confidence. It was true that he was American, but he had been with the French so much now that he had acquired many of their tricks of manner, and his French accent was impeccable.
"You are a seller of cattle?" said Colonel Stratz, suddenly in English.
The words of reply began to form, but John remembered himself in time. He was a French peasant who understood no English, and giving Colonel Stratz a puzzled look he shook his head. But he wondered what suspicion had caused the German to ask him a question in English. He concluded it must be a mere chance.
Colonel Stratz then addressed him in German, and John replied to all his queries, speaking with a strong French accent, repeating the tale that he had told Lieutenant Schmidt, and answering everything so readily and so convincingly that Colonel Joachim Stratz, an acute and able man, was at last satisfied.
"Where do you wish to go now, Castel?" asked the German.
"To Metz, if it please you, sir."
"Wouldn't it be better for you to stay, put on a uniform, take up a rifle and fight for our Kaiser and Fatherland?"
John shook his head and put on the preternaturally wise look of the light-witted.
"I'm no soldier," he replied.
"Why weren't you called? You're of the right age."
"A little weakness of the heart. I cannot endure the great strain, but I can drive the cattle."
"Oh, well, if that is so, you serve us better by sticking to your trade. Lieutenant Schmidt, give him food and drink, and then I'll prepare for him a pass through the lines that will take him part of the way to Metz. He'll have to get other passes as he goes along."
John saluted and thanked Colonel Stratz, and then he and Lieutenant Schmidt approached one of the great German kitchen automobiles. It was easy to play the role of a simple and honest peasant, and while he drank good beer and ate good cheese and sausage, he and Lieutenant Schmidt became quite friendly.
Schmidt asked him many questions. He wanted to know if he had been near the French lines, and John laughingly replied that he had been altogether too near. Three rifle bullets fired from some hidden point had whizzed very close to him, and he had run for his life.
"I shall take care never to get lost again," he said, "and I intend to keep well behind our army. The battle line is not the place for Jean Castel. Why spoil a first-class herder to make a second-class soldier?"
He winked cunningly at Schmidt, who laughed.
"You're no great hero," said the German, "but if a man wants to take care of his skin can he be blamed for doing so? Still, you're not so safe here."
"How's that?" asked John in assumed alarm.
"Now and then the French send shells over that mountain in front of us and when one is fired it's bound to hit somewhere. We haven't had any at this point yet, but our time is sure to come sooner or later."
"Then I think I'll be going," said John, willing to maintain his new reputation as a timid man.
Schmidt laughed again.
"Oh, no, not yet," he said. "Your passport isn't ready, and without it you can't move. Have another glass of this beer. It was made in Munich, and puts heart into a man."
John drank. It was really fine beer, and the food was excellent, warm and well cooked. He had not realized before how hungry and thirsty he was. It was a hunger and thirst that the cold meat and bread in his knapsack and snow water would not have assuaged. Many Germans also were refreshing themselves. He had noticed that in both armies the troops were always well fed. Distances were short, and an abundance of railways brought vast quantities of supplies from fertile regions.
While he was still eating he heard a shriek and a roar and a huge shell burst two or three hundred yards away. Much earth was torn up, four men were wounded slightly and an empty ambulance was overturned, but the regular life of the German army went on undisturbed.
"I told you that we had French messengers now and then," said Lieutenant Schmidt, holding a glass of beer in his right hand and a sausage in his left, "but that message was delivered nearer to us than any other in three days. I don't think they'll fire again for a half-hour, and the chances are a hundred to one that it will fall much further away. So why be disturbed?"
Lieutenant Schmidt was beginning to feel happy. He had a sentimental German soul, and all the beer he wanted brought all his benevolence to the surface.
"I like you, Castel," he said. "Your blood is French, of course, or it was once, but you of Lorraine have had all the benefits of German culture and training. A German you were born, a German you have remained, and a German you will be all your life. The time is coming when we will extend the blessings of our German culture to all of France, and then to England, and then maybe to the whole world."
Lieutenant Schmidt had drunk a great deal of beer, and even beer when taken in large quantities may be heady. His tongue was loose and long.
"And to that distant and barbarous country, America, too," said John.
"Aye, and to the Americans also," said Lieutenant Schmidt. "I hear that they don't love us, although they have much of our blood in their veins. There are many people among them bearing German names who denounce us. When we finish with our enemies here in Europe we'll teach the barbarous Americans to love the Kaiser."
"A hard task," said John, with meaning.
"So it will be," said Lieutenant Schmidt, taking his meaning differently, "but the harder the task the better we Germans love it. And now, Castel, here comes your passport. Its little winged words will bear you safely to the headquarters of General Osterweiler thirty miles to the north and east, and there you'll have to get another passport, if you can. Auf wiedersehen, Jean Castel. Your forefathers were French, but you are German, good German, and I wish you well."
Lieutenant Schmidt's cheeks were very red just then, not altogether with the cold, and his benevolence had extended to the whole world, including the French and English, whom he must fight regretfully.
"Oh," said John, as an afterthought, although he was keenly noting his condition, "while I was wandering in the snow of the big storm, I heard from a sentinel that one of our great generals and beloved princes. Prince Karl of Auersperg, had passed this way with his train."
Perhaps if Lieutenant Schmidt had not taken so much good Munich beer after a long fast he might have become suspicious, because it was not the question that an ordinary peasant and cattle-herder would ask unless the previous conversation had led directly to it. But as it was he fairly exuded trust and kindness.
"Not here," he replied, "but at a point further toward the west and north. So great a figure as Prince Karl of Auersperg could scarcely go by without our hearing of it. Colonel Stratz himself spoke of it in my presence."
"I saw him once in Metz before the war. A grand and imposing figure. Perhaps I shall behold him there again in a few days."
"I think not. It was said that the prince was going to his estates in the east. At least, I think I heard something of the kind, but it probably means that he was on his way to the eastern frontier. Prince Karl of Auersperg is not the man to withdraw from the war."
John's heart dropped suddenly. Would he be compelled to follow the prince halfway across Europe. Oh, why had he left the Hotel de l'Europe even for a moment? With Picard's help he might have been able to hold off Auersperg and his followers, or a lucky shot might have disposed of the prince. He felt it no crime to have wished for such a chance. But strengthening his heart anew he took up the burden that had grown heavier.
"Auf wiedersehen, Lieutenant Schmidt," he said, and whistling softly to himself he began his passage through the German lines, showing his passport more than a dozen times before he passed the last trench and rifle pit, and was alone among the hills behind the German lines. He might have reached the railroad and have gone by train to Metz, but he preferred, for the present at least, to cling to the country, even at the risk of much physical hardship and suffering.
He still carried his blankets, and he was traveling through a region which had been much fought over in the earlier stages of the war. Since the German lines were still in France some peasants had returned to their homes, but many houses were yet abandoned, their owners probably thinking that the tide of battle would roll back upon them, and that it was better to wait.
He turned presently from the hilly path into a good road, paved almost like a street, and breaking from a bush a stout stick, which he used peasant fashion as a cane, he walked briskly along the smooth surface, now almost clear of the snow which had fallen in much smaller quantities in the lowlands.
He met a battery of four twenty-one-centimeter guns with their numerous crews and an escort of cavalry, advancing to the front, and he stepped to one side of the road to let them pass. The leader of the cavalry hailed him and John's heart gave a sudden alarming throb as he recognized von Boehlen. But his courage came back when he saw that he would not have known the Prussian had he remained twenty feet away. Von Boehlen was deeply tanned and much thinner. There were lines in his face and he had all the appearance of a man who had been through almost unbearable hardships.
John had no doubt that a long life in the trenches and intense anxiety had made an equal change in himself. The glass had told him that he looked more mature, more like a man of thought and experience. Moreover, he was in the dress of a peasant. After the first painful heartbeat he awaited von Boehlen with confidence.
"Whence do you come?" asked the colonel of Uhlans--colonel he now was.
John pointed back over his shoulder and then produced his passport, which Colonel von Boehlen, after reading, handed carefully back to him.
"Did you see anything of the French?" he asked glancing again at John, but without a sign of recognition.
"No, sir," replied John in his new German with a French accent, "but I saw a most unpleasant messenger of theirs."
"A messenger? What kind of a messenger?"
"Long, round and made of steel. It came over a mountain and then with a loud noise divided itself into many parts near the place where I stood. One messenger turned itself into a thousand messengers, and they were all messengers of death. Honored sir, I left that vicinity as soon as I could, and I have been traveling fast, directly away from there, ever since."
Von Boehlen laughed, and then his strong jaws closed tighter. After a moment's silence, he said:
"Many such messengers have been passing in recent months. The air has been full of them. If you don't like battles, Castel, I don't blame you for traveling in the direction you take."
John, who had turned his face away for precautionary measures, looked him full in the eyes again, and he found in his heart a little liking for the Prussian. Von Boehlen seemed to have lost something of his haughtiness and confidence since those swaggering days in Dresden, and the loss had improved him. John saw some signs of a civilian's sense of justice and reason beneath the military gloss.
"May I pass on, sir?" he asked. "I wish to reach Metz, where I can obtain more horses for the army."
"Why do you walk?"
"I sold my last horse and the automobiles and trains are not for me. I know that the army needs all the space in them and I ask nothing."
"Fare on then," said von Boehlen. "Your papers are in good condition and you'll have no trouble in reaching Metz. But be sure you don't lose your passport."
The injunction was kindly and John, thanking him, took up the road. Von Boehlen and his Uhlans rode on, and John looked back once. He caught a single glimpse of the colonel's broad shoulders and then the long column of horsemen rode by. There was no military pomp about them now. Their gray uniforms were worn and stained and many of the men sagged in their saddles with weariness. Not a few showed wounds barely healed.
The cavalry were followed by infantry, and batteries of guns so heavy that often the wheels sank in the paved road. Sometimes the troops sang, pouring forth the mighty rolling choruses of the German national songs and hymns. The gay air as of sure victory just ahead that marked them in the closing months of summer the year before had departed, but in its place was a grim resolution that made them seem to John as formidable as ever. The steady beat of solid German feet made a rolling sound which the orders of officers and the creaking of wagons and artillery scarcely disturbed. The waves of the gray sea swept steadily on toward France.
John showed his passport twice more, but all that day he beheld marching troops. In the afternoon it snowed a little again and the slush was everywhere, but he trudged bravely through it. Having escaped from the trenches he felt that he could endure anything. What were snow, a gray sky and a cold wind to one who had lived for months on a floor of earth and between narrow walls of half-frozen mud? He was like a prisoner who had escaped from a steel cage.
Toward dark he turned from the road and sought refuge at a low but rather large farmhouse, standing among trees. He modestly made his way to the rear, and asked shelter for the night in the stable, saying that he would pay. He learned that the place was occupied by people bearing the German name of Gratz, which however signified little on that borderland, which at different times had been under both German and French rule.
Nor did the proprietor of the house himself, who came out to see him, enlighten him concerning his sympathies. If he liked France obviously it was no time for him to say so when he was surrounded by the German legions. But John could sleep on the hay in the stable, and have supper and breakfast for certain number of marks or francs which he must show in advance. He showed them and all was well.
John, after carefully scraping all the mud and snow from his boots was allowed to go in the big kitchen and sit on a stone bench beside the wall, while two stout women cooked at a great furnace, and trim maids came for the food which they took upstairs.
When he sank down upon the bench he realized that he was tired through and through. It was no light task even for a hardened soldier to walk all day in bad weather. One of the cooks, a stout middle-aged woman whom the others called Johanna, gave him a glance of sympathy. She saw a young man pale from great exertion, but with a singularly fine face, a face that was exceedingly strong, without being coarse or rough. Johanna thought him handsome, and so did the other cook, also stout and middle-aged, who bore the French name of Nanine.
"Poor young man!" said one and, "Poor young man!" repeated the other. Then they filled a plate with warm food and handed it to him. While he ate he talked with them and the passing maids, who were full of interest in the handsome young stranger. He told them that he was a horse-trader, and that he had been in no battle, nor would he be in any, but he saw that he was not believed, and secretly he was glad of it. These were trim young maids and a young soldier likes admiration, even if it comes from those who in the world's opinion are of a lower rank than he.
They asked him innumerable questions, and he answered as well as he could. He told of the troops that he had seen, and they informed him that German forces had been passing there at times all through the winter. Princes and great generals had stopped at the farmhouse of Herr Gratz or Monsieur Gratz, as he was indifferently called. The war had ruined many others, but it brought profit to him, because all the guests paid and paid well.
John in a pleased and restful state listened, and he was soothed by the sound of their voices. He had often heard old men at home, veterans of the Civil War, tell how grateful to them was the sight of a woman after months of marching and fighting. Now he understood. These were only cooks and housemaids, but their faces were not roughened like those of soldiers, and their voices and footsteps were light and soft. Moreover, they gave him food and drink--for which he would pay farmer Gratz, however--and made much over him.
"We had royal guests last night," said the youngest of the maids, whom they called Annette, a slender blond girl.
"Going to the battle front?"
"Oh, no. They were going the other way, toward Metz, and perhaps only one was a real prince."
"Maybe this prince had seen enough of battles?"
"I cannot say. I saw him only once. He was a large man, middle-aged, and he had a great brown beard."
John's whole body stiffened. Questions leaped to his lips, but he compelled his muscles to relax and by a great effort he assumed a tone of indifference.
"What was the prince's name?" he asked with apparent carelessness.
"I don't know, but the people around him were as respectful to him as if he were a king. There were two women with him, but the master himself served these two alone in their room."
"But you caught a glimpse of one of the women, the younger, Annette?" said Johanna.
"So I did, but it was only a glimpse."
"What did she look like?" asked John, who was trying to keep down the beating of his heart.
"It was only a second, but I saw a face that I will never forget. She was very pale, but she had beautiful blue eyes like stars, and the most lovely golden hair that ever grew in the world."
"Julie! My Julie!" groaned John under his breath.
"What did you say?"
"I was merely wondering who she was."
"I wondered, too, and so did all of us. We heard a tale that she was a princess, a niece or a daughter, perhaps, of the great prince, with whom she traveled, and we heard another that she and the woman with her were French spies of the most dangerous kind who had been captured and who were being taken into Germany. And the face of the beautiful young lady, which I saw for only a moment, was French, not German."
John felt hot and then cold from head to foot. Julie a spy! Impossible! Spies were shot or hanged, and sometimes women were no exceptions. How could such a charge be brought against her? And yet anything could happen in such a vast confused war as this. Julie, his Julie of the starry blue eyes and the deep gold hair to be condemned and executed as a spy! A cold shiver seized him again.
Then came sudden enlightenment. Auersperg was medieval. In his heart he arrogated to himself the right of justice, the upper, the middle and the low, and all other kinds, but he had ability and mingled with it an extreme order of cunning. Julie of the Red Cross, a healer of wounds and disease, would not be held a prisoner, but Julie, a spy, would be kept a close captive, and her life would be in the hands of the general commanding those who had taken her. Oh, it was cunning! So cunning that its success seemed complete, and he thrilled in every vein with pain and anger.
"Are you ill?" asked the good Johanna, who had noticed the sudden deepening of his pallor.
"Not at all, thank you," he replied, forcing himself to speak in a level tone. "I feel splendidly. All of you are too kind to me. But that was an interesting story about the prince and the girl whom he brought with him, who might be either a relative or a captive."
"I'm thinking she must have been his niece," said romantic Annette, "but I'm sure she didn't love him. Perhaps she wanted to run away with some fine young officer, and he caught her and brought her back."
"When did they leave?"
"Very early this morning. They came in automobiles, but neither when they arrived nor when they departed was the lady in the machine with the prince. She and the woman with her, who must have been her servant, were in a small machine alone, except for the chauffeur."
"It's a strange tale. Which way did they go?"
"Toward Metz. We know no more. The prince did not look like a man who would tell his intentions to everybody."
"The story has in it the elements of romance," said John. "I think with you, Annette, that the young lady who must certainly have been of high birth, was being carried away from some young man who loved her well."
A lively discussion followed. John's voice had decided the opinion of the kitchen. It had been divided hitherto, but it was not now. The beautiful young lady with the starry eyes and the golden hair had certainly been torn away, and the sympathy of cooks and maids was strongly for her. While they talked John tried to collect his thoughts. After the first shock, he was convinced that Julie's life was in no danger, but her liberty certainly was. Auersperg would use the charge that she was a spy to hold her, and he was a powerful man. The pressure upon her would grow heavier and heavier all the time. Could she resist it? He might make her think that the fate of a spy would be hers, unless she chose to marry him.
In all the world, since Philip would lie long in the hospital with a wound, there was but one man who could help her. And it was he, John Scott. Out of the depths of his misery and despair a star of hope shot up. His own strong heart and arm, and his only, would rescue her. Some minds gather most courage when things are at the worst, like steel hardening in the fire, and John's was markedly of this type. Since chance had brought him on this road, and to the very house in which Julie had slept, the same kindly chance would continue to guide him on the right way. It was a good omen.
The twilight outside, cold and gray, was deepening into night. His appetite was satisfied and he felt buoyant and strong. Had he obeyed his impulse he would have started on the road to Metz in pursuit. But he knew that it was folly to exhaust himself in such a manner for nothing. Instead he told Johanna that he would go to the stable now and sleep. Jacques, a stalwart hostler, was called to show him his quarters, and he departed with all their good wishes.
Jacques was a large brown peasant, and as he led the way to the stable he said:
"They told me your name was Jean Castel from Lorraine?"
"Yes, back of Metz."
"And the house is full of German officers."
He pointed to the windows of the dining-room, which were ruddy with light. Young men in tight-fitting uniforms, their blond hair pompadoured, were outlined vividly against the glow.
"Will they go forward or will they come back?" asked Jacques in a hoarse whisper. "Is the work of Bismarck to stand or is it to undo itself?"
John believed Jacques to be a French sympathizer, anxious for an opinion that would agree with his hopes, but one could not be sure in such times, and it behooved him above all, with Julie at the end of his journey, to be careful. So he merely shrugged his shoulders and replied:
"I know not. I'm a simple buyer and seller of horses. I'm a much better judge of a horse than of an army. I've no idea which side is the stronger. I don't love war, and I'm going away from it as fast as I can."
"Perhaps it will follow you," he said. "There is war everywhere now, or soon will be. I hear that it's spreading all over the world."
John shrugged his shoulders, and followed Jacques up a ladder into a loft over the horses. But it was not a bad room. It had two small iron beds and it was secure from wet and cold.
"You take that," said Jacques, pointing to the bed on the right. "It belonged to Fritz who was the hostler here with me. He went to the army at the first call and was killed at Longwy. Fritz was a German, a Saxon, but he and I were friends. We had worked together here three years. I'd have been glad if the bullets had spared him. The horses miss him, too. He had a kind hand with them and they liked him. Poor Fritz! You sleep in the bed of a good man."
"My eyes are so heavy that I think I'll go to bed now."
"The bed is waiting for you. It's always welcome to one who has walked all day in the cold as you have. I have more work. I have the tasks of that poor Fritz and my own to do now. It may be an hour, two hours before I'm through, but if you sleep as soundly as I do I'll not wake you up."
John sank into deep slumber almost at once and knew nothing until the next morning.