The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter VIII. Into Germany
A frosty dawn was just beginning to show through the single window that lighted up the little room. It opened toward the east, where the light was pink over the hills, but the upper sky was yet in dusk. John sat up in bed and rubbed the last sleep out of his eyes. A steady moaning sound made him think he was hearing again the thunder of great guns, as he had heard it days and nights at the Battle of the Marne.
The low ominous mutter came from a point toward the north, and glancing that way, although he knew his eyes would meet a blank wall, he saw that it was only Jacques, snoring, not an ordinary common snore, but the loud resounding trumpet call that can only come from a mighty chest and a powerful throat through an eagle beak. Jacques was stretched flat upon his back and John knew that he must have worked extremely hard the night before to roar with so much energy through his nose while he slept. Well, Jacques was a good fellow and a friend of France, the nation that was fighting for its existence, and if he wanted to do it he might snore until he raised the roof!
John sat up. He saw the pink on the eastern hills turning to blue and then spreading to the higher skies. The day was going to be clear and cold. He walked to the window and looked up at the skies, seeking for aeroplanes, after the habit that had now grown upon him. But the sky was speckless and no sounds came from the Gratz farmhouse. Doubtless the German officers quartered there were sleeping late, knowing that they had no need to hurry to the front, since the fighting in the hills and mountains was desultory.
But the crisp clear blue of the cold morning was wonderfully suitable to the hosts of the air and they were at work. Along a battle front of five hundred miles in the west and of seven or eight hundred in the east messages were flashing, on wires by telephone and telegraph and then on nothing but the pulsating air.
John, who had been compelled to deal so much with these invisible agencies felt them now about him. He had a highly sensitive mind like a photographic plate that registered everything, and when he opened the window that he might see better and admit the fresh air, he did not have to reach out for knowledge. It came, and registered itself upon that delicate and imaginative mind. He had thought so much and he had striven so hard to see and to divine what lay before him that he felt almost able to send messages of his own through the air, messages of hope winging their way directly to Julie.
The mind of man is a strange thing. It may be a godlike instrument, the powers of which are yet but little known. John did not believe in the least in anything supernatural, but he did believe in the immense and unfathomed power of the natural. Alone, and in the early dawn with silence all about him it seemed that he heard Julie calling to him. Her voice traveled like the wireless on the pulsating air. She needed him and she turned to him alone for aid. She had divined in some manner that only he could help her and he would come, no matter what the risk. The cry was registered again and again upon his sensitive soul, and always he sent back the answer that he was coming. His mind, like hers, had become a wireless, and both were working.
He became unconscious of time and place. He no longer saw the blue sky, but he stretched out his arms and called:
"I am coming!"
"Coming? What do you mean by coming? Who is it you're telling?"
John came out of his dream, or the misty region between here and nowhere, and turned to Jacques, who in the process of awakening at that moment had heard his words which were spoken in French.
"I was just talking to the air," replied John a little uncertainly. "Fine mornings appeal to me, and I was telling this one that I'd soon come out into it"
Jacques continued to awaken. He was a big man who worked hard and who slept heavily. Rousing from sleep was a task accomplished by degrees and it took some time. He had heard John with one ear and now he heard with the other. His right eye opened slowly and then the left. The blood became more active in his brain and in a minute or two he was awake all over.
"Telling the morning air that you're coming out into it, eh Castel?" he said as he put one foot on the floor. "You're a poet, I see. You don't look it, but being French, as you Lorrainers are, it makes you fond of poetry."
"I do believe you have it right, Jacques," said John, "but if I can get my breakfast now I mean to go upon the road at once."
"Oh, you can get it, Castel. The whole kitchen has fallen in love with you. I found that out last night after you had gone away. That little Annette told me so."
"It was to tease you," said John, who understood at once and who was willing to fib in a good cause. "I saw her watching through a window a fine big fellow, exactly your size, age and appearance, and with the same name. I said something about his being a hulking hostler and she turned upon me like a hawk."
"Now, did she?" exclaimed Jacques, a great smile spreading slowly across his face.
"She did. Told me it was a poor return for their kindness to criticize a better man."
"Ah, that Annette is bright and quick. She can see through a man at one look. Castel, I like you, and I hope you'll get to Metz without trouble. But keep a civil and a slow tongue in your mouth. Don't speak until the Germans speak to you, and then tell the truth without stammering. I'll go to the kitchen with you, as my work begins early."
John knew that he had a friend, and the two left the stable together. But he was not thinking much then of the Gratz farm or of anybody upon it. He had sent his soul on before, and he meant that his body should catch up with it.
Johanna, Annette and the master, Gratz himself, were in the kitchen. He ate a good breakfast with Jacques, paid Gratz for food and lodging, and putting his blankets and knapsack upon his back, took once more to the road. Jacques repeated his good advice to be polite to men to whom it paid to be polite, and Annette, standing by the side of the stalwart hostler, waved him farewell.
The slush, frozen the night before, had not yet melted, and John walked rapidly along the broad firm highway, elated and bold. Julie had called to him. He would not reason with himself, and ask how or why it had been done, but he felt it. He liked to believe that wireless signals had passed between them. Anyway he was going to believe it, and hence his heart was light and his spirit strong.
He passed sentinels posted along the road, but his passport was always sufficient, and his pleasant manner bred a pleasant manner in return. Soon there was nothing but a line of smoke to mark where the Gratz farm stood, but he carried with him good memories of it. He hoped that the romance of Jacques and Annette would end happily. In truth he was quite sure that it would, and he began to whistle softly to himself, a trick that he had caught from General Vaugirard.
John had no certainty that he would enter Metz, which must now be less of a city than a great fortress with a powerful garrison. But he felt sure that he could at least penetrate to the outskirts and there find more trace of Auersperg. A prince and man of his social importance could scarcely pass through the city without being noticed, and there would be gossip among the soldiers. Fortunately he had been in Metz twice and he knew the romantic old city at the confluence of the Moselle and the Seille, dominated by its magnificent Gothic cathedral. After all he might overtake Auersperg there and in some manner achieve his task. Chance took a wide range in so great a war and nothing was impossible.
He was now approaching the line between France and Germany, and Metz lay only eleven miles beyond. The beauty of the clear cold day endured. There was snow on the hills, but the brilliant sun touched it with a luminous golden haze, and the crisp air was the breath of life.
He swung along at a great gait for one who walked. Life for months without a roof had been hard, but it had toughened wonderfully those whom it did not kill, and John with a magnificent constitution was one of those who had profited most. He felt no weariness now although he had come many miles.
About one o'clock in the afternoon he sat on a stone by the roadside and ate with the appetite of vigorous youth good food from his knapsack. While he was there a German sergeant, with about twenty men in wagons going toward Metz, stopped and spoke to him.
"Hey, you on the stone, what are you doing?" asked the sergeant.
John cut off a fresh piece of sausage with his clasp knife and answered briefly and truthfully:
The sergeant had a broad, red and merry face, and facing a man of good humor he was not offended.
"So I see," he said, "but that wasn't what I meant."
John, without another word, took out his passport, handed it to him and went on eating. The sergeant examined it, handed it back to him and said:
"I show it to everybody," said John. "When a man speaks to me I don't care who he is, or what he is, I hand it to him. I, Jean Castel, as you see by the name on the passport, don't want trouble with anybody."
"And a wise fellow you are, Castel. I'm Otto Scheller, a sergeant in the service of his Imperial Majesty and the Fatherland."
"You look as if you had seen much of war, Sergeant Scheller, but I am a dealer in horses and I am happiest where the bullets are fewest."
"It's an honest confession, but it does not bespeak a high heart."
"Perhaps not, but sometimes a horse-dealer is more useful than a soldier. For instance, the off horse of the front wagon has picked up a stone in his left hind foot, and if it's not taken out he'll go lame long before you reach Metz."
"Donnerwetter! But it's true. You do know something about horses and you have an eye in your head. Here you, Heinrich, take that stone out, quick, or it won't be good for you!"
"And the right horse of the third wagon has glanders. The swelling is just beginning to show below the jaw. It's contagious, you know. You'd better turn him loose, or all your horses will die."
"Donner und blitzen! See Fritz, if it's true. It's so, is it? Then release the poor animal as Castel says, and put in one of the extras. See, you Castel, you're a wizard, you hardly glanced at the horses, and you saw what we didn't see, although we've been with them all day."
"I've grown up with horses. It's my business to know everything about them, and maybe your trade before the war didn't bring you near them."
Scheller threw back his great head and laughed.
"If a horse had approached where I worked," he said, "much good beer would have been spilt. I was the head waiter in a restaurant on the Unter den Linden. Ah, the happy days! Oh, the glorious street! and here it's nothing but march, march, and shoot, shoot! Three of my best waiters have been killed already. And the other lads are no horsemen either. That big Fritz over there made toys, Joseph drove a taxicab, August was conductor on a train to Charlottenberg, and Eitel was porter in a hotel. We're all from Berlin, and will you tell us, Castel, how soon we can take Paris and London and go back to the Unter den Linden?"
John shook his head.
"There are about fifteen hundred million people in the world who are asking that question, Otto Scheller," he replied, "and out of all the fifteen hundred millions not one can answer it. But I will ask you a question in return."
"What is it?"
"Will you give me a ride in one of your wagons to Metz?"
"Why, certainly," replied Scheller. "Your passport is in good order, and we can take you to the first line of fortifications. There you'll meet high officers and you'll have to make more statements, because Metz, as you know, is one of the most powerful fortresses in Europe."
"I know; why shouldn't I, a Lorrainer, know? But my passport will take me in. Meanwhile, I thank you, Otto Scheller, for the kindness you're showing me."
"All right, jump in, and off we go."
It was a provision wagon, drawn by stout Percherons, which John felt sure had been bred in France, and which he also felt sure had never been paid for by German money. The wagon was empty now, evidently having delivered its burden nearer the battle lines, and John found a comfortable seat beside the sergeant, while a stout Pickelhaube drove.
"Looks like peace, Castel," said the sergeant, waving his hand at the landscape, "but things are not always what they seem."
"See the hills across there. The French hold part of them, and often the artillery goes boom! boom! They threaten an attack on Metz. We shall hear the cannon before long."
John looked long at the hills, high, white and silent, but presently they began to groan and mutter as Scheller had predicted they would. Flashes of flame appeared and giant shells were emptied like gusts of lava from a volcano. One burst in the road about three hundred yards in front of them, and tore a hole so deep that they were compelled to drive around it.
"The French are good with the guns," said Scheller, regarding the excavation meditatively, "but of course it was by mere chance that the shell struck in the road."
John felt a light and momentary chill. It would certainly be the irony of fate if on his great quest he were smitten down by a missile from his own army. But no others struck near them, although the intermittent battle of artillery in the hills continued.
Sergeant Scheller paid no attention to the distant cannon fire, to which he had grown so used long since that he regarded it as one of the ordinary accompaniments of life, like the blowing of the wind. He was in a good humor and he talked agreeably much about battle and march, although he betrayed no military secrets, chiefly because he had none to betray.
"I march here and I march there," he said, "I and my men shoot at a certain point, and from a certain point we're shot at. That's all I know."
"And that, I take it, is the cathedral in Metz," said John, pointing toward the top of a lofty spire showing against the blue.
"So it is, Castel, and here you'll have to show your passport again. We're approaching the fortifications. I couldn't tell you about them if I would. We drive along a narrow road between high earthworks and we see nothing."
Their entry into Metz was slow and long. John was compelled to show his passport again and again, and he answered innumerable questions, many searching and pointed, but again he was thrice lucky in knowing the town and something about Lorraine.
Now that he was inside, with a powerful German army all about him, he must decide soon what to do. Fortunately he had made a friend of Scheller who advised him to go to a little Inn near the Moselle, much frequented by thrifty peasants, and John concluded to take his advice.
"Good-by, Castel," said Scheller, reaching out a huge fist. "I like you and I hope we'll meet in Paris soon."
John took the fist in a hand not as large as Scheller's, but almost as powerful, and shook it.
"Here's to the meeting in Paris," he said, but he added under his breath, "may it happen, with you as my unwounded prisoner."
He left Scheller after thanks for the ride, and found his way to the Inn of the Golden Lion, which was crowded with stout farmers and peasants. It was old-fashioned, with a great room where most of the men sat on benches before a huge fire, which cast a cheerful glow over ruddy faces. Some were eating sausage and drinking beer, and there was plenty of talk, mostly in German.
John modestly found a place near the fire for which he was very grateful, and ordered beer and cheese. Apparently he was nothing but a peasant going about his own humble business, but he listened keenly to everything that was said, reckoning that someone ultimately would mention the Prince of Auersperg, or could be drawn into speaking of a man of so much consequence who might be present in Metz.
He attracted little attention, as he sat warming himself before the fire and listening. People of French sympathies might be in the crowd, but if so they were silent, because nearly all the talkers were speaking of German success. It was true that they had been turned back from Paris, but it meant a delay only, they would soon advance again, and this time they would crush France. Meantime, von Hindenburg was smashing the Russians to pieces. John smiled as he gazed into the crackling fire. After all, the Germans were not supreme. They knew a vast deal about war, but others could learn and did learn. They were splendid soldiers, but there were others just as good and they had proved it.
Men came and went through the Inn of the Golden Lion. Sometimes soldiers and officers as well as civilians sought its food and fire. The day had turned darker, full of raw cold, and a light hail was falling. John was glad to have a place in the inn. He reflected that a man's good luck and bad luck in the long run were about even, and, after so much bad luck, the good luck should be coming his way. He would certainly remain in the inn that night if he could, and a bench before the fire would be a sufficient bed for the peasant he seemed to be, at such a time, with the city full of troops, and the French batteries almost near enough to be heard.
More officers were coming in now. Some of them stood before the great fire, warming themselves and drying their uniforms, the hail having begun to drive harder. He thought he might see some one whom he knew. It was possible that von Arnheim, the young prince of whom he had such pleasant memories, was in Metz, and it was possible also that he might come to the Inn of the Golden Lion. And there was young Kratzek, who he knew had been exchanged. Some chance might make him, too, enter the inn, but John's second thought told him the fulfillment of his wish would be folly. They were his official enemies and must seize him if he made himself known to them. He was merely lonesome, longing for the sight of a familiar face.
His own appearance had been changed greatly by a stubby young beard that called aloud for a razor. Clad in a peasant's garb, and with a cap drawn down over his face Carstairs and Wharton themselves might have passed without knowing him.
Although the young Germans did not appear, one whom John expected least came. A man of medium size, built compactly, and with a short brown beard, trimmed neatly to a point, walked briskly through the room, and spread out cold hands before the flames. John was dozing in his chair, but the man's walk and manner roused him at once. They seemed familiar, and a glance at the face showed him that it was Weber.
He resisted a powerful impulse to call to him or to signal to him in some manner. The impulse was strong to recognize the appearance of a friend, but he understood the deadly danger of it. He was a spy and so was Weber. By recognition each might betray the other, and it was best that he should not attract the Alsatian's attention in any way. So he pretended to doze again, although he was really watchful.
Weber stood by the fire a little while, until he was warm. Then he sat down in one of the chairs and called for beer and sausage, which he drank and ate slowly and with evident relish. His eye roved about the room and once or twice fell upon John, but did not linger there. Evidently he did not recognize the peasant with the stubby growth of young beard. Nor did he appear to know anyone else in the room, and, after a few inquiring glances, he seemed to be busy with his own thoughts.
A half-hour or so later Weber went into the street, and John, muttering that he wished a little fresh air, rose and followed. He had in mind only a vague idea of speaking with Weber, and of finding out something about Auersperg, of whose movements the Alsatian was likely to know. But when he was outside Weber had vanished. He walked up the street, only a little distance in either direction, because the soldiers were thick everywhere, and their officers wanted explanations. Moreover, he recognized the futility of search. Weber was gone as completely as if he had been snatched up into the air by an invisible hand, and John felt that he had missed an opportunity.
He took courage, nevertheless, and dismissing Weber from his mind, he made a renewed effort. The precious passport once more came into play, and gradually, he made his way toward the finest hotel in Metz. If Auersperg was still in the city it was likely that a man of his temper and luxurious habits would be at this hotel.
There were sentinels about the building and it was crowded with guests of high degree. The assemblage here was altogether different from that of the Inn of the Golden Lion. Generals and colonels were passing, and John learned from a soldier that a prince of the empire was inside. His heart beat hard. It could be none other than Auersperg, and using every possible excuse he remained in the vicinity of the hotel.
At last while he stood there he saw a face appear at an upper window, and his heart gave a great leap. Despite the falling dusk, the strangeness of the place and the distance, the single faint glimpse was sufficient. It was Julie. He could not mistake that crown of wonderful golden hair in which slight coppery tints appeared, and the face, pale now.
John impulsively reached out his arms, but she could not see the young peasant who stood afar, watching her. He dropped his arms, caution again warning him, but he stood gazing. Perhaps it was a powerful, mysterious current sent from his heart that drew her at last. She looked in his direction. John knew that she could not recognize him there in the gloom, but, snatching off his cap, and, reckless of risk he waved it three times about his head. It was a signal. He did not know whether she could see it, nor if, seeing, could she surmise what it meant, but he hoped vaguely that something might come of it. In any event, it was a relief to his feelings and it brought hope.
After the signal he forgot to put the cap on his head, but stood with it dangling in his hand.
"Hey, you fool!" said a rough German voice, "why do you stand there staring, with your cap in your hand, and your head bare, inviting the quick death of pneumonia that an idiot like you deserves?"
Although the voice was rough it was not unkindly, and as John came out of his dreams and wheeled about he saw again the rubicund face of Sergeant Scheller.
"I was looking at the hotel," he replied with perfect composure, as he replaced his cap, "and I saw one of our great generals pass in at the door. At least I thought him such by his uniform, and taking off my cap to honor him I forgot to put in back again."
Scheller burst into a roar.
"Why, it's our Castel once more!" he exclaimed. "Good, honest, simple, patriotic Castel! You can take off your cap when a general passes, but you needn't keep it off after he's gone."
"I thought it might be our great Kaiser himself."
"I don't think he's in Metz, although he may be near, but your act does credit to your loyalty, Castel."
John glanced up at the window. Julie was gone and the twilight was coming over city and fortress. Yet he had seen her, and he felt that he would be able to follow Auersperg wherever he might go. He had no doubt that the prince would leave in the morning, traveling swiftly by automobile, but he, plodding on foot, or in any way he could, would surely follow. It gave him courage to remember the old fable of the tortoise and the hare, a fable which doubtless has proved a vain consolation to many a man, far behind in the race.
"Come to the Inn of the Golden Lion," he said to Scheller, for whom he had a genuine friendly feeling, "and take a glass of beer with me. I was wandering about, and it interested me to see the great people go into the hotel or come out."
"A half-dozen of our famous generals are there," said Scheller, who seemed to be both well informed now and talkative.
"Some one told me that the great Prince Karl of Auersperg was there, too," said John at random.
"So he is," replied Scheller, seeing nothing unusual in the question, "and he has with him under close guard the two French women spies. It's quite certain that he will carry them into Austria, perhaps to Salzburg or some place near there."
It was precious information, given casually by a chance acquaintance, and John believed that it was true. It was in the region of Salzburg that his great Odyssey had begun, and now it seemed that chance, after many a curve through the smoke of battle, was taking him back there.
"I'm off duty, Castel, and I'll be glad to go with you," he heard Scheller saying. "Beer is always welcome and I think you're a good fellow. It's too bad the blood of your forefathers was French, but it's had a German stiffening under our rule."
"The German spirit is strong and the Kaiser's armies are mighty," said John sincerely. "Now we'll hurry to the inn and have our beer."
Scheller was not loath, and before the great fire John toasted his health in a huge foaming mug, and Scheller toasted back again. Then the sergeant gave him a grip of his mighty hand and told him good-by.
"I like you, Castel, lad," he said, "and whatever you want I hope you'll get it."
John, imaginative at all times, but with his nerves keyed to the highest pitch now, took it as an omen. The kindly Scheller little dreamed what he sought, but the good wishes of a sergeant might have as much effect as those of a general or a prince with the Supreme Power.
"Farewell, lad," said Scheller again, and, "Farewell," John responded.
When he was gone John sank back into his chair. He had not been able to secure for the night more than a bench in the great room, but with his blankets he could do very well. Besides, there was a certain advantage in the place, as a dozen others would be sleeping in it, making it a news center.
He bought a supper of cheese and sausage, and continued to watch the people who came to the Inn of the Golden Lion. He thought Weber might return, and if so he meant to speak with him, if a possible chance should occur, but there was no sign of the Alsatian.
The heat and the smoke made him doze, by and by, and knowing that it would be long before the room could be cleared, he resigned himself at last to sleep, a circumstance that attracted no attention as others also were sleeping in their chairs.
When he awoke it was past midnight, and only those who were to make it a bedroom remained. Then he stretched his hardy form, wrapped in his blankets, on a bench beside the wall and fell promptly into the deep slumber of the young and just.
He awoke once or twice in the night and heard healthy snores about him. German civilians and Lorrainers were asleep on the benches and they slept well. The fire in the great, ancient fireplace had burned low, but a fine bed of coals glowed there and cast quivering lights over the sleepers. John thought he beard from afar that mutter of the guns, with which he was so familiar, but he did not know whether it was fancy or reality, as he always returned quickly to his deep slumber.