The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter IX. The Great Castle
John himself the next morning saw the departure of Prince Karl of Auersperg and his suite, and it was not altogether chance that brought it about. He was aroused as the other sleepers were by the waiters who were preparing the room for the day. The Inn of the Golden Lion was doing a rushing business in a town full of German troops, who ate well and drank well and who paid.
His night's rest was refreshing to both mind and body, and, after a good breakfast, he went once more toward the hotel which was frequented by the highborn and the very highborn. He had no plan in mind, but he knew that the magnet drawing him was Julie.
The morning was clear and cold, the streets slippery, but vivid with life, mostly military. He carried his knapsack full of food, and his blankets in a pack on his back, which his passport showed to be his right as a peasant trading in horses, and returning from the front to his home for a fresh supply. But there was little danger to him at present, as there were many other peasants and farmer folk in Metz on one errand or another.
He walked about the hotel, and presently noticed signs of bustle. Several automobiles, one of much magnificence, drove up to the entrance and halted there, obviously awaiting a company of importance. John had no doubt from the first that it was the equipage of the Prince of Auersperg. No one else would travel in such state, and he would stay to see him go with his prisoners. Others drawn by curiosity joined him and they and the young peasant stood very near.
John saw the door open, and a porter of great stature, clad in a uniform, heavy with gold lace, appear, bowing profoundly. It was often difficult to tell a head porter from a field marshal, but in this case the man's deferential attitude not only indicated the difference, but the fact also that Auersperg was coming.
The prince, preceded by two young men in close-fitting blue-gray uniforms, came out. John was bound to confess once more that he was a fine-looking man, large, bearded magnificently, and imposing in appearance and manner. His effect at a state ball or a reception would be highly decorative, and many a managing American mother would have been glad to secure him as a son-in-law, provided the present war did not make such medieval survivals unfashionable.
Auersperg entered his automobile, a very dark red limousine of great size, and he was shut from John's view, save only his full beard glimmering faintly through the glass. More men came, soldiers or attendants, and among them was Antoine Picard, gigantic and sullen. His arms were unbound and he went with the others willingly. Perhaps Auersperg had divined that he would not attempt to escape, as long as Julie was in his hands.
Then came the two women, Julie first, and John heard about him the muttered exclamation: "The French spies!" He knew that this belief had taken strong hold of the soldiers and people who stood about. Women, when they chose to be, were the most dangerous of all spies and the watchers regarded them with intense curiosity.
Neither was veiled. Julie was erect, and her chin high. John saw that the girl had become a woman, matured by hardship and danger, and she looked more beautiful than ever to him that morning. Her cheeks were pale and tiny curls of the deep golden hair escaped from her hood and clustered about her temples. John's heart swam with pity. Truly, she was a bird in the hands of the fowler.
She gave a glance half appealing and half defiant at the people, but the stalwart Suzanne who followed her was wholly grim and challenging. Then something strange occurred. John had the most intense anxiety for her to look at him. He had no belief whatever in anything supernatural, but sound, intelligible words were made to travel on waves of air, and it was barely possible in this unexplored world that thought too might be propelled in the same way.
Almost unconsciously he kept his eyes upon Julie's and he poured his very soul into the gaze. It was only a little distance from the door to the automobile which she was to take, and he had time. His gaze became concentrated, burning, a thing more of the spirit than of sight, and as her eyes glanced once more about the circle of idle spectators they met his own and rested there.
John looked straight into their dark blue depths and he saw a startled flash leap up. Chance or a power yet unknown had drawn her gaze and made her vision keen. He saw that she knew him, knew him even in that peasant's dress and under the new stubble of beard. The flash became for a moment a fire, and her figure quivered, but he was not afraid. He had an instinctive confidence that she would understand, and that she would not betray him by any impulsive act.
"I am here to save you," his eyes said.
"I know it," hers replied.
"I will follow you across the world to help you."
"I know that, too."
"Don't betray the fact that you've seen a friend."
"I will not."
Thus the eyes spoke to one another and understood what was said. Julie's glance passed on, and with unfaltering step she entered an automobile, the German chauffeur standing by the side of it and respectfully holding the door. Suzanne followed, the chauffeur closed the door, sprang into his seat and the little train moved majestically through the streets of Metz. Comment was plentiful and it was not unkind to Julie.
"Too handsome to be executed as a spy," said a burly German almost in John's ear. "A girl with a face like that should never feel the touch of a bullet or a rope. It's a face to be kissed and a neck to fit into a man's arm."
The man's phrasing was rough, but both his admiration and his pity were sincere, and John felt no resentment toward him.
"Some of the French girls are wonderful for looks," said another and younger German, "but they're the most dangerous kind. If it's proved on the one the prince has caught she'll expect her blue eyes and all that hair of gold to pull her through."
Him, John hated and would have been glad to strike, but he could help neither Julie nor himself by resenting it. Instead, he watched the automobiles, four in number, disappear on the road leading from Metz toward Stuttgart, a small body of hussars following as a guard, and then, pack on back, he trudged on foot behind them.
The invaluable passport carried him through the fortifications, and along the great highway into the country. He was glad that Auersperg had not gone by train, as it would have been harder to trace him then. Now, although far behind, he could hear of him at inns and little towns by the way. Yet he was compelled to recall to himself again and again the ancient and worn fable of the hare and the tortoise.
He knew well enough that the tortoise did not often overtake the hare. Hares were cunning little animals, riot able to fight and almost wholly dependent upon speed for survival in the battle of life. Hence, they never went to sleep, and in only a single instance recorded in history had a tortoise won a footrace from a hare. Yet an old proverb, even if based upon a solitary exception, is wonderfully consoling, and John was able to use it now as comfort.
After he had passed the fortifications and was well behind the German interior lines, travel became easier. The Germans, considering their army a wall before them, were less suspicious and the interruptions were few. John, moreover, was a cheerful peasant. He had a fair voice, and he sang German hymns and war songs in a mellow baritone as he strode along. The road was really not so bad, after that long and hideous life in filthy trenches. The heat of Sahara would be autumn coolness after a return from Hades, and now John enjoyed the contrast.
There were many tracks of automobiles in the light snow and hail that covered the road, and one broader than the rest John felt sure was made by the great limousine of Auersperg. It was like a trail to lead him on, and he was a trailer who could not be shaken off.
Rejoicing in his new possession of German--thankful now that he had studied it so hard--although he spoke it with a strong accent of Lorraine, John saluted such German soldiers as he passed and wished them good day. Invariably the salute was returned in pleasant fashion. His nature was essentially friendly and therefore he bred friendliness in others. Although he was in a hostile land he was continually meeting people who seemed to have an instinctive wish to help him.
As he walked on he overtook a stout man of middle age dressed heavily in brown who appeared to be a priest, and who turned upon him a benign countenance.
"Why do you travel so fast for one on foot?" asked the man.
"Because I feel strong and my errand takes me far, Father."
"If it takes you far, my son, the less speed in the beginning the greater at the end."
"True, Father," said John, slackening his pace, and glancing at the shrewd face which was also both ruddy and kindly. "The Church can give good advice in temporal as well as spiritual matters."
"Even so, my son," said the priest, who had noted John's frank countenance, his width between the eyes. "One of my vocation cannot go through life merely looking inward. Come, walk with me. The world is mad, gone wholly mad, but let us try to be two sane beings in it for a little while."
"Thanks, Father," said John. "I can wish no better company. I agree with you that the world has gone mad. I have seen its madness at its height."
"And at such a time the Church, Protestant or Catholic, must do the best it can. But we are so few, while so many souls are leaving their bodies. And yet I tell you, young sir, that not one man in a hundred of this great European peasantry knows why he fights. I, a priest, may speak freely, and I do so because my mind is full of indignation this morning."
"I do not love war, either. You see I walk away from it. But why are you on foot, Father?"
"By preference. I might have gone in one of the automobiles with the soldiers, but they are a part of the war madness, and I wished to be alone. You will learn with years that it's well to be alone at times, when one may take the measure of himself and those about him. I have chosen to walk this morning, because it makes my blood run better, and the winds at least are pure."
"I find the case the same with me, sir. My best thoughts usually come when I'm walking and alone."
The priest threw out his hands in a wide gesture.
"We agree, I see," he said. "You appear to be a peasant, but your voice is that of another kind. No, do not protest or say anything. It is no business of mine that you're not the peasant you claim to be, nor do I ask the nature of your errand behind the German army."
"I could not tell it to you, Father, but it is an errand of peace. I think it the highest and holiest I could undertake, and, in undertaking it, I believe myself to be animated by such a spirit as the knights felt in the first flush of the Crusades."
"I believe your words. When I first looked into your eyes I said they were those of an honest young man. We of the cloth learn to know. We feel instinctively the presence of honesty or dishonesty. Young sir, I hope that your quest, although it may take you far, will take you to success."
John's heart beat hard. He knew that the man was only a village priest, but good wishes carry. They might even travel upon waves of their own, and send to a happy goal those for whom they were intended.
"Father," he said, "you and I have never met before this day, and we may never see each other after it. As I told you, mine is a long quest and it's full of danger. Will you give it your blessing without asking what it is?"
"Willingly," said the priest as he spread out his hands, and murmured rapid words in Latin. John, Protestant though he was, felt a curious lightening of the soul. The Crusaders always sought a blessing before going into battle, and a spiritual fire that would uphold him seemed to have passed from the mind of this humble village priest to his.
They went on now for a little while in silence. Uhlans, hussars, infantry and cannon passed them, but few questions were asked of them. The day remained cold, and the heavens were a brilliant blue. It was fine weather for walking and the middle-aged man and the young man kept pace with each other, stride for stride.
By and by they drank from a brook and then ate together. The priest also carried a knapsack under his heavy brown overcoat and they shared their food, finishing it with a sip or two from a flask of light wine.
"We come to a crossroad a mile further on," said the priest, "and there I think we will part. I turn into the crossroad, and you, I take it, keep the road to Stuttgart."
"I shall be sorry."
"The way of the world, my son. All through life we are meeting and parting. The number of people who travel with us all the road is very small. It may be that I have surmised somewhat of your quest. No, say nothing! I would not know more, but a far greater power than mine will help you in it."
They parted at the crossroad and John felt as if he left an old friend. When he looked back he saw the priest on a little hill gazing after him, and he felt again as if the good wish that would count was coming on a wave of air. Then his own road dipped into a valley and at nightfall he came to a village which had a little inn, humble but neat and clean. Here he procured a razor and shaved the stubble from his face. He no longer had a fear of meeting anyone whom he might know, save possibly Weber, and Weber was a friend.
John's frank face and cheerful manner again made friends for him. The stout innkeeper and his stout wife favored him with the food, and hearing that he had come from Metz they wanted to know all the gossip, which he told them as far as he knew. He had noted the broad track of the great limousine in the road before he entered the inn, and thinking it must have stopped there for a little while, he spoke casually of those who passed.
"Aye," said the innkeeper, "many go by, many of whom will never come back. They go mostly toward Metz, but a great prince traveling in the other direction came today, before noon, and we served him refreshment."
"Perhaps it was the Prince of Auersperg," said John. "He was in Metz when I was there, and I saw him leave."
"They did not tell me his name, but that must have been the man."
"He was in a great, dark red automobile."
"Then it was surely he. One could not mistake that automobile. I take it that only kings and princes travel in its like."
"He carried with him two Frenchwomen, dangerous spies, intended for imprisonment in Germany."
"So I heard, and we saw the face of one of them, very young and with the most marvelous golden hair. I never saw a fairer face. But, as all the world knows, the most beautiful women are often the most wicked. I suppose there wasn't a woman among the Philistines who could compare with Delilah in either face or figure."
"I suppose not," said John, scarcely able to restrain a smile. "Did the women come into the inn?"
"Oh, no. My wife took food to them in the automobile. She saw them much better than I did. She says that the younger one--and she was but a girl--spoke softly and did not look wicked at all. But then, my wife is fat and sentimental."
The stout hausfrau smiled.
"It is Hans who has the heart full of sentiment," she said. "When he saw that the French spy was a girl of such beauty and such youth he believed that she should not be punished, and he a good German! Ah, all men are alike!"
Hans filled his pipe and wisely made no reply. But John smiled also.
"Is it wicked in a man to have an eye for beauty?" he said. "I know that my host's heart has thrilled many a time when he caught a glimpse of the lady who is now his wife and the very competent head of his household."
It was obvious, but both smiled.
"Hans is not so bad," said the hausfrau complacently, and John's compliment won him an unusually good room that night. Hans told him also that he could probably secure him a place in an empty supply wagon the next morning, and John was grateful. Walking was good, and it had done much to maintain his strength and steady his nerves, but one could not walk all the way across Germany.
He was aware that he was surrounded by dangers but he felt that the omens remained fair. Perhaps the good wishes that had been given to him still clothed him about and protected him from harm. In abnormal times the human mind seeks more than an ordinary faith.
He would have slept well, but in the night an army passed. For hours and hours the gray legions trod by in numbers past counting, the moonlight casting gleams upon the spiked helmets. Then came masses of Uhlans and hussars and after them batteries of great guns and scores and scores of the wicked machine guns. Truly, as the priest had said, the whole world had gone mad. He remembered those days in Vienna when the gay and light-head ed Viennese had marched up and down the streets all night long, singing and dancing, and thinking only of war as a festival, in which glorious victory was sure and quick. Torrents of blood had flowed under the bridges since then, gay Austria, that had set the torch, had been shaken to its foundation, and no victory was yet in sight for anybody.
Nevertheless the German legions seemed inexhaustible. John had seen them turned back in those long days of fighting on the Marne, and more than a million had been killed or wounded since the war began, but that avalanche of men and guns still poured out of the heart of Germany. He felt more deeply than ever that the world could not afford a German victory, and the sanguinary spectacle of a Kaiser riding roughshod over civilization. The fact that so many German people were likable and that Germany had achieved so much made the case all the worse.
He took the road the next morning, not on foot this time but in an empty provision wagon, returning eastward, drawn by two powerful horses and driven by Fritz, a stout German youth. Both Hans and the hausfrau wished him well, and he soon made a friend of Fritz, who was a Bavarian from a little village near Munich. John knew Munich better than any other German city, and he and the young German soon established a common ground of conversation, because to Fritz Munich was the greatest and finest of all cities.
That was one of the pleasantest mornings he experienced on his long and solitary quest. His heavy clothing kept him warm, his seat was comfortable, the pace was good and Fritz was excellent company. Fritz was a simple peasant, though, in his belief that Germany was right in everything and omnipotent, that the other nations through jealousy had conspired to destroy her, but she, instead, would destroy them all, and rule a conquered world.
John saw readily that the poison had been instilled into him from his birth by the men higher up, and he blamed Fritz very little for his misguided beliefs. Besides, it was pleasant to have the company of one somewhat near his own age, and to listen to human talk. There was a girl, Minna, in the village near Munich whom Fritz was going to marry as soon as the war was over.
"And that won't be long now," said Fritz. "It's true that we were halted before Paris last year, but we came again more numerous and more powerful than ever. The Kaiser will make a finish of it all in the spring, and I shall marry Minna. We shall go into Munich, see the beautiful city, and then go back to our home in the village."
"A fine place, Munich," said John. "In my dealing in horses I've been there more than once. Do you remember the Wittelsbach Fountain in the Maximilienplatz?"
"Aye, and a cooling sight it is on a warm day."
"And the green Isar flowing through the Englischer Gardens!"
"And the ducks swimming down to the edge of the little falls, swimming so close that you think they're going over and then swimming away again."
"Yes, I've seen them, and once I went into the gallery and saw the strange pictures they called Futurist, which I think represent the bad dreams of painters who have gone to bed drunk."
"You're a man of sense, you Castel, even if you do have a French name. I went in there myself once, and then I hurried away to the Hofbrau and drank all the beer I could that I might forget it."
John laughed, and Fritz laughed with him.
"How far do you go?" asked John.
"Only to Stuttgart. I wish it was Munich. Then I might see Minna again before returning to the war."
But they had a placid journey to Stuttgart, sleeping by the way in the wagon. Arriving in the city John paid Fritz for his ride and parted from him with regret. He spent a night here in a humble inn, and discovered that Auersperg and his party were now two days ahead of him. The automobiles were moving with speed, and John surmised that the prince did not intend to remain long at his castle over the Austrian border. Perhaps he would have to return to the war, leaving Julie and Suzanne there. He hoped so.
Two days later John was in Munich, and he learned that Auersperg had not increased his lead. It was easy enough to trace him. He had secured an extensive suite of apartments at the large hotel, the Bayerischer Hof, although Julie and the Picards had been secluded in another part of the hotel. Auersperg had gone to the palace and had held a long conference with the old King of Bavaria, but on the second day he had left, still going eastward, escorted by hussars.
John departed again and on foot. The weather was balmier now, with touches of spring in it. Faint shades of green appeared in the grass and the foliage, and his pursuit was sanguine. Fortune had certainly favored him in a remarkable manner, so far. He had been able to answer all questions in a convincing way, and here in Bavaria the people were not so suspicious, and perhaps not so stern as they were in Prussia. Nor did he doubt for a moment that Julie knew he was following them. She had recognized him and their eyes had spoken in the language of understanding to each other. It was easy enough to re-create for himself, almost as vivid as reality, her beautiful face with the golden hair showing under the edges of the hood, and the startled look of the dark blue eyes when they first met his own. Relief and joy had been in that look too. He could read it.
John had learned in Munich the location of Auersperg's principal castle. It was Zillenstein in a spur of the Eastern Alps just inside Austria, where for centuries the Auerspergs had held great state, as princes of the Holy Roman Empire. Now when they were princes of both the German and the Austro-Hungarian empires with their greater fealty for the former, they often went there nevertheless, and John's information in Munich made him quite sure that the prince had gone directly toward the ancient stronghold.
Auersperg could cover the distance quickly in his powerful automobiles, but it would take John a long time on foot, helped by an occasional ride in a peasant's cart. Nevertheless he hung on with patience and pertinacity. He was but a single man on a quest in the heart of Germany, but in the old days men had gone alone through a world of dangers to the Holy Sepulchre and had returned. He was not far from the path taken by those from Western Europe, and he was uplifted by the knowledge. The feeling that he, too, was a crusader grew strongly upon him, and by night and day was his support.
He crossed the border at last and came to Salzburg in the mountains, where the gray-green Salzach flows down from the glaciers and divides the town. The place was thronged with soldiers, and the summit of the frowning Muenchburg was alive with activity. Here in the very heart of the Teutonic confederation, far from hostile frontiers, travelers were not subjected to such rigid scrutiny. It was deemed that everything was safely German, and John could travel at ease almost like an inhabitant of the land.
Salzburg looked familiar to him. There had been much to photograph it upon his mind. He remembered the uneasy night he and his uncle had passed there before his flight with Lannes, which had taken him into such a train of vast events. It had been only seven or eight months before but it seemed many times as long. He had felt himself a boy in Vienna, he felt himself a man now. He had been through great battles, he had seen the world in convulsion, his life a dozen times had hung on a hair, and since it is experience that makes a man he was older than most of those twice his age.
He was stopping after his custom at an obscure inn, and in the moonlight he strolled through the little city. In its place among the mountains on both sides of the gray-green river it was full of romance to him, romance colored all the more deeply by memory. Off there among those peaks the Arrow had first come for him and Lannes, while here the great Mozart had been born and lay buried. In remoter days Huns had swept through these passes, coming from Asian deserts to the pillage of Europe.
John sat down on a bench in the little square before the cathedral and looked up at the mountains. He knew the exact location in which lay Zillenstein, the ancient seat of the Auersperg race, and he calculated that in two days he could reach it on foot, the lone youth in peasant's garb, pursuing the powerful prince and general, surrounded by retainers and hussars and in the land of his ancestors.
John wondered what had become of his comrades. Was Lannes well, and had he got his message? Were Carstairs and Wharton still alive, and where was Weber? They were questions the solution of which must wait upon the success of his quest, and therefore the answer might never come. But he fiercely put away such a thought. He would succeed! He must succeed!
He was not walking in the dark. He had learned that Auersperg and his people had arrived at Salzburg two days before, and had left after a few hours for Zillenstein. The prince was in excellent health and would not remain at his castle more than a week. Then he would return to the western front, where he was one of the great generals around the Kaiser. He had brought with him two Frenchwomen, spies, who would be imprisoned in the dungeons of Zillenstein until the war was over, if, indeed, they were not shot before. One, it was said, was very young, and beautiful, but she was the more dangerous of the two.
Poor Julie! there was a conspiracy of fate against her, but John shook himself and felt his courage rising anew, powerful, indomitable, invincible. He had come so far alone, and he would rescue her with his single hand! He went back to the inn and sat for a while among peasants and listened to their talk. They knew little of what was passing beyond the Teutonic empires. As usual in Germany and Austria, they accepted what the men higher up told them. They were always winning victories everywhere, and it would be but a short time before the treacherous English, the wicked French and the ignorant Russians were crushed.
John yawned after a while and went to his room. He intended to be fresh and strong the next morning when he started on the last stage of his search, and when the dawn came he was glad to see that it was clear and bright. By noon he was deep among the hills, and so far had answered all questions without arousing any suspicion. But he knew that trouble about his identity was bound to come in time. He could not go on forever, playing the role of Jean Castel, a horse-buyer from Lorraine. Lorraine was far away now, and he was beyond his natural range.
And yet his frank young face and smiling eyes were continually making him friends where he expected none. Explanations that might have seemed doubtful coming from others were convincing when he spoke them, and here in this hostile land, where he would have been executed as a spy, his identity known, he was instead helped on his way.
Late in the afternoon, when he was high up on the shoulder of a mountain he came to one of the little wayside shrines that one sees in the Catholic countries of the Old World. A small stream of clear, green water ran almost at the feet of the image, and he knelt and drank. Then he sat down to eat a little bread and sausage from his knapsack, and, while he was there, a middle-aged woman with two young boys also came to the shrine, before which they knelt and prayed. When they rose John politely offered them a portion of his bread and sausage, but they declined it, thanking him, and bringing forth food of their own, ate it.
John saw that the woman's face was very sorrowful, and the boys were grave and thoughtful beyond their years. He knew that they were under the shadow of the war, and his sympathy drew him to them.
"You have other sons, perhaps," he said gently, "and they are with the armies?"
"Alas, yes," she replied. "I have two others. One went to the east to fight the Russians and the other was sent to the west to meet the French. I have not heard from either in three months. I do not know whether they are alive or dead. We go into Salzburg tomorrow to get news of them, if we can."
"I hope they may come back to you," said John simply.
"And you? You are not of Austria."
"No, I came from a land that was French before I was born but which is now German, and under the beneficent rule of the great Kaiser--Lorraine."
"You have indeed made a great journey."
"But it's to help one who needs help. I'd go if it took me to the other side of the world. The errand is sacred."
"Then I wish you Godspeed upon it. You are young, and you have a good face. What you say must be true. I shall pray for you and the happy end of your search."
She uttered words rapidly under her breath. She was a middle-aged and uneducated Austrian woman, but as she prayed and the shadows deepened on the mountains he received an extraordinary impression. A priest had prayed, too, for his success, and the second prayer could not be a mere coincidence. It was one of a chain. His will to succeed was so powerful, and so many others were helping him with the same wish that he could not fail.