Read CHAPTER V of "The Pomp of Yesterday" , free online book, by Joseph Hocking, on ReadCentral.com.

HOW A MAN WORKED A MIRACLE

Since then, I have been under some terrific bombardments, but up to that time I had never experienced anything so terrible. Evidently our big guns were turned on, and they had located the German trenches to a nicety. Moreover, I judged that something serious was on hand, for it continued hour after hour. Before long all lights went out, and I knew by the hoarse cries which the Germans were making that they were in a state of panic.

The bombardment had lasted perhaps an hour, when part of the roof of the cave fell in with a tremendous crash, and I imagined that several men were buried.

‘We’ll get out of this,’ said the lieutenant who had been left in charge; ‘there’s a safer place further down.’

‘Yes, sir,’ replied the soldier, evidently glad of the order, ’but what about the prisoners?’

The young officer seemed in doubt about us, and then grumbled something about his captain’s orders.

‘Our numbers are up, sergeant,’ I said, for Sergeant Smith and I were the only two who were left alive. ’Either we shall be killed by our own guns, or else we shall suffer worse than death at the hands of these fellows.’

‘Never say die, sir,’ replied Sergeant Smith, who was noted for his optimistic temperament; ‘anyhow, these chaps are all in a blue funk.’

‘There can be no doubt about that,’ was my reply. ’If we live through it, and if this bombardment is but the preliminary to an attack, there’s a sporting chance that we may get away.’

‘About a hundred to one, sir.’

After this, I have no clear recollection as to what took place. I remember that we moved along a tunnel until we came to another dug-out, after that everything became a blank to me. Either I had been stunned by my captors, or I had been hurt by falling debris.

When I came to my senses again, the guns were still booming, although they seemed at a greater distance, and I judged that our captors regarded us as in a safer place. Then, suddenly, I heard a voice which set my nerves tingling. It was an English voice, too, although he spoke in German.

‘You chaps are in an awful hole,’ I heard some one say, in quiet matter-of-fact tones, as though the situation were of a most ordinary nature. ‘Do you know what I think of you? You are a lot of idiots.’

‘We’re better off than you, anyhow,’ and this time it was a German who spoke. ’If we come alive out of this, we shall be all right; but you are our prisoners.’

’Prisoners if you like, my dear fellow, but what’s the good of that to you?’

‘Every English prisoner taken is one step nearer to German victory,’ replied the soldier sententiously.

’Nonsense! There’ll never be a German victory, and you know it. You’ve never been behind the British lines, have you? Why, man, there are mountains of guns and ammunition every day is adding to the stock, and soon, mark you, very soon, all these places of yours will become so many death-traps.’

The German laughed incredulously.

‘Do you know what’ll happen soon?’ went on the English voice, ’there will be bombing parties along here; you may be safe for the moment, but you can’t get out, not one of you dare try. If you did, it would be all up with you.’

‘What are you getting at?’ snarled the German. ’You are our prisoner, anyhow, and if we are killed, so will you be!’

‘Just so. But then I don’t want to get killed, neither do you.’

‘I know it’s a beastly business,’ said the German, ’and I wish this cursed war would come to an end.’

‘Yes, you see you were mistaken now, don’t you?’ and the Englishman with the quiet voice laughed. ’You were told it was all going to be over in a few weeks, and that it was going to be a picnic. “Bah!” you said, “what can the English do?” But, my dear fellow, the English have only just begun. You are just ramming your heads against a stone wall. You won’t hurt the wall, but your heads will get mightily battered. Oh yes, we are your prisoners, there are just three of us left alive, and you are thirty. But what is the good of it?’

‘What are you getting at, Tommy?’ asked another, ’and why are you talking all this humbug?’

‘Because I can get you out of this.’

‘Get us out of it! How?’

‘Ah, that is my secret, but I can.’

‘What! Every one of us, unhurt?’

‘Every one of you, unhurt.’

There was a general laugh of incredulity.

‘You don’t believe me, I know. But I swear to you I can do it.’

‘How?’

’By taking you as prisoners to the British lines. I know a way by which it can be done.’

As may be imagined, I was not an uninterested listener to this conversation. Evidently another man had been taken prisoner; who I had no knowledge, but we had somehow been brought together. But it was not altogether the quiet confidence of the speaker which interested me, it was the sound of his voice. While it was not familiar to me, I felt sure I had heard it before. The light was so dim, that I could see neither his face nor any marks whereby I could discover his rank; but he spoke German so well that I judged him to be an officer. The Germans laughed aloud at his last remark.

‘Your prisoners!’ they shouted, ‘and we ten to your one!’

‘Why not,’ he asked, ’if I take you to safety? Now just think, suppose you all get out of this, and we are lodged in one of your German prison camps; you remain here at the front, and be fodder for cannon. How many of you will come through this war alive, think you? Perhaps one out of ten. And the end of it will be that your country will be beaten. I am as sure of that as I am that the sun will rise to-morrow. Now supposing you adopt my plan, suppose you go with me as prisoners of war; I will take you to the British lines unhurt, and then you will be sent to the Isle of Wight, or some such place; you will be well housed, well clothed, well fed, until the war’s over. Don’t you think you are silly asses to stay here and play a losing game, amidst all this misery and suffering, when you can get away unhurt and enjoy yourselves?’

In spite of the madness of the proposal, he spoke in such a convincing way that he impressed them in spite of themselves. Indeed I, who am relating the conversation as nearly word for word as I can remember, cannot give anything like an idea of the subtle persuasion which accompanied his words. It might seem as though he were master of the situation, and they had to do his will; in fact, he seemed to hypnotize them by the persuasiveness of his voice, and by some magnetic charm of his presence.

‘You may be safe here for the moment,’ he went on, ’but I can tell you what’ll happen. By this time your trenches are nearly level with the ground, not a man in them will be alive. Your machine-gun emplacements will be all blown into smithereens, for this is no ordinary bombardment; it is tremendous, man, tremendous! In less than two hours from now, either the outlets of these dug-outs of yours will be stopped up, and you will die of foul air or starvation, or bombing parties will come, and then it’ll be all up with you. I tell you, I know what I am talking about.’

‘Yes, but if we are killed, so will you be!’

’And if we are, what good’ll that do to any of us? We are young, we want to live.’

Just then we heard a terrific explosion, louder even than any which had preceded it. The ground shook; it seemed as though hell were let loose.

‘Do you hear that?’ he went on, when there was a moment’s quiet. ’That’s just a foretaste of what’s coming. That’s one of the big new guns, and there are hundreds of them, hundreds. Well, if you won’t, you won’t.’

‘What do you want us to do?’ and one of the Germans spoke excitedly.

’I tell you I know a way by which I can lead you out of this. I know the country round here, inch by inch; I have made it my business to study it; and I give you my word I will take you back to the British lines unhurt. And then your life as an English prisoner will be just a picnic.’

‘Your word!’ said one of them scornfully, ’what is it worth? You are only a Tommy.’

‘Yes, my word,’ and he spoke it in such a way that they felt him to be their master. It was one of those cases where one personality dominated thirty.

‘Are you an officer?’ said one of the Germans after a pause. ’You speak like a gentleman, but your uniform is that of a Tommy.’

’No matter what I am, I give you my promise, and I never broke my promise yet.’

Again it was not the words which affected them, it was the manner in which he spoke them. He might have been a king speaking to his subjects.

‘Now then, which shall it be?’ he went on; ’if we stay here, in all probability we shall every one of us be killed. Listen to that! There! there! don’t you feel it? the whole earth is trembling, I tell you, and all these fortifications of yours will be nothing but so much cardboard! And our men have mountains of munitions, man, mountains! I have seen them. It will be rather a horrible death, too, won’t it? Whether we are buried alive, or blown up by bombs, it won’t be pleasant. It seems such a pity, too, when in ten minutes from now we can be in safety.’

The man was working a miracle; he was accomplishing that which, according to every canon of common sense, was impossible. He was a prisoner in the power of thirty men, and yet he was persuading them to become his prisoners. Even Sergeant Smith, who could not understand a word of what was being said, knew it. He knew it by the tense atmosphere of the place, by the look on the faces of the German soldiers.

We had become so interested, that neither of us dared to move; we just sat and listened while the unknown man, with quiet, persuasive words, was working his will on them.

As I said, I could not see his face. For one thing, the light was dim, and for another his features were turned away from me; but I could hear every word he said. Even above the roar of the artillery, which sounded like distant thunder, and in spite of the trembling earth, every tone reached me, and I knew that his every word was sapping the Germans’ resistance, just as a strong current of water frets away a foundation of sand. What at first I had felt like laughing at, became to me first a possibility, then a probability, then almost a certainty. So excited did I become that, more than once, I longed with an intense longing to join my persuasions to that of the stranger. But when I tried to speak, no words came. It might have been as though some magician were at work, or some powerful mesmerist, who mesmerized his hearers into obedience.

‘I say, you fellows,’ said one of the Germans to his companions, ’what do you say? Our life here is one prolonged hell, what is the use of it? Our officers tell us to hold on, hold on. And why should we hold on? Just to become fodder for cannon? I had four brothers, and every one of them is killed. Who’s to look after my mother, if I am dead?’

Three minutes later he had accomplished the impossible. He was leading the way out of the dug-out towards the open. Sergeant Smith and I went with him like men in a dream.

When we came out in the open air, the night had again fallen. More than twelve hours had elapsed since I had been taken prisoner; most likely I had been unconscious a great part of the time. I did not know where we were going. The guns were still booming, while the heavens were every now and then illuminated as if by some tremendous fireworks.

‘Sergeant,’ I whispered, ‘the man’s a magician.’

’Never heard of such a thing in my life, sir. I’m like a man dreaming. Who is he? He’s got a Tommy’s togs on, but he might be a field marshal.’

All this time I had not once caught sight of our deliverer’s face, but the tones of his voice still haunted me like some half-forgotten dream. I had almost forgotten the wonder of our freedom in the excitement wrought by the way it was given to us.

When at length we entered the British trenches, and the German prisoners had been taken care of, I saw the face of the man who had wrought the miracle, and I recognized him as the stranger whom I had met at Plymouth Harbour many months before, and who had adopted the name of Paul Edgecumbe.