Read CHAPTER II - IN THE VORTEX of The Day of Wrath A Story of 1914, free online book, by Louis Tracy, on

The van, one among a score of similar vehicles, was backed against the curb of a raised path.  At the instant Dalroy quitted the window-ledge a railway employe appeared from behind another van on the left, and was clearly bewildered by seeing a well-dressed man springing from such an unusual and precarious perch.

The new-comer, a big, burly fellow, who wore a peaked and lettered cap, a blouse, baggy breeches, and sabots, and carried a lighted hand-lamp, looked what, in fact, he was an engine-cleaner.  In all likelihood he guessed that any one choosing such a curious exit from a waiting-room was avoiding official scrutiny.  He hurried forward at once, holding the lamp above his head, because it was dark behind the row of vans.

“Hi, there!” he cried.  “A word with you, Freiherr!” The title, of course, was a bit of German humour.  Obviously, he was bent on investigating matters.  Dalroy did not run.  In the street without he heard the tramp of marching troops, the jolting of wagons, the clatter of horses.  He knew that a hue and cry could have only one result he would be pulled down by a score of hands.  Moreover, with the sight of that suspicious Teuton face, its customary boorish leer now replaced by a surly inquisitiveness, came the first glimmer of a fantastically daring way of rescuing Irene Beresford.

He advanced, smiling pleasantly.  “It’s all right, Heinrich,” he said.  “I’ve arrived by train from Berlin, and the station was crowded.  Being an acrobat, I took a bounce.  What?”

The engine-cleaner was not a quick-witted person.  He scowled, but allowed Dalroy to come near too near.

“I believe you’re a verdammt Engl ” he began.

But the popular German description of a Briton died on his lips, because Dalroy put a good deal of science and no small leaven of brute force into a straight punch which reached that cluster of nerves known to pugilism as “the point.”  The German fell as though he had been pole-axed, and his thick skull rattled on the pavement.

Dalroy grabbed the lamp before the oil could gush out, placed it upright on the ground, and divested the man of blouse, baggy breeches, and sabots.  Luckily, since every second was precious, he found that he was able to wedge his boots into the sabots, which he could not have kept on his feet otherwise.  His training as a soldier had taught him the exceeding value of our Fifth Henry’s advice to the British army gathered before Harfleur: 

     In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
     As modest stillness and humility;
     But when the blast of war blows in our ears
     Then imitate the action of the tiger.

The warring tiger does not move slowly.  Half-a-minute after his would-be captor had crashed headlong to the hard cobbles of Aix-la-Chapelle, Dalroy was creeping between two wagons, completing a hasty toilet by tearing off collar and tie, and smearing his face and hands with oil and grease from lamp and cap.  Even as he went he heard a window of the waiting-room being flung open, and the excited cries which announced the discovery of a half-naked body lying beneath in the gloom.

He saw now that to every van was harnessed a pair of horses, their heads deep in nose-bags, while men in the uniform of the Commissariat Corps were grouped around an officer who was reading orders.  The vans were sheeted in black tarpaulins.  With German attention to detail, their destination, contents, and particular allotment were stencilled on the covers in white paint:  “Liege, baggage and fodder, cavalry division, 7th Army Corps.”  He learnt subsequently that this definite legend appeared on front and rear and on both sides.

Thinking quickly, he decided that the burly person whose outer garments he was now wearing had probably been taking a short cut to the station entrance when he received the surprise of his life.  Somewhat higher up on the right, therefore, Dalroy went back to the narrow pavement close to the wall, and saw some soldiers coming through a doorway a little ahead.  He made for this, growled a husky “Good-morning” to a sentry stationed there, entered, and mounted a staircase.  Soon he found himself on the main platform; he actually passed a sergeant and some Bavarian soldiers, bent on recapturing the escaped prisoner, rushing wildly for the same stairs.

None paid heed to him as he lumbered along, swinging the lamp.

A small crowd of officers, among them the youthful prince in the silver Pickel-haube, had collected near the broken window and now open door of the waiting-room from which the “spy” had vanished.  Within was the fat lieutenant of reserves, gesticulating violently at a pallid sentry.

The prince was laughing.  “He can’t get away,” he was saying.  “A bold rascal.  He must be quieted with a bayonet-thrust.  That’s the best way to inoculate an Englishman with German Kultur.”

Of course this stroke of rare wit evoked much mirth.  Meanwhile, Dalroy was turning the key in the lock which held Irene Beresford in safe keeping until Von Halwig had discharged certain pressing duties as a staff officer.

The girl, who was seated, gave him a terrified glance when he entered, but dropped her eyes immediately until she became aware that this rough-looking visitor was altering the key.  Dalroy then realised by her startled movement that his appearance had brought fresh terror to an already overburthened heart.  Hitherto, so absorbed was he in his project, he had not given a thought to the fact that he would offer a sinister apparition.

“Don’t scream, or change your position, Miss Beresford,” he said quietly in English.  “It is I, Captain Dalroy.  We have a chance of escape.  Will you take the risk?”

The answer came, brokenly it is true, but with the girl’s very soul in the words.  “Thank God!” she murmured.  “Risk?  I would sacrifice ten lives, if I had them, rather than remain here.”

Somehow, that was the sort of answer Dalroy expected from her.  She sought no explanation of his bizarre and extraordinary garb.  It was all-sufficient for her that he should have come back.  She trusted him implicitly, and the low, earnest words thrilled him to the core.

He saw through the window that no one was paying any attention to this apartment.  Possibly, the only people who knew that it contained an Englishwoman as a prisoner were Von Halwig and the infuriated lieutenant of reserves.

Jumping on to a chair, Dalroy promptly twisted an electric bulb out of its socket, and plunged the room in semi-darkness, which he increased by hiding the hand-lamp in the folds of his blouse.  Given time, no doubt, a dim light would be borrowed from the platform and the windows overlooking the square; in the sudden gloom, however, the two could hardly distinguish each other.

“I have contrived to escape, in a sense,” said Dalroy; “but I could not bear the notion of leaving you to your fate.  You can either stop here and take your chance, or come with me.  If we are caught together a second time these brutes will show you no mercy.  On the other hand, by remaining, you may be fairly well treated, and even sent home soon.”

He deemed himself in honour bound to put what seemed then a reasonable alternative before her.  He did truly believe, in that hour, that Germany might, indeed, wage war inflexibly, but with clean hands, as befitted a nation which prided itself on its ideals and warrior spirit.  He was destined soon to be enlightened as to the true significance of the Kultur which a jack-boot philosophy offers to the rest of the world.

But Irene Beresford’s womanly intuition did not err.  One baleful gleam from Von Halwig’s eyes had given her a glimpse of infernal depths to which Dalroy was blind as yet.  “Not only will I come with you; but, if you have a pistol or a knife, I implore you to kill me before I am captured again,” she said.

Here, then, was no waste of words, but rather the ring of finely-tempered steel.  Dalroy unlocked the door, and looked out.  To the right and in front the platform was nearly empty.  On the left the group of officers was crowding into the waiting-room, since some hint of unfathomable mystery had been wafted up from the Bavarians in the courtyard, and the slim young prince, curious as a street lounger, had gone to the window to investigate.

Dalroy stood in the doorway.  “Pull down your veil, turn to the right, and keep close to the wall,” he said.  “Don’t run!  Don’t even hurry!  If I seem to lag behind, speak sharply to me in German.”

She obeyed without hesitation.  They had reached the end of the covered-in portion of the station when a sentry barred the way.  He brought his rifle with fixed bayonet to the “engage.”

“It is forbidden,” he said.

“What is forbidden?” grinned Dalroy amiably, clipping his syllables, and speaking in the roughest voice he could assume.

“You cannot pass this way.”

“Good!  Then I can go home to bed.  That will be better than cleaning engines.”

Fortunately, a Bavarian regiment was detailed for duty at Aix-la-Chapelle that night; the sentry knew where the engine-sheds were situated no more than Dalroy.  Further, he was not familiar with the Aachen accent.

“Oh, is that it?” he inquired.

“Yes.  Look at my cap!”

Dalroy held up the lantern.  The official lettering was evidently convincing.

“But what about the lady?”

“She’s my wife.  If you’re here in half-an-hour she’ll bring you some coffee.  One doesn’t leave a young wife at home with so many soldiers about.”

“If you both stand chattering here neither of you will get any coffee,” put in Irene emphatically.

The Bavarian lowered his rifle.  “I’m relieved at two o’clock,” he said with a laugh.  “Lose no time, schoene Frau.  There won’t be much coffee on the road to Liege.”

The girl passed on, but Dalroy lingered.  “Is that where you’re going?” he asked.

“Yes.  We’re due in Paris in three weeks.”

“Lucky dog!”

“Hans, are you coming, or shall I go on alone?” demanded Irene.

“Farewell, comrade, for a little ten minutes,” growled Dalroy, and he followed.

An empty train stood in a bay on the right, and Dalroy espied a window-cleaner’s ladder in a corner.  “Where are you going, woman?” he cried.

His “wife” was walking down the main platform which ended against the wall of a signal-cabin, and there might be insuperable difficulties in that direction.

“Isn’t this the easiest way?” she snapped.

“Yes, if you want to get run over.”

Without waiting for her, he turned, shouldered the ladder, and made for a platform on the inner side of the bay.  A ten-foot wall indicated the station’s boundary.  Irene ran after him.  Within a few yards they were hidden by the train from the sentry’s sight.

“That was clever of you!” she whispered breathlessly.

“Speak German, even when you think we are alone,” he commanded.

The platform curved sharply, and the train was a long one.  When they neared the engine they saw three men standing there.  Dalroy at once wrapped the lamp in a fold of his blouse, and leaped into the black shadow cast by the wall, which lay athwart the flood of moonlight pouring into the open part of the station.  Quick to take the cue, it being suicidal to think of bamboozling local railway officials, Irene followed.  Kicking off the clumsy sabots, Dalroy bade his companion pick them up, ran back some thirty yards, and placed the ladder against the wall.  Mounting swiftly, he found, to his great relief, that some sheds with low-pitched roofs were ranged beneath; otherwise, the height of the wall, if added to the elevation of the station generally above the external ground level, might well have proved disastrous.

“Up you come,” he said, seating himself astride the coping-stones, and holding the top of the ladder.

Irene was soon perched there too.  He pulled up the ladder, and lowered it to a roof.

“Now, you grab hard in case it slips,” he said.

Disdaining the rungs, he slid down.  He had hardly gathered his poise before the girl tumbled into his arms, one of the heavy wooden shoes she was carrying giving him a smart tap on the head.

“These men!” she gasped.  “They saw me, and shouted.”

Dalroy imagined that the trio near the engine must have noted the swinging lantern and its sudden disappearance.  With the instant decision born of polo and pig-sticking in India, he elected now not to essay the slanting roof just where they stood.  Shouldering the ladder again, he made off toward a strip of shadow which seemed to indicate the end of a somewhat higher shed.  He was right.  Irene followed, and they crouched there in panting silence.

Nearly every German is a gymnast, and it was no surprise to Dalroy when one of their pursuers mounted on the shoulders of a friend and gained the top of the wall.

“There’s nothing to be seen here,” he announced after a brief survey.

The pair beneath must have answered, because he went on, evidently in reply, “Oh, I saw it myself.  And I’m sure there was some one up here.  There’s a sentry on N.  Run, Fritz, and ask him if a man with a lantern has passed recently.  I’ll mount guard till you return.”

Happily a train approached, and, in the resultant din Dalroy was enabled to scramble down the roof unheard.

The ladder just reached the ground; so, before Fritz and the sentry began to suspect that some trickery was afoot in that part of the station, the two fugitives were speeding through a dark lane hemmed in by warehouses.  At the first opportunity, Dalroy extinguished the lantern.  Then he bethought him of his companion’s appearance.  He halted suddenly ere they entered a lighted thoroughfare.

“I had better put on these clogs again,” he said.  “But what about you?  It will never do for a lady in smart attire to be seen walking through the streets with a ruffian like me at one o’clock in the morning.”

For answer, the girl took off her hat and tore away a cluster of roses and a coquettish bow of ribbon.  Then she discarded her jacket, which she adjusted loosely across her shoulders.

“Now I ought to look raffish enough for anything,” she said cheerfully.

Singularly enough, her confidence raised again in Dalroy’s mind a lurking doubt which the success thus far achieved had not wholly stilled.

“My candid advice to you now, Miss Beresford, is that you leave me,” he said.  “You will come to no harm in the main streets, and you speak German so well that you should have little difficulty in reaching the Dutch frontier.  Once in Holland you can travel to Brussels by way of Antwerp.  I believe England has declared war against Germany.  The behaviour of Von Halwig and those other Prussians is most convincing on that point.  If so ”

“Does my presence imperil you, Captain Dalroy?” she broke in.  She could have said nothing more unwise, nothing so subtly calculated to stir a man’s pride.

“No,” he answered shortly.

“Why, then, are you so anxious to get rid of me, after risking your life to save me a few minutes ago?”

“I am going straight into Belgium.  I deem it my duty.  I may pick up information of the utmost military value.”

“Then I go into Belgium too, unless you positively refuse to be bothered with my company.  I simply must reach my sister without a moment of unnecessary delay.  And is it really sensible to stand here arguing, so close to the station?”

They went on without another word.  Dalroy was ruffled by the suggestion that he might be seeking his own safety.  Trust any woman to find the joint in any man’s armour when it suits her purpose.

Aix-la-Chapelle was more awake on that Wednesday morning at one o’clock than on any ordinary day at the same hour in the afternoon.  The streets were alive with excited people, the taverns and smaller shops open, the main avenues crammed with torrents of troops streaming westward.  Regimental bands struck up martial airs as column after column debouched from the various stations.  When the musicians paused for sheer lack of breath the soldiers bawled “Deutschland, Deutschland, ueber alles” or “Die Wacht am Rhine” at the top of their voices.  The uproar was, as the Germans love to say, colossal.  The enthusiasm was colossal too.  Aix-la-Chapelle might have been celebrating a great national festival.  It seemed ludicrous to regard the community as in the throes of war.  The populace, the officers, even the heavy-jowled peasants who formed the majority of the regiments then hurrying to the front, seemed to be intoxicated with joy.  Dalroy was surprised at first.  He was not prepared for the savage exultation with which German militarism leaped to its long-dreamed-of task of conquering Europe.

Irene Beresford, momentarily more alive than he to the exigencies of their position, bought a common shawl at a shop in a side street, and threw away her tattered hat with a careless laugh.  She was an excellent actress.  The woman who served her had not the remotest notion that this bright-eyed girl belonged to the hated English race.

The incident brought back Dalroy’s vagrom thoughts from German methods of making war to the serious business which was his own particular concern.  The shop was only a couple of doors removed from the Franz Straße; he waited for Irene at the corner, buying some cheap cigars and a box of matches at a tobacconist’s kiosk.  He still retained the lantern, which lent a touch of character.  The carriage-cleaner’s breeches were wide and loose at the ankles, and concealed his boots.  Between the sabots and his own heels he had added some inches to his height, so he could look easily over the heads of the crowd; he was watching the passing of a battery of artillery when an open automobile was jerked to a standstill directly in front of him.  In the car was seated Von Halwig.

That sprig of Prussian nobility was in a mighty hurry, but even he dared not interfere too actively with troops in motion, so, to pass the time as it were, he rolled his eyes in anger at the crowd on the pavement.

It was just possible that Irene might appear inopportunely, so Dalroy rejoined her, and led her to the opposite side of the cross street, where a wagon and horses hid her from the Guardsman’s sharp eyes.

Thus it happened that Chance again took the wanderers under her wing.

A short, thick-set Walloon had emptied a glass of schnapps at the counter of a small drinking-bar which opened on to the street, and was bidding the landlady farewell.

“I must be off,” he said.  “I have to be in Vise by daybreak.  This cursed war has kept me here a whole day.  Who is fighting who, I’d like to know?”

“Vise!” guffawed a man seated at the bar.  “You’ll never get there.  The army won’t let you pass.”

“That’s the army’s affair, not mine,” was the typically Flemish answer, and the other came out, mounted the wagon, chirped to his horses, and made away.

Dalroy was able to note the name on a small board affixed to the side of the vehicle:  “Henri Joos, miller, Vise.”

“That fellow lives in Belgium,” he whispered to Irene, who had draped the shawl over her head and neck, and now carried the jacket rolled into a bundle.  “He is just the sort of dogged countryman who will tackle and overcome all obstacles.  I fancy he is carrying oats to a mill, and will be known to the frontier officials.  Shall we bargain with him for a lift?”

“It sounds the very thing,” agreed the girl.

In their eagerness, neither took the precaution of buying something to eat.  They overtook the wagon before it passed the market.  The driver was not Joos, but Joos’s man.  He was quite ready to earn a few francs, or marks he did not care which by conveying a couple of passengers to the placid little town of whose mere existence the wide world outside Belgium was unaware until that awful first week in August 1914.

And so it came to pass that Dalroy and his protege passed out of Aix-la-Chapelle without let or hindrance, because the driver, spurred to an effort of the imagination by promise of largesse, described Irene to the Customs men as Henri Joos’s niece, and Dalroy as one deputed by the railway to see that a belated consignment of oats was duly delivered to the miller.

Neither rural Germany nor rural Belgium was yet really at war.  The monstrous shadow had darkened the chancelleries, but it was hardly perceptible to the common people.  Moreover, how could red-fanged war affect a remote place like Vise?  The notion was nonsensical.  Even Dalroy allowed himself to assure his companion that there was now a reasonable prospect of reaching Belgian soil without incurring real danger.  Yet, in truth, he was taking her to an inferno of which the like is scarce known to history.  The gate which opened at the Customs barrier gave access apparently to a good road leading through an undulating country.  In sober truth, it led to an earthly hell.