Read CHAPTER IV - THE TRAGEDY OF VISE of The Day of Wrath A Story of 1914, free online book, by Louis Tracy, on ReadCentral.com.

Early as was the hour, a door leading to the dwelling-house stood open.  The sound of feet on the cobbled pavement of the mill-yard brought a squat, beetle-browed old man to the threshold.  He surveyed the strangers with a curiously haphazard yet piercing underlook.  His black eyes held a glint of red.  Here was one in a subdued torment of rage, or, it might be, of ill-controlled panic.

“What now?” he grunted, using the local argot.

Dalroy, quick to read character, decided that this crabbed old Walloon was to be won at once or not at all.

“Shall I speak French or German?” he said quietly.  The other spat.

Qu’est-ce que tu veux que je te dise, moi?” he demanded.  Now, the plain English of that question is, “What do you wish me to say?” But the expectoration, no less than the biting tone, lent the words a far deeper meaning.

Dalroy was reassured.  “Are you Monsieur Henri Joos?” he said.

“Ay.”

“This lady and I have come from Aix-la-Chapelle with your man, Maertz.”

“Oh, he’s alive, then?”

“I hope so.  But may we not enter?”

Joos eyed the engine-cleaner’s official cap and soiled clothes, and his suspicious gaze travelled to Dalroy’s well-fitting and expensive boots.

“Who the deuce are you?” he snapped.

“I’ll tell you if you let us come in.”

“I can’t hinder you.  It is an order, all doors must be left open.”

Still, he made way, though ungraciously.  The refugees found themselves in a spacious kitchen, a comfortable and cleanly place, Dutch in its colourings and generally spick and span aspect.  A comely woman of middle age, and a plump, good-looking girl about as old as Irene, were seated on an oak bench beneath a window.  They were clinging to each other, and had evidently listened fearfully to the brief conversation without.

The only signs of disorder in the room were supplied by a quantity of empty wine-bottles, drinking-mugs, soiled plates, and cutlery, spread on a broad table.  Irene sank into one of half-a-dozen chairs which had apparently been used by the feasters.

Joos chuckled.  His laugh had an ugly sound.  “Pity you weren’t twenty minutes sooner,” he guffawed.  “You’d have had company, pleasant company, visitors from across the frontier.”

“I, too, have crossed the frontier,” said Irene, a wan smile lending pathos to her beauty.  “I travelled with Germans from Berlin.  If I saw a German now I think I should die.”

At that, Madame Joos rose.  “Calm thyself, Henri,” she said.  “These people are friends.”

“Maybe,” retorted her husband.  He turned on Dalroy with surprising energy, seeing that he was some twenty years older than his wife.  “You say that you came with Maertz,” he went on.  “Where is he?  He has been absent four days.”

By this time Dalroy thought he had taken the measure of his man.  No matter what the outcome to himself personally, Miss Beresford must be helped.  She could go no farther without food and rest.  He risked everything on the spin of a coin.  “We are English,” he said, speaking very slowly and distinctly, so that each syllable should penetrate the combined brains of the Joos family.  “We were only trying to leave Germany, meaning harm to none, but were arrested as spies at Aix-la-Chapelle.  We escaped by a ruse.  I knocked a man silly, and took some of his clothes.  Then we happened on Maertz at a corner of Franz Straße, and persuaded him to give us a lift.  We jogged along all right until we reached the cross-roads beyond the hill there,” and he pointed in the direction of the wood.  “A German officer refused to allow us to pass, but a motor transport knocked the wagon over, and this lady and I were thrown into a field.  We got away in the confusion, and made for a cowshed lying well back from the road and on the slope of the hill.  At that point my friend fainted, luckily for herself, because, when I examined the shed, I found the corpse of an old woman there.  She had evidently been about to milk a black-and-white cow when she was bayoneted by a German soldier ”

He was interrupted by a choking sob from Madame Joos, who leaned a hand on the table for support.  In pose and features she would have served as a model for Hans Memling’s “portrait” of Saint Elizabeth, which in happier days used to adorn the hospital at Bruges.  “The Widow Jaquinot,” she gasped.

“Of course, madame, I don’t know the poor creature’s name.  I was wondering how to act for the best when two soldiers came to the stable.  I heard what they were saying.  One of them admitted that he had stabbed the old woman; his words also implied that he and his comrade had violated her granddaughter.  So I picked up a milking-stool and killed both of them.  I took one of their rifles, which, with its bayonet and a number of cartridges, I hid at the top of the ravine.  This is the pail which I found in the shed.  No doubt it belongs to the Jaquinot household.  Now, I have told you the actual truth.  I ask nothing for myself.  If I stay here, even though you permit it, my presence will certainly bring ruin on you.  So I shall go at once.  But I do ask you, as Christian people, to safeguard this young English lady, and, when conditions permit, and she has recovered her strength, to guide her into Holland, unless, that is, these German beasts are attacking the Dutch too.”

For a brief space there was silence.  Dalroy looked fixedly at Joos, trying to read Irene Beresford’s fate in those black, glowing eyes.  The womenfolk were won already; but well he knew that in this Belgian nook the patriarchal principle that a man is lord and master in his own house would find unquestioned acceptance.  He was aware that Irene’s gaze was riveted on him in a strangely magnetic way.  It was one thing that he should say calmly, “So I picked up a milking-stool, and killed both of them,” but quite another that Irene should visualise in the light of her rare intelligence the epic force of the tragedy enacted while she lay unconscious in the depths of a hedgerow.  Dalroy could tell, Heaven knows how, that her very soul was peering at him.  In that tense moment he knew that he was her man for ever.  But surgit amari aliquid!  A wave of bitterness welled up from heart to brain because of the conviction that if he would, indeed, be her true knight he must leave her within the next few seconds.  Yet his resolution did not waver.  Not once did his glance swerve from Joos’s wizened face.

It was the miller himself who first broke the spell cast on the curiously assorted group by Dalroy’s story.  He stretched out a hand and took the pail.  “This is fresh milk,” he said, examining the dregs.

“Yes.  I milked the cow.  The poor animal was in pain, and my friend and I wanted the milk.”

“You milked the cow before?”

“No.  After.”

"Grand Dieu! you’re English, without doubt.”

Joos turned the pail upside down, appraising it critically.  “Yes,” he said, “it’s one of Dupont’s.  I remember her buying it.  She gave him fifty kilos of potatoes for it.  She stuck him, he said.  Half the potatoes were black.  A rare hand at a bargain, the Veuve Jaquinot.  And she’s dead you tell me.  A bayonet thrust?”

“Two.”

Madame Joos burst into hysterical sobbing.  Her husband whisked round on her with that singular alertness of movement which was one of his most marked characteristics.

“Peace, wife!” he snapped.  “Isn’t that what we’re all coming to?  What matter to Dupont now whether the potatoes were black or sound?”

Dalroy guessed that Dupont was the iron-monger of Vise.  He was gaining a glimpse, too, of the indomitable soul of Belgium.  Though itching for information, he checked the impulse, because time pressed horribly.

“Well,” he said, “will you do what you can for the lady?  The Germans have spared you.  You have fed them.  They may treat you decently.  I’ll make it worth while.  I have plenty of money ”

Irene stood up.  “Monsieur,” she said, and her voice was sweet as the song of a robin, “it is idle to speak of saving one without the other.  Where Monsieur Dalroy goes I go.  If he dies, I die.”

For the first time since entering the mill Dalroy dared to look at her.  In the sharp, crisp light of advancing day her blue eyes held a tint of violet.  Tear-drops glistened in the long lashes; but she smiled wistfully, as though pleading for forgiveness.

“That is sheer nonsense,” he cried in English, making a miserable failure of the anger he tried to assume.  “You ought to be reasonably safe here.  By insisting on remaining with me you deliberately sacrifice both our lives.  That is, I mean,” he added hastily, aware of a slip, “you prevent me too from taking the chance of escape that offers.”

“If that were so I would not thrust myself on you,” she answered.  “But I know the Germans.  I know how they mean to wage war.  They make no secret of it.  They intend to strike terror into every heart at the outset.  They are not men, but super-brutes.  You saw Von Halwig at Berlin, and again at Aix-la-Chapelle.  If a titled Prussian can change his superficial manners not his nature, which remains invariably bestial to that extent in a day, before he has even the excuse of actual war, what will the same man become when roused to fury by resistance?  But we must not talk English.”  She turned to Joos.  “Tell us, then, monsieur,” she said, grave and serious as Pallas Athena questioning Perseus, “have not the Prussians already ravaged and destroyed Vise?”

The old man’s face suddenly lost its bronze, and became ivory white.  His features grew convulsed.  He resembled one of those grotesque masks carved by Japanese artists to simulate a demon.  “Curse them!” he shrilled.  “Curse them in life and in death man, woman, and child!  What has Belgium done that she should be harried by a pack of wolves?  Who can say what wolves will do?”

Joos was aboil with vitriolic passion.  There was no knowing how long this tirade might have gone on had not a speckled hen stalked firmly in through the open door with obvious and settled intent to breakfast on crumbs.

Ciel!” cackled the orator.  “Not a fowl was fed overnight!”

In real life, as on the stage, comedy and tragedy oft go hand in hand.  But the speckled hen deserved a good meal.  Her entrance undoubtedly stemmed the floodtide of her owner’s patriotic wrath, and thus enabled the five people in the kitchen to overhear a hoarse cry from the roadway:  “Hi, there, dümmer Esel! whither goest thou?  This is Joos’s mill.”

“Quick, Leontine!” cried Joos.  “To the second loft with them!  Sharp, now!”

In this unexpected crisis, Dalroy could neither protest nor refuse to accompany the girl, who led him and Irene up a back stair and through a well-stored granary to a ladder which communicated with a trap-door.

“I’ll bring you some coffee and eggs as soon as I can,” she whispered.  “Draw up the ladder, and close the door.  It’s not so bad up there.  There’s a window, but take care you aren’t seen.  Maybe,” she added tremulously, “you are safer than we now.”

Dalroy realised that it was best to obey.

“Courage, mademoiselle!” he said.  “God is still in heaven, and all will be well with the world.”

“Please, monsieur, what became of Jan Maertz?” she inquired timidly.

“I’m not quite certain, but I think he fell clear of the wagon.  The Germans should not have ill-treated him.  The collision was not his fault.”

The girl sobbed, and left them.  Probably the gruff Walloon was her lover.

Irene climbed first.  Dalroy followed, raised the ladder noiselessly, and lowered the trap.  His brow was seamed with foreboding, as, despite his desire to leave his companion in the care of the miller’s household, he had an instinctive feeling that he was acting unwisely.  Moreover, like every free man, he preferred to seek the open when in peril.  Now he felt himself caged.

Therefore was he amazed when Irene laughed softly.  “How readily you translate Browning into French!” she said.

He gazed at her in wonderment.  Less than an hour ago she had fainted under the stress of hunger and dread, yet here was she talking as though they had met in the breakfast-room of an English country house.  He would have said something, but the ancient mill trembled under the sudden crash of artillery.  The roof creaked, the panes of glass in the dormer window rattled, and fragments of mortar fell from the walls.  Unmindful, for the moment, of Leontine Joos’s warning, Dalroy went to the window, which commanded a fine view of the town, river, and opposite heights.

The pontoon bridge was broken.  Several pontoons were in splinters.  The others were swinging with the current toward each bank.  Six Belgian field-pieces had undone the night’s labour, and a lively rat-tat of rifles, mixed with the stutter of machine guns, proved that the defenders were busy among the Germans trapped on the north bank.  The heavier ordnance brought to the front by the enemy soon took up the challenge; troops occupying the town, which, for the most part, lies on the south bank, began to cover the efforts of the engineers, instantly renewed.  History was being written in blood that morning on both sides of the Meuse.  The splendid defence offered by a small Belgian force was thwarting the advance of the 9th German Army Corps.  Similarly, the 10th and 7th were being held up at Verviers and on the direct road from Aix to Liege respectively.  All this meant that General Leman, the heroic commander-in-chief at Liege, was given most precious time to garrison that strong fortress, construct wire entanglements, lay mines, and destroy roads and railways, which again meant that Von Emmich’s sledge-hammer blows with three army corps failed to overwhelm Liege in accordance with the dastardly plan drawn up by the German staff.

Dalroy, though he might not realise the marvellous fact then, was in truth a spectator of a serious German defeat.  Even in the conditions, he was aglow with admiration for the pluck of the Belgians in standing up so valiantly against the merciless might of Germany.  The window was dust-laden as the outcome of earlier gun-fire, and he was actually on the point of opening it when Irene stopped him.

“Those men below may catch sight of you,” she said.

He stepped back hurriedly.  Two forage-carts had been brought into the yard, and preparations were being made to load them with oats and hay.  A truculent-looking sergeant actually lifted his eyes to that particular window.  But he could not see through the dimmed panes, and was only estimating the mill’s probable contents.

Dalroy laughed constrainedly.  “You are the better soldier of the two,” he said.  “I nearly blundered.  Still, I wish the window was open.  I want to size up the chances of the Belgians.  Those are bigger guns which are answering, and a duel between big guns and little ones can have only one result.”

Seemingly, the German battery of quick-firers had located its opponents, because the din now became terrific.  As though in response to Dalroy’s desire, three panes of glass fell out owing to atmospheric concussion, and the watchers in the loft could follow with ease the central phase of the struggle.  The noise of the battle was redoubled by the accident to the window, and the air-splitting snarl of the high-explosive shells fired by the 5.9’s in the effort to destroy the Belgian guns was specially deafening.  That sound, more than any other, seemed to affect Irene’s nerves.  Involuntarily she clung to Dalroy’s arm, and he, with no other intent than to reassure her, drew her trembling form close.

It was evident that the assailants were suffering heavy losses.  Scores of men fell every few minutes among the bridge-builders, while casualties were frequent among the troops lining the quays.  Events on the Belgian side of the river were not so marked; but even Irene could make out the precise moment when the defenders’ fire slackened, and the line of pontoons began to reach out again toward the farther shore.

“Are the poor Belgians beaten, then?” she asked, with a tender sympathy which showed how lightly she estimated her own troubles in comparison with the agony of a whole nation.

“I think not,” said Dalroy.  “I imagine they have changed the position of some, at least, of their guns, and will knock that bridge to smithereens again just as soon as it nears completion.”

The forage-carts rumbled out of the yard.  Dalroy noticed that the soldiers wore linen covers over the somewhat showy Pickel-hauben, though the regiments he had seen in Aix-la-Chapelle swaggered through the streets in their ordinary helmets.  This was another instance of German thoroughness.  The invisibility of the gray-green uniform was not so patent when the Pickel-haube lent its glint, but no sooner had the troops crossed the frontier than the linen cover was adjusted, and the masses of men became almost merged in the browns and greens of the landscape.

The two were so absorbed in the drama being fought out before their eyes that they were quite startled by a series of knocks on the boarded floor.  Dalroy crept to the trap door and listened.  Then, during an interval between the salvoes of artillery, he heard Leontine’s voice, “Monsieur!  Mademoiselle!”

He pulled up the trap.  Beneath stood Leontine, with a long pole in her hands.  Beside her, on the floor, was a laden tray.

“I’ve brought you something to eat,” she said.  “Father thinks you had better remain there at present.  The Germans say they will soon cross the river, as they intend taking Liege to-night.”

Not until they had eaten some excellent rolls and butter, with boiled eggs, and drank two cups of hot coffee, did they realise how ravenously hungry they were.  Then Dalroy persuaded Irene to lie down on a pile of sacks, and, amid all the racket of a fierce engagement, she slept the sleep of sheer exhaustion.  Thus he was left on guard, as it were, and saw the pontoons once more demolished.

After that he, too, curled up against the wall and slept.  The sound of rifle shots close at hand awoke him.  His first care was for the girl, but she lay motionless.  Then he looked out.  There was renewed excitement in the main road, but only a few feet of it was visible from the attic.  A number of women and children ran past, all screaming, and evidently in a state of terror.  Several houses in the town were on fire, and the smoke hung over the river in such clouds as to obscure the north bank.

Old Henri Joos came hurriedly into the yard.  He was gesticulating wildly, and Dalroy heard a door bang as he vanished.  Refusing to be penned up any longer without news of what was happening, Dalroy lowered the ladder, and, after ascertaining that Irene was still asleep, descended.  He made his way to the kitchen, pausing only to find out whether or not it held any German soldiers.

Joos’s shrill voice, raised in malediction of all Prussians, soon decided that fact.  He spoke in the local patois, but straightway branched off into French interlarded with German when Dalroy appeared.

“Those hogs!” he almost screamed.  “Those swine-dogs!  They can’t beat our brave boys of the 3rd Regiment, so what do you think they’re doing now?  Murdering men, women, and children out of mere spite.  The devils from hell pretended that the townsfolk were shooting at them, so they began to stab, and shoot, and burn in all directions.  The officers are worse than the men.  Three came here in an automobile, and marked on the gate that the mill was not to be burnt they want my grain, you see and, as they were driving off again, young Jan Smit ran by.  Poor lad, he was breathless with fear.  They asked him if he had seen another car like theirs, but he could only stutter.  One of them laughed, and said, ’I’ll work a miracle, and cure him.’  Then he whipped out a revolver and shot the boy dead.  Some soldiers with badges on their arms saw this.  One of them yelled, ‘Man hat geschossen’ (’The people have been shooting’), though it was their own officer who fired, and he and the others threw little bombs into the nearest cottages, and squirted petrol in through the windows.  Madame Didier, who has been bedridden for years, was burnt alive in that way.  They have a regular corps of men for the job.  Then, ‘to punish the town,’ as they said, they took twenty of our chief citizens, lined them up in the market-place, and fired volleys at them.  There was Dupont, and the Abbe Courvoisier, and Monsieur Philippe the notary, and ah, mon Dieu, I don’t know all my old friends.  The Prussian beasts will come here soon. Wife!  Leontine! how can I save you?  They are devils devils, I tell you devils mad with drink and anger.  A few scratches in chalk on our gate won’t hold them back.  They may be here any moment.  You, mademoiselle, had better go with Leontine here and drown yourselves in the mill dam.  Heaven help me, that is the only advice a father can give!”

Dalroy turned.  Irene stood close behind.  She knew when he left the garret, and had followed swiftly.  She confessed afterwards that she thought he meant to carry out his self-denying project, and leave her.

“You are mistaken, Monsieur Joos,” she said now, speaking with an aristocratic calm which had an immediate effect on the miller and his distraught womenfolk.  “You do not know the German soldier.  He is a machine that obeys orders.  He will kill, or not kill, exactly as he is bidden.  If your house has been excepted it is absolutely safe.”

She was right.  The mill was one of the places in Vise spared by German malice that day.  A well-defined section of the little town was given up to murder, and loot, and fire, and rapine.  Scenes were enacted which are indescribable.  A brutal soldiery glutted its worst passions on an unarmed and defenceless population.  The hour was near when some hysterical folk would tell of the apparition of angels at Mons; but old Henri Joos was unquestionably right when he spoke of the presence of devils in Vise.