Read CHAPTER V - BILLETS of The Day of Wrath A Story of 1914, free online book, by Louis Tracy, on ReadCentral.com.

The miller’s volcanic outburst seemed to have exhausted itself; he subsided to the oaken bench, leaned forward, elbows on knees, and thrust his clenched fists against his ears as though he would shut out the deafening clamour of the guns.  This attitude of dejection evidently alarmed Madame Joos.  She forgot her own fears in solicitude for her husband.  Bending over him, she patted his shoulder with a maternal hand, since every woman is at heart a mother a mother first and essentially.

“Maybe the lady is right, Henri,” she said tenderly.  “Young as she is, she may understand these things better than countryfolk like us.”

“Ah, Lise,” he moaned, “you would have dropped dead had you seen poor Dupont.  He wriggled for a long minute after he fell.  And the Abbe, with his white hair!  Some animal of a Prussian fired at his face.”

“Don’t talk about it,” urged his wife.  “It is bad for you to get so excited.  Remember, the doctor warned you ”

“The doctor!  Dr. Lafarge!  A soldier hammered on the surgery door with the butt of his rifle, and, when the doctor came out, twirled the rifle and stabbed him right through the body.  I saw it.  It was like a conjuring trick.  I was giving an officer some figures about the contents of the mill.  The doctor screamed, and clutched at the bayonet with both hands.  And who do you think the murderer was?”

Madame Joos’s healthy red cheeks had turned a ghastly yellow, but she contrived to stammer, “Dieu! The poor doctor!  But how should I know?”

“The barber, Karl Schwartz.”

“Karl a soldier!”

“More, a sergeant.  He lived and worked among us ten years a spy.  It was the doctor who got him fined for beating his wife.  No wonder Monsieur Lafarge used to say there were too many Germans in Belgium.  The officer I was talking to watched the whole thing.  He was a fat man, and wore spectacles for writing.  He lifted them, and screwed up his eyes, so, like a pig, to read the letters on the brass door-plate. ‘Almaechtig!’ he said, grinning, ‘a successful operation on a doctor by a patient.’  I saw red.  I felt in my pocket for a knife.  I meant to rip open his paunch.  Then one of our shells burst near us, and he scuttled.  The wind of the explosion knocked me over, so I came home.”

The two, to some extent, were using the local patois; but their English hearers understood nearly every word, because these residents on the Belgian border mingle French, German, and a Low Dutch dialect almost indiscriminately.  Dalroy at once endeavoured to divert the old man’s thoughts.  The massacre which had been actually permitted, or even organised, in the town by daylight would probably develop into an orgy that night.  Not one woman now, but three, required protection.  He must evolve some definite plan which could be carried out during the day, because the hordes of cavalry pressing toward the Meuse would soon deplete Joos’s mill; and when the place ceased to be of value to the commissariat the protecting order would almost certainly be revoked.  Moreover, Leontine Joos was young and fairly attractive.

In a word, Dalroy was beginning to understand the psychology of the German soldier in war-time.

“Let us think of the immediate future,” he struck in boldly.  “You have a wife and daughter to safeguard, Monsieur Joos, while I have Mademoiselle Beresford on my hands.  Your mill is on the outskirts of the town.  Is there no village to the west, somewhere out of the direct line, to which they could be taken for safety?”

“The west!” growled Joos, springing up again, “isn’t that where these savages are going?  That is the way to Liege.  I asked the officer.  He said they would be in Liege to-night, and in Paris in three weeks.”

“Is it true that England has declared war?”

“So they say.  But the Prussians laugh.  You have no soldiers, they tell us, and their fleet is nearly as strong as yours.  They think they have caught you napping, and that is why they are coming through Belgium.  Paris first, then the coast, and they’ve got you.  For the love of Heaven, monsieur, is it true that you have no army?”

Dalroy was stung into putting Britain’s case in the best possible light.  “Not only have we an army, every man of which is worth three Germans at a fair estimate; but if England has come into this war she will not cease fighting until Prussia grovels in the mud at her feet.  How can you, a Belgian, doubt England’s good faith?  Hasn’t England maintained your nation in freedom for eighty years?”

“True, true!  But the Prussians are sure of victory, and one’s heart aches when one sees them sweep over the land like a pestilence.  I haven’t told you one-tenth ”

“Why frighten these ladies needlessly?  The gun-fire is bad enough.  You and I are men, Monsieur Joos.  We must try and save our women.”

The miller was spirited, and the implied taunt struck home.

“It’s all very well talking in that way,” he cried; “but what’s going to happen to you if a German sees you? Que diable! You look like an Aachen carriage-cleaner, don’t you, with your officer air and commanding voice, and your dandy boots, and your fine clothes showing when the workman’s smock opens!  The lady, too, in a cheap shawl, wearing a blouse and skirt that cost hundreds of francs! Leontine, take monsieur ”

“Dalroy.”

“Take Monsieur Dalroy to Jan Maertz’s room, and let him put on Jan’s oldest clothes and a pair of sabots.  Jan’s clogs will just about fit him.  And give mademoiselle one of your old dresses.”

He whirled round on Dalroy.  “What became of Jan Maertz?  Did the Germans really kill him?  Tell us the truth.  Leontine, there, had better know.”

“I think he is safe,” said Dalroy.  “I have already explained to your daughter how the accident came about which separated us.  Maertz was pulled out of the driver’s seat by the reins when the horses plunged and upset the wagon.  He may arrive any hour.”

“The Germans didn’t know, then, that you and the lady were in the cart?”

“No.”

“I hope Jan hasn’t told them.  That would be awkward.  But what matter?  You talk like a true man, and I’ll do my best for you.  It’s nothing but nonsense to think of getting away from Vise yet.  You’re a Liegeois whom I hired to do Jan’s work while he went to Aix.  Everybody in Vise knows he went there four days ago.  I can’t lift heavy sacks of grain at my age, and I must have a man’s help.  You see?  Sharp, now.  When that fat fellow gets his puff again he’ll be here for more supplies.  And mind you don’t wash your face and hands.  You’re far too much of a gentleman as it is.”

“One moment,” interrupted Irene.  “I want your promise, Captain Dalroy, that you will not go away without telling me.”

She could not guess how completely old Joos’s broken story of the day’s events in Vise had changed Dalroy’s intent.

“I would as soon think of cutting off my right hand,” he said.

Their eyes met and clashed.  It was dark in the mill’s kitchen, even at midday; but the girl felt that the tan of travel and exposure on her face was yielding to a deep crimson.  “Come, Leontine,” she cried almost gaily, “show me how to wear one of your frocks.  I’ll do as much for you some day in London.”

“You be off, too,” growled Joos to Dalroy.  “When the Germans come they must see you about the place.”

The old man was shrewd in his way.  The sooner these strangers became members of the household the less likely were they to attract attention.

Thus it came about that both Dalroy and Irene were back in the kitchen, and clothed in garments fully in keeping with their new roles, when a commissariat wagon entered the yard.  A Bavarian corporal did not trouble to open the door in the ordinary way.  He smashed the latch with his shoulder.  “Why is this door closed?” he demanded fiercely.

“Monsieur ” began Joos.

“Speak German, you swine!”

“I forgot the order, Herr Kaporal.  As you see, it was only on the latch.”

“Don’t let it happen again.  Load the first wagon with hay and the second with flour.  While you’re at it, these women can cook us a meal.  Where do you keep your wine?”

“Everything will be put on the table, mons Herr Kaporal.”

“None of your lip! Here, you, the pretty one, show me the wine-cupboard.  I’ll make my own selection.  We Bavarians are famous judges of good wine and pretty women, let me tell you.”

The corporal’s wit was highly appreciated by the squad of four men who accompanied him.  They had all been drinking.  It is a notable fact that during the early days of the invasion of Belgium and France in effect, while wine and brandy were procurable by theft the army which boasts the strictest discipline of any in the world was unquestionably the most drunken that has ever waged successful war.

Irene was “the pretty one” chosen as guide by this hulking connoisseur, but she knew how to handle boors of his type.

“You must not talk in that style to a girl from Berlin,” she said icily.  “You and your men will take what is given you, or I’ll find your oberleutnant, and hear what he has to say about it.”

She spoke purposely in perfect German, and the corporal was vastly surprised.

“Pardon, gnaediges Fraeulein,” he mumbled with a clumsy bow.  “I no offence meant.  We will within come when the meal is ready.  About turn!” The enemy was routed.

The miller and his man worked hard until dusk.  The fat officer turned up, and lost no opportunity of ogling the two girls.  He handed Joos a payment docket, which, he explained grandiloquently, would be honoured by the military authorities in due course.  Joos pocketed the document with a sardonic grin.  There was some fifteen thousand francs’ worth of grain and forage stored on the premises, and he did not expect to see a centime of hard cash from the Germans, unless, as he whispered grimly to Dalroy, they were forced to pay double after the war.  Meanwhile the place was gutted.  Wagon after wagon came empty and went away loaded.

Driblets of news were received.  The passage of the Meuse had been achieved, thanks to a flanking movement from Argenteau.  Liege had fallen at the first attack.  The German High Sea Fleet was escorting an army in transports to invade England, where, meanwhile, Zeppelins were destroying London.  Vise, having been sufficiently “punished” for a first offence, would now be spared so long as the inhabitants “behaved themselves.”  If a second “lesson” were needed it would be something to remember.

The first and last of these items were correct, inasmuch as they represented events and definite orders affecting the immediate neighbourhood.  Otherwise, the budget consisted of ever more daring flights of Teutonic imagination, the crescendo swelling by distance.  Liege was so far from having fallen that the 7th Division, deprived of the support of the 9th and 10th Divisions, had been beaten back disastrously from the shallow trenches in front of the outer girdle of forts.  The 10th was about to share the same fate; and the 9th, after being delayed nearly three days by the glorious resistance offered by the Belgians at Vise, was destined to fare likewise.  But rumour as to the instant “capture” of Liege was not rife among the lower ranks alone of the German army.  The commander-in-chief actually telegraphed the news to the All-Highest at Aix; when the All-Highest discovered the truth the commander-in-chief decided that he had better blow his brains out, and did.

The fact was that the overwhelming horde of invaders could not be kept out of the city of Liege by the hastily mobilised Belgian army; but the heroic governor, General Leman, held the ring of forts intact until they were pulverised by the heavy ordnance of which Dalroy had seen two specimens during the journey to Cologne.  Many days were destined to elapse before the last of the strongholds, Fort Loncin, crumbled into ruins by the explosion of its own magazine; and until that was achieved the mighty army of Germany dared not advance another kilometre to the west.

When the Bavarian corporal had gone through every part of the house and outbuildings, and satisfied himself that the only stores left were some potatoes and a half-bag of flour, he informed the miller that he and his squad would be billeted there that evening.

“Your pantry is bare,” he said, “but the wine is all right, so we’ll bring a joint which we ‘planted’ this morning.  Be decent about the wine, and your folk can have a cut in, too.”

Possibly he meant to be civil, and there was a chance that the night might pass without incident.  Vise itself was certainly quiet save for the unceasing stream of troops making for the pontoon bridge.  The fighting seemed to have shifted to the west and south-west, and Joos put an unerring finger on the situation when he said pithily, “Liege is making a deuce of a row after being taken.”

“How many forts are there around the city?” inquired Dalroy.

“Twelve, big and little.  Pontisse and Barchon cover the Meuse on this side, and Fleron and Evegnee bar the direct road from Aix.  Unless I am greatly in error, monsieur, the German wolf is breaking his teeth on some of them at this minute.”

Liege itself was ten miles distant; Pontisse, the nearest fort, though on the left bank of the river, barely six.  The evening was still, there being only a slight breeze from the south-west, which brought the loud thunder of the guns and the crackle of rifle-fire.  It was the voice of Belgium proclaiming to the high gods that she was worthy of life.

The Bavarians came with their “joint,” a noble piece of beef hacked off a whole side looted from a butcher’s shop.  Madame Joos cut off an ample quantity, some ten pounds, and put it in the oven.  The girls peeled potatoes and prepared cabbages.  In half-an-hour the kitchen had an appetising smell of food being cooked, the men were smoking, and a casual visitor would never have resolved the gathering into its constituent elements of irreconcilable national hatreds.

The corporal even tried to make amends for having damaged the door.  He examined the broken latch.  “It’s a small matter,” he said apologetically.  “You can repair it for a trifle; and, in any case, you will sleep all the better that we are here.”

Though somewhat maudlin with liquor, he was very much afraid of the “girl from Berlin.”  He could not sum her up, but meant to behave himself; while his men, of course, followed his lead unquestioningly.

Dalroy kept in the background.  He listened, but said hardly anything.  The turn of fortune’s wheel was distinctly favourable.  If the night ended as it had begun there was a chance that he and Irene might slip away to the Dutch frontier next morning, since he had ascertained definitely that Holland was secure for the time, and was impartially interning all combatants, either Germans or Belgians, who crossed the border.  At this time he was inclined to abandon his own project of striving to steal through the German lines.  He was somewhat weary, too, after the unusual labour of carrying heavy sacks of grain and flour down steep ladders or lowering them by a pulley.  Thus, he dozed off in a corner, but was aroused suddenly by the entry of the commissariat officer and three subalterns.  With them came an orderly, who dumped a laden basket and a case of champagne on the floor.

The corporal and his satellites sprang to attention.

The fat man took the salute, and glanced around the kitchen.  Then he sniffed.  “What! roast beef?” he said.  “The men fare better than the officers, it would seem. Be off, you!”

“Herr Major, we are herein billeted,” stuttered the corporal.

“Be off, I tell you, and take these Belgian swine with you!  I make my quarters here to-night.”

Joos, of course, he recognised; and the miller said, with some dignity, that the gentlemen would be made as comfortable as his resources permitted, but he must remain in his own house.

The fat man stared at him, as though such insolence were unheard-of.  “Here,” he roared to the corporal, “pitch this old hog into the Meuse.  He annoys me.”

Meanwhile, one of the younger officers, a strapping Westphalian, lurched toward Irene.  She did not try to avoid him, thinking, perhaps, that a passive attitude was advisable.  He caught her by the waist, and guffawed to his companions, “Didn’t I offer to bet you fellows that Busch never made a mistake about a woman?  Who’d have dreamed of finding a beauty like this one in a rotten old mill?”

The Bavarians had collected their rifles and sidearms, and were going out sullenly.  Each of the officers carried a sword and revolver.

Irene saw that Dalroy had risen in his corner.  She wrenched herself free.  “How am I to prepare supper for you gentlemen if you bother me in this way?” she demanded tartly.

“Behave yourself, Fritz,” puffed the major.  “Is that your idea of keeping your word? Mama, if she is discreet, will go to bed, and the young ones will eat with us. Open that case of wine, orderly.  I’m thirsty. The girls will have a drink too.  Cooking is warm work. Hallo!  What the devil!  Kaporal, didn’t you hear my order?”

Dalroy grabbed Joos, who was livid with rage.  The two girls were safe for the hour, and must endure the leering of four tipsy scoundrels.  A row at the moment would be the wildest folly.

“March!” he said gruffly.  “The oberleutnant doesn’t want us here.”

Le brave Belge knows when to clear out,” grinned one of the younger men, giving Dalroy an odiously suggestive wink.

Somehow, the fact that Dalroy took command abated the women’s terror; even the intractable Joos yielded.  Soon the two were in the yard with the dispossessed Bavarians, these latter being in the worst of temper, as they had now to search for both bed and supper.  They strode away without giving the least heed to their presumed prisoners.

Joos, like most men of choleric disposition, was useless in a crisis of this sort.  He gibbered with rage.  He wanted to attack the intruders at once with a pitchfork.

Dalroy shook him to quieten his tongue.  “You must listen to me,” he said sternly.

The old man’s eyes gleamed up into his.  In the half-light of the gloaming they had the sheen of polished gold.  “Monsieur,” he whimpered, “save my little girl!  Save her, I implore you.  You English are lions in battle.  You are big and strong.  I’ll help.  Between us we can stick the four of them.”

Dalroy shook him again.  “Stop talking, and listen,” he growled wrathfully.  “Not another word here!  Come this way!” He drew the miller into an empty stable, whence the kitchen door and the window were in view.  “Now,” he muttered, “gather your wits, and answer my questions.  Have you any hidden weapons?  A pitchfork is too awkward for a fight in a room.”

“I had nothing but a muzzle-loading gun, monsieur.  I gave it up on the advice of the burgomaster.  They’ve killed him.”

“Very well.  Remain here on guard.  I’ll go and fetch a rifle and bayonet.  Nothing will happen to the women till these brutes have eaten, and have more wine in them.  Don’t you understand?  The younger men have made a hellish compact with their senior.  You heard that, didn’t you?”

“Yes, yes, monsieur.  Who could fail to know what they meant?  Surely the good God sent you to Vise to-day!”

“Promise, now!  No interference till I return, even though the women are frightened.  You’ll only lose your life to no purpose.  I’ll not be long away.”

“I promise.  But, monsieur, pour l’amour de Dieu, let me stick that fat Busch!”

Dalroy was in such a fume to secure a reliable arm that he rather neglected the precautions of a soldier moving through the enemy’s country.  It was still possible to see clearly for some distance ahead.  Although the right bank of the Meuse that night was overrun with the Kaiser’s troops along a front of nearly twenty miles, the ravine, with its gurgling rivulet, was one of those peaceful oases which will occur in the centre of the most congested battlefield.  Now that the crash of the guns had passed sullenly to a distance, white-tailed rabbits scurried across the path; some stray sheep, driven from the uplands by the day’s tumult, gathered in a group and looked inquiringly at the intruder; a weasel, stalking a selected rabbit as is his piratical way, elected to abandon the chase and leap for a tree.

These very signs showed that none other had breasted the slope recently, so Dalroy strode out somewhat carelessly.  Nevertheless, he was endowed with no small measure of that sixth sense which every shikari must possess who would hunt either his fellowmen or the beasts of the jungle.  He was passing a dense clump of brambles and briars when a man sprang at him.  He had trained himself to act promptly in such circumstances, and had decided long ago that to remain on the same ground, or even try to retreat, was courting disaster.  His plan was to jump sideways, and, if practicable, a little nearer an assailant.  The sabots rendered him less nimble than usual, but the dodge quite disconcerted an awkward opponent.  The vicious downward sweep of a heavy cudgel just missed his left shoulder, and he got home with the right in a half-arm jab which sent the recipient sprawling and nearly into the stream.

Dalroy made after him, seized the fallen stick, and recognised Jan Maertz!  “How now,” he said wrathfully, “are you, too, a Prussian?”

Jan raised a hand to ward off the expected blow. “Caput!” he cried.  “I’m done!  You must be the devil!  But may the Lord help my poor master and mistress, and the little Leontine!”

“That is my wish also, sheep’s-head!  What evil have I done you, then, that you should want to brain me at sight?”

“They’re after you the Germans.  They mean to catch you, dead or alive.  A lieutenant of the Guard pulled me away from in front of a firing-party, and gave me my life on condition that I ran you down.”

Here was an extraordinary development.  It was vitally important that Dalroy should get to know the exact meaning of the Walloon’s disjointed utterances, yet how could he wait and question the man while the Prussian sultans were feasting in the mill?

Dalroy stooped over Maertz, who had risen to his knees, and caught him by the shoulder.  “Jan Maertz,” he said, “do you hope to marry Leontine Joos?  If so, Heaven has just prevented you from committing a great crime.  She, and her mother, and the lady who came with me from Aix, are in the mill with four German officers a set of foul, drunken brutes who will stop at no excess.  I’m going now to get a rifle.  You make quietly for the stable opposite the kitchen door.  You will find Joos there.  He will explain.  Tell me, are you for Belgium or Germany in this war?”

The Walloon might be slow-witted, but Dalroy’s words seemed to have pierced his skin.

“For Belgium, monsieur, to the death,” he answered.

“So am I. I’m an Englishman.  As you go, think what that means.”

Leaving Maertz to regain his feet and the stick, Dalroy rushed on up the hill.  The unexpected struggle had cost him but little delay; yet it was dark, and the miller was nearly frantic with anxiety, when he returned.

“Is Maertz with you?” was his first question.

“Yes, monsieur,” came a gruff voice out of the gloom of the stable.

“Do you know now how nearly you blundered?”

“Monsieur, I would have tackled St. Peter to save Leontine.”

“Quick!” hissed Joos, “let us kill these hogs!  We have no time to spare.  The others will be here soon.”

“What others?”

“Jan will tell you later.  Come, now.  Leave Busch to me!”

“Keep quiet!” ordered Dalroy sternly.  “We cannot murder four men in cold blood.  I’ll listen over there by the window.  You two remain here till I call you.”

But there was no need for eavesdropping.  Leontine’s voice was raised shrilly above the loud-clanging talk and laughter of the uninvited guests.  “No, no, my mother must stay!” she was shrieking.  “Monsieur, for God’s sake, leave my mother alone!  Ah, you are hurting her. Father! father! Oh, what shall we do?  Is there no one to help us?”