Read CHAPTER VI - THE FIGHT IN THE MILL of The Day of Wrath A Story of 1914, free online book, by Louis Tracy, on ReadCentral.com.

As Dalroy burst open the door, which was locked, the heartrending screams of the three women mingled with the vile oaths of their assailants.  He had foreseen that the door would probably be fastened, and put his whole strength into the determination to force the bolt without warning.  The scene which met his eyes as he rushed into the room was etched in Rembrandt lights and shadows by a lamp placed in the centre of the table.

Near a staircase not that which led to the lofts, but the main stairway of the domestic part of the dwelling Madame Joos was struggling in the grip of the orderly and one of the lieutenants.  Another of these heroes they all belonged to a Westphalian detachment of the commissariat was endeavouring to overpower Irene.  His left arm pinned her left arm to her waist; his right arm had probably missed a similar hold, because the girl’s right arm was free.  She had seized his wrist, and was striving to ward off a brutal effort to prevent her from shrieking.  Busch, that stout satyr, was seated.  Dalroy learnt subsequently that the sudden hubbub arose because Irene resisted his attempt to pull her on to his knee.  The last of the younger men was clasping Leontine to his breast with rascally intent to squeeze the breath out of her until she was unable to struggle further.

Now Dalroy had to decide in the fifth part of a second whence danger would first come, and begin the attack there.  The four officers had laid aside their swords, but the lieutenants had retained belts and revolvers.  Busch, as might be expected, was only too pleased to get rid of his equipment.  His tunic was unbuttoned, so that he might gorge at ease.  Somehow, Dalroy knew that Irene would not free the hand which was now closing on her mouth.  The two Walloons carried short forks with four prongs Joos had taken to heart the Englishman’s comment on the disadvantage of a pitchfork for close fighting and Jan Maertz might be trusted to deal with the ruffian who was nearly strangling Leontine.  There remained the gallant lieutenant whose sense of humour permitted the belief that the best way to force onward a terrified elderly woman was to plant a knee against the small of her back.  He had looked around at once when the door flew open, and his right hand was already on the butt of an automatic pistol.  Him, therefore, Dalroy bayoneted so effectually that a startled oath changed into a dreadful howl ere the words left his lips.  The orderly happened to be nearer than the officer, so, as the bayonet did its work, Dalroy kicked the lout’s feet from under him, and thrust him through the body while on the floor.  A man who had once won the Dholepur Cup, which is competed for by the most famous pig-stickers in India, knew how to put every ounce of weight behind the keen point of a lance, because an enraged boar is the quickest and most courageous fighter among all the fierce creatures of the jungle.  But he was slightly too near his quarry; the bayonet reached the stone floor through the man’s body, and snapped at the forte.

Then he wheeled, and made for Irene’s assailant.

The instant Dalroy appeared at the door the girl had caught the Prussian’s thumb in her strong teeth, and not only bit him to the bone but held on.  With a loud bellow of “Help!  Come quickly!” he released her, and struck fiercely with his left hand.  Yet this gentle girl, who had never taken part in any more violent struggle than a school romp, had the presence of mind to throw herself backward, and thus discount the blow, while upsetting her adversary’s balance.  But her clenched teeth did not let go.  It came out long afterwards that she was a first-rate gymnast.  One day, moved by curiosity on seeing some performance in a circus, she had essayed the stage trick of hanging head downward from a cross-bar, and twirling around another girl’s body girdled by a strap working on a swivel attached to a strong pad which she bit resolutely.  Then she discovered a scientific fact which very few people are aware of.  The jaw is, perhaps, the strongest part of the human frame, and can exercise a power relatively far greater than that of the hands.  Of course, she could not have held out for long, but she did thwart and delay the maddened Prussian during two precious seconds.  Even when he essayed to choke her she still contrived to save herself by seizing his free hand.

By that time Dalroy had leaped to the rescue.  Shortening the rifle in the way familiar to all who have practised the bayonet exercise, he drove it against the Prussian’s neck.  The jagged stump inflicted a wound which looked worse than it was; but the mere shock of the blow robbed the man of his senses, and he fell like a log.

In order to come within striking distance, Dalroy had to jump over Busch.  Old Joos, piping in a weird falsetto, had sprung at the fat major and spitted him in the stomach with all four prongs of the fork.  Busch toppled over backward with a fearsome howl, the chair breaking under his weight combined with a frantic effort to escape.  The miller went with him, and dug the terrible weapon into his soft body as though driving it into a truss of straw.  Maertz, a lusty fellow, had made shorter work of his man, because one prong had reached the German’s heart, and he was stilled at once.  But Joos thrust and thrust again, even using a foot to bury the fork to its shoulder.

This was the most ghastly part of a thrilling episode.  Busch writhed on the floor, screaming shrilly for mercy, and striving vainly to stay with his hands the deadly implement from eating into his vitals.

That despairing effort gave the miller a ghoulish satisfaction.  “Aha!” he chortled, “you laughed at Lafarge!  Laugh now, you swine! That’s for the doctor, and that’s for my wife, and that’s for my daughter, and that’s for me!”

Dalroy did not attempt to stop him.  These men must die.  They had come to the mill to destroy; it was just retribution that they themselves should be destroyed.  His coolness in this crisis was not the least important factor in a situation rife with peril.  His method of attack had converted a fight against heavy odds into a speedy and most effectual slaughter.  But that was only the beginning.  Even while the frenzied yelling of the squirming Busch was subsiding into a frothy gurgle he went to the door and listened.  A battery of artillery was passing at a trot, and creating din enough to drown the cries of a hundred Busches.

He looked back over his shoulder.  Madame Joos was on her knees, praying.  The poor woman had no thought but that her last hour had come.  Happily, she was spared the sight of her husband’s vengeance.  Happily, too, none of the women fainted.  Leontine was panting and sobbing in Maertz’s arms.  Irene, leaning against the wall near the fireplace, was gazing now at Joos, now at the fallen man at her feet, now at Dalroy.  But her very soul was on fire.  She, too, had yielded to the madness of a life-and-death struggle.  Her eyes were dilated.  Her bosom rose and fell with laboured breathing.  Her teeth were still clenched, her lips parted as though she dreaded to find some loathsome taste on them.

Maertz seemed to have retained his senses, so Dalroy appealed to him.  “Jan,” he said quietly, “we must go at once.  Get your master and the others outside.  Then extinguish the lamp.  Hurry!  We haven’t a second to spare.”

Joos heard.  Satisfied now that the fork had been effective, he straightened his small body and said shrilly, “You go, if you like.  I’ll not leave my money to be burnt with my house. Now, wife, stir yourself.  Where’s that key?”

The familiar voice roused Madame Joos from a stupor of fear.  She fumbled in her bodice, and produced a key attached to a chain of fine silver.  Her husband mounted nimbly on a chair, ran a finger along one of the heavy beams which roofed the kitchen, found a cunningly hidden keyhole, and unlocked a long, narrow receptacle which had been scooped out of the wood.  A more ingenious, accessible, yet unlikely hiding-place for treasure could not readily be imagined.  He took out a considerable sum of money in notes, gold, and silver.  Though a man of wealth, with a substantial account in the state bank, he still retained the peasant’s love of a personal hoard.

Stowing away the money in various pockets, Joos got down off the chair.  Busch was dying, but he was not unconscious.  He had even watched the miller’s actions with a certain detached curiosity, and the old fellow seemed to become aware of the fact.  “So,” he cackled, “you saw, did you?  That should annoy you in your last hour, you fat thief. Yes, yes, monsieur, I’ll come now. Leontine, stop blubbing, and tie up that piece of beef and some bread in a napkin.  We fighting men must eat. Jan, put the bottles of champagne and the pork-pie in a basket. Leontine, run and get your own and your mother’s best shoes.  You can change them in the wood.”

“What wood?” put in Maertz.

“We can’t walk to Maestricht by the main road, you fool.”

“That’s all right for you and madame here, and for Leontine, perhaps.  But I remain in Belgium.  My friends are fighting yonder at Liege, and I’m going to join them.  And these others mustn’t try it.  The frontier is closed for them.  I was offered my life only two hours ago if I arrested them.”

“Jan!” cried Leontine indignantly.

“It’s true.  Why should I tell a lie?  I didn’t understand then the sort of game the Prussians are playing.  Now that I know ”

“Miss Beresford,” broke in Dalroy emphatically, “if these good people will not escape when they may we must leave them to their fate.”

“Do come, Monsieur Joos,” said Irene, speaking for the first time since the tragedy.  “By remaining here you risk your life to no purpose.”

“We are coming now, ma’m’selle.”

Suddenly the miller’s alert eye was caught by a spasmodic movement in the limbs of the last man whom Dalroy struck down. “Tiens!” he cried, “that fellow isn’t finished with yet.”

He was making for the prostrate form with that terrible fork when Dalroy ran swiftly, and collared him.  “Stop that!” came the angry command.  “A fair fight must not degenerate into murder.  Out you get now, or I’ll throw you out!”

Joos laughed.  “You’re making a mistake, monsieur,” he said.  “These Prussians don’t fight that way.  They’d kill you just for the fun of the thing if you were tied hand and foot.  But let the rascal live if it pleases you.  As for this one,” and he spurned Busch’s body with his foot, “he’s done.  Did you hear him?  He squealed like a pig.”

Dalroy was profoundly relieved when the automatic pistols and ammunition were collected, the lamp extinguished, the door closed, and the whole party had passed through a garden and orchard to the gloom of the ravine.  The hour was about half-past eight o’clock.  Twenty-four hours earlier he and Irene were about to leave Cologne by train, believing with some degree of confidence that they might be allowed to cross the frontier without let or hindrance!  Life was then conventional, with a spice of danger.  Now it had descended in the social scale until they ranked on a par with the dog that had gone mad and must be slain at sight.  The German code of war is a legal paraphrase of the trickster’s formula, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”  The armies of the Fatherland are ordered to practise “frightfulness,” and so terrorise the civil population that the inhabitants of the stricken country will compel their rulers to sue for peace on any terms.  But woe to that same civil population if some small section of its members resists or avenges any act of “frightfulness.”  Soldiers might murder the Widow Jaquinot and ravish her granddaughter, officers might plan a bestial orgy in the miller’s house; but Dalroy and Joos and Maertz, in punishing the one set of crimes and preventing another, had placed themselves outside the law.  Neither Joos nor Maertz cared a farthing rushlight about the moral consequences of that deadly struggle in the kitchen, but Dalroy was in different case.  He knew the certain outcome.  Small wonder if his heart was heavy and his brow seamed.  His own fate was of slight concern, since he had ceased to regard life as worth more than an hour’s purchase at any time from the moment he leaped down into the station yard at Aix-la-Chapelle.  But it was hard luck that the accident of mere association should have bound up Irene Beresford’s fortunes so irrevocably with his.  Was there no way out of the maze in which they were wandering?  What, for instance, had Jan Maertz meant by his cryptic statements?

“We must halt here,” Dalroy said authoritatively, stopping short in the shadow of a small clump of trees on the edge of the ravine, a place whence there was a fair field of view, yet so close to dense brushwood that the best of cover was available instantly if needed.

“Why?” demanded Joos.  “I know every inch of the way.”

“I want to question Maertz,” said Dalroy shortly.  “But don’t let me delay you on that account.  Indeed, I advise you to go ahead, and safeguard Madame Joos and your daughter.  I would even persuade, if I can, Mademoiselle Beresford to go with you.”

“I don’t mind listening to Jan’s yarn myself,” grunted the miller.  “And isn’t it time we had some supper?  Killing Prussians is hungry work.  Did you hear Busch?  He squealed like a pig. Leontine, cut some chunks of beef and bread, and open one of these bottles of wine.”

There was solid sense in the old man’s crude rejoinder.  Criminals about to suffer the death penalty often enjoy a good meal.  These six people, who had just escaped death, or where the women were concerned a degradation worse than death, and before whose feet the grave might yawn wide and deep at once and without warning, were nevertheless greatly in want of food.

So they ate as they talked.

Maertz’s story was coherent enough when set forth in detail.  He was dazed and shaken by the fall from the wagon; but, helped by the sentry, who bore witness that the collision was no fault of his, being the outcome of obedience to the officer’s order, he contrived to calm the startled horses.  The officer even offered to find a few men later who would help to pull the wagon out of the ditch, so Jan was told to “stand by” until the column had passed.  Meaning no harm, he asked what had become of his passengers.  This naturally evoked other questions, and a search was made, with the result that the lamp and Dalroy’s discarded sabots were found.  The lamp, of course, was numbered, and carried the initials of a German state railway; but this “exhibit” only bore out Maertz’s statement that a man from Aix had come in the wagon to explain to Joos why the consignment of oats had been so long held up in the goods yard.

In fact, a squad of soldiers had put the wagon right, and were reloading it, when the bodies of Heinrich and his companion were discovered in the stable.  Suspicion fell at once on the missing pair.  Maertz would have been shot out of hand if an infuriated officer had not recollected that by killing the Walloon he would probably destroy all chance of tracing the man who had “murdered” two of his warriors.  So Maertz was arrested, and dumped into a cellar until such time as a patrol could take him to Vise and investigate matters there.

Meanwhile the unforeseen resistance offered to the invaders along the line of the Meuse and neighbourhood of Liege was throwing the German military machine out of gear.  In this initial stage of the campaign “the best organised army in the world” was like a powerful locomotive engine fitted with every mechanical device for rapid advance, but devoid of either brakes or reversing gear.  As the 7th and 10th Divisions recoiled from the forts of Liege in something akin to disastrous defeat, congestion and confusion spread backward to the advanced base at Aix.  Hospital trains from the front compelled other trains laden with reserves and munitions to remain in sidings.  The roads became blocked.  Brigades of infantry and cavalry, long lines of guns and wagons, were halted during many hours.  Frantic staff-officers in powerful cars were alternately urging columns to advance and demanding a clear passage to the rear and the headquarters staff.  No regimental commandant dared think and act for himself.  He was merely a cog in the machine, and the machine had broken down.  Actually, the defenders of Liege held up the Kaiser’s legions only a few days, but it is no figure of speech to say that when General Leman dropped stupefied by an explosion in Fort Loncin he had established a double claim to immortality.  Not only had he shattered the proud German legend of invincibility in the field, but he had also struck a deadly blow at German strategy.  With Liege and Leman out of the way, it would seem to the student of war that the invaders must have reached Paris early in September.  They made tremendous strides later in the effort to maintain their “time-table,” but they could never overtake the days lost in the valley of the Meuse.

What a tiny pawn was Jan Maertz in this game of giants!  How little could he realise that his very existence depended on the shock of opposing empires!

The communications officer at the cross-roads had not a moment to spare for many an hour after Jan’s execution was deferred.  At last, about nightfall, when the 9th Division got into motion again, he snatched a slight breathing-space.  Remembering the prisoner, he detailed a corporal and four men to march him to Vise and make the necessary inquiries at Joos’s mill.

For Maertz’s benefit he gave the corporal precise instructions.  “If this fellow’s story is proved true, and you find the man and the woman he says he brought from Aachen, return here with the three of them, and full investigation will be made.  If no such man and woman have arrived at the mill, and the prisoner is shown to be a liar, shoot him out of hand.”

A young staff-officer, a lieutenant of the Guards, stretching his legs while his chauffeur was refilling the petrol-tank, overheard the loud-voiced order, and took a sudden and keen interest in the proceedings.

“One moment,” he said imperatively, “what’s this about a man and a woman brought from Aachen?  Who brought them?  And when?”

The other explained, laying stress, of course, on the fractured skulls of two of his best men.

“Hi, you!” cried the Guardsman to Maertz, “describe these two.”

Maertz did his best.  Dalroy, to him, was literally a railway employe; but his recollection of Irene’s appearance was fairly exact.  Moreover, he was quite reasonably irritated and alarmed by the trouble they had caused.  Then the lamp and sabots were produced, and the questioner swore mightily.

“Leave this matter entirely in my hands,” he advised his confrere.  “It is most important that these people should be captured, and this is the very fellow to do it.  I’ll promise him his life, and the safety of his friends, and pay him well into the bargain, if he helps me to get hold of that precious pair.  You see, we shall have no difficulty in catching and identifying him again if need be.  Personally, I believe he is telling the absolute truth, and is no more responsible for the killing of your men than you are.”

Lieutenant Karl von Halwig’s comparison erred only in its sheer inadequacy.  The communications officer’s responsibility was great.  He had failed to control his underlings.  He was blind and deaf to their excesses.  What matter how they treated the wretched Belgians if the road was kept clear?  It was nothing to him that an old woman should be murdered and a girl outraged so long as he kept his squad intact.

“So now you know all about it, monsieur,” concluded Maertz.  “When I met you in the ravine I thought you were escaping, and let out at you.  God be praised, you got the better of me!”

“Was the staff officer’s name Von Halwig?” inquired Dalroy.

“Name of a pipe, that’s it, monsieur!  I heard him tell it to the other pig, but couldn’t recall it.”

“And when were you to meet him?”

“He had to report to some general at Argenteau, but reckoned to reach the mill about nine o’clock.”

“Oh, father dear, let us all be going!” pleaded Leontine.

“One more word, and I have finished,” put in Dalroy.  He turned again to Maertz.  “What did you mean by saying a little while ago that the frontier is closed?”

“The lieutenant Von Halwig, is it? sent some Uhlans to the major of a regiment guarding the line opposite Holland.  He wrote a message, but I know what was in it because he told the other officer.  ’They’re making for the frontier,’ he said, ’and if they haven’t slipped through already we’ll catch them now without fail.  They mustn’t get away this time if we have to arrest and examine every Belgian in this part of the country.’”

“Ho! ho!” piped Joos, who had listened intently to Jan’s recital, “why didn’t you tell us that sooner, animal?  What chance, then, have I and madame and Leontine of dodging the rascals?”

Caput!” cried Maertz, scratching his head, “that settles it!  I never thought of that!”

“Oh, look!” whispered Leontine.  “They’re searching the mill!”

So earnest and vital was the talk that none of the others had chanced to look down the ravine.  They saw now that lights were moving in the upper rooms of the mill.  Either Von Halwig had arrived before time, or some messenger had tried to find the commissariat officers, and had raised an alarm.

Joos took charge straight away, like the masterful old fellow that he was.  “This locality isn’t good for our health,” he said.  “The night is young yet, but we must leg it to a safer place before we begin planning.  Leave nothing behind.  We may need all that food. Come, Lise,” and he grabbed his wife’s arm, “you and I will lead the way to the Argenteau wood.  The devil himself can’t track me once I get there. Trust me, monsieur, I’ll pull you through.  That lout, Jan Maertz, is all muscle and no brain.  What Leontine sees in him I can’t guess.”

For the time being, Dalroy believed that the miller might prove a resourceful guide.  Before deciding the course he personally would pursue it was absolutely essential that he should learn the lay of the land and weigh the probabilities of success or failure attached to such alternatives as were suggested.

“We had better go with our friends,” he said to Irene.  “They know the country, and I must have time for consideration before striking out a line of my own.”

“I think it would be fatal to separate,” she agreed.  “When all is said and done, what can they hope to accomplish without your help?”

Joos’s voice came to them in eager if subdued accents.  He was telling his wife how accounts were squared with Busch.  “I stuck him with the fork,” he chortled, “and he squealed like a pig!”