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

Never before in the course of a somewhat varied life had Dalroy felt so irresolute, so helplessly the victim of circumstances.  Bereft of the local knowledge possessed by Joos and the other Belgians, any scheme he adopted must depend wholly on blind chance.  The miller had described the wood as occupying a promontory in a bend of the Meuse, with steep cliffs forming the southern bank of the river.  There was a tow-path; possibly, a series of narrow ravines or clefts gave precarious access from the plateau to this lower level.  Probably, too, in the first shock of fright, the people in the hut had made for one of these cuttings, taking Irene with them.  They believed, no doubt, that the Englishman had been shot or captured, and after that spurt of musketry so alarmingly near at hand the lower part of the wood would seem alive with enemies.

Dalroy blamed himself, not the others, for this fatal bungling.  Before snatching a much-needed rest he ought to have arranged with Joos a practicable line of retreat in the event of a night alarm.  Of course he had imposed silence on all as a sort of compulsory relief from the tension of the earlier hours, but he saw now that he was only too ready to share the miller’s confidence.  Not without reason had poor Dr. Lafarge warned his fellow-countrymen that “there were far too many Germans in Belgium.”  Schwartz and his like were to be found in every walk of life, from the merchant princes who controlled the trade of Antwerp to the youngest brush-haired waiter in the Cafe de la Régence at Brussels.

Dalroy was aware of a grim appropriateness in the fate of Schwartz.  The German automatic pistols carried soft-nosed bullets, so the arch-traitor who murdered the Vise doctor had himself suffered from one of the many infernal devices brought by Kultur to the battlefields of Flanders.  But the punishment of Schwartz could not undo the mischief the wretch had caused.  The men he led knew the nature and purpose of their errand.  They would report to the first officer met on the main road, who might be expected to detail instantly a sufficient force for the task of clearing the wood.  In fact, the operation had become a military necessity.  There was no telling to what extent the locality was held by Belgian troops, as, of course, the runaway warriors would magnify the firing a hundredfold, and no soldier worth his salt would permit the uninterrupted march of an army corps along a road flanked by such a danger-point.  In effect, Dalroy conceived a hundred reasons why he might anticipate a sudden and violent end, but not one offering a fair prospect of escape.  At any rate, he refused to be guilty of the folly of plunging into an unknown jungle of brambles, rocks, and trees, and elected to go back by the path to the foot of the quarry, whence he might, with plenty of luck, break through on a flank before the Germans spread their net too wide.

He had actually crossed some part of the clearing in front of the hut when his gorge rose at the thought that, win or lose in this game of life and death, he might never again see Irene Beresford.  The notion was intolerable.  He halted, and turned toward the black wall of the wood.  Mad though it was to risk revealing his whereabouts, since he had no means of knowing how close the nearest pursuers might be, he shouted loudly, “Miss Beresford!”

And a sweet voice replied, “Oh, Mr. Dalroy, they told me you were dead, but I refused to believe them!”

Dalroy had staked everything on that last despairing call, little dreaming that it would be answered.  It was as though an angel had spoken from out of the black portals of death.  He was so taken aback, his spirit was so shaken, that for a few seconds he was tongue-tied, and Irene appeared in the moonlit space before he stirred an inch.  She came from an unexpected quarter, from the west, or Argenteau, side.

“The others said I was a lunatic to return,” she explained simply; “but, when I came to my full senses after being aroused from a sound sleep, and told to fly at once because the Germans were on us, I realised that you might have outwitted them again, and would be looking for us in vain.  So, here I am!”

He ran to her.  Now that they were together again he was swift in decision and resolute as ever.  “Irene,” he said, “you’re a dear.  Where are our friends?  Is there a path?  Can you guide me?”

“Take my hand,” she replied.  “We turn by a big tree in the corner.  I think Jan Maertz followed me a little way when he saw I was determined to go back.”

“I suppose I had unconscious faith in you, Irene,” he whispered, “and that is why I cried your name.  But no more talking now.  Rapid, silent movement alone can save us.”

They had not gone twenty yards beneath the trees when some one hissed, “Vise!”

“Liege, you lump!” retorted Dalroy.

“Monsieur, I ”

“Shut up!  Hold mademoiselle’s hand, and lead on.”

He did not ask whither they were going.  The path led diagonally to the left, and that was what he wanted a way to a flank.

Maertz, however, soon faltered and stopped in his tracks.

“The devil take all woods at night-time!” he growled.  “Give me the highroad and a wagon-team, and I’ll face anything.”

“Are you lost?” asked Dalroy.

“I suppose so, monsieur.  But they can’t be far.  I told Joos ”

“Jan, is that you?” cried Leontine’s voice.

Ah, Dieu merci! These infernal trees ”

“Silence now!” growled Dalroy imperatively.  “Go ahead as quickly as possible.”

The semblance of a path existed; even so, they stumbled over gnarled roots, collided with tree-trunks which stood directly in the way, and had to fend many a low branch off their faces.  They created an appalling noise; but were favoured by the fact that the footpath led to the west, whereas the pursuers must climb the cliff on the east.

Leontine, however, led them with the quiet certainty of a country-born girl moving in a familiar environment.  She could guess to a yard just where the track was diverted by some huge-limbed elm or far-spreading chestnut, and invariably picked up the right line again, for the excellent reason, no doubt, that the dense undergrowth stood breast high elsewhere at that season of the year.

After a walk that seemed much longer than it really was the radius of the wood from the hut being never more than two hundred yards in any direction the others heard her say anxiously, “Are you there, father?”

“Where the deuce do you think I’d be?” came the irritated demand.  “Do you imagine that your mother and I are skipping down these rocks like a couple of weasels?”

“It is quite safe,” said the girl.  “I and Marie Lafarge went down only last Thursday.  Jules always goes that way to Argenteau.  He has cut steps in the bad places.  Jan and I will lead.  We can help mother and you.”

Dalroy, still holding Irene’s arm, pressed forward.

“Are we near the tow-path?” he asked.

“Oh, is that you, Monsieur l’Anglais?” chuckled the miller.  “Name of a pipe, I was positive those sales Alboches had got you twenty minutes since.  Yes, if you trip in the next few yards you’ll find yourself on the tow-path after falling sixty feet.”

“Go on, Leontine!” commanded Dalroy.  “What you and your friend did for amusement we can surely do to save our lives.  But there should be moonlight on this side.  Have any clouds come up?”

“These are firs in front, monsieur.  Once clear of them, we can see.”

“Very well.  Don’t lose another second.  Only, before beginning the descent, make certain that the river bank holds no Germans.”

Joos grumbled, but his wife silenced him.  That good lady, it appeared, had given up hope when the struggle broke out in the kitchen.  She had been snatched from the jaws of death by a seeming miracle, and regarded Dalroy as a very Paladin.  She attributed her rescue entirely to him, and was almost inclined to be sceptical of Joos’s sensational story about the killing of Busch.  “There never was such a man for arguing,” she said sharply.  “I do believe you’d contradict an archbishop.  Do as the gentleman bids you.  He knows best.”

Now, seeing that madame herself, after one look, had refused point-blank to tackle the supposed path, and had even insisted on retreating to the cover of the wood, Joos was entitled to protest.  Being a choleric little man, he would assuredly have done so fully and freely had not a red light illumined the tree-tops, while the crackle of a fire was distinctly audible.  The Germans had reached the top of the quarry, and, in order to dissipate the impenetrable gloom, had converted the hut into a beacon.

Misericorde!” he muttered.  “They are burning our provisions, and may set the forest ablaze!”

And that is what actually happened.  The vegetation was dry, as no rain had fallen for many a day.  The shavings and store of logs in the hut burned like tinder, promptly creating a raging furnace wholly beyond the control of the unthinking dolts who started it.  The breeze which had sprung up earlier became a roaring tornado among the trees, and some acres of woodland were soon in flames.  The light of that fire was seen over an area of hundreds of miles.  Spectators in Holland wrongly attributed it to the burning of Vise, which was, however, only an intelligent anticipation of events, because the delightful old town was completely destroyed a week later in revenge for the defeats inflicted on the invaders at Tirlemont and St. Trond during the first advance on Antwerp.

Once embarked on a somewhat perilous descent, the fugitives gave eyes or thought to naught else.  Jules, the pioneer quoted by Leontine, who was the owner of the hut and maker of sabots, had rough-hewed a sort of stairway out of a narrow cleft in the rock face.  To young people, steady in nerve and sure of foot, the passage was dangerous enough, but to Joos and his wife it offered real hazard.  However, they were allowed no time for hesitancy.  With Leontine in front, guiding her father, and Maertz next, telling Madame Joos where to put her feet, while Dalroy grasped her broad shoulders and gave an occasional eye to Irene, they all reached the level tow-path without the least accident.  Irene, by the way, carried the rifle, so that Dalroy should have both hands at liberty.

Without a moment’s delay he took the weapon and readjusted the magazine, which he had removed for the climb.  Bidding the others follow at such a distance that they would not lose sight of him, yet be able to retire if he found the way disputed by soldiers, he set off in the direction of Argenteau.

In his opinion the next ten minutes would decide whether or not they had even a remote chance of winning through to a place of comparative safety.  He had made up his own mind what to do if he met any Germans.  He would advise the Joos family and Maertz to hide in the cleft they had just descended, while he would take to the Meuse with Irene provided, that is, she agreed to dare the long swim by night.  Happily there was no need to adopt this counsel of despair.  The fire, instead of assisting the flanking party on the western side, only delayed them.  Sheer curiosity as to what was happening in the wood drew all eyes there rather than to the river bank, so the three men and three women passed along the tow-path unseen and unchallenged.

After a half-mile of rapid progress Dalroy judged that they were safe for the time, and allowed Madame Joos to take a much-needed rest.  Though breathless and nearly spent, she, like the others, found an irresistible fascination in the scene lighted by the burning trees.  The whole countryside was resplendent in crimson and silver, because the landscape was now steeped in moonshine, and the deep glow of the fire was most perceptible in the patches where ordinarily there would be black shadows.  The Meuse resembled a river of blood, the movement of its sluggish current suggesting the onward roll of some fluid denser than water.  Old Joos, whose tongue was seldom at rest, used that very simile.

“Those cursed Prussians have made Belgium a shambles,” he added bitterly.  “Look at our river.  It isn’t our dear, muddy Meuse.  It’s a stream in the infernal regions.”

“Yes,” gasped his wife.  “And listen to those guns, Henri!  They beat a sort of roulade, like drums in hell!”

This stout Walloon matron had never heard of Milton.  Her ears were not tuned to the music of Parnassus.  She would have gazed in mild wonder at one who told of “noises loud and ruinous,”

                   When Bellona storms
     With all her battering engines, bent to raze
     Some capital city.

But in her distress of body and soul she had coined a phrase which two, at least, of her hearers would never forget.  The siege of Liege did, indeed, roar and rumble with the din of a demoniac orchestra.  Its clamour mounted to the firmament.  It was as though the nether fiends, following Moloch’s advice, were striving,

Arm’d with Hell flames and fury, all at once,
O’er Heaven’s high towers to force resistless way.

Dalroy himself yielded to the spell of the moment.  Here was red war such as the soldier dreams of.  His warrior spirit did not quail.  He longed only for the hour, if ever the privilege was vouchsafed, when he would stand shoulder to shoulder with the men of his own race, and watch with unflinching eye those same dread tokens of a far-flung battle line.

Irene Beresford seemed to read his passing mood.  “War has some elements of greatness,” she said quietly.  “The pity is that while it ennobles a few it degrades the multitude.”

With a woman’s intuition, she had gone straight to the heart of the problem propounded by Teutonism to an amazed world.  The “degradation” of a whole people was already Germany’s greatest and unforgivable offence.  Few, even the most cynical, among the students of European politics could have believed that the Kaiser’s troops would sully their country’s repute by the inhuman excesses committed during those first days in Belgium.  At the best, “war is hell”; but the great American leader who summed up its attributes in that pithy phrase thought only of the mangled men, the ruined homesteads, the bereaved families which mark its devastating trail.  He had seen nothing of German “frightfulness.”  The men he led would have scorned to ravage peaceful villages, impale babies on bayonets and lances, set fire to houses containing old and bedridden people, murder hostages, rape every woman in a community, torture wounded enemies, and shoot harmless citizens in drunken sport.  Yet the German armies did all these things before they were a fortnight in the field.  They are not impeached on isolated counts, attributable, perhaps, to the criminal instincts of a small minority.  They carried out bestial orgies in battalions and brigades acting under word of command.  The jolly, good-humoured fellows who used to tramp in droves through the Swiss passes every summer, each man with a rucksack on his back, and beguiling the road in lusty song, seemed to cast aside all their cheerful camaraderie, all their exuberant kindliness of nature, when garbed in the “field gray” livery of the State, and let loose among the pleasant vales and well-tilled fields of Flanders.  That will ever remain Germany’s gravest sin.  When “the thunder of the captains and the shouting” is stilled, when time has healed the wounds of victor and vanquished, the memories of Vise, of Louvain, of Aershot, of nearly every town and hamlet in Belgium and Northern France once occupied by the savages from beyond the Rhine, will remain imperishable in their horror.  German Kultur was a highly polished veneer.  Exposed to the hot blast of war it peeled and shrivelled, leaving bare a diseased, worm-eaten structure, in which the honest fibre of humanity had been rotted by vile influences, both social and political.

Women seldom err when they sum up the characteristics of the men of a race, and the women of every other civilised nation were united in their dislike of German men long before the first week in August, 1914.  Irene Beresford had yet to peer into the foulest depths of Teutonic “degradation”; but she had sensed it as a latent menace, and found in its stark records only the fulfilment of her vague fears.

Dalroy read into her words much that she had left unsaid.  “At best it’s a terrible necessity,” he replied; “at worst it’s what we have seen and heard of during the past twenty-four hours.  I shall never understand why a people which prided itself on being above all else intellectual should imagine that atrocity is a means toward conquest.  Such a theory is so untrue historically that Germany might have learnt its folly.”

Joos grew uneasy when his English friends spoke in their own language.  The suspicious temperament of the peasant is always doubtful of things outside its comprehension.  He would have been astounded if told they were discussing the ethics of warfare.

“Well, have you two settled where we’re to go?” he demanded gruffly.  “In my opinion, the Meuse is the best place for the lot of us.”

“In with you, then,” agreed Dalroy, “but hand over your money to madame before you take the dip.  Leontine and Jan may need it later to start the mill running.”

Maertz laughed.  The joke appealed strongly.

Madame Joos turned on her husband.  “How you do chatter, Henri!” she said.  “We all owe our lives to this gentleman, yet you aren’t satisfied.  The Meuse indeed!  What will you be saying next?”

“How far is Argenteau?” put in Dalroy.

“That’s it, where the house is on fire,” said the miller, pointing.

“About a kilometre, I take it?”

“Something like that.”

“Have you friends there?”

“Ay, scores, if they’re alive.”

“I hear no shooting in that direction.  Moreover, an army corps is passing through.  Let us go there.  Something may turn up.  We shall be safer among thousands of Germans than here.”

They walked on.  The Englishman’s air of decision was a tonic in itself.

The fire on the promontory was now at its height, but a curve in the river hid the fugitives from possible observation.  Dalroy was confident as to two favourable factors the men of the marching column would not search far along the way they had come, and their commander would recall them when the wood yielded no trace of its supposed occupants.

There had been fighting along the right bank of the Meuse during the previous day.  German helmets, red and yellow Belgian caps, portions of accoutrements and broken weapons, littered the tow-path.  But no bodies were in evidence.  The river had claimed the dead and the wounded Belgians; the enemy’s wounded had been transferred to Aix-la-Chapelle.

Nearing Argenteau they heard a feeble cry.  They stopped, and listened. 
Again it came, clearly this time:  “Elsa!  Elsa!”

It was a man’s voice, and the name was that of a German woman.  Maertz searched in a thicket, and found a young German officer lying there.  He was delirious, calling for the help of one powerless to aid.

He seemed to become aware of the presence of some human being.  Perhaps his atrophied senses retained enough vitality to hear the passing footsteps.

“Elsa!” he moaned again, “give me water, for God’s sake!”

“He’s done for,” reported Maertz to the waiting group.  “He’s covered with blood.”

“For all that he may prove our salvation,” said Dalroy quickly.  “Sharp, now!  Pitch our firearms and ammunition into the river.  We must lift a gate off its hinges, and carry that fellow into Argenteau.”

Joos grinned.  He saw the astuteness of the scheme.  A number of Belgian peasants bringing a wounded officer to the ambulance would probably be allowed to proceed scot-free.  But he was loath to part with the precious fork on which the blood of “that fat Busch” was congealing.  He thrust it into a ditch, and if ever he was able to retrieve it no more valued souvenir of the great war will adorn his dwelling.  They possessed neither wine nor water; but a tiny rivulet flowing into the Meuse under a neighbouring bridge supplied the latter, and the wounded man gulped down great mouthfuls out of a Pickel-haube.  It partially cleared his wits.

“Where am I?” he asked faintly.

Dalroy nodded to Joos, who answered, “On the Meuse bank, near Argenteau.”

“Ah, I remember.  Those cursed ” Some dim perception of his surroundings choked the word on his lips.  “I was hit,” he went on, “and crawled among the bushes.”

“Was there fighting here this morning?”

“Yes.  To-day is Tuesday, isn’t it?”

“No, Wednesday midnight.”

Ach, Gott! That verdammt ambulance missed me!  I have lain here two days!”

This time he swore without hesitation, since he was cursing his own men.

Jan came with a hurdle.  “This is lighter than a gate, monsieur,” he explained.

Dalroy nudged Joos sharply, and the miller took the cue.  “Right,” he said.  “Now, you two, handle him carefully.”

The German groaned piteously, and fainted.

“Oh, he’s dead!” gasped Irene, when she saw his head drop.

“No, he will recover.  But don’t speak English. As for you, Jan Maertz, no more of your ‘monsieur’ and ‘madame.’  I am Pierre, and this lady is Clementine.  You understand?”

Dalroy spoke emphatically.  Had the German retained his wits their project might be undone.  In the event, the pain of movement on the hurdle revived the wounded man, and he asked for more water.  They were then entering the outskirts of Argenteau, so they kept on.  Soon they gained the main road, and Joos inquired of an officer the whereabouts of a field hospital.  He directed them quite civilly, and offered to detail men to act as bearers.  But the miller was now his own shrewd self again.

“No,” he said bluntly, “I and my family have rescued your officer, and we want a safe conduct.”

Off they went with their living passport.  The field hospital was established in the village school, and here the patient was turned over to a surgeon.  As it happened, the latter recognised a friend, and was grateful.  He sent an orderly with them to find the major in charge of the lines of communication, and they had not been in Argenteau five minutes before they were supplied with a laisser passer, in which they figured as Wilhelm Schultz, farmer, and wife, Clementine and Leontine, daughters, and the said daughters’ fiances, Pierre Dampier and Georges Lambert; residence Aubel; destination Andenne.

There was not the least hitch in the matter.  The major was, in his way, courteous.  Joos gave his own Christian name as “Guillaume,” but the German laughed.

“You’re a good citizen of the Fatherland now, my friend,” he guffawed, “so we’ll make it ‘Wilhelm.’  As for this pair of doves,” and he eyed the two girls, “warn off any of our lads.  Tell them that I, Major von Arnheim, said so.  They’re a warm lot where a pretty woman is concerned.”

Von Arnheim was a stout man, a not uncommon quality in German majors.  Perhaps he wondered why Joos looked fixedly at the pit of his stomach.

But a motor cyclist dashed up with a despatch, and he forgot all about “Schultz” and his family.  As it happened, he was a man of some ability, and the hopeless block at Aix caused by the stubborn defence of Liege had brought about the summary dismissal of a General by the wrathful Kaiser.  Hence, the Argenteau major was promoted and recalled to the base.  His next in rank, summoned to the post an hour later, knew nothing of the laisser passer granted to a party which closely resembled the much-wanted miller of Vise and his companions; he read an “urgent general order” for their arrest without the least suspicion that they had slipped through the net in that very place.

Meanwhile these things were in the lap of the gods.  For the moment, the six people were free, and actually under German protection.