The Guns of Europe/Chapter XI
THE three talked, because they were in the dark, and because they felt great joy over their escape. The clouds, after a while, floated away, and the thunder ceased to mutter. It seemed that the elements played with them, but, for the present, were in their favor. The walking itself was pleasant, as they were anxious to exercise their muscles after the long hard waiting in the grove.
But as the clouds went away and the stars came out, leaving a sky of blue, sown with stars, John could not keep from looking upward often. The aeroplanes and the daring men who flew them had made a tremendous impression upon him, and he constantly expected danger. But he saw none of those ominous black specks which could grow so fast into sinister shapes. He heard instead a faint rumbling ahead of them on the road to Courville, and he held up his hand as a warning.
"What is it?" asked Carstairs, as the three stopped.
"I don't know yet," replied John, "but the sound seems to be made by wheels."
"Perhaps a belated peasant driving home," said Wharton, as he listened.
"I don't think so. It appears to be a volume of sound, although it's as yet far away. I hear it better now. It's wheels and many of them."
"Maybe, but more likely German. We've seen how ready the Germans are, and we know that they're spreading all over this region."
"Then it's safer for us out of the road than in it."
There was a hedge on either side of the road, but but the three slipped easily through the one on the right, and stood in tall grass. The rumbling was steadily coming nearer, and John had no doubt it was made by Germans, perhaps some division seeking to get in the rear of the French forces with which he had fought.
There was a good moon and they saw well through the thin hedge. In ten minutes cyclers, riding six abreast, appeared on the crest of a low hill in the direction of Courville. The moonlight fell on their helmets and gray uniforms, showing, as John had expected, that they were Germans. Again he was beholding an example of the wonderful training and discipline, which had been continued for decades and which had put military achievement above everything else. Day and night the German hosts were advancing on France.
The cyclers, carrying their rifles before them, advanced in hundreds and hundreds, the files of six keeping perfectly even. Again the sight was unreal, productive of awe. Armies had never before gone to battle like this. The files close together, like a long, grayish-green serpent, moved swiftly along the road.
But it was not the wheels that had made the rumble They instead gave out a light undulating sound, something like that of skaters on ice, and the three waited to see what was behind, as the rumbling grew louder.
The cyclers passed, then came the strong smell of gasoline, puffing sounds and the head of a great train of motor cars appeared. Most of the motors were filled with soldiers, others drew cannon and provision wagons. They were a full hour in passing, and at the rear were more than a hundred armored cars, also crowded with troops, some of them carrying machine guns also.
"I wish we were in one of those armored cars," said John, "then we wouldn't miss our horses."
"Well, why not get in one of them," said Carstairs.
"While we're about it why not wish for everything else that we can think of?"
"I mean exactly what I say. I didn't speak until I saw an opportunity. One of the cars seems to have something the matter with it and is drawing up by the side of the road not fifteen feet from us. The others have gone on, expecting it of course to catch up soon."
"Do you really mean what you suggest, Carstairs ?" asked Wharton.
"I certainly do."
"Then what an Englishman suggests Yankees will perform."
"But with the help of the Englishman. Jove, what luck!" There are only two men with the car. One is standing beside it, and the other is crawling under it. The machine is almost in the shadow of the hedge, and if we're smooth about it we can slip through, and be upon it, before we're seen."
"We must time ourselves. What's the plan ?" asked Wharton.
"We'll assume when the man comes out from under the machine that he's fixed it. Then we'll make our rush, knock down the other fellow, jump into it and away. I'm an expert chauffeur, and I don't ask a better chance. Oh, fellows, what luck!"
"It's certainly favoring us," said Wharton, "and we must push it. It would be a crime to quit with such luck as this leading us on."
They slipped noiselessly through the hedge, and stood in its heavy shadow only a few feet from the car. They heard the man under it tapping with metal on metal. The other standing with his back to the three said a few words and the man replied.
"He says it's only a trifle, and it's all right now," whispered Carstairs, who understood German. "He's coming out from under the car. Now, fellows, for it!"
John struck the man standing beside the car with the butt of his rifle, but he did not make the blow hard —he could not bring himself to kill anybody in that manner. But the man fell senseless, and, just as his partner came from beneath it, the three leaped into the car, Carstairs threw on the speed, whirled about on air, it seemed to John, and left the German in the road, staring open-mouthed.
But the German recovered quickly and uttered a shout of alarm, drawing the attention of the armored motors, the rear files of which were not a hundred yards away.
"Down, you fellows!" cried Carstairs, who now took the lead. "Have your rifles ready to fire back, and enjoy what is going to be the greatest ride of your lives!"
Some wild spirit seemed to have taken hold of the Englishman. An expert driver, it may have been the touch of the wheel under his hand at such an exciting moment, and then it may have been the shots from the German cars that, in an instant, rattled upon the steel sides protecting the car.
"Hold fast, you fellows!" cried Carstairs, who bent low over the wheel, his flashing eyes now seeking to trace the road before them. "We are going to eat up the ground!"
The car gave its last dizzy lurch as it completed its circuit and shot ahead. John and Wharton had been thrown together, but they held on to their rifles and righted themselves. Then John noticed beside him the body and barrels of a machine gun, mounted and ready for use. He was the sharpshooter of the three and that gun appealed to him, as the car had appealed to Carstairs.
"Move over a little!" he shouted to Wharton.
"What are you going to do ?"
"I'm going to fight that pursuing German army."
In an instant the machine gun began to crackle like a box of exploding crackers, sending back a hail of bullets which rattled upon the pursuing cars or found victims in them. But they, crouching down, were completely protected by the armor, and their careering machine made but a single target while they could fire into the pursuing mass.
Carstairs bent lower and lower. He had gone completely wild for the moment. Millions of sparks flew before his eyes. All the big and little pulses in his head and body were beating heavily. They had just scored two great triumphs. They had defeated the efforts of the masters of the air, and they had taken from their foe one of his most formidable weapons in which they might escape. His soul flamed with triumph, and that old familiar touch of the wheel filled him with the strength not of one giant, but of ten. He saw the road clearly now. There it lay ahead of them, long, white and sinuous, and he never doubted for a moment his ability to guide the armored car along in it at a mile a minute.
John in his turn was filled with the rage of battle. It was not often that one in his situation had a deadly machine gun at hand, ready to turn upon his enemies. While Wharton fed it from the great supply of ammunition in the car he turned a perfect stream of balls upon the pursuing motor, spraying it from side to side like a hose. Wharton looked up at his white strained face, in which his eyes burned like two coals of fire, and then he looked at the bent back and shoulders of Carstairs.
"Two madmen," he muttered. "A Britisher and a Yankee, mad at the same time and in the same place, and I'm their keeper! Good Lord, did a man ever before have such a job!"
Once he pulled John down a little as the machine guns in the pursuing car were getting the range, but behind the armored sheath of their car they were safe, for the present at least. Wharton regained his coolness and retained it. But he held to his belief that he rode a race with death, with one madman in front of him and another by his side.
Now and then the car took a frightful leap, and Wharton expected to land beneath it, but it always came down right, with Carstairs driving it faster and faster and Scott pouring balls from the machine gun and talking to it lovingly, as if it were a thing of life.
It was Wharton's grim thought that he was about to die soon, but that he would die gloriously. No common death for him, but one amid the crash of motors, machine guns and cannon. Meanwhile steel rained around them, but they were protected by the speed of their flight, and their armor. It was hard for the Germans to hit a fleeting target in a curving road, and the few balls or bullets that struck true fell harmless from the steel plates.
Wharton's own blood began to leap. The two with him in the car might be madmen, but they showed skill and vigor in their madness. The car sprang in the air, but it always came down safely. It whirled at times on a single wheel, but it would right itself, and go on at undiminished speed.
And the other madman at the gun did not neglect precautions. He kept himself well hidden behind the steel shield, and continued to spray the pursuing line from right to left and from left to right with a stream of projectiles.
On flew the car, down valleys and up slopes. It thundered across little ridges, and fled through strips of forest. Then Wharton amid their own roar heard the same deep steady rumble that had preceded the coming of the first German force. The sound was so similar he knew instinctively that it was made by a second detachment, advancing along the same road, but miles back. Their own headlong speed would carry them directly into it, and, as he saw it, they were completely trapped.
He leaned over, put a hand on the shoulder of Car- stairs, and shouted in his ear:
"A second army of the enemy is in front, and we're going into it at the rate of a mile a minute!"
"Never mind!" Carstairs shouted back. "I know a little road not far ahead, leading off from this almost due westward. I'm going to take it, but it's a sharp turn. Hold tight you two 1"
"For God's sake, Carstairs, slow up a little on the curve!"
But Carstairs made no answer. He did not even hear him now. He lay almost upon the wheel, and his eyes never left the track in front of him. He was the jockey riding his horse to victory in the greatest of all races.
Wharton ceased to feed the machine gun. The use for it had passed now. They were rapidly gaining on the pursuit, but the same speed was bringing them much nearer to the second force. He wondered if Carstairs really knew of that branch road, or if it were some wild idea flitting through his mad brain. As it was, he laid his rifle on the floor of the car, and commended his soul to God.
"Now!" suddenly shouted Carstairs, and it seemed to Wharton that they were whirling in a dizzy circle. Carstairs boasted afterwards that they made the curve on one wheel, but Wharton was quite sure that they made it on air.
They shot into a narrow road, not much more than a path leading through woods, and when Wharton looked back the pursuit was not in sight. They were now going almost at a right angle from either force, leaving both far behind, and Wharton suggested to Carstairs that he slow down—John had already ceased firing, because there was nothing to fire at. But his words were in vain. Carstairs would not yet come out of his frenzy. As John had talked to his gun he was now talking to his machine, bestowing upon it many adjectives of praise.
Wharton gave up the task as useless and sank back in his seat. He must let the fever spend itself. Besides he was gaining supreme confidence in the driving of Carstairs. The Englishman had shown such superb skill that Wharton was beginning to believe that he could drive the car a mile a minute anywhere save in a dense forest. So, he sank back in his seat, and relaxed mind and body.
They fled on over a road narrow but good. They passed lone farm houses sitting back in the fields, but Wharton had only a glimpse of them. A tile roof, a roar from the car and they were gone.
Yet the fever of Carstairs slowly burned itself out. They had long since been safe from any pursuit by the Germans in the main road, and now the young Englishman realized it. He took one hand from the wheel, and dashed back a lock of hair that had fallen over his brow. Then he slowed down quickly, and when they were going not more than seven or eight miles an hour he said like one coming out of an ecstasy.
"Don't the Germans build splendid cars ?"
"And fine machine guns, too ?" said John, in a high- pitched unnatural voice.
"Now here is where I take command," said Wharton firmly. "You two have been madmen, as mad as anybody can be, although it's true that your madness has saved us. But you've done your great deeds, sanity is returning, and you're in a state of exhaustion. Carstairs, give me the wheel at once. I'm not much of a driver, but I can take the car along safely at a rate of five miles an hour, which is all we need now."
Carstairs, the fires within him burned out wholly now, resigned the wheel to his comrade, and sank limply into a seat beside John.
"Now you two rest," said Wharton, sternly, "and if I hear a word out of either of you in the next hour I'll turn the machine gun on you."
They obeyed. Each was a picture of physical collapse. Wharton did not know much about automobiles. In the driver's seat he felt as if he were steering a liner, but in such case as his one readily takes risks, and he sent the machine along slowly and with fair success.
It was beginning to lighten somewhat, and he looked for a village. They must have food, a fresh supply of gasoline, and news of their own army. They bore letters which they meant to deliver or die.
The same beautiful country, though less hilly, stretched befor them. Many clear little streams flowed through the valleys, and here and there were groves free from undergrowth. Wharton believed that they were far toward the west, and near the British troops —if any had yet been landed in France.
"Are you two still in a convalescent stage?" he asked, glancing back.
"Getting along nicely, doctor, thank you, sir," said John. "I began to pick up just as soon as we left those German armies out of sight."
Then he turned to the comrade, sitting beside him.
"Carstairs, old man," he said, "I don't know what you are, at home, but here you're the greatest chauffeur that ever lived! I believe you could drive a car sixty miles an hour all day long on a single wheel!"
"Thanks, old man," said Carstairs, grasping his hand, "I didn't have time to look back, but I knew from the sounds that you were working a machine gun, as one was never worked before; fast enough by Jove to drive off a whole hostile army."
"You two have organized the greatest log rolling society in existence," said Wharton, "but you've been brave and good boys. Now let's take a look at this glorious car of ours which we had specially built for us in Germany."
The light in the east was increasing, and for the first time they made an examination of their capture. Despite the armor and presence of the machine gun it was upholstered in unusual style, with cushions and padded sides in dark green leather. There were many little lockers and fittings not to be found often in a car intended for war. On a tiny silver plate under the driver's seat a coat of arms was engraved. John, who was the first to catch sight of it, exclaimed:
"This car belong to some duke or prince. Car- stairs, you're a subject and not a citizen, and you ought to be up on all kinds of nobility worship. What coat of arms is this?"
"I don't know," replied Carstairs, "and I'm as free a man as you are, I'd have you to know."
"Breaking the treaty already," chuckled Wharton. "It doesn't matter whether we know the coat of arms or not. It's likely that the man standing in the road, the one whom John hit over the head with the gun was the duke or prince. Oh, if the Germans ever get you, Scott, they'll break you on the wheel for such an extreme case of Majestatsbeleidigung!"
"And if you pronounce that word again you'll break your jaw," said John. "Let's open all these lockers. We may find spoils of war."
It seemed a good suggestion, and taking the monkey wrench they broke open every locker. They found a pair of splendid field glasses, shaving materials, other articles of the toilet, and a tiny roll of fine tissue paper.
"I've an idea that we have something of value here," said John, as he held up the little roll. "It's in German, which I don't understand. Take it, Wharton."
There were six small sheets, and as Wharton translated them aloud and slowly they realized that in very truth they had made a precious capture. They contained neither address nor signature, but they notified the commander of the extreme German right wing that a British force would shortly appear near the Belgian border, on the extreme allied left, that it would be a small army, and that it could be crushed by a rapid, enveloping movement.
"The prince or duke whom you hit over the head, John," said Wharton, "was carrying this. He did not put it in his pocket, because he never dreamed of such a thing as the one that happened to him. But one thing is sure: our obligation to reach the allied force in the west is doubled and tripled. We three, obscure as we may be, may carry with us the fate of an army."
"He called us two madmen," said John, nudging Carstairs. "Now look at our good sober Wharton going mad with responsibility."
Wharton did not notice them. He was turning over and over the sheets of tissue paper, and his eyes glowed. His hands trembled, too, as he handled the precious document, but he did not let a single page fall.
"Glorious! splendid! magnificent!" he exclaimed. "By our capture, by our own courage and skill, and by ours alone we'll save the allied left wing from destruction."
The timeliness of their exploit, the wonderful chance had gone to Wharton's head. He forgot for the time his comrades, the motor, and the morning sun over the fields and the forest. He thought only of their arrival in the allied camp with those precious documents.
John and Carstairs exchanged glances again. They had come quite back to earth, but there could be no doubt that Wharton was taking an ascension.
"We'll treat him kindly," said Carstairs.
"Of course," said John. "Old friend of ours, you know. Been with us through the wars. But I want to tell you, Carstairs, and I hope I won't hurt your feelings, you being a monarchist, that I'm glad I hit that prince such a solid smash over the head. It will always be a pleasure to me to remember that I knocked out a royalty, and I hope he wasn't any mediatized prince either."
"Don't apologize to me. He was only a German prince, and they're so numerous they don't count. British princes are the real thing."
"Stop talking foolishness you two" exclaimed Wharton. "You ramble on, and we carry the fate of Europe in our hands! My God, we've wasted a quarter of an hour here talking! Carstairs, get back in the driver's seat, and I don't care how fast you drive! Scott, take your place at the machine gun, and shoot down anything that opposes us!"
"Mad! Quite mad!" John and Carstairs said together, but they obeyed with amazing promptness, and in a minute the car was spinning down the road at a great rate. But Wharton leaning forward and looking with red eyes in black rims, saw nothing they passed. He had instead a vision of the three arriving at some point far away with the prince's dispatches, and of English and French generals thanking those who had come in time to save them.
Carstairs drove with a steady hand, but he was his normal self now. He had seen that their supply of gasoline was sufficient to last a while, and he was content for the present with a moderate rate of speed. If they were pursued again then he could make another great burst, but he did not consider it likely that a third force of the foe would appear. They must be getting beyond the vanguard of the German invasion.
John sat beside Wharton. The machine gun was at rest, but he kept his rifle across his knee. Nevertheless he did not anticipate any further danger. He felt an immense satisfaction over their achievements, but the danger and strain had been so great that rest seemed the finest thing in the world. He hoped they would soon come to another of those neat French inns, where they would surely be welcome.
But Wharton was not thinking of inns and rest. He took out the dispatches and read them a second time. Then he folded them up triumphantly and put them back in his pocket again. His soul burned with ardor. Their fights with the aeroplanes and the armored cars were alike forgotten. They must get forward with the prince's dispatches.
The sun came over the slopes, and the day grew fast. John fell asleep in his seat with his rifle across his knees. He was aroused by the stopping of the car and the murmur of many voices. He sat upright and was wide awake all in a moment.
They had come to the village for which they had wished so ardently and they were surrounded by people who looked curiously at the car, the heavy dents in its armor, the machine gun, and, with the most curiosity of all, at the three occupants.
But their looks were friendly. The three in the car wore the French uniform, and while obviously they were not French, it was equally obvious that they were friends of France. John smiled at them and asked the burning question:
"Is there an inn here?"
They pointed across the street. There it was snug and unimpeachable. Carstairs drove slowly to the front of it, and he and John meanwhile answered a torrent of questions. Yes, they had been in a fight with Germans, and, after seizing one of their armored cars, they had escaped in it. But it was true that the Germans were coming into France by all the main roads, and the people must be ready.
There were many exclamations of dismay, and the questions they asked John and Carstairs never ceased. But they said nothing to Wharton. His stern, absent expression did not invite confidences. He was looking over their heads at something far away, and he seemed merely to be going into the inn, because his comrades were doing so.
The three found the breakfast good as usual. Gasoline could be obtained. It was not for civilians, but as they were soldiers serving France they were able to buy a supply. The news that they desired was scarce, although there was a vast crop of rumors which many told as facts. John was learning that war was the mother of lies. He believed only what men had seen with their own eyes, and but little of that. 'It was incredible how people described in detail things they had witnessed, but which had never occurred.
Had a British army landed? It had. It had not. Where was it ? It was in Belgium. It was in France. It was at the training camps in England. There was plenty of information, and one could choose whatever he liked best. John and Carstairs looked at each other in dismay. They had a car, but where were they to go. At least they carried dispatches for a British army which some of the French believed to be in France. But Wharton took no notice of the difficulty. He was silent, and preoccupied with their triumphant arrival that was coming.
John asked the most questions, and at last he found a woman whose words seemed to be based upon fact and not imagination. She had a cousin who was employed in the telegraph, and her cousin told her, that British troops had landed, that some of them at least had reached Paris, and then had gone north toward Belgium, the region of Mons or Charleroi, she believed. She spoke quietly and with much detail, and John believed that she had a mind able to tell the truth without exaggeration.
He held a brief conference with Carstairs, who had now replenished the gasoline, and who had also put stores of food in the car. Carstairs agreed with him that the statement was probably correct, and that at any rate they ought to govern themselves in accordance with it. They did not consult Wharton, who they knew was thinking only of the papers.
John took the wheel. Like Wharton he did not know much about driving, but it was a time when one had to do things. Carstairs soon fell asleep, but Wharton sat rigidly erect, staring before him.
John had felt the emotion of triumph strongly that morning, but now much of it was departing. The country was growing more beautiful than ever. He had never seen any outside his own to match it. This had the advantage of age and youth combined. Buildings were gray and soft with centuries, but the earth itself was fresh and eternal with youth. But he knew beyond any shred of doubt that it would soon be torn to pieces by the fighting millions.
There was no occasion for haste now, as they must feel the way, and they were beyond the German advance. While Carstairs slept and Wharton stared ahead he examined the country. Once they passed near a town of considerable size, and he saw on a hill, in the center of it a great gray cathedral, its fine stonework glittering like tracery.
Then he saw the graybeards, the women, and the young boys and girls coming into the fields to work. All the men of fighting age were gone. He had seen the same in Germany, but it struck him anew with painful force, this turning of millions of workers upon one another, weapons in hand.
John stopped beside the fields once or twice and talked with the peasants. The old men could tell him nothing. They were stolid and stoical. Yes, there was war, but it was not any business of theirs to find where the armies were marching, and his heart went out more strongly than ever to the people, over whom military ambition and the folly of kings were driving the wheels of cannon.
It was well toward midday before he secured any real information. They encountered at the crossing of a brook a small French patrol under a lieutenant, an -intelligent man, whom by lucky chance Carstairs had met two weeks before.
He told them that going at a moderate rate they could reach by the next morning a large French army which lay north and west. Some British troops—he did not know how many—had come up, and they were on the extreme left of the allied line. More were expected. In front of them were great masses of the Germans.
They gave him their own news, and then with mutual good wishes they drove on, Carstairs now at the wheel, and their pace increased. It was agreed that they should hasten much more, as soon as they were absolutely sure of the way. Wharton, for the first time, took part in the talk.
"When we have a definite point to aim at," he said, "we must take every risk and race for it. If we don't deliver these documents promptly to the generals we ought to be shot."
"We won't be shot for the lack of trying, Whar- ton," said John, "but if we go racing along the wrong road we'll be that much farther from our right direction."
"We" ought to see more patrols soon," said Car- stairs. "They'll surely be watching all through this region."
"Likely enough we'll find 'em in that wood ahead," said John, pointing to a long stretch of forest that clothed a group of hills. "It's just the place for 'em. From the top of that highest hill they can see for miles."
Carstairs increased their speed, and the car shot forward. It was a fine motor, John thought, and the bombardment it had received had not hurt it much. That German prince certainly knew how to select a car, and he had fortified it in a splendid manner.
John was smiling to himself again in satisfaction, as they dipped down the valley and entered the forest, which in that country they would certainly call a great one. Its shade was pleasant, too, as the beams of the sun were now vertical and hot.
"Nice region," said John approvingly. "See that old castle off there to the left."
An ancient castle, decayed and abandoned, crowned a little hill. Around it was a moat dry for generations, and one of the Norman towers had fallen down. It was a somber picture of lonely desolation.
"I suppose some fine old robber of a baron lived in that," said John, "and preyed upon the country, until he reached the hunting grounds of other robbers like himself."
"Deucedly draughty and uncomfortable they must have been," said Carstairs. "We've some of 'em in my country, but they must have been pretty hard living for my lord and my lady."
"I don't see that we have much advantage over those old fellows," said John thoughtfully. "They were little robbers, and here are all the countries of Europe trying to tear one another to pieces. After all, Carstairs, I'm beginning to think the Americans are the only really civilized people."
"You can't do it, Scott," he said, "you can't take Wharton's place. I'll argue with him about the merits of Briton and Yankee. It's his time-honored right, but I'll have no dispute with you."
Wharton smiled a stern assent.
"Then we'll let it go," said John, "but do you notice that this is a real forest. It must cover a half dozen square miles. I suppose that in your country they would call it the Royal Forest or by some such high-sounding name."
"Never you mind what we'd call it," rejoined Car- stairs, "but whatever it is it's evident that something violent is going on within its shades! Listen!"
John started upright in his seat, as he heard the crackle of three or four shots so close together that they were almost in a volley, and then the sound of feet running swiftly. They stopped the machine, and a figure, stained, bleeding and desperate, emerged from the forest.
"A fugitive!" exclaimed John.
"But from what?" said Carstairs.
"The Germans, of course!" said Wharton.
The man, stained with blood, ragged and dirty came at great bounds, and before any one could put out a detaining hand he sprang into the car.
"Help, for God's sake!" he cried. "I'm a spy in the service of France, and the Uhlans are coming down through the wood after me!"
"Help you!" exclaimed Carstairs. "Of course we will! Any friend of France is a friend of ours!"
He bent low over the wheel once more in his old speeding attitude, and the car shot forward like an arrow.