The Lucky Number/Petit-Jean
Upon the Belgian large-scale map the place is described as Fme. du Gd. Étang, which being expanded and interpreted means, “The Farm by the Big Pond.” But after the War had been in progress for some few months, the British Army Ordnance Department took the map in hand and issued a revised version, in which the original imposing title was converted into “Cow Corpse Farm.” The cow in question had expired suddenly and rather inconsiderately right outside the door of the outhouse which did duty as Company Headquarters and Officers' Mess. Unfortunately the current occupants of the billet, being on the eve of departure into other regions, contented themselves with holding an inquest—the verdict was Death by Misadventure, an injudicious repast of jettisoned quartermaster-sergeant's stores, including a nose-bag and a machine-gun belt, being ascribed as the contributing cause—and left the funeral arrangements to their successors. When these arrived, the cow had already lain in state for more than a week, and it became immediately obvious that the obsequies had been all too long delayed. The interment took place the same afternoon, a warm afternoon in May, and was attended by a half-platoon of B Company and about half a million bluebottles. The returning mourners unanimously decided to follow up the funeral with a christening. The baptismal ceremony took place in the estaminet at the cross-roads close by, and the name stuck.
Within the precincts of Cow Corpse Farm resided, at the moment of our story, first Madame la Fermière, variously referred to as “madame” by the company commander, “the old gel” by the officers' mess cook, and “the lady of the 'ouse” by the courteous rank-and-file.
Secondly, Mesdemoiselles Hélène and Marguerite, Madame's daughters. The two girls worked unceasingly about the farm or fields. They were a cheerful and friendly pair, and Hélène was pretty, especially upon a Sunday morning, when she donned her best dress and discarded sabots in favour of quite smart boots.
Thirdly, the officer commanding B Company, with four subalterns. Their united ages amounted to about a hundred years.
Fourthly, B Company, two hundred strong. Fifthly, Henri, of whom more anon.
And, as they say on theatrical posters, sixthly, Petit-Jean.
Truly, Madame's hands were full. Her husband was almost certainly dead. He and Liège had fallen together, and no news of him had since been obtainable. Her eldest son, Jacques, was somewhere near Dixmude, serving with what was left of the Belgian Artillery. Madame's sole male prop in the upkeep of the farm, always excepting Petit-Jean, was a shambling, shifty-eyed hobbledehoy of twenty-five or so—one “’Nrri,” as Madame called him. 'Nrri was saved from military service by a mysterious disorder connected with “ma poitrine, M'sieur le Capitaine.” (A hollow cough.) 'Nrri, one learned, was not a member of the family. He was a réfugié. He had arrived one day in the early autumn of Nineteen Fourteen, hastening with other breathless persons before a tide of Prussian bayonets. Almost immediately afterwards the tide turned, owing to the intervention of French and British bayonets, and Madame and Cow Corpse Farm were left safely above high-water mark, some three miles back from the trench-line.
'Nrri remained on the farm, like a piece of particularly unattractive flotsam. Labour was scarce in Belgium in those days, and Madame was glad to keep him. He ploughed, delved, and splashed about from dawn till dusk, and slept in the loft over the cow-house with Petit-Jean.
As for Petit-Jean himself, he was a sturdy youth of uncertain age. In his workaday clothes, as he ordered the cows about or enjoyed himself in the unspeakable morass of manure which filled the yard, he looked a grimy fifteen. On Sundays, when, as a preliminary to attending mass, he was washed and attired in a tight blue knickerbocker suit with brass buttons, black stockings, buttoned boots, and a species of yachting cap, he looked an angelic twelve.
B Company, who have only been introduced to you, so far, en bloc, were commanded by a veteran of twenty-three, one Crombie. Promotion came quickly upon the Western Front. A year previously Crombie had been leading a platoon round a barrack square at Aldershot. Since then he had seen as much active service as would have sufficed a soldier of the previous generation for a lifetime. This year's service had enabled him, in the elegant phraseology of the moment, “to put up two more pips”—in other words, to achieve the three stars of a captain. He was assisted in the task of ruling, feeding, housing, and leading some two hundred men by his four youthful subalterns and one seasoned warrior of enormous antiquity, Company Sergeant-Major Goffin.
B Company were “back at rest.” They had handed over their trenches to D Company last Wednesday, and did not propose to return thither for seven days. For the moment they were at peace. It is true that a pair of six-inch guns (named respectfully Ferdinand and Isabella), artfully concealed in a meadow a hundred yards distant, roared forth their message of destruction at uncertain periods both by day and night, shaking Cow Corpse Farm to its foundations; but they hardly disturbed the well earned slumber of B Company.
About three o'clock each afternoon the methodicalgunners would begin their daily exercise of “searching” for Ferdinand and Isabella. Sometimes their shells came sufficiently near to make it necessary for B Company to congregate for half-an-hour or so in a sandbag retiring-room, specially constructed for the purpose in rear of the barn.
On this particular Saturday morning Captain Crombie, having concluded his orderly-room, and having dealt out admonition, reproof, and in one case Field Punishment Number One, with an even hand, continued to sit in the seat of judgment at the head of the kitchen table, frowning gloomily at a heap of parcels from home, which lay upon the stone floor in the corner by the grandfather's clock.
He turned to his second-in-command—one Rumbelow.
“Any more gone this morning, Rum?” he asked.
“Curse the fellow, whoever he is!” exclaimed Crombie.
The parcels in question contained such comforts as go to mitigate the discomforts of the soldier on active service, and were addressed to members of the company to which “B” acted as relief. On Tuesday this company would come out of trenches and take over Cow Corpse Farm and all that appertained to it, including the heap of parcels which had been accumulating for them in their absence. But the heap would not be a complete heap.
“We shall have to do something,” said Rumbelow.
“Did you speak to the sergeant-major about it?” asked Crombie.
“Yes. He wants to see you.”
Presently Sergeant-Major Goffin arrived, and saluted with the stately thoroughness of a generation which learned its drill in days when time was no object.
“Sergeant-Major,” began Crombie, “I want to consult you about this parcel business. Do you suspect anybody?”
“In a manner of speaking, sir—yes.”
“Well, let’s get down to it. Who?”
The sergeant-major pointed an accusing finger—about the size and shape of a banana—towards the door which led from the kitchen to the inner room, an apartment which served as kitchen and dining-room for the whole of Madame's ménage, and as a bedroom for all the ladies of the establishment.
“Not Madame?” exclaimed Crombie.
“No, sir,” conceded the sergeant-major; “nor one of the young women.”
“Well—who?” repeated Crombie, impatiently.
“I think, sir,” said the sergeant-major, “that we ought to look for the accused in that loft above the cow-house.”
“Who lives there?”
“The odd man, sir—Henry, I think his name is—and the young boy.”
“The boy John, sir.” (The sergeant-major declined to recognize Gallic affectations.)
The sergeant-major cleared his throat and swung into his main theme.
“In my opinion, sir, these thefts are committed during the night. This room is fully occupied by day. There's the officers and the officers' servants, and the cooking and so forth. It would be difficult for anybody to come in here and pin—extract anything, sir, by day.”
Here Rumbelow, who seldom spoke except to the point, intervened.
“What about the night?” he said. “I sleep here myself.”
“That, sir,” resumed the sergeant-major, a little reproachfully, “is what I was coming to. That is the reason why I suspect the boy. A full-grown man could n't come groping about in here without making a noise. But a boy might creep in; and you, sir, if you will pardon the liberty, being perhaps a heavy sleeper, he might be able to help himself without disturbing you.”
Sergeant-Major Goffin ran down and stood at ease. Crombie pondered.
“There is only one thing to do,” he said at last—“search the loft. I don't like the idea. Neither will Madame. But—”
“I have a plan, sir,” announced the sergeant-major modestly.
“What is it?”
“I was thinking, sir, that we might invite John and Henry into the N.C.O.s' quarters this evening, on some excuse.”
“M'yes. But the excuse? However, I have no doubt you have one manufactured already, Sergeant Major.”
“Yes, sir,” admitted the sergeant-major, with humble pride. “Will you inspect the loft yourself, sir?”
“I am going out to dine with A Company this evening,” said Crombie. “Mr. Rumbelow will take on the job. Is that settled, Rum?”
Mr. Rumbelow nodded assent.
“It’s got to be done, I suppose,” concluded the tender-hearted Crombie, “but I don’t like it. This is a friendly country, and Madame is a good sort. Jean's a decent little beggar, too. Personally, I hope it turns out to be Henri; he’s a shifty-looking tripe hound: I should like to catch him bending. That will do, Sergeant-Major. You can report to me in the morning.”
Crombie, on returning home to Cow Corpse Farm, found that overcrowded establishment still rocking from an upheaval of capital dimensions.
, Jean and 'Nrri were both under close arrest.
Item, most of the stolen property had been discovered under 'Nrri's bed. This fact seemed to designate 'Nrri as the criminal, but the sergeant major, who, like other great specialists in crime, disliked seeing his theories falsified, had confined Petit Jean as well.
Finally, Madame, Hélène, Marguerite, and Sergeant-Major Goffin were all in the kitchen, waiting to exert undue influence upon the returning company commander. This despite the fact that the phlegmatic Rumbelow had gone to bed, and was now sleeping soundly in their very presence.
The sensitive Crombie smiled feebly upon the tearful ladies, told the sergeant-major to bring up the prisoners in the morning, and withdrew, in bad order, to his Armstrong hut behind the hayrick.
Meanwhile Petit-Jean and 'Nrri sat in the straw in the screened-off corner of the barn which served as a guard-room, talking. Most of the guard were sleeping heavily, but in no circumstances would they have been able to understand the patois employed by the prisoners. The President of the French Academy would not have been able to understand it.
Petit-Jean wept copiously when arrested. 'Nrri had merely glowered, though as a matter of fact he was by far the more badly frightened of the two. Jean was now comparatively cheerful. He had partaken of bully beef and ration tea—much more luxurious fare than he would have received as a respectable member of society—and a friendly corporal had cried, “Hey, Johnny!” and tossed him a Woodbine. Petit-Jean was now feeling something of a dare-devil.
“Hear me!” said 'Nrri, in a low, snarling voice. “To-morrow, when the pig of a sergent brings us before the camel of a capitaine, you will say that you stole the packets—you only.”
“But, ’Nrri,” argued Petit-Jean, “you know that I only entered myself into the kitchen, and passed the little packets out to you through the window.”
“Nevertheless,” replied ’Nrri grimly, “you will say that you alone were the thief.”
“Because they will not punish a little one like you. Me they might punish severely.”
“But, no,” Petit-Jean pointed out, eagerly; “you are a réfugié, 'Nrri. You know he is kind, that English. You will tell him who you are—that the Boches have taken all you have.”
“To-morrow,” announced 'Nrri, with unpleasant finality, “you will say that you alone are the thief. If you do not, I shall kill you.”
“How?” asked Petit-Jean, not because he wished to know, but in order to give himself time to think the matter over. He had always been more than a little afraid of 'Nrri, and now there was a look in the man's crafty little eyes which gave him a cold, crawly feeling right up his spine.
“I shall wait,” explained 'Nrri, with relish, “until you are asleep one night in the loft. Then I will kill you with the bayonet of the Scotch whom we found dead in the ditch last winter. Your body I will slide into the cess-pit below the cow-house. There will be a tohu-bohu, but they will not find you. And no one will suspect ’Nrri. Is it not so?”
Petit-Jean, tingling now in the pit of his stomach as well as up his spine, agreed that it was so, and, further, promised to shoulder the entire responsibility in the morning.
Next morning Captain Crombie, returning with B Company from church parade at battalion head quarters about half-past nine, found that the affaire Petit-Jean had entered another phase. 'Nrri was a free man, and Petit-Jean was out on bail.
“Just after you moved off with the company this morning, Petit-Jean owned up to the sergeant-major that he was the desperate criminal, and that Henri was as pure as driven snow.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Are you sure Petit-Jean did n't say that Henry was the criminal? I would back the sergeant-major to get hold of the sticky end of the wand when conversing in the language of this country every time.”
“No; apparently all was in order. Goffin was corroborated by the cook, who was called in as assistant interpreter. So Henri left the court without a stain on his character.”
“What have you done with Petit-Jean?”
Rumbelow grinned. “I thought you would prefer to deal with the case yourself,” he said, “so I remanded him.”
“Curse you!” replied the company commander cordially. “What am I to do with the little beast?”
“There is a gendarmerie in that village near Brigade Headquarters,” said Cradock, who was reading by the window.
Crombie shook his head.
“If we hand him over to the local rozzer,” he said, “it will mean a civil action, and all sorts of complications.”
“Let the sergeant-major bend him over and give him six of the best,” suggested the practical Rumbelow.
The harassed Crombie shook his head again.
“It would mean a devil of a lot of unpleasantness with Madame,” he observed ruefully—“not to mention the young ladies.”
“Then why not give the youth a good telling-off, and dismiss the case?”
“And a pretty fair Juggins I should look,” retorted Crombie, with justifiable heat, “sitting here and strafing Petit-Jean in a language which I can’t speak, and which he can’t understand!” He puffed savagely at his pipe. “However, the longer we look at it the less we shall like it. Where is the little swine? Still in the guard-room?”
“No. Madame has bailed him out for an hour or two. I am not a French scholar myself; but I gathered from her that there would be the father and mother of a row with the curé if I did n’t let Petit Jean off for Sunday Mass.”
“The curé?” Over the troubled features of Captain Crombie stole a flicker of relief—almost of inspiration. “The curé here is a friend of mine,” he continued. “I gave him a lift in the mess-cart only the day before yesterday. Ha-ha! Tell the sergeant major I want him, Cradock, like a good chap.”
When Cradock returned with the sergeant-major, five minutes later, Crombie was sitting in the judgment seat behind the kitchen table, furtively scribbling certain sentences upon a sheet of office paper. Rumbelow, in the chimney corner, was regarding his superior officer with an air of whimsical solemnity. Mr. Rumbelow possessed a keen sense of humour, but, unlike most humourists, preferred to consume his own smoke.
“Sergeant-Major,” commanded Crombie, in his orderly-room voice, “bring in the prisoner.”
The great man saluted.
“Shall I fetch an escort, sir?” he inquired.
Crombie, immersed in the labours of composition, nodded absently. Straightway the sergeant-major withdrew to the yard outside, where his voice was heard uplifted in command:
“Escort—tehu-urn! Left turn! Quick—march!”
Clump! clump! clump! The sergeant-major entered the kitchen, followed by an enormous private. The pair tramped across the stone-floored kitchen, in solemn majesty, to the door of the inner room, where the escort, in response to an ear-splitting order, halted.
The sergeant-major, advancing one pace, knocked three times upon the door, and exclaimed in a terrible voice:
There was a flutter within; the door was opened by a person unseen, and the procession disappeared. Mr. Rumbelow turned his face to the brickwork of the chimney corner, and held it there. Cradock hastily buried his features in an obsolete copy of the “Tatler.” Crombie, oblivious to his surroundings, still scribbled nervously.
“Prisoner and escort—tchu-urn! Into file, left turn! Quick—march!”
Clump! clump! clump!
Presently Captain Crombie, conscious of the near presence of several warm human beings, looked up. Before him, in a rigid row, stood the large private, Petit-Jean, and the sergeant-major. Petit-Jean was wearing his Sunday suit, already described, with the exception of his yachting cap, which, in accordance with King's Regulations, had been plucked from his head.
“The boy John, sir!” announced the sergeant major, in a voice of thunder, and handed Crombie a yellow Army form, containing Petit-Jean's “crime.”
Crombie took the paper, and from sheer force of habit began to read:
John, charged with stealing the following articles upon various dates, namely–
Then, realizing for the first time the imbecility of the present procedure, he thrust the document away from him, and glanced stealthily at the first sentence on his scribbled sheet. After this he cleared his throat in a distressing manner, looked Petit-Jean straight in the face and began:
“Er—h’m—vous êtes voleur?”
Petit-Jean promptly burst into tears. This gave Crombie an opportunity of studying the next sentence.
“Voulez-vous,” he continued, when Petit-Jean had regained a measure of composure, “que je vous donnerai” (I’m not sure that ought n’t to be in the subjunctive) “aux gendarmes?”
Petit-Jean responded with a further outburst, supplemented by a violent attack of hiccups. Cradock rose unsteadily to his feet, and groped his way out of the kitchen. The conscientious Crombie proceeded to his next conundrum:
“Voulez-vous que je vous—er—donne au sergent, pour être battu—n'est-ce pas?” The last phrase was thrown in on the spur of the moment, and Crombie felt rather proud of it.
The prisoner, however, made no attempt to reply to those engaging propositions. Instead, he sobbed out a long and incomprehensible rigmarole, the only intelligible item of which was the word “pardon.” Crombie, again utilizing his opportunity, made astudy of his brief. Then he launched his master-thrust.
“Est-ce que vous avez fait—no, fit—no—never mind?—I mean, ça ne fait rien.” He took a good breath, and started again.
“Est-ce que vous avez fait confession à Monsieur le Curé—eh?”
There was a dramatic silence, broken by a rending hiccup from the accused. Crombie continued hastily:
“Demain, vous irez chez Monsieur le Curé, et vous ferez confession, tout de suite—complet—absolument”—he was “gagging” wildly now—“entièrement, et sans doute—que vous êtes voleur. Comprenez? Anyhow, I’ll tell the curé myself, my son, so you’ll get it put across you either way. Now, then, clear out! Allez vous en! Sergeant-Major, for Heaven's sake, take this hiccuping little blighter away!”
Whether Petit-Jean was duly appreciative of the linguistic effort made on his behalf by Captain Crombie will never be known. But the fact remains that on the following Tuesday afternoon, Madame appeared at the kitchen doorway, and summoned Petit-Jean, who was engaged upon some professional duty in the pigsty, to the family living-room. He emerged half an hour later, uncannily clean, and dressed in his Sunday suit, supplemented by a large umbrella, and set off with dragging feet across the fields which led to the curé's house. What happened there I cannot tell, but it is probable that Petit-Jean duly “had it put across him,” as predetermined by that wise and merciful young judge, Captain Crombie.
For the next ten days life pressed very heavily upon Petit-Jean. He was in disgrace. The officiers no longer gave him a smile on passing, or made observations to him in a language which they imagined to be French and which Petit-Jean judged to be English.
It was an uncomfortable time for more important persons than Petit-Jean. The two six-inch guns, Ferdinand and Isabella, were receiving attentions from the Boche artillery which grew daily more tiresome and accurate. It was obvious that they had been “spotted.” One day a big howitzer shell swung lazily out of the blue and landed ten yards from the abiding-place of Isabella. Fortunately it was a “dud,” but the battery commander, realizing the undesirability of tempting Providence too far, telephoned for his traction engine, and within a few hours the two big guns had been towed to a fresh anchorage some distance to a flank. The next morning was devoted to “registering,” with the aid of an aeroplane, upon a convenient château behind the Boche lines. This formality completed, regular business was resumed.
Exactly twenty-four hours later a salvo of hostile “crumps” descended upon the new emplacements. The guns escaped damage, but the bursts of shrapnel which followed the “crumps” accounted for the battery sergeant-major and two gunners. Once more transport was hurriedly summoned, and the royal pair removed to another portion of their realm.
The artillery captain, Maple, who lived in a wooden hut half a mile from the farm, rode over that evening to confide his woes to B Company, who had just returned from another turn in the trenches.
“That Boche battery did n’t open fire on my positions by accident,” he observed darkly.
“Well, it was n’t any of us who gave him the tip,” said Rumbelow. “We have been in trenches all week.”
The captain, disregarding the pleasantry, put down his bowl of tea, and continued:
“We have n’t been in those positions a couple of days, and there has n’t been a Boche aeroplane over since Monday. And yet they have us stiff. There's only one explanation.”
“Spies, of course,” he said.
“Of course,” grunted the gunner savagely. “But it's hopeless to run them to earth in Belgium. There are lots of inhabited farms quite close up to the line, yet we are n’t allowed to bung anybody out. If I had my way I’d deport the whole bunch five miles back. The place must be full of refugees whom the Maire can’t account for. However, I suppose we must put up with it. That's the worst of fighting in a friendly country; you have to consider everybody's feelings so infernally. I bet the Boche has everybody on his side of the line trotting around with a number-plate on like a taxi. Well, I must wander off.”
“Stop and help us to struggle with our Maconochie,” urged the mess.
“Sorry,” replied the gunner, “but the present situation is too tricky.
Crombie accompanied his visitor to the farm gate, where an orderly was dispatched for the battery commander's horse.
“If I see any suspicious-looking stranger lounging about,” said Crombie, “I’ll run him in.”
“Thanks, old man,” replied the harried gunner, and trotted away into the dusty sunset. Crombie turned to go back to the kitchen, and found himself face to face with Petit-Jean. Petit-Jean, with hanging head, promptly sidled towards a pigsty. His demeanour was so dejected that Crombie, suddenly reminded of last week's episode, and mindful of the acute sorrows of his own sinful youth, laid a hand upon Petit-Jean's shoulder, and exclaimed affably:
“Halloa, Petit-Jean! Comment vous portez-vous—what?”
Petit-Jean, not sure what these incomprehensible words might mean, wriggled nervously.
“Il fait beau temps,” continued Crombie, warming to his work. “Il sera joli chaud demain, n'est-ce pas?”
He concluded with a smile so jolly that Petit-Jean realized with a joyous thrill that this was a friendly conversation, and that his period of ostracism was accomplished. He grinned gratefully, from ear to ear.
“Et maintenant,” concluded Crombie, soaring to fresh heights, “venez avec moi dans la cuisine, et avez—avez—what I mean is, je vous donnerai une pièce de gâteau. Mouvons!”
Petit-Jean lay awake under the red tiles of his loft, listening to the endless plop-plop of the Verey lights, punctuated by occasional bursts of machine-gun fire along the distant line. Sleep had forsaken him to night; but the cause was elation rather than depression of spirits. His youthful palate was still cloyed with Huntley and Palmer cake, and his heart was correspondingly uplifted.
It was a dark and cloudy night, and Petit-Jean was thereby deprived of one of his favourite sedative exercises—namely, counting the stars in those patches of sky which were visible through holes in the roof.
Suddenly his sharp senses told him that in some way the peace of the loft had been disturbed. The regular breathing of 'Nrri, who slept at the other end of the loft, had ceased, and had given place to a series of stertorous puffs, accompanied by a creaking sound. 'Nrri was awake and pulling on his boots. 'Nrri was going out.
All good civilians in the war zone are supposed to be safely tucked up and in bed by nine o'clock. Yet here was 'Nrri about to snap his fingers at martial law at two o'clock in the morning. But at first Petit-Jean experienced no surprise. To be quite frank, 'Nrri was an invariable night-bird. He was in the habit of committing the military crime of “breaking out of billets” at least once a week. Whenever the accumulation of parcels from the kitchen made it worth while, 'Nrri was accustomed to pay a nocturnal visit to the establishment of a venerable female, who supported life, externally, by the sale of small beer, cigarettes, and picture postcards. The lady was known among the light-hearted soldiery of the district—possibly in reference to a figure which bore unmistakable testimony to some sixty years of generous diet and insufficient exercise—as Madame Zeppelin. To Madame 'Nrri bartered the cigarettes, cigars, condensed milk, chocolate, and other comforts stolen from the parcels; and Madame disposed of the same, at cent per cent profit, to the light-hearted soldiery aforesaid.
Presently 'Nrri's sketchy toilet was completed, and he began to move stealthily down the ladder. Petit Jean, silent, but wide awake, was overtaken by a fresh thought. Why should 'Nrri be going to Madame Zeppelin's now? He had no wares to offer; recent legal proceedings had knocked that traffic on the head. A further thought. Was 'Nrri bound for Madame Zeppelin's at all? If not—whither?
After that, Petit-Jean began to think very hard, indeed. He had always been afraid of 'Nrri, and since their conversation in the guard-room he had hated him as well. On the other hand, he loved Monsieur le Capitaine and his officers like brothers—especially since this afternoon. Petit-Jean felt instinctively that these stealthy movements in the dark were directed in some wise against the safety and well-being of the present house-party at Cow Corpse Farm in particular and of the British Army in general.
Five minutes later 'Nrri had effected an unostentatious departure from the back premises of the farm—thus avoiding the sentry out on the road in front—and was picking his way cautiously across country towards the trenches. The night was black as ink—so black that no object in the landscape cast a shadow. Yet a shadow followed 'Nrri—a small human shadow—inexorably all the way to his destination; which, by the way, was not the establishment of Madame Zeppelin.
Petit-Jean stepped out of the cow-house, took a deep breath, planted himself full in the path of Captain Crombie, and exclaimed feverishly:
“M'sieur le Capitaine!”
“Bonjour, Petit-Jean!” replied Crombie, who was in a hurry; and attempted to pass. But Petit-Jean repeated:
“M'sieur le Capitaine!”
“Well, what about it, old son?” he inquired.
In answer, Petit-Jean embarked upon a hurried recitation, casting anxious glances all the while in the direction of the beetroot-stack, where 'Nrri was selecting the cows' luncheon.
Finally the recitation ceased, and Petit-Jean eyed the captain eagerly. But all the reply he got was:
“C'est dommage, my lad, but no compree!”
Then upon Petit-Jean descended the inspiration of a lifetime.
“M'sieur le Curé?” he suggested eagerly. The curé could speak English of a sort.
“The curé?” said Crombie. “I thought that incident was closed.”
But Petit-Jean was urgent.
“Le curé, m'sieur, ce soir, à six heures!”
“Oh!” replied Crombie, beginning to see light. “Er—ici?”
Petit-Jean nodded his head vigorously.
“Right-o! Carry on with your mysterious project, and I’ll be here. But I wonder what the old man wants to see me for?”
As a matter of fact, the curé was quite unaware of the approaching symposium. For one thing it was Friday, and his busy day. Consequently, when Petit Jean's bullet head peeped shyly round his kitchen door, and Petit-Jean's voice proffered the modest request that he would present himself at B Company's billet, over a mile away, that evening at six o'clock, the old gentleman's reply was a little testy. But when he had heard the tale which his small parishioner had to unfold, his eyes gleamed through his spectacles, and he said, quite simply:
“I come, my little! But meanwhile, silence thyself.”
As a matter of fact, the last arrival at the meeting was Captain Crombie. That afternoon Ferdinand and Isabella had been shelled out of a third position, and Crombie had ridden over to offer condolences. Finding Maple almost at his wits' end, he bethought him suddenly of the curé.
“Look here,” he said, “I have a kind of notion that it might pay you to come over to my quarters. The curé will be there at”—he looked at his watch—“well, he's there now. He's a patriotic old cove. He may be able to suggest a possible renegade among his flock. Come and pump him dry.”
Ten minutes later the pair trotted in at the farm gate, to encounter the curé, a little ruffled, on the point of departure. But he was shepherded with fair words into the only armchair. The kitchen doors were shut; fortunately the rest of the household were out in the fields, and Petit-Jean told his tale.
Briefly it amounted to this.
He had tracked 'Nrri to an empty house, some three hundred yards behind the reserve line. The house, which had been badly knocked about by shell-fire, was called Five-Point-Nine Villa. 'Nrri had disappeared within. Jean, with some acumen, had crept round to the east end facing the German lines, in order to detect suspicious flashes or other signals.
“What did you see?” asked Crombie eagerly.
The curé passed the question on. Petit-Jean, with a doleful grimace, shook his head.
“Nothing, eh?” said Maple.
“That does n’t signify anything,” said Crombie. “'Nrri probably stood well back from the window, and Petit-Jean, being on the ground, could n’t spot the flashes. Anything else, Petit-Jean?”
Yes, there was something else. Petit-Jean produced his trump card. Failing to extract any satisfaction from the house, he had turned his attention to the German lines.
“And what is it, my son,” inquired the old curé, eagerly, “that you have seen there?”
“My father,” replied Petit-Jean, with breathless solemnity, “I have seen a red light which made itself to appear three times.”
“And this light? It proceeded from—”
“From behind the trenches of the Boche.”
“Ça suffit!” said the old man, briskly, and turned to the two officers.
Next afternoon the trap was laid. Fresh gun-pits were dug, and Ferdinand and Isabella were ostentatiously installed therein. By ten o'clock the same evening Crombie and Maple were inmates of Five Point-Nine Willa.
The villa possessed two storeys, with the inevitable grenier, or loft, running from end to end under the tiles. At the eastern end of this loft, in the apex of the gable, glimmered a circular unglazed window. Through this drifted the never-ceasing, uneasy sounds of trench warfare. The wood at this point thinned to a mere belt, through which it was possible to see right to the trench-lines. Crombie cautiously turned on his electric torch. The only visible furniture of the loft was a pile of lumber in one corner, and a curious edifice, comprised of British Army ration boxes, standing up like a pulpit in the middle of the floor. The torch went out.
“What is that erection for?” asked Crombie.
“I think I know,” said Maple.
He felt his way in the dark, and presently could be heard climbing.
“I thought so,” remarked his voice, proceeding apparently from just under the low roof. “Come up here; you'll find a sort of staircase of boxes at the back.”
In a few moments the two officers were standing side by side on the top step of the staircase, looking over the summit of the pulpit at the circular window in the gable end. Through this could be seen the tossing branches of trees, silhouetted against the flares of the trench-line.
“You see?” said Maple. “This is the signalling stand. It is exactly level with that little round window. Impossible to spot a flash sent from here, unless you were right in the line of the window and the lamp. I should say that the line of sight from this platform to the lower edge of the window just clears our front-line trenches. Pretty neat! Cunning fellow!”
“I wonder where he keeps his lamp?” mused Crombie.
“I expect he brings it with him. Too risky to—Halloa, what’s that?”
“Messieu-u-urs!” A sibilant panting whisper shot up the rickety staircase. It emanated from Petit Jean, who had run all the way from Cow Corpse Farm, making a détour into the bargain. Crombie descended from the pulpit and went to the stairhead.
“Il s'apprrroche!” hissed Petit-Jean, and vanished.
'Nrri's first proceeding upon arrival was to mount the pulpit, apparently with a view to inspecting as much of the landscape as was visible through the circular window. Next, breathing heavily in the darkness, he betook himself to the eastern end of the room. This was fortunate for Crombie and Maple, who were among the lumber at the other end. A creaking sound was heard.
“He’s prizing up a plank!” whispered Maple.
Crombie nodded his head in the darkness. Evidently 'Nrri was digging out his lamp
Presently the shuffling footsteps returned, and to an accompaniment of groaning ration-boxes 'Nrri reascended his rostrum. Followed a click, and a dazzling spot of light struck the wall opposite, just under the window. Another click, and the light went out.
“Elevation too low, old son!” muttered Maple.
Next time the signaller made no mistake.
The spot of light could not be seen now, for it was impinging upon a Boche retina many hundreds of yards away. But the shutter of the signal-lamp could be heard working clearly enough.
Click-click-clickety-click! 'Nrri was calling up some invisible “exchange.” He paused, waited, and began again. Then again. So immersed was he in the interesting occupation of getting into touch with his friends beyond the lines that he quite failed to note the somewhat surprising fact that his feet, which stood upon the topmost step of the pulpit, about a yard from the floor, had suddenly become luminous or, at least, that they were being illuminated at close range by an electric torch. Three seconds later the torch, having served its purpose in locating the exact position of the feet, was switched off; four willing and muscular hands grabbed the ankles of the preoccupied 'Nrri; Captains Crombie and Maple, each planting a foot squarely against his side of the pulpit, gave a gigantic heave; 'Nrri precipitately abandoned the occupation of telegraph operator in favour of that of contortionist; there was a dull thud, followed by a rattle of cascading ration-boxes. Then silence.
Crombie's torch shone out again. 'Nrri, having just performed the “splits” in midair, and subsequently fallen upon the back of his head, lay quite still.
“Golly, he took a toss and a half!” observed Crombie. “Have we done him in, do you think?”
“No,” said Maple. “He’s breathing all right. Put the handcuffs on him, and I’ll whistle up your sergeant-major and escort.”
Ten minutes later 'Nrri, in full possession of his faculties and perspiring icily, was on his way back to Cow Corpse Farm, escorted by two large British privates, preceded by Petit-Jean, and supervised from the rear by Sergeant-Major Goffin.
Crombie and Maple remained in the loft.
“That chap was a Boche all right,” said Maple. “He gave himself away when he came to.”
“Was that German? I have n’t the pleasure of knowing it.”
“It was; and fairly profane German, too.”
“No idea you were such a linguist.”
“I had a German governess in my youth,” explained Maple modestly. “Up to this moment I have always wished that she had been French. This lamp is a good instrument.” He clicked the shutter. “Not damaged either.”
“It will be useful as evidence,” said Crombie.
“I have another use for it first!” he said, and began to rebuild the platform.
Presently the two captains stood level again with the round window. Maple began to manipulate the shutter of the lamp.
“I’m giving the Morse call-up signal,” he explained. “I have a notion to jape with the Boche. Let us see if we can draw him. My word, look!”
Far way in the darkness, beyond the fretful, sputtering trench-lines, there suddenly glowed out a red point of light—then again—then again.
“Three red dashes!” said Maple. “I presume that is the answering signal. Now, let me think. What is the German for—?”
He relapsed into silence, and clicked his shutter vigorously. Then he switched off, and abruptly descended to the floor.
“I have a feeling,” he said, “that we may have a few shells over here shortly. Let us hence!”
“What did you say to the blighters?” inquired Crombie, as the pair stepped out briskly along the muddy track which ran back to Cow Corpse Farm.
“I said: ‘Number engaged! Sorry you’ve been troubled! Gott strafe England!”