The Man on Horseback/Chapter 42

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CHAPTER XLII

TOWARDS THE FRONTIER

It was fairly late in the afternoon and a thunderstorm was booming from the north, trailing a cloak of sable clouds heavy with rain across the face of the town, whirling down the streets with a whipping wedge of hailstones that rattled against the window-panes like machine gun bullets. Lightning zigzagged in fantastic spikes of brilliant white and electric blue. Thunder sobbed dully, hopelessly, like the death gurgle of a shattered world.

Even so, ever-increasing crowds paraded the streets, spilling from houses and cafés and beer gardens out to the sidewalks and thence to the pavements.

Tom had taken a taxicab back to barracks, and his driver tooted his horn continuously. At sight of the beloved uniform, the shining uhlanka, the silver gray cape, the crowd would give way, often with cheers and hurrahs.

Many were drunk, the Westerner noticed. But, too, he noticed that many others, perfectly sober from an alcoholic view-point, people who, to judge from their sunken eyes, their drawn lips, had hardly partaken of food in the gigantic excitement that had swirled through the German capital like fog in the brain of a blind world, behaved even more extravagantly than the beer-soaked hooligans from the North-side slums.

They sang and cursed and cheered and yelled.

First had been the fear that England might fight by the side of France and Russia, a fear promptly argued out of existence by stale statistics and staler national psychology. Then, like a thunder clap, had come the fact: England had sent an ultimatum, followed by a declaration of war. Already the vanguard of Britain's army was crossing the channel to come to the help of France's left flank, to protect Calais, to battle, later on, gloriously at the Marne. Already the navy, Britain's floating walls, was drawing a choking net across Germany's commercial throat.

Thus nervous reaction had come to the crowd like the release of an immense steel spring. In that mad moment Germany welcomed the entry of yet more enemies into the battle arena.

"Eine Welt in Waffen!" quoted a little underfed, pimply high school boy from a text-book. "A world in arms against us!"

And, at once, a university professor, in black broadcloth, steel spectacles, ragged mustache, dirty shirt and frayed cuffs, made an impromptu speech on the same subject. He started academically, but wound up with incoherent roars, just opening his huge mouth, showing his decayed teeth and yelling mad, pathetic invectives at France and England, the crowd shouting back its approval.

Another time, as his taxicab was caught in the human eddy that rolled across the Janowitzer Bridge, Tom was shocked by the sight of a middle-aged woman, well dressed in heliotrope taffeta, neat shoes, white kid gloves, and a little black Viennese toque. Had he seen her back home, in Spokane, he would have said that she was the wife of some prosperous mining man, of good family, soundly respectable, rather conservative, most likely a member of various progressive civic organizations and clubs, and the mother of a large, happy family. In Berlin she was typical of the higher business or professional class, belonging to the soundest burgess society; and here she stood, at the curb, her neat little hat awry, her veil torn, waving a newspaper in her hand, and shouting a foaming, babbling stream of curses and obscenities against France and England and Russia and all the rest of the world.

Yet more scenes as Tom's cab progressed up the street:

A mad, nauseating hodge-podge of emotions, of shouts and yells and indecencies, a very miscarriage of patriotism, and always sprinkled and larded with God, Duty, Kaiser, Hearth, Home, Hurrah! And then more curses, more belching forth of savage blood-lust!

A cult of hatred! A cult of brutality! A cult of obscenities labeled Love of Country! And Tom thought it less terrible than pitiable. He found it in his big, simple heart to pity these people, top-heavy with worship of self and iron force, weak-kneed with meaningless, sugary sentimentality, rotten with false standards and bad beer.

Never in all his life had Tom loved his own land as during that drive. Faults? Of course America had faults. There was no nation this side of millennium free from them. A nation needs faults, like the shadows in a flame, to emphasize its brightness.

But the faults of America were those of youth, added to those of an ancient, badly digested, Mayflower Puritanism, faults at times sharpened and brought into clashing contrast by the continuous immigration and assimilation of tens of thousands of foreigners. Historical, geographical faults rather than national, or racial!

But—Germany? New Germany?

Why … There was that respectable middle-aged woman, there was the pimply schoolboy, the spectacled professor … And all mouthing mean obscenities, polluting the very God in whom they professed to believe.

Yes! America, too, had faults, but (Tom smiled as he coined the phrase) they were such damned decent faults!—while these … He shivered a little.

"Hurry up!" he said to the driver, as the crowd thinned, farther north where, in the drab, reeking tenements that clustered around the barracks, the martial enthusiasm decreased proportionately with the misery of the people who lived there.

Tom did not know how excited he was, and it was this very ignorance of his own emotions which helped him to dovetail minutely each tiny detail of his plans, to switch promptly when circumstances necessitated it, from the moment the machine stopped in front of the barracks.

A dozen or so men in dingy, peaked sweaters were standing at the curb, looking up at the great building.

"Our turn to-morrow," said one rather hopelessly, with a malevolent glance at Tom's uniform; and a woman of the streets, blowzy, enormous, vulgar, spat. A policeman ordered her brutally on her way.

Tom paid the driver, was about to dismiss him, then, rapidly reconsidering, asked him to come back in ten minutes and wait.

Inside the barracks the reservists, tired out with the strenuous drill of the last twelve hours, had thrown themselves down wherever they could to snatch a few hours of sleep before the morning when the long, gray troop trains would carry them to the frontier. Some were writing messages of farewell to friends and families, two or three were sitting in corners by themselves, staring at the floor with unseeing eyes.

One was choking down hysterical sobs. Tom patted him on the shoulder.

"Don't give in!" he whispered reassuringly, and passed on, down the long corridor that ran parallel to the gymnasium, leaving to his left the under-officers mess, whence came broken bits of song and talk.

There was no light in Captain von Quitzow's room nor in that of von Königsmark, and Tom breathed more freely. It would be easier than he thought to make his get-away.

But, when he opened the door to his own room, he stopped on the threshold, thunderstruck. For there, evidently waiting for him, sat von Quitzow. For a moment the Westerner was frightened, nervous. He even thought in a flash of the chance of attacking the other, knocking him unconscious, if need be of killing him. But the German's first words reassured him:

"I am so glad you have come. So very glad!" The big Junker wiped his steaming red face with his handkerchief. "Von Königsmark asked me for leave. He wants to say good-by to his mother, and I let him go. Those reserve officers have all turned in—soft, civilian cattle—tired out after half a day's work—and," he added plaintively, "I'm all alone."

"What's wrong?" laughed Tom. "Seeing the ghosts of former wars?"

"No. Only …" Again he wiped his face. He looked at Tom, his soul, his whole self involved, confused, his sense of duty and discipline battling against the soft streak in his nature. "You see," he went on, "there's a little girl. We play duets together, she the piano, and I the violin. Ach! You should hear us play that Grieg concerto, so beautiful, so sweet! And she lives quite a ways out in the Westend, and …

Tom's mind worked quickly.

"I get you. Want to have a last shot at that Grieg whatever-you-call-it, and perhaps give her pouting lips a farewell smack, eh? And here you are, in charge of the barracks, orders and all that …"

"Yes, yes!" replied the other breathlessly.

"All right. Forget the orders. Forget Colonel Wedekind. He'll never find out. I'll look after things. Go on and hug your girl. No, no," as von Quitzow stammered objections and thanks all in the same breath, "it's perfectly O. K.! Run along and play. You needn't come back till the wee, sma' hours. I won't give you away."

A great, naïve smile overspread the Junker's round face.

"Thanks!" he bellowed, buckled on his saber, and ran out of the room.

"Item Number One!" Tom checked it off on his fingers. "And now, what next? To be sure! We'll try the same sugar pap on my servant."

He rang the bell and his Bursche, a squat, yellow-haired Mecklenburg lad, appeared, clicking his heels.

"Hans," said Tom, "I won't need you any more to-night. You have leave all night leave. Go on and kiss your Gretchen!"

Came another bellow of Teutonic thanks:

"Vielen, vielen Dank, Herr Leutnant!"

"Same to you and many of 'em!" murmured the Westerner after the servant had left, checked off the second item as satisfactorily disposed of, and turned to the third.

He thought for several minutes, then he took a piece of paper, scribbled furiously, went out to the street and spoke to the taxicab driver, who had returned.

"Shoot along to the next telegraph station and send off this message, as fast as you can. Served your three years in the army?"

"Yes, Herr Leutnant!"

"All right. Then you know how to obey."

"Yes, Herr Leutnant!"

"Very well. Listen. Take this message, have it telegraphed as I said, but don't you dare look at the contents. Militärgeheimniss—military secret—you understand? Too, you tell the chap at the telegraph office he's to forget every word of the message as soon as he has ticked it off. Tell him to keep no record of it if he values his skin. It's in code, but there are dozens of spies about. My man," continued Tom, quoting shamelessly from one of Colonel Wedekind's favorite slogans, "I rely upon you, the army does, the Emperor!"

"Zu Befehl, Herr Leutnant!" came the enthusiastic reply, and the driver purred away while Tom called after him to return in half an hour.

He grinned mischievously.

"I, the army, the Emperor! Bully old high sign, that. Wait till I get back home to Spokane and put my brother Elks wise to it!"

In his room once more he went rapidly through his belongings, slipped whatever official papers he had, such as his commission, his transfer to war school, and his appointment as regimental remount officer, in his despatch bag, and changed into a serviceable field uniform of grayish green. He put on uhlanka and cape, girded himself with saber and a brace of heavy-caliber cavalry pistols; then, after a moment's deliberation, smiling softly to himself, he packed a leather case with his Mexican spurs, his range quirt, an additional long, sweeping full-dress uniform cape of silver gray lined with crimson, and an extra pair of riding-boots and uhlanka.

Fifteen minutes later a messenger brought a telegram—the telegram which Tom had sent off with the help of the driver, not to forget Colonel Wedekind's Prussian shibboleth.

He tore it open and read.

It was addressed to Lieutenant Graves, Uhlans of the Guard, Berlin, was signed with the Colonel's name, and ordered the recipient to take the next train for Metz and report there.

Tom laughed.

"Fine and dandy!"

In the upper left-hand corner of the telegram was the date and the place whence it had been ticked—Berlin.

"That won't do!" decided the Westerner, and tore off the corner.

Then he went to von Quitzow's room, put the message on the latter's table, and scribbled a few words telling the Junker not to worry. He was sorry that he had to go. Orders! The other would understand. But everything was all right in barracks, and, if von Quitzow kept his mouth shut, nobody need ever know that for one night the Uhlan barracks had been left without an officer in charge.

By this time it was past ten, and the taxicab had returned. Tom picked up leather case and despatch bag and crossed the endless corridors of the huge, gray building. All the lights were out in the quarters of the reserve officers. The dormitories and the under-officers mess were as still as a grave.

Tom blew a mocking kiss in the direction of the great Imperial Standard of Germany that draped its braggart folds above the door of the adjutant's office.

 

"I'se gwine to leave yo', honey,
Su' I is!" …

 

he hummed, remembering an old minstrel song, went down the stairs, entered the cab, and told the driver to go to the depot. He reached there at eleven, ate a comfortable meal at the station restaurant, and strolled out on the platform looking for his friend.

A moment later he found him, nonchalantly sprawled on a bench in the waiting-room, reading a late newspaper. The man seemed utterly fearless, utterly sure of himself, and Tom, too, realized that there was little danger. The German war machine was efficient, but, as nearly always in the case of too much efficiency, it was utterly unprepared to cope with an emergency not contained in the proper statistics and text-books. Later on, the fact of it was destined to be demonstrated on a large scale when forty years unceasing, ultra-efficient preparation broke down, at the very gates of Paris, before—not cannons and rifles, for in that the Germans had an overwhelming advantage, but before the calm faith in the souls of the individual French, Belgian and British soldiers that the world must remain sound.

To-night, the same apparatus of efficiency broke down before the poker sense, in a way the sense of humor, of two Anglo-Saxons.

"Guten Abend, Herr Kamerad!" snarled the Englishman, and the American returned the salute and sat down by his side. Together, without speaking, they looked out on the platform.

It was crowded with officers of all ranks and all regiments, Prussians, Bavarians, Badensers, Saxons, and a sprinkling of Austrians and Hungarians. Some of them were in their cups and exchanging drunken boasts; others had endless conversations with women of all classes—their wives and sisters and mothers, but also their mistresses, and even with women of the underworld, rank, vicious, unmistakable. The coming of war had finally shattered the fiber of their moral life, their moral perceptions, their moral prejudices. For once, being potential heroes, looked up to by all classes, even the grumbling Liberals and the discontented Radicals, as defenders of the Fatherland and conquerors of Belgium, Britain, France, and the world in general, they felt free to do exactly what and how they pleased.

And they did.

To-night the uniform was an excuse for license, where formerly it had been only one for arrogance and stiff, rectangular class consciousness.

A white-haired General was walking arm in arm with a notorious soubrette of the Metropol Theatre.

Two infantry lieutenants, beardless, rosy-cheeked, pitifully young, just gazetted, took turns in kissing a middle-aged, overdressed cocotte of the Tauentzien quarter.

And there were other similar scenes, the decent women, the mothers and sisters and wives, seeming not to see, or not to mind.

"Nasty, lascivious beast—this Prussian war machine," murmured Vyvyan. "Gad! I shiver when I think of the women of France and Belgium!"

"Wow there!" whispered Tom, gripping the other's arm, "steady! Steady, old hoss!"

But his own lips quivered as he saw Mrs. Wedekind and Bertha move slowly through the throng towards the waiting train.

"Let's go!" said Vyvyan. "I've bought the tickets and greased several official hands. I've a coupé reserved for us. That's one thing you can do in Germany, war or peace: Trinkgeld—tips! Goes nearly as far as ‘Zu Befehl!’"

They entered a first-class compartment, marked "Reservirt," and, a few minutes later, came the station master's shrill whistle of departure, and his cadenced call:

"All aboard for Magdeburg—Gotha—Meiningen—Frankfort—Darmstadt—Metz! Metz! All aboard for Metz and the frontier!"

A belch of acrid smoke. A clank and rattle. The officers and the few civilians rushed to their carriages. A chorus of farewells, last messages, last boasts:

"Back in two months, Mütterchen!"

"Don't you worry, sweetheart. I'll bring you something nice from France!"

"Tell Karl and Franz to work at their school lessons, or—Donnerwetter noch 'mal—when I get back …"

"Auf Wiedersehen, Schatz!"

"What d'you want, Minna? A Belgian General? All right. I'll send him by parcel post!"

"You mind your P's and Q's while I'm away, Emma, d'you hear?"

"Good-by! Good-by!"

And a final, bragging altogether shout of:

"Nach Paris! Nach Paris! Mit Gott für Kônig und Vaterland!" while the train clanked out into the night, towards Metz, the frontier, France. …