The Man on Horseback/Chapter 44

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CHAPTER XLIV

THE BLUFF

Tom Graves, walking down the ancient, curling streets of Metz, noticed a subtle difference between the atmosphere of war as it was here and as it had been in Berlin. There, straight through all the pomp and clank and vainglorious, childish boasting, had been a fantastic, extravagant, enigmatical streak. A streak of unreality. For Berlin, heart of the Empire, is, by the same token, at a safe distance from the frontier, while Metz focused sharply, shudderingly into the radius of actual hostilities. Thus voices were more hushed here; there was just the least little bit less bragging, and people went rapidly, directly on their way, giving odd, nervous starts when an airplane zummed overhead like a monstrous, steel-ribbed insect.

Tom found the ancient church of St. Mary fronting the street with a centuries-old cemetery, its narrow, baroque contours flanked by two uneven steeples, peaking up to the star-frosted night sky line like thin shafts of rigging.

Through the half-open doors came deep chanting, a sharp scent of incense, flickering fingers of light. Worshipers came and went, some returning from the altar, where they had burned candles to the Virgin for their sons about to go forth into battle, others arriving early to sob out their souls in the midnight Mass. There was a sprinkling of private soldiers and officers, Catholics from Bavaria in light-blue or bottle-green regimentals, and a few Austrians, curiously ill at ease. Nobody paid any attention to Tom.

Arrived at the corner where the sacristy, newly built, jutted triangularly, he saw Mrs. Wedekind on her granddaughter's arm. She made a hopeless, flat gesture of finality with her mittened hand, then disappeared in a throng of peasant women in shorts skirts and clumsy, winged bonnets, Lorrainers all, talking in a mixture of French and German, some crying as if their hearts would break.

A moment later Tom was by Bertha's side.

"Walk slow," he whispered, tucking her arm in his; and she understood without asking him the reason.

For the streets were filled with soldiers, privates and non-coms and officers, strolling about with women and girls of all classes, all talking in tense, hectic undertones—like a last flaring of passion, a last calling out of a man's senses to a woman's, before the morrow, the battle, death.

Tom, clean to the marrow, sensitive, felt the silent surging of emotions. It embarrassed him. The more so as there was something he had to tell Bertha, something of which he had thought when, back in the Uhlan barracks, he had packed his leather case.

And he did not know how to put it into words.

She noticed his silence and finally she asked him what was the matter.

"Bertha," he whispered, "you know I love you better than all the world …"

"Tell me about your love after we're safely across the frontier," came her mischievous reply.

"You just bet I will. But … Say … Forgive me for what I'm going to tell you, and for the love o' Mike don't misunderstand me!"—and he told her in a hushed, halting whisper what was on his mind

"Don't you see, honey?" he wound up. "It's the only way. Why—it's—the thing, the one thing they wouldn't suspect. It was so in Berlin, these last few days, and—look!" pointing at the amorous couples, some disappearing down dark alleys, others turning suddenly, after rapid whispers, into houses. "It's—safe!"

She gave a little choked laugh.

"Tom, dear," she said, apropos of nothing it seemed to him, "I know German—gentlemen. I talked to lots, and lots talked to me, and I am so very, very glad that you are …"

"What?"

"Just Tom! Just plain, clean, square, American Tom! Come," as he was going to branch into further explanations. "I know exactly. There's the place for us—over yonder!" indicating a small, drab, mean hotel not far from the Archbishop's palace.

Bravely she preceded him into the dirty lobby. Bravely she overlooked the frowzy desk clerk's leering words of greeting, not even turning her head when Tom asked for a room and was given the key.

"Is there a back entrance?" the Westerner asked the clerk. "You see …" he halted, stammering, and the clerk continued the sentence for him:

"I understand, Herr Leutnant. A jealous, elderly husband, nicht wahr?"

"Yes, yes. Where is the back entrance—exit, rather—in case …"

"To the left from your room, down the corridor, stairs leading into the side street. Thank you, Herr Leutnant!" as Tom planked down a ten-mark piece, adding another for tip. "Shall I show you the way?"

"Never mind," replied the American, walking up an uncarpeted, dusty flight of stairs to the room.

There he gave Bertha another string of whispered instructions—and his leather bag.

"I'll wait here," he said.

"But—my hair? I got some manicure scissors in my hand-bag. I'll cut it off!"

"Don't you dare. If you do I'll never propose to you again—except, perhaps, three times. You pile that mane of yours up as high as you can. The rest'll be O.K. They'll think you some little shrimp of an Ensign just gazetted."

"Tom!" she exclaimed indignantly, but he pushed her inside the room and waited in the corridor.

A few minutes later she came to him, looking for all the world what Tom had said she would, like a pitifully young Cadet just commissioned, because of the stress of war. She had put on the extra regimentals which Tom had taken along, and the silver-gray cape hid her from her neck to her feet, completely covering her dress. Her tiny shoes were drowning in Tom's riding-boots, the uhlanka was tilted at a rakish, perilous angle across her smooth forehead.

"Hullo, Puss in Boots!" laughed Tom; then, gravely: "Be careful. Don't swing your feet or those fool boots'll drop off. Here, take my arm!" leading her down the back stairs and into the side street which, luckily, was pitch black and deserted.

Luck continued with them. They met few people, and these mostly frightened, nervous Lorraine civilians, torn between fear of their German masters and the undying hope that soon again the gay soldiers of France would come marching and singing across the frontier. Due west they proceeded, as Vyvyan had told Tom, within sight of the fortifications, where they were stopped by an armed sentry.

Tom pulled out his regimental papers and waved them beneath the soldier's snub nose.

"Was fällt Ihnen denn ein?" he snarled in his best, most explosive German. "Here—look at the seal. Look at His All-Gracious Majesty's signature, you mutton head! Off with you! Rechts um! Kehrt!" And the sentry was so flustered that he forgot completely to ask for the password.

The whole scene was typical of the entire German system. Not only of the exaggerated discipline, accompanied by brutalities, which frightens what little original common sense they may be blessed with out of the heads of the privates, but also illustrative of another fact. For the Germans were so pleased with their own spies, many of them fearless, daring men, and with the results obtained that, through sheer, contemptuous, sneering cocksureness, they frequently overlooked the possibility that the Allied nations, too, might have clever Secret Service men in their employ.

Later, this was changed. Later, came the spy hunts from one end of Germany to the other, came acid skin tests on the frontier.

But this was the second day of war. The machine was still too cocksure, as said above, too stiff, too creaking, and Tom, side by side with Bertha, tripping in her enormous cavalry boots, stepped away from the sentry and out into the night.

They reached the Hohenzollernwarte a few minutes later. Vyvyan was there, peering into the dark, and in the yet darker shadow of a clump of beech trees Tom saw the dim outline of a rakish, low-slung racing car.

The Englishman laughed when he saw Bertha.

"My word," he said, "you're the best-looking little Uhlan I've ever seen. You'll pass muster all right in front of any snooping outpost."

He helped Bertha into the tonneau and jumped into the driver's seat.

"Come on, Tom!" Then: "My God! What are you … What is … Quick! Quick!"

For, simultaneous with his first word to the Westerner, with the latter about to step into the car, with his own hand already busy with the starter, there had been a thunder of hooves, cries, the rattle of sabers; and, the moon just then breaking through the clouds with a broad, pitiless, diamond-white ray, he saw three figures on horseback charge down upon them.

Uhlans, they were. One was an officer waving a sword. The next second he recognized him: Colonel Heinrich Wedekind, his face distorted with rage and triumph. The other two were privates, their long lances leveled, the little flags on them fluttering in the wind.

One of the two privates was a few feet in the lead. His horse was the fastest. He spurred it on, the lance point flickering like the eye of some malevolent beast of prey.

It had all happened in less time than it takes to tell.

"Quick!" he cried again to Tom.

But it was too late. The Uhlan loomed up a few feet from the automobile. His lance came down, as if searching for blood with its steely point, and, at that exact moment, Tom sang out:

"Go on! Don't wait for me! Remember Bertha!"

Vyvyan obeyed instinctively. He shot the car forward with a great crash, a leaping bound.

Tom had thought, figured, measured, and acted at the same fraction of a second.

Just as the mounted man was closing in, as his lance was about to come down on the occupants of the car, the Westerner had ducked, swerved to the right, jumped from the ground like a cat, and caught the frenzied, galloping horse around the neck. He swung himself up. The double weight acted on the horse like a brake. The Uhlan cursed. But his long lance was useless in a body-to-body fight, and before he could reach into his boot for his carbine, Tom had drawn his revolver and shot him through the head.

The man fell sideways out of the saddle and to the ground, twirling grotesquely, and, in the twinkling of the moment, Tom tore the lance from the dying man's grasp, shifted it to his left hand, let the reins drop loose, relying on the pressure of his knees, and turned to meet the shock of the Colonel and the other private, revolver in his right.

He shot once, and missed. The others, trained cavalrymen, changed their tactics. They deployed to right and left, shooting as they galloped past the American, one bullet going clear through Tom's uhlanka—he felt it singeing his hair—the other missing him by an inch.

They brought their horses to a stop, turned, and again deployed right and left. But this time Tom was ready for them. He remembered his old training. His former craft came back to him: the craft of the round-up!

As they came on, this time drawing in a little closer to either side so as to make more sure of their aim, very suddenly he turned his horse, swerved in the saddle, and bent low. His left hand, armed with the lance, shot out. It caught the Colonel in the throat, killing him instantly, while the revolver in his right spoke twice, each shot hitting the mark. The private fell out of the saddle, onto the ground. He lay there, curled up, like a sleeping dog.

It was then, with the three men dead at his hands, that a great, sad reaction came upon the American. It was War! Now, for the first time, he completely realized the grim tragedy of it. The killing of men! The spilling of blood!

His lips worked. He felt nausea rising in his throat.

But he controlled himself.

He turned his horse to the west. Over there lay Verdun, and he knew the road, had studied it in War College. There had been a special course.

Less familiar he was with the northern road that dipped into the direct Verdun approach twenty miles beyond: the Thionville road where the feint attack of the Germans was meant to give the Metz army corps a chance to catch the French defenders napping.

Well, he would have to trust Vyvyan to do that part. Vyvyan and Bertha—they had the motor-car, while he was a man on horseback …

A man on horseback—once more! Like out West, home, on the range! Riding through the night, with the stars and the moon to guide him!

And he rode!

He rode as he had never ridden before!