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Title: With Joffre at Verdun - A Story of the Western Front
Author: Brereton, F. S. (Frederick Sadleir), 1872-
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "With Joffre at Verdun - A Story of the Western Front" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



[Illustration: Cover art]



[Frontispiece: "THE SERGEANT OF HENRI'S PLATOON, ONE ARM DANGLING
HELPLESS BY HIS SIDE, STRETCHED OUT A BRAWNY HAND AND GRIPPED OUR
HERO'S" (missing from book)]



With Joffre at Verdun


A Story of the Western Front



BY

LT.-COL. F. S. BRERETON


  Author of "With French at the Front"
  "Under French's Command"
  "With Our Russian Allies"
  &c.



_Illustrated by Arch. Webb_



BLACKIE AND SON LIMITED

LONDON GLASGOW AND BOMBAY


1916



  BY LT.-COLONEL BRERETON


  With the Allies to the Rhine: A Story of the Finish of the War.
  With Allenby in Palestine: A Story of the latest Crusade.
  Under Foch's Command: A Tale of the Americans in France.
  The Armoured-Car Scouts: The Campaign in the Caucasus.
  On the Road to Bagdad: A Story of the British Expeditionary
    Force in Mesopotamia.
  From the Nile to the Tigris: Campaigning from Western Egypt
    to Mesopotamia.
  Under Haig in Flanders: A Story of Vimy, Messines, and Ypres.
  With Joffre at Verdun: A Story of the Western Front.
  On the Field of Waterloo.
  With Wellington in Spain: A Story of the Peninsula.
  Kidnapped by Moors: A Story of Morocco.
  The Hero of Panama: A Tale of the Great Canal.
  The Great Aeroplane: A Thrilling Tale of Adventure.
  A Hero of Sedan: A Tale of the Franco-Prussian War.
  Roger the Bold: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico.
  At Grips with the Turk: A Story of the Dardanelles Campaign.
  The Great Airship.
  A Sturdy Young Canadian.
  A Boy of the Dominion: A Tale of Canadian Immigration.
  Under the Chinese Dragon: A Tale of Mongolia.
  With Roberts to Candahar: Third Afghan War.
  A Hero of Lucknow: A Tale of the Indian Mutiny.
  Under French's Command: A Story of the Western Front from
    Neuve Chapelle to Loos.
  With French at the Front: A Story of the Great European War
    down to the Battle of the Aisne.
  John Bargreave's Gold: A Search for Sunken Treasure.
  Tom Stapleton, the Boy Scout.
  A Soldier of Japan: A Tale of the Russo-Japanese War.
  A Knight of St. John: A Tale of the Siege of Malta.
  Foes of the Red Cockade: The French Revolution.
  One of the Fighting Scouts: Guerrilla War in South Africa.
  The Dragon of Pekin: A Story of the Boxer Revolt.
  A Gallant Grenadier: A Story of the Crimean War.

  LONDON: BLACKIE & SON, LTD., 50 OLD BAILEY, E.C.



Contents

CHAP.

     I.  THE CAMP AT RUHLEBEN
    II.  HENRI AND JULES AND STUART
   III.  THE ROAD TO FREEDOM
    IV.  THE HEART OF GERMANY
     V.  ELUDING THE PURSUERS
    VI.  CHANGING THEIR DIRECTION
   VII.  A FRIEND IN NEED
  VIII.  THE VERDUN SALIENT
    IX.  A TERRIFIC BOMBARDMENT
     X.  THE THIN LINE OF HEROES
    XI.  FALLING BACK
   XII.  A RECONNOITRING-PARTY
  XIII.  DOUAUMONT FORTRESS
   XIV.  FRENCHMEN AND BRANDENBURGERS
    XV.  RATS IN A TRAP
   XVI.  A FIGHT TO A FINISH
  XVII.  CHARGE OF THE GALLANT BRETONS
 XVIII.  A SINISTER GERMAN
   XIX.  HEROIC "POILUS"



Illustrations


"THE SERGEANT OF HENRI'S PLATOON, ONE ARM
  DANGLING HELPLESS BY HIS SIDE, STRETCHED OUT A
  BRAWNY HAND AND GRIPPED OUR HERO'S"
  (missing from book)                                    _Frontispiece_

"A BIG BURLY MAN, A NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICER
  OF THE STAFF AT RUHLEBEN, BARRED HENRI'S PROGRESS"
  (missing from book)

"A TERRIFIC CONCUSSION SENT HIS BOWL FLYING AND
  THE YOUNG SOLDIER HIMSELF ROLLING FROM THE BANK"

"THEY SAW A GERMAN SOLDIER ACTUALLY DRINKING
  FROM THE STREAM WITHIN A FEW YARDS OF THEM

"THAT BEARDED VETERAN, LEANING OVER THE
  SWAYING WALL, MADE HAVOC AMONG THE GERMANS
  WITH HIS BAYONET"

"THE GRENADE LANDED WITHIN A FOOT OF THE FIRE
  ABOUT WHICH THE MEN HAD BEEN SEATED"



MAP OF VERDUN SALIENT DURING OPERATIONS ON
  21ST FEBRUARY, 1916

MAP OF VERDUN SALIENT AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF
  CONTINUOUS FIGHTING



WITH JOFFRE AT VERDUN


CHAPTER I

The Camp at Ruhleben

You'd have said, if you had glanced casually at Henri de Farquissaire,
that he was British--British from the well-trimmed head of hair beneath
his light-grey Homberg hat to the most elegant socks and tan shoes
which adorned his feet.  His walk was British, his stride the active,
elastic, athletic stride of one of our young fellows; and the poise of
his head, the erectness of his lithe figure, a symbol of what one is
accustomed to in Britons wherever they are met.  That one gathered from
a mere casual glance; though a second glance--a more penetrating one,
we will say, one with a trifle more curiosity thrown into it--would
have discovered other points still bearing out the same assumption as
to Henri's nationality, and leaving hardly a suspicion that in point of
fact he was French--as French as they make them.

For, putting aside the fact that this young gentleman was dressed in
clothes unmistakably British, tailored, in fact, in the heart of
fashionable London, his features, as well as his figure and his method
of progress, pointed to a British origin.  Not, let us add, that there
is need to make comparisons between the appearance of young men of
France and those of our country, nor need to exploit the one against
the other.  That there are essential differences between the two
nationalities all will admit--differences accentuated, no doubt, in the
great majority of cases by dress, by manner, and by environment.

But Henri--what nationality could he have belonged to other than
British--with those rosy cheeks, that fresh complexion, and that little
perky moustache which adorned his upper lip?  His "How do you do?" in
the purest English as he met a companion in the street was as devoid of
accent as would have been that of a habitué of London.  There was
nothing exaggerated about his method of raising his hat to a lady whom
he passed, no gesticulations, no active nervous movements of his hands,
and none of that shrugging of the shoulders which, public opinion has
it, is so eminently characteristic of our Gallic neighbours.  And yet
the young man was French.

Striding down one of Berlin's main streets in that summer of 1914, now
so historic, he was chatting amiably with his chum, Jules Epain, a
resident, like himself, of Berlin.

"So it's war, eh?" he asked his chum in French.

"War?"

There was silence for a little while, and then from Jules: "And we are
here, in Berlin, the Kaiser's city!"

"Just so!" from Henri; "and, Jules, my boy, the sooner we take steps to
move along the better.  I have taken tickets for England already, and
don't forget we are English."

There again, without a doubt, the appearance of Henri's friend would
assist the suggestion which he had just mentioned.  English?  Yes, if
Henri looked a British subject, and indeed spoke and behaved
essentially as one of our people, then Jules, too, was not behind him.
Perhaps more elegant, of darker features, spruce, neat, and
well-groomed like his chum, he too had the distinguished air, that
quiet and unassuming demeanour which stamp the Englishman throughout
the world.

"You've the tickets, eh?" he asked Henri as they strode along.  "For
England too?"

"For England.  And a tremendous job it was to get them.  You see,
Germany has declared war on France and Russia, and to attempt to return
to France would have been out of the question.  It had to be England,
or Holland, or some such place, and England's quite good enough for me
if I can get there."

"Bah!"  Someone exploded near them; a huge, stout, helmeted individual
gave vent to an exclamation of disgust, anger, hatred.  The man
spluttered as he suddenly pounced upon the two and ordered them to halt
abruptly.

"So, French canaille!"

This huge Berlin constable positively foamed as he looked down upon the
two young fellows, positively gnashed his teeth as he clenched his
fists and regarded them angrily.  In his super-arrogance this huge
bully towered over the couple, and treated them to a stare, a derisive,
angry, contemptuous inspection, which humbled them exceedingly.
Indeed, Henri and Jules might have been simply noxious animals, mere
beetles to be trodden underfoot, so contemptuous was this bullying
constable of them.

"Bah!  So, French at large, and not yet imprisoned!  You are arrested."

"But arrested?  But we're not soldiers," Henri told him in the best of
German; "and in any case you will allow us to go to our lodging and get
our baggage?"

Allow them to go to their lodgings!  Permit any sort of privilege!  Did
any German since the commencement of this war allow any sort of a
kindly sentiment to guide his actions when dealing with so-called
enemies?  The constable exploded, and, opening his heavily moustached
mouth, roared an order at them.

"You will come with me at once!  Hi, you!  My Fritz!  You will assist
me, lest these men make an attack upon my person."

He called to his help a constable even bigger than himself, stouter by
far, a man who looked as though he had lived on the fat of the earth,
and had derived intense enjoyment from it.  One would have imagined
from his proportions, from the beefiness of his face, from his girth,
that this second individual might have proved--as is the case with so
many men of size--of a genial and gentle disposition.  Yet Henri and
Jules knew well enough that no such thing was to be expected; indeed,
to speak only the truth, the people of Berlin knew this Fritz as a
sardonic, brutal, overbearing individual.  He bore down upon the trio
like a huge, overgrown bull, and, making no bones of the matter, seized
Henri in a grip from which there was no escaping.

"Get on with you to the station.  A spy, eh?" he asked the cheerful
constable who had called for his assistance.

"Who knows?" the man grunted.  "But it's more than likely, for all
Frenchmen in these parts are spies.  Drag him along, while I see to
this other whipper-snapper."

They were followed by a growing crowd of citizens of Berlin, a curious
crowd which ran beside the two mountains of the law, so as to get a
clear view of the prisoners, a crowd composed of elderly, white-bearded
gentlemen, of middle-aged ladies of almost aristocratic appearance, and
of youths and young girls, and gutter urchins--people who, you would
have thought, once they had obtained a view of the captives and
ascertained the reason for their arrest, would have been satisfied to
leave the matter and to go on their way forgetting the subject.
Perhaps in other days that crowd might have so behaved itself, and
might have vanished long before the constables and their captives had
reached the station; but crowds in the city of Berlin of other days,
and the mob as it was in the latter part of July and the early days of
August of 1914, were essentially and unmistakably different.  War had
been declared by the Fatherland, that war expected by the nation,
eagerly awaited by all Teutons, longed for, oh how much and how
eagerly, by all the subjects of the Kaiser!  And now that it had come,
now that the Emperor had thrown down the gauntlet before France and
Russia, you would have imagined that the people of Berlin would have
been overjoyed, would have been delighted, too happy and too contented
to be angry.  And yet, it so happened that there was disappointment,
anger, rage, in the hearts of almost all these Germans.  True, they had
obtained, after all those years of training, a declaration for which
they had so eagerly waited.  France was in their power, conquered
already, they told themselves, for was she not utterly unprepared for
war?  And as for Russia, Russia the Colossus, the steam-roller,
inefficiency reigned in her ranks, and she, too, in her turn, would be
most unquestionably conquered.

Then what, what had occurred to make this Berlin crowd--the swarm of
people who hurried along the streets elsewhere, the mobs which gathered
in front of embassies--so violent, so intensely hostile to France, so
suspicious of the presence of spies, so furiously disappointed and
angry?

"Spies!  British spies!" a young man in the ranks of that crowd
bellowed, catching a full view of Jules and Henri; "spies from the King
of England!  Kill them!"

And the mob took up the shout: "British!  Down with Britain!"

Was that then the explanation of the hatred, of the intense animosity,
shown by these people?  Was that then the reason why these two Berlin
constables, for one of them at least knew Jules and Henri to be
French--why they too should grit their teeth, should scowl and mutter
at the name of Britain?  Yes, indeed, that was the reason why all the
subjects of the Kaiser, deliriously happy but a few hours ago, were now
snarling with anger, less contented with what was occurring, furiously
indignant at something beyond their conception.  For within half an
hour of Henri's successful purchase of tickets, which were to take
himself and his chum to safety in England, there had come news of
importance from London.  Already German troops had invaded Belgium, had
fired upon the people, were engaged with King Albert's soldiers, and
Britain--that arrogant Britain, ever an eyesore and a thorn in the
flesh for Germans--had protested, had declared her detestation of that
Germanic act, and her decision to oppose it.  Indeed, she had answered
the deeds of the Kaiser and his soldiers by declaring war, by
announcing her determination to fight the Germans, and her decision to
support France and Belgium and Russia to her utmost.

That, then, was the reason why that mob, gathering weight at every
moment, howled with rage when, seeing Jules and Henri so distinctly
British in appearance, they recalled to their minds the engrossing fact
that all Britons were now their enemies.

"Hang them to the nearest lamp-post!  Strangle the spies!" they
bellowed; "why take them to the police station?"

In his excessive zeal to deal a blow for his country, with an extremity
of valour which he would hardly have displayed had Jules and Henri been
free to defend themselves, one youth, possessed of coal-black, flashing
eyes, of raven locks, and of pallid and bloated features, darted in
between the two constables and struck a blow at Jules which, if it had
taken effect, would most decidedly have damaged his personal appearance.

"Himmel!  But not that!" shouted the stoutest of the constables.
"What!  You would strike and damage a prisoner of ours who may be
valuable to the authorities!  You would!"

In a moment he had gripped the scabbard of his sword, and, swinging it
round, dealt this malefactor a blow across the head which stretched him
on the pavement.  Then, jostling their prisoners between them, hurrying
them on, and smiling triumphantly at the crowd still massed around
them, encouraging them almost to repeat the attempt of that young
fellow so drastically punished, and so to torture their prisoners, and
yet keeping the most valiant of these angry individuals at arm's
length, the two men of law dragged Jules and Henri swiftly onwards.

And at last the doors of the police station closed behind them, leaving
outside a great mass of men and women, of gutter-snipes, and of every
sort and class of individual--a mob which howled like hungry wolves as
the prisoners were lost to sight to them.

Inside that station Jules and Henri at once underwent a most thorough
and rigorous search.

"Ha!  Tickets for England!  Then you were bound for that country?  And
letters from France, from Paris--suspicious!"

It was useless to point out to these police officials that it was
natural enough for two Frenchmen caught in Berlin at a time of
declaration of war between Germany and their own people to attempt to
reach some other place; and hopeless to draw their attention to the
fact that, being French, letters from France in their possession were
to be expected, while the contents alone could prove whether Jules and
Henri were of necessity suspects.

We need hardly follow the course of events after the capture of these
two unfortunate, if lively, young fellows.  They were clapped into
prison as a natural course, into a dark, noisome cell, which would have
been but indifferent accommodation for some malefactor.  They were
half-starved, bullied, browbeaten, and even beaten by their jailers,
they were threatened with death as spies--though there was not an atom
of evidence against them--and, finally, after many months of anguish,
of short commons, of brutal treatment, they found themselves interned
in Ruhleben race-course, to which so many unfortunate civilians were
sent, there to mope and fret and rot while the war was in progress.

"And here we'll stay, I suppose," grumbled Henri, when some weeks had
passed, and they had, as it were, settled down to the routine of camp
life in Ruhleben, and had become inured--as far as young men of active
dispositions and healthy appetites can become inured, to the scantily
short rations with which the Germans supplied them.  "It's awfully hard
luck to be prisoners in a place like this when our people are fighting."

"Awfully hard," Jules echoed despondently, for he was not gifted with
quite the allowance of high spirits possessed of Henri.

"But it needn't necessarily last for ever, this imprisonment," his
friend told him; and perhaps he had said the same a hundred times
already.  "Little news comes to us in this hole, but yet tales have
reached us of men who have escaped, who have got out of Germany and
have joined their French regiments."

Yes, there had been news of such escapes, and no doubt there would be
others; and perhaps even Henri and Jules might themselves contrive to
get out of their predicament.  Yet, how?  Look round the camp and see
those rolls of barbed wire which encircled them, see the armed sentries
who moved along their beats, and the jailers and men appointed to watch
and spy amongst the prisoners, who strode here and there, hectoring the
weak, browbeating the strong, and fawning, perhaps, upon those
fortunate enough to be possessed of a store of money.  Bitterly did the
two young fellows regret the chances which had brought them to Berlin,
and had found them there at the outbreak of war; for, indeed, it was
but a chance which had taken them to the Kaiser's city.

Let us explain how it happened that these two young men were of such
distinctly British appearance.  After all, there was nothing
extraordinary about that fact, nothing particularly unusual, for in
Paris, for years past, there has been a sufficiency of British tailors
to turn out every young man after the latest British fashion.  But it
was more than clothes in the case of these two young men, more than
mere dress, that made them so conspicuously British; it was
environment, in fact, training and education; it was the result of the
intuition of their parents.

"France is all right, my boy," Monsieur de Farquissaire had told Henri
when he was quite a lad, "France is a splendid country, and, if you are
but like your fellows when you reach man's age, neither you nor I will
have anything to complain of.  But there is good in other
nationalities, and there is great advantage to one among our people who
both speaks the language, say, of England, and, better even than that,
understands her people and has inside knowledge of them.  So you will
go to an English university once you have left your school in Paris."

As a matter of strict fact, Henri had left his school in Paris when
only fifteen years of age, and had crossed the Channel to become one of
the inmates of a public school famous throughout Great Britain.  It was
there that he had learned to speak like a native, and, better still, it
was there that he had learned, unconsciously, quite easily in fact, to
behave just as did his fellows, to speak as they did, quietly, without
undue or exaggerated action, to play their games, to understand and
practise their codes of honour; and so faithful and diligent a student
was he, so heartily did he enter into the work and games of that public
school, that, when in due course he went to a university, he was
mistaken, just as he had been at the moment of the opening of this
story, for a British subject, an essentially insular individual.

As for Jules, when one has described the appearance and the
life-history, though only a short one so far, of the energetic Henri,
one has practically described that of his companion.  For Jules and
Henri were born next-door to one another, were chums from their
earliest boyhood, and, thanks to the intimate friendship of their
parents, had the same course marked out for them.  Jules, then,
followed Henri to that public school in England, followed him to the
university, was like him in his fancy for British ways and British
customs, and followed him yet again, indeed went in his company, on
that journey to Berlin which immersed them in this misfortune.

And there they were, interned in Ruhleben, impounded, corralled if you
like, separated from their countrymen by ghastly fences of barbed wire,
and by a nation composed of men and women who, almost without
exception, would, if they were to discover them outside their prison,
most eagerly tear them to pieces.

"But it's got to be done!" Jules said, as he and Henri sat outside the
stable, the wooden hovel, indeed, in which they lived, in which they
bedded down at night in stalls once occupied by horses, and now merely
strewed with straw, cruelly cold and unfit for human habitation.

"And the sooner we set about it the better.  We'll have to harden our
hearts," said Henri, looking very determined and attempting to twist
the ends of his miniature moustache; "we'll have to save our food for
the journey."

Jules shivered.  He wasn't a greedy young man, nor could his appetite
be described as unusually large, but he was hungry.  Hungry then, at
the moment when Henri spoke of saving rations, hungry at night, hungry
when he had had his food, hungry always.  He was like every member of
the unfortunate crowd now inhabiting the race-course at Ruhleben, he
was short of food--for the Germans were the harshest of captors.  And
how could a man save sufficient from a mere crust of bread?  How could
he put away from rations, already and for so long insufficient, even a
crumb _per diem_ to carry him on during some coming journey?

"Yes, it's got to be done," said Henri, with determination; "and,
what's more, we shall have to save money.  We are getting a little
already: I had a few marks sent through from Paris only last week,
while we have both got a few notes tucked away in our clothing.  But
it's not money, however, which will help us; not even food.  It will be
our wits, which will have to be brisk, I can tell you."

Looking about them as they sat near their hovel, both knew that the
words were abundantly true, for where was there a loophole in those
barbed-wire fences?  Where was there an opportunity to break out of
this prison?  Yet the chance came, came unexpectedly, came after some
weeks of waiting and despondency, came at a moment, in fact, when it
found Jules and Henri almost unready, unprepared to seize a golden
opportunity.



CHAPTER II

Henri and Jules and Stuart

There was a hue and cry in the camp of Ruhleben which caused heads to
be thrust out of doors and out of windows, made prisoners who had been
languishing in the place for months start to their feet and look
enquiringly about them, and set a German official turning round and
round like a teetotum--his moustaches bristling, his hair on end,
amazed at the din and fearful for the cause of it.  It all commenced
with a sudden shout, and then was emphasized by the explosion of a
rifle.  A dull thud followed as a bullet struck one of the huts and
perforated it, and then a dozen weapons went off, the somewhat aged
guardians of the camp losing their heads and blazing away without aim
and without authority.

"What's up?  What's happened?  Why is there firing?"

"Shooting a prisoner, eh?  Brutes--they'd do anything!  Mon Dieu!  What
will happen next?"

The first speaker was a delicate, pale-faced, spectacled Breton; the
second, a vivacious individual from Paris, who, like Henri and Jules,
had had the misfortune to be in Germany when the war broke out.  Their
eager questions were followed by the somewhat phlegmatic and casual
words of an Englishman--a red-headed, red-cheeked, healthy-looking
individual, who, in spite of short commons, still looked bulky.

"Someone's lost his head," he said caustically, with a growl, sitting
up and looking about him.  "I'll get the reason in two guesses:
someone's trying to escape, or someone has escaped."

Something very dreadful might really have happened, judging by the
commotion in the camp, by the shouts of the sentries, and by the
firing.  The Governor himself--living aloof from the individuals
interned in the place and under his administration--heard the racket
and came out, buttoning up his tunic, alarmed, his thoughts in a whirl,
eager to discover what had given rise to the commotion; and Henri and
Jules, like the rest of their companions, were, as one may imagine,
just as curious and just as eager.

"Whatever the ruction is, whatever the cause, the point where it
commenced is over there, behind those huts in the far corner," said the
former, watching the German guards race across the place and listening
to their shouts and to the loud commands of the non-commissioned
officers amongst them.  "Let's saunter in that direction.  Come along."

And saunter they did, being joined in a little while by a number of
people interned in the camp; and amongst them by the red-headed,
red-cheeked, and healthy-looking individual who boasted, somewhat
loudly it is to be feared at times, of his English nationality.  Not
that such boastings disgusted the unhappy people interned at Ruhleben,
for it did them good in those days of depression to hear a man--a
robust man such as this individual--proud of his birth, and still
possessed of sufficient spirit to glory in it, to draw comparisons
between himself, his French, his Belgian, and his Japanese
fellow-prisoners, and Germans in general, The man's swagger, in fact,
delighted them, and helped to bolster up the fading spirits of many an
unfortunate captive in the camp--of many a man, who, but for the jibes
and uncomplimentary remarks of this robust prisoner, would long since
have given up hope and have subsided into melancholy.

"What a row!" he scoffed, as side by side with Jules and Henri he
sauntered across the compound.  "No, don't you hurry, you fellows, for
there's never any knowing what will happen in these days.  Those German
guards have lost their heads, and the chances are that, if in your
curiosity you happen to step along too quickly or to run, they'd
imagine that a mutiny had broken out, and would blaze away at you.
Lor' what a commotion!"

By now some twenty of the German guards--those Landsturm men of perhaps
fifty years of age--had collected in the opposite corner, at the point
where the alarm had first been given, and could be seen, grouped
together, gesticulating, shouting at one another, peering into the
corner of the compound, and carrying on in a manner which accentuated,
if anything, the curiosity of the prisoners.

"One could imagine anything," laughed Henri as they got nearer.  "For
instance, you could imagine that one of the fellows interned here,
goaded to rashness by these bullies who look after us, had struck one
of them."

"Yes, that's not at all unlikely.  Goaded to madness, one of the poor
chaps may have put his fist into the face of a German guard, and that
shot would have been the result; of course, the poor beggar would be
killed instantly, for your German is nothing if not ruthless.  He's
armed, you see, and is the stronger party, and knows that the
authorities won't look too harshly on any drastic action."

"Hold on!  Perhaps it's not a case of an assault on one of the guards,"
chimed in the healthy Englishman, Stuart by name.  "I've said already
that I'd guess the reason in two guesses--someone trying to escape, or
someone already escaped--and I stick to that opinion.  Let's hope it's
someone escaped--lucky beggar!  Here have I been kicking my heels about
this infernal camp for months past, looking round for a chance to get
out, ready to 'do in' a German guard if the opportunity came.  But,
bless you, there's never been the remotest chance, for these Germans
keep their eyes so precious wide open.  As for 'doing in' a guard, why,
I'd do in half a dozen; for, believe me, it'd want a good half-dozen
Germans to stop me, once I saw the hole open through which I could get
out."

It wasn't altogether undiluted brag on the part of this sturdy
fellow--mere boasting of what he would do under particular conditions
which were never likely to arise.  A glance at him, indeed, rather
helped to support his statements, for Stuart, though somewhat
attenuated after those months of internment at Ruhleben, after months
of short commons and indifferent accommodation, was still a big bony
fellow of some twenty-five years of age, with broad shoulders, long
arms and legs, and a chest which would have fitted a Hercules.  True,
there were hollows in his cheeks, and his eyes were gaunt and sunken,
yet what man in that camp of suffering, what man amongst all the
unfortunate fellows caught in Germany at the outbreak of war and
hustled to Ruhleben, did not, long since, show signs of suffering and
anxiety and of want, often of destitution.  As a matter of fact, the
robust Stuart had stood the privations of the place better than the
majority of his fellows; and perhaps his very jauntiness of spirit, the
courage which sustained him and helped also to sustain his comrades,
kept him from feeling his position so acutely, and helped also to
assist him in surviving a state of affairs which to some had long since
become intolerable, which indeed was killing not a few by inches.

By now the trio had crossed the compound, and were within a few feet of
their guards, who, absorbed in whatever had caused the alarm and had
sent them rushing to that corner, seemed to overlook the prisoners--all
the men about them--seemed to be unaware of the crowd collecting in
that quarter.  They were gathered in the far corner, just outside one
of the many huts erected there--a sorry affair, which at one time had
done duty on the race-course as a tool-shed.  In those days it would
not have been considered good enough even for the dogs of the owners of
German race-horses; but now, yes, it was good enough--too good--for
these enemy prisoners, for these individuals snatched from amongst the
civil population of Germany.  Young men, some of them, hale men in
those days before the war; elderly men, invalids from some of Germany's
health resorts--harmless individuals in numerous cases, who, had they
been Germans and in England, would have been left alone, able to live
their lives in peace and security, provided they obeyed certain rules
and regulations of a not too drastic nature; but in Germany German
"frightfulness" allowed of no leniency even to sick men.  And here they
were, the hale, the young, the sick, and the old, hustled to Ruhleben,
and herded there together in such an old shed as the one in this far
corner.  Many men brought up in luxury in France or in England, needing
care and comfort because of the state of their health, and undoubtedly
quite harmless individuals, were forced to find such accommodation
during those dreary months of later 1914 and the months which followed
as this World War went on.

It happened, too, that amongst the people interned at this place were a
number of jockeys and racing people, employed up to the date of the war
by German masters, and detained in the country.  These--perhaps a dozen
of them--had been posted to the very hut round which the German guards
were then standing, and, as Henri and Jules came upon the scene, could
be observed within the ring of guards, cowering, looking askance at the
Germans, and evidently in sore trouble.

"One of our jockey friends then is the culprit," said Jules; "it's one
of the racing-men who has been goaded to madness."

"And has been shot by a German guard?" asked Henri.

"Not a bit of it, not a bit of it!" exclaimed Stuart; "there has been
no shooting here.  Just listen to the questions being asked.  I know
German sufficiently to be able to tell what's passing, and those German
guards are asking how the work commenced, who thought of the idea, and
who was the ring-leader?  If that isn't connected with an attempt at
escape, call me a Dutchman.  No, no; don't call me a German," he said
_sotto voce_ in Henri's ear, grimacing as he did so; "don't call me
that, my boy, or you will be in trouble."

Certainly the German guards were asking many questions; they were
firing them off by the hundred almost, they were shouting them at their
prisoners and at one another, till there was such a babel that no one
could answer and few could understand.  It was not, indeed, until a
non-commissioned officer of burly form and bullying appearance came
upon the scene that the commotion ended, and some sort of order was
introduced.

"Stop this brawling," he bellowed, thrusting his way in amongst the
guards and pushing them unceremoniously to either side.  "What's this
racket?  Who fired the shot?  Quick, answer!"

A somewhat startled-looking individual, a man with grey beard and
rotund body, who before the onset of the war may have anticipated well
enough that he would never again be called to the colours, advanced
somewhat timidly from behind his comrades and drew himself up stiffly
at attention.  Yet not stiffly enough, not with that snap which is
characteristic of the younger German.  The non-commissioned officer
coughed and snorted, and looked the man over with a threatening eye
which set the fellow trembling.

"Ha!  Ho!  It is you, eh?  You fired the shot--you?" and there was a
note of contempt in his voice.  "Then why?  On whose orders?  Here are
the orders of the day as to the duties of a sentry, and as to the
occasions on which he shall use a rifle.  Listen, I will read them."

It was a sample of German militarism which the Sergeant was reproducing
to the full, a sample of the preciseness of the Teuton.  Keeping this
elderly guard at attention till the poor fellow looked as though he
would explode, he groped in the pocket in the tail of his tunic, and,
producing a notebook, proceeded to extricate from it a sheet of paper
on which were some typewritten lines; and then in a ponderous and
somewhat menacing voice he read the orders--orders which set forth
exactly and minutely when a guard should come on duty and when he
should be relieved, what reports he should prepare, and what he was to
observe amongst the prisoners.  Finally, having elaborated a number of
minor points, it set forth the orders as to using firearms.

"And shall not fire upon the prisoners unless there be occasion,"
coughed the Sergeant; "that is to say, unless there is insubordination
amongst them, mutiny, a threat to strike, or an endeavour to escape.
That is the gist of the orders.  Now, my friend, you have either obeyed
or you have disobeyed your orders.  Your report!  You fired a shot.
Why?  Under what heading?"

No wonder the unfortunate and rotund guard who had set the camp in an
uproar flushed till he became quite scarlet, till his face swelled to
the point of bursting, and until his eyes looked as though they would
fall out of his astonished head.  He stuttered and coughed, and stood
at ease, for the effort to remain at attention was beyond him.

"Halt!  Stand to attention!" thundered the non-commissioned officer.
"Now, your report.  There was incipient mutiny amongst the prisoners,
eh?"

The guard shook his head and spluttered; even now he was unable to
command so much as a single word.

"No!  Then there was insubordination amongst a number, or in the case
of a single individual, eh?"

"Not so," the guard managed to stutter; "not so, Sergeant."

"Ah!  Then we get nearer to it.  A man struck you, or threatened to do
so?"

"No, it was not that," the German standing to attention managed to
answer; "not that, Sergeant."

"What, then?  Then it was someone attempting an escape?  Someone trying
to break out of Ruhleben!" shouted the Sergeant--bellowed it, in
fact--when he saw that the guard was nodding his head emphatically.
"You mean to tell me that you have stood there all these minutes, and
allowed me to read the orders of the day, and to cross-examine you,
without giving so much as a hint as to the real cause of the firing of
your rifle?  You mean to say that you have allowed all this delay, well
knowing that a prisoner is attempting or had made an escape, and
thereby have assisted him to make clean away from this prison?"

It was the non-commissioned officer's turn almost to explode with
indignation and anger; he towered above the trembling guard as he
thundered at him, and might still have been abusing him and threatening
him had it not been that at that moment another individual came upon
the scene--a short, spare, dried-up fellow, a lieutenant, one risen
from the ranks not long ago, and still retaining all the bullying ways
of a non-commissioned officer.  If the burly sergeant had jostled the
guards unceremoniously to either side, had stamped on their feet, had
threatened and browbeaten them, the new-comer was tenfold more violent
and domineering.  If looks could have slaughtered individuals, the
glance he cast at the sergeant would have slain that perspiring and
angry person in an instant, while the scathing glances cast at the
group of guards would have decimated the whole party.  Yet, if this
under-officer's looks were terrible, if he were still more threatening
than the non-commissioned officer, he was at least practical, and quick
to get to the bottom of matters.

"Stop this racket!" he commanded abruptly, snapping the words like
pistol-shots at those round him.  "There was an alarm; it started with
a rifle-shot--I know all that, so you needn't report it.  Stop!" he
commanded, seeing the non-commissioned officer open his mouth as if to
describe what had happened.  "A rifle-shot gave the alarm--something
caused one of the guards to fire.  This man here undoubtedly is the man
who did so.  Sergeant, you have called for his report?  You have been
here a good five minutes--what's the report?"

"A prisoner escaping.  This fool here has kept the knowledge from me
until this very moment, and I have only just managed to drag the
information from him.  I have----"

"Hold!" snapped the officer.  "I am not asking what you did; I am
asking what caused the sentry to fire.  A prisoner escaping, you tell
me--he's gone then; you've ascertained that fact?"

"I--I--he--you----"

The non-commissioned officer was utterly taken aback, and it was his
turn now to look askance at this dried-up, sinister-looking
under-officer.  If the unfortunate and aged guard who had fired that
shot had been remiss in making a rapid report--remissness excusable
enough considering the violence of the Sergeant--the latter had been
more remiss in not pursuing the matter more rapidly.  He knew it, and
knew that the under-officer already condemned him.  Moreover, with that
under-officer, he was well aware, excuses would not avail him.

"I was going to----"

"That will do," the officer told him.  "Whatever you were going to do
was not your duty.  You have been delaying a report; I will deal with
you later in the Commandant's office.  Now, my friend," he began,
turning upon the trembling guard, "a prisoner was escaping; I will ask
the question that should have been asked at the very commencement: you
fired a shot--you killed the man, eh?--so that he did not escape, or
you stopped him?"

There was the dawn of a smile actually on the face of the rotund guard
who had been so odiously browbeaten by the Sergeant.  It was his turn,
he felt, his turn to be jubilant, and at the expense of the man who had
bullied him so abominably.  He was, in fact, helping to turn the tables
on the Sergeant, and hastened to assist the officer.

"I was about to report the matter, sir," he said.  "A prisoner was
escaping, but failed.  I did not shoot him, because it was not
possible, seeing that he was out of sight and underground.  I therefore
fired my rifle to give an alarm and to call assistance.  Meanwhile I
stood guard over the opening, which I discovered by mere accident.  In
the hut, there, sir, there is a hole beneath the boards laid on the
floor, and a tunnel leading from it.  It is not my duty to enter the
huts, and, in fact, the orders of sentries are emphatic on that point;
we are to patrol outside though, and not to venture farther unless
there is a commotion.  But it is the duty of the non-commissioned
officer in whose charge a hut may be to see that the prisoners keep the
place tidy, to watch them carefully, and to observe if they show signs
of an attempted escape."

"Hah!"  The fierce little dried-up under-officer actually
smiled--smiled at this stout sentry, smiled at him, and, indeed, almost
winked.  For, in an instant, he had realized what was happening, how by
this last statement the guard was implicating the Sergeant, who had
been so recently upbraiding him.  To speak the truth, he was no lover
of the non-commissioned officer either; and in days gone by--not so
very long ago either--when he, too, had been of the non-commissioned
officers' ranks, and had enjoyed but little seniority over the
Sergeant, he had had occasion to complain of his bullying, of his
arrogance, and of his unpleasant gibes and innuendoes.  It was an
opportunity then to be snatched at, both for the sake of himself and of
this somewhat ancient sentry, who, whatever he might be, however
stupid, was essentially harmless.

"So," he began, "that is as you say, my friend; it is not your duty to
enter any of the enclosures, but to march to and fro and to keep an eye
on the prisoners.  It is for the sergeant in charge of each of the huts
to carry out his duties, and to detect any and every effort to escape.
Then who is the sergeant in charge of this place outside which we are
standing?"

There was silence amongst the group, a deathly silence, during which
the aged Landsturm sentry pulled himself up stiffly at attention, or
into the nearest approach to that position to which he could attain,
and smiled covertly in the direction of the sergeant who had browbeaten
him.  Others of those somewhat senile guards, who at the sound of their
officer's voice had assumed that position of respect demanded of all
German soldiers, also cast swift glances in the same direction, and
even went so far--seeing that the snappy little officer's back was
turned and his attention otherwise engaged--as to grin quite openly,
and smirk, as they watched the flaming face of the Sergeant.  As for
the latter, perspiration was pouring from beneath his helmet, the man's
hands were twitching, while his eyes were rolling in the most horrible
manner.  He was cornered, he knew, and guessed thoroughly that the
opportunity thus discovered, thanks to the sentry and to his own
bullying manner, would be taken advantage of.

"Who, then, is the sergeant responsible?" asked the officer in cold,
unsympathetic tones, looking the unfortunate sergeant over from the
spike of his _Pickelhaube_ to the thick soles of his regulation boots.
"Surely not this sergeant?  Surely not the non-commissioned officer
before me--the one so quick to find fault with a sentry who seems to
have been doing only his duty?  Surely not!"

And yet a glance at his face showed well enough that he knew that the
culprit stood before him; moreover, that he was determined to make the
most of the opportunity.

"I--we--this fool here----" began the Sergeant, spluttering, confused,
and now just as thoroughly frightened as had been the victim he had
pounced upon such a little time before.

"Stop!" snapped the officer; "you are under arrest; go back to your
quarters.  Now, my man, you fired your rifle to stop a man from
escaping.  Narrate the circumstances, and quickly, for, for all I know,
the rascal may be even now continuing the attempt."

At that the sentry smiled--smiled boldly too, when he saw the
discomfiture of the Sergeant.  Turning half-right abruptly, till he
faced the entrance of the hut, he pointed towards it, and shook his
grizzly head  knowingly.

"It was like this, sir," he said, with an air of triumph, "I was
passing to and fro on my beat, noting nothing out of the ordinary,
until there came a moment when I was opposite this hut, almost on the
precise spot on which I am now standing, when I heard sounds which
attracted my notice--heavy sounds, the noise of men digging.  There was
no sergeant in sight, no one responsible for the hut to whom I could
appeal, yet a glance within showed me an opening in the floor, covered
as a rule by boards, which were now removed.  There was a man in the
hole, deep down and beyond it, in a tunnel, a man whose figure I could
only just discern--a ruffian who was attempting to dig his way from the
hut out beyond the wire entanglements.  It was then, seeing there was
no one here to support me, that I fired my rifle."

"Ha!  And the fellow is there still?" demanded the officer quickly.

"Still, your honour, unless he has escaped during the time the Sergeant
cross-questioned me; of a truth, he is still there, unless, perhaps, he
should have in the meantime, while I was delayed in executing my duty,
contrived to clamber out of the opening."

"Close in, you men," bellowed the officer; "half a dozen of you come
along with me, and hold your rifles ready.  Now, into the hut and let
us capture these fellows."

Closing round the entrance to the hovel--termed a hut--in which the
unfortunate interned aliens had been forced to live for months, the
sentries watched the officer and a few of their comrades push their way
into the interior, heard them stamping on the boards, and listened to
the peremptory orders of the former.

"Come out, you ruffian, or ruffians," he bellowed.  "We have you
securely, and any further attempt at escape will be met with instant
execution.  Ah!  I can see a man down below.  Go in, two of you men,
and haul him up to the surface."

With no great show of enthusiasm, stiffly, and with a lack of energy
and that activity to be expected of younger men, two of the guards at
once lowered themselves into the pit dug beneath the boards which did
duty as a flooring to this hovel, and, disappearing from sight in the
tunnel excavated from the bottom of it, were presently heard giving
expression to gruff commands, while the sound of scuffling followed.
Then they reappeared, dragging a couple of dishevelled and exceedingly
dirty prisoners with them.  Others of the guards then stepped forward,
and in a trice the wretched men who had been detected in the act of
escaping were dragged from the hole, were placed between sentries, and
were marched out of the hut.

Meanwhile, as may be imagined, the excitement in the camp had not
tended to decrease, for curiosity had been added to it.  There was a
throng of prisoners round the hut long since, watching at first the
altercation between the Sergeant and the sentry, and then observing and
listening to all that followed.

"A pretty kettle of fish--eh?" sneered Stuart, the healthy Britisher.
"Sorry for those poor beggars; for their rations have been short enough
already, and now, if they are not shot, they will get close confinement
and bread and water only for a couple of weeks or more.  Bad luck!
Horribly bad luck!  Just at the last, too, for it looks as though they
were well on the way to safety."

"Now, report," suddenly came the voice of the little officer, as he
glowered upon the prisoners.  "You two who went into the tunnel report
on its length, its depth.  Bah!  You didn't look!  You didn't ascertain
that!  Wait while I investigate the matter."

Seizing an electric torch from one of the hapless prisoners, the
officer dropped into the pit immediately and was gone for some few
minutes, only to emerge again, dirty like the prisoners, but triumphant
instead of crestfallen, his face beaming, his eyes sparkling with
happiness.  So pleased was he that he even went to the length of
patting that stout, rotund sentry on the shoulder as soon as he had
emerged into the open.

"A fine catch," he told him, "bravely done, my friend!  See, you
detected them just at the very right moment, for the dusk is already
growing, and in five minutes or less they would have been in the open.
Let me tell you, that tunnel was not prepared in a day or two, or even
in a week, I am certain.  It is the work of days and days, grim, hard
work, and has been carried right up beyond the hut and under the wire
entanglements.  There it stops, though already it was rising to the
surface, and to-morrow morning, when we investigate the place, I feel
sure that a thrust with a bar will break a way into the open.  March
the prisoners across to the guard-room; and you, my friend, come along
and make your report to the Commandant.  Ha!  What are all these
rascals doing here?  Curious, eh?  Get back to your stables!"

There was an instant move on the part of the prisoners interned in the
camp, who had collected in this corner to see what was passing.
Turning about promptly--for to disobey an order when under the thumb of
Germans was to court a shot from a rifle--they went off briskly in the
dusk to their own particular huts, while behind them was heard the
sharp command of the sergeant in charge of the sentries, the tramp of
heavy feet, and the passage of the sentries and prisoners in the
direction of the guard-room.

"Come along," said Stuart, his hands deep in his pockets, his head held
forward, his chin on his breast.  "I'm frightfully sorry for those poor
fellows.  Just fancy!  To be within, say, a foot of freedom and then to
fall, and then to be detected by the merest mischance."

"Within a foot of freedom!  That's what that officer said," Henri was
muttering to himself.  "Just a foot, just a thrust of an iron bar, and
then to safety, freedom--freedom from this prison.  Why not!"

"Why not?" he asked suddenly, clutching Jules's coat.

"What?  Why not?" the latter asked.  "Don't understand."

"Why not complete the work?  Those fellows have done precisely what we
should have done--they've dug a hole and have run a tunnel from the
bottom of it out below the open and below the entanglements.  It's
there--ready for anyone who wants to get out of this place.  Anyone,
Jules!  Don't you understand?"

Stuart grabbed at Henri, and thrust his big, healthy face close up to
his.  He was breathing deeply, in heavy gusts, and, but for the
gathering darkness, it would have been seen that his eyes were shining,
while he showed every sign of excitement.

"Why not?  You fellows were thinking of making an escape?" he asked.

"Certainly," Henri told him; "we've been saving our grub, and what
money we could get.  We were ready but for the method, and now it's
there--there in that hut--quite close to us, and it's dark enough,
and--and--and there's no one about--why not?"

"Come on," said Stuart abruptly, in that resolute way he had.  "I'm
with you fellows, if you'll have me."

Without another word the trio turned promptly, and, looking round to
make sure that no one had observed them, they bolted back to the hut
from which those unfortunate prisoners had been dragged, and, closing
the door behind them, leapt into the pit and made their way into the
tunnel.  Freedom lay before them--freedom for which they pined--freedom
to be had if only they could break their way into the open.



CHAPTER III

The Road to Freedom

"What's this?  An old shovel, by the feel of it--the thing they've dug
the tunnel with," Henri told his comrades as they stood at the entrance
of the tunnel in the dense darkness, and felt all about them.  "My
fingers dropped upon it as I bent at the entrance, and, yes--here's a
basket with a rope attached to it, into which, no doubt, one of them
shovelled the earth at the far end of the tunnel, while his comrade
dragged it to the bottom of the pit by means of the rope.  Poor chaps!
How hard they must have worked, and what a disappointment it must have
been to have failed just at the last moment."

"That's just what we have got to look to," Stuart told them in a hoarse
whisper.  "They've done the work and have failed; let's look to it that
we get out promptly.  Come along now.  Give me the spade, Henri, for
I'm bigger and stronger than you, and, if there's only a foot of earth
above our heads when we get to the far end of the tunnel, I'll bash a
way through it without difficulty.  George!  What a narrow space it is!
It hardly lets my shoulders through."

That tunnel, indeed, was hardly better than a rabbit burrow.  Perhaps
four to five feet in height, it was scarcely two in breadth, cold and
dark and winding.  Let us admit at once that it required no small stock
of courage on the part of Stuart and his friends to force their way
along it, particularly so in the case of the Englishman, whose frame
was such a close fit to the damp earthen sides, that failure to break a
way out at the far end would have left him in a difficult position--one
from which he would undoubtedly have found it hard to extricate
himself.  Yet there was liberty beyond, escape from this dreary
Ruhleben with its monotonous routine, with its bullying Commandant and
guards, with its sordid surroundings, and its sorry accommodation and
short commons.  Thrusting on, therefore, pushing his way along the
tunnel, squeezing himself into as small a compass as possible, Stuart
forced a passage deeper into it, one hand feeling his way, while the
other gripped the implement which Henri had discovered.  Ten yards,
twenty, perhaps thirty were covered before a growl came from the leader.

"The end!" they heard him say.  "I'm up against the far end of the
tunnel, and that officer was quite right when he stated that it rose
toward this end.  Now, hold your breath for a moment and listen while I
thump the roof.  There--hollow--eh?  Not much earth above us.  Then
stand back a little whilst I make a stroke for the open."

They heard the thuds as the shovel was dashed against the roof, and
listened to clods of earth and debris falling.  It was precisely at the
fifth stroke that a grunt escaped Stuart, while an instant later Henri
felt a breath of fresh air, a cold gust sweeping past him.

"The open!" he exclaimed.  "Go easy, Stuart, for it might not be dark
enough yet, and impatience on our part might lead to our instant
discovery.  Put your head up quietly as soon as you've made room."

There were more grunts in front, while from behind came a low, warning
exclamation from Jules.

"S--s--sh!" he said.  "I can hear someone in the hut behind us, for the
sounds are travelling down the tunnel.  Push on into the open as fast
as you can go, while I turn back and see what's happening."

There were more sounds then, as Jules, less bulky than Stuart, yet of
formidable size when it came to free movement in this narrow tunnel,
contrived by some acrobatic feat to turn himself about and face the pit
from which they had started this adventure.  Then he crawled back
towards the hut on all fours, listening to the suspicious sounds which
he had heard, wondering who caused them, fearing that the German guards
had come to make a nearer investigation of the pit and tunnel.  Yes, it
was that, without a doubt; for there came to his ears now the sound of
a man's two feet alighting at the bottom of the pit, a heavy thud, and
the fall of earth as it tumbled from the sides of the pit to the
bottom.  Then rays of light reached him as the person who had dropped
into the pit switched on an electric torch and surveyed his
surroundings.  Once more then Jules performed that acrobatic feat, and,
twisting himself round with furious energy, hastened back to warn his
comrades.

"There's a fellow at the bottom of the pit already, and no doubt he'll
be coming into the tunnel," he told them in a whisper.  "He's got an
electric torch, and that will be far worse than the light outside, for
it'll show us up directly.  Shove on into the open.  Push your way
through.  Hang the sentries!  We'll have to chance their seeing us."

More blows came from Stuart, lusty blows, and the sound of heavy
breathing, then an exclamation, an exclamation of delight, of triumph,
and later the sound of more earth falling.  That fresh breath of air
which had swept into the tunnel became almost keen, while intuitively,
for they could not see, Henri and Jules both realized that Stuart had
already clambered from the place into the open.

"Come now," they heard a voice.  "Come up, quick, and lie down flat as
soon as you are beside me."

Henri stumbled on till he was right at the end of the tunnel, and,
standing upright, felt a hand stretched down towards him.  Gripping it,
digging his toes into the sides of the tunnel, and seizing the edge
above with his other hand, he was half dragged, and half forced his way
upward, then, flinging himself on the ground beside Stuart, he leant
over the ragged hole and helped to extricate his comrade.

They were free!  They were in the open!  They were beyond the wire
entanglements!  And Germany lay before them--Germany, an enemy country,
where every man's hand, aye, and every woman's too, would be against
them.  Yet they were free, and what did it matter how many enemies they
had to face, how many difficulties were before them?  For freedom,
however much it might be embarrassed, however adventurous it might
become, was freedom after all--a godsend compared with the privations,
the gibes, the cruel treatment they had suffered in their prison.  If
anyone had ever a doubt as to this, if, when this ghastly war which is
now in progress is finished, a reader happen to think that there has
been exaggeration in these statements, let him but look to facts, let
him but consult the known history of the treatment of interned aliens
and prisoners of war in the Kaiser's country.  Though war itself, and
this one in particular with its long and terrible tale of casualties,
is a ghastly business, the deliberate ill-treatment, the calculated
starvation, and the wilful abandonment to misery and death from
preventable disease of prisoners of war is a still more ghastly
affair--an episode frequently repeated in the case of Germany.

"Out!  Hurrah!  Mon Dieu!  Out of that awful hole," coughed Henri,
shaking the dirt out of his hair and brushing it from behind his ears.
"Out, my boys!  Away from those German guards, and away from that
Commandant and the whole breed of 'em."

Jules giggled.  He was possessed of a lighter nature altogether, was
perhaps of more flippant disposition than his chum, and had less
stamina about him.  Not that he was lacking in courage, or in dash, or
in that élan which the French generally have displayed so magnificently
in this conflict, only Jules was, perhaps, just a trifle effeminate,
and giggles seemed to come almost naturally from him.  Now, as he lay
close to the ragged edge of the opening through which he had been
forcibly dragged by Stuart and Henri, and as he spluttered and blew
dirt which had introduced itself into his mouth from his discoloured
lips, he gave vent to a laugh, a smothered sound of merriment, perhaps
a semi-hysterical giggle, in any case to a sound which grated on the
senses of the Englishman terribly.

"Burr!  Stop that!" he commanded, and somehow, for some unascertained
reason, Henri and Jules, who would have resented such tones from him on
any other occasion, accepted them now without a murmur.  "Shut up!"
growled Stuart.  "Hist!  There's one of those beastly sentries coming
near the entanglements--and what's that?"

There were other sounds than those of steps within Ruhleben camp, that
odious place of misery out of which they had broken, other noises than
the heavy tramp of a ponderous Landsturm guard as he strode from behind
the hut till the barbed-wire entanglements stopped his progress and he
rattled his bayonet upon it, sounds which came from another quarter
from beneath the ground, from the tunnel in fact from which Henri and
his friends had so recently emerged.

"Hist!" exclaimed Stuart in warning tones.  "Keep as low and as flat as
you can.  Thank goodness!  That sentry fellow, after making enough
noise to drown the sound of our voices, has turned away without seeing
us; but--but--what's that?"

Henri stretched out a hand and gripped him by the sleeve.

"Down there," he whispered, "down there in the tunnel from which we
have just come, there's someone stumbling along.  And cast your eye
into the opening; isn't that the gleam of a torch?  Isn't that light
being thrown in this direction?"

It was, without the shadow of doubt.  For, as all three peered over the
edge of the hole they had made so rapidly, thanks to the strength of
Stuart, the depths below were illuminated for just a few seconds, and
then were hidden in pitch-black darkness, which within a few moments
was again lit up by a brilliant beam of light coming from a distance up
the tunnel--that long path which they had followed, which had fitted
the burly Stuart's shoulders so narrowly, and had made turning in his
case an impossibility.  It acted now as a tube, and sent sounds along
towards them, accentuated them, indeed, until there was no difficulty
in deciding that a man was struggling and pushing his way towards
them--a man armed with an electric torch, a fellow who breathed
heavily, who swore beneath his breath and then out loud, and who set
masses of earth tumbling down about him.

"Better go," whispered Henri, when the cause of the sounds was quite
certain, "better slip away at once before the fellow finds the opening
and shouts an alarm."

"Wait!"  Stuart stretched a hand out and gripped him with a grip of
iron, a grip which held the vivacious Frenchman to the ground.  "Not
yet, for that bounder of a sentry is again coming towards us.  Lie
low!" he cautioned them; "lie low, or he will see us."

"But the man below with the light--he is nearer, far nearer," said
Jules, who lay with his head well over the opening.  "He'll be here in
next to no time--then what?"

Stuart dragged himself a little closer to that opening, and, keeping
one eye on the sentry, glanced down to the bottom of the tunnel.

"Leave the beggar to me," he said.  "Look here, Henri, grope about for
a stone--a brick--anything that's hard and will hurt, and can be thrown
easily.  Ah! here's one--a big 'un too; you try the same, Jules, and
get ready to heave at that sentry.  When I bash my fist against the
fellow below, you throw your stones as hard as you can at the German
inside the entanglements, and so put out his aim; not that there's much
to be feared, seeing how dark it is at this moment."

Quick as thought, Henri grabbed the big stone which Stuart thrust into
his hand, and, groping about, quickly secured another.  Then he slowly
raised himself into a kneeling position, ready to spring to his feet
and carry out the duty Stuart had given him.  Nor was it likely to be a
very difficult matter to strike the sentry at that moment hammering
again on the barbed wire which formed the fences about the camp at
Ruhleben, for though without doubt Henri and his friends lay invisible,
close to the ground, the burly figure of the German stood out, huge and
broad and solid, silhouetted faintly in the darkness by lights
flickering from the range of shelters on the far side of the camp.  As
for Jules, he, too, quickly secured missiles with which to bombard the
sentry, and, as if to show how ready he was for the work in hand, gave
vent again to one of those subdued giggles; whereat Stuart growled--a
fierce growl--and nudged him violently.  Then, of a sudden, the
attention of all three was fixed on the hole through which they had
emerged, and upon the depths below it.  The rough sides of the tunnel,
the debris and earth which they themselves had dragged down to the foot
of it as they cut their path upward, every stone, every clod, was
visible, as the torch--now closer at hand--lit up every crevice.  Then
the torch itself came into view, the hand which gripped it, the sleeve
about the wrist, and finally the shoulders and the head of the
individual stumbling and forcing his way towards them.

"Ach, Himmel!  What a find!  The wretches were almost escaping.  What
perseverance, though; what hard work; and, yes, what hard luck to have
been discovered just on the eve of breaking out of their prison!"

It was the small, snappy under-officer who had appeared on the scene
outside the hut but a few minutes earlier, and who, discovering the
Sergeant there browbeating the unfortunate sentry, had turned upon him
like a dog, had snapped at his heels as it were, had changed the aspect
of affairs entirely, and had ended in putting the non-commissioned
officer under arrest, and in himself capturing those unlucky prisoners
who were hiding in the tunnel.

Doubtless it was a brilliant evening's work for him--work which might
even bring him reward--who knows?--might even, in the end, bring him
that Iron Cross which the Kaiser has been so fond of distributing.  Men
in the ranks of the German army had received that reward for lesser
acts than that of the under-officer this evening; there are heroes in
the armies of the All-Highest Kaiser who have been decorated with that
Iron Cross for valour, and others who wear the emblem for deeds which
make the rest of civilization shudder.  Yes, indeed, the under-officer
might well earn such reward, for he had shown acuteness, promptitude,
and dispatch in carrying out his duties.

"But what's this?" Henri and Stuart and Jules heard him say, a second
later, as his other hand came into view, groping along the floor of the
tunnel and plunging deep into the loose soil so recently pulled from
the roof above.  "The tunnel ends abruptly, and above--what's
this?--above, the ruffians were making a hole.  But this is strange,
for when I entered before there was no sign of such a thing.  The
tunnel ended just here, as it does now, and the earth at its foot was
hard and beaten, while above it was hard as well, but shook and gave
out a hollow sound.  What's this?  Ah!  A hole."

It was with amazement that his eyes fell upon the ragged edge of the
opening above, as the beams from his electric torch fell upon it.  He
stumbled and struggled forward, and, rising to his feet, shot his hands
upward to grip the edge above him.  He would, perhaps, have given vent
to a shout had not Stuart, lying immediately over the tunnel, in fact
right above the figure of the German, leaned down, and, stretching his
hands below him, gripped the German by the nape of the neck with one
hand, and the electric torch with the other, jerking the latter back
into the tunnel, where it lay with its beams flashing in the opposite
direction.  He then proceeded to draw the German up towards him as one
draws the cork out of the neck of a bottle, to extricate him in spite
of his kicks and struggles; while that other hand, set free from the
torch, was clapped over his mouth, smothering any sounds of which the
under-officer was capable.  Not that it was an easy matter to give vent
to a shout of alarm in such a position, for Stuart's huge fingers and
thumb gripped the German so fiercely and firmly about the neck, just
below his jaws, that movement of the latter was impossible, and the
very attempt to make a sound was excessively painful.  Up then he came
slowly, struggling, his hands beating the earth and reaching up in the
endeavour to grip his assailant, his heavily shod feet lashing to and
fro and kicking clods of earth from the sides of the tunnel; up till
his head was clear of the opening, till almost half his body had been
extricated; and then, when Stuart, now on his feet and half upright,
had placed himself in a favourable position, suddenly the German was
shot back into the place from which he had just been dragged, shot back
with unexpectedness and violence, till he came with a crash against the
bottom of the tunnel, and, collapsing there, rolled backwards into it.

As one can imagine, though the under-officer had given vent to no
sound--no shout of warning--the noise of his coming through the tunnel,
the flash of his torch and its beams sweeping through the opening
above, had attracted the attention of the sentry.  The man faced that
direction promptly, and brought his rifle to the ready.  Then for a
while he waited, while Stuart was dragging the German upward, and,
indeed, until there came the heavy thud which told of the
under-officer's arrival at the bottom of the tunnel.

"What's that?" challenged the sentry.  "Who goes there?  Halt, and
declare yourself!"

"Fire!" whispered Henri, and, standing up, he cast first one stone and
then the other at the sentry, while Jules followed suit without
waiting, a loud cry of pain and the dull sound of a blow telling that
one of the missiles at least had hit the German.

"Now come!" said Stuart.  "We're lucky in the fact that the fellow
hasn't fired his rifle, though he's shouting hard enough to rouse every
man in the camp, and will soon have them all about him.  Which way, you
fellows?  You know more about the business and the place than I do, for
I'm a stranger in these parts, and, bad luck to it, know precious
little of Germany and the Germans.  Bad luck, did I say? when I've seen
far too much of them in these months past since I came to Ruhleben.
But what's the move?  Which way do we turn?  Where do we go?  And how
are we going to get on for victuals?"

That was the worst of this sudden escape, this movement out of the camp
without calm thought and contemplation of the future.  They had no
plans--not a single one--and they had no idea whither to go, or which
way to turn, nor where they might seek safety.  True, Henri and Jules
had discussed the matter on many an occasion, and had, indeed, as we
know, been diligently, and with much self-sacrifice, hoarding up what
food they could--and in all conscience they had little enough of
it--and what money they could gather.  But as to their course when once
in the open--that had seemed something so far in the distance, so
difficult to contemplate, so very unlikely, that they had given it but
the smallest consideration.  And now they were face to face with the
difficulty and must act promptly.

"Of course the town's out of the question," said Henri, taking upon
himself to guide the party, for, indeed, as we have mentioned already,
he knew his Germany well, just as well almost as he could speak the
language, and both he and Jules were fluent.  We have described them
earlier as typical Englishmen when taking a first glance at them; and
we have to declare that they were just as typically French when one had
the pleasure of making their acquaintance; but in the darkness, when no
one could see their spruce and dapper appearance--and how many German
youths can boast of being spruce and dapper?--when the voice alone
could give an indication of the nationality of the speaker, then both
Henri and Jules could pass muster as Germans with the greatest ease and
security.  But Stuart, this big, raw-boned, healthy, red-faced
individual, was typically British in build, in gesture, and in action,
and when he spoke just as typically an offspring of the British
peoples.  Blunt, direct, uncouth almost at times in his speech, he
couldn't, had he attempted to speak German--which he did at times, and
could make himself understood--have aped the guttural accents of the
Teuton.  He despised the German thoroughly, detested him most
cordially, and perhaps it was characteristic of his bluntness that he
thoroughly detested his language.  Thus, while in the darkness Henri
and Jules might hope to pass muster, in the case of Stuart there was
not the smallest prospect of this.

"We have got to keep clear of the towns, that's the first thing to be
remembered," continued Henri; "and my advice is that we stay in the
open, right in the country, hiding up in woods in the daytime and
marching during the night.  For food we shall have to do just as best
we can; beg it if possible, steal it if necessary.  As to our course,
it's not the time now, nor the place, in which to discuss the matter,
for the first thing to do is to put as great a distance as possible
between us and the camp.  To-morrow, when the light comes, our guards
will send out a report broadcast, and it may be that they'll put
bloodhounds on our track and endeavour to follow us.  So let's put the
best foot forward and march on.  Any direction's good enough, so long
as it takes us away from Ruhleben."

Certainly any direction was good enough which would take them away from
the babel of shouts and noise which had now broken out in the camp
outside which they were lying, and which told plainly enough that
another alarm had been given.  Indeed, if the noise created by the
discovery of the two prisoners in the depths of their tunnel had upset
Ruhleben, had broken in a moment, as it were, the monotony of the
existence of the unlucky individuals interned there now for so many
months, the commotion at that time, which had drawn Henri and Jules and
Stuart and many another to that hovel, termed a hut, in the corner
beneath which was the entrance to the tunnel, was nothing to the uproar
which now arose, to the shouts which echoed across the dreary camp, to
the reports of rifles which men, almost too aged to work, and employed
as guards, let off in every direction.  There was the twang of bullets
in the air, while the darkness was punctuated by many a spot of flame,
which showed where the sentries were doing duty.  That commotion
brought the Commandant flaring out of his quarters again, stamping his
feet with anger, bellowing with passion.  It would also have brought
every one of the interned people out of his hut had not exit from them
after darkness been strictly prohibited, and almost certain to be
rewarded by a bullet.  But guards were free to move about--those on
duty and their reliefs waiting in their barracks--and fifty or more
Germans can create quite a pandemonium when sufficiently excited.

As for sounds nearer to hand, they came in plenty from the corner of
the camp just within the barbed-wire fencing; for there the sentry who
had challenged, and who had been heavily struck by the missiles flung
by Jules and Henri, screamed with pain and terror.  Indeed, he was
rather more frightened than hurt, though being hurt he made that an
excuse for his outcry.  But it was from the depths of the tunnel that
the most ominous sounds were emitted.  Shaken by the manner in which
the lusty Stuart had thrown him through the opening, half-stunned, and
not a little sick from the violent thump with which he had struck the
ground, yet clinging to his senses, stung to action by fierce
resentment of the treatment accorded him, and more still by the
knowledge that he had been outwitted, the under-officer--that short,
spare, dried-up individual who had snapped so vixenishly at the
sergeant--was spluttering with wrath, was mingling his shouts with
those of the sentry, and, as if that were not enough, had drawn his
revolver and was blazing away at nothing.

"Time to be going," said Henri, tapping Stuart on the back; for that
huge individual was leaning over the ragged opening leading into the
tunnel, ready to make another attack upon the German if need be.  "Time
to be going, for in a little while men will be sent all round, and may
cut us off.  Come along."

"Which way?  Where?  You'll lead, eh?" asked Stuart.

"Certainly!  This way--any way--straight in front of us--follow our
noses," whispered Henri.  "Certainly!  Catch hold of my coat; Jules,
take hold of Stuart, and let's push on."

One doesn't live in a camp like Ruhleben, or, indeed, in any other
camp, without taking stock of one's immediate surroundings, without
spending whole hours in contemplating the scenery outside, in watching
things usually of little or no interest, and in finding relaxation in
beholding perhaps some figure in the distance, and wondering for
minutes together who it might be, where he or she had come from, and
whither the same individual was going.  Thus it happened that without
any special effort Henri had noticed that a road passed near the camp
at the very corner where they had made their escape, and ran right
across the open into the distance.  Where precisely it went, why
individuals made their way along it, and what was the destination of
those who traversed the route he was unable even to guess, and
questions to the sentry had received the usual gruff, if not emphatic,
refusals to answer.

"Bang straight on!  We get on to the road in a little while," Henri
told his friends, speaking over his shoulder; "we should, of course,
keep to the open fields and make our way right across country, but it
would be precious difficult during the darkness, and we should get
along very much faster if we follow the road."

"Half a mo'--just wait a second," said Stuart, now that they had gained
the road.  "Of course I am quite ready to trust myself to you, Henri,
for you and Jules are sensible sort of chaps, and we know each other
now thoroughly; besides, you've backed me up splendidly in this little
business.  But put yourselves in the position of the Camp Commandant
and of his men.  A bolt-hole has been discovered in the corner of the
camp, and there's a road near; now put two and two together, and it
isn't very difficult--even a German can do that," he added satirically,
contemptuously, if you like, for, as we have said before, the lusty
Stuart had but the lowest opinion of most Teutons.  "What follows?
Just this: prisoners escaping find a road, and, knowing themselves to
be pursued, follow it.  First moral, keep off the road; second moral,
find another; better still--make our escape in the very opposite
direction."

It was only solid sense, British sense, horse sense as they term it in
America, and, hearing him speak, Henri realized that fact immediately.

"Splendid!" he exclaimed enthusiastically, for he had a great opinion
of the Englishman; "of course that's the thing to do.  Well then, I've
noticed that there's a road which turns away from this one a little
distance ahead, and no doubt there'll be another one breaking away from
that one.  Let's sprint.  A good fast run after life in a camp will be
no disadvantage."

As a matter of fact, they were not in such soft condition as one might
have anticipated, seeing that they had been confined within the
barbed-wire entanglements about Ruhleben for many months past.  The
keenness and energy of youth, the fact that they had many companions,
had helped them to keep their muscles in tolerable order, for games had
been possible and football was quite a favourite.  Hence a sprint along
that road was not beyond them, and, doubling their arms and setting off
at a good steady pace, they had soon contrived to put a mile between
them and their late prison; then, slowing down a little till they
discovered the other road, they turned into it and continued to run,
and in a little while were well away from Ruhleben.  Half an hour later
they turned sharply to their left again, and, alternately running and
walking, covered some fifteen miles before the morning dawned.  Waiting
till they had gained the top of a wooded hill, they plunged into a
thick copse which offered cover, and there, as the light came, they lay
down on its edge, able to survey the country all about them, feeling
tolerably secure, and, let us add, amazingly hungry.



CHAPTER IV

The Heart of Germany

"A farm, I think, and a big one by the look of it.  There should be
food, and plenty of it, down there," said Jules, moistening his lips
and springing eagerly out from the cover into the open.

Indeed, down below them, on that side of the hill where the copse was
situated, a scene was spread out than which there could have been none
more pleasant in France or in old England, or indeed in any other part
of the world.  A smiling, wooded landscape stretched into the far
distance, broken into plots of neatly tilled fields, and intersected at
one point by a river, which, winding between the hills and flowing
sluggishly through forest country, disappeared in the distance,
carrying on one of its banks the broad track of a railway.  In the
foreground, perhaps five hundred yards away only, there was that farm
to which Jules had pointed--a typical German farm, its outhouses
clustered about it, cattle in its yard, and poultry feeding round it.
Smoke was issuing from one of the chimneys, and it required no great
imagination on the part of those three to visualize the kitchen at the
other end of the chimney--a broad, stone-flagged kitchen maybe, with a
deep, old-fashioned ingle-nook, and pots and pans about it.

"Phew!  It makes a fellow's mouth water," declared Stuart, looking
hungrily at the farm.  "To think that there are people down there who
have got plenty to eat, and here are we up here simply longing for it.
I suppose it wouldn't do to venture down?"

Henri shook his head emphatically.

"Not as we are, certainly not," he declared.  "For residence in
Ruhleben hasn't exactly improved our appearance.  To begin with,
Stuart--no offence, of course--you'll quite understand, a shave and
haircut wouldn't come amiss, would it?  As for Jules--our dandy Jules,
whose socks and turn-out were the envy of all the youth of Paris--not
to mention Berlin, before the war broke out--he's hardly 'it', is he?"

"Oh!"

There came an exclamation from Jules, while he grimaced at Henri.

"Not 'it'," he cried, and then laughed as he glanced at his own person
and then back at Henri.  "Well, a fellow has to admit that there's not
one of us fit to enter decent society; but it ain't our fault, is it?
Not exactly.  Only, as Henri says, it would give us away badly if we
went down to the farm and demanded victuals.  Still, the fact remains
that a chap can't help feeling hungry, particularly when he looks at
that smoke coming from the chimney, and the fowls all round.  Couldn't
a fellow slink down, knock one of them over with a stone, and bring it
back?"

Even that was out of the question, and each one of them realized it.
Their only safe course, indeed, was to remain hidden as they were in
that cover till the night came again, when, tramp-like, they would take
to the road once more, and, tramp-like, might rob some hen-roost to
provide a meal for the morrow.  Yet it was hard, and became harder
still as the hours went by, to put up without even those scanty meals
which had been accorded them at Ruhleben.

However, they had other things to occupy their attention when the
afternoon had come, for a messenger mounted on a motor-bicycle dashed
along the road, a soldier, who drew up at the farm beneath them, and,
having given some message, went on his way, and could be seen calling
at other farms in the far distance.  Later in the evening, other sounds
from the road attracted the ears of the fugitives, and, as the dusk was
settling over the country, they watched a party of weary soldiers
marching by, dragging behind them a couple of bloodhounds.  These
halted at the farm and presently entered it.

"Taken up their quarters there for the night," said Henri, "and I
should say without a doubt that the cyclist messenger was sent to warn
the farmers all round, while parties of men have been sent in various
directions to try to trace us with hounds.  Not a very pleasant
outlook, is it?"

"I shouldn't care a rap," declared Stuart, "if it weren't for the
hounds.  Somehow or other we will obtain food and drink, and so long as
we get that we can keep on marching at night-time and can hide up
during the day; but hounds can track us anywhere, and will soon drive
us out of cover.  We have got to set ourselves to work to beat them.
But how?  It bothers me, and I can't see a way out of the difficulty."

Jules whistled; he often did that when he was rather bothered.

"Beastly idea being tracked by hounds," he said; "sends a chill down a
fellow's spine, and makes one's hair feel like rising.  But isn't there
a way out?  If those hounds are put on our track--and it beats me how
it is that they didn't discover that we had passed along the
road--they'll soon trace us into this cover, unless we can, as the
British say, contrive to draw a line across it which will break the
scent and take them off in another direction.  What about the river?"

"The river, of course," exclaimed Henri.  "I never gave it a thought;
but of course it's the thing for us.  Why not start now; it's dark
enough, and we can make our way straight down to it.  As for food, once
we get across, there's a farm yonder, just behind the railway, which
might easily provide something."

They were up on their legs by now, staring into the dusk which now
covered the country, and, having discussed the matter for a few
moments, and seen the wisdom of an instant move, they left the trees
and trudged off across the open fields till they gained a field track,
and, following that, reached the bank of the river.  Stepping in, they
soon found themselves wading into deep water, and presently were forced
to swim.

"Hold on a minute," spluttered Henri, who was leading the party, "don't
let's go straight across; let the stream carry us downwards."

Flat on their backs, and keeping close together by holding hands, the
trio were swept slowly down the stream till they had floated almost
half a mile from the point where they had entered the water; then they
struggled ashore, and, clambering up the bank and crossing the
railroad, sought for the farm which they had observed from the
hill-top.  Twinkling lights in the windows attracted their attention,
and within half an hour they were close to it.

"Better sit down for a moment and talk things over," said the cautious
Stuart.  "It wouldn't do for the whole three of us to go up to the
place and demand food, and I'm rather doubtful if it 'ud do for even
one of us.  You said this morning, Henri, that not one of us was over
presentable, while I should say that now that our clothing is soaked we
are very much more dilapidated and unpresentable."

"Then suppose I go and skirmish about the place," Henri suggested.  "If
I happen to bump into someone, I speak German like a native and may
easily be able to pass muster.  On the other hand, if I don't happen to
meet anyone, I can pry about the place, and I should say that I am just
as likely to be able to rob a hen-roost as you or Jules.  You stay
here, and when I whistle, answer, for otherwise it will be a dickens of
a job to find you."

Gaining a road which ran beside the railway, and from which a track led
up to the farm where the lights twinkled, Henri proceeded at a rapid
rate till he was within a few yards of the residence, when he made a
cautious circle of it and gathered the information that one of the
front rooms was illuminated, while at the back of the house there was
but a feeble glimmer, and from that front room came, as he listened,
the sounds of music--the notes of an organ and the deep voice of a man
singing.

"Fortunate," he told himself, "for it'll drown any sounds that I may
make.  First thing will be to investigate the back of the house, where
there's that glimmer.  I shouldn't wonder if it was the kitchen."

Stealing round towards the back of the house, and passing through a
wicket-gate which gave entrance to the farm-yard, he tiptoed across the
cobbles of the latter, and was brought up sharply by cannoning into a
barrel, which fell over with a crash.  Instantly Henri leapt against
the wall and crouched in the deep shadow, fearful lest the noise should
have alarmed the inmates, or, worse still, should have set some
watch-dog barking; but no noise followed to tell him that his presence
was detected, while, as if to give him greater assurance, the notes of
the organ and that deep, manly voice came even louder to his ears,
proving that those within the house had heard nothing.

"It's a chance in a hundred," he told himself.  "Here's the back
door--shut and locked--eh?  No, not locked--opens easily,
and--and--ah!--the twinkling light is caused by a fire--a kitchen,
right enough--that looks like food; now where is it?"

Entering the place without hesitation, he groped about till his fingers
lit upon a dresser, and then upon a candle, which he lit by bending
over the flames of the fire and igniting the wick.  Then he made a
thorough search of the place, only to discover that there was not a
scrap of food present.  However, there was a door leading out of the
back of the kitchen into a small outhouse, and there he found a larder
well stocked with provisions.

"All's fair in love and war," he said, as he looked about him.  "A
sausage--eh, that's something--and a round of beef, which is something
better.  Here's a loaf of bread, and, 'pon my word, a basket and some
bottles of beer--what more does a fellow want?"

To appropriate the articles, to pop them into the basket, to blow out
the candle, and to march from the kitchen were the work of a few
moments.  He slunk away from the farm, out through the wicket-gate,
along the path which he had pursued, back towards the river, and then
gave vent to a whistle.  There came at once an answering whistle, and,
getting his direction from the sound, Henri soon found himself by his
companions.

"W--w--what have you got?" said Jules, his teeth chattering, his words
broken and shredded by the cold from which he was suffering.  Even the
stalwart and healthy Stuart was no better.

"Y--y--yes?" he demanded, though there was no fire in his question, and
but little eagerness.  "W--w--what the d--d--dickens have you got in
that b--b--basket?  Lor!  W--w--what a weight it is, and, by all the
saints! b--b--beer bottles--well I'm b--b--b--blest!"

"You're beastly cold at any rate," said Henri; "too cold by far to
enjoy cold bottled beer, cold beef, and cold sausage, while I'm
beautifully warm, thanks to the exercise I've been taking.  Look here,
you fellows, it's no use our attempting to stay out here and eat our
rations, for we'll catch our death of cold; and no wonder, seeing that
it often freezes at night in this season.  I'll tell you what we'll do.
There's not a dog in that farm which I have just visited, and there are
outhouses in plenty.  Why not make our way to one of them and make a
bed in some straw or hay if possible."

In any case active exercise was what was required by Jules and Stuart,
for after their immersion in the river, and the thorough soaking they
had received, lying still in the grass at the side of the road waiting
for Henri's return--a cold and chilly business at any time--had become
doubly cold.  They were chilled to the bone now, their teeth chattering
so hard that it was with difficulty they could speak, while a natural
appetite--an appetite increased by their enforced abstention from food
during a whole day, their rapid crossing of the country since they had
broken out of Ruhleben, and their movements on this evening--was dulled
by the temperature to which their bodies had been lowered.
"B--b--beastly cold," Stuart admitted, and he was the very last
individual to grumble as a general rule.  "S--s--sound c--c--common
sense, Henri.  Let's get off to these b--buildings and search for some
hay.  Somehow or other we must get some warmth into our bodies."

He stood in the darkness before the other two, swinging his arms with
vigour and trying to beat some sort of circulation into his frigid
fingers; then, picking up the basket as if to increase the warmth of
his body by added effort, he went off beside Henri, Jules marching on
the farther side, his teeth still chattering, utterly cold and
miserable.  However, the sharp walk to the farm made them feel warmer,
so that they had almost stopped shivering by the time they reached the
yard.  From outside the window of that front room, which was still
illuminated, they listened to the sound of the notes of the organ which
was still being played, and to the music of that deep bass voice still
warbling in the interior.

"Jolly nice it sounds too," said Stuart, "and I reckon that
anyone--even a German--ought to be able to sing when in a comfortable
room, probably with a nice blazing fire.  A nice fire, Henri--a nice
fire.  George! wouldn't that be ripping!"

Henri led them on round the end of the building, through the
wicket-gate into the yard, and halted again outside the kitchen door.
If only they had dared enter in a body, if only they could have found a
welcome in that warm place, how great a relief it would have been, what
comfort it would have brought to them all, and what a pleasure it would
have been after the life they had lived in Ruhleben.  But if they had
found little comfort in the camp where they had been interned, if they
had found few or no friends amongst their guards and amongst the staff
appointed to watch over them, they were just as little likely to
discover friends outside the camp in any portion of Germany.  Indeed,
every part of the land of the Kaiser was inhabited by a people
antagonistic to the last degree to an enemy amongst them.  In those
early days, when Henri and Jules had first been captured, the arrogance
of their captors, the hatred of the mob, and the unbridled passions of
the Kaiser's people might easily have resulted in those two hapless
prisoners being torn to pieces.  But for the police they would probably
have been slain in the streets of Berlin, for, thanks to them, all but
minor injury was forbidden, while insults, blows if possible, and
curses were hurled at them.  But that was in August, 1914, at the
commencement of the war--a war for which Germany had prepared during
forty-two years of peace, a war anticipated and waited eagerly for by
multitudes of Germans, and one which they believed was to make them the
ruling nation of the world.  That was in August, 1914, as we have said,
and now see the change.  Months had gone by since Germany, prepared to
the last detail--with an army in full readiness and trained for its
task, and with a population trained also for helpful service to the
army--had thrown herself upon Russia and France and Belgium, had found
them unprepared, had beaten them back, had decimated the country of
King Albert of the Belgians, had made Louvain a shambles, and had set
the streets of Dinant running with the blood of her victims.  Yet she
had not triumphed.  She had captured enemy country, to be sure, she had
driven France and the British ally--which had so quickly come to the
side of the French--back towards the sea-coast, and she had hurled
Russia out of East Prussia, and, after the sturdy advance of the Grand
Duke Nicholas into Galicia and the fall of the fortress of Przemysl,
had fallen upon him with mighty force, had discovered the Russians
short of ammunition and of artillery, and had driven the forces of the
Tsar back towards Warsaw and other cities.  Yes, Germany had gained
much territory, and had lost many, many lives.  Yet, see what now faced
her; not victory, but embarrassment on every side: a trench-line
running from north to south in Russia--a trench-line against which her
weakened battalions had battered in vain, a line held by the forces of
the Tsar, even though short of ammunition, so securely that Germany
could not advance; and on the west another trench-line, which, after
the battle of the Marne, had been extended westward and northward to
the sea-coast and blocked the advance of the Kaiser's forces just as
securely as did those lines in Russia.

In short, the triumphal march of Germany had been abruptly stopped, in
spite of those forty-two years of preparation.  The prize so nearly
seized--so certain to fall to the armies of Prussia, as the people of
Germany thought--Paris, in fact, had been snatched from the armies of
the Kaiser at the very last moment; the cup of triumph had, indeed,
been dashed to pieces on the Marne, where French and British soldiers,
turning at bay after that glorious retreat from Mons, had fallen upon
the Germans, had driven them north across the river, had sent them
fleeing to the Aisne, and had there read them a lesson.

Possessing still much territory of her enemies, but checked on every
side, Germany had yet not achieved her object by a great deal.  She
had, in fact, failed most utterly and most miserably; for to have
proved successful--as successful as she had designed and had
confidently hoped to be--she should, in the first few months of the
war, have thoroughly beaten the French and have crushed the armies of
the Tsar.  But she had failed to do either, in spite of her treacherous
invasion of Belgium; for the coming of the British had helped not a
little to turn the tables.  It had held up the advance on Paris, it had
helped to drive the Germans over the Marne, it had held the gate to
Calais at Ypres--where the forces sent from England had shattered the
Prussian Guard, the best of Germany's troops.  Indeed, one may say that
the inclusion of Great Britain in the fighting had given vital
assistance to France and Belgium and Russia, had gone some long way to
check the mad triumphal rush of the German bully upon her unready
enemies, and had assisted in the erection of that barrier of trenches
which held the enemy in check; while, beyond the fighting-line, Britain
called for her volunteers to form new armies, and France completed the
mobilization of her men and made ready to shatter the invader.

Disappointment had taken the place of elation, of arrogance, in
Germany.  Bitter hatred of England was paramount, and, next to it,
detestation of France and all that was French.  Such hatred was
greater, we may say, amongst the civil population of Germany than
amongst the men in the army.  Indeed, so great was it that had the
treatment of prisoners of war been left to them--treatment none too
good and often diabolical when conducted by officials of the army--not
a prisoner would have survived; and, for the same reason, escaping
prisoners, such as Jules and Henri and Stuart, might look for little
else from the inhabitants of Germany than blows, than immediate
betrayal to guards, than persecution and harsh treatment.

"Here we are on the far side of the yard, and this looks like an open
shed in which carts are stored.  Yes, carts," repeated Henri, having
driven his shin rather violently against a shaft, and with difficulty
refrained from giving loud expression to his feelings.  "Let's have a
look at the roof.  Stop here a minute, while I prospect and see whether
there's a loft."

Stepping back into the yard, he stared up overhead, and, thanks to the
fact that the night was not excessively dark, was able to detect the
line of roof as it cut across the sky.  From its height it gave promise
of a loft under its shelter, and, searching round for some access to
it, Henri presently stumbled upon a wooden staircase.  Clambering up
it, he was astonished to find a glimmer of light coming through the
chinks of a door on his left, and, applying his eye to those chinks,
discovered a fire burning on a brick hearth in a room of small
dimensions.  To open the door quietly was the most sensible procedure,
and, lifting the latch and pushing the door before him, he carefully
investigated every corner of the room.

"Looks as though it were used by some farm hand, or a groom of some
sort," he told himself.  "In any case, it's warm and comfortable and
untenanted, and will allow us to strip off our clothes and dry
ourselves."

Turning abruptly on his heel, he crept slowly down the staircase, and
very soon had brought Stuart and Jules to the warm quarters he had
discovered.  There, indeed, they stripped off their wet clothing and
hung it in front of the fire, which, by diligent prodding and by an
addition of logs which lay beside it, was soon giving off a fine heat,
and was crackling and blazing merrily.

"A mighty fine feed," declared Stuart, now without a stutter in his
voice and without a chatter about his teeth.  "Henri, my boy, you're a
nobleman, or ought to be one; and if you aren't, all I can say is, that
the French Government don't know what they're doing.  And because why?
Well, now, I'll just tell you," he proceeded, his mouth half full of
sausage, a huge piece in one hand, and a slice of bread in the other,
while between his feet, as he stood on the floor, there rested a bottle
of beer already opened.  "Because why, my boy?  Well, here's the
reason: our friend Henri contrived, in the first place, to attract our
attention to a spot in Ruhleben where escape seemed possible--I'm not
going to say that he was the chief cause of our undertaking the
venture, but he was one of us--accompanied us to the outside of the
entanglements, and led us away from the camp.  It was his and Jules's
idea to escape those dogs by swimming and floating all this distance
down the river, and, though we ain't altogether clear of 'em yet, we're
on the high road to be so.  But--and here I'll take a denial from no
one"--and at that moment he looked across at Jules, as if to challenge
him to controvert the statement--"but our friend Henri is the man
mainly responsible for bringing us to the farm, for procuring, first of
all, food and drink, and then providing warm quarters.  If I was the
French Government, he'd have every honour possible.  As it is,
why--well--" said Stuart, hesitating, and taking another bite of
sausage, "why, now--I'll drink his health, and that's the best I can do
at the moment."

He lifted the bottle, and, tossing his head back, let the frothy fluid,
so beloved of the Germans, trickle into his mouth and down his throat,
and, gasping at last, replaced it on the floor beside him.  Yes, it was
a meal which delighted the hearts of all three of them, a meal to be
looked back upon, one which, if they escaped safely from the country
and lived to tell the tale, would be spoken of in glowing terms as a
reminiscence to be thankful for, and an item amongst hundreds during
their adventure to be emphasized, to be picked out as momentous, and to
be expatiated on in the warmest language.

"And now, what do we do?" asked Stuart, when the meal was finished and
each had enjoyed a cigarette--for the cautious Stuart had brought some
with him.  "One's natural inclination is to stretch out on these boards
and sleep in the warmth of the fire; but that, just as naturally,
raises the question as to whether it would be wise, and as to whether
it would not lead to certain discovery in the morning."

"Of course we could take it in turns to sit up and watch," suggested
Henri, yawning widely as he spoke; "but then, we are all of us dead
tired, and the chances are that anyone who attempted to keep awake
would be overpowered by drowsiness.  It looks to me as though it would
be far better for us to clear up the mess we have made and to retire
into the loft; that is to say, if there is one.  And I've another
suggestion to offer: it may be that to-morrow we shall find our exit
from the farm cut off, or we may find that we have to keep away from
all dwellings as we cross country; that points to the need of
replenishing the commissariat at this stage, particularly as we know
that there is food almost within a stone's throw of us."

The big, beefy, ruddy, and smiling face of Stuart was turned upon him
promptly.

"My boy," he exclaimed, smacking Henri heavily on the shoulder, "my
boy, didn't I say that you were deserving of the highest honours, and
here is another reason for giving you rewards.  The idea of food for
to-morrow had escaped my notice altogether, and I would say that both
Jules and I were so satisfied with what we have had that we didn't give
a thought to it.  But it's just plain common sense--the common sense
which you seem to have got a store of, Henri--which should prepare us
to look to to-morrow, to make provision for the future, particularly
when it can be done so easily.  You get off, Henri, but take care that
that fellow with the voice doesn't spot you.  Jules and I will search
round in the buildings for a loft, and then we'll return to this room
and wait for you."

Separating at the door of the room, and leaving a goodly portion of
their clothing still hanging in the warmth of the fire, the three
parted, Jules and Stuart clambering up the staircase, which ascended
again after it had passed the landing at the door of the room they had
just vacated, while Henri slid to the floor below, and, marching into
the yard, crossed to the kitchen doorway.  Pausing there for a while,
he listened for the notes of the organ, and presently heard them and
the sound of a woman singing, a coarse, guttural, bucolic voice, very
different from the other.  As for the kitchen, the fire still flickered
on the hearth, while the place was untenanted, and once more Henri,
emboldened by the success of his previous visit, lit the candle at the
fire, looked serenely about him, and entered the little storehouse at
the end of the kitchen.

Perhaps three minutes later he emerged from that place with two baskets
more than fully laden; for, be it mentioned, if the towns and cities of
Germany at these times were feeling the pinch of war, if the blockade
of the British Fleet had deprived the Kaiser's subjects of many
food-stuffs and other commodities, and if, indeed, as undoubtedly was
the case, there was shortage in many parts of Germany, there was still
without doubt, abundance in many a farm and homestead, abundance, that
is to say, of home-produced articles.  Thus, there were strings of
sausages in that larder, ready for the hand which sought to take them,
there were hard-baked biscuits and bread, and home-brewed beer in
abundance.  It was indeed with provisions and drink enough to last for
several days that Henri struggled from the larder into the kitchen,
and, having blown out the candle and replaced it where he had found it,
went to the door that led to the yard and made ready to emerge from it.
It was indeed in that precise position that his further progress was
suddenly arrested; for, as he pulled the door open and prepared to step
into the yard, a gang of men came to the corner of the building, and,
thrusting their way through that gate which gave admission to the yard,
suddenly accosted him in the doorway.  They were Germans; they were a
party of guards sent from Ruhleben; and beyond them, secured to
leashes, were a couple of dogs, sent with them to hound down the
prisoners who had escaped from the camp.



CHAPTER V

Eluding the Pursuers

If a picture could have been taken of the astonished and nonplussed
Henri at the precise moment when, as he stood half within and half
without the door of the farmhouse from which he had been purloining
food and drink, he was accosted by that German party from Ruhleben, his
own devoted mother would have undoubtedly had the utmost difficulty in
recognizing her offspring.  To begin with, having discarded his
drenched clothing and left it in that room which had provided such
warmth and comfort to himself and Stuart and Jules, Henri had, because
no other change was possible for the moment, borrowed an old pair of
trousers hanging on the wall, which, from their dilapidated and
mud-stained appearance, may well have belonged to the farm hand--the
usual occupant of the building.  An equally tattered coat was over his
shoulders, while his bare feet were thrust into a pair of heavily
nailed boots, which had been cleaned perhaps a year before.  There was
no hat on his head, and, thanks to his swim in the river, his
hair--which had grown excessively long in Ruhleben--hung lankly over
his eyes and forehead, producing altogether an appearance not very
uncommon in the country.  To be very precise, if not complimentary, we
must admit that the usually debonair and dapper Henri looked like the
village idiot at that moment; while his astonishment, causing his mouth
to open, gave his face a vacant expression which matched well with his
appearance.

"Ho, you at the door, and at the very right moment!  What's this?
Bring a light and throw it on him.  Heavens!  What a scarecrow!
Where's your master, lad; and where are you going?"

A big, burly man, a non-commissioned officer, one of the staff at
Ruhleben, barred Henri's progress, and, snatching the lantern which one
of his men carried, held it over the youth he had accosted and surveyed
him closely.

[Illustration: A big, burly man, a non-commissioned officer, one of the
staff at Ruhleben, barred Henri's progress.  (missing from book)]

"Baskets--eh?  And full of provender--beer and sausages and bread--well
I never!" gasped the Sergeant.  "Who may you be, my lad?  And where's
your master?  That's a question you haven't answered, and, besides,
who's all this stuff for?  Good food and drink, and going outside the
farm-house!"

He lowered his lamp and threw the rays of light on to the baskets and
their contents, while his hungry eyes fixed themselves upon the
sausages.  Henri giggled.  Intuitively he realized that he must indeed
look like a scarecrow, and, employing his quick wits, that French
perception which led him so quickly to realize the situation, he
determined to act up to it.  Not that he felt much inclined to giggle
or ready for mirth; for, indeed, he was almost trembling with
agitation.  At any moment the door of the kitchen might be burst open
by the farmer himself, and he would be discovered.  The Sergeant had,
indeed, spoken in the loudest tones--in those rough, bullying,
spluttering tones so common to German sergeants, so loudly that he had
drowned the sound of the organ beyond and the voice of the woman who
was singing.  Henri suppressed a shiver, giggled inanely again, and
listened for sounds from the far part of the farm-house.  Yes, he could
hear the organ still, and that voice droning on, and at once took
comfort.

"Sausages, Sergeant," he said, smirking at him, and lifting the basket
so that the man could see its contents more clearly.  "You like
sausages too, and you are hungry, you and your men, eh?"

And once more the Frenchman giggled in the face of the non-commissioned
officer.

"Why, yes.  Now that you mention it, a man's mostly hungry who tramps
the country at night, and rushes about the place in search of
prisoners.  Listen, youngster; you've seen three men crossing this
way--three men who have broken out of Ruhleben?"

Henri looked at him vacantly.

"Prisoners?" he asked.  "Germans?"

"Germans!" the man exclaimed.  "What next!  Why, two Frenchmen and a
bull-necked, red-faced Englishman.  Say, have you seen them?"

Once more Henri giggled inanely and lifted his basket.

"And about the sausages," he reminded the Sergeant; "you like them?
You are hungry?  Well, now, there are plenty in the larder; light up
the kitchen, and take your seats; I'll be back in a few minutes, and
will call the master to you."

They pressed round him, that sergeant and his men; pushed him rudely
aside, and made their way, talking in loud voices, into the
kitchen--talking so loudly, indeed, that those inhabitants of the
farm-house, enjoying a musical evening, heard them, and, ceasing at
once the playing of their organ, stood to their feet and listened.  A
minute later the doorway leading from the hall into the kitchen was
burst open, and a very startled, very frightened, and exceedingly
rotund and healthy farmer pushed his way into the apartment.

As for Henri, he crossed the yard in half a dozen strides, gained the
staircase, and raced up it, to discover Stuart and Jules seated by the
fire, chatting and smoking.

"My word!" exclaimed Jules as Henri entered; "two baskets of provender
this time, and full--both of them.  Now listen to us, Henri; we've
found a beautiful little hole in a bundle of hay in the loft close
handy, and, from the position of the place, we believe it to be seldom
entered.  It's just the spot in which to pass the night, and sleep
throughout the following day if need be."

"And you listen for a moment," said Henri, speaking swiftly.  "A party
of Germans from Ruhleben have just reached the farm, and I met them
face to face.  I thought they would have recognized me, for amongst
them was one whom I remember to have seen doing sentry duty; but I'm
such a scarecrow in these clothes, and so dishevelled, that they took
me for some farm hand or village lout, and let me pass.  But in a
little while they will be asking questions of the farmer, there'll be a
hue and cry, and they'll know that one of the prisoners who escaped has
been close to them.  We must move.  That comfortable little spot, which
sounds so inviting, is out of the question.  Let's pick up our clothes
and make a dash into the open.  It looks to me almost as if we should
have to swim the river again, for there are two bloodhounds with the
party I accosted, and they may easily trace us."

Pulling on their still damp clothing as rapidly as they could, they
sent Jules first of all to the bottom of the staircase, to make sure
that there was no sign of the farmer or his visitors; then Henri and
Stuart each picked up a basket, and, stealing down into the yard, made
their way out of it, and, skirting the house, gained the highway.
Pressing along it, walking at a rapid rate, they pushed on during the
hours of darkness, and just as the light began to grow, seeing some
buildings away to their right, turned off along a country lane which
led towards them, and presently discovered themselves to be close to a
sugar factory, at one end of which a water-tower was erected.
Carefully looking around them, to make sure that no one was about, they
sought for a door, and, entering a yard round which buildings were
erected, presently discovered a wide door which was unbolted.  Entering
without hesitation, and closing it after them, they found themselves in
a huge apartment with bins on every side, with overhead shafts and
pulleys.  At the far end a staircase led to another floor, and,
ascending that, they found themselves in an apartment of similar
dimensions, the floor space of which was occupied by machines of
various patterns.  At the far end, where the tower was erected, there
was another doorway, and passing through it they clambered up the steep
stone stairs, which finally led them to a small room at the top, above
which was an iron-girdered ceiling supporting a huge water-tank, to
which supplies were pumped no doubt from the river.  Having groped
their way in the semi-darkness to this spot, they barred the door of
the room by driving a wedge in above the latch, and then, thoroughly
tired out after their long tramp and their adventures of the previous
day and night, they lay down to sleep, careless almost of the
consequences.

Two whole days passed during which Henri and his friends were unable to
move from the room to which they had gained access--two days during
which they slept in turns, and rested, while the one who watched posted
himself at one of the four windows which looked out from each side of
the tower, and surveyed the surrounding country.  From that post of
vantage they were able to see the river which they had crossed higher
up, and even the roof of the farm where they had obtained food and
temporary shelter; they could observe every feature of the country, the
yard below, the hosts of women workers in the sugar factory, the coming
and going of important-looking factory officials, and even the passage
of search-parties along the road in their quest for the prisoners.

"It looks to me as though we'd found a safe haven," said Henri, when he
had been on duty for some hours and the others had awakened.  "I
watched a party coming down the road with two dogs, and I'm sure that
they are the fellows who so nearly captured me at the farm yonder.
They turned up towards this factory, called loudly for the manager, and
made a survey of the buildings.  For all I know they may even have come
to the foot of the tower, but they certainly did not ascend the
staircase.  You can imagine that I took particular notice of the
bloodhounds who accompanied them."

"Ha!" exclaimed Stuart.  "Show any signs of excitement--eh?  Did they
look about them and sniff as though they had scented us?"

"Not a bit of it.  They were as quiet as lambs, and seemed utterly
bored with the whole business, and as if they were thoroughly tired of
being dragged at the heels of the search-party.  As for the men, they
looked weary and fagged out after their tramp, and I imagine that they
take little interest in the business.  You've got to remember that
we've been now something like three days away from Ruhleben, and the
authorities must know that we've had plenty of time to get farther away
from the camp.  They'd hardly be looking for us now so near it, and no
doubt they've telegraphed our description across the country.  That
being so, it seems to me that the wisest course for us is to stay here
as long as possible, until the hue and cry has died down and the event
has been forgotten."

"And then," asked Jules inquisitively, "what's to happen?  We are still
a precious long way from France or from any of the neutral countries.
It's time, I should think, that we made a plan for the future, for up
to now we've followed the road, as it were, of least resistance; we
took the direction which seemed best under pressing circumstances, and
did not head for any particular destination."

"Then what about Holland?" demanded Stuart; "the people are friendly
enough, and, if one only knew the truth, are precious frightened of the
Germans.  Once across the frontier there we shall receive hospitality;
and, seeing that the Germans are hardly frightened of the Dutch, the
frontier will not be so very heavily guarded.  But in the direction of
France and Belgium there's that trench-line we've heard so much about,
and where I'd give a lot to be fighting."

"Holland's the country we should make for undoubtedly," agreed Henri,
when they had discussed the matter a little further.  "But in which
direction it lies, precisely, is rather difficult to determine; we
shall have to leave that to the future, and of course must find out the
way by asking questions.  That means that we must discover disguises
first of all, and that is a thing that wants a lot of doing.  As to
staying here, I feel quite sure that it's a wise procedure; and, thanks
to the food and the drink we brought along, we have rations enough, if
we husband them carefully, to last for quite four or five days longer."

It was not particularly exciting or exhilarating in that lofty room at
the top of the tower, and went little way towards meeting the wishes of
any one of the party, yet the plan met with the hearty approval of the
canny Stuart, and, since Henri himself had proposed it, met with the
ready assent of Jules.  That they had food sufficient to last them for
several days was quite certain, while the question of drink was cleared
up already--for they had discovered a trap-door in the girdered ceiling
above them and an iron ladder outside the door of the room, which, when
put in position, gave access to it.  Clambering up that, one very early
morning when a mist hung over the country, Henri had discovered a
narrow gallery surrounding the huge water-tank, and, lifting the
inspection-door over the latter, had found it full of water.  It was
from this that they replenished their supplies at night, and so made
certain of the fact that, however long they remained as prisoners in
that place, thirst would not assail them.

At the end of the week, however, impatience to be moving on was
beginning to try them far more than their enforced idleness, and many a
discussion did they indulge in with reference to their future
movements.  Numerous and various were the suggestions made by one or
other of the party, but, excellent though some of them may have been,
on discussion all were vetoed.  Yet, something must be done, something
definite decided upon; and finally, in desperation almost, Henri
decided to emerge from their hiding-place and make a closer
investigation of their surroundings.

"It stands to reason," he told his friends at the end of one of these
fruitless discussions--"it stands to reason that if we leave the place
now--and in the course of a few hours we shall be forced to, seeing
that our food-supply is almost gone--we shall be hardly any better off
than we were at the commencement; for you have to remember that a full
and complete description of us has been telegraphed broadcast, and,
though the novelty of the event has now worn off, no doubt there are
hundreds of police officers on the look-out for us.  Thus it follows
that to make our escape successful we must either march at night-time
only--which renders the purchase of food almost an impossibility, and
compels us to steal it or get it in much the same way as we got this
supply from the farm building--or we must find disguises which will
alter our appearance entirely and allow us even to board a train and
travel with ordinary people.  I'll take a look round while you fellows
stay up here.  If I'm caught--well, it's bad luck, that's all, and
needn't spoil your chances."

Slipping out of the room when dusk had fallen, and the voices of the
work-people had subsided and their retreating footsteps had died away
in the distance, Henri gained the huge room below, and, descending to
the lower floor, made his way out into the yard; then, taking the
utmost caution to guard against surprise, he visited each of the
buildings in turn, narrowly escaping, in one of them, running face to
face with a workman engaged in attending to a machine.  Retreating
hurriedly, he once more gained the yard, and finally gained a corridor
which gave access to the manager's buildings.  It was perhaps half an
hour later, when Jules and Stuart were growing anxious, and were
listening eagerly for sounds of their friend's return, that they heard
steps on the stone staircase leading to their chamber.

"Henri without a doubt," said Stuart, a note of relief in his voice,
for the lusty fellow had taken an enormous liking for Henri.  "That's
good!  I was really beginning to get awfully anxious about him."

"And I had almost given him up for lost," said Jules, equally relieved.
"There he is, just outside the door.  Ha, Henri! we began to think that
you would never return, and now----"

The two inmates of the room, peering through the dusk as the door
opened, saw an unfamiliar figure enter: a man dressed in baggy
clothing, a man whose eyes were encircled by the broad rims of heavy
glasses, and upon whose head sat an absurdly small Homberg hat.  He was
a man getting on in years, one would have said--though the dusk made
the question uncertain--yet a man who stepped actively, whose breath
was not tried by the long ascent, and who knew his path well, and was
thoroughly acquainted with the door-way.  Could it be Henri?--Henri in
disguise?  A low chuckle escaped the man--a merry giggle--and then
Henri's well-known voice awoke the silence.

"I do wish that it were daylight," he told Stuart and Jules; "you'd
then see something that 'ud be good for sore eyes."

"Sore eyes--eh?  It isn't so very dark here, and I can see enough to
startle me as it is," came the astonished rejoinder.  "What on earth
have you been doing, Henri; and what's the meaning of this get-up?  Of
course, it's a disguise; but, bless us! what a disguise!"

"Stop!  How's this, then?  I'll do the heavy German, and you can judge
the effect."

The gay, yet thoughtful, Henri closed the door of the room, and, with
what was left of the fast-receding daylight illuminating his person,
struck an attitude.  Leaning on the stick with which he had provided
himself, he twirled the heavy moustaches--artificial affairs which he
had contrived to become possessed of--and glared at his comrades
through that pair of big-rimmed spectacles which so completely altered
his appearance.  Then he talked to them--cross-questioned his friends
in the gruff, staccato accents one might have expected from such an
individual as he represented himself to be.

"German--the heavy German official--from the crown of that ridiculous
hat right down to your big flat feet," declared Stuart with gusto, when
the little performance was finished.  "I'd never have thought it
possible, but that moustache has done wonders, and now that one really
gets a good glimpse of you, for it isn't so dark after all, I've no
hesitation in saying that I'd pass you in the street every day and fail
to spot you as Henri."

"As Henri, or even as a Frenchman," added Jules, "or even as any alien
or enemy of the Germans.  It's tremendous, Henri, a ripping turn-out!
How did you manage it?  And where on earth did you lay your hands on
such garments?"

The somewhat bulky and voluminous individual who had joined them sat
down before Stuart and Jules and treated the two of them to an amiable
grin, made all the more amiable and owl-like by those glasses.

"I couldn't help grinning at myself," he told them after a minute; "the
whole thing seems so awfully cheeky.  But, 'pon my word! it occurs to
me that cheek is more likely to carry one through in business of this
sort than the greatest caution.  Cheek and luck did it at that farm and
deceived that German party, and now let us hope the same two
things--you can't call them virtues--will set us safely in France.  How
did I do it?--eh!  Well, I searched the machine-shops down below, and
precious nearly ran my head against a workman; then I crossed the yard,
and, on the principle that when you are in quest of anything it's
better often enough to go to head-quarters, I boldly made for the
manager's office.  He's a bit of a Jew, that manager, and it appears
that he sleeps in his office, or, rather, in a room attached to it.
Anyway, he had quite an assortment of clothing, and I should imagine
this to be his best suit, the sort of thing he wears when he's
holiday-making--that is, if a German ever does take a holiday.  It
doesn't exactly fit to a T--it's too loose and baggy, I admit--but
it'll do, and the glasses and the moustache help considerably.  As to
the moustache--well, I fancy the manager occasionally indulges in
theatricals.  He can't have wanted a false moustache for himself, for
I've caught a glimpse of him before now from one of these windows, so
it must be that he kept the paraphernalia about for dressing up other
people.  Talking of dressing up other people reminds me of you two.
Stuart's the difficulty; he's so big and bony and strong.  Jules would
make a splendid girl, if he'd only remember to walk decently and not
stride along as he does; but Stuart, what's to be done with him?  I
thought once of taking him along as my wife, dressed in a most
elaborate costume I found in the manager's box of accessories; but it
wouldn't do, for, though German women are fat enough in all conscience,
heavily built like our friend opposite, they are not so broad in the
shoulders, nor so bony."

Stuart's eyes had opened wide as Henri spoke, and more than once a
flush came into his face.  He felt half-angry for a moment, and then
more than half-amused.  A second later he seemed to have conjured up a
picture of himself dressed as the heavy German lady, the wife of this
baggy-breeched, spectacled German, represented by Henri, and the
picture set him laughing, softly at first, then, with his mouth wide
open, on the point of emitting a roar of mirth.  Fortunately, however,
Jules caught him in the act, and, clapping one hand over his mouth,
arrested the sounds.

"Of course," he said, "if you want to shout and call in the whole crew
outside, well, do so; only give us a little time to make our exit
beforehand.  I'm convinced now, after what Henri said, that you're
going to be a trouble to us.  You're too big, too big and too heavy by
far to be smuggled through the country as a woman, and, 'pon my word,
in whatever disguise you are hid--if one can hide such a
monster--there's always the danger of your giving us away by ribald
laughter."

You might have expected the huge Stuart to boil over with anger after
such an outburst, and, indeed, Jules's indignant reproaches were
uttered with that purpose; but, as we have inferred before, this great
Englishman was not only big and strong and disgustingly healthy, the
envy of all in Ruhleben camp, the suspected of every German guard in
the place--for how could a fellow retain such proportions with such
attenuated diet?--but, boasting of an excellent digestion, the fellow
was seldom in an ill humour.  Even when he grumbled and said scathing
things of the Germans, he was half laughing, and it required a very
great deal of annoyance indeed to rouse his passions.  Yet the smallest
hint of disloyalty to Great Britain, the smallest slur cast on his
country's people, roused the giant in this fellow; then those muscles
of his were braced for action.  And if Henry and Jules had previously
had any doubts as to his prowess, these were set at rest after they had
witnessed his manner of tackling that under-officer at the mouth of the
tunnel.  But the friendly gibes of the merry Jules--this somewhat
dilapidated and war-worn Frenchman, this individual who had come to
Ruhleben camp months before as dapper as Henri, with clothes cut in the
masterful manner peculiar to your London tailor, with boots of
immaculate appearance, and socks which till then had been the envy of
many a youngster--could not rouse Stuart.  He was above such petty
matters.  He could read the meaning in the heart, could see deeply into
the characters of the two who were his companions, and, seeing so
clearly, the big fellow seated on the floor merely stared back at Jules
and Henri and grinned a huge, capacious grin, which took them both in
in the semi-darkness, which almost aggravated them, and which finally
set them both laughing.

"I'll admit," he said then, almost shamefacedly--"I'll admit that I'm
big and strong and bony, and a difficulty under the circumstances.
Now, Henri can pass anywhere, I'm sure, as he's dressed and got up; and
Jules, well, Jules should make a most dainty little German girl; but
there's me--well," he went on, speaking slowly, "that's a job that can
soon be ended, and I'll tell you how.  You two will get off to-night,
and board the nearest train, if you take my advice."

"And you?" demanded Henri.

"Yes, you?" asked Jules inquisitively.

"Oh, I?  Well, I'll stay here for a time, and then I'll fare for
myself.  Supposing we have a race to the Dutch frontier?  I shouldn't
wonder if I got there as soon as you do, for I'm strong and big, and,
you see, I can walk during the night, and, well--all's fair in love and
war--there's many a hen-roost that I can rob on my journey."

Spoken flippantly enough, there was yet steady determination in the
words of Stuart.  He meant everything he said, and most generously gave
up his prospects, at least of companionship, for the sake of those
companions.  More than that, he probably gave up all chances of making
good his escape from Germany, for the task of marching to the Dutch
frontier was no light one.  Henri looked at him swiftly, and then
across at Jules, who coughed uncomfortably enough, half-opened his
mouth as if to speak, and then remained silent.  At last Henri managed
to address Stuart.

"You're rotting!" he said sharply.

"On the contrary, never more serious in all my life."

"Then you're----"

"Say it," said Stuart sweetly.  "A fool, you were going to say, I
think."

"No.  Shake hands," Henri demanded, stretching out one of his own.
"It's good to have a chum such as you are, Stuart, good to know that
amongst France's allies there is such a fellow.  From all accounts the
British have stuck well by the French, as the French have stuck by the
British.  We haven't had much news through, but from what one's heard
it appears that the British, retreating from Mons on the left of the
French armies, did France an enormous and inestimable service--saved,
indeed, our left flank from being crumpled up and driven in on the
centre, helped to save Paris, and finally helped to defeat von Kluck's
army.  It wasn't only by pluck and endurance that British officers and
soldiers did that; it was by a considerable display of self-sacrifice.
What's this but a self-sacrificing plan on your part?  And you think
that we are going to agree?--that Jules and I will accept the proposal,
and leave you here alone to face all the difficulties of escaping from
Germany--you, who besides being big, as we have already said, hardly
know a word of the language?  Fool wasn't the word that I was going to
use, Stuart, it was something stronger.  Shake hands again.  Jules and
I refuse to leave the place unless you come with us."

There was silence for a while, and then the three set to work again to
discuss plans for leaving the factory.  It seemed, indeed, that Henri
had made quite a find in the manager's office, and that he had already
selected a dress for Jules which would suit that young gentleman
splendidly; and at length it was decided that Stuart should be dressed
in a suit of good material--such as might be worn by a dependant--and
that he should accompany the party as if he were a male nurse looking
after the aged Henri.  That night, indeed, having raided the manager's
office again, and relieved him of things essential to their journey,
the three set off from the place, and about eleven o'clock on the
following day were to be observed on an adjacent railway station.  An
old gentleman, who peered through round goggles, who stumbled as he
walked, and whose shoulders and head were bent and wobbling, traversed
the platform on the arm of a girl of fascinating appearance; while in
the rear came a huge, ugly fellow, with reddish hair and brilliant
complexion, on whose head was thrust a hat which overhung and darkened
his features, and who carried a bag--none other than the one in which
the manager of the sugar factory had been wont to carry his possessions.

A train came in, and the three embarked upon it.  The whistle sounded
shrilly, smoke issued from the engine, and in a trice they were off on
another stage of their adventurous journey.



CHAPTER VI

Changing their Direction

"Crikey!  What a do!  What a performance!  Who'd have thought it?"
gasped the huge Stuart, flinging himself back on the seat in the
compartment and staring out of the window as the train moved away from
the station.  "Henri, you're a wizard, a conjuror, a most mysterious
and clever individual.  'Pon my word, I looked at you as you boarded
the train, and if I'd been a German official, one of these
thick-headed, beer-drinking tubs of fellows, always on the look-out for
aliens and enemies, I'd have failed to spot you."

"Magnificent!" ventured Jules, rubbing his hands and moving his limbs
in a most unladylike fashion, in such masculine manner, in fact, that
the cautious Henri, ever on the look-out for something which might
attract the attention of enemies swarming about them, immediately
pounced upon him.

"That's not right," he said; "no girl would sit like that, Jules, and
you know it.  Indeed, who should know it better than you, who, up to
the outbreak of this war, were a regular lady's man?  You've studied
the fair sex, my boy, and now's the time to take advantage of that
study."

Stuart guffawed.  The whole adventure was so droll, so full of little
incidents which tickled his mirth and which prompted laughter, that it
was as much as he could do to keep his big, healthy features steady.
And, seeing that they were in a compartment by themselves, why not make
merry?  For during the last two hours their actions had had to be
serious enough in all conscience, and, indeed, the big Englishman spoke
only the truth when he said that Henri had behaved like a perfect
wizard.  Stumbling down the platform, that ridiculously small Homberg
hat only partially covering thin wisps of white hair--artificially
whitened, let us explain, with the aid of some chalk--upon a head which
if it were not bald, looked as if it ought to be so, Henri had acted
the role of a feeble, querulous, short-sighted, and somewhat arrogant
old gentleman to the life.  He had snarled at his daughter--or his
wife, whichever Jules was supposed to be, and, from the obvious youth
of the young lady, probably she was the former.  He had snapped at the
big, beefy attendant who came behind him, and, reaching the train and
making an effort to clamber aboard it--a none too easy performance on
Continental railways--he had stumbled even more, had contrived to get
into a position half-within and half-without the carriage, and had
there stuck firmly, become jammed, as it were, a position which roused
the wrath of the old gentleman still higher, which set him snarling at
his lady companion, and caused him to throw a fiery imprecation at his
attendant.  It caused the officious station-master to hasten forward,
and then, at the sight of this arrogant and somewhat important old
gentleman, to bow obsequiously and assist his entrance to the carriage.
Yes, altogether it was a splendid addition to their adventures.

"It's enough to make a cat laugh," said Stuart.  "But here we are; and
well now, I'm just wondering what our friend--sorry, your friend,
Henri!--the manager of the sugar factory, will be saying just about
this moment?  Of course he'll learn that someone has entered his
quarters."

Learn it, indeed!  At that very moment the portly individual in
question was in the centre of his bedroom, surveying the contents of a
box which had been sadly depleted.  He was rubbing the grizzly locks
beside one ear, pondering deeply, staring through big goggles at the
box, and trying to understand what had happened.

"But no," he said aloud; "I have not taken the things.  Then who?  And
see this--my best suit of clothes has gone, my hat, and the goggles I
placed on this chest last evening."

He made a movement towards the bell, and then dashed back, and once
more came to an abrupt halt, pausing with feet far apart, with eyes
peering into the distance, with wrinkled forehead, and with one hand
still rubbing his grizzly locks.

"But, a thousand thunders!  Then what does this mean?" he demanded, so
loudly that a clerk dashed in from the adjacent office and asked what
had happened.  "Happened, indeed!  Then see here, my Fritz, this box of
clothing has been pilfered.  My clothes are gone--my best suit of
clothes--my hat, and what more I cannot say.  Who, then, can have paid
my quarters a visit?"

It puzzled the clerk also.  For a while the two discussed the question
in the most animated and Teutonic manner.  Then a brilliant idea seized
upon the brain of the clerk--an idea which sent a hot flush from the
top of his head to the soles of his somewhat flat feet.

"That party of soldiers who came here a little time ago," he cried;
"those prisoners who broke out of Ruhleben--who else, mein Herr
Winterborgen--who else can have wanted such clothing, such disguises?
Listen, there were three of them; now say what clothing you are
missing."

When a further investigation was made of the losses which the portly
manager had sustained, the incriminating fact was discovered that,
besides his best suit of clothes and Homberg hat, a woman's dress and a
man's had been purloined.  That sent the manager flying to the
telephone, and in due course of time set the police officials at the
nearest police station bustling.  Within half an hour a car dashed up
to the gates of the sugar factory, and the most important and imposing
of individuals commenced an official investigation on the spot.  This
investigation, sternly carried out, weighed every point so very
closely, and went with so much minuteness into every little incident,
that it set the unfortunate manager perspiring, and, indeed, after a
while, made him begin to wonder whether he himself were a party to the
theft which he had suffered, or a party to assisting the fugitives.
The important official, if he did not actually accuse the manager of
having aided the prisoners supposed to have purloined the articles of
clothing, inferred it certainly, glared at the unhappy man, browbeat
him in regular Germanic manner, and made him regret deeply that he had
ever called for police assistance.

"You'll be ready to report personally at the police station," he was
told.  "Now I'll return and set a search in progress.  Without doubt
the three men who broke out of Ruhleben have paid you a visit; for we
know already that they went to a farm farther back along the road and
obtained supplies of food.  Since then we have lost all sight of them,
and it may very well be that they have been in hiding; and that may
mean," he added severely, as he stood above the unhappy manager and
glared down at him, "that someone has been providing a refuge for them,
some unpatriotic and treacherous individual, who, if discovered, will
certainly be shot in the morning--be shot in the cold, early morning,"
he added in unpleasant tones which did not fail to have their effect on
the man he was addressing.  "Yes, Herr Winterborgen, this is an
important matter--so important, indeed, that for your own sake you will
see that you attend promptly when called for."

It was with a gasp of relief that the manager saw the car driven away
at furious speed, while he stood staring out of the window, mopping his
forehead with a handkerchief.  His thoughts were still in a whirl, and
even then he could not shake from his mind the more than half belief
that in some unconscious way he had indeed, unwittingly and
unwillingly--for he was as good a patriot as anyone--aided the
runaways.  In such a dilemma, feeling vexed and sore at his own loss,
and indignant at the cross-examination he had just suffered, it was but
natural that he should work himself up into a terrible passion, and
should turn the vials of his wrath upon the police inspector who had
treated him so brusquely.  Yet in time, when his anger had died down,
he, like every other patriot in Germany, put his own personal
disadvantage aside for the sake of his beloved Fatherland.  He sighed
deeply, and resumed his work with the pious wish that, if he had
suffered, his suffering might lead to the discovery and capture of the
men who had treated him so shamefully.

It is hardly necessary to narrate what followed after that interview
with the police inspector.  How the car took him swiftly back to the
station, how the telephone was jingled, and how every possible official
within reasonable distance was informed of what had happened.  The
station-master at the station where Henri and his friends had boarded
the train presently received a call.

"Yes, here, Inspector," he answered, politely enough, over the
telephone.  "You are there and you want me--well I am here, what then?
Prisoners escaped from Ruhleben?  Ah, yes, yes!  I remember, the
rascals escaped perhaps a week ago, and have not been heard of since.
Have I seen them here?  Pooh!  If I had, you know as well as I do that
I would have apprehended them.  What's that you say?  They have been to
the station?  You ask if I have seen three suspicious people--a man,
perhaps an old man, in a dark-blue, well-cut suit, wearing a Homberg
hat and goggles, a girl, and a man of whose appearance you have no
knowledge?  Come now, that's a conundrum!  I have seen many such
people."

He began to get rather angry at the cross-examination of the police
inspector--an examination, let us add, far less severe than that
inflicted upon the manager of the sugar factory, but he listened awhile.

"You may have seen many such people," he heard over the telephone, "but
all together, Herr Station-master--three all together--an oldish man,
not big, perhaps bald, with goggles; a girl, and another man of
uncertain appearance.  Think now; not a very great number of people
travel on the railway nowadays unless they are soldiers; think, have
you not had such passengers?"

The station-master did think, think violently one may say, for it was
well to be on the best terms possible with the police.  A
station-master might be a most important individual, very important
indeed in his own estimation, but an inspector of the police in Germany
was an important individual both in his own estimation, which was
undoubted, and also in that of the public.

"Hold on one little moment; three people such as you describe--one an
oldish man, a girl, and a third, a man with no description--have I seen
such people getting on a train together?  Why, wait!"

The scene as the aged and snappy old gentleman clambered aboard the
train that morning suddenly occurred to the station-master, only to be
put aside in an instant; for it seemed impossible that he could have
been an impostor.  The girl, too, looked so natural, so feminine, so
absolutely genuine, and yet----

"Wait though, was it a girl?" the station-master asked himself, for it
flashed across his stolid brain that the movements of the lady in
question had not been, after all, entirely feminine.  Now that he
thought about the matter he remembered that at the moment when the
three were boarding the train the lady had shown a most extraordinary
degree of agility.  She had clambered like a cat aboard the carriage,
and had given a heave to the old gentlemen which disclosed a degree of
strength somewhat peculiar in a woman.  Yes, he was sure of it now, of
course the thing was strange--it was not a woman, he felt sure.

"Hold!" he shouted down the telephone.  "I have them!"

"You have them!" came the excited answer.  "You have taken the three?
You have got those prisoners?"

"No, no, no!  I did not say I had taken them.  I have got to the bottom
of the mystery.  Those three you mention boarded a train here this
morning, a train going westward."

It was the turn of the inspector to shout down the telephone, to shout
a peremptory order, to inform the station-master that he was coming
immediately; and there followed at the station a close questioning of
the station-master, followed by frantic telegrams and telephone
messages which were sent down the line in pursuit of the train on which
Jules and Henri and Stuart were travelling.

"Now we have them securely, thanks to my promptness and energy," said
the police inspector, as he adjusted his glasses and pocketed his
notebook--yes, pocketed his notebook, for that familiar object, part
and parcel of every constable in Great Britain, is likewise an
important part of the equipment of German policemen.  It was with a
flourish that the man pushed it into the short tail of his tunic, then
he hitched his belt a trifle tighter, expanded his manly chest, and set
his helmet at just the slightest rakish angle.  He was a "dog" indeed,
this police Inspector, wonderfully pleased with himself, bursting with
self-importance, and as arrogant as they make them.

"You will see," he coughed, turning upon the station-master; "we shall
have them, thanks to the telegrams I have sent.  And then, my friend,
what will they think of us at the central station?  Of me, and this
brilliant capture?"

"You!" exclaimed the station-master, somewhat taken aback; "of you,
Inspector!  But wait a moment.  It is true that you have sent those
telegrams off, and that, thanks to them, the runaways may be captured,
but I----"

"May be captured?" thundered the inspector; "as if indeed they were not
already in the hands of my subordinates.  But proceed."

"I was about to add, to suggest, may I say? that, after all, in
carrying out your duties you have been largely assisted by my
promptness in remembering that three such persons as you described had
actually boarded a train at this station.  Consider for a little while:
your description was, after all, not too elaborate--a little vague,
absolutely deficient in the case of one of the fugitives.  Is it not
due in some small measure to my acumen that you are on the track of
these people?  Come now, Inspector, be fair.  If there is honour to be
won, apportion it out, and do not forget the assistance you have
received from others."

It was curious that, at that very moment, there should arrive at the
station, brought there in the police officer's car, which he had sent
to the sugar factory for that purpose, the manager whose office Henri
had so lately entered.  The poor fellow was shaking with trepidation,
with fear of what was to happen; and if his thoughts had been vague
before, and not a little muddled, if terror of the law had somewhat
disconcerted him, and upset his equilibrium during and after his
cross-examination, terror of the future had made him now little more
than a babbling idiot--an object, indeed, for the contemptuous glances
of the police inspector and for his gibes and sallies.

"So," he said, standing over the portly figure of the little man, as he
came from the motor-car and stumbled down the platform, "so, you have
obeyed, Herr Winterborgen, you are here to identify the three whose
return in captivity we are waiting.  That is good, and certainly you
will be able to tell us that they are the individuals."

The manager held his hands up, expostulating weakly.  There were tears
in his eyes, tears of fear, of rage, and of anguish.

"But, identify them," he cried, almost shrieked indeed, "identify the
three who purloined garments from my office?  But no, it is impossible;
for hear me, Inspector, I never saw those individuals; not once, to my
knowledge, have I ever set eyes on them."

But if he expected pity or leniency, he might just as well have
appealed to the wooden pillar which supported the roof of the platform.
The huge police inspector was adamant, inflexible, unmoved, and
surveyed the trembling figure of his victim with cold eyes which
glinted cruelly.  Very slowly, he slid one broad hand back into the
short tail of his tunic, extricated his notebook with a flourish, and,
opening it and producing a pencil, called upon the station-master to
bear witness to the words uttered.

"Mark the words of this Herr Winterborgen," he said.  "'Not to my
knowledge,' he states, has he seen these three individuals; and yet,
mark this again, he was able to describe their appearance fully, to
describe the clothes they wore, their sex, and their possible
destination."

By then the eyes of the manager were almost starting out of his head,
and he was gaping and gasping with amazement at the story to which he
listened.  Never before, indeed, had he imagined that anyone--let alone
a police inspector, a pillar of the law--could have invented such a
story, could have produced such a lying fabrication.  The words stunned
his ears, and he felt more than ever that he was hopelessly involved in
circumstances which would end in nothing less than his utter downfall.
Nor did the hour which passed ere the train came to the station relieve
him of his fears or make him any the happier.  For even if the
fugitives were captured--and it seemed more than likely that they would
be brought to the station in the train then approaching--their coming
could result in nothing but further embarrassment, for he would be
expected to identify them definitely, and if he did that he well knew
that difficulties would become greater.

"Ha!  At last it is signalled, this train," said the police inspector,
"and we shall soon know whether our friends have made this capture."

"Wait, though," the station-master cautioned him, coming from his
office at that moment; "this is a special and does not stop, but behind
it, only a few minutes intervening, there is another train, the
ordinary train, which stopped at the station down the line to which
your telegrams were forwarded, and where the fugitives will have been
surrounded.  Stand back there!"

The three of them--the station-master, the police inspector, and the
trembling manager of the sugar factory--stood on the platform and
watched the train as it ran through the station at moderate speed; and
then, thinking nothing more of it, waited for that other one, the smoke
from the engine of which was already visible in the distance.  Nor need
we describe how the inspector--determined upon a capture, confident,
indeed, that his telegrams had produced that result, and already
bursting with triumph and rehearsing the terrible things that he would
do to his captives--pounced upon the train, ran from carriage to
carriage, and eagerly interrogated the officials.  Imagine his rage,
his mortification, his disappointment, when he was informed that no
such people as the three whose description he had sent could be found
upon the train going westward.

"Not search the train completely!" shouted an official whom he had
questioned, and who, being of sufficient rank himself and of equal
importance with the inspector, was not to be easily frightened.  "How
then?  Is a police inspector the only individual capable of searching
for spies and discovering them?  Is everyone on the line a fool, then,
unless he be a policeman?  You'll tell us soon that we don't know our
own business; as if, indeed, it were possible to miss three such people
as you described, or even one of them, particularly when one knows that
there were few passengers on the train in question."

It was of no use shouting back at the man; it was of no use engaging in
a wordy quarrel with him; and of little service to take note of the
covert smiles of the station-master and the sidelong winks he directed
at the manager of the sugar factory--a manager now wonderfully
transformed--the worthy Herr Winterborgen, who was even smiling.
Slowly, little by little, arrogance oozed out of every pore of that
perspiring police inspector, and presently he took himself off to his
car and drove furiously away, wishing that he had never had this case
to investigate, and that, wherever the escaping prisoners were, someone
would shoot them.

Meanwhile, let us glance into one of the carriages of that train--that
special which had bustled through the station while the inspector was
waiting.  In one of the compartments sat an aged man, with a Homberg
hat of ridiculously small size pressed down over his temples, upon
which wisps of hair shone whitely in the sunlight--a man who looked
through big goggles at the scenery as it flashed by, and whose lips
were hidden behind a drooping moustache of iron-grey colour.  Beside
him sat a girl, well-grown--masculine one would have almost said--with
laughing features, a girl who had spread herself out in the carriage,
and, lying back against the cushions, had placed her two feet on the
opposite seat, a most inelegant, unladylike, yet possibly comfortable
position.  And beside them sat a big, bony, healthy individual, whose
face was shaded by a broad hat, yet not sufficiently shaded to hide the
wide grins which crossed it and denoted the utmost merriment.  He was
rubbing his two big, strong hands together, laughing, chuckling, and
gazing every moment out of the window.

"My hat!  My uncle!  Crikey!" he exclaimed; "but that has really done
it!  And what luck we have had, too.  To think that we should have been
in a compartment which drew up near the signal station where that
message about us was shouted by the man in charge.  I declare again
that you're a regular wizard, Henri, for how else could you have
arranged for the train to halt just in that position, and where, thanks
again to your knowledge of German, it allowed you at once to hear and
understand what was shouted.  Let's have the words again."

The old and somewhat delicate-looking gentleman seated beside him
turned upon the big man an expansive smile, a mischievous smile, and,
pushing his goggles up on his forehead, burst into such a ripple of
laughter that his drooping moustache, which seemed so natural, fell
from its place, instantly transforming him.  It was the jovial, yet
cautious, Henri enjoying this amazing adventure to the utmost.

"My boy," he said, as he reached for the moustache and carefully
adjusted it, "one moment while I take a glance at myself in the glass
over the seat.  That's better, ain't it?  Quite straight, and makes me
look the part to perfection.  But what did that signalman shout, you
ask?  Well, rather an important message, and these are the words as I
remember them: 'You'll stop at the station just beyond', he called to
the driver; 'there are police there waiting for you, for there's
information that there are three escaping prisoners from Ruhleben
amongst the passengers, in disguise of course.  Understand?  Well, pull
out and run through the tunnel.'"

It was little to be wondered at that the wits of the fugitives were at
once set to work in lightning-like manner.  If they were to escape,
indeed, and were to avoid the police officials waiting for them at the
station so near at hand, they must act instantly, must find some
loophole, must alter their plans completely.  Already the train was
again in motion, for it had only pulled up for a few seconds, and, even
while they were debating the matter, were looking at one another
enquiringly, and were feeling already as if the case were hopeless, it
ran into the tunnel.  It was then that Henri gripped his two companions
and spoke eagerly to them.

"Quick, to the end of the carriage," he said; "then hop out.  It's
dark, so that no one can see us.  On no account must we be seen on the
train when it has passed through the tunnel."

It was a fortunate thing for the trio that the train had been unable to
get up any great speed since it got into motion again after leaving the
signal station.  It did little better than crawl into the tunnel, and,
seeing that the station at which it was destined to halt, and where the
police were waiting the fugitives, was only a short distance beyond,
the driver made no effort to hurry.  Thus it followed that the drop
from the train was a matter of no great difficulty, particularly for
such active individuals as Henri, Jules, and Stuart.  Crouching between
the wall of the tunnel and the passing train, they listened to it as it
rumbled away in the distance towards a mere dot of light which
disclosed the far end of the tunnel.  Then that dot was of a sudden
blotted out of sight, and the rumbling became louder.

"What's that?" demanded Stuart.  "Not gone off the rails, I hope, for
that will bring a pack of people into the place, and they'll find us."

"Another train has entered the tunnel, I think," came from Jules.
"Listen, now, and look!  You can see sparks coming from the funnel."

"Then, why not?" demanded Henri, in a voice which trembled with
excitement.  "Why not transfer ourselves to it?  What matter if it is
going in the opposite direction, so long as it throws our pursuers off
the scent.  Eh--what's the verdict?"

"That we snatch the goods the gods send us, and pile on to the new
train."

That, too, was a matter of extreme simplicity to the three.  Only, had
the train been lighted, and had there been railway officials on it,
they would have been staggered, no doubt, and vastly moved at
witnessing the agility of these three unbidden passengers who now
joined it.  Indeed, the extraordinary and unexpected, if not masculine,
agility of the lady would have simply and metaphorically floored any
German official.  But there was none to see, in the first place,
because darkness flooded the scene; and, secondly, because no gaping
official was on this special.  Reaching a carriage and ensconcing
themselves in a corner, Henri and his friends were presently whirled
from the tunnel and swept on over the ground they had so recently
covered, and in due course they ran through the station where the
inspector, the station-master, and the unfortunate manager of the sugar
factory were standing.  Henri gave vent to an exclamation of
astonishment, and then to a loud chuckle, while of a sudden he gripped
his two friends by the arms and bade them lower their heads.

"It's all as clear as daylight now," he said.  "I have been wondering
how on earth these Germans discovered our whereabouts and our
disguises; but that makes the whole matter perfectly transparent.  The
manager of the factory spotted the fact that his office had been
entered, and that certain garments had been purloined.  The police were
called in, and then the station-master gave information of our arrival,
and of our boarding the train.  It's as clear as a pikestaff.  Hurrah!
How we've nonplussed them!"

"And if the hue and cry is all up the line, what happens to us?" asked
Stuart, with a grim smile, some little time later, when the train had
whirled them perhaps a couple of dozen miles onward.  "We can't go on
like this indefinitely.  This train is bound to stop somewhere, and
when it stops we are up against the same old difficulty again.
Moreover, knowing our disguises, realizing that we have baffled them in
some way, the police will be telegraphing all over the country, and may
even guess that we are on this train.  Common sense tells a fellow that
the whole scheme must be pitched overboard and a new plan entered upon."

It was indeed a serious difficulty, for at any moment the train which
carried them on so swiftly, so luxuriously one may say, might stop, and
twenty or more gaping officials might investigate it.  For all Henri
and his chums knew, telegrams were already passing over the wires which
flashed beside them as they ran through the country--telegrams warning
officials, hungry for their capture, to be on the look-out, to be on
the qui vive for three individuals--an oldish man in delicate health,
his daughter, perhaps, and another, a big fellow, ostensibly an
attendant.  Yet, whatever plans they may have thought out, whatever
intentions they may have had, were suspended for a while, seeing that
the train did not halt but ran on for quite a considerable time, indeed
until dusk had fallen.  Nor was it until darkness had fallen and the
evening had passed that it finally ran into the outskirts of a large
town, where presently the brakes gripped the wheels, setting them
skidding over the metals, and soon bringing the carriages to a
standstill.  Then the train began to back, and presently was brought to
rest in a siding.

"Out we go," said Henri.  "No one has seen us up to date, and therefore
all we can say is that we have still plenty of chances of escaping; we
are no worse off than we were certainly, and perhaps we're better off.
At any rate, speaking personally, I've still every intention of
clearing out of Germany."



CHAPTER VII

A Friend in Need

"Half a mo'!  What's that?  Looks like a regular haystack," grunted
Stuart, as he dropped from the train and stood in the fairway, one hand
held out in front of him, and a ponderous finger pointing into the
darkness.

"What's what?  Oh, that!--that!  Yes, it looks like a haystack,"
admitted Jules, following the direction of his indicating finger.

"On wheels!  A hay-load on a truck," suggested Henri, peering into the
gloom, and seeing the ghostly outline of twenty or more trucks which
stood upon the rails in a siding quite close to them.  "A truck of hay,
Stuart--hay!"

"Or straw," growled the huge Englishman.  "Well, what of it?  What's it
matter to us if it's straw or hay, or any sort of thing?  What's
anything matter, so long as it don't help us?"

He was in quite an irritable mood, and his voice sounded as though he
were ready to quarrel with anyone on the smallest pretext.  It was
therefore with an exclamation of impatience that he realized that
Henri, with quick impulsiveness, had gripped him by the arm and was
shaking him eagerly.

"What's--what's up then?" he demanded peevishly; and then, looking in
the direction in which the Frenchman was now pointing, grumbled loudly:
"Still on about that hay or straw?  You're wasting time, Henri."

"Idiot!" the impulsive Frenchman told him.  "Haven't you heard of
Germans hiding up in a hayrick--hiding as spies?  It's a chance; let's
take it.  Get your knife ready."

When they had crossed the tracks and reached the line of trucks it was
indeed to find that an opportunity for further escape was right before
them.  For here were half a dozen trucks stacked high with hay, and
each covered with a tarpaulin.  To cast off one end of the tarpaulin,
to burrow a hole in the hay, to tread their way into the stacks, and to
hack a space sufficient to accommodate their bodies was no great
difficulty, and though, in the midst of their work, the train started,
it made the job all the easier; for then, throwing discretion to the
wind, they tossed what hay was superabundant overboard, and, having by
that means obtained a cosy little nook in one of the stacks, put the
tarpaulin back into position, and, sleepy now after their labours, and
content that they were securely hidden, fell fast asleep, careless of
the direction in which they might be travelling.  And two days later,
having in the meanwhile been lucky enough to obtain some food and water
at a siding into which the trucks were shunted, they heard the brakes
grind, and felt the train come to a gradual standstill.

"We shall have to get clear of this," said Henri.  "Lucky it's
night-time again.  I wonder where we are?"

"Still in Germany, I suppose," said Stuart, as he peered from
underneath the tarpaulin.

"No; Belgium," declared Jules of a sudden.  "Look over
there--it's--it's Louvain."

There, painted above the station building near which the trucks were
halted, was the word, in large letters--Louvain.

"Louvain!" said Stuart, a bitter note in his voice; "where those brutes
butchered the Belgians; where they burned the town and the library, and
murdered women and children.  Louvain!  Just fancy!  Still, it's
Belgium, and that's nearer to England."

"And to France!" whispered Henri, a note of excitement in his
voice--"and to France, Stuart!  Let's get out and see what will happen."

Dropping from the truck, they presently found themselves in the streets
of Louvain, with ruined and broken remnants of houses on either side of
them, with a cowed population stepping sadly through the deserted
streets, and with packs of arrogant German soldiers patrolling the
town.  In happier days both Jules and Henri had been at this place, had
admired this Belgian city of learning, had known some of its
professors--now dead or scattered, many of them having found a home in
England--and had never imagined in those days that such a dreadful
change could have been brought about in this once famous city of
learning.  Yet what changes had been wrought by the war which the
Kaiser and his people had sought, and which had now deluged Europe!

What a tale of treachery and suffering; what a tale of furious
fighting, of gallant deeds, of death, of victory, of wounds, had been
wrought by those months of war which had elapsed since that eventful
day when Henri and Jules discovered themselves in Berlin, the centre of
a hissing, furious crowd, and were hurried to that camp of misery at
Ruhleben!  He who ventures to give a full narrative of the deeds done
during those months, of the varying fortunes of the combatants, of the
warfare waged by land and sea and in the air, would needs have a task
far, far beyond him, seeing that every day has been so full of
incidents of surpassing importance to the world that a mere summary of
them would be an undertaking.  Yet to realize the situation, as it was
at the moment when Henri and his two friends clambered from the truck
in which they had escaped from the heart of Germany, and dropped to the
ground in the heart of Louvain; to understand the changes which had
occurred during those weary months of waiting at Ruhleben, it becomes a
matter of necessity at this stage to glance, if only briefly, at the
major events which had happened.

We have said already that, at the moment when Germany had thrown down
the gauntlet to France and Russia, Belgium was at peace with the world,
and Britain also.  And the tale does not need to be repeated of how
Germany, one of the Powers which had sworn to preserve the sanctity of
Belgium, which had, indeed, signed a declaration to that effect and
sealed it in the sight of others, now tore up that sacred treaty, and
hurled her legions into Belgium.  No need even to do more than remind
the reader of how Belgian troops held up the advance of these
treacherous foes, smote them severely, caused them terrible losses, and
then, overwhelmed by numbers, were swept back, leaving the citizens in
the hands of ruthless men, who murdered and butchered them, who
perpetrated unmentionable horrors in the fair cities of King Albert,
and burned thousands of houses and public buildings to the ground.
Everyone must know, too, how that vile act of the Kaiser brought Great
Britain into the conflict; how a British Expeditionary Force sailed
promptly for France, and arrived in the neighbourhood of Mons only just
in time to take its place beside the French armies then at death's
grips with the main forces of the Kaiser's armies, who, having burst
their way through Belgium, now invaded France.  That historic retreat
towards Paris, and the swaggering triumphal march of the Germans, were
followed by a striking blow against the Teutons, who were driven back
across the Marne, hurled out of central and northern France, till but a
strip of the country remained to them.

Meanwhile thousands of British soldiers were flocking in, shoulder to
shoulder, ready for the fray; while French forces were being mobilized.
A line--thin enough in all conscience, desperately thin--was stretched
from the eastern frontier of France across its northern provinces, to
the very tip of Belgium at Ypres, and so across it to the sea.  This
line of men who burrowed their way in trenches--a force of less than
one man to the yard--was yet a force of heroes.  Unprepared though they
were, unsupported, without a doubt because there were as yet no new
armies to support them, without reliefs for the very same reason, and
therefore dependent entirely upon themselves, they stemmed the German
tide.  Hopelessly outnumbered, they yet held their ground, and, though
deluged by shells and faced by an enemy superbly equipped and prepared
with the latest machinery of war, held him back, causing enormous
losses in his ranks, and barring his way onward.  The tale of the First
Battle of Ypres is a tale of splendour, of heroic British action--the
tale of how those few divisions--war-worn, hardened divisions by
now--barred the road to Calais, and smashed the power of the Prussian
Guards, troops hitherto considered invincible.

There is no need to recall those other battles, the almost daily
exchange of shots along the trench-line, though for the information of
our readers it may be just as well to enumerate some of the more
important.  From the sea, in the neighbourhood of Nieuport, the line of
trenches ran in a southerly direction across the flats of Belgium and
Flanders in front of Ypres, and down towards Arras.  Thence, curling
towards the east, and skirting the River Aisne and the famous city of
Reims--where the vandals who had destroyed Louvain and many another
city had long since wrecked the Cathedral, famous throughout the
world--their line swept on over hill and dale, and hollow and furrow,
across chalky plains and wooded heights and forest country to
Verdun--that famous city which for centuries has been a stronghold.  An
ancient city, girdled at the outbreak of this gigantic war by a ring of
fortresses of modern construction, in which a complete battery of guns
was mounted; forts, let it be added, strategically placed, which could
sweep the country in all directions.  Then, turning sharply round
Verdun, the line cut its way through muddy plains, through heights once
more, through miles of country, till it reached the Swiss frontier.
All along that line, fighting continued, here bursting out into a
violent conflict, simmering down elsewhere, and at times subsiding
altogether.  Yet never were the trenches without a sinister line of
crouching men, whether British, Belgian, or French, and ever was there
another sinister, remorseless gang holding the German trenches opposite.

Round about the city of Reims there had raged at times most furious
fighting.  In the Vosges, French riflemen and Germans contended for the
mastery without cessation; while in the Woevre, before St. Mihiel, at
Arras, in a thousand places, were desperate conflicts, in which the
line swayed, trenches were captured and recaptured, men died, and the
Kaiser's troops frantically struggled to break their way through the
cordon stretched before them.  Along the British line the battle of
Neuve Chapelle gave opportunity to many a young soldier, and proved to
the Germans that British and Indians could fight heroically together.
Then the Second Battle of Ypres took place, a conflict more furious
than any that had gone before it, in which, making their preparations
secretly, throwing to the winds all thoughts of humanity, acting in
that ruthless, treacherous manner which one now associates as a natural
course with the Germans, the Kaiser and his staff deluged the French
and British lines--where they joined--with asphyxiating gas, which
choked hundreds.  And yet, in spite of this diabolical manoeuvre, in
spite of the unpreparedness of the French and British, and though the
Algerian troops of the French, scared by the gas as by the mutterings
of a wizard, gave way and fell back, leaving a gap in the line, yet the
enemy failed to gain their object.  For the 1st Canadian Division flung
itself across the gap and held on like heroes, fought with desperate
bravery indeed, and wrought for the people of the British Empire, and
for their brothers and sisters in Canada, a tale which, so long as the
British nation exists, will never be forgotten--never beaten.

There is little to add to this tale of warfare on the Western Front.
Failing in her shock tactics, and in spite of the treacherous use of
gas, and occupied for the moment in strenuous and successful efforts to
drive back the Russian hosts which had marched across Poland into
Galicia, and even into eastern Prussia, Germany abstained from further
efforts on the Western Front, hoping, no doubt, to carry out, even at
the eleventh hour, the plan so carefully formulated before the war
commenced, upon which her future greatness was to be established.  It
has ever been the maxim of a great commander to divide his enemies, to
split them into two parts, and drive them asunder; and, having placed
them in that position, to hold the one firmly with as small a garrison
as possible, and then, taking every man he could spare, to fling
himself upon the other force and annihilate it.  It is a common-sense
procedure, for then there is opportunity to gather one's force together
again, to take a second breath, and to repeat with the other half of
the enemy force the same manoeuvre.  The Germans are no wiser, no
swifter, no better, indeed, than are our own or the French peoples.  If
they are superior in any sort of way it is certainly only in their
craft and cunning, in their methodical and painstaking attention to
detail, and in their ruthless disregard of all laws and customs when
considering their own future.  Thus, seeing that Russia and France are
so widely separated, there was nothing extraordinarily deep in the
plans of the Kaiser's Staff when it was proposed to crush France in the
first few weeks of the war, to trample out her spirit, and then, having
secured her in their toils, to race back to Russia, and, counting on
the fact that she would still be in a state of hopeless confusion, to
deal her such blows as would stun her.  Yet, with all their cunning,
with all their preparation, the Germans' plans had miscarried from the
moment of their invasion of Belgium--which had seemed to promise such
rewards that it was worth even the risk it foreshadowed of bringing
Britain into the conflict.  For the Belgians had thrown out the
Kaiser's plans, had delayed the onrush of the Germans, had given France
time to get her men together, and had allowed Britain to send a force
to aid them.  The blow failed; France, reeling under it, struggling
beneath it, indeed, held her ground, recovered her strength, even
advanced, and now, with Britain to aid her, formed a barrier to further
progress.  Not the heaviest blows, no amount of asphyxiating gas
availed, even the hordes flung upon that line dashed themselves to
pieces.  It stood strong as ever, while Russia was rising in her
strength and threatening Austria.

But the Tsar's forces were known to be short of arms and
ammunition--facts reported by the German spies in Russia.  Here was
another chance.  Why not reverse the proceeding, take advantage of
Russia's shortage of ammunition, and smash her before she grew
stronger, thus ridding Germany of a powerful enemy?  Then, having in
the meanwhile held the Western line with as thin a garrison as
possible, and planted machine-guns at short intervals along it, the
Teuton hosts could be gathered together, even the maimed put in amongst
them, and a mighty force thrown again upon the Western line which
should certainly crush it.  That manoeuvre, so diligently thought out
by the German Staff, was put into execution promptly; and, with massed
guns, with a host of men, the Russian armies were assailed, and, thanks
to their shortage of guns and ammunition, were driven backward, were
forced to cross Poland, until they reached a line stretching from the
Gulf of Riga to the Pinsk marshes, and so southward.

It was indeed an amazing advance on the part of Germany and Austria,
and a great success; yet, at the same time, a great failure, seeing
that it failed of achieving its one and only object, which was the
crushing of the Tsar's forces.  Not once had the Russian line been
broken, not once had it been demoralized even; it was there, still in
front of the Germans and Austrians, undismayed, gathering strength
daily, gathering guns and munitions, and all that it had suffered was
loss of territory, and of numbers easily made good from the heart of
Russia.

And still the Western line became stronger as the months went by, as
Britain called her sons from every corner of the Globe, and as
Kitchener's Army grew and grew in numbers.  A foretaste of what might
be expected was given to Germany when, in September, 1915, the French
attacked in the Champagne area, and the British burst their way across
the lines at Loos and Hulluch.  Harassed by the knowledge that Russia
was arming rapidly, and had millions of men to fill the gaps in her
ranks, bewildered by the amazing and growing strength of the British,
hemmed in by sea on almost every side, and seeing her own strength
diminishing, Germany found herself in a situation little short of
desperate.  She must do something, and that quickly--something to smash
these enemies.  Already she had brought Turkey into the conflict on her
side, and now she burst her way through Serbia with the aid of the
treacherous Bulgarians.  Yet it profited her nothing.  For the real
conflict and the real issue lay on the Western Front, where that line
stretched through France and Belgium.  It was there, and nowhere else,
that the _coup de grâce_ would be given to either of the combatants;
and, clinging to the old idea as a drowning man clings to a straw--the
idea of defeating their enemies in detail--the Kaiser and his Staff
once more set to work to prepare a blow which should crush the French
offensive and defensive, and break for themselves a way to Paris.
Their eyes were fastened on Verdun, that point from which the long
French line had pivoted during the great retreat at the commencement of
the war, where grizzly cement forts circled the old town, a place
famous for its strength, upon which the eyes of the world were likely
to be attracted.

We have no space at this moment to tell of the many reasons for
choosing Verdun for an attack--for doubtless there were many--yet the
mention of one alone will be sufficient.  The place was considered
impregnable; its forts and guns had given to it a sinister reputation.
Let German armies burst their way over the French lines at Verdun, and
capture the ancient city and the fortresses, and the world would be
impressed.  Neutrals, although irritated by German frightfulness and
overbearing action, on hearing of Verdun would shiver and cease to
obstruct the Teuton.  Let Roumania, tottering on the brink of war, but
get the tidings, and she would no longer think of joining Britain and
her allies.  Add to these considerations the strategical value of a
break of the French line at any point, with prisoners captured, and a
huge wedge thrown into the gap, which would widen out so that the road
to the sea would be barred no longer, and one sees sufficient reason
for this new German plan which aimed at Verdun.

Even as Henri and Jules and the hefty Stuart tripped their way from the
siding in Louvain, to which they had dropped from the truck which had
brought them from the heart of Germany, the Kaiser's generals were in
council before Verdun.  Trains were hurrying troops in that direction,
while under shelter of the trees--for the neighbourhood is generously
wooded--guns of huge dimensions were already in position, and others
more movable were being massed, till hundreds and hundreds were ready
to pour shot and shell upon the French defences.  In every hollow, in
every fold of the ground, under the trees, behind every sort of cover,
German hosts were secretly collected, getting ready for that moment,
now almost at hand, when the War Lord would launch his legions.  In
fact, Germany was to attempt on the Western Front, and against the
French, precisely what she had attempted against the Russians with some
degree of success, but yet without attaining her ambitions.  She had
aimed to crush Russia once for all, and, as we have said, had pushed
the Tsar's legions back towards the heart of Russia.  Yet the line of
Muscovite soldiers was still unbroken, still undaunted, and still faced
the soldiers of Germany and Austria.  And on the west, Britain was
getting stronger and stronger as the days went by, and becoming a
greater menace.  Yet, if the French could be smashed at any point,
there might yet be time for the Kaiser's troops to defeat the British,
when unsupported by their French ally, and afterwards to turn again
towards Russia.  The enormous prestige to be gained by the capture of
Verdun would enhance Germany's chances, and a surprise attack might,
and probably would, the Kaiser's General Staff considered, result in a
triumph which would change Germany's fortunes.

But a few words with reference to Verdun itself, and we can return to
Henri and his friends, now in Louvain.  We have said already that the
old city of Verdun, perched beside the River Meuse, in a gorgeously
wooded country, and with the heights of the river-side lying between it
and the enemy, was encircled by forts, which, prior to the war, gave to
the city the reputation of impregnability.  But the forts of Liége, in
Belgium, had borne that selfsame reputation, and yet, when the Kaiser's
forces treacherously invaded that country, and were held up at Liége,
the huge guns prepared before-hand for this conflict shattered its
forts--masses of steel and concrete--like so much paper, and later
crushed the concrete defences of Maubeuge.  Without a doubt, the same
fate would be meted out to the forts at Verdun, were the French to rely
upon them.  But France is a nation of brilliant soldiers.  Realizing at
once that what was an impregnable fort in former days is now hardly
better than an incubus--a mere house of cards, something utterly
unreliable--she poured her forces out beyond those forts, dug her
trenches on the eastern and northern slopes of the heights of the
Meuse, and surrounded Verdun and its encircling forts with a network of
trenches, covered by an artillery force, supplemented by guns which
were at once removed from the forts.  Indeed, she no longer relied upon
Verdun as a fortress; it was merely one point in that long four hundred
miles of trenches stretching across the country, no more vulnerable
than any other point, and, one may add, no more impregnable.  And down
below those trenches, under cover of the woods, for weeks past, while
Henri and his friends were languishing in Ruhleben, the Germans had
been concentrating a mighty army, had been concentrating guns,
equipment, and every other detail necessary for a gigantic attack, for
the surprise offensive which they had planned to level at General
Joffre and his forces.

"Louvain, and what next?" asked Henri aloud, as the three stepped
gingerly along the pavements of the ruined city.  "What next?  How to
get out of Belgium into France?"

"Or into England?" added Stuart.

"Or into Holland?  That's where numbers of people manage to go when
escaping the Germans," said Jules thoughtfully.  "I've heard it said
that there are Belgian patriots still in the cities of Belgium who make
it their business to assist refugees.  But that's where the difficulty
comes in; how are we to meet such persons?"

There came a startled exclamation just at that moment, as the speaker
cannoned into someone in the darkness--a small, broad figure of a man,
who, rebounding from Jules, would have fallen but for the hand which
that young fellow stretched out instantly.  And perhaps it was just as
natural that he should have apologized at once, and in the confusion of
the moment in the French language.

"Pardon, monsieur," he said, whereat Henri's jaw dropped suddenly,
while Stuart growled.

"And pardon me, monsieur," came the ready answer; "it was my fault.
But--but--surely--surely, not German.  You are--you----"

"One moment," said Henri, his wits hard at work; "who are you,
monsieur?"

"I?--I?  A Belgian patriot, monsieur; and you, though the darkness
hides you, you are a Frenchman of Paris."

It was useless to dissemble longer, and, after all, there seemed little
doubt but that the short, squat individual before them was certainly no
German.  Taking his courage, therefore, in both hands, Henri at once
admitted that he and Jules were Frenchmen, and Stuart English.

"Monsieur," he said, "we throw ourselves upon your kindness.  You are a
Belgian patriot, you say, while we are refugees from Ruhleben.  Assist
us, help us to get away, for we are in the midst of enemies."

There was a short pause after that, while each one of the four peered
hard into the darkness, the little man staring at Stuart's huge figure,
and at the smaller proportions of Jules and Henri; while those three
young fellows regarded the Belgian intently, indeed almost fearfully.

"Come this way, messieurs; follow me.  Walk some ten paces behind me,
and have no fear, for have I not said that I am a Belgian patriot?  You
wish to get to your own countries, eh?  To fight this brutal Kaiser and
his people?  Bien!  Follow, and I will lend you assistance."



CHAPTER VIII

The Verdun Salient

It was three nights after that on which Henri and his friends had
reached Louvain--that deserted city wrecked by German violence--and had
so fortunately and so literally hit up against a Belgian patriot, that
four figures crept from a tenement which had escaped the general
wreckage.

"You will walk along beside me, my friends, as though we were just
inmates of the city," said the Belgian, just before they left the house
in which he had given the three fugitives a resting-place.  "If we pass
German soldiers, take your hats off to them, and if they challenge,
leave me to answer.  Now let us be going, and I think that we may hope
for success."

Those four figures, Henri and his friends, now dressed in rough
civilian clothing, crept off along the deserted streets, and, threading
their way through the outskirts of the ruined city, and passing on
occasion groups of German soldiers whom they obsequiously saluted, at
length reached the open country.  Tramping on through the night, they
sheltered, just before the dawn broke, in a ruined house in another
city, and repeated a similar process on the following morning.  It was
on the third night that the Belgian led them into what had once been a
peaceful country village, and which was now merely a mass of tumbled
masonry.

"We are close to the Dutch frontier, my friends," he told them, "but
the way there is not so easy as it might seem, for the Germans have
stretched a barbed-wire fence between Belgium and Holland, and on it is
suspended an electric wire, charged with a high voltage, which kills
instantly; many a poor fellow endeavouring to escape from this unhappy
country has been electrocuted.  But there are ways to avoid such
dangers, and here is one.  Give a help, you, my friend Stuart, who are
the Hercules of the party."

A huge grating, which he endeavoured to lift, was a mere plaything in
the hands of the burly Englishman.  It was a big grating above an open
sewer, and heavy enough to try the strength even of Stuart, yet it
yielded to the first tug he gave, and lifted upwards.

"Now, descend," said the Belgian, "there is a pit down here some twenty
feet in depth, and iron rungs in the wall.  Descend, my friends; I
follow."

In a trice they were at the bottom of what felt like a deep, cold well,
and were standing in utter darkness listening to the sounds made by the
Belgian as he too entered and dropped the grid behind him.  Then all
four stood listening for a while.

"Not a sound; no one has followed--that is good," giggled the Belgian,
for he was an amiable little fellow.  "One has to be careful in these
day, messieurs; for there are spies throughout Belgium, and they know
well that there are people, like myself, patriots, my friends, who
carry on this traffic.  But none have seen us, and therefore we are not
likely to be disturbed.  Now, on, messieurs, and have no fear, for
there are no holes and gullies into which you can tumble, while, seeing
that it has been dry weather, there is no water in the sewer."

Feeling their way by stretching out their hands, and stumbling along in
the darkness, Henri following immediately after the Belgian, then
Jules, and last of all Stuart, the party traversed a long stretch of
the sewer, their fingers every second or so touching the brick walls on
either side, while occasionally their feet splashed through puddles.
Then the narrow path they trod swung to the left, and for a moment a
breath of cold air blew in upon them, and, glancing overhead, Henri
caught just a fleeting glimpse of stars far above, and of the iron bars
of a grid stretching between him and the sky.

"Now to the left, messieurs, and we descend.  Listen, we are nearly
under the Dutch frontier, and overhead stretch those highly-charged
electric wires which have been erected by the Germans, and on which
many a poor fellow has been electrocuted.  But even fear of
electrocution cannot keep the brave sons of Belgium from endeavouring
to leave this invaded country, and from joining those Belgian troops
now fighting with the French and the British.  No, I who lead you now
have led hundreds of young fellows by this path or a similar one, and
have taken them to safety.  Now on, messieurs; in a little while we
shall ascend to the surface."

It was perhaps a quarter of an hour later that Henri felt that the path
under his feet was ascending, and presently, having in the meanwhile
been half stifled, he began to appreciate the fact that fresh air was
reaching him, and that he could breathe more easily.  A warning cry
from the man who led them now brought him to a halt, and five minutes
later the whole party had clambered up the rungs of a ladder and had
gained the Open.

"Messieurs," said the Belgian, "beyond there, straight ahead, you will
find a town with friendly Dutchmen in it, who will feed you and clothe
you and send you to your people.  Adieu!  You will fight all the better
for these adventures, and all the more fiercely for having seen what
poor Belgium is like under the Germans.  Adieu!  And good luck go with
you."

Shaking hands with their deliverer, and thanking him most cordially,
Henri and Jules and Stuart saw him depart down the ladder, and then
turned their faces from unhappy Belgium into Holland.  For, indeed,
they were now beyond the frontier, and, looking back, could see the
barbed-wire fence which separated Holland and Belgium, erected to keep
patriotic sons of the invaded country from escaping German control and
joining the Belgian forces under King Albert.  Yes, they could see the
light shot from a small moon, which had now risen, shining on the
wires, shining on that lower one which was charged with an electric
current.

"Nasty thing to get up against, that," said Stuart, the big, hefty
Stuart, shuddering in spite of himself.  "I expect many a poor devil
has been killed by that method.  And what a method!  Just the sort of
thing a German would do.  Now isn't it a mean, underhand way of killing
people?  But never mind, here are three of us who mean to get even with
them; and in the meanwhile what about getting forward?  What about
something to eat?  What about something to smoke?  What about joining
people who ain't afraid of smiling, who've pot a friendly feeling for
British and French, and don't give a rap for the Germans?"

The warmest of welcomes indeed waited the three in that Dutch town
which they were approaching, and despite the late hour of their arrival
they were immediately accommodated in one of the houses, were given an
opportunity of bathing, and were provided with suitable clothing and
with a meal the like of which they had not seen for many a long day.

"And now," said Henri on the following morning, when they assembled in
the _salon_ of the house to which they had been invited, "and now,
Stuart, what happens?  Naturally enough, Jules and I make for France by
the quickest route, and then join the army."

"Which looks to me as though you're suggesting that I'm going to do
something quite different," growled Stuart, looking impressively big in
the Dutch clothes which had been provided for him.  "Just as naturally
enough as you two are going to join the French army, I am off to join
the British--Kitchener's, you know--to take a hand in the job of
smashing the Kaiser."

"Then we shall part," said Jules, not without a sigh of regret.  "We
have had fine times together--eh, Stuart?  And, looking back upon it,
even Ruhleben doesn't seem so bad.  In any case, it was worth it to
have gone through such a long adventure as we have had together.  But I
wish we could continue in one another's company.  I wish somehow you,
too, could join the French army, or that our regiments in the French
and British armies might be set to fight side by side in Flanders."

"The next thing is how are we going to return?" said Henri.  "I have
said that we shall take the quickest route, and I am not quite sure
that that won't be via London--eh, Stuart?  What do you think?  Coastal
services from Holland towards France, I expect, are disorganized, and
no longer possible."

That this was so, their host immediately informed them.

"You may take it from me," he said, "that it is no longer easy, and in
fact almost impossible, to obtain a steamer running between the Hook
and Havre as formerly, and indeed of late it has been a matter of
considerable difficulty to get a passage from Holland even to England;
for the German submarines infest these waters, and, careless whether
the boat belong to a neutral or to one of the combatants, utterly
indifferent to the fact that many of them are filled with women and
children and people who have nothing to do with the fighting, indeed
forgetful of all instincts of humanity, of all mercy, and of all the
usual customs and feelings which have in the past controlled the
actions of belligerents, are torpedoing vessels at sight without
warning, killing the crews and passengers, murdering both French and
British and Belgians, as well as Dutchmen and people of other
nationalities.  Mon Dieu! they are beasts these Germans.  They are
cowardly bullies.  That Kaiser will surely rue the day that he ever
commenced this war, and will most certainly regret the frightfulness
which he has taught his subjects to show to the people of all nations."

"And so there is a difficulty about getting a boat to England--eh?"
said Henri, a little concerned.  "But surely it should be possible.
Perhaps some English boat would take us; for I can hardly believe that
they have been scared from the water."

"Scared!  Ha ha!" laughed the Dutchman.  "No, no!  The picture I have
painted is perhaps a little over-coloured.  Though the menace of the
German submarines has been extreme, and though they have murdered
numerous individuals, and have sunk a number of vessels, yet they have
not gone scot-free themselves; understand that, messieurs.  German
submarines have been trapped, have been sunk, have suffered themselves
to such an extent that it is said that there are scarcely crews left to
man them; only, just now, there is a recrudescence of the peril.  There
are more of these boats about, and consequently there is more
difficulty in crossing to England."

Yet the impatience of Henri, Jules, and Stuart to rejoin their own
people was so great that no amount of danger could thwart them.  A
visit to their respective consuls provided them with funds for the
journey, and the following morning they were on the sea and steaming
for England.

"'Pon my word, I can hardly believe it's true," chortled Stuart, now
clothed in different raiment, and looking indeed a very fine and
sturdy, if not respectably-dressed, member of the British nation.
"It's too good to be true; and I am sure I shall wake up to-night
imagining that I am still on board that train, or in the lodgings that
Belgian patriot provided us with, and in any case being chased by
Germans.  Germans!  Just you wait till I get a turn at 'em."

No wonder that Henri grinned at his huge companion; it delighted him to
hear the sturdy remarks of this gallant fellow, just as it delighted
Stuart to look down from his greater height at the dapper, spruce,
active, and now well-clad figures of his two most dashing French
comrades.  Spruce, indeed, Henri looked, his little moustache lending a
certain amount of distinction to his face, his head held well on his
shoulders, his cigarette between his lips, and the most jaunty air
about him.  There was a far-away look, however, in Henri's eyes, for he
was thinking of France--thinking of her as she was now, and as she had
been when he last saw his native country.

"Mon Dieu!  What a change!  What desperate changes!" he was saying to
himself.  "Every man able to bear arms, and of a suitable age, a
soldier; every one of them living the life followed by our
ancestors--those cave-men--dwelling in trenches throughout the months,
fighting like tigers to beat down the Germans.  Well, it will be good
to join them, good to wear a uniform and line up shoulder to shoulder
with our fellows."

"Yes, good," Jules admitted--for Henri's last remark had been uttered
aloud--his face flushing at the thought.  "What'll they do with us,
Henri?  Send us to some instruction-camp, do you think, and keep us
there fooling about, training, drilling, doing things that I hate--that
we all hate?"

"Poof!  Not they.  You seem to forget, Jules, that you and I have done
our training; and, although we may not be very skilful soldiers, we can
both of us shoot, know our drill sufficiently well, and if put to it
can dig with the best of them.  No, I'm hopeful that we shall jump out
of these clothes into uniform, and shall almost as promptly jump into
the trenches and find ourselves engaged in fighting the enemy."

It was with real regret that the two Frenchmen parted with their
English companion on arrival in London.

"Of course, we'll all of us make the same sort of promises," laughed
Stuart, as he gripped their hands at parting.  "We'll swear to look one
another up, to meet again shortly, and possibly, if we are rash, to
write to one another; and just as certainly we shall find it awfully
hard to meet, and, in fact, are more likely to knock across each other
by pure accident than by design.  It's always like that in warfare, and
more than ever now in this conflict.  Well, an revoir!  That's the
word, isn't it, Henri?  Au revoir!  Here's wishing that we may meet
again soon; and, better than all, hoping that we shall rapidly whop the
Germans.  Au revoir!  We have had splendid times together."

They had had a wonderful adventure indeed, and that escape from Germany
was one which, almost at once, gave interest of quite considerable
degree to the public, both British and French.  For journalists
ferreted out the fact that Jules and Henri were fresh from Germany, and
though the two young fellows were modest enough they did not hesitate
to tell their story.  Thus, as they sat in the express train which took
them to the sea-coast on the following day, they read a full account of
their own doings.  A few hours later they were in Paris, and at once
reported at the Ministry of War.

"Bravo!  So you are back from Ruhleben, mes enfants.  Welcome,
welcome!" cried the officer who interviewed them.  "And now, of course,
like good sons of France, you have returned at once, at the very
earliest moment indeed, to fight France's enemies--the Boche, the Hun,
the despicable ruffian whom the Kaiser and his war lords have sent in
our direction to wreck the country.  Now, tell me; you have had some
training?"

"Yes, mon Colonel, we have both done our course, and were on holiday in
Germany when war broke out and prevented us from returning.  We are
very anxious, mon Colonel, to join in the fighting."

The old Colonel's eyes sparkled as he listened to Henri's rejoinder,
and, with Gallic enthusiasm, he smacked both young fellows heartily on
the back.

"Bon!  It is fine to hear you, mes enfants.  It is grand to know that
two of France's sons have gone through such adventures in order to
return to the country.  And you wish to join in the fighting as soon as
possible?  Bien!  If I can contrive to arrange it, it shall be so.
But, first of all, you must go to an instruction-camp, from which you
will be drafted to regiments, and where, of course, your uniform will
be issued, as well as your kit.  Au revoir!  Good luck go with you!"

It was a case of incessant movement for Henri and Jules, and, indeed,
for weeks now they seemed to have been travelling; first those few
miles on foot in the neighbourhood of the camp at Ruhleben, and then in
the empty passenger train which had conveyed them from that dangerous
area.  Later came their trip on the supply train, and here, once more,
they were packed in a French supply train running out of Paris en route
for one of the big army camps instituted by the French.  By the
following morning, in fact, they had discarded plain clothes, and were
looking critically at one another in uniform.

Jules gave vent to a light whistle, indicative of surprise,
astonishment, and amusement--if, indeed, a whistle can indicate the
latter.  Certainly it was not one which displayed any sort of tendency
to admiration; while the grin which followed it made Henri quite sure
that his appearance was a source almost of ridicule to his comrade.

"What's wrong?" he demanded rather shortly.  For when you criticized
Henri's get-up--the cut of his coat and of his trousers, and in
particular the hang of the latter, the colour of his socks, and his
particular fancy in boots and hats--he was apt to become quite angry.
And it made no difference now that the smart clothes which he was wont
to wear had been changed for the peculiar blue uniform of France's
fighting forces, supported by a pair of army boots of sturdy pattern,
and capped by a steel helmet of distinctive style and of the same
peculiar blue colour.  Yet, withal, putting cut aside, allowing the
fact that Henri, dressed as he was now, looked tall and strong and
active and upright, and quite martial too, armed with a rifle, one had
to admit that there was a huge difference between the Henri of that
moment and the dapper, elegant, well-groomed Henri of twenty months
before--a Henri who in London or Paris might quite fairly have been
termed a "knut".

"Well, you do look a 'one-er'!"

"And what about you?" demanded Henri a little warmly.  "Now that
compliments are flying, what about you, mon ami?  With that pack on
your back you look like a donkey laden for the market."

At that Jules grimaced, and jerked his pack higher; and, indeed, Henri
had not described him altogether unfairly.  For your French
_poilu_--the gallant, sturdy French infantry soldier--is, when on the
line of march, if not actually overloaded, certainly apt to have the
appearance of being so.  What with his pack, his mess tins, the
camp-kettle which one man among a certain number carries, his
entrenching-tools, and the little bundle of faggots for the camp-fire,
a French infantryman does indeed seem to have a vast quantity of
personal impedimenta.

A sounding bugle called the two, and in a little while they were
parading with a number of other men, some of whom had already seen
service, while others were new to warfare altogether--men who possibly
had been delayed from joining the colours by illness, who had contrived
to reach France from abroad, or who belonged to a younger
classification.  A smart sergeant threw a knowing eye along the line,
and, striding down it, seemed to take in the appearance of every man
within a few seconds.  Halting here for a moment to adjust a belt, and
there to tuck in the tag of a buckle, he soon reached the end of the
line, and, passing down behind it, adjusting packs, putting kettles in
the correct position, arranging helmets at the regulation angle, he
presently appeared in front again, and treated the squad to a smile of
commendation.

"Very good indeed, lads.  Very good," he said.  "Stand easy for a
moment."

Striding across the ground came a dapper officer--one of those smart,
tall, well-turned-out Frenchmen, who appear to be the essence of
soldierly composure.  Halting in front of the squad, which was drawn up
at attention once more, he, too, ran his eye over the men, passed a
remark to the Sergeant which was essentially complimentary, and then
advanced a few paces nearer.

"Mes enfants," he said, "there are some among you, who are but new
recruits, who may have done your musketry course already, who doubtless
know something of soldiering, and yet who must needs undergo further
training; to you my remarks do not apply.  But there are others among
you who have seen service, who have engaged the Boche, and who may
doubtless desire to return to the front at the earliest moment.  Let
such men step a pace forward."

Henri did not even glance at Jules, seeing that, being on parade, he
must keep his eyes directly forward; while Jules, some files to his
left, did not dare to cast a look in Henri's direction.  It was
strange, therefore, and yet not strange, when one remembers the spirit
which animated these two young fellows, that, without agreement,
without waiting to see what the other would do, each instantly took a
pace forward, and with them perhaps a dozen of their comrades.

"Bien!  Very good!  And now we will ask you all about it," said the
officer, smiling pleasantly.  "Mon camarade, you who look so strong,
tell us of your experience."

He halted in front of a broad-shouldered, burly man, who was well past
thirty-five years of age, and whose chin was deeply scarred by a wound,
now healed completely.

"What experience, mon Capitaine?" the gallant fellow repeated.  "Well,
at Ypres, in 1915, and before that, at Charleroi, in the great retreat
past Château Thierry, and so to the south of the Grand Morin."

"And afterwards, mon ami?" asked the officer, patting him in paternal
manner on the shoulder; for, though discipline is strict in the French
army, indeed stricter in no other, there is yet the best of feeling
between officers and men, a species of _camaraderie_ which unites them
closely.  "You have seen much service, my friend.  What then, after the
Grand Morin?"

"What, then?  Mon Dieu!  There was the Battle of the Marne, mon
Capitaine, when we drove the Boche before us; and there followed the
fight about the Aisne, when the British were just to the left of us;
and, later, yes later, for I have seen a great deal, mon Capitaine,
there was fighting near Arras, fighting to the north of the line later,
between Ypres and Nieuport, when the Germans assailed the British at
Ypres, and lost the flower of their Prussian Guard Corps.  This is the
full tale, monsieur, for I have already mentioned the Second Battle of
Ypres, in which those Huns first nearly stifled me with asphyxiating
gas, and then took this chip out of my chin with a bullet."

"And you would repay that same chip, my friend?", laughed the officer.

"Bien!  You may say that, Monsieur le Capitaine--repay it a hundredfold
if I am able."

From one to another the officer passed, questioning them in the same
friendly manner, inviting their confidence, listening to their stories,
extolling their actions with words which reached the ears of their
comrades.

"And you," he said at last, arriving at the gallant Henri, and tapping
him on the breast with a friendly finger, while he ran his eye over
this young soldier, admiring his clean, well-bred, active appearance,
the set of his figure, his healthy looks, and the perky little
moustache which Henri still boasted.  "Well, you," he asked, "mon
enfant?"

"I, mon Capitaine?  Well, I have seen but little more than the heart of
Ruhleben camp," Henri told him; "for I was there, a prisoner for many
weary months."

"And then, did our friend, the Hun, think so little of you that he set
you free?" asked the officer, his eyes twinkling.  "Hardly that, I am
sure, my friend, for you look as though you could do some fighting."

Henri smiled back at him.

"No, Monsieur le Capitaine," he told him; "it was not because they
wished to set me free that I am here, but because they couldn't help
it.  I escaped--I and two other comrades, one of whom was British."

"Ah!  And you escaped--you and two comrades, one of whom was British;
and because you wished--all of you, no doubt--to fight for your
country?"

"That is so," Henri admitted at once.  "We were eager to fight the Hun,
and we have joined the French army at the first opportunity."

It was the same when the officer questioned Jules, and in a trice he
realized that the two had made their escape from Ruhleben together.

"Tiens!" he cried; "one little moment.  Two young Frenchmen who escaped
from Germany and an Englishman with them--mais oui! but--vraiment!  I
have read this same story quite lately.  Ah!  I have it.  You, then,
are Henri and Jules for certain?"

The two young soldiers admitted the fact with rising colour, while the
glances of every man in the squad were cast at them, and the Sergeant,
that smart little fellow who had first dressed the line and adjusted
every buckle and every accoutrement, turned a pair of admiring eyes on
them.  As for the officer, he gripped each one by the hand and shook it
warmly.

"It's an example to us all, mes enfants," he told the squad.  "There is
great honour to our big friend here who has seen such fighting
throughout the first days of the war, the Retreat, that Battle of the
Marne where we smashed the crowing German, the conflict near Arras and
round Ypres, which barred the progress of our enemy.  To such a man
there is undying honour.  But here we have two who, though wretched, no
doubt, while confined in a German prison, half-starved, by all
accounts, bullied and browbeaten, could yet have remained in that camp
safe from the danger of warfare.  But they wished to help their
country; and see them here, joining up with our forces at the very
first moment.  And so, Jules and Henri, you would wish to go to the
front almost immediately?"

The two nodded their assent.

"And you have had training?"

"Pardon, monsieur," said the Sergeant, opening a book and placing his
finger on the name first of Henri and then of Jules; "here is their
record.  Three years ago they did their training and attended
manoeuvres, and were reported on as excellent conscripts.  In the
ordinary way they would attend a few drills here, perhaps go through a
short instruction in musketry and bayonet exercises, and then be
drafted to the front."

"Bien!  There is little else after that for them to learn but bombing
and the warfare peculiar to trench fighting--such as the conduct of
trench-mortars, catapults, and other weapons of a similar
description--that they can well learn at the schools of instruction
just behind the front.  Pass them for the front, Sergeant.  Put them
down to go with a new draft which leaves for Verdun to-morrow evening.
Good luck, my friends!  I wish, indeed, that I could come with you."

"Re-form line!" bellowed the Sergeant, or, rather, he snapped the
order, and at his words those who had stood forward a pace stepped back
just as smartly, while every head turned as the men dressed the line.

"Dismiss!" bellowed the Sergeant, and in a moment the squad broke up,
each man going off to his own quarters.  As for Henri and Jules, they
spent some busy hours in making ready for the coming journey; and,
boarding the train with a draft of men the following evening, they
found themselves behind the Verdun lines after a longish journey.

They were near the spot selected by the "All Highest", by the Kaiser,
the would-be lord of the world, who had determined to make one more
gigantic effort to crush the French and to defeat his enemies.



CHAPTER IX

A Terrific Bombardment

There is no need to tell how Henri and Jules, now converted into
_poilus_, joined the troops in their billets behind the lines at
Verdun; how they went to a school of instruction, where they were
coached in the minute and delicate, if not peculiar, art of bombing;
how they learnt, in fact, to conduct trench warfare, and prepared for
closer contact with the enemy.  Nor need we tell how presently they
were drafted into the city of Verdun, where it lies beside the River
Meuse in a sleepy hollow facing the heights beyond, which lay between
it and the Germans.  After a residence there in billets, they crossed
the river, and, mounting those heights, gained at length the
communication-trenches which gave access to the French positions in the
neighbourhood of Hautmont.

"And how do you like it?" the Sergeant in command of the platoon to
which they were attached asked them as the dawn broke on the following
morning, and every man in the trench stood to his arms in case of an
attack by the enemy.  "See you, Jules, and you too, Henri,"--for let us
explain that our two young heroes were not entirely unknown to their
comrades, that is unknown by name or by reputation; indeed, the
regiment to which they were now attached had, like many another
regiment, read of their exciting escape from Ruhleben, gloried in the
event and in the spirit it showed, and were ready to welcome them
heartily--"you two, Henri and Jules, here is a loophole for each of
you.  You see the parapet of the trench is strengthened with logs cut
from the forest, and if you are careful not to poke your heads up above
the parapet you have little to fear from enemy bullets.  Look away down
below you; the ground slopes gradually, and there is nothing to
obstruct your fire but the stumps of trees which were cut down months
ago.  Now, look still farther, and I will tell you something of the
position: there, to the left of you, is Brabant, just round the corner
of the hill, though you can't quite see it, and to the left of that
again, the river, with the village of Forges just across the water, and
Bethincourt and the Mort Homme Hill close to it.  Now look to your
right.  There's Gremilly lying near the railway, and farther along
still, beyond Ormes, is Cincery, and south of it Etain, while
immediately beyond are the heights of Douaumont, with Vaux closely
adjacent."

Peering through their loopholes, Jules and Henri spent a useful and
interesting half-hour in watching the scene before them.  They were
standing in a trench dug across the gentle slope of a hill which at one
time, in those days of peace preceding the war, had been thickly clad
with fir-trees--a slope now denuded altogether, and presenting only
innumerable stumps, standing up like so many sentinels, while those
nearer to the trenches had barbed wire stretched between them, making a
metal mesh which would require most strenuous efforts to break.  Not a
soul was to be seen in front of them; not a figure flitted through the
woods in the direction of the Germans' position, while as for the
Boche, there was not one in evidence, though during that half-hour they
detected the line which indicated the enemy trenches, and heard more
than once the snap of a rifle.

"And it is ever thus, Henri and Jules," the Sergeant told them.  "We
stand to arms in the early morning, just as now, waiting for the attack
which, it is whispered, will be made upon us, and which never comes.
Indeed, to me it seems that the Germans have for days past given up all
idea of an advance in this direction; and sometimes not even a rifle is
fired, while the cannon is never heard."

If no one was to be seen in front of the French fire-trenches; or in
front of the cunning pits where machine-guns were hidden, there was yet
ample movement, and plenty of people, close at hand to drive ennui from
the minds of Henri and his comrade.  There were soldiers everywhere
along the trench--merry fellows, who sat about the fire--for in this
month of February the early mornings were very chilly--who smoked their
pipes and laughed and chatted, and who watched as breakfast was made
ready.  There were men carefully attending to trench-mortars, others
polishing their rifles, and yet others again who had crept by deep
tunnels to the cunning positions in front and were busily attending
their machine-guns; and behind, along the communication-trenches, in
the support and reserve trenches, in a hundred and more dug-outs, there
were more _poilus_ with officers amongst them, hearty, confident
individuals, living a curious existence, which had now lasted so many
months that it seemed to have been their life from the very
commencement.  Farther beyond still, it was impossible to see, for
Henri and Jules had their duties and might not leave the regiment; yet
in hundreds of hollows there was hidden the deadly French
soixante-quinze--the 75-millimetre quick-firing gun, which from the
commencement of this gigantic conflict has controlled and beaten German
guns of a similar calibre.  Yet again, behind them, were other bigger
guns, splendidly dug in and hidden cleverly with straw-thatched roofs,
many of them no doubt once filling the embrasures of Douaumont and
other forts which in times of yore had gained for Verdun the reputation
of impregnability.  Yet German leviathan guns had proved that they
could now smash Douaumont or any other fortress to pieces within a few
hours, whereas in the old times it had been a matter of days, when even
the artillery was sufficiently powerful.  Modern invention, high
explosives, and scientific artillery had altered modes of defence, and
the fort at Douaumont and the forts elsewhere encircling the sleepy
town of Verdun were now but shells of masonry, mere billets for
soldiers, while the guns were ranged out in the open.

What a busy scene it was behind the fire-trenches in which Henri and
Jules were now standing.  In a hundred cunning little nooks, in corners
which one hardly expected to come upon, there were field-kitchens,
where a fire might be kindled without attracting the enemy or his
artillery-fire, and where soup--beloved of the _poilu_--might be
prepared for those on duty.

"Mon ami, it's a good thing to have warmth both without and within,"
said, the Sergeant who had already befriended our two heroes, beating
his hands together to promote the circulation, and blowing upon his
fingertips, for it was a chilly day this late February, 1916.  "A man
who is cold faces the enemy and the dangers attendant upon this sort of
business with a courage which is perhaps a trifle damped, while if he
be hungry also, and cold within, then indeed he is at a disadvantage.
Come, a bowl of soup!  Our cook is a specialist in its manufacture,
and, myself, I think that the fellow is good enough to be chef even at
the Astoria in Paris.  You know the Astoria, my Jules?"

Jules treated the Sergeant to one of those amiable smiles of his.  Did
he know the Astoria Hotel?  That aristocratic establishment in Paris.
Were there many aristocratic parts of that famous city of which he was
ignorant?  It made Henri snigger indeed, remembering those days, now it
seemed so long ago, when he and Jules had been among the elegants of
the city.  Yet, if these two young soldiers had known what luxury
meant, and what it was to lead a life of gaiety, they were none the
less good soldiers of France, destined to prove themselves, indeed, as
noble as any of those comrades about them.  Seated there on the
fire-bench, where a man could stand and level his rifle in the
direction of the enemy, they and the Sergeant sipped their bowls of
soup with relish, dipping a crust of bread into it, and wanting nothing
better.  The outdoor life, their unusual surroundings--which had not
yet become so familiar to them as to go without observation--the keen
February air, the sense of danger impending, lent zest to appetites
already healthy.

"I'd as soon dine like this as anywhere," said Henri, as he tipped his
bowl up and his head back at the same time, and imbibed the steaming
beverage.  "Just fancy sitting down to a five- or six-course meal, as a
fellow was accustomed to do in the days before this war commenced.  A
five-course meal, Jules!  Fancy what we'd have said to such a thing in
Ruhleben, where the meals were hardly recognizable."

Jules at that moment was engaged in finishing a huge crust of bread,
and, holding the remains of it up between fingers and thumb, and
balancing his bowl of soup neatly in the other hand, was in the act of
drinking from it, when a distant thud, a screaming sound, and then a
terrific concussion close at hand sent his bowl flying, and the young
soldier himself rolling from the bank upon which he had been seated.
As for Henri, when Jules caught a view of what was left of that young
fellow it was to discover his friend half buried in earth, a huge log
lying right across his body, and the Sergeant, tumbled, inert and
lifeless it seemed, over the log.  Then willing hands came to their
rescue, and within a moment or two all three were again seated on the
bank, the Sergeant holding his head between his hands, still dizzy
after that explosion, while Henri was carelessly brushing the dirt from
his clothing.

[Illustration: "A TERRIFIC CONCUSSION SENT HIS BOWL FLYING AND THE
YOUNG SOLDIER HIMSELF ROLLING FROM THE BANK"]

"A near squeak, mon ami," laughed one of the _poilus_, as he assisted
Henri in his task; "that is the first shell that has come near us for
days past, and I shouldn't mind if it were the last of them.
Understand, my comrade, that shell-fire is not all very pleasant, and
there are times when a man must sit in the fire-trench, crouching at
the bottom, whilst they rain all round him, some bursting in the trench
and shattering the traverses, some thumping pits behind or in front big
enough for a platoon to camp in, and others blowing in the parapets,
and smothering the fellows behind them.  Rifle-fire is nothing to it--a
mere pastime--for then, if a man keeps his head well down, there is but
little danger."

Thud!  In the distance another gun sounded.  Thud!  Thud!  Thud!  Sharp
reports followed almost instantly, and found their direction, it
seemed, from a thousand different points hidden by the forest country
in front of the trenches directly north of the city.

Had Henri and Jules been elsewhere than in those trenches now assailed
by the German artillery, had they, for instance, been in the
neighbourhood of the fortress of Douaumont, or even on some more
elevated position--if one were discoverable--they would have watched a
sight on this 19th day of February which would have appalled them, and
yet would have held them enthralled--so full of interest was it.  Let
us but sketch the view to be obtained from such a point.

[Illustration: MAP OF VERDUN SALIENT DURING OPERATIONS ON 21ST
FEBRUARY, 1916]

From the heights of the Meuse, beyond and on which lay the French
positions, crossing the River Meuse in the neighbourhood of Brabant,
one looked down to a huge plain some hundreds of feet lower, the land
falling abruptly in many parts, and the rolling hills traversed here
and there by ravines, which gave easier access to the heights above
than was to be found elsewhere.  Everywhere woods were to be seen,
woods of evergreen firs clothing the country thickly about the foot of
the heights, and sweeping, to some extent, out into the plain beyond;
woods, indeed, which masked the position of the enemy, which made it
practically impossible to say how many troops were there, and whether
the Germans had, as reports stated, made preparations for an attack on
the Verdun salient.

A glance at the map will perhaps make the position even clearer, for
there it will be seen that the French line, running from the west from
the River Aisne, passed close to Varennes--which was in the hands of
the enemy--struck north at Avocourt, skirting the foot of hilly ground,
and so continuing to Malancourt.  From there the trench-line ran due
east to Forges, just north of the brook of that name, and, crossing the
River Meuse a little north of the point where the brook Forges falls
into the river, ran north and east via Brabant, and along the line
already indicated, sweeping from Etain and St. Jean--its most easterly
point--due south till it reached the neighbourhood of Fresnes, and then
curving towards the west and south, where it again approached the
river.  St. Jean, the most easterly point of the line, may be said to
have formed almost the apex of the salient made by the French trenches
encircling Verdun, and the city of that name may be said for the
purpose of our description to have filled a point along a line drawn
across the base of the salient.  Perhaps thirty miles in length, this
line, represented by the River Meuse, presented numerous roads and
crossings by means of which French troops could be marched to any point
of the salient, and presented also at Brabant, to the north of it, and
at its southernmost point, positions of much importance.  Let us
suppose for a moment that an overwhelming enemy force was disposed in
the neighbourhood of Brabant, and another at the southernmost point of
the base of the Verdun salient--where the French trenches again ran
adjacent to the river--a blow driving in the French defences both north
and south at the self-same moment would shorten that base to which we
have referred, and would, as it were, narrow the neck of the salient
dangerously; it would have the effect, indeed, of tying up the force of
men holding the apex of the salient, and of limiting their means of
retreat if that were necessary, and the power of reinforcing them
rapidly from Verdun.  It may be, indeed, that this plan was in the
minds of the Germans when, on the 19th of the month in question, they
commenced that bombardment the first shot of which had proved so nearly
disastrous to Henri and his comrades, and which, commencing at that
moment, played on the whole Verdun salient for two days and nights.
Then on the 21st they opened their campaign against the city of Verdun
and the Verdun salient with a mighty blow against the northern
trenches, close to Brabant, where the French lines crossed the river,
and in the course of a few hours opened the eyes of the French
command--which, though well aware of an impending attack, was perhaps
not fully informed as to the scale and significance of the German
preparations.  Indeed, in those first few hours of the bombardment of
the northern sector of the salient, there was repeated on this Western
Front the phalanx concentration which Von Mackensen had used against
the Russians during the previous summer, when thousands of guns,
arrayed against a comparatively narrow area, burst and blazed a way
through it, or, more accurately perhaps, smashed the Russian trenches,
and, unopposed by their artillery--for, as we have stated already, the
Russians were wofully short of guns and ammunition--slew the
unfortunate troops of the Tsar holding those trenches, forced their
supports and reserves to fall back, and, having gained a certain depth
of territory, moved forward and repeated the process again and again,
thus compelling continual retirement.

Here then, on the 19th February, 1916--a date which is destined to
become historical--the Germans commenced on the Western Front, against
the northern-most curve of the Verdun salient, a similar attack, an
attack heralded by a storm of shells thrown from masses of artillery
which had been collected for weeks past and hidden in the woods in that
neighbourhood.  There were guns dug in in every direction, guns which
had been there, perhaps, since the commencement of the war; there were
others artfully concealed in natural hollows; and there were yet again
others, literally hundreds of them, parked close together in the woods
and forests without other attempt at concealment--a huge mass of metal
which, at a given signal, commenced to pound the French defences.
Never before, without doubt, had such a storm of shell been cast on any
one line of trenches; and continuing, as it did, for hours, ploughing
the ground over a comparatively narrow stretch, it reduced everything
within that selected area to a shapeless and tangled mass of wreckage.
It was to be wondered at, indeed, that anything living could survive
the ordeal.  French trenches, stretching across the slope behind those
meshes of laced barbed wire, were blotted out--were stamped out
indeed--and soon became indistinguishable from the hundreds of cavities
and craters and holes which marked the slopes across which they had run
that morning.  Fourteen-inch shells, seventeen-inch shells, and
thousands of smaller missiles, ploughed through and rained over the
line, and many a ponderous fellow found its way to the deep dug-outs
and shelters which had long ago been prepared for such an eventuality.
Smoke hid the sky on this 19th of February and the two days following,
the smoke of bursting shells plunging upon the French positions, while
the cannon which threw those shells were still hidden by the tangled
woods clothing the ground occupied by the enemy.  Yet, if the gallant
_poilus_ manning the French trenches were not in evidence, if, indeed,
life was being stamped out of a number of them by this terrific
avalanche of bursting metal, they were yet for all that not entirely
unsupported, for already those guns behind the advance lines of our
ally were thundering, while, overhead, fleets of aeroplanes were
picking up the positions of German batteries, and were signalling back
to those who had sent them.

Crouching in the depths of a dug-out, some thirty feet below the
surface, a dug-out which shook and quivered as shells rained above it,
Henri's comrades of the platoon smoked grimly, while that young fellow
himself, once a Paris elegant, crouched in what was left of a
fire-trench, now a mere shattered pit--and peered somewhat anxiously
towards the open.

"And you are there still, mon ami?" called the Sergeant, when there was
a five minutes' lull in the firing, "you find it warm perhaps, mon
Henri?  But you will hold to your post firmly--yes, you will do that,
as will all our comrades."

His big, healthy, bearded face looked out from the narrow entrance of
the stairs which gave access to the dug-out, and for a while he
grinned, a friendly, encouraging grin, at our hero.  Then those heavy
thuds in the distance, and a loud burst close at hand, sent him diving
back to shelter, leaving Henri alone, a pipe now gripped between his
teeth, his rifle slung over one shoulder, standing his ground, gazing
before him, waiting for the first sign of an enemy attack.

"It will come soon, yes, very soon," the Sergeant said, when another
lull in the firing arrived.  "They will go on blazing away, throwing
tons of metal at us, till they think they have blotted us out of
existence, and then--then you will see they will swarm to the attack,
these Germans."

Yet that did not prove to be the case, for, as a matter of fact, the
Germans, profiting by the lesson they had learned in Russia, and
imagining that they could as easily--more easily, in fact--repeat their
exploit on this Western Front, had set out to capture Verdun by the aid
of their artillery alone, and had every confidence of smashing their
way to the town with but little else, and with but little use of their
infantry.  Continuing their tempest of shells for many hours, till it
seemed that not one French soldier could have survived the bombardment
of that northern sector, they then sent forward their sappers and mere
patrols to discover what damage had been wrought, and to take over the
new position.  Behind them, massed in amongst the trees, were German
battalions, prepared to advance at once and dig in and secure what the
guns had gained for them.

"Attention!  The enemy are coming," Henri bellowed through the mouth of
the stairway leading to that dug-out where his platoon was sheltering.
"I can see them crossing the open."

"And the shell-fire, mon ami?  It has ceased?  No, surely not," came
the voice of the Sergeant.

"Tiens!  Halt a little, my friends," said the voice of an officer
sheltering in an adjacent dug-out and coming at that moment to the exit
from it, "one little moment, for shells still rain upon the position.
Keep a careful watch, my gallant Henri, and warn us in due time."

Henri therefore once more stationed himself behind the battered edge of
what had been once the parapet of a well-made trench, and peered
through a broken loophole at the distant enemy.  He could see scattered
parties of men trailing across the open, emerging from the distant
cover afforded by the trees, and marching steadily, without haste, it
seemed, towards the French positions.  Then, glancing to his left and
to his right, he caught glimpses of other sentries like himself,
solitary Frenchmen stationed in those battered fire-trenches to watch
for the coming of the enemy--the thinnest of thin garrisons, indeed,
placed there to guard the French lines from sudden attack, and to
present as few men as possible to the devouring shells cast by the
Germans.  It was the policy, in fact, of the French commanders to
expose their men just as little as was possible; to hold up the advance
of enemy attacks with as few numbers as was consistent with safety; and
in the event of massed attacks, where the pressure was enormous, to
create havoc in the ranks of the enemy with their guns, their
machine-guns, and their rifles--to kill Germans on every and any
occasion, and then, if circumstances dictated such a move, to withdraw
their slender garrisons to a line farther back, exchanging so many
yards of territory willingly for the losses they had forced upon the
Kaiser's soldiers.  For this gigantic conflict in the West, this
warfare devouring the nations of Europe, had, after the twentieth month
of its outbreak, become more than ever a question of numbers.  With
teeming millions of soldiers at the commencement, Austria and Germany
were able to fall upon their unprepared neighbours and almost to swamp
their country; but the thin line of heroes who had dwelt in those
trenches from the North Sea to the frontier of Switzerland had held the
horde at bay, had kept it back until their comrades could rush to the
rescue.  Numbers were now far more equal; the toll of Germans taken by
British and French and Belgians, and of Austrians and Germans by the
Russians, had begun to tell upon the enemy effectives.  Thanks to the
mighty army which Britain had collected, the Allies were now greater in
number than were the enemy, and, adopting a system devised by the
French, were carefully saving their men, willingly giving ground if
need be, if its tenure meant great losses, and always, both by day and
night, taking every opportunity of killing Germans--yes, of killing
Germans, of reducing the Kaiser's ranks, and of hastening the day when,
with weakened numbers, Germany could no longer resist the onslaught of
the armies of France and Britain and Belgium.  Here, then, in front of
Verdun, the French had but a mere handful in their first-line
trenches--a mere handful--upon whom that torrent of shells was rained.
Just a scattered, yet noble band, ready to hold up the assault which
would most certainly follow.

Rifles cracked along the line while those sappers and patrols sent out
by the enemy--who hardly believed life still possible in the shattered
trenches--were shot down or driven back to cover.  Henri then, peering
over the trench, turned of a sudden and rushed to the entrance of the
dug-out.

"Come!" he shouted.  "Thousands of the enemy are coming from the
shelter of the trees, and are massing in the open.  It is an assault in
force that we must resist."

Along that draggled line of trenches, which were almost blotted out of
existence by now, and over which shells still rained in abundance, men
whom the Germans imagined to have been killed long ago, to have been
blown to pieces, popped out of the narrow entrances of dug-outs,
clambered up the steep wooden steps from the caverns prepared in the
earth, and, digging hard, made strenuous efforts to repair their
trenches.  Others sneaked along unsuspected galleries to holes far out
in front of the line, where machine-guns were cunningly hidden; while,
yet again, others plied to and fro along the communication-trenches,
forcing their way past obstructions and falls of earth caused by the
bombardment, hastening to procure more ammunition.

"It's an attack in force; hold your fire, mes enfants!" shouted the
Commander of that section of the trenches in which Henri and Jules were
stationed.  "See them!  Thousands of Boches coming from the trees and
marching towards us.  Hold them a little while, my comrades, and then
we shall repay them for all that we have suffered.  Hold, my friends,
for though these trenches are now but furrows and holes in the ground,
they yet give shelter enough for men who love their country and who
would resist those who are advancing."

Shouts came along the line; men called across the battered traverses to
one another; _poilus_ sat at their machine-guns in those cunningly
hidden pits, gripping the handles, their eyes riveted upon the sights
and upon the enemy.  Rifles were jerked into position, while men
grabbed at packets of reserve ammunition, and, finding some convenient
ledge, placed them close and handy.

"It will be a fight to the death, my Henri," called the Sergeant as
cheerfully as ever, drawing at the stout pipe which he favoured--"a
fight to the death; for not until we are wiped out shall Germans
advance over this position."

Yes, it was to be a "fight to the death"; for the opening battle of the
long series of tremendous conflicts which raged round Verdun for weeks
later was to be amongst the most momentous and fiercest of them.



CHAPTER X

The Thin Line of Heroes

"They are coming!  See them swarming from the trees yonder.  Watch them
tramping through the snow!

"Steady!  Hold your fire!  Let the guns alone deal with them.  Bravo,
mes amis, you are doing grandly!  This is a day for the sons of France
to let the enemy know they are still in existence."

Very quietly, with that sang-froid which the French possess, perhaps,
above all others, with determination written on every face, both young
and old, and with heroism shining from their features, those gallant
_poilus_, all along the line sweeping across the crest of the hills
facing the Germans--a stretch of ground ploughed deep now into a
hundred furrows, shattered and shell-swept, and blasted in a thousand
places into deep pits and craters--watched first as those small
advance-parties, sent by the enemy to reconnoitre the situation, were
shot down or driven back to shelter; and watched now with straining
eyes and with many an exclamation as a horde of grey-coated infantry
debouched from the evergreen woods encircling the eastern and northern
slopes of the approaches to their position, and, forming up there,
advanced steadily to attack them.  They were still a great distance
away, yet within effective rifle range; but as yet the time had not
come to deal with them from the trenches.  There were the guns right
behind, cleverly hidden, dug in, posted in many an odd corner, laid
upon the enemy from many a crevice in the ground and many a convenient
hollow.  Indeed, already the sharp snap of those soixante-quinze had
begun to punctuate the air, and shrapnel-bursts could be seen above the
evergreen tree-tops upon the snow-clad slopes, and over hollows where
the enemy were massing.  But now, as the enemy cannonade died down a
little, and that torrent of shells which had been hurtling upon the
French trenches ceased a trifle, the din of the German bombardment was
rendered almost noiseless, was shut out, as it were, was eclipsed, by
the demoniacal rattle of those French 75's casting shell at the
advancing enemy.  The massed ranks marching from the cover of the
trees, heads of columns appearing at the summit of many a ravine which
gave access to the heights, battalions forming up outside their
shelter, were smashed and rent by a tornado of shrapnel and shell which
blew in the faces of the German formations, which severed the heads of
columns from the bodies, which drove hideous gaps and holes in the
centre of the ranks, and sent the mass, bleeding and broken and
shattered, doubling back into cover.

But if the French had withstood that terrific bombardment to which a
short sector of their front before Verdun had been subjected for so
many hours, and had held on to a position, which others might well have
termed untenable, with grim determination, the Kaiser's infantry were
to prove on this eventful day--as on many another which followed--that
they too were possessed of the strongest heroism.  Governed by the
strictest discipline, hounded on by armed officers if they showed the
smallest hesitation, yet, to do them scant justice only, eager and
ready for the fight in the majority of cases, the shattered ranks of
the invader of France's soil re-formed under cover--under the shelter
of the evergreen trees, under a persistent deluge of shrapnel from the
75's--re-formed, and, shoulder to shoulder, having debouched again into
the open, set their faces once more uphill towards that shattered and
battered line where the French were awaiting them.

No need to detach smaller parties to go forward and reconnoitre the
ground, to tell them whether the enemy were still existing.  It had
been the sanguine hope of the Crown Prince--who was conducting this
enormous manoeuvre--and his War Staff, that what had been done in
Russia might well be repeated on the Western Front.  Guns--a
superiority of guns--guns and more guns, were the solution of the
difficult problem which had faced the Germans for so many months past.
That unbroken line on the west, those Frenchmen and soldiers of Britain
and Belgium, in spite of their courage and tenacity, in spite of their
trenches and redoubts and fortified positions which seemed impregnable,
might yet be driven before the hordes of the Kaiser, and that with
comparatively little loss; for, thanks to their gigantic preparations
before the war commenced, Germany and Austria had still a preponderance
of guns, and shells in amazing quantities.  Here then was the
opportunity: mass the guns--bring every available piece to this
spot--and turn upon the enemy trenches such a torrent that trenches,
redoubts, and fortified positions would be blotted out of existence, a
way hewn through the Western line, with the expenditure of ammunition
alone and with the loss of but few German lives.  It was theory--German
theory--which perhaps they were entitled to rely on, seeing what had
happened in Russia; and yet a theory destined on this occasion, and in
the weeks which followed, to prove utterly unreliable, utterly wrong, a
grievous disappointment.  For see!  Those scattered parties sent to
reconnoitre the battered ground had been killed or driven back; the
preparations for a massed attack had been broken up and set at naught
by the terrible 75's; and now, as the German infantry debouched again,
and, marching swiftly forward, came into full range of the slopes which
the guns would appear to have rendered absolutely untenable, such a
storm of bullets swept the ranks that the mass quivered, rocked and
reeled, and then halted.  Torn by shrapnel from above, its lines rent
by machine-gun and rifle-firing, the attackers stood and rallied for a
moment; then shouts burst from them of terror, of hatred, and of
execration, only to be followed by hoarse commands to move forward.
Then the masses broke.  Isolated units started to charge up the slopes,
and soon the mass of men, now no longer shoulder to shoulder, scattered
over the slope, keeping yet so close together that bullets could scarce
miss individuals, came doubling uphill, their heads down, their
bayonets flashing in the wintry sun, their feet carving wide zigzag
paths in the snow with which the ground was covered.

"They come!  Fire on them!  Let go!  And prepare, if they come closer,
to meet them with the bayonet."

The shout went along that shattered trench-line, and men stood on what
was left of the firebank, or leaned their pieces on the edge of a
shell-crater or some pit into which they had crawled for shelter, and,
turning the muzzles on the enemy, blazed into their masses.  Rifles
grew hot, ammunition became exhausted, and yet only for a little while,
for men fell on every side, and their comrades gripped at the contents
of their pouches.  Half in and half out of a trench, the sides of which
had been blown into the interior almost filling it up, lying full
length on his stomach, Henri poured bullets into the enemy, as cool as
any cucumber, while Jules lay beside him, picking off his man at every
shot, laughing, gesticulating, and quivering with excitement.

"Tiens!  It's done!  They fly!  Bravo!"

The sergeant of Henri's platoon, one arm dangling helpless by his side,
stretched out a brawny hand and gripped our hero's, while Jules--the
somewhat hysterically inclined Jules--laughing uproariously, would have
embraced the gallant Henri if the latter would have allowed it.

Officers shook hands with their men, while _poilus_ turned and
congratulated one another: for the thing was done.  That handful of men
which manned what was left of the French trenches had shattered the
first German attack made upon the Verdun salient; and, with the help of
the deadly soixante-quinze, had driven the Germans back to the place
from which they had started--had driven back all who were still living.

"See them, those Germans still lying out there in the open," cried the
Sergeant, standing now, his head and shoulders exposed, forgetful of
his wounds, pointing down the snow-clad and trodden slopes to the part
where the Kaiser's infantry had debouched from the forests.  "See, the
place is grey with their bodies; they are piled high one upon another,
and there must be hundreds of them.  Good!  This is a devilish war, mes
amis, a devilish war; for see how we gloat over their losses.  But
listen still more: this is France, and none shall invade her save at
their peril."

For a while silence settled down over the scene of that sanguinary
conflict, the guns of either side going out of action, while once more
no sign was to be perceived of the Germans.  Yet it was evident enough
already that gigantic preparations had been made to beat in and flatten
the Verdun salient; and, surprised to some extent as the French
undoubtedly were, not by the attack itself, but by the immensity of the
German arrangements for it, that lull after the first attack was at
once put to service.  Where possible, reinforcements were sent up to
the front, while everywhere spades and picks were plied with energy.

"It's life or death to us," said an officer cheerfully as he came
amongst the men of Henri's platoon.  "See how the line has been broken
up and our trenches smashed out of all recognition.  But the Germans,
too, have been smashed for a while, and therefore, while they rest, let
us work and prepare other shelters.  But wait!  Yes, I have a message
from the Commander.  The Sergeant who was wounded has made a report.
Tell me, then, where are those two men, Henri and Jules, who came from
Ruhleben to bear their part in this fighting?"

Smeared with earth, coated with the soil of France from their steel
helmets down to their army boots, their hands and faces grimy, their
hair dishevelled, and yet their faces shining with enthusiasm and
courage, Henri and Jules stood to attention before the officer and
waited.

"So it is you, you two," he said, regarding them for some few
seconds--"you two, Henri and Jules--names which every _poilu_ seems to
know most thoroughly--then, attention!  These are the Colonel's words,
uttered on the report of that Sergeant, who states that Henri and Jules
showed conspicuous courage and determination, and have set a fine
example to their comrades: you are no longer just plain soldiers of
France, you are now entitled to wear the stripes of a corporal.  And
now, Corporal Henri, and you, Corporal Jules, back to your digging."

If our two gallant young heroes had laboured before with energy, they
now put the utmost exertion into their work; for see what had happened!
They were corporals, and had won promotion so early after joining the
French army, not because of any social position they may have had in
those days, now so long past, when these two young elegants thought of
little that was serious; no, they had won promotion for bravery in the
face of the enemy, because of the example they had set, because,
indeed, they were good soldiers.  It made them flush all over; it made
them more determined than ever to prove themselves of value to their
comrades; and, as we have said, it set them digging with such furious
energy that those about them marvelled, and then, taking an example
from them, well knowing that the time available for improving their
shelter was limited, they too redoubled their efforts, till the
perspiration was pouring from them.

It was perhaps two hours later, when dusk was falling and the wintry
air was filled with snow-flakes, that the silence--that unnatural
silence which had hung for so short a while about the northern area of
the Verdun salient--was broken by a salvo of enemy guns, and then by a
roar, as each one of the two thousand and more pieces joined its voice
in the chorus.

"Into your dug-outs!  Take shelter!  Get below as fast as you can!"

The order sailed along those broken trenches, now repaired in some
measure, and sent men, who were not to remain on duty, down into the
cleverly-constructed holes prepared for such an eventuality.  And then
commenced once more that terrible rain of shells, those devastating
explosions, those upheavals of earth, and that process of smashing the
French trenches.  The dusk grew, until the darkness of night had
fallen, and still the guns pounded, searching every inch of the line
and not sparing a single corner.  Yet, in spite of the gunners' efforts
to do their best for the Kaiser, there were still nooks and crannies
where French _poilus_ sheltered, where men controlling search-lights
played their beams over the slopes before them, and presently those
self-same beams, flung along the broken face of the wooded country
below, discovered movement.

"Another attack; men creeping from the forest and forming up out in the
open.  Let us hope that our gunners and observation-officers see them,"
said an officer who stood behind Henri at his post in the fire trench.
"Now, my friend, shout into the dug-outs to warn the men, for it seems
to me that very soon we shall need them."

Running along the trench, Henri put his head through the narrow opening
of each of the dug-outs, while the men on either side of him did
likewise.  Then, returning to his post beside the officer, he watched,
just as he had watched earlier in the day, though under different
conditions; for then, but for the indifferent visibility of the
atmosphere, the scene was clearly outlined to him; but now, what with
the flakes of snow whirling hither and thither, what with the trampled
snow-slopes between the trenches and the German positions, what with
the cold, flickering beams of the search-lights, everything wore a
strangely weird and ghostly appearance.  Yes, ghostly, for the beams,
travelling along those scattered lines of grey corpses down towards the
fir-trees, made play with their figures.  It looked, indeed, in that
curious light, as if some of them were kneeling, and as if others were
rising to their feet and were advancing uphill; and behind them, at the
fringe of the woods, there were others, hundreds of others, seeming to
stand still just now, and different in no way in appearance from those
others lying out before them.  But wait!  In a little while, in a few
minutes indeed, they were moving, they were sweeping on under the cold,
inquisitive beams of the search-light, on under the pelting hail of
shrapnel which the French 75's were now hurling at them, and, crossing
those irregular lines of grey corpses, dashing to the assault, were
charging uphill at a rate which threatened to bring them to grips with
the French in a very few moments.

"Into the trenches!  Stand to your rifles!  Open fire on the enemy!"

Hoarse commands were called along the battered trenches, while once
again men came stumbling up the wooden steps of their dug-outs, or went
creeping along secret channels to machine-gun posts well in advance of
the trenches.

"Now, let go at them; we have them in the open!"

A machine-gun immediately in front of Henri, hidden in a pit which was
indistinguishable from the hundreds of others formed by exploding
shells, suddenly spluttered, and, as Henri looked, the first line of
German troops, racing uphill immediately before that gun, fell flat,
was wiped out, and became non-effective.  But other figures filled the
place, men pushed themselves, or were pushed, forward into the vacated
position, and without halt, without pause, or so much as a waver, torn
though it was and shredded by the storm of bullets, that German mass
still came charging uphill.  Nothing stopped it.  Suffering appalling
losses, their front blown in in fifty different places, the enemy yet
re-formed their ranks, and though, perhaps, retarded in their charge,
were not definitely halted.  Shouts were coming from that mass, shouts
of men worked into a fever, of men crazy with terror or with hatred; of
men perhaps drugged for this terrible ordeal, and who, having
determined to capture the position, were prepared to welcome death
rather than fail in their object.

"And what if they reach us, what then?" asked Henri of the officer
still beside him, who in the meanwhile had seized the rifle of a
wounded soldier and was emptying it into the ranks of the enemy.  "What
then, mon Capitaine?  A charge with the bayonet--eh?"

"Yes, a charge with the bayonet!  Make ready for it; pass the word to
right and left!  Fix your bayonets and make ready!"

But every bayonet along the line was already fixed, for indeed it is
the habit of French troops to carry them so.  Only, the men who wielded
them, were they ready?  Were they as full of courage and determination
as were those Germans now so close to them?  They, the handful of
_poilus_ whom the French High Command had alone spared for the
protection of their front lines, had they the nerve, the grit, for a
hand-to-hand combat?  Shouts came from many a man, loud cheers burst
from the throat of many a bearded veteran, while one young officer
sprang on the battered parapet of a trench, and stood there facing his
friends, calling to them, exhorting them, as the rays of a search-light
played on his figure; indeed, for more than a minute he stood there,
sharply outlined, a sight for all eyes, a figure which attracted the
attention of every _poilu_ within reach of him.  And then, what a yell
burst from the throats of the soldiers; they leapt from the trenches,
and as the scattered beams, falling for just a few seconds here and
there amongst them, lit up their figures, they could be seen massing on
the pitted and furrowed ground in front, prepared for a last encounter.

"Charge!  At them with the bayonet!  Bravo, mes enfants!"

A tall, lithe officer--a colonel--was in front of the men already, his
sword waving overhead, his head turned towards the men as he led them.

"Charge!" he shouted, though the sound was swept away and lost in the
turmoil of cheers from the French soldiers who heard him, and in the
shattering reports of those French 75's, which, blazing hard in the
rear, registered still upon the enemy.

Then those gallant _poilus_ who had poured over the parapets of their
trenches--where such still existed--springing from shell-holes where
they had taken shelter, and emerging from every sort of odd and
unexpected corner, joined in one frantic mob, swept down under the rays
of the search-light upon the enemy, and, plunging into their midst,
commenced at once a desperate hand-to-hand encounter.

So it was where Henri and Jules were stationed, and the tale was
repeated in a hundred different places.  Indeed, on this 21st February,
when the Germans had confidently anticipated a "walk-over", and when
such an event as a massed attack, or even the loss of a considerable
number of their infantry, was hardly contemplated, they found
themselves held up entirely, with whole ranks of their divisions swept
away, and with the ground in front of Brabant, Haumont, and along the
northern face of the Verdun salient littered with their killed and
wounded.  That torrent of shells, which should have killed every one of
the slender garrison of Frenchmen, had failed in its effect; while the
hope of gaining Verdun, the capture of which was to influence the whole
world, and particularly wavering neutrals, was as far away as ever.
That desperate attack made during the darkness broke down as others had
done, and the Germans--those who were left of them--fled to the cover
of the evergreen pine-trees, leaving the _poilus_ of General Joffre's
armies to stagger back to their battered trenches, there to
prepare--not to rest, not to sleep, for that was out of the
question--but to resist still further.



CHAPTER XI

Falling Back

Down below, in a subterranean chamber, there burned a cheerful fire, a
chimney taking the smoke and flames up through the ground above and
into the open.  Seated about it, more dishevelled than ever, their
chins bristly now, and their faces and hands stained a dull, dirty
colour, sat Jules and Henri and others of their comrades, resting for a
time, while men of their regiment watched for them.

"And, believe me, it has been a fight of fights," said one bearded
veteran, lolling back against the earth wall of the dug-out, a cup of
steaming coffee gripped in one huge, dirty hand, and a hunch of cheese
in the other.  "A fight more bitter than any that has gone before it,
and one which will become more desperate.  Allons!  Here is death to
the Kaiser!"

He smiled round at his comrades, whose faces were lit up by the rays
from the flickering flames, showing a gleaming row of teeth, and steady
eyes, and features which displayed not the smallest trace of fear, or
even of anxiety.

"Death to the Kaiser--to the butcher who sends his troops to such
slaughter!"

Tossing his head backwards, he let the contents of the cup gurgle down
his throat, then, smacking his lips, he held the vessel out for a
further ration.

Steps on the wooden stairway leading into the dugout just then
attracted the attention of the whole party, and soon there arrived
another comrade--a junior officer--to swell their numbers, to tax the
limit of accommodation down below to the utmost.  As dirty as any of
his men, dirtier perhaps, he bore about him traces almost of
exhaustion, and, throwing himself on the ground, silently accepted the
drink and food which were at once offered him.  It was not, indeed,
until he had finished his meal, and until he had almost smoked the
contents of one pipe-load of tobacco, that he opened his lips to the
_poilus_.

"And then, Monsieur le Lieutenant," began one of the _poilus_, a
cheerful young fellow, who, indeed, was in civil times the chum of this
young officer, "you've been far, mon Commandant, you have brought news
to us?  For did you not leave us a while back to pass along the
communication-trenches?  What, then, is the tale?  And are there
supports and reserves at hand to reinforce us?"

Again it was to be noted that there was not a sign of anxiety on the
face of this young soldier, nor in the tones which he adopted.  He
merely smiled and shrugged his shoulders, in fact, as the officer shook
his head decidedly.

"No!  No supports, and no reserves at present," he said.  "We must
fight it out to a finish."

"Bien!  To a finish, my friends!" chirped in the bearded warrior,
sipping at a fresh cup of steaming coffee.  "Then it is not for us to
grumble, but rather for the Boches.  For, see, desperate men who cannot
be relieved, and who will not surrender, fight like rats in a trap, and
such beasts were ever venomous.  And so, Monsieur le Lieutenant, there
are none to help us?"

"None!" came the cheery answer.  "The position is as clear as daylight.
It is only now that our High Command is able to perceive that the
Germans have launched a stroke at Verdun, which is stronger, and likely
to be fiercer, than any that have preceded it on any other portion of
the line.  They tried, these Boches, to burst their way through Ypres
in April, you will remember, having failed to do so in the previous
October.  They have tried their hand in other parts, and always with
failure.  Now it is the turn of Verdun--a salient like that at Ypres,
and one which must be held against all oncomers.  You ask the fortunes
of our other troops.  Listen, then, my friends; for by dint of crawling
and creeping, often across the open--for communication-trenches have
been obliterated--I was able to reach a centre where information had
been gathered.  We, here, in the neighbourhood of Brabant, stand firm,
thanks to the heroic fighting of our comrades."

"And thanks, monsieur, to the noble leading of our officers," declared
the bearded veteran; whereat the _poilus_ clapped their hands in
approbation.

The officer's face was radiant at such a compliment, which, let us
observe, was thoroughly well deserved; for if the _poilu_, the common
soldier of the French armies facing the Germans, had fought well, his
officer had indeed set him a magnificent example.

Much need, too, had the _poilus_ holding the Verdun salient for the
best of officers.  For the German onslaught, though it had failed so
far, had at least the prospect of future success because of the
surprise effected.  Not that the attack was entirely unexpected on the
part of the French, but surprise was great at the vast preparations and
massed guns and infantry the actual attack had disclosed to our ally.
Those guns had first deluged every few yards of the twenty-five miles
of trenches from Brabant to Troyon, and later, swinging round, had been
concentrated on a narrow sector of four miles perhaps, a sector
occupied by Henri and his friends and other Frenchmen.

As to the German infantry, they were in great numbers.  Indeed, there
were some seven German army corps massed against the Verdun salient;
while the French, with incomplete information of the intending coup to
be attempted by the enemy, had but two army corps to defend the
positions.  Moreover, time would be required in which to bring up
reinforcements; for, be it remembered, the Verdun salient is pushed out
to the east of the River Meuse, and though there are bridges crossing
the river, they are not so numerous as to allow of huge forces being
rapidly transferred across them.  A still more important factor in the
position was, perhaps, the distance those reserves must be brought
before they could stand shoulder to shoulder with their comrades.  It
is not mis-stating the fact on the night of the 21st February when we
assert that those two French army corps, holding a trench-line
extending over some twenty-five miles, stood, for the time being and
for many hours to come, alone between the enemy and their objective.
They must fight not only to retain their positions, but must fight for
time--time in which General Joffre and his commanders could rush
reinforcements to assist them.  Yet, though the battle had only lasted
one single day, it had proved every man in those two corps a stanch
fighter, every one determined to resist to the utmost.

"We here, in the neighbourhood of Brabant, my friends, hold fast as you
know," said the officer, his eyes shining with enthusiasm.  "Though the
enemy have poured shot and shell on us, though they have blown our
positions up and obliterated our trenches, we are here; and, indeed, do
I not see before me a most cheery and merry company?  Yes, another cup
of coffee as I smoke and talk.  It is cold outside, and somehow coffee
soothes a man's nerves after such an ordeal.  Well, then, here we are,
firm, and not thinking of retiring yet awhile.  On the line to Haumont,
they, our comrades, hold their battered trenches, and, like ourselves,
have taught the enemy a severe lesson.  Then, passing to our right, you
get to the Bois de Caures, which this morning was held by a French
garrison.  If we in this position were plagued with the fire of enemy
guns, in that strip of forest our friends have been deluged, and their
positions torn asunder and blown to pieces, even their dug-outs often
being penetrated.  The place became untenable, and yet it has been of
assistance in the fighting.  It was mined, and when the Germans, held
off till that time by our sharpshooters, launched a division at it, our
fellows slipped away before the enemy, and, waiting till the Germans
were in the wood and pouring into the battered trenches, fired the
mines, killing hundreds of them."

There came grunts from that bearded veteran, a gleam of his even white
teeth, and muttered remarks from the others seated about the fire in
the dug-out.

"Terrific!" exclaimed Henri.  "Absolute murder; yet, what would you?"

"Yes, what would you?" repeated the officer.  "It is France, it is
liberty, it is the right to live as we wish for which we fight, against
the oppression of a people who look upon might as right, and who, if
they could, would deprive France and Britain and all the Allies of
their liberty.  So, murder!  Yes, my comrade, but, as you observe,
necessary.  If the Kaiser, seeking for some great event, casts his
hosts of men at us, our duty is plain; not an inch of ground of the
sacred soil of France must be rendered up unless absolutely necessary;
while the enemy, if they advance, must advance over the corpses of
their comrades.  But let me proceed.  The Bois de Caures was evacuated,
and then the southern end of it seized once more by some of our gallant
fellows.  Then there was fighting on the line to Ornes and at
Herbebois, and there, too, the garrisons held their positions, having
fought throughout the day and inflicted enormous losses on the Boches.
Elsewhere I cannot tell you what the position is, though there is
rumour that all is favourable."

Taking it in turns to go on duty, to watch the ground in front of them
or to repair their battered trenches, that slender garrison which the
policy of the French High Command had placed in the first line of
trenches about the salient of Verdun waited with calm confidence for
the morrow--for the 22nd February.  Nor had they long to wait ere the
conflict once more reopened.  Guns had boomed throughout the night, and
shells had continued to rain about them, but now, as light broke, and
they hastily gulped down their breakfast, the bombardment increased in
intensity along that northern sector, while presently enemy troops
could be seen forcing their way up a ravine which cuts its way between
Brabant and Haumont.  _Poilus_ in positions there were driven back for
a moment by flame-projectors, which were used freely by the
enemy--spurts of flaming liquid were scattered over them, and sometimes
whole lengths of trenches set burning.  Then the torrent of shells
which was pouring upon the northern sector was increased, though that
had seemed almost impossible, in the neighbourhood of those two places.
Brabant and Haumont were shattered, the village of the latter name
being flattened out and destroyed utterly.  Shells ploughed the ground
behind the French front position, so that communication-trenches, which
had suffered severely on the previous day, and support- and
reserve-trenches were blown to pieces and out of all recognition.
Indeed, as the day passed, the slender garrison in that part were
forced to abandon whatever protection the ground had previously given,
and, retiring before the enemy, to fight a rear-guard action in the
open.  Some three or four miles of country behind that front line was
indeed searched by the enemy guns; some indication of the enormous
expenditure of shells indulged in by the Kaiser.  The French left,
resting on the River Meuse and the centre, was thus forced backward,
though the gallant garrison of Herbebois still held on, together with a
force of men on a hill just south-west of them.  Some success had in
fact fallen to the German phalanx attack on the Verdun salient.
General von Haeseler, who was nominally in command, though acting under
the orders of the ambitious Crown Prince of Germany, had by his
smashing artillery-fire, though not by his infantry attacks, forced the
French to abandon a portion of their trenches, and had indeed shortened
that line to which we have referred previously--that line which formed
an imaginary base to the Verdun salient.  In fact, he had contrived to
narrow the neck of the salient, though not yet very greatly, and
thereby had limited the space across which the French troops could
retire in the event of the abandonment of the salient being necessary.

Repeating the process on the following day--for by then the French had
fallen back to their second line, now badly battered, at Samogneux and
Hill 344--these new positions were assailed with such a torrent of
shells that by the evening they were absolutely untenable, and a
further retirement was essential.  Indeed, by the morning of the 24th,
the French left, as it lay on the River Meuse, was withdrawn to the
famous Pepper Hill, so that the distance between the new first line and
the city of Verdun was considerably decreased, while that imaginary
base-line, across which the French must retreat if the salient was to
be evacuated, was still further shortened.  But elsewhere, where
artillery-fire had given the enemy less assistance, where, indeed,
massed guns could not be spared to blaze a path towards Verdun,
desperate fighting held up the advance of the Germans.  At Herbebois
and Ornes and on to Bezonvaux there was hand-to-hand fighting of the
most desperate nature, while at Maucourt--an advance position held by
the French--terrific execution was done to the masses of troops hurled
forward by the Germans.  Here masked French quick-firing guns caught
German columns of attack, twenty men abreast and hundreds deep, at
close range, and blew them into eternity.  Yet the hordes still came
on, with a bravery never surpassed, and, in spite of every effort, in
spite of a superb display of courage and tenacity, the French were
forced to retire up the slopes towards Bezonvaux, and so in the
direction of the fortress of Douaumont perched up aloft and looking
down upon the scene of this sanguinary conflict.  Towards the former of
these two places the garrison of Ornes was also compelled to beat a
retreat, finding itself at Bezonvaux, at the mouth of a ravine, which
ascends the heights leading to that fortress already mentioned, which
was to be the scene of a terrible battle in days now near at hand.  To
portray all that occurred on this eventful 23rd February would be
almost impossible, and certainly beyond the scope of these pages; yet
one must mention the case of those gallant Zouaves and African
sharpshooters, who, to the north of Douaumont, recaptured a wood
between Herbebois and Hill 351, which is just to the south-west of it,
and lies in front of Beaumont.  Here, in spite of an avalanche of
shells which was poured upon them, and of murderous attacks launched in
their direction, they held out for quite a considerable period, and,
having in turn retired upon the Bois de Fosse, were eventually
compelled to fall back upon the plateau of Douaumont.

The morning of the 24th, as it dawned, discovered, indeed, a critical
change in the positions held by our noble allies.  The northern face of
the salient had, as we have described, been driven in, and the handful
of troops holding it had been forced to retire over some four miles of
country, fighting in the open, infantry and gunners fighting a terrific
rear-guard action, and doing their utmost--and doing that most
gallantly--to hold up a further advance of the enemy.  That imaginary
base-line which we have mentioned as running across the base of the
salient, where the winding River Meuse traces its path amongst the
hills, had been dangerously shortened, and already Germans were massing
in the neighbourhood of Vacherauville, close down to the river, under
the shadow of the Côte du Poivre, where they hoped to drive in their
wedge, and to further shorten that line across which French troops must
retreat if indeed the salient was to be evacuated.  And towards the
east, towards the apex of the salient, outlying advance-parties of the
French had been driven in by sheer weight of guns and numbers, and were
now back on the heights of the Meuse, their line drawn from that held
by their comrades in the neighbourhood of Louvemont, close to the Côte
du Poivre, round about Douaumont and its village, and so to Vaux and
south of it.  Here, indeed, we must leave them for a moment, while we
return to Henri and Jules and their comrades, entangled in that country
to the north which had been ploughed, almost every foot of it, by the
torrent of shells poured upon it by the Kaiser's artillery.

Stealthily creeping away from their advanced positions, and leaving
these dull-grey lines of German dead stretched out before them--a
ghastly indication of their prowess--the troops fell back in clusters,
clambering from shell-hole to shell-hole, creeping behind any cover
which was to be discovered, and making the utmost use of the darkness.

"And so it is you--you, Jules?" cried Henri, as dawn broke on the early
morning of the 23rd and discovered his comrade.  "Well, I never!"

It was typical of the gallant and gay Jules that he grinned in the face
of his chum, and repeated the observation.

"Well, I never!  And what a sight to be sure!  We were gentlemen when
escaping from Ruhleben compared with our condition now.  What a mess to
be in, to be sure--and how hungry I am!"

"Hungry, mon garçon?" cried a sergeant near them, one of their own
battalion; "then there's good news for you; for if our commanders have
not been able to send us reinforcements, they have at least not
forgotten that we are living men.  There is food close at hand, and our
cooks are preparing it."

In the lines which the troops had now gained in those trenches dug some
time before, and sweeping across the slopes of Pepper Hill (Côte du
Poivre), there were indeed welcome comforts for the men who had so
gallantly held up the advance of the Germans, and who had more
gallantly still, and with greater fortune, endured the terrible ordeal
of that shattering torrent of shells poured for hours now upon them.
Back behind the fire-trenches cooks were busy over their braziers,
while already kettles of steaming soup and coffee and long rolls of
bread were being conveyed to the soldiers.  It was a happy, a grimy,
and a decidedly confident band of men who sat down that early dawn to
prepare once more for the enemy.  Dishevelled, their chins covered with
dirty bristles, steel helmets lost in numerous cases, clothing torn,
and equipment absent, this band of heroes was nevertheless as jovial as
it was hungry.

"Better get as much sleep as you can now, my friends," said an officer
as he came along the trench.  "A few men to keep watch will be quite
sufficient, and the rest had better turn in to their dug-outs or lie
down here at their posts.  It won't be for long, my lads, I can tell
you, for the Germans are not likely to rest now they have got us
moving.  Wait, though; is there a man amongst you not too fatigued to
creep forward and reconnoitre?"

"There is, mon Capitaine; I am that man."

"And I also--here; ready and eager."

The two voices were those of Jules and Henri, who happened to be quite
close to the officer as he was speaking, and who, leaping to their feet
from the fire-bank, at once stood at attention, their eager faces
turned towards him.

"You--ah!"

The officer surveyed them both critically.

"Henri and Jules--our particular Henri and Jules--mon Capitaine,"
called out the sergeant who had been speaking to them a little while
before, and who, like the regiment, knew our two heroes thoroughly.
"Henri and Jules, who joined us from Ruhleben, and preferred to fight
in a battle such as this rather than stay in safety--though not in
comfort--in Ruhleben."

"Ah!  Henri and Jules, of course.  And you are ready?" smiled the
officer.

"Ready, mon Capitaine!" the two answered.

"Then strip off your packs and equipment, and take only your rifles and
bayonets and ammunition; creep down through the trees yonder, and, if
you can, let us know what's happening."

Down below, towards the foot of the lower slopes of the Côte du Poivre,
overlooking the village of Champneuville and the Côte de Talou,
stretched a strip of wooded country, those same evergreens which,
towards the north and elsewhere, had given the Germans such tremendous
opportunities for completing preparations for their attack upon the
salient.  Sliding down the hill, diving from one shell-hole to
another--for already the German artillery had turned its attention to
this new French position--creeping along any fold in the ground which
offered even the smallest shelter, Henri and Jules soon gained the
woods, and plunged into them.

"It's as likely as not that the Germans have already sent
reconnoitring-parties here," said Henri in a whisper, as they crouched
at the edge of the wood and gathered breath again after their
exertions.  "That is a thing which one would anticipate, and of course
our commanders will expect that just as we do, so that it seems to me
our duty is to steer clear of such parties, as we should do in any
case, to push beyond them, and to ascertain what's happening towards
the north."

"Quite so!  At your orders, Henri," smiled Jules, as full of merriment
as ever.  Indeed, the fiercer the conflict had grown, the more
desperate the efforts of the Germans had become, and the more
terrifically the fighting had developed, the higher had this young
fellow's spirits risen.  Of fear he showed not a trace, though of
excitement he showed every evidence.  Sparkling with wit, as lively as
a cricket, wonderfully cheery, he had stood in the forefront of the
battle, not grim like many a comrade, not with teeth set and hands and
fingers clenching his rifle, but jovial, smiling, yet with a deadly
earnestness masked by his merry manner.

"Lead on, my Henri," he said.  "Under your directions we made not such
a bad success of that affair in Germany.  Let's see now what you can do
in this part of France when we have soldiers and not civilians to deal
with!"

Plunging on into the wood, it was not long before they heard voices to
their left, and, creeping forward, discovered a German officers' patrol
sheltering under the trees and munching their breakfast.  A dozen yards
farther on there were some seven or eight men, while voices still
farther to the left demonstrated the fact that there were other parties.

"No matter," said Henri; "we have already said that we expected Germans
to be in the wood.  What we want to know is where the main force is.
Let's push on and do our duty."



CHAPTER XII

A Reconnoitring-party

For perhaps half an hour Henri and Jules crept through the wood which
they had gained from the heights of the Côte de Poivre, turning and
twisting here and there as German voices warned them of the proximity
of enemy parties, and sometimes stealing past a group of men from whom
they were separated by only a few feet of thick undergrowth.

"There's the edge of the wood yonder, the northern edge," said Henri in
a little while, stopping and looking upward.  "It's lighter in that
direction, and without doubt we are now getting down to the road which
runs from Beaumont to Vacherauville--a road likely enough to be used by
the enemy in his advance on our positions.  Look out that we don't
expose ourselves at the edge, and let us talk only in whispers."

Jules gripped him a moment later by the sleeve and pulled him down
forcibly to the ground, then he shot one hand out and pointed.

"See them," he whispered; "hundreds of men sheltering at the edge of
the wood.  But why?  What's the reason?  And listen to those guns!
German--eh?"

"No.  French 75's, without a question," answered Henri when they had
listened for a few moments.  "There's nothing else on earth in the
artillery line that snaps and barks quite like our soixante-quinze, and
it seems to me that they are opened in this direction.  Hope to
goodness they won't turn their muzzles on this wood, for they would
rake it from end to end with shrapnel.  Now let's move on a little.  I
can see the men you have pointed out, and without a doubt they are
sheltering under the trees and hiding, I should say, from our gunners.
Let's turn from the road a little and push on to the northern point of
the wood, for in that direction it almost joins with the Bois des
Fosses, and should give us greater opportunities."

They turned slightly to their right, and crept through the mass of
trees not yet levelled by the gun-fire of either of the
combatants--different, indeed, from the Bois des Caures and the
Herbebois, where gigantic German shells had sent trees and earth
hurtling skywards, had severed trunks in all directions, and had left
but a tangled mass of fallen tree-tops and shattered stumps,
smouldering here and there, and masking the trenches and dug-outs and
redoubts obliterated during the earlier fighting, masking, too, the
bodies of those gallant Frenchmen who had given their lives for the
cause, and of the Germans, who had fought to achieve the ambitions of
their Kaiser.

Sneaking forward, and keeping well away from the direction of voices,
it was not long before Henri and Jules discovered a dell--a deep
depression in the ground--heavily wooded and overhung by fir-trees, at
the foot of which splashed a stream, which passed from rock to rock,
twisting and twining as it flowed towards the Meuse traversing the
ground down below.

"Might give us an opportunity of seeing far more than if we went on in
the wood," suggested Jules, again catching Henri by the sleeve.

"Why not?  Certainly!  Why not?" echoed Henri.  "Quite a good idea;
capital!  Let's try it."

"Then down we go!  Looks like a splendid place," declared Jules as he
gained the stream and splashed into it.  "I'll lead, for a change.
Suppose we'd better go cautiously?"

There was, indeed, need of caution all the while, for as they traversed
that narrow gully, and descended towards the plain which stretches at
the foot of the Hill of Poivre, and, crossing the foot of the Côte de
Talou, reaches the River Meuse, they found themselves in the midst of a
veritable army of Germans--figures in field-grey could be seen in the
twilight beneath the trees, sitting on fallen branches or on the ground
waiting for orders.  There were figures in the same colour to the right
and to the left of them in that ravine, and once, as the two halted
suddenly and crouched beneath an overhanging bush, they saw a German
soldier actually drinking from the stream within a few yards of them;
but a guttural voice above, a sharp command, sent the man scrambling up
the bank of the ravine to join his company.  Then, as they boldly
advanced, the voices of German troops grew less distinct, and
presently, as the light increased in brightness and they gained the
very edge of the wood, it was to discover that they had passed through
the enemy's lines, and were, it appeared, alone once more and almost in
the open.

[Illustration: "THEY SAW A GERMAN SOLDIER ACTUALLY DRINKING FROM THE
STREAM WITHIN A FEW YARDS OF THEM"]

Creeping beneath a bush, the two now stared out in every direction,
while, taking a pencil from a pocket, and a tattered envelope also,
Henri roughly sketched in the situation before him; and, helped by the
unobstructed view he could obtain from the opening of the ravine,
marked spots in the near distance, where, beneath the shelter of other
trees, in folds of the ground, in a farm across the road, he could
discern enemy troops hiding.

"There must be thousands of them," he told Jules after a while,
"thousands of them; and look over there, to what I believe to be
Samogneux, where we were yesterday, and from which the German guns
literally blew us, watch the roads there and the edge of the Bois de
Caures--what do you see, Jules?"

"See!" exclaimed Jules; "almost hear them, you mean.  Thousands of
Boches--literally thousands of them, Henri.  What's that mean?  They
are turning in this direction, and though it's hard to make it out
quite clearly, I should say that they are waiting for the dusk to fall,
fearing our guns across the river.  It looks precisely what one would
expect it to be--an intended advance on Vacherauville--a descent on a
line directly from the north towards Verdun--the city for which they
are making."

Without a doubt the two French _poilus_, sheltering there beneath that
bush, had obtained information of more than ordinary importance, though
it was likely enough that the movements of the enemy, in some respects
at least, were already known by the French staff far behind them.
Still, in a case like this, even a morsel of news might help to turn
the scale against the Germans; and, having obtained it, the two at once
set about the return to their comrades.

"We'll creep up the stream again and keep to the ravine as long as
possible," said Henri; "after that we shall have to take our chances in
the wood.  And, seeing that we were lucky enough to miss the Germans on
our way here, I don't see why we shouldn't be successful in returning."

"And if we ain't," declared Jules, with one of those ready smiles of
his, "we can't help it; only, of course, a fellow might even then make
good his escape by bolting."

An hour later, having very cautiously crept through those men massed
just within the wood and out of sight of the French gunners, and having
also traversed a long stretch of thickly wooded ground where numerous
parties of Germans were resting, the two drew near to that point where
they had entered the wood, and behind which open country led to the
French positions.  By then the shadows beneath the trees had deepened,
as dusk had almost fallen, so that it was almost difficult to avoid the
trunks of trees, and easy enough to tumble into any person who, like
themselves, might be under that cover.  Thus, of a sudden, it happened
that Henri and Jules plunged into a narrow patch where men were seated,
and, stumbling over their legs, were brought up suddenly.

"What's this?  Who's this?  You clumsy ruffian!" a shrill voice
shouted.  "Get out with you!  But wait!  What are you doing here
without permission?"

"Stop!  My word!  The fool's kicked my shin and almost broken my leg.
Here, one moment!"

Someone growled an oath, and, shooting out a hand, gripped Henri by the
shoulder as he was rising--someone who had rapped out a German oath,
let us explain, while the two voices had without a doubt borne the
customary guttural accent of the Teuton.

"Let go!"

Henri picked himself up like lightning, and, swinging the butt of his
rifle round--for the weapon was hanging over his right shoulder--struck
the figure he could but dimly see beside him, and heard at once a dull
thud as the wooden stock rapped the man's head violently.  Then, with a
dive, he gained the trees, and, pausing for a moment, shouted for his
comrade.

"Jules!  Here," he called.  "Here!"

"Here!" came the answer from the point which Henri had only just left,
and was followed by a somewhat smothered cry and by a heavy fall, which
made it appear as though Jules had been detained by the men into whose
midst they had stumbled.

What was Henri to do?  Desert his friend and turn and fly away to the
French positions?  Or go back to his friend?

"The former," he told himself.  "At any other time I would turn back
and do my best for Jules, whatever it cost; but there's information
which must be handed over to my Commanding Officer, and I must go.
Jules!" he shouted again in one last effort.

A second later he was enfolded in the arms of a man who had crept up
behind him, and who, joined by another within an instant, soon forced
Henri to the ground, and, taking him by the legs, dragged him to the
spot where Jules was already a prisoner.

"Now, strike a light," a gruff voice said, "just a match, Fritz, and
let's see whom we have captured.  Oh!  Oh!  French soldiers--eh?  Well,
there's nothing very wonderful about that, seeing that we've driven
them from Brabant and Haumont, and there must be scores of unfortunate
beggars hiding up in the hollows and woods between that position and
this.  Well, you," he continued, breaking into French, "French
soldiers--eh? on your way to join your own lines again.  You were
fighting at Brabant?"

"Yes, at Brabant!" Henri told him.

"Ah!  And received a terrible drubbing.  Well, now, what shall we do
with them?" asked the same voice--a pleasant enough voice now that the
owner of it had got over the start which the sudden incursion of Jules
and Henri had caused him--the voice, indeed, of an officer; for, as it
proved, this was an officers' party into which the two who had made
that daring reconnaissance had stumbled.

"Do with them?  Do with them?" snapped a voice.  "Shoot them!  For
there are no men here to hand them over to."

The one who had spoken earlier made no reply, but Henri could hear him
giggling, as though he were amused at the callous remark made by his
comrade, and as though, anxious not to be a party in such disgraceful
treatment of prisoners, he was purposely avoiding discussion.  But a
moment later the other once more interjected a question.

"What, then?" he asked.  "Are we to stay, then, with these two on our
knees, as it were, and wait till some of our men come along and take
them over?  Who knows?  They might turn upon us at any moment and cut
our throats, for there are only four of us.  I vote for shooting them
out of hand."

It was an unpleasant voice this--a snappy, vixenish, sharp-toned voice,
which appeared to come from an individual of rather diminutive size,
though it was only his bare outline that was visible in the darkness
beneath the trees.

"Nasty little beggar," thought Henri; while Jules, now released, save
that one of the German officers still gripped him by the sleeve, stood
close to his comrade.  "Nasty little beggar!  Spiteful little rat!  And
somehow we seem to have met before, for the voice rings in a familiar
way.  But, pooh! it's not possible, or, rather, hardly possible."

A moment later there came the grating sound of a match being rubbed
against the side of a box, and then a light flared beneath the trees,
to be shaded instantly by the huge hand of the individual who held it,
and who proved to be the other spokesman--he of the pleasant voice--who
had listened to the suggestion of his comrade without answering.  The
reflection of the flame held in his palm lit up at first a face beaming
with health and good humour, heavily moustached, and as red as was
Stuart's.  There was a cigarette in his mouth, and Henri, attracted by
the light, watched as this German officer puffed at the flame and then
ejected a cloud of smoke.  His own features, too, were illuminated by
that reflected light, and those of Jules also beside him, while an
instant later the face of that other officer came into view, the one
with the sharp, mean voice, who was for shooting his prisoners.  Then a
sudden exclamation escaped the latter, and, starting forward just as
the flame expired, he stared hard at Henri and his comrade.

"What's this?  What's this?" he demanded.  "Strike another light,
Ernst.  I have met these fellows before somewhere; I feel sure of it."

Grumblingly the big man who had just lit his cigarette struck another
light, and, sheltering the flame between his two broad palms, brought
it close to the faces of the prisoners, illuminating at the same time
his own features and those of the officer who had last spoken.  One
glance was sufficient for Henri then, and in a moment his thoughts flew
back to Ruhleben, to that little hovel down in the corner of the
camp--the tool-house--which the Germans had considered even too good
for their unfortunate prisoners.  And outside it; to that scene which
he and Jules and Stuart had witnessed on that eventful evening when
they made their escape.  He could see the rotund figure of the
Landsturm sentry being heckled; the figure of the blustering sergeant
who had cross-examined him so fiercely, and had well-nigh frightened
him out of his senses; and before them a third individual--a shorter,
shrivelled-up officer, risen from the ranks undoubtedly--that one who
had leapt into the tunnel and had gone scrambling along to discover
what steps had been taken by the prisoners to break out of the camp.
The selfsame individual, indeed, whom Stuart had extricated from the
hole behind the entanglements and had dashed backwards into the tunnel.
Similarly, in just as few seconds, the German recognized Henri and
Jules.

"Those two!" he shouted--"the men who escaped from Ruhleben with an
Englishman!  Seize them!  No, no!  Let us shoot them now, for they
would certainly be shot on returning to Germany."

The match died down at that instant and was dropped to the ground,
leaving the group in utter darkness, and leaving Henri and Jules in the
centre wondering what to do, distressed at their discovery, and feeling
that the situation was almost hopeless.  Then, of a sudden, Henri slid
his left hand back and caught Jules by the sleeve; pulling him towards
him, he whispered a sentence in his ear; and, a moment later, plunging
forward, drove his fist into the face of the officer who had recognized
him, and, pushing on over his fallen figure, burst from the group into
the wood outside.  Following on his heels, Jules cleared a path for
himself, and, hearing the crash of undergrowth in front of him, held on
in that direction, heedless of the shouts which came from the group of
German officers and of the shots which were fired at them.  Five
minutes later Jules heard panting in front of him, and, stealing
forward, gave vent to a gentle whisper.

"Is that you, Henri?" he asked.

"Yes, Jules," came back the panting answer; whereat Jules joined him,
and the two sat for a while at the base of a big tree, resting and
recovering their breath, and wondering what they were to do now that
their presence in the wood had been discovered.

"A pretty kettle of fish," said Henri at last.  "But what luck to have
escaped from those fellows; and how mad that German officer will be to
know that we have twice slipped through his clutches!  A nasty little
fellow, Jules!  The sort of man who would shoot us out of hand if he
had the opportunity."

"Then the sooner we get out of this and back to our friends the better.
Besides, there's that news we have got for our commander.  Let's make
tracks now," said Jules.  "By creeping along carefully, and listening
for voices, we may be able to steer clear of the Germans and reach the
open."

"Listen to them!" whispered Henri.  "It's evident they've no fear of
the French overhearing them, and that they are searching the woods for
us.  That's all the better for us, Jules, as you suggest, and by
listening carefully we ought to be able to creep past them."

As it proved, the attempt to extricate themselves from their awkward
position was not by any means easy; for the discovery made by that
officer, and the anger it induced, caused him to call up a number of
men who were resting in the woods within easy distance.  Sentries were
at once thrown out, so as to place a barrier between the two French
soldiers so recently discovered and the open country lying between the
woods and the French positions.  Then other soldiers were set to work
to search the woods, a few of them even producing lanterns.  Yet, by
dint of crawling, of hiding in hollows and under brushwood, and by
steering a course away from approaching voices, Henri and Jules at
length managed to place themselves beyond the barrier of sentries, and,
rising then to their feet, ran on through the wood till they gained its
edge and emerged into the open.

Then commenced the final stage of their journey.  Crawling over the
flat plain which swept gently down to the River Meuse, on the far side
of which lay the Goose Hill, Caurette Wood, Crow's Wood, the Mort
Homme, and Hill 304--positions to win unending fame in this warfare in
the neighbourhood of Verdun--they gained at length the ground which
ascended on their left towards the Poivre Hill, and beyond that again,
giving access to the plateau of Douaumont, a plateau destined to see
some of the most tremendous fighting in this conflict.  Here,
anticipating easy going and a country free from the enemy, the two
stood upright--for they had been crouching and creeping along
before--and marched rapidly towards their destination.  But if that
slope had been free of Germans during the daytime--as indeed it was,
for the guns of the French lining the crests of Poivre Hill commanded
it completely--the darkness which had now fallen and hidden all objects
had made a most decided difference.

There was the loud tramp of feet on the road which led from Beaumont to
Vacherauville, and, as the two drew nearer to that village, they could
hear columns of men approaching along the road from Samogneux.  A lull
in the terrific bombardment, which had now been going on continuously
since the 19th February, allowed them even to hear the voices of the
Kaiser's soldiers as they closed in upon the French positions--upon
that base-line to which we have referred, the line of the Meuse, beyond
which lay the Verdun salient.

"There's not a doubt about it," said Henri in a whisper, as he and
Jules shrank into a hole behind a bush and waited for a column of
troops to pass along the road, "the enemy is preparing for an attack in
force to-morrow, via Vacherauville; and, with what we have already seen
in the wood, and what we hear now, we have information of the utmost
importance.  There must have been hundreds of men in the wood."

"Thousands!" Jules corrected him.  "Thousands of them!  And there are
thousands here, too, marching along this road.  Listen, now, to those
guns being hauled behind the troops.  One can only guess that there are
many of them by the noise they make, and it surprises me that our men
on the far side of the river haven't heard the sounds and opened fire
upon the enemy.  Wait!  What's that?"

The "that" to which Jules referred proved to be a detachment of German
troops from the road along which they had been marching, and presently
figures could be seen stealing across the grass, steadily streaming
past, between them and their friends, struggling forward to take up a
position for an attack on the morrow.  Orders were given in low gruff
tones by officers accompanying those men, while now and again there
came the click of accoutrements and the metallic ring of
entrenching-tools carried with the parties.  Nor was that all; for
presently, when the stream of figures had poured past for some minutes,
till hundreds had gone by, in fact, and the last of the column had
halted, there came to the ears of Henri and his friend the dull blow of
picks, the scrape of spades against flints and stones, and the rattle
of earth as it was thrown out of an excavation.

"Digging trenches--digging themselves in!  Preparing for our
counter-attack to-morrow!  And digging themselves in between us and our
positions!  Now, that's very awkward!" reflected Henri.

"Beastly awkward!" agreed Jules.  "But there's one thing about it--it's
dark, and, seeing that we have already escaped from the very midst of
these same fellows, it seems to me that we may hope to do that again
anywhere.  Anyway, we must try."

"Certainly, we must try!  We must get through them without further
delay, for every moment now is of increasing importance."

Stealing forward from the bush, they slowly approached the line which
the Germans were then preparing with entrenchments, and could now hear
from those portions closest at hand the thud of busy picks and the ring
of spades as the men employed them.  Here and there a figure was to be
seen standing up in the open, while everywhere else that column of men
which had filed past them had, as it were, disappeared, or almost so;
for already, thanks to the soft nature of the ground and to the rain
which had fallen, the men had dug almost two feet down, and were
partially hidden.

"Halt!  Who are you?  Why are you not working in the trenches?"

The question was bellowed at them by one of those figures standing out
above the trenches, and, obedient to the order, losing their heads,
indeed, for just one brief moment, Henri and Jules halted.

"Run for it!" whispered Henri; "straight through the line and on into
the darkness!  Come, Jules!"

Without a pause, without venturing to answer the question shouted at
them, the two at once took to their heels, and, darting in between the
men labouring at the trenches, sped on into the darkness.  Nor was
there any great attempt to arrest them; for, indeed, the men had
already thrown off their tunics and had piled their arms, so that the
only individuals carrying weapons were the officers superintending the
operations.  Half a dozen revolver-shots, therefore, were all that were
fired at them, and those went wide in the darkness.  Within a few
minutes, in fact, the two were secure from all pursuit, and, provided
there were no advance-parties thrown out in front of the Germans, might
hope to reach their friends without further incident.

"But it is more than likely that pickets will have been posted, so as
to avoid a French surprise," said Henri, "and, although I cannot claim
much acquaintance with German methods as yet, one can imagine that
sentries also have been sent towards our positions.  Let's go on in
silence, listening every now and again."

Stealing on through the darkness, they passed on more than one occasion
a ghostly figure standing erect and motionless, keeping guard against
the surprise of his comrades digging those trenches lower down the
slope.  Once, also, a figure suddenly sprang up before them--the figure
of a German scout--a diminutive individual, who, not unnaturally, took
them for comrades instantly.

"What now?" he said, standing within five feet of them.  "Reliefs, or
an advance-party in front of the main force?  Surely not that, for it's
time for us all to have a little rest, after the fighting we have
experienced."

"Reliefs!" Henri told him instantly.  "You are to return and report at
the trenches.  Go now, for we have fed, and no doubt you are hungry."

"Hungry?"  The man almost exploded at the words.  "Hungry?  I am as
empty as a drum," he told them.  "But there, you have come to relieve
me, so good-bye!"

He swung off at once into the darkness, and, waiting till he had gained
perhaps a hundred yards, Henri and Jules sped on again towards the
French lines, and, clambering up the steeper slopes of the Côte du
Poivre, were finally challenged.

"Halte!  Qui va la?"

"Friends!" they answered.

"Then advance one--without arms."

It was with a shout of joy that their comrades welcomed them back to
the trenches, and almost immediately they were sent along to report to
the Commander, receiving his congratulations on their safe return.

"This is information of the greatest importance," he told the two when
he had listened to their story; "though, to tell the truth, the
movement the enemy are making has been expected and even anticipated.
Go and get a meal at once, while I report what is passing.  But let me
say that you have behaved wonderfully well, my Jules and my Henri, and
your Commander will not forget to mention the matter.  Adieu!
To-morrow we shall see something more of those movements."

Yes, to-morrow!  For as the 24th February dawned, and the grey light
broke over the slopes of the Côte du Poivre, the Hill of Talou, and the
winding Meuse gliding along between the hills which formed the main
French positions to the west and to the east of it, the enemy guns,
which had not rested for many hours since the outbreak of this gigantic
conflict, broke out with terrific energy and commenced to deluge the
French positions.  Then, down on the lower slopes, on that plain and in
the hollows, thousands and thousands of Germans sprang to their feet
and dashed forward.

Henri and Jules and their comrades were, indeed, on this day, and upon
those which followed, to experience fighting beside which that which
had taken place on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd February had been almost
child's play--a grim, furious struggle was about to open, in which
hand-to-hand contests were to be almost general, and in which that
sturdy handful of _poilus_ were to be called upon to make yet again the
most gallant efforts.



CHAPTER XIII

Douaumont Fortress

"They come!  See them, in their thousands!  They are breaking from the
trees and the hollows!"

"Thousands of them!  Hordes of them!  Swarms of the Boches!"

Amidst the storm of shells which the German massed guns were pouring
upon that narrow front stretching from the Côte du Poivre past the Côte
De Talou to the River Meuse, heads popped up from battered trenches,
from shell craters, from fissures torn in the ground by high
explosives, and hardy, bristly, dirty _poilus_, stared down the slopes
through the wintry light and watched the enemy approaching.  That
gallant band indeed, sadly thinned since the opening of the Verdun
battle--a battle destined to last longer than any recorded in all
history--looked on grimly and waited.  Waited expectantly, not in fear
and terror lest they should be decimated, not even in doubt or
trembling, for the desperate conflict which had been waged so far had
taught the French one thing very thoroughly--man for man, they were as
good as, nay better than the Germans; gun for gun, their own artillery
was at least as dexterous and as exact in its ranging, and, so far as
it went, gave wonderful support to the infantry.  All then that
remained was to withstand that terrible torrent of shells, and wait.
To discover shelter of some sort which would protect their bodies and
allow them to remain alive till that moment when those grey masses down
below got within reach of them.

"And then you shall see, my Henri and my Jules," the sergeant who had
spoken up for them on the previous day said, smiling grimly.  "These
shells that fall about us--pooh!  What are they?"

At that moment a 15-inch shell plunged into the ground just behind the
parapet--into ground already torn and plastered with shell
fragments--and, burrowing at least ten feet deep, at last exploded with
a muffled roar, setting the earth trembling, shaking in the sides of
the battered trench, and sending up tons of soil, which fell in a
cascade all round them.

"Poof!  What are they?" he said again, saluting in the direction of the
exploded shell.  "But nothing!  But something to snap one's fingers at!
To laugh at!  To chortle over!  Something to avoid, though, my Henri
and my Jules!  Not that a man is so careful of his body in these days.
Though he is anxious to retain his life, yet not for himself only, not
that he shall live on to see the end of this warfare and the victory of
the Allies.  No, no!  But so that he shall live to pull a trigger as
the enemy draws nearer, and so help to destroy the German effort."

You would have thought, to look at Jules's face, that he was listening
to quite a merry conversation; for that young man was smiling broadly,
and, though shells still pitched about them, though many a
shrapnel-burst high overhead plastered the ground with bullets, even
twitted his comrades.  But Henri was stern and severe, and even looked
a trifle nervous: such was the difference in their characters.  Yet
Jules knew, the Sergeant knew, all his comrades knew, that when it came
to the pinch, when it came to close fighting, there was no one more to
be trusted than the sterner of these two young fellows.  Ducking now
and again, for somehow he could not help it, turning his eyes anxiously
every few minutes in the direction of the enemy, his fingers locking
themselves about his rifle and toying nervously with the buttons of his
tunic, Henri did indeed, at that moment, look ill at ease, to say the
least of it.  And yet he too smiled as that shell burst, and, turning a
moment later, smiled once more as he pointed towards the enemy.

"Wait!" he told Jules and the Sergeant.  "They give us shells here in
plenty, those Boches, they keep a torrent of them tumbling about our
ears both day and night; but wait, I say!  For remember what we saw
from the forest, Jules!  Those masses down below, the village of
Vacherauville and the road to it, the slopes of the Côte de Poivre and
of the Côte de Talou, are enfiladed by our guns across the river.  Wait
then!  The gunners have not opened yet, but when the word comes, such a
storm of shell will be poured upon the Germans that they too will learn
what shell-fire really means."

His words, indeed, proved to be almost prophetic, for though, for some
few minutes longer, the thinned garrison of the French trenches in
those parts waited and watched the enemy masses advance, almost
unobstructed, yet in a little while, and very soon after the
machine-gunners had got into action and rifles were speaking sharply
from every direction, there came sudden salvoes from across the river,
from Charny Ridge, from the hill of Mort Homme, and from that of
304--high ground, in fact, almost continuous with the Hill of Talou.
Taking a bird's-eye view of this particular position of the salient of
Verdun, one sees the River Meuse flowing from south to north, winding
in big bends through the hills which bound the valley, while, on those
same hills to west and east of the river, eminences project which form
the positions with which we are dealing.  Running almost due east and
west, there are Hill 304 and the Mort Homme, with Charny Ridge closer
to the river and overlooking it.  Then comes a flattened piece of land
which is marshy in the winter, and through which the river winds,
forming a big bend, and flowing in that part in an east-and-westerly
direction.  At Vacherauville--lying close to the eastern bank of the
river--the next outcrop on the banks of the Meuse is the Côte de Talou,
and, still east of it, the Côte du Poivre, while a little farther east,
in the neighbourhood of Louvemont, the heights sweep round abruptly to
the south to Douaumont, and then to Vaux, towards which those outlying
parties of French who had held on so stubbornly to Herbebois, Ornes,
and Maucourt, and had retired towards Bezonvaux, were now being driven
by the enemy.

A glance at the sketch attached will show at once that the hills we
have mentioned to the west or left of the River Meuse, and those to the
right, form, as it were, a gateway through which the river passes,
entering the gateway at Vacherauville and emerging at Cumières, where a
wood and a village nestle close to the river.

Then let us imagine troops marching along roads running parallel to the
river in a southerly direction, with the intention of forcing their way
through the gateway we have delineated, or rather of forcing their way
up the slopes of the Côte de Talou and on to the Côte du Poivre.  The
roads which they must follow are clearly under command of the guns
posted on Hill 304, the Mort Homme, and Charny Ridge, which enfilade
the position.

[Illustration: MAP OF VERDUN SALIENT AFTER FOUR MONTHS OF CONTINUOUS
FIGHTING]

Such was the condition of affairs on this eventful morning, when,
having driven in the northern portion of the salient at Beaumont, and
shortened its baseline, the Germans once more threw their masses to the
assault in the desperate effort to drive in the wedge they had already
inserted, to stampede the French at that position, and, breaking
through their lines, to get behind the apex of the salient and entrap
the thousands of Frenchmen holding the trenches from Douaumont and Vaux
down to the southern portion of the salient.

"A brilliant stroke!" you will say.  "The outcome of most able
generalship on the part of the Germans."  But wait!  Clever though the
enemy was, thoughtful though the German High Command had proved itself
to be, and tremendous though the preparations for this battle were,
there was yet something vital lacking in strategy.  The Germans had
counted on their guns to smash a way through any sort of defence, and
though it is true that their plans had miscarried in one respect, and
they had discovered already, to their considerable cost, that guns
alone were not sufficient, yet guns and men together, they had learnt
during the initial stages of this battle, were enough first to pound
the enemy trenches, and then to drive out the defenders.  Reckoning now
upon a similar course of events, and, having already pounded the French
position, they launched on this morning hosts of grey-coated infantry
at the Hills of Talou and Poivre, above which Henri and Jules were
fighting.

Posted on an eminence in the neighbourhood of Samogneux, the German
High Command, safe from the rifle-fire of the French, watched through
their glasses as those sinister lines of grey swept from the wood in
which they had been taking cover, and, marching steadily over the
ground, advanced upon their objective.  And then they too heard that
sudden salvo of guns from across the river, and, turning their glasses,
surveyed the Mort Homme and Hill 304, positions to which they had given
but little consideration.

And see the result!  75's, machine-guns, howitzers, and rifles, all
concealed, all dug in or sheltered, and all amply provided with
ammunition, poured a storm of shot and shell and bullets upon those
advancing grey masses, sweeping them away, shattering the ranks,
treating them to a hail of steel beside which the fire of the defenders
of the higher slopes of the hill the Germans were attacking was but as
a shower compared with a tornado.  German infantry melted away under
that terrible storm, masses of grey were levelled like corn at the feet
of the reaper, while even the forest, through which Henri and Jules had
penetrated on the previous day, was flattened or torn to shreds, was
converted into a species of smoking volcano.  It was terrific!  It was
a master-stroke on the part of the French Command, and a shattering
misfortune to the enemy.  Indeed, it took the sting out of their attack
entirely; it sent those of their men who had survived this awful ordeal
racing back to cover; and it put a peremptory and sudden stop to the
cunning German effort to drive in that wedge they had already inserted
along the Meuse and so to shorten dangerously the base of the Verdun
salient.

"Fall in, men, fall in!  We are going to move from the position,
handing it over to others of our comrades.  Fall in there, men!"

"A move!" ejaculated Jules.  "Then where to?"

Henri shrugged his shoulders.

"Anywhere--who cares?" he declared, with a species of desperation.
"There's fighting all round, so one place is neither worse nor better
than another.  But there's one thing that is quite apparent; men are
hardly wanted here any longer, and a thin sprinkling of our soldiers
can hold these trenches quite as easily as hosts of them.  For the guns
yonder, those guns on Mort Homme and 304, command the Côte de Talou and
the Côte du Poivre far better than could our rifles; so our commanders,
who no doubt want men in other places; are thinning out our lines and
are sending us to reinforce another portion of the salient."

Creeping along the battered trenches, crawling across masses of tumbled
earth, where communication-trenches had once existed, and, by slow
degrees, moving to a part where a fold in the ground gave some shelter,
though little enough, from the shells which the German guns still sent,
the depleted regiment to which Henri and Jules belonged was finally
massed in the hollow, and, having been fed there and rested for a
while, was marched to the east, towards the fort of Douaumont.  That
night, indeed, after darkness had fallen, they once more repeated the
process of scrambling along shattered trenches, and when the morning of
the 25th dawned--a cold and bitter morning with snow-flakes filling the
air and whirling across the landscape--they found themselves looking
down the steep slopes of the plateau of Douaumont, towards the German
positions, and watching, spellbound almost, another demonstration of
the power and skill of the German gunners.

"Yes, my friends, they have been at that for hours past," a comrade
lying beside them in the trenches told them, as he pointed a finger at
the dull-grey outline of Douaumont fort, lying not so far from them.
"Believe me, one would have thought, from the number of shells they
have fired at the place, that there were thousands of Frenchmen
sheltering there whom they hoped to destroy completely.  And so they
have dropped shells on the place, big shells--Mon Dieu! as big as I
am--middle-sized ones, and small ones--in fact, grandfathers, fathers,
and children--till the place has been pounded to atoms.

"And so you have come at last, you fellows," he went on when the three
had watched, for a while, more shells hurtling into the ruins of
Douaumont fort.  "Well, you are wanted, wanted badly, for we've fought
our way back from Ornes and Bezonvaux, and there are precious few of us
left to do more fighting.  You are fresh at the game--eh? my comrades."

"Fresh!" ejaculated Jules, looking quite indignant.

"Bien!  But I hardly meant that," the _poilu_ told them.  "In
appearance you are not fresh.  No, certainly not; far from it.  But
then, who of us can turn out nicely under such circumstances?  Look at
me, I ask you; a mere mud-heap.  And so I have been since the battle
commenced.  And you?"

"And we," laughed Henri, "we are in a similar sort of position.  But
what would you?" he declared, shrugging his shoulders in truly French
fashion.  "For listen, mon ami!  Like you, we have fought our way back
from Brabant, from the lines stretching along past Herbebois and Ornes.
We have been in the thick of the fighting, hiding in caves deep down in
the earth, in dug-outs which shook as the enemy shells burst above
them, crawling from shot-hole to shell-crater, living in earth battered
and shaken all day and all night, and thankful to get an hour's sleep
at any time, and a bite and a drink to keep us going.  'Fresh,' did you
say?  Certainly, mon ami, we are fresh, if by fresh you mean we are
willing and ready for more fighting."

"Bravo!"

The _poilu_, his mouth wide open in a huge grin, gripped Henri's hand
and shook it heartily.

"Mais!  Mon Dieu!  That is your sort!  That is our sort!  That is the
French sort!" he cried loudly.  "It's that kind of spirit which will
carry us on, and which will help us to beat these fellows.  Then I was
right, you are 'fresh' men who have come to reinforce us, and badly do
we need your assistance."

Pulling their coats about them, turning up their collars so as to keep
out the whirling flakes of snow, beating their arms about their bodies
and stumbling up and down the trenches, the troops watching on the
heights above Douaumont, dodging the German shells still flung at them,
waited as the 25th February grew gradually older, and the light grew
stronger.  Something in the air seemed to tell them that this was to be
a sterner day than any that had preceded it, and yet there was that
about the artillery-fire of the enemy which rather contradicted that
feeling.  For while everything up to the 24th of the month had gone in
the favour of Germany, and while she had gained enormous
successes--thanks to her long-continued and secretly-made
preparations--yet now the elements themselves turned against her--and
in all conscience she had had difficulties enough before, considering
the terrific resistance shown by those French heroes.  It was snowing,
banks of snow-clouds filled the heavens, while whirling flakes made
artillery-fire a matter of extreme difficulty.  True, big guns, long
since established on concrete foundations and quite immobile, could
still register by the map as accurately as ever, and still poured
shells of large dimensions on Fort Douaumont and on other sectors; but
the smaller guns, mere babes compared with those 17-inch howitzers, yet
guns flinging missiles which pounded the French trenches, could now
only fire aimlessly, so that the torrent of shells was reduced and
became a mere nothing to that formerly experienced.

"They will not attack," a _poilu_ gave it as his decision, and very
decidedly.  "These Boches never attack unless they have first cut up
the ground and smashed our trenches; therefore I vote for a brazier
here, something to cook, and a pipe of good tobacco."

"And perhaps a game of manne, too," laughed another.  "Well, a little
rest, after what we have gone through, will do us no harm, and will fit
us all the more for what is to follow.  Who cares!  To-day, to-morrow,
or even later, we shall fight.  If not to-day, well, let us make the
most of it."

Cheery groups collected in the trenches all along the line, men who
hardly took the trouble to peer out over the parapets and watch for the
coming of the enemy.  It looked, indeed, as if this 25th February was
to be a day of rest--one sorely needed by our allies.  And then, of a
sudden, an alarm spread along the trenches; men sprang to their arms
and gripped their rifles, while machine-gunners dived into cunning
approaches to hidden pieces out in the open, and, scuttling along,
manned those instruments which were to send death into the ranks of the
Kaiser.

For the enemy were not to be denied, were not to be put off even though
the elements were against them.  Realizing now that guns alone were
insufficient, that losses must be sustained if they desired to capture
Verdun and its salient, they had hardened their hearts, and, determined
to risk all in this venture (for part of their success, if they
captured Verdun, would consist in the rapidity of such capture), now
launched the Brandenburg Corps against the Douaumont position,
convinced that if only they could capture what remained of the
shattered fort, and set foot on this upland plateau, they would command
the French positions along the heights of the Meuse, would command,
indeed, those guns, posted on Mort Homme and Hill 304, which had
assailed them so severely on the previous day, and would thereby easily
smash up further French resistance and gain their objective.

"Stand to your arms!  Watch the ravines!  For we have news that the
enemy are advancing up them.  Hold your ground at all cost, no matter
what your losses, for these are the orders."

Without haste, without excitement, with that grim, steady courage which
had stood the French _poilu_ in such good stead already, the men
gripped their rifles and made ready for another German onslaught.

"Hold on, whatever the cost!" one man repeated to another.

"Till death, if need be," came the answer.



CHAPTER XIV

Frenchmen and Brandenburgers

Forbidding and grey, shell-marked and shattered and battered out of all
recognition, yet of such a substantial nature that even the high
explosives and the ponderous shells dropped upon it by the German
gunners could not entirely demolish it, the fort of Douaumont stood up,
cold and black, on that morning of Friday, the 25th February, seeming
even to overshadow the trench, or the apology for a trench--for here,
too, shells had done their work--in which Henri and his friend were
lying.  Out beyond them the shell-marked ground, across which flakes of
snow were drifting, descended abruptly to the plain of the Woevre; and
struggling up its slopes came, at that moment, the 5th Division of the
3rd Brandenburg Corps--a corps retired from the fighting-ranks months
ago, specially fed, specially trained and armed, and prepared
particularly for this Verdun fighting.  Its 6th Division was, at the
moment, invisible, for it was creeping up the ravine of La Voche, which
sheltered it from the fire of the French defenders.

There is no need for us to repeat the tale of terrific fighting, of the
stubbornness and gallantry of the Germans, and of the heroic resistance
of that thin band of French _poilus_ who still held the main outposts
of the Verdun salient.  Let us but say that they had been driven in
four miles from the northern posts they had held, and on the east had
been forced to fall back via Bezonvaux.  But those positions had been
but flimsily held, but indifferently fortified, when compared with the
main defensive positions arranged by our allies.  They were back upon
that main defensive line now, where it swept from Vacherauville, on the
River Meuse, opposite the Mort Homme and Hill 304, across the hill of
Talou and Pepper Hill--ominous names already to the enemy--past
Louvemont, and so to Douaumont and Damloup, where the trenches had now
descended to the plain of the Woevre, and they held to it till they
clambered once more up the slopes, and so to the other end of the base
of the salient.

Checked on their right, where the 5th Division was advancing, the
Brandenburgers were swept from the face of the earth by a tempest of
shot and shell; but their 6th Division, advancing up the ravine in
front of the shattered fortress, finally burst from cover, and,
supported by a torrent of projectiles from the German guns, hurled
itself from a close point upon the French defences, and, in spite of
the heroic resistance of these soldiers, forced them back.

It was at that particular period that Henri and Jules and a dozen or
more of their comrades found themselves in a portion of the fire-trench
cut off from their comrades, who had retreated, and already almost
surrounded by Germans.

"It's all up!  We are surrounded!  We are captured!  Vive la France!"
shouted one of their number; while others looked about them, at first
doubtfully, and then with grim resignation.

"Yes, captured!  Better lie down in the trench till we are discovered,
or else those Huns will fire into us," counselled another of the men.

"And give in like that!" shouted Jules indignantly.  "Give in without
trying to crawl back to our people?"

"Crawl back!" a corporal answered him hotly.  "As if we shouldn't do
that if it were possible.  Look for yourself, man; you've eyes in your
head.  See the lines of Brandenburgers between us and our people!"

As a matter of fact, just at the moment when he was pointing to a thick
though somewhat scattered line of grey-coated infantry which had now
swept on beyond them, a gust of wind came whirling round the corner of
the shattered fortress, singing and whistling over the summit, and
bringing with it heavier flakes of snow which obliterated the scene
about them and made vision almost impossible.

"Well, then!" added the heated Corporal.  "Even snow won't help us; for
we don't belong to the Flying Corps, and can't, therefore, very well
ascend and drop beyond them."

"But----" exclaimed Henri, who had been using his wits and his eyes all
this time, and, though bound to feel somewhat helpless, seeing the
position in which he and his comrades found themselves, was yet not
quite resigned to the idea of becoming a prisoner.  ("Not much!" he
told himself.  "I've had some!--as they say in America.  Ruhleben was a
lesson which has taught me that the lot of a prisoner is hardly
inviting.")  "But----" he called out.

"But----" shouted the Corporal back at him, standing quite close to
Henri, and bellowing in his ear; for, indeed, the little fellow was
very excited.  "But you would like to call us cowards next, because we
will not charge after the Germans."

"One moment," Henri said, patting him on the shoulder, "one little
moment, mon cher ami!  Neither you nor I wish to be prisoners, eh?"

"Vraiment!" the little fellow answered, a trifle mollified, his anger
oozing out at the tips of his fingers.  "But then----  Ah!  It is
Henri, eh?  I did not recognize you earlier.  Then what do you advise,
Henri--you, who have tasted prison life in Germany?"

"Yes, yes!  Let Henri tell us," called a number of the others; for
already our hero had won no small reputation amongst his fellows.

Let us advance the story just a little and explain that already that
officer to whom Henri and Jules had given a report of their
reconnaissance had urged upon his colonel that they should be promoted
instantly, and even then, as the conflict raged about Fort Douaumont,
their names were in Regimental Orders.  They were to be
"non-commissioned" officers.

"What then?" the little Corporal asked again, eagerly peering up at
Henri, for he was some inches shorter.

"I believe you, my dear fellow," exclaimed Henri.  "Not being a bird,
or, as you rightly observed, not belonging to the Flying Corps, we
cannot very well get back to our fellows, that is, not yet.  But--and
that is just where you chipped in and prevented my saying what was in
my mind--but we fellows might manage to hold out if we had some sort of
decent cover."

"Aye!  Cover--that's it!  Out here we should be shot to rags,"
exclaimed a veteran.  "Now, Henri, let's have your decision, and
quickly, too, for the snow may stop at any moment."

"Then here it is: take up every cartridge you can find--boxes of
ammunition if you can hit on them--get as much food from the haversacks
of the killed as you can carry, and then let's creep towards the fort.
There's a gateway on this side, for I noticed it in the early hours of
the morning.  Let's get behind those concrete and stone walls and
search for a spot where we can hold out and stand a siege till our
fellows counter-attack and relieve us."

The veteran _poilu_ of the party smote his hands together and tilted
his steel helmet backward.

"Mon Dieu," he cried, "but that is it!  Our Henri has thought of a
splendid thing for us.  Ecoutez!  Then I will tell you, I who have been
of the Verdun garrison, not only during this war, but in peace times, I
who helped to remove the big guns when the Kaiser showed us that guns
behind a fort were no longer useful.  There are caverns underneath that
masonry, my boys, big galleries, and fortified chambers, to which even
a big shell will hardly descend.  Yes, there are rooms down below in
the bowels of the earth which will shelter us, and hundreds beside us.
It is a magnificent plan.  I, who know the place, can lead you; and, of
a truth, we will find a spot where men such as we are, fighting for
France, can hold up a hundred of the enemy.  Be busy, then!  Pick up
cartridges, seek for food and water."

"Yes--and water!" shouted Jules, darting from the trench and stooping
over the nearest figure.  All about them were the battered trenches of
that thin force of noble Frenchmen who had fought hand to hand with the
Brandenburgers.  There were the bodies of the slain--of friend and
foe--lying in every sort of posture, some half in and half out of the
trenches; some, alas! unrecognizable, for such is the effect of high
explosives; and others, yet again, almost buried already by upheavals
of earth as shells burst close beside them.  There were not a few
wounded, too, who lay waiting the succour which might come some hours
hence, and which, it was quite possible, might never come, for in a
little while, no doubt, French fire would command the ground on which
they lay, and neither troops nor hospital bearers could cross it.

Very eagerly, then, for every one of the men in Henri's party was
anxious to escape capture, and eager to rejoin the French forces and
again fight the Germans, the _poilus_ scrambled about in the battered
trench, or closely adjacent to it, taking up cartridges, despoiling the
dead of their haversacks, from which they ejected all but the food
contents, while every man loaded himself with as many water-bottles as
he could conveniently carry.

"It's still snowing hard," said Henri, when some ten minutes had passed
and the band was again collected.  "Don't let us get into a flurry, or
spoil our chances by being too hurried.  Let's number off, and see how
many we are."

"One!  Two!  Three!"----

Without a word of command the man on the left started, and Henri, at
the far end of the line, announced his own number.  It was twenty.

"Good!" he told them.  "More than I thought.  Twenty resolute men
fighting for France, for la belle France, my comrades----"

"Ah!  For la belle France, for home, for victory!" the veteran shouted.

"Yes, for victory.  And listen, my friends; we may help towards it,"
Henri told them.  "Resolute men, if they can reach some strong position
in that fort, may well assist our friends battling farther back on the
plateau.  Well, now, there are twenty of us, and I see that there are
half a dozen or more ammunition-boxes."

"Ten," the veteran corrected him instantly; "ten, Monsieur Henri"--it
had come to "Monsieur" now, such was the veteran's opinion of our hero.

"Good!  Ten boxes of cartridges is it?  Ten thousand rounds.  Now let's
see to the water-bottles.  How many are there?"

The men, on returning to the spot where Henri stood, had at once
deposited their finds at the bottom of the trench, so that there was no
difficulty in making an inventory; and now a mere glance discovered the
fact that there were more than two water-bottles per man, all filled,
as Henri was assured, and all big ones.

"One bottle will last a careful man, say, two days, eh?" he asked.

"In the dungeons of the fort, three days, Monsieur Henri," the veteran
replied; "and, besides, it's bitterly cold weather, when a man does not
need to drink so much."

"And food?  Well, we must guess at that; but it appears from the number
of haversacks, and from the way in which some of them are bulging, that
there will be sufficient for some days."

"One mo'!" called Jules at that instant.  "Each man's got his rifle and
bayonet, that's understood; there's ammunition, say, for a four-days'
fight, and water and food also.  Why not a machine-gun?  Here's one
abandoned by our fellows when they were forced backward."

Some of the men almost burst into a cheer, while two of them dashed
forward, and, dismantling the gun, shouldered the tripod and the barrel.

"Good idea!" Henri told him.  "The difficulty, though, will be to carry
in sufficient ammunition.  But listen to this, you fellows; let's make
tracks for the fort at once, decide upon a spot to hold, and deposit
our belongings; then, if the snow continues and the Germans keep away,
we'll creep out again and look for further ammunition."

They began to move off along the trench at once, the veteran and Henri
leading, and Jules and the stout little corporal bringing up the rear.
Staggering along, loaded with ammunition and water and food which they
had collected, bending as low as possible and holding to the trench so
long as it continued, the little band were soon directly under the
walls of the fort, and though they peered anxiously about them, looking
for the enemy, whose shouts, indeed, they could hear in all
directions--even from the fort itself--yet not once did one of the
Kaiser's soldiers approach them, while all the time the snow fell
silently upon the fort and its surroundings.  Then the gate seemed
suddenly to open in front of them, and marching in--staggering in,
indeed, for they were very heavily laden--they followed the veteran
into a shattered courtyard, and from it down a flight of steps to a
gallery beneath--a wide gallery with earth roof and cemented floor,
along which ran steel rails.  Indeed, there was a trolley on those
rails, over which Henri stumbled.

"A trolley to run the ammunition round to the guns," the veteran
exclaimed, "but useless now, my Henri, quite useless," he chuckled.
"For, you see, the guns are behind the fort, and have already sent some
of their shells into the enemy."

"That being so, this trolley will do to carry our produce.  Pile your
ammunition here.  That's it.  Those ammunition-boxes will weigh less
heavily on you when stacked on this trolley.  Now, my friend, which
way?  We are in a deep gallery which seems to be lighted by tunnels
running to the outside.  Do we turn left or right, or whither?"

The veteran turned to his right without a word, while Henri and one of
the men followed, pushing the trolley.  Following the gallery, which
ran straight on for some fifty yards, they came to a point where the
inside walls had been rounded, and the rail swept in a gentle curve
round the corner and into the extension of the gallery.

"Halt!" shouted the veteran suddenly.  "This is the spot that I have
aimed for.  Now look!  On our left is a wide opening which enters the
hall in which the garrison could take their meals and sleep, and which
can accommodate, perhaps, at a squeeze, a thousand of them.  Right
opposite this entrance there is a stairway, and at its top another
room--one of a series of gun emplacements now empty.  It will do for
us, my Henri, I believe.  Let us ascend."

Taking up the ammunition-boxes at once, and leaving the trolley at the
foot of the stairs, the party scrambled upwards till they found
themselves in a square chamber lit by an embrasure in the wall, through
which the wintry rays percolated.  Standing just at the entrance, and
turning round, Henri discovered that, thanks to the height of the
opening into the big hall beneath the fort, he was able to look
directly into it, though the far end was hidden from view by the
stonework at the top.  A swift glance round the chamber which they had
reached showed him thick masonry all about, steel beams above, and iron
rails of circular pattern on the floor, on which the guns had been wont
to revolve.

"Well, then?" asked the veteran.

"It will do," Henri told him.  "But what we shall want is someone to
discover something with which to barricade the top of these stairs.
Let us divide ourselves into three parties.  Jules, you will command
one, our friend the corporal another, and this bearded chum of ours the
third.  Now, listen."

"Yes, listen to him, to our Henri," cried the veteran.  "For it's
agreed, is it not, my comrades, that he shall command us?"

"Certainly!" they all shouted.

"Then, here is the plan: our bearded friend stays here and sends a
portion of his command about the place to discover sacks of grain,
blocks of stone or of timber, anything, in fact, which will allow us to
build a wall across the top of the stairs.  Jules and his men will
descend the stairs and hunt round the fort, while our corporal and his
party will retrace their footsteps, pushing the trolley with them, and
will bring in to us as much food and as much small-arm ammunition as
they can find, and then boxes of ammunition for our machine-gun."

The band of resolute _poilus_, whose eyes were now sparkling with
excitement, for but a little while before they had resigned themselves
to capture by the enemy, now separated, each man bustling about; while
the veteran amongst them, Jules, and the corporal, snapped out orders,
barked them, indeed, and sent their willing men flying.  As for Henri,
he went hither and thither, first watching one lot of men and then
another; and, as they worked, as the veteran and his men sought for
obstacles, and by lucky chance found them--for it happened that the
French had stored sacks of grain for their transport animals in one of
the chambers--while Jules and his men reconnoitred their surroundings,
and the corporal, moving very swiftly and with intelligence, returned
more than once laden with supplies from outside, the snow-flakes still
whirled about the place, still enveloped the fort of Douaumont, to
obtain which the Germans had now spent so many lives--spent the lives
of their men indeed like water--and which they now almost surrounded.

Shells shrieked overhead, sent from those guns long since embedded in
concrete, down under shelter of the evergreen fir-trees surrounding the
salient of Verdun, while other shells, smaller missiles, shrieked and
exploded as they hurled their way hither and thither, cast at random
now, for the thick weather made shooting almost impossible.  There
came, too, through that embrasure, or through the gateway of the fort,
every now and again, the rattle of rifles, the sharp tap-tap of
machine-guns, and the snap and bark of the soixante-quinze as the
French sent their curtain-fire out beyond the plateau.  There was
fighting still to the left and to the right of the fort, in the
neighbourhood of Thiaumont farm and the village of Douaumont, while to
the right, towards Vaux, the flash of weapons was sometimes visible.
More than that, voices could be heard near at hand, the shouts of
Frenchmen somewhere, either in the fort or closely adjacent to it, and
presently the calls, the loud commands, of Germans.

It was, indeed, only half an hour later, when, thanks to the time given
to them, Henri's little command had stacked the chamber with an ample
supply of food and water, and procured such quantities of ammunition
that they might fire it almost all day long and yet have sufficient for
a week, that a terrific explosion shook the fortress, a huge German
shell having burst almost within it.  The far wall of that hall into
which Henri had looked, and which faced the bottom of the stairs giving
access to their chamber, fell in with a crash and clatter, the
semi-darkness existing there being made denser at once by the dust and
debris shot out by the explosion.  Then figures raced across the hall,
the figures of Frenchmen, coming from some point beyond, where Jules
and his party had failed to discover them, while, quickly following
them, could be seen German infantry--men of the Brandenburg Corps.

"Up here, up here!" shouted Henri, dashing down the stairs at once, and
calling to the men running towards him.  "Here are friends; come up the
stairs and join us."

In rapid succession those men dashed through the opening of the hall,
leapt up the stairs three at a time, and were dragged over the parapet
which the veteran _poilu_ had had erected.  Then Henri retreated
slowly, and, having rejoined his friends, sat down, rifle in hand, to
see what would happen.

"Tell me," he asked one of the men who had just joined their ranks, and
who was gasping for breath near him, "what has happened?"

"What has happened?  Ah!  They have driven our folks back from the
fort, which is now isolated.  We were holding on--I and perhaps a
hundred of my comrades--near the eastern end, and then the Germans,
having blasted the corner of the fort to pieces with that last shot,
charged from some trenches in which they were lying, within a hundred
metres perhaps, and burst their way into the place.  We could not hold
on any longer.  It was a case of flight, or death, or capture."

"And so you chose flight!  Good!" said Henri.  "We chose the same.
Here we are, snug in this place, with plenty of ammunition, and ready
and eager to continue fighting.  If any of you men understand a
machine-gun, get to the one we have, at once, and man it; the rest, who
have no rifles, can assist in any way that appeals to them.  Ah!  Watch
those fellows.  They are streaming into the hall.  There are
fifty--more--perhaps a hundred of them."

There were indeed considerably more of the Brandenburgers to be seen
when the dust from that shattered wall had subsided.  They came
streaming in to the darkened hall, dishevelled, their _Pickelhaubes_
gone in many cases, their rifles missing, their grey clothing now a
mass of caked mud, and their hands and faces of the same colour.
Shouting and bellowing their triumph, they massed in the room till an
officer made himself apparent.

"Those men?  Those Frenchmen who passed before us?" he asked in the
arrogant manner of the Prussian; "you killed them--eh?"

"No!  They went on ahead of us, up those stairs yonder," one of the men
answered.

"Then no doubt they are cut off, like rats in a trap.  Go in and kill
them."

Henri turned and whispered to his friends.

"You heard that?" he asked them.  "But perhaps you do not speak German.
Then I will translate; they say they have us here like rats in a trap,
and the order has been passed to come and kill us.  Well, personally, I
have a great objection to being killed, and I have every wish indeed to
kill our enemies.  Get ready!  Load!  Two hundred Germans shan't turn
us out of these quarters."



CHAPTER XV

Rats in a Trap

Douaumont Fort was captured.  But for that handful of men who had
nominated Henri as their leader, and who crouched behind the parapet of
grain-bags at the summit of the narrow flight of steps within the fort,
not a Frenchman remained to defend it.  The "pillar of the defence of
Verdun", as the Kaiser and his War Staff had termed it, was in their
hands, and at once the news was flashed broadcast across the States of
Germany and to every neutral country.

"Douaumont has fallen.  We hold the fortress firmly in our hands.  The
resistance of the French before Verdun is almost broken, and in a short
time we shall capture that city."

That was the gist of the _communiqué_ issued to the world--a
_communiqué_ which set the people of Germany, at this time rendered
anxious and despondent by the position in which they found themselves,
rejoicing and flying flags.  For, indeed, they needed some sort of
encouragement.  To east and west, and on the seas in all directions,
the Central Empires were hemmed in by a line of soldiers, steadily
growing stronger, and by ships of the British Fleet which daunted those
of the Germans.  True, at this date, looking at the map of Europe, the
Kaiser might crow and ask his people to behold the conquests their
troops and those of Austria and Bulgaria had gained for them.  There
was the greater part of Belgium, all but that thin strip running from
Ypres to Dunkirk; there was Luxembourg, that little State which had
been captured without even protest; there were the north-eastern
provinces of France, rich in iron ore and coal and iron industries; and
to the east there was the whole of Serbia; while all Poland and a
respectable slice of the Tsar's dominions were in his possession.

"See how we have succeeded!  Behold our conquests; won for us by the
blood and bravery of our soldiers!" the Kaiser had often called to his
people.

And yet that was only one side of the picture.  Territorial gains had
no doubt been obtained--territorial gains of no mean dimensions; but,
as we have inferred, and as the War Staffs of Austria and Germany knew
well enough, the troops of the Allied Powers were unbeaten, were
getting stronger every day, while those of the Central Powers were
becoming less numerous; and more than that--far more perhaps--was the
fact that trade for the Central Powers had ceased altogether.  Nothing
might come to either of these countries that did not first pass
inspection by the ships of the British fleet; and, as a consequence,
food-stuffs, raw material, everything, in fact, had practically ceased
to enter the country.  Thus food was short: bread was hardly
obtainable, though a substitute had been invented; while meat was a
luxury to be enjoyed only by the richest.  Yes, the condition of
affairs in Germany and Austria was none too exhilarating, and Austrians
and Germans alike needed some stimulus--something to hearten them, to
keep up their spirits and their courage.  And here was stimulus indeed.
The fort of Douaumont was captured--that fort which they had been led
to believe was heavily armed, was deemed impregnable indeed, and the
capture of which was a feat almost impossible of achievement, had
fallen to the valour of the Germans, to the valour indeed of the
Brandenburgers.  What then could prevent the fall of Verdun itself?
That indeed would compensate them for the hunger they suffered, and for
the cruel losses the French were inflicting upon their soldiers.

And but for Henri's little band, as we have said, the fortress of
Douaumont was captured.

"See them down in the hall, Henri, mon garçon," said the bearded
veteran, who crouched beside our hero, and who, indeed, seemed to have
taken him under his own particular protection--not that Henri needed
much protection from anyone, for at that moment as he sat there in
command of his detachment, he looked as resolute and capable a young
fellow as one might wish to meet.

"Yes, they are there, mon ami," he replied.  "I see them, and,
moreover, they too see us.  We shall hear from them shortly."

And hear from the Brandenburgers Henri and his party presently did.
For an officer dragged a much-soiled handkerchief from his pocket and
picked his way, over the tumbled masses of masonry littering the floor
of the hall beyond, towards the exit which gave access to the stairs.
Dapper and smart to a certain extent, though somewhat dishevelled by
the charge in which he had taken a share; arrogant, like the majority
of German officers, and bearing about his figure something which seemed
familiar to Henri, he stopped at that exit, and, looking up the
stairway, peered hard at the enemy.

"Above, there!" he called, and Henri and Jules instantly recognized his
voice.

"Our friend of Ruhleben--the fellow who was so anxious to shoot us the
other day when we tumbled into his bivouac in the forest.  Well, the
shooting will not be all on one side now," grinned Jules, his lips
close to Henri's ear, as they both peered over the top of the barricade.

"Above, there!" the German officer snapped again.  "Ah!  You will not
answer, then; though I know well enough that Frenchmen are there.
Well, let it be so!  But don't say that I have not warned you.  I give
you one minute to come down and surrender--after that, I will blow you
to pieces."

"How very violent!" laughed Jules, and his voice, reaching the ear of
that German officer, sent the blood flushing to his cheeks and his feet
stamping with rage.  "How very violent!  'Pon my word, Henri, this
fellow needs a lesson, for every time we've listened to him he's been
going to do something desperate--something desperate, that is, to other
people.  Shall we answer the beggar?"

"Yes.  We'll do the square thing.  A moment ago I had a mind to remain
quite still and silent, and let the fellow find out for himself what
sort of a place we had got; but we'll be quite fair with him, and then
there can't be any complaints.  Hallo, below there!" he called; "stand
where you are, and don't move forward or one of my men will shoot you.
You ask us to surrender, eh?"

"Ask you!" came the arrogant answer.  "Not at all--I command you!"

"And we take commands only from our own people.  Come and take us,"
Henri told him delightedly.  "Come and take us, if you can, but I warn
you to look out for the consequences."

The man below turned about with that precision to be found in the ranks
of the Kaiser's armies, and strutted back across the hall, his figure
lit up by the beams of light entering through shafts by which the
chamber was ventilated.  In less than a minute he had rejoined his men,
and for a while Henri and his friends watched as a consultation was
held.  Then, of a sudden, the men dispersed and were lost to view for
quite five minutes.

It was perhaps five minutes later when first one and then, perhaps, a
couple of dozen grey-coated figures slipped into view from behind the
tumbled masonry at the far end of the hall, and, darting to right or to
left or down the centre, flopped down behind masses of stone and cement
with which the floor was littered.

"Now keep down," Henri told his friends; "or, better still, keep right
away from the barricade, and report instantly if bullets contrive to
penetrate the sacks.  Personally, I don't think they will, for we've
piled them up two deep, and a bag of grain affords tremendous
opposition even to a sharp-pointed bullet.  Ah!  There goes the first!
Well, has it gone through?"

"No.  Nor will any others," the veteran told him, with a chuckle.  "We
are safe--safer, indeed, behind these bags, than if we had a stone wall
before us.  For, mon garçon, you understand there will be no
ricochetting, no splintering of bullets, no splashes of lead about us."

In a few minutes, as the firing from the hall down below became more
general, and thuds on the outer face of the wall of sacks became almost
continuous, it was borne in upon Henri and his gallant little band that
even bullets discharged at such point-blank range had for the moment
little danger for them.

"Then we'll line our wall," said Henri.  "It's not more than twelve
feet across, so that six men lying flat on their faces will be
sufficient for the purpose; six more will kneel down behind them, so as
to be ready to fire over the top of the barricade in case of a rush;
and our machine-gun man must squeeze himself into the midst of them.
Now, man the loopholes!"

It was a canny suggestion of the bearded veteran which had caused the
men assisting him to build the barricade to leave loopholes for the
rifles of the defenders, not only along the top of this improvised
wall, with bags placed so that the heads of those who fired would be
protected, but to leave apertures also just a foot from the bottom
through which men lying flat on their faces might fire down into the
hall.  As for the machine-gun, it was piled round with bags, just the
bare tip of the muzzle protruding, and, indeed, thanks to the dusk
which occluded the top of the stairs, giving no indication of its
presence to the enemy.  Thus, with the wall manned, and the remainder
of his little party squatting on the stone floor of the gun-chamber
ready to support their comrades, Henri and his men waited for perhaps
half an hour, during which time the fusillade from the men of the 24th
Brandenburg Regiment sent a hail of bullets in their direction.  They
thudded against the bags continuously, while often enough a missile
would strike the concrete ceiling of the chamber, and, ricochetting
from it, would mushroom against the opposite wall; some even struck the
walls limiting the stairway on either side, and, breaking off at a
tangent and exploding from the impact, scattered strips of nickel and
lead over the heads of the garrison.

"But it is nothing--nothing at all," that bearded veteran told his
friends; and, indeed, he was as good as a reinforcement of a hundred
men to them--so gay was he, so full of courage, so optimistic.  "Poof!
Who cares for noise?  Not you, my comrades, who have stood days now
when torrents of German shells were pouring on us, when our ears were
deafened by the guns of either side.  Then who cares for the scream and
the hiss of these bullets?  They are but a drizzle which follows a
storm."

"Get ready to support the others!" Henri commanded of a sudden, having
crept forward to the barricade and peered through one of the loopholes.
"That officer man is getting impatient, and, if the truth be known, he
is beginning to wonder if any of us are left up here; for, remember, we
have made no answer."

"An easy shot, eh?" Jules told his chum, gripping the rifle which he
had thrust through one of the upper loopholes.  "I could bring him down
like a bird, as easy as winking!  But I won't," he added of a sudden;
"no, for that would hardly be fair fighting."

A whistle sounded down in the hall below, and fifty or more grey-coated
figures rushed from the far end, where, no doubt, they were waiting out
of sight and under shelter.  Forming up across the hall, they were
given a sharp order, and almost at once dashed forward.

"They are coming!" Henri called softly to his following.  "Don't show
as much as a finger, if you can help it.  Open fire only when they get
to the exit from the hall, and cease fire immediately you have checked
their dash towards us."

Rat-a-tat-tat!  Rat-a-tat-tat!  The machine-gun opened with two short
bursts just as the Brandenburgers reached the foot of the staircase,
while the Frenchmen manning the loopholes opened a furious fire, which
first checked the rush of the enemy and then drove the survivors
backwards.  Indeed, in one minute they were all out of sight, and even
those who had been sniping at the barricade had disappeared entirely.

"But it will not be for long; no, my friends," Henri told his party.
"That dash is in the form of a reconnaissance, I expect; though, no
doubt, they hardly expected to meet with such resistance."

"Bien!  We shall hear from them again shortly," Jules laughed; while
the bearded veteran banged one broad hand down on his thigh and
chuckled loudly.

"Yes, indeed!  Yes, indeed!  We shall hear from them, and they shall
hear from us, and our voices will be as loud as any Prussian's.  But,
my Henri, though you are already a commander, and have won our hearts,
yet your inexperience of command has led you to forget one thing which
is essential."

Henri started.  Unconsciously he had been carrying on the work just as
he would have done had he and Stuart and Jules been alone together;
that is to say, he had just done his best, and no one could do more.
Then what was it that he had forgotten, this essential point which a
commander of experience would certainly not have omitted?  He gaped at
the veteran, who thereupon laughed and chuckled even more loudly.

"Listen, then, my Henri.  You ask us to fight these Boches, to drive
them back, to keep them out so that we may hold the fort for France and
for Grand-père Joffre, and, of a truth, we would gladly do that.  But
listen, then.  Men must eat to fight, and drink also, to retain their
strength; for if men are not strong, how then can they fight as
soldiers, my Henri?  The hour has come for food, and is there not food
and drink here in abundance?"

There were smiles all round at that; and presently the little garrison
were seated close behind their barricade, where two men kept watch upon
the enemy so that the rest could not be surprised, while the others ate
the rations which forethought had caused them to bring into the fort,
and took cautious draughts from their store of water.  Then, having
finished their meal, they drew cigarettes and pipes from their pockets,
and presently a thick cloud of smoke almost hid the faces of Henri's
detachment, and quite a column of it blew out from the aperture through
which the gun, long since removed, had been wont to project its muzzle.

"Begins to look as though they intended to leave us alone, or perhaps
they have been driven out of the fortress," said Jules, tiptoeing along
from one of the loopholes.  "There's not a sound down below, and not a
single Prussian has put in an appearance.  Perhaps our fellows have
come up again, eh?  Why not?  And may be already above us and all about
us."

"No.  It is not so," called one of the garrison whom Henri had posted
at the gun-embrasure, "for I have been watching here since we came to
this chamber.  The French troops have been driven back on to the
plateau--not far, my friends, you will understand, not very far, but
still far enough to take them hopelessly beyond us.  No.  We are cut
off here; and if those Boches have left us alone for a while, and
allowed us to enjoy a meal, it is not because they have forgotten.
Maybe they are preparing a new attack; perhaps they have been engaged
in consolidating their position; in any case, we shall hear from them
again, and sooner rather than later."

The attack, when it did come, was indeed sudden and unexpected.  A
shout came from one of the men watching at the loopholes; and, darting
forward, Henri discerned at once numbers of figures, which, dashing
from the background, were rushing across the hall towards them.
Indeed, half a dozen of the Brandenburgers were already at the exit
from the hall, and as he looked through a loophole they leapt on the
first step of the stairway.

"To your places!" he shouted.  "Open fire!  Supports get ready to come
forward!"

Bang!  There was the sharp report of a rifle from down below, a sudden
piercing cry, and one of the defenders fell heavily against our hero.
An instant later the wall of bags shook while a German bayonet
transfixed one of the upper tier, and tore it from its position.  Then
the machine-gun opened, deafening all within the chamber, lighting by
its flash the scene of the conflict; while the men at the loopholes
blazed into the lines of Germans who were now swarming on the stairway.

That flimsy wall of bags filled with corn shook and swayed as bodies of
frantic Germans, slaughtered by the defenders, fell heavily against it;
while one huge Brandenburger who had leapt in advance of his friends,
and who had been caught by a bullet fired from one of the loopholes,
fixed a dying clutch on the summit of the wall, and held on
convulsively for a few moments.  Then, with a piercing scream, he fell
backwards, carrying with him some two feet of the top of the slender
defence which Henri and his friends had erected.

"Man the gap," shouted Henri at once, flinging himself towards the
opening, and disentangling himself from another of the defenders who
had fallen against him.  "Bring bags up from behind and fill in the gap
while we defend it."

What a pandemonium there was in that comparatively narrow space up
which the stone steps ascended, and across the top of which the
barricade of corn-sacks had been erected.  Every step was crammed with
Brandenburgers, while down below, in the gallery along which the
miniature railway ran, which, with its truck, had proved of such
service, the exit from the huge hall in the shattered interior of the
fort, and that hall itself, were packed with shouting individuals, with
men pressing forward to the attack, with fallen soldiers, and with
wounded who called in shrill accents to their comrades.  Those at the
top of the stairs were bellowing with anger, and some with fear; for,
forced on by the press from behind, and beaten by the opposition of the
Frenchmen, they were, as it were, between two fires, and escape, and
even the power of defence, were out of the question.  They dropped,
indeed, as Henri and his friends fired amongst them; while the bearded
veteran, setting a splendid example to his comrades, leapt on to some
of the fallen bags, and, leaning over the swaying wall, made havoc
amongst the Germans with his bayonet.  Then of a sudden the shouts died
away, there was a rush of steps on the stairway, and silence--a silence
which was almost painful, which seemed to smite the ear of those
gallant men holding the gun embrasure and the chamber.

[Illustration: THAT BEARDED VETERAN, LEANING OVER THE SWAYING WALL,
MADE HAVOC AMONG THE GERMANS WITH HIS BAYONET"]

"It was hot work, my Henri, while it lasted," chuckled the bearded
_poilu_ as he wiped the sweat from his forehead, and stood up after
having deposited a fresh bag in its place; "but, mon Dieu! those
Brandenburgers fight like the devil!  And how they hate us; and how we
hate them!  Yes, yes!  This is a war to the death!  This is fighting
for France!  And only over our bodies shall they advance towards Paris.
Comrades, we are holding them back.  We here in the remains of this
fortress, we are helping to keep the Kaiser's hordes away from the
interior of France; helping, too, to rob him of victory and conquest."

Yes, indeed!  The violent efforts of these men were helping not a
little to check the advance of the enemy, just as the heroic fighting
of the French all along the battered trenches round the salient of
Verdun was assisting in defeating the enemy's object.  We have said
already that the conquest and capture of Verdun alone could be of no
particular or material benefit to the Kaiser and his armies.  Verdun
was, as it were, merely an empty shell, a sleepy old town in the hollow
by the River Meuse, overshadowed by heights which formed the major
portion of that salient held by our ally.  Forts there were in
abundance--forts, as we have said, long since dismantled.  Yet in
Germany the tale spread by the German War Staff, that Verdun was
heavily armed and considered impregnable, was thoroughly believed, just
as it was confidently believed that the valour of the Kaiser's soldiers
would snatch it from the enemy.

This terrible World War had come, at this stage, to a period when the
spirits of Germans and Austrians were failing, when some stimulus was
sadly needed, and when the courage of the people was hardly what it had
been when the conflict opened.  Who knows?  Who can state with
certainty what was the real object of the German War Staff in launching
an attack upon such an impregnable position--impregnable not because of
those dismantled forts and the guns which had once filled them, but
because of the nature of the terrain, those hills with their steep
escarpments, and those positions on the left or western bank of the
Meuse which gave such splendid opportunity to the defenders to outflank
with their guns those attacking the northern portion of the salient.
Perhaps a sensational capture of Verdun was the objective of the
Germans, merely with the idea that it would act as a stimulus to the
peoples of the Central Empires.  More likely, finding themselves
getting weaker as the months drew on, and terrible losses reduced their
fighting effectives, the Kaiser and his war lords were determined to
risk all in one mighty effort--an effort which should break through the
French line at Verdun, thus bringing kudos to the armies of Prussia,
and at the same time demoralizing the French soldiers.  Who knows?
They may have hoped to dash through the gap thus formed, and once more
advance on Paris.  In any case, they were well aware of the phenomenal
rise in power of the British forces.  Five million men had volunteered
to fight for king and country; and now, on the top of that, there was
news that Great Britain had adopted conscription; every man up to the
age of forty-one was to become a soldier, was to fight for that liberty
dear to all Britons.

Then, seeing that Germany's forces were rapidly dwindling, a blow must
be struck now--a sensational blow--which would, it was hoped, break the
power of France before those British reinforcements could reach her.
Later, Germany might still have strength to tackle Britain alone; and
in that case this risky, if determined, attack on Verdun would be worth
the price paid for it.

To France then, and the French armies at Verdun, all eyes were turned,
for at this moment she held the fate of the Allies in her hands.  Let
her hold on to Verdun, let her defeat the Germans there by successful
resistance, and hold off the enemy till that hour arrived, now fast
approaching, when fresh British forces would have sailed for France,
and have taken their place beside the _poilus_.  Every little helped;
and the fierce encounter taking place beneath the shattered roof of the
fortress of Douaumont was assisting not a little.

"They will come again, later on, perhaps, when it is dark," Henri told
his friends, "and we must make ready to resist them.  Pile up the bags
and place them three deep now, for during the last attack they were
nearly pulled over.  After that there's little for us to do but to wait
and smoke.  Of fighting we shall have our full before this little
business is ended."

Darkness came on after a while, and presently the gloom within the
fortress was so deep that even the walls lining the stairway were
invisible, nor had any of the party any means of illuminating them, or
of lighting up the interior of the hall held by the Brandenburgers.
All they could do was to crouch behind their wall and listen for the
attack which they knew must be coming.  Then, of a sudden, there was a
violent explosion just outside their wall, and one farther back in the
chamber which they occupied.  Hand-grenades had been thrown by the
enemy, and hardly had the explosions taken place than there was the
sound of another charge, and a horde of men dashed up the stairs and
flung themselves upon the barricade which the _poilus_ were defending.



CHAPTER XVI

A Fight to a Finish

A growl came from the man seated at the breech end of the machine-gun:

"Bah!  It is smashed!  That grenade has burst the casing and shaken the
whole apparatus.  Give me a rifle, one of you."

He searched in the darkness for the weapon, and indeed there were
enough and to spare now, for the bomb which had lit in the chamber, and
had exploded in that confined space, had damaged not a few of the
defenders.  It had stunned the majority of them, in fact, so that now,
as they manned the barricade, they were half-stupid, more than
half-deafened, and hardly knew what had happened.  Henri and Jules,
leaning against the bags and peering out into the darkness, could see
the flash of men's rifles as they fired from below, and caught a
glimpse of dusky figures.  Then they felt the wall wobble, while
something struck Henri a blow on the arm, and, stretching out his hand,
he gripped first a pole and then an iron hook at the end of it.  But it
was only one of half a dozen such implements, which German cunning had
suggested.  They were at work then all about him.  Those hooks caught
in the upper layer of bags, and at once they were dragged outwards;
Others followed, and even the storm of bullets from the rifles of the
defenders could not stop them.  Indeed, in quite a short space of time
the better part of the barricade on which the defenders had counted had
been swept away, dragged down the stairs, and flung into the passage.

"Bayonets ready!" shouted Henri grimly.  "We have got to cut our way
out of this place and through the Brandenburgers.  Make ready!"

He could feel men swarming up beside him, and heard Jules at his left
shouting encouragement to them.  Then one of the poles armed with an
iron hook, failing to catch a bag, became entangled in his clothing,
and in a trice, before he knew where he was, Henri was dragged over the
remnants of the wall, and found himself floundering down the stairway.
A minute later, with a loud shout, the _poilus_ charged over him,
making play with their bayonets to right and to left, and driving the
Germans backward.  Then, in that narrow gallery at the foot of the
stairway, and at the wide exit from the hall, there took place as
desperate a combat as had ever been in the whole of this desperate
warfare.  Men used their bayonets till the weapons were beaten out of
their hands, or clubbed their rifles and swung them overhead.  Then,
undefeated though outnumbered, they gripped their enemies about the
waist and wrestled with them, while some, a few only, for the art does
not come naturally to the _poilu_, dealt swinging blows with their
fists, and, driving a way through the Germans, escaped into the
passage.  It was a mêlée in which all was confusion, in which shouts
deafened the combatants, a pack of struggling, bellowing men, which
seemed as if it would fill the place for ever, and which, as so often
happens, suddenly burst asunder and scattered.

An hour later, when Henri recovered consciousness--for he had been
stunned by his fall--he found himself lying at the foot of the
stairway, his legs still resting on the last steps and his head on the
narrow railway.  A man lay across his body--a huge, beefy individual of
extraordinary weight, who pressed him hard against the concrete.  There
were other men lying all about him--dead men, no doubt, for they made
no movement--while the stairs themselves, what was left of the parapet
of bags which he and his comrades had erected, and the entrance to the
gun  chamber above, were littered with soldiers, French and German.
Strangely enough, though the place had been sunk in darkness during
that last desperate attack, it was now illuminated, not brilliantly, it
is true, but sufficiently for him to be able to make out his
surroundings and to discern objects.

With a desperate effort, Henri contrived to throw off the dead weight
which lay across him, and, raising his head slowly, peered in all
directions, feeling dazed and shaken, and as yet hardly appreciating
what had happened.  Then, little by little, he realized the situation,
realized that his band of noble _poilus_ had broken up, that many,
indeed, lay dead about him, and that the rest had scattered, perhaps
had been dragged off as prisoners, and perhaps--and how he hoped
it--had gained the open and had made their way back to the French lines.

"Better be careful.  Better be a little cautious," he told himself,
beginning to peer over the broad back of a man who lay beside him.
"That's that hall in which the Brandenburgers had taken up their
quarters.  Why, they've a fire burning, and are eating a meal round it.
And--and--who's that?  I've seen that chap before; who is he?"

In his semi-dazed condition he was horribly puzzled, and, shading his
eyes with one trembling hand, peered round the corner of the entrance
to that hall at the group occupying its centre.  There were perhaps a
hundred Brandenburgers seated in a wide straggling ring round a fire
which blazed in their midst, and which lit up their surroundings and
threw long shadows upon what was left of the concrete walls of the
fortress.  The beams from those flickering flames fell too upon another
group--a group, it seemed, of officers--occupying a retired corner, and
upon two solitary individuals who stood near by under the eye of a
sentry squatting on a block of masonry not far from them.  It gave, no
doubt, some indication of the strenuous time through which Henri had
passed, and of his stunned condition, that it was quite two minutes
before in one of those figures he recognized Jules--the jovial Jules,
sadly dishevelled now, his helmet gone, his clothing torn, and a
blood-stained handkerchief round his forehead.  Yet it was the old
Jules--that cheery, optimistic, unconquerable individual--looking about
him with a careless air and watching the Brandenburgers as they laughed
and smoked and chatted as if he would have gladly joined them.  That,
indeed, was one of the characteristics of the gallant Jules; he could
fight like a tiger if need be, though always with a smile on his lips,
and, when the time for fighting had gone, no more friendly individual
could have been discovered.  Yes, it was Jules, a prisoner, and with
him another of the _poilus_ who had formed one of Henri's party.

"Wait a moment!  Jules right enough!" said Henri, still inclined to be
doubtful; for his limbs shook, his head wobbled badly, and his eyes
were bloodshot and almost incapable of seeing.  "But, who's that other
fellow--the chap up in the corner, with his helmet tilted back, that
swaggering beggar who's laying down the law to the officers with him?
Jingo!  That man!  Good Heavens!"

No wonder that he gave vent to such an exclamation, for now, as his
shaken brain slowly cleared, and his eyes, becoming more accustomed to
the flickering light, enabled him to see better, he realized that not
only was his old friend a prisoner amongst the Brandenburgers, but that
one of their officers--their commanding officer it seemed--was indeed
none other than that individual whom he had accosted earlier.  The man
seemed to be dogging Henri's footsteps.  For, consider: it was he who
had followed the two young Frenchmen and the bulky Stuart along that
tunnel when they were escaping from Ruhleben; it was he again with that
party of officers into whose midst Henri and Jules had stumbled the
other evening when out on a reconnaissance; and, once more, it was he
who had demanded the surrender of the garrison manning that gun-chamber.

"Bah!  He again!" growled Henri.  "When lots of other
Brandenburgers--better Brandenburgers, I should say--have been killed
by our fire, he is still living, and he's the man who wanted to shoot
us out of hand down in the forest.  Wonder whether he's recognized
Jules already?"

He had no need to wonder for very long, for hardly had he made this
last discovery when the officer in question--that arrogant, snappy
little individual, who peered about him with an indefinite something
which stamped him as a man of lower caste, one who had gained promotion
from the ranks--rose to his feet, a cigarette in the corner of his
mouth, and swaggered towards the prisoners, his hands thrust deep in
his pockets, his head pushed forward, and a truculent, domineering,
brutal air about him.  Halting in front of the two prisoners, he gave
them the benefit of a stare which would have been rude at any time, and
which even warfare hardly excused, and then, without the smallest
warning, so swiftly in fact that Henri was staggered, he suddenly drew
one hand out of his pocket and dealt Jules a blow across the jaw with
his open hand which sent that young fellow staggering.

"Ha, ha!  That moved you," the German laughed, turning his head over
his shoulder to make sure that his brother officers had watched the
movement.  "That's stirred you up, my friend!  Yes, my friend--for
don't forget we have met before, haven't we?  What, you don't remember?
Then let me tell you: at Ruhleben, my friend, my Frenchman--at
Ruhleben, where I happen to remember very thoroughly the manner in
which you treated me.  Do you forget, then?  Do you deny that it was
you who crept through that tunnel, and, breaking a hole through the
earth beyond the entanglements, reached the open; and later, when I
followed--having dared the journey along the tunnel--you and that huge
brute of an Englishman--that swine of an Englishman--who was with you,
pulled me up as if I were a puppy and threw me back again, shaking the
teeth out of my head almost?  Burr!"

The little dried-up German officer's eyes flashed vengefully as he
spoke of the matter, and he was all the more incensed an instant later
when, rather anticipating some fun--for to the German comrades of this
officer the ill-treatment of a prisoner was certainly fun--these men
drew nearer, and, hearing his words, one of them--a huge, fat, unwieldy
person, with flabby cheeks and pendulous chin, to say nothing of the
huge girth which he presented--giggled and chortled loudly, and
suddenly placed a heavy hand on the lieutenant's shoulder--a hand the
weight of which caused him to stagger.

"Drew you out like a puppy, ho?" he shouted.  "Drew our dear Max up out
of the earth as a bird draws a worm; and then had the daring, the
effrontery, to dash our immaculate, if not extremely dignified friend
backward till his teeth shook.  Ho!  That's fun!  And how one would
like to see the thing repeated!"

The steely-grey eyes of Lieutenant Max turned towards this hulking
German, and shot at him a glance which was angry and threatening, a
glance, however, which failed altogether to impress the man who had
addressed him.  For this hulking officer roared with laughter, and
shook to such an extent that the wreaths of fat on his body wobbled.

"But this is fine!" he shouted, "We have roused the lion in our little
Max, and he is angry--angry with me, mark you, my friends--because I
would like to see repeated something which no doubt was most
entertaining.  But, surely, Max, you were not defeated by this fellow,
this puny Frenchman?"

The big German ran a pair of critical eyes over the dishevelled figure
of Jules, standing helpless before him, eyes which nevertheless did not
fail to note the determined look of this young man, his unflinching
attitude, and the gleam of anger which came from behind his eyes, and
which threatened retaliation.  Yes, at that very moment the impetuous
Jules, stung by the blow which Max had dealt him, and understanding
every word that passed, was on the eve of throwing himself upon the
German; and then, as he glanced from one to the other, and helplessly
round the hall at the backs of the Brandenburgers--indifferent to what
befel their prisoners--to the exit from that hall and the stairway
beyond it, at the summit of which he and Henri and those other comrades
had put up such a fight, his wandering eyes lit upon the figures of
Germans and Frenchmen--the fallen men who had grappled at the foot of
the stairs--and, passing from one to another, came upon a face, an
eager face, wherein two eyes were set--eyes which were staring hard in
his direction.  The face moved, while the owner of it sat up a little
and held up a warning finger.

"Henri!" exclaimed Jules, and at once took command of himself, and
pulled his somewhat shaken frame up at attention.

"What's that?" demanded the big German abruptly.  "See, Max, he is
defying you, this fellow.  And you say that he drew you out of the
earth and threw you back, almost shaking the teeth out of your head?
Unbelievable!  Yet, if it is true, why, no Brandenburger will sit still
under such an insult."

The jeering laughter of this giant, the covert smiles and the outspoken
remarks of other German officers, sent the blood flaring again to Max's
cheeks.  He scowled, first at one and then at others of his comrades;
and, turning once more to the prisoner, and catching at that moment a
gleam of defiance from his eyes, struck out again with one hand and
almost floored the unfortunate and helpless Jules.

"That to commence with," he told him, "and then to finish the matter.
I don't forget, mind you, the blow that you landed on my body in that
forest the other night.  No, believe me, I, Max, forget nothing of that
sort.  Then I would have had you shot out of hand, though the occasion
was not convenient; but now there is no reason why the execution should
not be carried out.  You are an escaped prisoner of war; you have
assaulted a German officer in the execution of his duty; and here you
are, captured, defying the captors of the Fort of Douaumont.  March him
to the far end of the hall, and call out half a dozen of those guzzling
fellows to shoot him."

The armed sentry, who had stood by all this while, taking but little
notice of the scene, looking tired and bored and as if he longed to
join his comrades, pulled himself together, and, shouldering his rifle,
gave a husky order.

"Over there!" he called.  "Stand up against the wall!  Sergeant Huefer,
the officer requires a shooting-party."

The selfsame Sergeant Huefer, at that moment engaged in finishing a
hasty meal, looked round and scowled; and then, seeing the snappy
little German officer, called Max, looking at him, stood up promptly.

"A shooting-party, sir?" he asked.

"A shooting-party," came the abrupt answer.  "Draw them up in front of
those two prisoners."

"Two!" exclaimed the big German officer, who with the others was
watching the scene.

"Yes, two," snapped Max, swinging round upon him, ready to vent his
anger on any one of them.

"But wait!  Not two; one only--the escaped prisoner of war, who struck
you."

The big German and this snappy little fellow, Max, stared at one
another, the former looking urbane and jovial and unconcerned, whilst
Max was trembling with rage.  He could have kicked this big German who
ventured to obstruct him, and who seemed about to thwart his purpose.
Yet Max was a careful individual, who had indeed worked his way upwards
in the German army, and obtained slow if certain promotion, by constant
observation of the regulations.  The shooting of captured Frenchmen was
one thing--a common enough thing no doubt--but disobedience, defiance
of a senior officer, was an altogether different matter, and this big,
hulking German happened to be Max's senior by a very slender margin.
So slender, indeed, that the position was almost doubtful.  Indeed, at
that moment neither Max nor this big German could say which of the two
was the senior in rank, and entitled to command this party, though it
happened that the bigger of the two was not a Brandenburger, but
belonging to some other corps, who had by chance fallen in with the
party told off to attack the fort of Douaumont, and so found himself
amidst its captors.  For a moment, then, the two regarded one another,
Max flaming with anger, defiant, on the point of abruptly ordering this
hulking individual to mind his own business.  And then that sense of
discretion which had helped him in the past came to his assistance, and
he forced a smile--an unwilling smile--while his eyes flashed a
vengeful glance at his opponent.

"Then you object?" he asked sharply.  "Well, then, let it be one--the
prisoner of war.  We will shoot him, and get it over quickly.
Sergeant, march the firing-party forward, I will give the word to
shoot."

Still shaken, his head swimming yet after that struggle on the
stairway, his bloodshot eyes fixed upon the figures of Jules, of the
officers, and of Sergeant Huefer and the party of men he was now
parading, Henri never felt more helpless in all his life before.  He
felt pinned to the spot, incapable of action; and, indeed, common
sense--what little of it he still possessed after the blow which had
rendered him unconscious--told him that action of any sort was useless.
Yet, could he see a friend, an old chum, a comrade as dear to him as
any brother, shot down in cold blood in front of these leering men?
Could he watch him put up as a target, to be butchered by these
unfeeling Germans?  No.  The thought that Jules's fate hung heavily in
the balance, that some desperate action on his part might bring him
assistance, spurred Henri to movement, and, rising to his knees, he
groped his way towards the entrance to the hall wherein the
firing-party were then assembling.  As he crawled across the bodies
then littering the gallery along which the tiny railway ran, and
crossed the foot of the stairway, his hand lit upon a rifle, which he
seized instantly and raised to his shoulder.  Then he dropped it again,
for the movement was too much for him, and, stumbling forward, fell on
his face, his head swimming once more, his brain in a whirl, and his
pulses beating in his ears till he was deafened.  It was just at the
moment when Sergeant Huefer, undisturbed by the task allotted to him,
in fact, eager to finish off the prisoner and get back to his meal,
gave a short, sharp order and set his firing-squad in motion, that
Henri's outstretched fingers came into contact with another object--a
round, cylindrical object attached to a short stick, a hand-grenade,
one of those bombs which had helped to blow in the barricade which he
and his gallant _poilus_ had erected at the top of the stairway.

With an effort he pulled himself together, and, gripping the stick,
felt for the safety-pin, removal of which would allow explosion of the
grenade once it came into contact with any body.  Then, rising to his
knees, and unsteadily to his feet, he stretched out his left hand to
the wall, while with his right he swung the hand-grenade backwards and
forwards.  By then the firing-party had been halted in front of Jules,
who, head in air and arms folded, stood against the far wall.

"Load!" he heard the command ring out and echo down the gallery.
"Present!"

Up went the rifles to the shoulders.

Henri gave a sharp jerk to the handle of the grenade as he loosened his
hold of it, and sent it flying forward into the hall, where it landed a
moment later--landed, indeed, within a foot of the fire which the men
had built in the centre of this big place, and about which they had
been seated.  There followed a blinding flash, a thundering detonation,
and then shouts and shrieks and groans, and clouds of dust and falling
debris.  An instant later, Henri had fallen backward into the gallery,
and lay, much as he had lain before, among the bodies of those who had
taken part in the fight on the stairway.

[Illustration: "THE GRENADE LANDED WITHIN A FOOT OF THE FIRE ABOUT
WHICH THE MEN HAD BEEN SEATED"]



CHAPTER XVII

Charge of the Gallant Bretons

Let us for the moment leave Henri and Jules in the centre of the ruins
of Fort Douaumont, and return for a few brief seconds to that gallant
yet dangerously small force of Frenchmen, who, until this moment, had
been fighting to check the advance of the Germans about the town of
Verdun.

Five days of the most terrific fighting had passed.  Five days of
incessant bombardment from massed German guns, which had literally
blown the defenders out of their trenches.  And during those few days,
when the French lines to the north of the salient and to the east of
the River Meuse were driven in till they rested near Vacherauville, on
the Meuse, and ran from thence to Thiaumont and Douaumont Fort and
Vaux, and so back to the Meuse again, French efforts had not been
confined alone to local fighting.

On the very first day, indeed, what had been strongly suspected before
became abundantly apparent, and it was clear that a German attack of
unprecedented force and violence on the salient of Verdun was to be
expected.  The weight of artillery alone which for all those hours had
been pouring a torrent of shells on the heights of the Meuse was
sufficient to indicate the nature of the German preparations.  A
thousand guns, directing their missiles on one sector of the long line
of trenches wriggling across the north-eastern provinces of France, was
no unusual feature of this extraordinary and gigantic warfare, but here
there were not one thousand guns alone but many more, many hundreds
more, probably even in excess of two thousand; while, moreover, the
troops of the Kaiser, debouching from the woods, marching up those
ravines giving access to the plateau of Douaumont, and massing behind
evergreen firs farther away, as discerned by the air-pilots of our
ally, disclosed the fact that those massed guns were to be supported by
an equally enormous concentration of troops--a concentration which
could have been effected only for one purpose.  In short, and in fact,
it was clear that this was to be no ordinary attack on the salient of
Verdun, but a gigantic offensive--one which would demand a numerous
defending force and guns in proportion.

But the movement of troops from one area of the field to another is a
comparatively slow process at the best of times, for it must be
remembered that, behind the fighting-lines of such an army as opposed
the Germans, rails are always more or less congested, while an enormous
mass of vehicles ply the roads, bringing up ammunition and food, and
hundreds of other articles necessary for the fighters.  Time, then, was
required in which to gather French forces, and time in which to rush
them over the rails, and by motor-transport along the roads, to the
neighbourhood of Verdun, and then to push them up to the fighting-line.

Those gallant fellows who had faced the first rush of the Germans, who
had stood under a tornado of shells, and who had held on to their
positions so desperately, were fighting all the while, not so much to
hold the particular positions in which they were, as to gain time, to
resist as long as possible, to thwart the enemy in his intentions, to
delay his advance, and to keep him away from the main line of defence
till such time as reinforcements could reach them.  Very gallantly had
the thin line of heroes carried out their purpose, holding on, often
enough, till they were killed to the last man.  They had made the
Kaiser's troops pay dearly for every inch of ground; and, whereas the
German High Command had confidently expected to reach Verdun within a
day or two, five days had passed, and yet, in spite of overwhelming
gun-fire and masses of troops, the French had only just retired to
their main defensive position.

Douaumont stood on that line.  Douaumont, which the Kaiser had told his
people was the corner-stone of the salient which he hoped to capture;
and Douaumont, as we know, had fallen already to the Brandenburgers.
Yet behind Douaumont, behind the Côte du Poivre and the Côte de Talou,
there existed yet miles of upland plateau before the city of Verdun
could be reached--miles which the Germans must cross before they could
hope to complete its capture.

We have seen how, attempting to follow up their drive to the north, the
French guns on Mort Homme and Hill 304 had outflanked the Germans, and
had driven them from the Côte de Talou and the Côte du Poivre.  We have
followed their movements later, when, abandoning the drive in a
southerly direction over the slopes of the Côte du Poivre, the German
war lords caused their armies to swerve to the east to face the fort of
Douaumont and to march towards it.  Let us anticipate their movements
by a little, and say that, having captured the fort--a mere empty and
cracked vessel--they found themselves still faced by the French, who
had retired only a short distance beyond it; and who, reinforced that
very night by the 20th Corps--as dashing a corps as ever
existed--counter-attacked with furious energy, and advanced their lines
till they surrounded the captured fort on three sides, and held,
indeed, a portion of the interior.  There, in that position, they dug
themselves in firmly, and though the Germans continued to attack that
portion of the line with a fury never before exceeded, and with utter
disregard of the losses they suffered, not for weeks did they so much
as dent it.  Like the Côte de Talou, and the approaches from the north,
Douaumont and the neighbouring trenches defied them; and, tiring, as it
were, of the venture in that direction, yet determined as ever to
capture Verdun and the salient, they once more changed their line of
attack.  Crossing the Meuse, they flung their details against the Mort
Homme and Hill 304, hoping to capture those positions and sweep away
the guns which enfiladed the Côte du Poivre.  The removal of these
would allow them to continue that advance from the north which
threatened to shorten the base of the salient and to capture its
defenders.

If we were to venture to describe every attack made by the Germans,
every gallant defence of the French _poilus_, and the course in detail
of the terrific conflict which raged--and, indeed, still rages as we
write--round the salient of Verdun, we should require a multiplicity of
chapters.  For, indeed, foiled at the outset by the failure of their
giant attack to do more than drive the French on to their main
positions, in spite of the huge advantage of a surprise effected on the
21st February, and forced, as it were, by public opinion--the opinion
of Germans at home, of their Austrian allies, and of every neutral
country in the world--the Kaiser's war lords kept desperately at the
task of subduing the salient.  Not one, but dozens of assaults were
made either upon the Mort Homme and Hill 304 positions, or upon the
plateau of Douaumont, extending at times to the farm of Thiaumont, and
later, after weeks and weeks of conflict, to the fort of Vaux and the
trenches south of it.  The most gigantic attack on any one position
that has ever been recorded in the history of the world was accompanied
by other facts hitherto never seen in warfare.

The hosts of German troops concentrated on the face of the salient
approached at times three-quarters of a million, and needed constant
replenishment; for French 75's, machine-gun and rifle-fire bit deep
into the ranks, and soldiers--hundreds of them, nay, thousands--fell,
till the slopes leading to Mort Homme and to the gentle wooded heights
of the Meuse became a mere shambles.  Four months of fighting, indeed,
found General Joffre and his brave troops still holding the line, still
selling inches of the hills when the pressure became too great or the
enemy gun-fire too fierce to be withstood--selling those inches at a
price which can only be termed grisly and exorbitant--and now and again
counter-attacking, when pressure from the enemy had forced them to
yield ground of vital value.

Yes, after four months of terrific fighting, Verdun, that sleepy old
town down by the River Meuse, and the lines of trenches surrounding it
which formed that historic salient of which we have written, were still
in the hands of the French, still denied the Germans; while the losses
inflicted upon the latter, the increasing pressure of the British, now
in crowded ranks along the Western Front--so crowded, indeed, that
already a fourth army had taken over lines from the French, thus
yielding reserves for further fighting at Verdun--that increasing
pressure and a sudden brilliantly successful offensive on the part of
the Russians in Galicia were putting the Kaiser and his war lords in a
sad predicament.  They, too, needed reserves: reserves to feed those
horrible gaps at Verdun; reserves to march against the British Front;
reserves to rail to Russia, there, if it were possible, to stem the
tide of Muscovite troops pouring through the broken Austrian lines on
their way to Vienna and Berlin.

Let us leave the combatants there to return to Jules and Henri.
Pandemonium reigned in that huge battered hall of the fort of Douaumont
when the bomb which Henry had thrown had done its work in the midst of
the Germans.  The fire hitherto burning so cheerfully in the centre of
the darkened hall was scattered in every quarter, leaving glowing
embers in odd corners and crannies.  Had there been more light upon the
surroundings, many of the men, seated but a moment or so before, would
have been seen stretched on the ground, killed by the explosion.  That
big officer, who, still chuckling, had looked on at the preparations
for Jules's execution, might have been seen leaning against the outer
wall of the fort, his tunic torn and burned, a red pool collecting on
the flags beside him, his jaw dropped, his eyes wide open, insensible
and dying.  And of Max, that little snappy officer, not a sign would
have been found.  For, like every surviving man who had stood in the
hall, he had bolted.  A hand gripped Jules suddenly, as he lay gasping
against the wall.

"Who's that?" he demanded breathlessly.  "Hands off, or I'll choke
you," and, shaken though he was by the explosion, he prepared to throw
himself upon the individual who had accosted him.

"Jules, is that you, Jules?" came a feeble voice, and almost at the
same moment a heavy form flopped down beside him and straightway rolled
across him.

It was Henri, as unconscious at that instant as was the big German,
chuckling but a minute earlier.

"Henri!" Jules shouted; "Henri, what's happened?  Are you killed like
the rest of them?"

Evidently the gallant Henri was nothing of the sort, for, opening his
eyes and staring out into the darkness, he growled a denial.

"Dead?  Not much!  but soon shall be if we stay here long enough for
those fellows to bring lights," he grumbled.  "If they bring lights
they'll get us, and then----"

"You needn't mention the rest of the details.  Pull yourself together!"
Jules told him.  "Here, wait a moment!"

Freeing himself from the dead weight of his chum, he dashed across the
hall, feeling giddy and shaken by the explosion, and, scrambling on
hands and knees amongst the bodies lying around the spot where the fire
had been burning, he soon secured a water-bottle, and, hastening back,
first dashed some of the contents into Henri's face, and then lifted
the metal cup to his lips and let him drain it.

"Wanted that--eh?" he asked, having himself gulped down a draught.
"Let's have another.  Now, here we are!  My word, what a bust-up!  How
did it happen?  I saw you over there, just outside the hall, and
wondered whether you'd do anything.  You did--eh?  Was that your bomb?
Tell me about it."

Henri scoffed at him--scoffed angrily.

"Let's take a seat in the very centre, search for food, and sit down to
a leisurely dinner," he said, his voice choked with satire.  "Better
still, let's ring a bell, if there's one, and ask that Max individual
to come in and join us; he'd enjoy it, wouldn't he?"

"The demon!  He'd have shot me in another minute.  But still, here we
are!"

"And the sooner we get out of it the better.  That water's made me feel
far better, and I can stand now, I believe.  Yes, giddy a bit, but I
can still stick to my pins, and that's something.  What do we do--eh?
Here, pull off the uniforms of a couple of these fellows, they'll not
miss them, and let's change clothes as quickly as we can.  Don't
forget, too, that once we've changed we are Germans--Brandenburgers,
6th Brigade fellows, who've attacked the fort and helped to capture it.
No more French after we've got into our disguises."

The suggestion came glibly enough, and sounded extremely simple; yet
when the two--shaken after that terrific fight on the stairway, and
once again by the explosion which Henri had manoeuvred--came to attempt
the task they found it almost beyond them, for your German, as a
general rule, is of no mean stature.  Even in days when rations may be
reduced owing to the British blockade, which holds up supplies destined
for the German Empire, German recruits are still plump and fat, and
Brandenburgers not less so than their fellows.  Thus the task of
turning dead men over and filching their garments, hard enough in any
case, was made more difficult in the darkness, particularly so for
young fellows such as Jules and Henri, who were not stoutly built like
the Germans.

"Slip on any sort of an old coat and helmet at first," Henri advised,
"then if that Max comes back we can push our way in amongst the bodies
of the fallen, and he'll be none the wiser.  Later, when we have the
opportunity, we can make a more leisurely search, and perhaps we shall
be lucky in finding garments that fit us."

It was a fortunate thing, indeed, that they decided on such a plan.
For as they went about the hall, stooping over the bodies of the
fallen, endeavouring to select and discover clothes likely to suit
their own stature, a loud order was heard from behind the battered end
of the hall, and presently some twenty men inarched in, the short and
snappy officer leading them.

"Pull out the fellows who are still alive, or not too seriously
injured," he commanded.  "Leave the dead till later on.  Now hurry!"

Parties of stretcher-bearers followed the soldiers, and, starting at
once, began to bend over the fallen forms lying about the hall, turning
men over, dragging the dead aside, and lifting those who were wounded
out of the mass.  Coming to a distant corner, not so far indeed from
the exit leading to the stairway which Jules and Henri had defended, a
party of bearers discovered a pack of Germans lying in all directions,
their limbs stretched in the most fantastic postures, some on their
sides, their heads resting on an arm as if they were sleeping; others
on their faces, their arms doubled up beneath them; and others, again,
on their backs, stiff and stark already.

"Dead!" said the commander of the party, a junior non-commissioned
officer.  "On one side with him!"

"Dead!" repeated one of the bearers, leaning over another figure.
"Here, he's not a big man, I can manage him single-handed."

"As dead as any," cried a third, and seemed quite jovial about it.
"Here we are!  He's no weight at all--quite a puny fellow for a
Brandenburger."

They dragged perhaps half a dozen bodies away from the corner to the
far wall, and laid them in a row beside others already collected; then,
gathering up the wounded and carrying them outside, they returned
again, completing their task after some few minutes.

"Light up!" Max, that short and snappy German officer, commanded.  "Get
a fire going, and let us resume the meal.  One moment though!  Have any
of you seen a sign of those Frenchmen--the two whom we were about to
shoot?"

"One there, sir," came the answer, while a bearer holding a torch lit
up that part of the hall by the wall against which Jules and his
fellow-prisoner had been stationed.  "He's dead--a piece of masonry,
dislodged by the explosion, fell on him."

Max seized the torch from the man, and, striding forward, bent over the
figure of the _poilu_, and, turning the body with his foot--for this
German was an individual possessed of little feeling, indeed a
heartless wretch, a callous fellow--he placed the torch nearer, and
stared at the face of the Frenchman.

"Burr!  Not my man!  And no one has seen the other?"

"No one!"

"Then we will wait till morning and search the place.  Now, let the men
turn to at their meal.  Sergeant, wake me in an hour's time, when I
will go round and inspect the sentries."

Gradually the fire in the centre of the hall died down, while men
nodded as they sat on blocks of fallen masonry, or on forms which had
been dragged into the hall.  Darkness slowly penetrated to every corner
of the place and almost hid the Germans.  Then a figure stirred, one of
the dead sat up slowly and nudged another of the dead beside him.  One
of the nodding figures seated upon a form on the far side of the fire
yawned, stretching his arms widely, kicked the ashes from the dying
embers with a heavy boot, and looked about him.  Then his hair rose on
his head, while his eyes protruded in the most horrible manner.
Perspiration dropped from his forehead, his hands shook, and his limbs
trembled, as he gaped at those two dead figures sitting up and
regarding him closely.

"Dead men sit up and look at me!  Dead men!" he spluttered, and slowly
rose to his feet.

There was a frozen look on the wretch's face now, and he kept his eyes
on those two figures as if he had no power to turn them away, as if,
like a serpent, they fascinated him.  Then of a sudden he gave vent to
a loud scream and dashed from the hall, upsetting his comrades as he
did so.

"Down!  Dead men again!  Lower!  What a business!" groaned Jules as he
flopped himself on to the flags once more, his face turned towards
Henri.

"S--s--sh!  Shut up!  They are all on their feet again.  Confound that
fellow!  It was bad luck his suddenly looking up and finding us sitting
here staring at him.  We've got to move," whispered Henri.

"Soon too," Jules told him, "precious soon.  My, isn't that Max in a
rage, and aren't the lot of them bothered!"

Yet not so bothered that the noise which followed that piercing scream
did not subside quickly.  After all, screams were not unusual in those
days of strenuous combat, when Germans were driven to the assault, time
and again, and death and destruction were so near them--that terrible
shell-fire which smote them from the missiles of the French 75's, the
raking hail of bullets from machine-guns, the detonation of exploding
missiles, the roar, the crash, the smoke, the ever-present danger.  All
had told on the nerves, not of one man here and there, but on hundreds
of the Kaiser's soldiers.  Men went mad in those days of attack on
Douaumont, just as they went mad in the onslaught at Ypres in October,
1914; just, indeed, as they had lost their reason during other terrible
periods.  Yes, your German war lord is no sympathetic commander.
Losses, frightful losses, do not frighten or trouble him so long as he
is reasonably sure of obtaining his objective.

And German losses had been frightful enough in all conscience since the
war started.  Those losses were telling upon the German ranks now--had
been telling for a considerable period--and were likely in the months
coming, towards the end of 1916, to tell so severely, that it might be
beyond the power of the Central Empires to hold their lines any longer.
Yes, men went mad often enough, and no doubt the man in question was
another such unfortunate individual.

"Confound him!" growled Max.  "Why didn't he get shot as we came to the
fort, or in the attack on that stairway?  What's he want to disturb our
rest for when we want every minute of rest we can get? for soon those
Frenchmen will be returning.  Turn in again, you men.  We'll search for
that rascal in the morning."

But would they?  For listen: as the night grew older, as darkness
became denser above the shattered fort of Douaumont, and the fire died
down so that the Brandenburgers holding that central hall were no
longer visible, figures began to collect behind the French
trenches--the active, eager figures of gallant Bretons of the 20th
Corps, a crack corps, to whom the task had been assigned of recapturing
the fortress.  A gun opened far behind, a rocket soared, and then a
wave of figures poured over the parapet of the trenches and ten
thousand shouting, furious Frenchmen streamed down upon the debris of
Douaumont--that "corner-stone" of the defences of the salient, of the
capture of which the Kaiser had boasted so loudly.

"What's that?  French shouts!  French bugles!  A counter-attack!  Get
up," Henri whispered in Jules's ear.  "We've got to take our chance to
join them'."



CHAPTER XVIII

A Sinister German

What a sight that 20th French Corps--those noble Bretons--would have
presented had it been daylight when they leapt from their trenches and
advanced in one stupendous rush upon the captured fort of Douaumont!
Filled with élan, determined to throw the invader backward, stung by
the loss of trenches which had been French but a little while before,
and eager beyond all words to bring assistance to that gallant yet
sadly-thinned line which had staved off the Kaiser's hordes, this 20th
Corps--the first of the reserves which General Petain had been able to
rush to the scene of action--hurled itself impetuously at the Germans.
Star-shells burst into flame overhead, showing dashing _poilus_,
flickered from the tips of bayonets and lit up the smoke from exploding
shells, where a canopy of it hung about the devoted heads of that
gallant corps.  In the darkness, in the fitful light cast by those
shells, now and again augmented by the flashing beams of an electric
search-light, a desperate hand-to-hand conflict took place.

The line of Bretons was halted for a few moments as it met the Germans,
it wavered, perhaps, here and there just a trifle, and then it swept on
as a flood sweeps down a road, washing the debris of the 6th Brigade of
the Brandenburg Corps before it, submerging hundreds, and trampling not
a few into the mud and into the pit-holes and craters dug everywhere by
German shells.

"They come!  A counter-attack!  Prepare to receive the enemy!"

It was Max, that snappy little German officer, who gave the command and
called his men about him.

"Man every loophole!  And hold on at whatever cost!  You--you are fit
to fight," he suddenly snapped, turning upon one of the wounded
wretches who had suffered from that explosion caused by the bomb tossed
by Henri.  "You are skulking, my friend.  Up!  Seize a rifle!  Get to
your loophole!"

The man staggered.  His eyes were bloodshot, his clothing torn and
tattered after the explosion, with one arm swinging loose in its
sleeve.  He looked at this peremptory officer in dazed fashion.
Indeed, like Henri and Jules, he had been more than half stunned, and
his wits were still wool-gathering.

"Seize a rifle!  Go to a loophole, eh?" he ejaculated.

"Fool!  Yes!  Fight--fight for your life; fight for your Fatherland!"
Max shouted at him.  "Here--here's a rifle," he went on, tearing one
from beneath the body of a fallen soldier, and handing it to him.  "Now
off with you, at once!"

"At once?  Fight at once?" the man stammered, while those who watched,
even in that fitful light--for the fire built by the officer in the far
corner was still burning--noticed that a dribble of blood was oozing
from the corner of his lips, "but, sir----" he began.

"No 'buts'!" bellowed Max at him; "to your duty!"

The man gripped weakly at the rifle, turned obediently to carry out the
order, and then, staggering a pace or two, fell full length on the
floor.

"Bah!  A bad choice then!  Well, one makes mistakes," Max said, a grim
smile on his face.  "But you," he called, selecting another individual
seated on the ground, his back resting against the wall--a man whose
pallid face told that he was suffering--"you get up and go about your
duty."

As if determined that there should be no error and no backsliding, no
hesitation in this case, he applied his boot to the unfortunate
individual, and drove him from his position.  "Now, you, and you, and
you!  About your business!  Get to your duty!"

Henri and Jules came in for his attentions, for they had crept away
from that hideous row of dead, and both gaped at him for a while in
open-mouthed amazement, wondering, indeed, whether they were
discovered, wondering in a half-bewildered sort of way what they ought
to do.  For still Henri's ears buzzed, and still his brain reeled; not
so much from the explosion--for the wall separating the hall from the
corridor outside had sheltered him not a little, but reeling from the
effects of his tumble downstairs and the mad mêlée which had taken
place there.  As for Jules, the fellow was quite light-headed, for the
bomb had sent him backward against the wall with a crash, and he too
had taken his share in that desperate fight at the top of the stairway.
He began to giggle, which was a way Jules had, and Max, happening to
catch sight of him at the moment, and stung to fury by such mirth on
the part of one of his men, by such a sign of insubordination, smote
him across the face, little realizing that the one he struck was the
same man, that very prisoner, whom he had struck not so long before,
and whom he would willingly have executed.

"Come along!" Henri managed to whisper to his chum.  "Better to be
taken for Germans than to be discovered in our disguises.  Let's get
hold of rifles and take our post at some loophole.  Those were French
shouts we heard, and it may be that we shall have an opportunity of
joining our people."

"And in any case one needn't fire into our fellows," responded Jules,
his face still smarting from the blow that Max had dealt him.  "But
listen, Henri; if I get a chance I'll kill that fellow.  Better still,
if I get a chance I'll capture the brute, and carry him back to our
lines, where he can be tried for offering violence to prisoners.
Crikey!  How wobbly a fellow feels!  My feet are too big and too clumsy
for anything."

It was a sorry band which obeyed the peremptory order of the bullying
German.  Men staggered across the littered floor of that hall, steering
their way between fallen blocks of masonry and wounded men damaged by
the explosion of Henri's making.  Passing through the exit, they
clambered over the bodies of the fallen Germans who lay thickly at the
foot of the stairway, and across the bodies, too, of many a gallant
Frenchman.  Then, directed by the bullying Max, they climbed the
stairway or went along the gallery, and presently were manning the
embrasures through which the guns of the fortress of Douaumont--when it
was indeed a fortress--commanded the surrounding country.  Flashes
could be seen through those embrasures--flashes close at hand, and
others farther distant--while the air was torn and rent by the crash of
distant guns, by the detonation of exploding shells, and by the sharp
snap and rattle of musketry.  There were yells, too--shouts of terror
from the Brandenburgers, now being driven back towards the fortress,
and the bellows of excited and triumphant men wresting ground from them.

"Keep an eye round you," Henri told Jules, for the two were posted at
one embrasure, and no one else was in the chamber.  "What's to prevent
a fellow lowering himself from this point and joining our fellows?  A
rope is what is wanted, but it's a plaguey thing to find in such a
place and at such a moment.  Hold on here, Jules, while I go
skirmishing."

Staggering away from his comrade, Henri reached the head of the
stairway and clambered down it, leaning against the side wall with both
hands, for his feet were terribly uncertain.  Then, reaching the
gallery below, he turned along it, and in a little while, was within
easy reach of the hall in which he and Jules had been lying, when
suddenly the noise outside increased.  There was a rush of steps
somewhere near at hand, a crashing explosion as a bomb was thrown
through an embrasure somewhere beyond him, and then a torrent of
figures poured into the place--a torrent of gesticulating, shouting
Frenchmen, of gallant Bretons, who had won their way to the western
edge of the fortress.  Lamps appeared, and flaring torches too were
brought in by the soldiers, who at once proceeded to search that part
of Douaumont.

In a dream, as it were, shaken by what he had gone through, and
overcome somewhat by the sight and sound of friends, Henri had tumbled
to the floor again, as he heard an officer give vent to a sharp order.

"Drive the fellows on before you as far as you can," he shouted, "then
build up barricades across every corridor and gallery, and hold them
off till we can get more men in here and drive them out of the fortress
altogether.  Bomb them, mes enfants!  Blow them out of the place!
Douaumont belongs to France, and not to the Kaiser."

Yes, in a dream, Henri heard the words, and tried to raise his shaken
figure, tried his utmost to join them; and in a dream, too, he watched
the Bretons as they moved rapidly about and obeyed those orders.  It
was perhaps a quarter of an hour later, perhaps only a few minutes, but
more likely half an hour after their first appearance, that, still in
the same hazy sort of way, still somewhat in dreamland, his head
whirling and his ears singing, Henri became aware of a strange fact, a
fact, however, which hardly struck him as peculiar at that moment, that
a man not far from him--one of those corpses stretched in the gallery
and illuminated by a torch thrust into a crevice of the masonry not far
away--was moving, was lifting his head craftily, was creeping along
over other bodies, and was peering round corners and watching the
Bretons.

"Strange!" thought Henri.  "What on earth can the fellow be doing?
And--Christopher!  He's not a Frenchman!"

That indeed was a peculiar thing; and, still in the same dazed sort of
way, Henri watched and wondered.

"Not a Frenchman," he was telling himself, "then a German, and I don't
know--yes, I do believe I know--the figure.  Small, eh?  Dressed in
field-grey, yet not the usual sort of uniform.  Who is he?  What is the
fellow?  Well, I never!"

In ordinary times Henri would have made up his mind in an instant,
would have acted promptly, and would have taken in the situation
without a moment's hesitation.  But now, what with that horrible
feeling of nausea which assailed him, what with his miserable brain,
which reeled and buzzed and whirled, making vision almost impossible
and hearing almost out of the question, he could not, try as he would,
collect his scattered wits.  Indeed, he had no energy left with which
to make any sort of an effort; he just gaped, smiled, and certainly
grimaced at that crawling figure.  He knew he was an enemy, knew that
the man he watched boded no good to his comrades, and knew also that
the fellow represented some subtle form of danger.  Yet he could not
move, could do no more than gape and grin and grimace, and could not
properly realize the meaning of the situation.  Then suddenly he
started, for another crawling figure came from behind him, and a hand
gripped his hand sharply.

"You, Henri!  You here!  And did not return!  Why, you're sick!  You're
half stunned still!"

It was Jules, who, finding that his chum did not return, had descended
to the gallery to find him, and, coming upon him stretched there
amongst the dead, noticed, with the help of a flickering torch, that
Henri's head hung, that perspiration dropped from his forehead, and
that his face was deadly white and pallid.  Yet his coming seemed
suddenly to rouse Henri; for the latter's drooping eyelids opened
widely at once, a frown crossed his forehead, and in a moment he had
seized Jules's hand, and, tugging it, indicated that he was to lie down
beside him.

"S--s--h!"

"What's up?" demanded Jules hoarsely.

"Down!" whispered Henri; for at that moment the figure he had been
watching, and which had stretched itself flat like one of the dead,
doubtless because a Frenchman was approaching, had now begun to rise
stealthily.  "Look!" he whispered, pointing, and then watched Jules's
face as the latter fixed his eyes upon that figure.

Henri noticed at once--and it was remarkable how his wits were
assembling now that Jules had stimulated them--that Jules's eyes
started, that an intent look came into them promptly, while something
approaching a scowl gathered on his features.

"That man!" he heard him exclaim, and then watched as his friend
flopped down amongst the dead and lay as close as possible.  Then
together the two watched as that German crept on still farther.  A
minute later and he had turned where the gallery swept round the corner
of the fort abruptly and proceeded in another direction.  Following
promptly, creeping across the bodies of the fallen, or finding their
way between them when they could--for it was not exactly nice to kneel
upon the forms of men who, to whatever side they had belonged, had died
fighting--Henri and Jules too turned that corner, only to find
themselves now in almost complete darkness, with no light to guide
them, with not a sound to tell them of the whereabouts of that sinister
German, and nothing to indicate his presence.

"Stop!  Let's wait and listen."

Henri's hand went out and gripped Jules's sleeve, while the two came to
a halt at once, sitting up on their haunches, as it were, and peered
into the darkness and listened--peered till Henri's bloodshot eyes
positively ached, until tears of weakness dribbled down his face and
splashed on to the pavement.  As for his head, it throbbed as if a
giant hammer were within it, and some demon were rattling the interior
of his skull and were dancing a tattoo upon his ear-drums.

"Bah!"  He felt that old nausea, and felt horribly giddy, and was
forced to stretch his hands forward and lean upon them to support his
weight, while everything went round and round, and, strangely enough,
instead of darkness surrounding him, a thousand flashes appeared before
his eyes.  Jules coughed.  With all his light-heartedness he was an
observant and wonderfully sympathetic fellow, particularly where Henri
was concerned, and now had double reason for showing him attention.
Putting his arm round Henri's waist, he supported him for a while.

"Pull yourself together, Henri," he said, "for we've got to go on in a
little while and trap that beggar.  What's he up to?  Some dirty game,
you may be sure.  For he's a German, don't forget, and don't forget,
either, what Stuart would have said----"

"Stuart!" gurgled Henri, trying to laugh.  "That good fellow!  Stuart?"

"A splendid beggar!" agreed Jules.  "He'd have said, bluntly enough,
that every German was a dirty beggar, wouldn't he?"

Henri chortled.  Somehow or other Jules had a wonderful way of stirring
up his old friend, of "bucking him up", to use a slang expression; and
now, just the mention of the gallant Stuart, that very breezy, hefty
Englishman, fixed Henri's wandering thoughts for a moment on a far more
pleasant subject, and seemed to help to steady his reeling brain, and
first set him giggling and then laughing merrily.

"You'll think I'm an old woman," he told Jules at last, shaking himself
like a dog.

"Indeed!  Like an old woman?  Well, now, old women don't usually fight
terrific combats at the top of a stone stairway, and finally tumble
headlong down that same stairway locked in the arms of a German.
Polite old women don't do their utmost to strangle the subjects of the
Kaiser; now do they, Henri?  And, besides--of course this is only a
very small matter--such old women as you have mentioned don't, when
they've got a chance to escape the notice of such sinister gentlemen as
we have been associating with lately--I mean that Max beggar and his
Brandenburg fellows, who would shoot a helpless prisoner--such old
bodies don't as a rule, mind you, get hold of a bomb and sling it
amongst them.

"It was fine--fine!" Jules told his chum, stretching out a hand and
gripping Henri's energetically.

"Oh, rot!" Henri contrived to stutter.  He was getting quite indignant
now.  "What utter nonsense you are talking!  As if any old woman would
fight a German!"

"Just so!  That's why I retorted when you asked me if, or rather
suggested that, I thought that you were one."

"Look here!" began Henri, quite nettled, and becoming increasingly
impatient, whereat Jules grinned.  Indeed, it was his turn to be
amused, for intuitively in the darkness he had guessed at Henri's
condition; and knowing already how shaken he was, how nearly on the
verge of unconsciousness, he had racked his brain for some method which
might revive him.  Stimulants, water, food, things of that sort, were
out of the question; words alone could be employed, and somehow the
clever Jules had contrived to pick the proper subject.  The mention of
Stuart, then, had helped to revive his friend; and now mention of
Henri's gallantry had made the owner of that name quite indignant.

"Utter rot!" shouted Henri again; "as if slinging a bomb was dangerous;
and as if----"

"There's one thing you can't deny," said Jules; "it saved my life, as
it was designed to do, and I've not forgotten.  But how d'you feel?
Better, eh?  Don't forget that we've lost sight of that German."

As if Henri had ever forgotten it since he had seen the lithe, cunning
figure of the Brandenburger creeping in front of him.  True, in that
curious state in which he had been--a state bordering on
unconsciousness--he had hardly been able to appreciate at times the
significance of the German's presence; but now he had wakened fully to
its importance.

"Jingo," he told Jules as they squatted there in the darkness, "we must
find the beggar!  He's armed, without a doubt; and, worse than all,
he's behind our fellows, for they've gone forward into the fort.
What's to prevent him shooting 'em in the back?  What's to prevent him
carrying on any sort of vileness?  We've got to follow at once, and, by
hook or by crook, we've got to capture or kill the beggar."

"Whichever you like--either will suit me," Jules responded; "and in any
case, if he's caught, it'll come to the same thing.  Once we've marched
him back behind our lines, and handed him over as a prisoner, he'll be
shot, my boy.  We can prove that he would have deliberately shot a
prisoner; so it seems to me that, if we meet the gentleman, the best
thing will be to end the matter promptly.  But we've got to find him
first, and perhaps he'll have something to say when it comes to a
question of shooting."

Max, that sinister Brandenburger officer, was indeed likely enough to
have a considerable amount to say in the question of his own disposal.
Knowing the class of man he was--his fearlessness, for that seemed to
be his one virtue; his frightfulness, for bullying and terrible deeds
seemed to be the characteristic of every subject of the Kaiser--it was
likely enough that this fellow would do anything to outwit the
Frenchmen, and, if he could, would shatter the fort and bring it down
upon his own head rather than see the French victorious.

"Stop!  Wait a moment!  I heard something move!  Come on!" said Jules
suddenly.

And together, creeping on hands and knees, the two went forward along
that gallery in search of the German.



CHAPTER XIX

Heroic "Poilus"

Who can describe the condition of affairs in the shattered fort of
Douaumont on that night when the gallant Bretons of the 20th Corps
hurled themselves against the captors of the position?  The whole of
the fighting round the salient of Verdun since that eventful 21st
February--now seemingly so long ago, for so much had happened, yet in
reality less than a week--had been marked by the incessant thunder of
guns, the continuous detonations of exploding shells, the intermittent
rattle of machine-guns, and by the crescendoes of rifle-fire mingled
with the shouts and shrieks of men, the cheers of triumphant attackers,
and the grim, hoarse commands of officers leading their sections.

There had been many a silent, yet grimly ferocious struggle with the
bayonet; when men stood outside their trenches or struggled with the
enemy in what remained of their battered positions.  Such scenes we
know had taken place inside the fort of Douaumont, for had not Jules
and Henri participated in such an adventure on the stairway?  And now
they were being repeated--those scenes--in many an odd part of that
fortress.

Bursting in by a gateway to the west, the Bretons forced their way
forward; while the Brandenburgers, beating a hasty retreat, threw up
barricades and fought for them.  Thus, as Henri and his chum crept
along that gallery, comparatively silent for the moment, for the fight
had drifted forward, and the Brandenburgers were holding a position
farther to the east of the fortress, they came within sound of the
combatants, and heard the shouts of men and the crack of rifles.  Yet
never a sight did they catch of Max, the German, though here and there
torches threw a fitful gleam about the masonry.

"Then on!" said Henri, now rising to his feet and staggering forward.
"Where's the beggar gone to?  And what's he up to?"

"Can't say.  Perhaps he's merely trying to escape; or more likely he's
trying to join his own people, for you can tell quite easily that they
are still holding a portion of the fort."

Yet to follow in the tracks of the German was an impossibility; for,
let us explain, the interior of a fortress such as Douaumont is not so
planned as to make progress easy and direct at the best of times.  Such
a place is designedly erected in sections, so that, should one portion
suffer capture, the others may be held intact; while often enough such
works are constructed so that one portion of the fortress commands by
its fire the works immediately surrounding and attached to it.  That
gallery, then, did not run in a straight line for long: it curved
abruptly to the left just as it had done before at the point where the
German contrived to evade our heroes.  It dropped down a flight of
steps, and opened into a wide hallway much like that other in which
Jules and Henri had already seen some adventure; and from this hall
galleries led off, some reached by means of stairways, and others once
barred by doors, now for the most part lying blackened and shattered on
the flags which floored the galleries.

"Which way?  Which one?  How can a chap choose?" cried Henri peevishly,
running the fingers of one hand through his matted hair, and looking
from one to the other of the openings.

"A conundrum," smiled Jules, though he looked grim enough as Henri
stared at him.  "And those German shells have not made the question any
the easier, have they?  Who knows?  The beggar may have disappeared
down this hole, and one almost hopes so."

Gripping a torch suspended in a crevice between two fallen blocks of
stone, he stepped towards a huge, jagged hole near the end of the hall,
and held the flaming torch over it.  Beneath there was a pit, with
crumbling earth sides, and at the bottom a mass of shattered stonework
and debris.  Then, holding the torch overhead, he pointed upwards, and,
glancing there, Henri saw a corresponding hole with jagged edges,
through which the ponderous shells had entered.  There, indeed,
displayed at their feet, and just above them, was as fine an example as
could well be discovered of the work of modern shells--of shells of
huge calibre--projected by guns of such weight that weeks are required
to move them, and filled with such a mass of high explosives that
little can resist them.  Indeed, let one of the huge projectiles sent
by those German or Austrian howitzers hit fairly upon some building,
and, be it a church--their favourite objective--a peasant's cottage, a
convent, or even a mass of concrete and steel--such as, for instance, a
modern fortress, such as, indeed, this fortress of Douaumont--and the
result was likely to be little different.  Destruction followed in the
wake of those ponderous shells, and wreckage resulted.  Here, then,
before Henri and Jules, was displayed direct evidence of the wisdom
which had caused General Joffre to dismantle every fort round the city
of Verdun, and to convert the salient into an ordinary defensive
position.  A fortress might, and indeed would, be smashed by German
artillery; but trenches were more movable, more replaceable, objects,
and the picks and spades of _poilus_ could easily repair damage.

"Nice little hole--eh?" smiled Jules.  "But I don't see any sign of
that German."

"Nor I.  Let's get on.  I've an uneasy feeling in my mind that he's up
to some particularly vile sort of mischief.  Let's push on," said Henri.

"And which way?"

"Which way?  Any way!  Straight ahead!  The noise of rifles is getting
closer, so that any way is likely to lead to the spot we're seeking."

"Then you think he has gone towards the fighting?" asked Jules.

"Yes!" came abruptly from Henri.  "He's sneaking up behind our fellows,
I feel sure.  From what I've seen of this Max, this German, I feel
positive that he'll think of escape last of all.  To do him bare
credit, he'll consider his own safety only when he's done his worst to
our people.  Let's push on!  We've got to get to the beggar."

Glancing about them doubtfully for a second or two, they finally chose
a central opening, only to be forced to turn back when they had
progressed a dozen yards, for a fall of masonry blocked egress.
Returning, therefore, to the hall, they skirted the edge of that giant
pit the shell had burrowed through the flooring, and entered another
gallery, where, attracted by loud shouts ahead and by heavy firing,
they pushed on as fast as they were able.

Meanwhile; outside, the combat had for the moment subsided, for the
dash of the 20th Corps of those gallant Bretons had taken them right up
to the trenches hitherto held by that thin band of noble _poilus_ who
had sustained and held off the first German onslaught.  The Bretons,
indeed, were now repairing, in furious haste, and consolidating the
trenches running along the edge of the plateau of Douaumont right up to
the eastern corner of the fort, almost, in fact, surrounding the
fortress and cutting it off from the Germans.

Yet a portion of the works projected beyond them to the east, and there
an underground passage gave shelter to the Brandenburgers, and, indeed,
allowed the enemy to reinforce their troops still holding a portion of
the interior.  Elsewhere there was little fighting; for on the Côte du
Poivre and the Côte de Talou no German attack was possible, French guns
on Mort Homme and Hill 304 still commanding every avenue of approach,
and already having given the Germans practical, if dreadful, evidence
of their deadly work.  But along the whole line shells still plunged
about the positions held by our allies, and, as the snowflakes whirled
and the wind swept first from this quarter and then from another, the
distant thud of cannon came in one low, continuous, muttering roar,
which never stopped, and which for seven days now had gone on
practically without intermission.

Pushing along that gallery, stumbling over blocks of fallen stone, and
every once and again coming upon the bodies of fallen Brandenburgers,
Henri and Jules at length reached a part where the gallery broadened
out, and where the sound of combat was louder.  In the distance they
could see moving figures and the flash of rifles, while every few
seconds there was a dull thud or a curious scuttling noise on the walls
of the gallery as bullets flew by them.  Then, as they drew nearer, the
faint light shed by another torch showed them a number of Bretons
sheltering behind an opening which led on eastward, while others lay
full length on the floor, their packs in front of them to protect them.
A glance into the room on the left--a store-room, no doubt, in which
shells had been piled in other days--disclosed a number of wounded
Frenchmen in the care of members of their ambulance corps, while,
almost opposite, was another room packed with Bretons waiting to
reinforce their friends when called for.  Yet there was no sign of the
German.

"Strange!" thought Henri.  "Then where can he have gone?  Surely he has
not slipped from the fort elsewhere?"

"Hist!  I thought I saw some fellow moving along there at the top of
that flight of stairs," Jules said suddenly, pointing to the right just
behind the room occupied by the Bretons in reserve, where stone steps
led upward to another corridor, which itself gave entrance to another
row of gun-chambers.

Darting to the foot of the stairway, Henri and Jules began to climb it
cautiously and as noiselessly as possible; not that they had much to
fear from noise, for, what with the shouts of the combatants and the
sharp crack of rifles, rendered all the louder by the containing walls
and masonry, there was little chance of their footsteps being heard.
Then, too, there were the voices of those French reserves, those
gallant and gay-hearted little Bretons of the 20th Corps, assembled in
that room to their right, waiting till their comrades had cleared the
way before them, or until a shrill whistle should call them to dash to
the attack.  The last peep which Henri had obtained of them had shown
those very cheerful and collected individuals seated on the floor
smoking heavily, chatting and laughing uproariously, as if, indeed,
they were gathered miles away from the conflict, and as if fighting,
and bullets, and sudden death were things of no consequence whatever.

"Hist!" Jules gripped his friend's arm again and pointed.

It was not so light in this higher gallery, and for a while it was
almost impossible to make out their surroundings.  But Jules had seen
something, and presently Henri, too, caught a fleeting vision of a
man's figure--a figure which stooped, and which crept along the farther
wall, perhaps some fifty feet from them.  More than that, there came a
glimpse of the face of this individual on which a few scattered beams
of the torches, smoking and flaring down below, happened to fall.

"Max!  That German scoundrel!" he whispered to Jules.  "What's he up
to?  Certainly not trying to make his escape.  Let's close in on him."

They crept to the top of the stairs and along the gallery, their pulses
fluttering not a little.  For intuitively they realized that they had a
struggle before them.  And yet, judge of their disappointment, now that
they had reached this higher gallery, for to all appearance it was
empty.  It was so dark up there that a man might have stood within ten
paces of them and not have been discovered, while any sound he made
would have been drowned quite easily.  However, Henri pressed on
cautiously, bent almost double, one hand against the wall to guide him,
while Jules came immediately behind him, peering over his chum's
shoulder.  Then, when they had covered perhaps twenty feet or more,
both suddenly stopped again--Henri so abruptly that Jules bumped into
him.

"There!" Jules heard him say in a hoarse whisper, "There!  See him!
Watch him!  What's he doing?"

Farther on, round an abrupt corner in the gallery, where it skirted the
large room down below filled with Breton soldiers, there was a strange
illumination, the source of light being uncertain.  A moment or two
later both those young Frenchmen following the tracks of that sinister
German realized that a shaft led up from the room down below, and
either the room itself borrowed its light from the gallery which in
turn borrowed it from the embrasures and gun-emplacements on the
farther side, or the shaft was merely for ventilation purposes.  In any
case, it was a wide affair, perhaps five feet square, and could the two
of them have peered down it they would have discovered that it sloped
steeply, and that, looking through it, they could see the happy fellows
down below still smoking heavily, still chatting and joking, waiting
patiently for the moment when their services would be called for.

And opposite that opening, peering through it, the upper part of his
frame illuminated by the torches flaring down below him, was Max--Max,
that sinister, dried-up, snappy German officer, who had already on more
than one occasion given Henri and Jules some indication of his brutal
nature.  The man was gripping a heavy bag--a bag which undoubtedly
required some effort to lift and handle--and, as he stood with his eyes
glued upon the men down below, was slowly extricating some object from
the bundle he carried.

"What on earth is it?  What's he up to?" Jules asked breathlessly.
"He's taking something out of the bag, and is fumbling.  Look!  He's
put the bag down now, and has lifted the something so as to take a good
look at it.  It--it's----"

"A bomb--a hand-grenade of sorts.  The beggar's got a whole bag of 'em!
He's----"

They watched, rooted to the spot, as the German lifted that object in
one hand till the light from the room below fell upon it.  And then,
fumbling at its base, presently extracted something.  Then they saw him
stoop over the heavy bag placed on the floor, lift the flap, and
commence to insert the object.  It was just then that Henri realized
the villainy intended by this ruffian.  Perhaps you will say that "all
is fair in love and war", and that Henri himself had but a little while
before given the Germans an exhibition of bomb-throwing.  But that was
in order to save his friend about to be executed, about to be murdered,
indeed, by this selfsame ruffian.  Now, taking a leaf from his book as
it were, this Max was preparing a load of bombs to thrust down among
the Bretons.

One grenade alone might be expected, exploding amongst them, to kill
numbers, but what would happen if the whole bag of them, detonated by
the one he had just prepared, fell into the crowded room below and
exploded?  It would mean death to every man there; death to many of
those outside; and might easily break down the work already done by
those gallant Frenchmen, and enable the Brandenburgers to push on again
into the fort and eject them.  Even Henri and Jules might not escape
unscathed, and Max, too, might be injured.  It was, indeed, a moment
for action, for swift decisive action, and, though Henri had felt
rooted to the spot a moment before, any hesitation there might have
been was gone in an instant.  His whirling brain cleared, as it were,
as need for swift movement came, and, at once bounding forward, he
gripped the German by the nape of his neck and seized the hand which
was lifting the bag upwards.

And then commenced a struggle in that gallery, for, to do him credit,
as we have already done indeed, this German was a tenacious fighter.
Making frantic efforts to throw off Jules and Henri, and to toss the
bag into the room below, he staggered about the gallery with the two
Frenchmen hanging to him, and then, of a sudden breaking loose, he
dashed away from them.  It looked, indeed, as though he would make good
his escape; but Jules raced after him, while Henri dipped his hand in
the bag before he moved, and then went rushing down the gallery,
shouting for the German to stop and deliver himself up as a prisoner.

A sharp crack, a flash in the darkness ahead of them, and the fleeting
vision of a man pointing a revolver at them followed, and then a swift
movement of Henri's hand.  Bringing it back over his shoulder he
suddenly jerked the grenade forward, and hurled it at the German, the
flash which followed lighting up the gallery from end to end, while the
blast of the explosion drove the two Frenchmen backward.  As for Max,
that sinister German who seemed to have dogged their footsteps from the
very commencement, from the days, indeed, when they were helpless
prisoners in Ruhleben, the bomb made short work of him--just as short
work as it would have made of those gallant Bretons.  He was dead!
Hoist, indeed, by his own petard!

"And one isn't sorry!" Henri said, as the two of them returned and
descended the stairs to join the Bretons.  "I'd sooner kill a roomful
of Germans than that one Frenchman should be hurt.  And here, all that
we've done is to reverse the numbers.  Come along, Jules, and let's get
out of the fort and back to an ambulance!  My head's splitting, and we
shall both want rest before we can take a further part in the fighting."

No need to follow them back to that ambulance, nor to tell how those
two gallant young Frenchmen, now corporals, were soon promoted to the
rank of lieutenant when they returned to their regiment, and for weeks
and weeks saw fighting along the Verdun salient.  As we write they are
still there; for German attacks surge all round the trenches on the
heights of the Meuse, and, though here and there the line has been
dented, Verdun, that sleepy old town down by the river, is still
French, still beyond the grasp of the Kaiser.

The ruthless War Lord who caused this terrific contest to break out,
who has deluged Europe and Asia and Africa with blood, and who has been
instrumental in the slaughter of hosts of people, is still thwarted.
True, he has gained certain yards of land--French land--the steep,
sloping sides of that plateau of Douaumont, and the lower ground
opposite the Mort Homme and Hill 304.  But at what a price!  The slopes
are thick with dead Germans.  Returning again and again to the attack,
hounded on by their War Lord, German soldiers still advance over fields
carpeted with their fallen comrades; and still French guns and gallant
French _poilus_ smile grimly down at them, as if to say:

"Come!  Come on!  Here is Verdun behind us.  There is yet land to sell
between these trenches and the city.  Come, then!  We will sell that
land at a price as heavy, nay, heavier, than that which you have
already paid.  Come!  But only so far!  For Verdun is ours, and shall
remain so always."



PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN

_By Blackie & Son, Limited, Glasgow_





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