Fritz and Eric, or the Brother Crusoes
by John Conroy Hutcheson ___________ This is rather an extraordinary book, because it consists of two rather different eras in the lives of two brothers. In the first the brother Fritz takes part in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, and is severely wounded, but survives - just. He is tended by a beauteous maiden, with whom he falls in love.
Meanwhile the brother Eric has gone to sea in what turns out to be a rotten old vessel, which sinks in southern waters. There are some survivors, but Eric is not among them, and is presumed dead.
Fritz departs for America, and is wondering how to get a job. He meets a whaling captain and they are having a chat in a bar when who should appear but Eric, who has had a miraculous rescue, but has never had a chance of writing home. The two brothers decide they will get the whaling ship to drop them off on a very remote island in the South Atlantic, Inaccessible Island, where they will spend a year sealing, and make their fortunes from the skins they get during the year.
There are many vicissitudes, and they do make their fortunes, but not from sealing. There are so many tense situations, so very well described, that the book might almost have come from the pen of George Manville Fenn. A well-written and interesting book, and with a very good description of the Franco-Prussian War, the war which is so often forgotten about. N.H. ___________
FRITZ AND ERIC; OR, THE BROTHER CRUSOES
BY JOHN CONROY HUTCHESON
"Time is getting on, little mother, and we'll soon have to say farewell!"
"Aye, my child. The parting is a sad one to me; but I hope and trust the good God will hold you in His safe keeping, and guide your footsteps back home to me again!"
"Never you fear, little mother. He will do that, and in a year's time we shall all meet again under the old roof-tree, I'm certain. Keep your heart up, mother mine, the same as I do; remember, it is not a 'Farewell' I am saying for ever, it is merely 'Auf wiedersehen!'"
"I hope so, Eric, surely; still, we cannot tell what the future may bring forth!" said the other sadly.
Mother and son were wending their way through the quaint, old-fashioned, sleepy main street of Lubeck that led to the railway station—a bran-new modern structure that seemed strangely incongruous amidst the antique surroundings of the ancient town. Although it was past the midday hour, hardly a soul was to be seen moving about; and the western sun lighted up the green spires of the churches and red-tiled pointed roofs of the houses, glinting from the peculiar eye-shaped dormer windows of some of the cottages with the most grotesque effect and making them appear as if winking at the onlooker. It seemed like a scene of a bygone age reproduced on the canvas of some Flemish artist; and, but that Eric and his mother were accustomed to it, they must have rubbed their eyes, like Rip Van Winkle when he came down from the goblin-haunted mountain into the old village of his youth, in doubt whether all was real, thinking it might be a dream. Presently, however, they were at the railway station, and they would have been convinced, if they had felt inclined to believe otherwise, that they were living in the present. But, even here, amid all the hissing of steam, and creaking of carriages, and whirr of moving machinery, the queer old-world costumes of the peasantry, with their quaint hats and mantles, which more resembled the stage properties of a Christmas pantomime than the known dress of any people of the period, all spoke of the past—a past when the great Barbarossa reigned in Central Europe, and when there were "Robbers of the Rhine," and "Forty thousand virgins," in company with Saint Ursula, canonising the sainted and scented city of Cologne. Ah, those days of long ago!
"Here we are at last, mother," said Eric, slinging the bag containing his sea kit on to the railway platform. "The old engine is getting its steam up, and we'll soon be off. Cheer up, little mother! As I've told you, it is not a good-bye for ever!"
"So you say, my son. The young ever look forward; but old people like myself look back, and it makes us reflect how few of the noble aspirations and longing anticipations of our youth are ever realised!"
"Old people like yourself indeed, little mother!" said Eric indignantly, tossing up his lion-like head, and looking as if he would like to see any one else who would dare to make such an assertion, the next moment throwing his arms round her neck, and hugging her fondly. "I won't have you calling yourself old, you dear little mother, with your nice glossy brown hair, and beautiful bright blue eyes and handsome face—a face which I fail not to see Burgher Jans gaze on with eloquent expression every Sunday when we go to the Dom Kirche. Ah, I know—"
"Fie, my son!" exclaimed Madame Dort, interrupting him by placing her hand across his mouth, a process which soon stopped his indiscreet impetuosity, a warm blush the while mantling her comely countenance; for she was yet in the bloom of middle-aged womanhood. "Suppose, now, any one were to overhear you, audacious child!"
"Ah, but I know, though," repeated the boy triumphantly, when he had again regained his freedom of speech. "I won't tell, little mother; still, I must make a bargain with you, as I don't intend that fusty old Burgher Jans to have my handsome young mutterchen, that's poz! But, to change the subject, why are you so despondent about my leaving you now, dear mother? I've been already away from you two voyages, and yet have returned safe and sound to Lubeck."
"You forget, my child, that the pitcher sometimes goes once too often to the well. The ocean is treacherous, and the perils of the sea are great, although you, in boy-like fashion, may laugh at them. Strong men have but too often to acknowledge the supremacy of the waves when they bear them down to their watery grave, leaving widows and orphans, alas! to mourn their untimely fate with sad and bitter tears! Don't you remember your poor father's end, my son?"
"I do, mother," answered the boy gravely; "still, all sailors are not drowned, nor is a seafaring life always dangerous."
"Granted, my child," responded his mother to this truism; "but, those who go down to the sea in ships, as the Psalmist says, see the perils of the deep, and lead a venturesome calling! Besides, Eric, I must tell you that I—I do not feel myself so strong as I was when you first left home and became a sailor boy; and, although I have no doubt a good Providence will watch over you, and preserve you in answer to my heartfelt prayers, yet you are now starting on a longer voyage than you have yet undertaken, and perchance I may not live to greet you on your return!"
"Oh, mother, don't say that, don't say that!" exclaimed Eric in a heart- broken voice; "you are not ill, you are not ailing, mother dear?" and he peered anxiously with a loving gaze into her eyes, to try and read some meaning there for the sorrowful presage that had escaped thus inadvertently from her lips, drawn forth by the agony of parting.
"No, my darling, nothing very alarming," she said soothingly, wishing to avoid distressing him needlessly by communicating what might really be only, as she hoped, a groundless fear on her part. "I do not feel exactly ill, dear. I was only speaking about the natural frail tenure of this mortal life of ours. This saying 'Good-bye' to you too, my darling, makes me infected with morbid fear and nervous anxiety. Fancy me nervous, Eric—I whom you call your strong-minded mother, eh?" and the poor lady smiled bravely, so as to encourage the lad, and banish his easily excited fears on her account. It was but a sickly smile, however, for it did not come genuinely from the heart, prompted though the latter was with the fullest affection. Still, Eric did not perceive this, and the smile quickly dismissed his fears.
"Ha, ha," he laughed in his light-hearted, ringing way. "The idea of your being nervous, like I remember old grandmother Grimple was when I used to jump suddenly in at the door or fire my popgun! I would never believe it, not even if you yourself said it. Ah, now you look better already, and like my own dear little mother who will keep safe and well, and welcome me back next year, surely; and then, dear one, we'll have no end of a happy time!"
"I hope so, Eric; I hope so with all my heart," said she, pressing the eager lad to her bosom in a fond embrace; "and you may be sure that none will be so glad to welcome you back as I!"
"Think, mother," said Eric presently, after a moment's silence, in which the feelings of the two seemed too great to find expression in words of common import. "Why, by that time I will have nearly sailed round the world; for in my voyage to Java and back I will have to 'double the Cape,' as sailors say!"
"Yes, that you will, my boy," chimed in his mother, anxious to sustain this buoyant change in his humour, and drive away the somewhat melancholy tone she had unwittingly introduced into their last parting conversation. "You'll be a regular little travelled monkey, like the one belonging to the Dutchman that we were reading about the other day which could do everything almost but speak, although I don't think anybody would accuse you of any want of ability on the latter score, you chatterbox!"
"No, no, little mother; I think not likewise," chuckled Eric complacently. "I'm not one of your silent ones, not so! But, hurrah!— There comes Fritz turning in under the old gateway. He said he would try and get away for half an hour in the afternoon from the counting- house to wish me another good-bye and see me off, if Herr Grosschnapper could spare him. Ah ha, Master Fritz," shouted out the sailor lad, as his brother drew nigh, "you're just in time to see the last of me. I thought the worthy Herr would not let you come, you are so very late."
"Better late than never," said the other, smiling, coming up beside the pair, who were standing in front of one of the railway carriages, into which Eric had already bundled his bag. "The old man did growl a bit about my 'idling away the afternoon,' as he called it; but when I impressed him with the fact that you were going away to sea, he relented and let me come, saying that it was a good job such a circumstance did not occur every day!"
"Much obliged to him, I'm sure!" said Eric, with that usual toss of his head which threw back his mane-like locks of yellow hair. "He would have been a fine old curmudgeon to have refused you leave to wish good- bye to your only brother!" And he put one of his arms round Fritz's neck as he spoke.
"Hush, my son," interposed Madame Dort. "You must not speak ill of the good merchant who has been such a kind friend to Fritz and given him regular employment in his warehouse!"
"All right, mutterchen, I won't mention again the name of the old cur—, I mean dear old gentleman, little mother, there!" And then catching the twinkling eye of Fritz, the two burst into a simultaneous laugh at the narrow escape there had been of his repeating the obnoxious epithet; while Madame Dort could not help smiling too, as she gazed fondly into the merry face of the roguish boy, standing by his brother's side and clinging to him with that deep fraternal affection which is so rarely seen, alas! in members of the same family.
Truly, they were sons of whom any mother might have been proud.
Fritz was tall and manly, by virtue of his two-and-twenty years and a small fringe of dark down that covered his upper lip; Eric was shorter by some inches, but more thick-set and with broader shoulders, predicting that he would be the bigger of the two as time rolled on.
The firstborn, Fritz, with his closely cropped hair and swarthy complexion, took after his dead father, who had been a Holsteiner—a mariner by profession, who had sailed his ship from the Elbe some years before for the last time, and left his wife to bring up her fatherless boys by the sweat of her brow and her own exertions; for Captain Dort had left but little worldly goods behind him, his all being embarked with himself in his ship, which was lost, with all hands on board, in the North Sea. Fritz and Eric had both been too young at the time to appreciate the struggles of their mother to support herself and them, until she had achieved a comfortable competency by teaching music and languages in several rich Hanoverian families; and now she had no longer to battle for her bread.
Eric took after her in face and expression, having the same light- coloured hair and bright blue eyes; but there the resemblance ceased, as hardly had he grown to boyhood than he evinced that desire for a sea life which he must have inherited with his father's blood—he would, he must be a sailor!
Being the youngest, he naturally was her pet; and thus, although the recollection of her husband's fate was ever before her, and Madame Dort had a dread of the sea which only those who have suffered a similar bereavement can fully understand, she could not resist the boy's continual pleadings, backed up as they were by his evident and unaffected bias of mind towards everything connected with ships and shipping; for, Eric never seemed so happy as when frequenting the quays and talking with the sailors and sea-captains who came to the old port of Lubeck, where of late years the mother had taken up her residence, in order to be near Fritz, who had obtained a clerkship in a merchant's house there, through the friendly offices of the parents of one of the music-teacher's pupils.
Eric had already received his 'sea-baptism,' so to speak, having been on a trip to England in a Hamburgh cattle-boat, and on a cruise up the Baltic in a timber-ship; but he was now going away in a Dutch vessel to the East Indies, the voyage promising to occupy more than a year, so there is no wonder that his mother was anxious on his account, thinking she would never live to see him again. It seemed so terrible to her as she stood on the railway platform, surrounded by all the bustle and preparation of the train about to depart, to fancy, as she gazed with longing eyes at her brave and gallant Eric, with his lion-like head and curling locks of golden hair, that she might never look on her sailor laddie's merry, loving face any more; and, tears dropped from the widow's eyes as she drew him towards her, clasping him to her, as if she could not bear to let him go.
"Come, mother," said Fritz, after a moment's interval. "Time is up! The guard is calling out for the passengers to take their seats. Eric, old fellow, good-bye, and God bless you! You will write to the mother and me from every port you touch at?"
"Aye, surely," said the boy, a sob breaking his voice and banishing the mannish composure which he had tried to maintain to the last. "Good- bye, Fritz; you'll take care of mother?"
"Don't you fear, that will I, brother!" was the answer in those earnest tones which Fritz always used when he was making a promise and giving his word to anything he undertook—a word which he never broke.
"And now, good-bye, mutterchen, my own darling little mother," said Eric, clasping his mother in a last clinging hug; "you'll never forget me, but will keep strong and well till I come back."
"I will try, my child, with God's help," sobbed out the poor lady. "But, may He preserve you and bring you back safe to my arms! Good-bye, my darling. You must never forget Him or me; my consolation in your absence will be that your prayers will ascend to heaven along with mine."
"You may trust me, mother, indeed you may. Good-bye, little mother! God bless you, mutterchen! Good-bye!" cried out the sailor lad from the carriage window; and then, the train moved off, puffing and panting out of the station, leaving Fritz and his mother standing on the platform, and waving their handkerchiefs in farewell to Eric, who was as busily engaged gesticulating, with his hat in one hand and in the other a newspaper that his brother had brought him, shouting out, 'Lebewohl!'—a sobbing farewell it was—for the last time, and still waving adieux when his voice failed him!
"Never mind, my mother," said Fritz softly, giving his arm to the heart- stricken lady, and leading her away with tender care from the railway station to their now sadly bereaved home. "Cheer up, and hope, mutterchen! You have a son still left you, who will never desert you or quit his post of looking after you, till Eric, the dear boy, comes back."
"I know, my son, I know your love and affection," replied Madame Dort, pressing his arm to her side affectionately; "but, who can tell what the future may have in store for us? Ah, it's a wise proverb that, dear son, which reminds us that 'man proposes, but God disposes!'"
"It is so," murmured Fritz, more to himself than to her; "still, I trust we'll all meet again beneath the old roof-tree."
"And I the same, from the bottom of my heart!" said his mother, in cordial sympathy with his wish, as she began to ascend the steps leading up to her dwelling; while Fritz returned to the counting-house of his employer, Herr Grosschnapper, to finish those duties which had been interrupted by his having to see Eric off.
It was late in the autumn when Eric left Lubeck on his way to Rotterdam, where he was to go on board the good ship Gustav Barentz, bound on a trading voyage to the eastern isles of the Indian Ocean; and, as the year rolled on, bringing winter in its train—a season which the Dort family had hitherto always hailed with pleasure on account of its festive associations—the hours lagged with the now sadly diminished little household in the Gulden Strasse; for, the merry Christmas-tide reminded them more than ever of the absent sailor boy, who had always been the very life and soul of the home circle, and the eagerly sought- for guest at every neighbourly gathering.
"It does not seem at all the same now the dear lad is away on the seas," said old Lorischen, the whilom nurse, and now part servant, part companion of Madame Dort. "Indeed, I cannot fancy him far-distant at all. I feel as if he were only just gone out skating on the canal, and that we might expect him in again at any moment!"
"Ah, I miss him every minute of the day," replied Madame Dort, who was sitting on one side of the white porcelain stove that occupied a cosy corner of the sitting-room, facing the old nurse, who was busily engaged knitting a pair of lambs-wool stockings on the other.
"It is now—aye, just two months since the dear lad left us," continued Lorischen, "and we've never had a line from him yet. I hope no evil has befallen the ship!"
"Oh, don't say such a thing as that," said Madame Dort nervously. "The vessel has a long voyage to make, and would only touch at the Cape of Good Hope on her way; so we cannot expect to hear yet. I wonder at you, Lorischen, alarming me with your misgivings! I am sure I am anxious enough already about poor Eric."
"Ach himmel! I meant no harm, dear lady," rejoined the other; "but, when one has thoughts, you know, they must find vent, and I've been dreaming of him the last three nights. I do wish he were safe back again. The house is not itself without him."
"You are not the only one that thinks that," said Madame Dort. "Why, even the very birds that come to be fed at the gallery window miss him! They won't take their bread crumbs from my hand as they used to do last winter from his; you remember how tame they were, and how they would hop on his shoulder when he opened the window and called them?"
"Aye, that do I, well! He was a kind lad to bird and beast alike. There is my old cat, which another boy would have tormented according to the nature of all boys where poor cats are concerned; but Eric loved it, and petted it like myself! Many a time I see Mouser looking up at that model of his ship there, blinking his eyes as if he knew well where the young master is, for cats have deeper penetration than human folk give them credit for. I heard him miaow-wowing this morning; and, when I went to look for him, there he was on the top of the stove, if you please, gazing up at the little ship, with his tail up in the air as stiff as a hair-brush! I couldn't make it out at all, and that's what made me so thoughtful to-day about the dear lad, especially as I'd dreamt of him, too."
"My dear Lorischen, you absurd creature," laughed out Madame Dort. "I'm glad you said that. Don't you know what was old Mouser's grievance? Was I not close behind you at the time the cat was making the noise, and did not Burgher Jans' dog rush out of the room as the door was opened? Of course, Mouser got on the stove to be out of his way, and that was why you thought he was speaking in cat language to poor Eric's little model ship. What a superstitious old lady you are, to be sure!"
"Ah well, you may think so, and explain it away, madame," said Lorischen, in no way convinced; "but I have my beliefs all the same; and I think that cat knows more than you and I do. Dear, dear! There, I declare it is snowing again. What a Christmas we will have, and how the dear lad would have enjoyed it, eh?"
"Yes, that he would," rejoined the other. "He did love to watch the snowflakes come down, and talk of longing to see an Arctic winter; but I hope it will not fall so heavily as to block the railway, and prevent us from getting any letters."
"I hope not," replied Lorischen sympathisingly. "That would be a bad look-out, especially at Christmas time! Look, the roof of the Marien Kirche is covered already: what must it not be in the open country!"
The old town presented a very different aspect now to what it had done when Madame Dort had walked by Eric's side to the railway station, for the red tiles of the houses were hidden from view by the white covering which now covered the face of nature everywhere—the frozen canal ways and river, with the ice-bound ships along the quays and the tall poplar trees and willows on the banks, as well as the streets and market-place, being thickly powdered, like a gigantic wedding-cake, with snow-dust; while icicles hung pendent, as jewels, from the masts of the vessels and the boughs of the trees alike, and from the open-work galleries of the market hall and groined carvings of the archways and outside staircases that led to the upper storeys of the ancient buildings around. These latter glittered in every occasional ray of sunshine that escaped every now and then from the overhanging clouds, flashing out strange radiant shades of colouring to light up the monotonous tone of the landscape.
Madame Dort rose from her chair and went to the window where she remained for some little time watching the fast descending flakes that came down in never-ceasing succession.
"I'm afraid it is going to be a very heavy fall," said she presently, after gazing at the scene around in the street below. Then, lifting her eyes, she noticed that the heavy mass of snow-clouds on the horizon had now crept up to the zenith, totally obscuring the sun, and that the wind had shifted to the north-east—a bad quarter from whence to expect a change at that time of year.
"But, dear me, there is Fritz! I wonder what brings him home so early to-day?" she exclaimed again after another pause. "See," she added, "the dear child! He has got something white in his hand, and is waving it as he comes up the stairway. It's a letter, I'm sure; and it must be from Eric!"
Old Lorischen bounced out of her chair at this announcement and was at the door of the room almost as soon as her mistress; but, before either could touch the handle, it was opened from without, and Fritz came into the apartment.
"Hurrah, mother!" he shouted out in joyful tones. "Here's news from Eric at last! A letter in his own dear handwriting. I have not opened it yet; but it must have been put on board some passing vessel homewards bound, as it is marked 'ship's letter,' and I've had to pay two silbergroschen for it. Open it and read, mother dear; I'm so anxious to hear what our boy says."
With trembling hands Madame Dort tore the envelope apart, and soon made herself mistress of the contents of the letter. It was only a short scrawl which the sailor lad had written off hurriedly to take advantage of the opportunity of sending a message home by a passing ship, as his brother had surmised—Eric not expecting to have been able to forward any communication until the vessel reached the Cape; and, the stranger only lying-to for a brief space of time to receive the despatches of the Gustav Barentz, he could merely send a few hasty lines, telling them that he was well and happy, although he missed them all very much, and sending his "dearest love" to his "own little mother" and "dear brother Fritz," not forgetting "darling, cross old Lorischen," and the "cream- stealing Mouser."
"Just hear that, the little fond rascal!" exclaimed the worthy old nurse, when Madame Dort read out this postscript. "To think of his calling me cross, and accusing Mouser of stealing; it is just like his impudence, the rogue! I only wish he were here now, and I would soon tell him a piece of my mind."
Eric added that they had had a rough passage down the North Sea, his vessel having to put into Plymouth, in the English Channel, for repairs; and that, as she was a bad sailer, they expected to be much longer on the voyage than had been anticipated. He said, too, that if the wind was fair, the captain did not intend to stop at the Cape, unless compelled to call in for provisions and water, but to push on to Batavia so as not to be late for the season's produce. He had overheard him telling the mate this, and now informed those at home of the fact that they might not be disappointed at not receiving another letter from him before he reached the East Indies, which would be a most unlikely case, unless they had the lucky chance of communicating a second time with a homeward-bound ship—a very improbable contingency, vessels not liking to stop on their journey and lay-to, except in answer to a signal of distress or through seeing brother mariners in peril.
"So, you see," said Madame Dort, as soon as she had reached the end of the sheet, "we must not hope to hear from the dear boy again for some time, and can only trust that all will go well with him on the voyage!" She heaved a heavy sigh from the bottom of her mother's heart as she spoke, and her face looked sad again, like it had been before Eric's letter came.
"Yes, that's right enough, mutterchen," answered Fritz hopefully; "but, you can likewise see that Providence has watched over our Eric so far, in preserving him safely, and there is now no reason for our feeling any alarm on his account. We shall hear from him in the spring, without doubt, telling us of his safe arrival at Java, and saying what time we may look forward to expecting him home. At any rate, this dear letter comes welcome enough now, and it will enable us to have a happier Christmas-tide than we should otherwise have passed."
"Ach, that it does," put in old Lorischen, beginning again to bustle about the room with all her former zest in making preparations for the coming festival, which her melancholy forebodings about Eric and superstitious, fears anent the cat's colloquy in the morning had somewhat interrupted: "we shall have a right merry Christmas in spite of the dear lad's absence. We must remember that he will be with us in spirit, at least, and it would grieve him if we were down-hearted!"
This wise reflection of the old nurse, coupled with Fritz's hopeful words, appeared to have a cheering influence on Madame Dort, whom many trials had made rather more despondent than could have been expected from her bright, handsome face, which did not seem sometimes to have ever known what sorrow was; although, like Eric's, it exhibited for the moment every passing mood, so that those familiar with her disposition could almost read her very thoughts, her nature being so open. Banishing her gloom away, apparently by the mere effort of will, she now proceeded to assist Lorischen in getting the room decorated for the Christmas Eve feast, of which all partook with more merriment and content than the little household in the Gulden Strasse had known since the sailor boy left. Nay, it seemed to them, happy with the tidings of his safety and well-being, that Eric was there too in their midst; for they drank his health before separating for the night, and his mother, when placing the surprise presents, which were to tell the members of the family in the morning that they had not been overlooked in the customary distribution of those little gifts that form the most pleasing remembrances of the festive season in Germany, did not omit also to fill the stocking which Eric had suspended from the head of his bedstead before leaving—he having laughingly said that he expected to find it chock-full when he returned home in time for the next Christmas feast, as he was certain that Santa Claus would never be so unkind as to forget him because he chanced to be away and so missed his turn in the usual visit of the benevolent patron of the little ones!
Time passed on at Lubeck, the same as it does everywhere else. The year turned and the months flew by. Winter gave place to spring, when the adamantine chains with which the ice-king had bound the rivers and waters of the north were loosed asunder by the mighty power of the exultant sun; the snow melted away from the earth, which decked itself in green to rejoice at its freedom, smiling in satisfaction with flowers; while the trees began to clothe their ragged limbs and branches in dainty apparel, and the birds to sing at the approach of summer.
June came, when Madame Dort had fully expected to hear of Eric's arrival at Batavia; but the month waned to its close without any letter coming to gladden the mother's heart again, nor was there any news to be heard of the good ship Gustav Barentz in the commercial world—not a single telegram having been received to report her having reached her destination, nor was there any mention of her having been seen and signalled by some passing vessel, save that time when she was met off the Cape de Verde Islands in the previous November. It began to look ominous!
But, while Madame Dort was filled with apprehension as to the fate of her younger son, a sudden conjuncture of circumstances almost made her forget Eric. This was, the unexpected summons of Fritz from her side, to battle with the legions of Germany against the threatened invasion of "the Fatherland" by France.
At the time, it looked sudden enough. A little cloud, no bigger than a man's hand, had arisen on the horizon of European politics, which, each moment, grew blacker and more portentous; and, in a brief while, it burst into a war that deluged the vine-clad slopes of Rhineland and the fair plains of Lorraine with blood and fire, making havoc everywhere. Now, however, looking back on all the events of that terrible struggle and duly weighing the surroundings and impelling forces leading up to it, allowing also for all temporary excuses and pretexts, and admitting all that can be said for partisanship on either side, there can be no use in blinking at the pregnant fact that the real cause of the war arose from a desire to settle whether the French or the Germans were the strongest in sheer brute force—just in the same way as two men, or boys, fight with nature's weapons in a pugilistic encounter to strive for the mastery, thus indulging in passions which they share with the beasts of the field!
The long, steady, complete preparation for war on each side shows that this very simple and intelligible motive was at the bottom of it all; and it is pitiable to think, for the sake of human nature, when recapitulating the history of this fearful conflict of fifteen years ago which caused such misery and murderous loss of life, that two of the most polished, advanced, educated, and representative nations of Europe at that time should not have apparently attained a higher code of civilised morality than that adopted by the natives of Dahomey—one, ruled over by the blood-stained fetish of human sacrifice! As the world advances, looking at the matter in this light, we seem to have exchanged one sort of barbarism for another, and the present one appears almost the worse of the two, by the very reason of its being mixed up with so much scientific advancement, cultural refinement, and the higher development of man. It is like the old devil returning and bringing with him seven other devils more powerful for evil than their original prototype, this prostitution of learning, intellect, and philosophy to the most debasing influences of human nature!
These thoughts, however, did not affect either Fritz or his mother at the time.
Not being the only son of a widow, in which case he might have been exempted from service, Fritz, when he had reached his eighteenth year, had been compelled to join the ranks of the national army; and, after completing the ordinary course of drill, had been relegated to the Landwehr and allowed to return home to his civic occupation. But, when the order was promulgated throughout the German empire to mobilise the vast human man-slaying machine which General Moltke and Prince Bismark had constructed with such painstaking care that units could be multiplied into tens, and tens into hundreds, and hundred into thousands—swelling into a gigantic host of armed men almost at a moment's notice, ready either to guard the frontier from invasion, or to hurl its resistless battalions on the hated foe whose defeat had been such a long-cherished dream—the young clerk received peremptory orders to join the headquarters of the regiment to which he was attached. The very place and hour at which he was to report himself to his commanding officer were named in the general order forwarded along with his railway pass, so comprehensive were the details of the Prussian military organisation. This latter so thoroughly embraced the entire country after the absorption of the lesser states on the collapse of Koniggratz, that each separate individual could be moved at any given moment to a certain defined point; while the instructions for his guidance were so complete and perfect, that they could not fail to be understood.
Fritz had to proceed, in the first instance, to the capital city of his state, Hanover, now no longer a kingdom, but only a small division of the great empire into which it was incorporated. For him there was no chance of evasion or getting out of the obligation to serve, for the whilom "kingdom" having withstood to the last during the six weeks' war the onward progress to victory of the all-devouring Prussians, her citizens would be at once suspected of disloyalty on the least sign of any defection. Besides, a keen official eye was kept on the movements of all Hanoverians, their patriotism to the newly formed empire being diligently nourished by a military rule as stern and strict as that of Draco.
"Oh, my boy, my firstborn! and must I lose thee too?" exclaimed Madame Dort, when Fritz made her acquainted with the news of his summons to headquarters. "Truly Providence sees fit to afflict me for my sins, to try me with this fresh calamity!"
"Pray do not take such a sombre view of my departure, dear mother," said Fritz. "Why, probably, in a month's time I will be back again in old Lubeck; for, I'm sure, we'll double up the French in a twinkling."
"Ah, my child, you do not know what a campaign is, yet! The matter will not be settled so easily as you think. War is a terrible thing, and the Prussians may not be able to crush the whole power of the French nation in the same way in which they conquered Austria and Saxony, and subdued our own little state four years ago."
"But, mother recollect, that now we shall be fighting all together for the Fatherland," said Fritz, who like most young Germans was well read in his country's history, and to him the remembrance of the old war time, when Buonaparte trampled over central Europe, was as fresh as if it were only yesterday. "We've long been waiting for this day, and it has come at last! Besides, dear mutterchen, you forget that the Landwehr, to which I belong, will only act as a reserve, and will not probably take any part in the fighting—worse luck!" He added the latter words under his breath, for it was not so long since he had abandoned his barrack-room life for him to have lost the soldierly instincts there implanted into him; and, truth to say, he longed for the strife, the summons to arms making him "sniff the battle from afar like a young war-horse!" The French declaration of war and the proclamation of the German emperor had roused the people throughout the country into a state of patriotic frenzy; so that, from the North Sea to the Danube, from the Rhine to the Niemen, the summons to meet the ancient foe was responded to with an alacrity and devotion which none who witnessed the stirring scenes of that period can ever forget.
Fritz was no less eager than his comrades; and, considerably within the interval allowed him for preparation, he and the others of his corps living in the same vicinity were on their way to Hanover.
This second parting with another of her children almost wrung poor Madame Dort's heart in twain; but, like the majority of German mothers at the time, she sent off her son, with a blessing, "to fight for his country, his Fatherland"; for, noble and peasant alike, every wife and mother throughout the length and breadth of the land seemed to be infected with the patriotism of a Roman matron. Madame Dort would be second to none.
"Good-bye, my son," she said, "be brave, although I need hardly tell your father's son that, and do your duty to God and your country!"
"I will, mother; I will," said Fritz, giving her a last kiss, as the train rolled away with him out of the station to the martial strains of "Der Deutsche Vaterland," which a band was playing on the platform in honour of the young recruits going to the war.
The widow had to-day no son left to support her steps homeward to the desolate house in the Gulden Strasse, now bereaved of her twin hopes, Fritz and Eric both; only old Lorischen was by her side, and she felt sadly alone.
"Both gone, both gone!" she murmured to herself as she ascended the outside stairway that led to her apartments in the upper part of the house. "It will be soon time for me to go, too!"
"Ach nein, dear mistress," said the faithful servant and friend who was now the sole companion left to share the deserted home. "What would become of me in that case, eh? We will wait and watch for the truants in patience and hope. They'll come back to us again in God's good time; and they will be all the more precious to us by their being taken from us now. Himmel! mistress, why we've lots of things to do to get ready for their return!"
The actual declaration of war by France against Germany was not made until the 15th of July, 1870, reaching Berlin some four days later; but, for some weeks prior to that date, there is not the slightest doubt that both sides were busily engaged in mobilising their respective armies and making extensive preparations for a struggle that promised at the outset to be "a war to the knife"—the cut-and-dried official announcement of hostilities only precipitating the crisis and bringing matters to a head, so to speak.
On the general order being given throughout the states of the Empire to place the national army on a war footing, in a very few days the marvellous system by which the German people can be marshalled for battle, "each tribe and family according to its place, and not in an aggregate of mere armed men," was in full operation throughout the land; and, under the influence of fervid zeal, of well-tested discipline, and of skilful arrangement, the Teuton hosts became truly formidable. From the recruiting ground allotted to it, each separate battalion speedily called in its reserves, expanding into full strength, the regiments so formed being at once arrayed into divisions and corps under proved commanders, furnished with every appliance which modern military science deemed necessary. These battalions composed the first line of defence for the Fatherland; while behind them, to augment the regular troops, again following out local distinctions and keeping up "the family arrangement," the Landwehr stood in the second line; the additional reserve of the Landsturm—yet to be called out in the event of fresh levies being required for garrisoning the fortresses with this militia force, so as to enable the trained soldiery to move onward and fill up the casualties of the campaign—forming a third line of defence.
These gigantic masses were organised with the celerity and precision of clockwork, and then sent forward westward, perfectly equipped—in the highest sense a national army, being over four hundred thousand strong!
Day after day, up to the end of July, the different railway lines of Germany bore the mighty host onward to the banks of the Rhine in endless succession of train-loads. Mass after mass of armed men, duly supplied with all the material of war, advanced rapidly, yet in due pre-arranged order, to the points selected for their gathering; while, in the meantime, the fortresses along the line of the river, where the first French attack was expected to be made, were put in a proper state of defence, and now, with strong garrisons, repaired works, ditches filled, and ramparts crowned with Krupp cannon, were prepared to defy the invader. By the first week of August three great armies had taken possession of the strip of territory, lying between the lower stream of the Moselle and the Rhine, which had for centuries been a battlefield between the German and French races, and which was now to witness fighting on a scale which put every previous campaign into the shade. The first army, under the veteran General Steinmetz, who had won his spurs at Waterloo, had been moved from the north down the valley of the Moselle and along the railway from Bingen, with its headquarters at the strongly fortified town of Coblentz. The second, or "central army," under Prince Frederick Charles, "the Red Prince," as his enthusiastic soldiers styled him, occupied Mannheim and Mayence, guarding the Vosges, through which was the principal avenue to the heart of the coveted Rhineland provinces; while the third army, under the Crown Prince of Prussia, who, as is well-known, is married to our own "Princess Royal," had its headquarters at Landau, where also the Baden and Wurtemberg contingents had to rendezvous.
"The ball was opened"—to use the light-hearted expression of a French journalist in describing the commencement of the murderous struggle for supremacy between the two nations—at Saarbruck on the 2nd of August, 1870, when the late ill-fated Prince Imperial of France received his "baptism of fire"; but the first real engagement of the war did not occur till two days later, at Weissembourg, this being succeeded by the terrible battle of Woerth on the 6th of the month, when the German army under the Crown Prince of Prussia crumpled up the forces of Mcmahon, and thus effectually disposed of the previously much-vaunted superiority of the French military system, with its chassepot rifle and mitrailleuse.
With these initial victories of Germany we have not much to do, however; for Fritz belonged to the Hanoverian division, which formed one of the units of the Tenth Army Corps, under the command of Steinmetz, which did not come into action until later on.
On joining his regiment at headquarters, our young recruit from Lubeck, hastily summoned to exchange the pen and desk of a Dutch merchant's counting-house for the needle-gun and camp of the soldier, discovered to his great joy, that, instead of having to go through the tedious routine of garrison duty—which he had expected would have mainly composed his experiences of the war—the French invasion of Rhineland had so suddenly collapsed, that the Teuton forces, which had been assembled for the original purpose of defending the native soil, were now able to take the offensive and in their turn invade the territory of the foe; and, thus, he would be able to see active service on the field. This was a consummation dearly desired on his part, for he was young and ardent; although, perhaps, the order to go forwards was not quite so much relished by some of his comrades, who were married men and preferred the quiet of their home fireside to the many risks and discomforts of a campaign, which, at the beginning, they did not look upon so hopefully as their leaders.
"Hurrah!" he exclaimed one morning at Coblentz, when the division in which he served was paraded on the Platz in heavy marching order, the men hurriedly falling into the ranks. "No more sentry rounds now and guard-mounting; we're off to Paris!"
"Don't you crow too loudly, my young bantam," said a veteran near him; "we'll have a long march first, and then perhaps one of those confounded chassepot bullets we've heard so much of will put you feet foremost, in a way you won't like!"
"Bah!" replied Fritz; "I'll run the chance of that. Anything is better than stopping here kicking our heels in this old town, while our brothers are gaining laurels in the battlefield!"
"Ach, mein lieber," said the other; "wait till you've seen a little of the reality of war, the same as I did four years ago at Sadowa; you'll then think differently. It all looks very well now, with your smart new uniform and bright helmet; but, when the one is ragged with bayonet cuts and bloody and dirty, and the other doesn't preserve you from a leaden headache, you will prefer, like me, barrack life—aye, even in Coblentz!"
"Hush there! order in the ranks!" sang out an officer at this moment, stopping Fritz's answer; and, the word of command being presently given to march, the conversation was not renewed.
After the fearful loss they had suffered at Woerth, which battle was followed up by the sanguinary defeat of Frossard at Forbach, to the left of their line, on the same day, the French fell back on Metz as their rallying point, hoping by means of the vast entrenched camp there and its facilities of communication with Chalons and Verdun, to be able to make a stand against the enemy, now pressing them so sore. Military critics say that this was the greatest mistake made by the Emperor Napoleon's advisers; and that, had the forces under Bazaine retreated farther to the west—after throwing a sufficient garrison into Metz— they might have been able to effect a junction with the defeated army of Mcmahon, which that general was withdrawing into the interior and from which they were now completely cut off.
Be that as it may, however, during this interval of inactivity, when the shattered fragments of the magnificent French army—which had so proudly assumed the offensive but a bare fortnight before along the frontiers of the Rhine—were idling away precious moments that were fraught with peril and disaster to the Gallic race, the huge German masses, animated by a sense of victory and the consciousness of a superiority in arms as well as in numbers, were sweeping forward like a whirlwind of destruction. The Crown Prince, who had routed Mcmahon at Woerth and driven the wedge in that separated him from Bazaine, continued his onward march on the left of the German line through the passes of the Vosges into the fertile plains of Champagne. At the same time, Prince Frederick Charles, with the main portion of the second army, had crossed the Moselle at Pont-a-Mousson; and, moving northwards, was already in a position to threaten the line of the French retreat on Verdun, while the remainder of the Red Prince's forces were advancing to the eastward of Metz. The columns, too, of Steinmetz, moving with mathematical regularity at an equal rate of progression, were also being echelonned along the northern face of the fortress, just within striking distance.
To put it concisely, some two hundred and fifty thousand unbeaten German soldiers, with an artillery numbering over eight hundred guns, almost surrounded the stronghold of Lorraine and the far weaker and partly demoralised force which the French had gathered together beneath its walls, only, as it turned out subsequently, to court defeat and annihilation.
It was not until the 14th of August that the series of battles that were to rage round Metz, began.
Early in the morning of that day—apparently for the first time struck with an apprehension of having his retreat on Chalons by way of Verdun interfered with and his communications with his base of supply cut off, thus appreciating his critical position only when it was too late to remedy it—the French Marshal commenced crossing the Moselle with his vanguard. The entire body of troops, however, did not reach the river; for, three corps, which had been encamped to the eastward of the fortress, delayed their departure until the afternoon—a tardiness that enabled Steinmetz to attack their rear and detain them on the spot, until the flanking movement of Prince Frederick Charles' army beyond the Moselle towards Pont-a-Mousson had been completed. A bloody and indecisive action was the result, in which, if the Germans did not gain a victory, they succeeded in accomplishing their object—that of detaining the French troops before Metz, until their retreat on Verdun should be impossible of achievement.
On the 16th occurred the battle of Vionville; and, two days later, that of Gravelotte, the bloodiest contest that took place between the opposing forces throughout the entire war—the first general engagement, too, in which our friend Fritz really "smelt powder" and became an active participant.
The rough skirmishing work which some of the divisions of the army corps under Steinmetz had already had, during the intervening days since the 14th, somewhat prepared the soldiers of the Waterloo veteran for butchery. They could plainly perceive from his tactics that their general was one who would spare no sacrifice of human life in order to gain his end and defeat the enemy. The corpses piled high on the field of Vionville of the Cuirassiers and Ziethen Hussars, who had been ordered to charge batteries of artillery in Balaclava fashion, afforded proof enough of that; and the men said, with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulders, "Ah, yes; we're going to have a warm time of it now with 'Old Blood and Iron,' we are!"
And they had!
Fritz had barely dropped to sleep on the evening of the 17th, when, towards midnight, he was aroused by the wild music of military trumpets, blown apparently from every bivouac in his neighbourhood for miles round.
"Who goes there?" he exclaimed, raising himself up on his elbow, but half awake and dreaming he was on sentry duty.
"Rouse up! rouse up!" shouted a comrade in his ear, and then he recollected all at once where he was. As he sprang to his feet, the noise throughout the camp told without further explanation that an important crisis was at hand, for the measured tramp of marching battalions pulsated the ground like the beat of a muffled drum, while above this sound could be heard the roll of wheels and dragging of gun limbers, and the ringing of horses' hoofs, all swelling into a perfect roar of sound.
Bazaine, having been driven back from the forward positions his army had attained on the Verdun and Etain roads, in its progress of retreat towards Chalons, by the intervention of the German forces, now sought a fresh vantage-ground during the brief respite allowed by his enemy—one, that is, where he would be able not only to offer a determined resistance, but also retain his lines of retreat; and whence, if victorious, he might be able to break forth and make good his intended movement on Chalons. Such a position he found in the range of uplands, which, intersected at points by ravines, with brooks and difficult ground in front and with belts of wood in the near distance, extends from the village of Gravelotte on the north-east to Privat-la-Montaigne, beyond the road that runs from Metz to the whilom German frontier; and, throughout the whole of the previous day the Marshal had been busily engaged in stationing his troops along this line collecting every means of defence which could add to its natural strength.
The arrangements of Bazaine certainly gave proof on this occasion of that tactical skill for which he had previously been renowned.
The French left, occupying Gravelotte at the junction of the roads from Verdun and Etain and thence extended along the high-road to Metz, held a range of heights, with a wood beneath, which commanded all the neighbouring approaches. This position, besides, was protected in front by lines of entrenchments, with rifle-pits and a formidable display of artillery; and, shielded in its rear by the heavily armed fort of Saint Quentin, might well-nigh be considered impregnable. Bazaine's centre, although not so strongly placed, had also the advantage of rising ground; and, the right of the line was equally protected by natural and artificial means. Along this admirably selected fighting ground the French Marshal posted some hundred thousand men altogether, clinging to Gravelotte with his best troops, and leaving about twenty thousand as a reserve near Metz—thus acting entirely on the defensive.
While Bazaine had been making these preparations, the German leaders had not by any means been idle. On the same day that the French Marshal was entrenching himself on his chosen field of battle, the entire force of the second army, under the Red Prince, approaching from Pont-a-Mousson, had come into line; and, in communication with the first army, under old "Blood and Iron" Steinmetz, had completely crossed the French, line of retreat, occupying the Verdun and Etain roads northward from Rezonville to Doncourt, with the remaining corps that had remained to the east of Metz supporting the rear and right flank. Altogether, the German commanders had at least nine army corps in hand; and when the reinforcements were brought up, they could calculate on possessing a force of no less than two hundred and forty thousand men to hurl against their antagonists, thus overmatched at the very outset by at least two to one.
The Teuton plan of battle, as subsequently detailed, premised, that, as the French left at Gravelotte was prodigiously strong, making it extremely difficult to carry that position without enormous sacrifices, it would be preferable to move a large part of the army across Bazaine's front, in order to assail and crush his right wing, which was protected in the rear by Metz, and so could not be turned in that direction. It was also decided that, at the same time, a forward attack should be made as a feint on Gravelotte, the German commanders hoping that under the double pressure of a simultaneous onslaught on both its wings, the French army would lose its hold of the Verdun and Etain roads—which of course it was Bazaine's object to secure—when, being driven in under the guns of Metz, his forces would there be isolated and completely cut off from any further action in the campaign.
This result, it may be here stated, was ultimately attained, although the turning movement against the right of the French line was found to be impracticable shortly after it was undertaken and had to be given up, the operations of the German host being subsequently confined to an attack in front on the formidable position of Gravelotte—which, with its ridge of hills lined with fortifications and strengthened with rows of rifle-pits that covered the slopes in every direction, overtopping each other like seats in a circus, seemed proof against attack.
Marching in the darkness, he knew not whither, by the side of comrades in solid phalanx, Fritz found himself, when morning broke, at the rear of some other battalions that were concealed from the enemy behind a mass of brushwood and scattered forest trees. These grew on an elevated plateau from which a very good view could be obtained of the field of battle, the rising sun lighting up the whole landscape and displaying the beautiful details of the country around, so soon, alas! to be marred by the terrible havoc of battle, bringing fire and ruin and bloodshed in its train.
On the left, stretched out like a silver thread amidst the green sheen of the foliage the road leading to Verdun and Paris beyond, lined along its extent with rows of tall poplars planted with mathematical regularity; while a series of pretty villages, each with its own church steeple and surrounded by charming villa residences, only a few hundred yards apart apparently, broke the monotonous regularity of the highway— Mars la Tour, Florigny, Vionville, Rezonville, Malmaison, and last, though by no means least, Gravelotte, which was in the immediate foreground. On the right were thickly wooded hills; and, far away in the distance, glittered the peaks and pinnacles of Metz, the whole forming a lovely panorama, spread out below in the smiling valley of Lorraine.
As Fritz was looking on this scene with mingled feelings, a splendid regiment of uhlans dashed up behind the infantry; and, when they reached the brow of the hill, they broke into a wild hurrah, which almost seemed to thrill their horses, which neighed in chorus. This provoked a responsive echo from the marching battalions on foot; and then, the cavalry galloped forwards. At the same time, distant cannonading could be heard in the neighbourhood of Vionville, and shells were seen bursting in the air around the French positions at Point du Jour, with the smaller puffs of smoke from rifles in action between the trees below.
The battle had begun.
Bang, bang, went the guns; and soon the cannonade, drawing in closer and closer upon the doomed villages, became a deafening roar, with streams of hurtling missiles shrieking overhead and bursting with a crash at intervals. Masses of men could be perceived winding in and out along the main road and the side lanes like ants, a gap every now and then showing in their ranks when some shot had accomplished its purpose. By twelve o'clock the engagement had become general; although, as yet, it had been only a battle of the guns, which bellowed and hurled destruction on assailant and defender alike—the curious harsh grating sound of the French mitrailleuse being plainly perceptible above the thunder of the cannon and rattle of musketry, "just like the angry growl of a cross dog under a wagon when some one pretends to take away his bone!" as one of the men said.
The Ninth Army Corps, composed of Schleswig-Holsteiners, Fritz's compatriots and close neighbours, were the first to come into collision with the enemy's van but soon the Hanoverian artillery had to follow suit; and bye-and-bye, in the main attack on Gravelotte, the infantry became engaged at last, much to the relief of the men, who were bursting with impatience at being allowed to rest idly on their arms when such stirring scenes were being enacted before their eyes.
This was not, however, until the French positions in front of Vionville had been carried, a success only achieved late in the afternoon, after the most desperate fighting and when the slaughter-dealing Steinmetz ordered an advance in front of the enemy's defences.
A tremendous fire of artillery was first concentrated on the French works, one hundred and twenty guns taking part in the bombardment; and then, after about half an hour's shelling, the leading Prussian regiment dashed up the slopes above Gravelotte. The men were rushing into the very jaws of death; for, when they had got about half-way up, the mitrailleuses opened on them, doing terrible execution at close quarters. The brave fellows, however, pressed on, though they fell literally by hundreds. Indeed, they actually got into the works, and a half battery of four-pounder guns which had followed them up was close in their rear on their way to the crest of the hill, when the French, who had run their mitrailleuses farther back some four hundred yards to avoid capture, opened so deadly a fire that the "forlorn hope" had to retire again down the slope—leaving the guns behind them, for every horse in the battery had been killed or disabled. After this, a mad attempt was made to charge the hill with cavalry, the cuirassiers and uhlans dashing up the road at the French works; but men and horses were mowed down so rapidly that the scattered remnants of these fine squadrons had to retire like the infantry. A third effort was made by another line regiment, the men advancing in skirmishing order, instead of in column like the first pioneers of the attack; but although this attempt was covered by a tremendous artillery fire, it was equally unsuccessful. Some of the men certainly managed to reach the French batteries, but they were then shot down in such numbers by the terrible mitrailleuses that they could not hold their ground.
These different episodes of the battle consumed the greater portion of the afternoon, although of course fighting was going on elsewhere along the line. Fritz's battalion was engaged in another part of the field, and in the Bois du Vaux, as well as on the opposite bank of the Moselle, it did good service in crushing in the wing of the French. Here Fritz had an opportunity of distinguishing himself. In charging an entrenched outwork held by the enemy, the captain of his company got struck down by a bullet; when, as no officer remained to take his place, Fritz gallantly seized the sword of the fallen man, leading on his comrades to the capture of the battery, which had been annoying the German reserves greatly by its fire. Fortunately, too, for Fritz, his commanding officer, General Von Voigts-Rhetz, not only noticed his bravery on the occasion, but let him know that it should not be forgotten at headquarters.
Meanwhile, the continual bombardment of the French position was maintained, and about half-past six o'clock in the evening a last desperate attack was made on Gravelotte—the outlying farmhouse of La Villette, which was the key to the defence, being especially assailed. The reserve artillery being brought up commenced playing upon the still staunchly guarded slopes with storms of shot and shell; and, presently, the farmhouse was in flames, although the garden was still held by the French, who had crenellated the walls, making it into a perfect redan. A gallant foot regiment then took the lead of the German forces, charging up the deadly slope, followed by a regiment of hussars; when, after more than an hour spent in the most desperate fighting of the day, the French at last began to retire from the entrenchments which they had defended so gallantly up to now, the infantry being protected in their retreat by the murderous mitrailleuses that had so disunited the ranks of their stubborn foes, the hoarse growl of their discharge being yet heard in the distance long after the louder and sharper reports of the guns and howitzers had generally ceased.
The evening was now closing in, and soon darkness reigned around, the prevailing gloom being only broken by the fiery path of some bombshell winging its parabolic flight through the air, or the long tongue of fire darting forth from the mouth of a stray cannon; while, in the sky above, the lurid smoke-clouds of burning houses joined with the shades of night in casting a pall over the scene of hideous carnage which the bright day had witnessed, hiding it for ever save from the memories of those who were there and had shared its horrors.
The battle of Gravelotte was lost and won; but, to the Germans, the victory was almost akin to a defeat, no less than five-and-twenty thousand of the best troops of the "Fatherland" being either killed or wounded!
Fritz escaped scathless through all the perils of the day, in spite, too, of his risking his life most unnecessarily on many occasions in order to see the progress of the fight when his battalion was not in action; but his favourite comrade, the veteran soldier who had fought at Sadowa, received a bullet in his chest, and his life-blood was gradually ebbing away when Fritz, kneeling at his side, asked him if he could do anything for him.
"Ah, no," answered the poor fellow; "nobody can do anything for me now! I told you, comrade, to wait till you saw what real war was like. Himmel! Sadowa and '66 were child's play to this here, with the fire of the chassepot and that infernal mitrailleuse! Hurrah, though we've won!" shouted out the veteran in a paroxysm of patriotism; and then, joining in with the chorus of "Die Wacht am Rhein," which a Prussian corps was singing as they marched by, he thus sobbed out his last breath and so died!
"His was a patriot soldier's end," said Fritz, as he closed his eyes and covered over his face reverently with his pocket-handkerchief.
"Yes, so it was," chimed in the others sententiously. "It is good so to die!"
AFTER THE BATTLE.
During the height of the struggle, Fritz had been carried away by a perfect delirium of excitement, as if in a dream; and what he had done had been done almost unconsciously, in spite of himself, and on the spur of the moment. He had been marched here; marched there; halted; ordered to fire; charged with his comrades; retreated; charged again—all, as it seemed, in one brief second of time!
What, with the continuous roar of artillery reverberating through the surrounding hills; the constant ping; pinging and singing of rifle bullets; the rattling discharge of platoon firing; the whirring of heavy shot and shell through the air above the ranks and the bursting every now and then of some huge bomb in their midst, knocking down the men like ninepins and sending up a pyramid of dust and stones, mingled with particles of their arms and clothing, as well as fragments of the torn flesh of some victims, on the missile exploding in a sheet of crackling flame, with a rasping, tearing noise—all combined with the thick sulphureous cloud of gunpowder which hung over the battlefield, half asphyxiating the combatants, whose hoarse cries of rage and hatred could be heard above the noise of the cannon and discharges of musketry, mixed up with the words of command of their different officers, the "En avant, mes amis!" of the French, the stern "Vorwarts!" of the Germans, and the occasional wild, weird, frenzied scream of some stricken charger echoing shrilly in the distance, like the wail of a lost soul in purgatory—the whole realised a mad riot of destruction and carnival of blood, the essence of whose moving spirit appeared to take possession of each one engaged, rendering him unaccountable for his actions for the time being. Like the rest, Fritz felt the "war fever" upon him. A red mist hovered before his eyes. He smelt blood and longed to spill more. The fumes of brimstone acted on his senses like hasheesh to narcotic smokers. An irresistible impulse urged him forwards. A voice kept crying in his ears, "Kill and slay, and spare not!"
This was while the fury of the combat lasted, when the Prussian battalions were hurling their human waves in columns against the rocky defences of Gravelotte, only for them to fall back impotently, like the broken foam and spent wash of billows which have assailed in vain the precipitous peaks of some cliff-defended coast that repels their every attack; when the sharp clash of steel met opposing steel and galloping thud of flying squadrons, urged on with savage oath and triumphant cheer, filled the air; when the gurgling groan of the death-agony and moan of painless pain, made the treble of the devil-music, to the thundering sustained bass of the cannon roar, and the growling arpeggio accompaniment of the mitrailleuse!
But, when, after one last fearful combined volley, in which every single piece of ordnance on the field seemed to take part, the hideous turmoil of sound ceased as if by mutual consent. A sort of solemn hush, in company with the night, caused comparative stillness to brood over the scene, in contrast to the pandemoniacal noise that had previously reigned so fiendishly. Then, all of a sudden, Fritz appeared to awake suddenly from a disturbed dream or phantom-haunted night-mare, in which all the powers of evil were tearing at his heart and brain. The war fever, for him, had exhausted its final paroxysm. The red mist had been withdrawn from his eyes. The thirst for blood from his soul. He was himself again; but a strangely altered self, for he felt weak and ill, and as languid and worn-out as if he had just recovered from a fainting fit.
It was at this moment that Hermann his comrade had been struck down by a chassepot ball, winging its murderous mission from some unknown point; and when Fritz had sat down by the side of the body, covering over the face of the dead man, he did not seem to feel any desire to live or even to rise up again, he was so utterly powerless and lacking in energy. The majority of his fellow-soldiers appeared, too, to be in the same mood, stretching their weary limbs on the ground in listless apathy, as if caring for nothing; they did not either seem to be affected by hunger or thirst, although it was more than twelve hours since they had broken their fast; the fury of the fight had satiated them, taking away all stamina and appetite.
Presently, however, an ambulance detachment, passing by on their merciful errand to seek for the wounded, besought aid; and Fritz, with others, at once sprang up and volunteered assistance to bear away those to whom the surgeon's care could do any good to the field hospitals, where their hurts could be attended to in a general way. The number of wounded men was so great that it was simply impossible for the doctors to hunt after individual cases and treat them properly.
The battlefield was now covered by a dense cloud, illuminated at either end of the valley in which it lay by two enormous fires of burning houses. But, above, the stars shone down peacefully from the blue vault of heaven on the terrible picture of carnage below; and, as the smoke of the gunpowder cleared away, the different points of the struggle could be clearly picked out by reason of the heaps of corpses and dead horses, piled beneath overturned cannon and broken limbers, shattered needle- guns and chassepots, all of which were scattered around pell-mell in endless profusion.
"Water, water, for the love of God!" was the heartrending cry that proceeded everywhere from yet living men hidden among hecatombs of the slain, as they heard the footsteps of the ambulance corps and their helpers. Really, the task was an endless one, to try to relieve the misery around; for, hardly had one wounded wretch been saved from being buried alive in the mountain of dead under which he writhed, than an appeal for aid was heard in another direction—and yet again another, until the bearers and relief corps themselves became exhausted. Each required forty pairs of hands instead of one!
It was terrible work to go over the scene of slaughter in cold blood, with no fever of excitement to blot out the hideous details, now displaying themselves in all their naked reality! Conspicuously, in front of La Villette, were to be seen the white trimmings of the uniforms of the Prussian Imperial Guards; the red trousers of the French line; the shining helmets of the cuirassiers, whose breastplates were all torn and dented with shot, as if they had been ploughed over; while the wind, now rising as the night progressed towards morning, rustled the myriad leaves of white paper that had escaped from out of the French staff carriages, blowing them across the valley, like a flock of sea- gulls fluttering on the bosom of the breeze.
As the day broke, the bright beams of the rising sun lit up the field of battle, only to disclose its horrors the more unmistakably. The rays of light, flashing on the exposed sword blades and bayonet points, reflected little radiant gleams of brightness; but, the hands of those who wielded them so valiantly not many hours agone were now cold and cramped in the agony of death, alas! Sad bruised eyes glared out from disfigured faces under torn-open breasts, appearing to look up to where the stars only so recently twinkled down, vainly asking Providence why it had put the lightning into the hands of man for so fell a purpose! Rows of infantry lay dead in perfect order, as if on parade, where the mitrailleuse had mowed them down; whole squadrons of hussars and lancers were heaped up in mass; and, in some of the French rifle-pits, there were more than a thousand corpses piled, the one on top of another with trim regularity, as if carefully arranged so. Blue, red, and yellow uniforms, with the occasional green of the Tyrolean Jager, were mixed together in picturesque confusion along the Verdun road; in fact, the dead and dying were everywhere in such prodigious numbers that the hearts of those seeking out the wounded were appalled.
Worse than in the fields were the scenes displayed in the villages and little towns along the white high-road to Metz, the tall poplars that lined it being torn down by the round shot, thus blocking the way. The broken vehicles and baggage wagons that were mingled together in an inextricable mass also added to the obstruction; Malmaison, Vionville, and Rezonville were filled with war victims; and all the surgeons, French as well as German, that could be summoned to help, were as busy as they could possibly be. Carriages and stretchers covered the open places in front of every house, the Red Cross of Geneva being rudely depicted on the doors, with the neutral flag of the society floating above; while pools of blood marked the dressing places of the wounded, the pale white faces of whom looked down in mute misery from the carts in which they were being borne away to the rear to make room for others to be attended to. To complete the picture, those who had died under operation were laid by the roadside until they could be collected bye- and-bye for burial, the living having to be seen to first!
Released at length, after toiling through the night and early morning at his voluntary labour, Fritz was able at last to return to the bivouac of the Hanoverians; but, while on his way to camp, he passed one of the most affecting pictures he had yet seen. Hearing the howl of a dog, he turned aside towards a little clump of trees from which the sound seemed to come, and here he came up to a splendid large black retriever, which, with one paw on a dead officer's breast and with his noble head raised to the sky, was baying in that melancholy fashion in which dogs tell their woe on being overcome by grief. Near this little group was an unfortunate horse sitting on its haunches, its hind-quarters having been torn off by the discharge of a shell, or the passage of some conical projectile. The animal was moaning heavily with pain, and looked so appealingly at Fritz out of its large deep eyes, that he raised a revolver which he had picked up on the field and put the poor brute out of its agony. It was a different matter with the dog, however; although he could not persuade the faithful retriever to leave his master's side; and, as it was getting late, and Fritz thought he might be missed and reported as a straggler from his corps, he hurried on to the camping ground of his regiment, promising himself to return later on in the day, if spared from duty, when he would bury the dead body of the officer and take possession of the dog—that is, should no one else have appropriated him in the meantime, as might possibly be the case.
He was so worn-out with fatigue, on arrival at the bivouac of the regiment in the Bois du Vaux, that, on finding that his absence was not taken any notice of, he laid himself down by the side of a fire which the men had kindled for cooking their camp kettles; and, although it was a warm summer day, he immediately fell asleep, not waking until late in the afternoon. Then, partaking of some Erbwurst, or "peasoup sausage," which one of his comrades had kindly kept for him, albeit the rations were rather scanty, he felt a new man, and fit for anything; for, the worn-out feeling of exhaustion and nervous horror which had possessed his mind throughout the many hours that elapsed since the close of the fighting on the evening before, being only the effects of over- excitement, had now completely disappeared on his getting rest and refreshment. Indeed, he no longer felt sickened with war. On the contrary, he was quite ready to start into a fresh battle, and that, too, with as eager an impetus as he had plunged into his first engagement.
This was not all, either.
On the regiment being paraded shortly afterwards in front of its bivouac, the field officer of the day called out "Fritz Dort" a second time, after the names of the men had been run over on the muster roll— many failing to answer, and having the brief military comment "Dead," or "Missing," placed after their numbers.
"Here!" answered Fritz, stepping forwards and saluting the officer in the ordinary routine fashion, wondering what was to come next.
"Fritz Dort and men of the 16th Hanoverians," proceeded the major, reading from an official document in his hand, "I am directed by the general commanding the Tenth Army Corps, in the order of the day, to signalise the distinguished gallantry which the said Fritz Dort displayed yesterday in the face of the enemy at the engagement in front of Gravelotte, when, on the falling of the officer leading the company to which he was attached, the said Fritz Dort bravely stepped to the front, and taking his commander's vacant post, led on his men to capture the French battery, which they were detailed to take by storm. For such conspicuously good service in action, the general commanding hereby promotes the said Fritz Dort to be a sub-lieutenant in the same regiment, trusting that, as an officer, he will perform his duty as he has done as a private soldier and meet with the obedience and honour of those with whom he has previously served as a brother comrade, none the less on account of his promotion from the ranks which as one of themselves he has adorned!"
A loud "Hurrah!" broke from all the men when the major had finished reading this document; and that officer then shook hands kindly with Fritz, welcoming him cordially to the higher station he had attained. The other subalterns also advanced, doing the same; while, on retiring from the parade, the men of the rank and file, without receiving any order to that effect, gave the young hero a general salute, in token of their respect and recognition of his new dignity as an officer over them.
Fritz's heart was bursting with joy at his unexpected promotion. He thought how proud his mother would be to hear of it; but, before writing home by the afternoon field post, as he intended doing, he determined to carry out the promise he had made to himself, and which he held as equally binding as if it had been made in the presence of witnesses—the promise to bury the body of the dead officer which he had come across in the wood, guarded by his faithful dog.
"Heinrich!" he called out to the man who, as his whilom comrade, had preserved his rations for him. He forgot for the moment the altered condition of their respective ranks.
"Ja, Herr Lieutenant," said Heinrich, much to his surprise, stepping out towards him and saluting, with forefinger to pickelhaube, as straight as a ramrod.
"Bother!" exclaimed Fritz, a bit puzzled at first by the inconvenience in some ways of his exaltation in rank. There was some difficulty at first in accommodating himself to his new position.
"Never mind my being an officer for awhile, friend Heinrich," he explained to his whilom comrade—"the dignity can keep without harming it until we are again on duty together, when I promise to remember it to all your advantage; for you've been good fellows to me, one and all! I want you now to help me, friend Heinrich, in a sad commission; so, I rely upon your assistance from our old brotherly feelings when together—not because I ask you as your superior. Get a pickaxe and spade from one of the pioneers and come with me. I'm going to bury a poor fellow who has fallen over there, whose fate has attracted my sympathy." Fritz pointed, as he spoke, to the wood where the dead man lay.
"With right good pleasure, Herr Lieutenant," said the other in a cheerful tone of voice, with great alacrity of manner, saluting again as before. As a soldier, he knew his place too well to take a liberty with an officer, even if a newly-made one, and with his own permission! The German, or rather Prussian, system was and is very strict on such points.
"Oh, bother!" ejaculated Fritz again, between his teeth. "The idea of helping to bury a man 'with right good pleasure'!"
He could not help smiling at the ludicrous association with so grave a subject, as he unconsciously mimicked the soldier's simple speech.
"Poor dear old fellow, though," thought he a moment afterwards, "he doesn't know what a funny phrase he used."
In a minute or two the man returned with the required articles; when he and Fritz set off towards the wood, the latter leading the way, and Heinrich following close behind in single file.
On reaching the spot which he had marked, Fritz found that no one had apparently been there in his absence, for the dog was still on guard over his master's corpse, although he was now lying across the body, and had ceased his melancholy howl. When he approached the animal wagged his bushy tail, as if in recognition of having seen Fritz before.
"Poor fellow!" said Fritz; "come here, old man! We're here to put your master in his last home, and you must not prevent us. We will treat him very tenderly."
The dog looked up in his face, as if he understood what his new friend said; and, crawling off from the officer's body, he came to Fritz and licked his hand, holding up the while one paw, which was bleeding as if from a cut.
"He is wounded," said Heinrich, stooping down.
"Yes," answered Fritz, examining the poor paw, much apparently to the dog's satisfaction. "It's from a piece of shell, probably the same that settled the horse there; but it's not a bad wound, and will soon get well, doggie!" So saying, lifting up the injured member gently, he began to bind it round with a piece of lint which he had in his pocket, the retriever keeping perfectly quiet, as if knowing that no injury was intended him.
Fritz then proceeded to open the dead officer's jacket, in order to search for any papers or articles of value, which he might keep and forward to his relatives. Previously, the dog would not allow him to touch the body at all, but now he did not offer any objection, so Fritz turned out all the pockets. He could discover no paper, however, nor any trace of identity. The only token he could find was a little silver ring wrapped in a small piece of paper, inscribed, "From my beloved, 18th July, 1870." This was carefully enclosed in a little bag of silk, and suspended by a ribbon round the poor young fellow's neck, resting on the cold and lifeless spot where his heart once used to beat.
"A love gage," said Heinrich sympathisingly.
"Ah, yes," replied Fritz; "and the poor girl will, I suppose, continue to look out for him, hoping to see him again, while he lies here in a nameless tomb! Never mind, I will keep the token and the dog; perhaps I may discover her and his friends some day through them. Now, let us make the grave quickly, comrade, and commit him to his rest!"
In silence the two then dug a low trench in the soil beneath the tree where the officer had found his death, and then reverently laid him in it. He had died calmly from the effects of a bullet which must have penetrated his brain, as only a small blue orifice was to be seen in the centre of his forehead; and a smile was on his handsome young face, as if no painful thought had vexed his last moment.
During the sad obsequies, the dog kept close to the side of Fritz, watching attentively everything that was done, without stirring or uttering a sound, save when they shovelled the earth on his poor master's breast. He then gave vent to a short, angry bark; but, on Fritz speaking to him soothingly, he again became quiet, remaining so to the end, when he laid down on the newly-made grave, with a deep, low whine that was almost a sigh, that seemed to come from the bottom of his faithful canine heart!
From a piece of broken wood close by, Fritz then carved a rude cross, which he fixed in the ground at the head of the poor young fellow's last resting-place, inscribing on it the words: "To a French officer. Peace to his remains. The grave knows no enmities! 18th August, 1870."
The date on this unknown victim's grave was exactly one month later than that on which he must have parted from his sweetheart. What a strange fatality, pondered Fritz and his companion, that one who had probably been so much loved and cared for, should be indebted for the last friendly offices which man or woman could render him—to strangers! "May he rest in peace!" said Fritz, uncovering his head as he turned away, and then putting on his helmet again.
"So, too, I wish," echoed Heinrich. "We can do no more for him, poor youth!"
"No," said Fritz; "we'd better go now. Come on, old fellow!" he added, with a whistle to the retriever, who, wise dog that he was, seeing he could do no further good to the one to whom he had been faithful in life and watched in death as long as he was able, now answered the call of the new friend whom Providence had sent him. Without any demur he returned with Fritz and Heinrich to the Hanoverian camp, following close behind the heels of the former, as if recognising him as his master in the place of him whom he had lost.
Fritz christened this treasure trove of the battlefield "Gelert"; and like that trusty hound of old, the animal became known to all the men in a very short while. He was formally adopted, indeed, as the pet of the regiment, besides coming in for Fritz's own special care, being known even to the general in command of the division as "the dog of the sub- lieutenant of Gravelotte."
If it had seemed dull and lonely in the little household of the Gulden Strasse at Lubeck after Eric had gone to sea, how much more so was it not to the two sad women left alone to console each other when Fritz, also, had departed from home!