At the War Front
THE HUNT FOR
THE LOST SOLDIER
ALICE B. EMERSON
AUTHOR OF "RUTH FIELDING OF THE RED MILL," "RUTH FIELDING IN THE SADDLE," ETC.
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
Copyright, 1918, by
CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
RUTH FIELDING AT THE WAR FRONT
I. TO GET ACQUAINTED II. AT THE CHATEAU III. A PERILOUS PROJECT IV. UNDER FIRE V. MOTHER GERVAISE VI. THE MYSTERY VII. WHERE IS TOM CAMERON? VIII. THE CHOCOLATE PEDDLER IX. COT 24—HUT H X. DEVOURING SUSPICION XI. THE FLYING MAN XII. AUNT ABELARD XIII. AN UNEXPECTED MEETING XIV. MORE SACRIFICES THAN ONE XV. BUBU XVI. THE HOLLOW TOOTH XVII. THE WORST IS TOLD XVIII. BEARING THE BURDEN XIX. ADVENTURE XX. ON THE RAW EDGE OF NO MAN'S LAND XXI. A NIGHT TO BE REMEMBERED XXII. THROUGH THE GERMAN LINES XXIII. THE GARDENER'S COT XXIV. CAPT. VON BRENNER'S SISTER XXV. BACK AGAIN
RUTH FIELDING AT THE WAR FRONT
TO GET ACQUAINTED
It was a midwinter day, yet the air was balmy. The trees were bare-limbed but with a haze clothing them in the distance that seemed almost that of returning verdure. The grass, even in mid-winter, showed green. A bird sang lustily in the hedge.
Up the grassy lane walked a girl in the costume of the active Red Cross worker—an intelligent looking girl with a face that, although perhaps not perfect in form, was possessed of an expression that was alluring.
Neither observant man nor woman would have passed her, even in a crowd, without a second glance. There was a cheerful light in her eye and a humorous curve to her not too-full lips that promised an uplifting spirit within her even in serious mood.
It seemed as though this day—and its apparent peace—must breed happiness, although it was but a respite in the middle of winter. The balmy air, the chirrup of the bird, the far-flung reaches of the valley which she could see from this mounting lane, all delighted the senses and soothed the spirit.
Suddenly, with an unexpectedness that was shocking, there was a tremor in the air and the echo of a rumbling sound beneath the girl's feet. The crack of a distant explosion followed. Then another, and another, until the sound became a continual grumble of angry explosions, resonant and threatening.
The girl did not stop, but the expression of her face lost its cheerfulness. The song of the bird was cut off sharply. It seemed as though the sun itself began drawing a veil over his face. The peaceful mood of nature was shattered.
The girl kept on her way, but she no longer stepped lightly and springily. Those muttering guns had brought a somber cloak for her feelings—to her very soul.
Somewhere a motor began to hum. The sound came nearer with great rapidity. It was a powerful engine. It was several seconds before the girl looked up instead of along the road in search of the seat of this whirring sound.
There shot into view overhead, and flying low, an aeroplane that looked like a huge flying insect—an enormous armored grasshopper. Only its head was somewhat pointed and there, fixed in the front, was the ugly muzzle of a machine gun. The airplane flew so low that she could see the details.
There were two masked men in it, one at the wheel, the other at the machine gun. The aeroplane swooped just above her head, descending almost to the treetops, the roaring of it deafening the girl in the Red Cross uniform. There was the red, white and blue shield of the United States painted upon the underside of the car.
Then it was gone, mounting higher and higher, until, as she stood to watch it, it became a painted speck against the sky. That is the lure of the flying machine. The wonder of it—and the terror—attracts the eye and shakes the spirit of the beholder.
With a sigh the girl went on up the lane, mounting the hill steadily, on the apex of which, among giant forest trees, loomed the turrets and towers of a large chateau.
Again the buzzing of a motor broke the near-by stillness, while the great guns boomed in the distance. The sudden activity on the front must portend some important movement, or why should so many flying machines be drawn toward this sector?
But in a minute she realized that this was not an aeroplane she heard. Debouching into sight from the fringing thickets came a powerful motor car, its forefront armored. She could barely see the head and shoulders of the man behind the steering wheel.
Down the hill plunged the car, and the girl quickly stepped to the side of the lane and waited for it to pass. The roar of its muffler was deafening. In a moment she saw that the tonneau of the gray car was filled with uniformed men.
They were officers in khaki, the insignia of their several grades scarcely distinguishable against the dull color of their clothing. How different from the gay uniforms of the French Army Corps, which, until of late, the girl of the Red Cross had been used to seeing in this locality.
Their faces were different, too. Gray, lean, hard-bitten faces, their eyebrows so light and sparse that it seemed their eyes were hard stones which never seemed to shift their straight-ahead gaze. Yet each man in the tonneau and the orderly beside the driver on the front seat saluted the Red Cross girl as she stood by the laneside.
In another half-minute the car had turned at the bottom of the hill and was out of sight.
She sighed again as she plodded on. Now, indeed, was the spring gone from her limbs and her expression was weary with a sadness that, although not personal, was heavy upon her.
Her thought was with the aeroplane and the motor car and with the thundering guns at the battle front, not many miles away. Yet she hastened her steps up this grassy lane toward the chateau, in quite the opposite direction.
The sudden stir of the military life of this sector portended something unusual. An advance of the enemy or an attempt to make a drive upon the Allies' works. In any case, down in the little, low-lying town behind her, there might be increased need of hospital workers. She must, before long, be once more at the hospital to meet the first ambulances rolling in from the field hospitals or from the dressing stations at the very front.
She reached the summit of the ridge, over which the lane passed to the valley on the west side of the hill. The high arch of the gateway of the chateau was in sight.
Coming from that direction, walking easily, yet quickly, was the lean military figure of a young man who switched the roadside weed stalks with a light cane. He looked up quickly as the girl approached, and his rather somber face lighted as though the sight of her gave him pleasure.
Yet his gaze was respectful. He was handsome, keenly intelligent looking and not typically French, although he was dressed in the uniform of a branch of the French service, wearing a major's chevrons. As the Red Cross girl came nearer, he put his heels together smartly, removed his kepi, and bowed stiffly from the waist. It was not a Frenchman's bow.
The girl responded with a quiet bend of her head, but she passed him by without giving him any chance to speak. He followed her only with his eyes—and that but for a moment; then he went on down the lane, his stride growing momentarily longer until he passed from view.
A cry from the direction of the broad gateway ahead next aroused the attention of the girl in the Red Cross uniform. She looked up to see another girl running to meet her.
This was a short, rather plump French girl, whose eyes shone with excitement, and who ran with hands outstretched to meet those of the Red Cross girl. The latter was some years the older.
"Oh, Mademoiselle Ruth! Mademoiselle Ruth Fielding!" cried the French girl eagerly. "Did you meet him? Ah-h!"
Ruth Fielding laughed as she watched the mobile face of her friend. The latter's cheeks were flushed with excitement, her eyes rolled. She was all aquiver with the emotion that possessed her.
"Did you see him?" she repeated, as their hands met and Ruth stooped to press her lips to the full ones of her friend.
"Did I see whom, you funny Henriette?" asked Ruth.
"Am I fon-nay?" demanded Henriette Dupay, in an English which she evidently struggled to make clear. "Then am I not nice?"
"You are both funny and nice," declared Ruth Fielding, hugging the girl's plump body close to her own, as they walked on slowly to the chateau gate. "Tell me. Who was I supposed to see? A motor full of officers passed me, and an aeroplane over my head——"
"Oh, non! non!" cried Henriette. Then, in awe: "Major Marchand."
"Oh! Is that Major Marchand?"
"But yes, Mademoiselle Ruth. Ah-h! Such a man—such a figure! He is Madame the Countess' younger son."
"So I understand," Ruth said. "He is safely engaged in Paris, is he not?" and her tone implied much.
"Ye-es. So it is said. He—he must be a ve-ry important man, Mademoiselle, or his duty would not keep him there."
"Unless the Boches succeed in raiding Paris from the air he is not likely to get hurt at all—this Major Marchand?"
"Oh!" pouted Henriette. "You are so critical. But he is—what you say?—so-o beautiful!"
"Not in my eyes," said Ruth grimly. "I don't like dolly soldiers."
"Oh, Mademoiselle Ruth!" murmured the French girl. "Do not let Madame the Countess suspect your feelings toward her younger son. He is all she has now, you know."
"Indeed? Has the older son fallen in battle?"
"The young count has disappeared," whispered Henriette, her lips close to Ruth's ear. "We heard of it only lately. But it seems he disappeared some months ago. Nobody knows what has become of him."
"He, at least, was on the battle front?" asked the American girl. "He is missing? Probably a prisoner of the Germans?"
"No-o. He was not at the front," confessed the other girl. "He, too, was engaged in Paris, it is understood. But hush! We are at the gate. I will ring. Don't, Mademoiselle Ruth, let the dear countess suspect that you do not highly approve of her remaining son."
The Red Cross girl smiled rather grimly, but she gave the promise.
AT THE CHATEAU
The two girls, arm in arm, approached the postern gate beside the wide iron grille that was never opened save for the passage of horses or a motor car. There was a little round shutter in the postern at the height of a man's head; for aforetime the main gateway had been of massive oak, bolt-studded and impervious to anything less than cannon shot. The wall of masonry that surrounded the chateau was both high and thick, built four hundred years or so before for defence.
An old-fashioned rope-pull hung beside the postern. Henriette dragged on this sharply, but the girls could not hear the tongue of the bell, for it struck far back in the so-called offices of the chateau, where the serving people had had their quarters before these war times had come upon the earth.
Now there were but few servants remaining at the chateau. For the most part the elderly Countess Marchand lived alone and used but few of the rooms.
As the girls waited an answer to their summons, Henriette said, in reference to what had already passed in conversation between them:
"It hurts me, dear friend, that anybody should doubt the loyalty of our countess whom we know to be so good. Why! there are people even wicked enough to connect her with that—that awful Thing we know of," and the girl dropped her voice and looked suddenly around her, as though she feared an unseen presence.
"As though she were a werwolf," she added, with a shudder.
"Pooh!" and Ruth Fielding laughed. "Nobody in their senses would connect Madame la Countess with such tales, having once seen her."
She thought now, as they waited, of her first visit to the chateau, and of the appearance of the Countess Marchand in her bare library. Whatever her sons might be—the young count who was missing, or this major whom she had just met in the grassy lane—Ruth Fielding was confident that the lady of the chateau was a loyal subject of France, and that she was trusted by the Government.
Ruth had called here herself on that occasion with a secret agent, Monsieur Lafrane, to clear up the mystery of a trio of criminals who had come from America to prey upon the Red Cross. These crooks had succeeded in robbing the Supply Department of the Red Cross, in which Ruth herself was engaged. But in the end they had fallen into the toils of the French secret service and Ruth had aided in their overthrow.
All this is told in the volume of this series immediately preceding our present story, entitled: "Ruth Fielding in the Red Cross; or, Doing Her Best for Uncle Sam." This was the thirteenth volume of the Ruth Fielding Series.
Of the twelve books that have gone before that only a brief mention can be made while Ruth and the young French girl are waiting for an answer to the bell.
At first we meet Ruth Fielding as she approaches Cheslow and the Red Mill beside the Lumano River, where Uncle Jabez, the miserly miller, awaits her coming in no pleasant frame of mind. He is her only living relative and he considers little Ruth Fielding a "charity child." She is made to feel this by his treatment and by the way in which the girls in the district school talk of her.
Ruth makes three friends from the start, however, who, in their several ways, help her to endure her troubles. One is Aunt Alvirah Boggs, who is nobody's relation but everybody's aunt, and whom Jabez Potter, the miller, has taken from the poorhouse to keep his home tidy and comfortable. Aunt Alvirah sees the good underlying miserly Uncle Jabez's character when nobody else can. She lavishes upon the little orphan girl all the love and affection that she would have given to her own children had she been blessed with any.
Ruth's other two close friends were the Cameron twins, Helen and Tom, the children of a wealthy storekeeper who lived not far from the Red Mill. The early adventures of these three are all related in the first book of the series, "Ruth Fielding of the Red Mill."
One virtue of Uncle Jabez's, which shines as brightly in his rather gloomy character as a candle in the dark, is that he always pays his debts. If he considers he owes anybody anything he is not satisfied until he pays it. Therefore, when Ruth recovers some money which had been stolen from him, he is convinced that it is only right for him to pay her tuition for at least a year at Briarwood Hall, where she goes to school with Helen Cameron, while Tom goes to a boy's boarding school called Seven Oaks.
The girls and Tom and his friends often got together for good times during their school years, and, in successive volumes, we meet them in winter adventures in the Northern woods at Snow Camp; in the summer at Lighthouse Point; in Wyoming at Silver Ranch; in lakeside and woodsy adventures on Cliff Island; enjoying most exciting weeks at Sunrise Farm, where Ruth wins a reward of five thousand dollars in aiding in the recovery of a pearl necklace stolen by the Gypsies. There are volumes, too, telling of the serious loss by fire of a dormitory building at Briarwood and how Ruth Fielding rebuilt it by the production of a moving picture; of her vacation down in Dixie; of her first year at Ardmore College, which she and Helen and several of her Briarwood chums entered; then of Ruth Fielding in the saddle when she went West again, this time for the production of a great picture entitled: "The Forty-Niners."
With the entrance into the war of the United States, Tom Cameron enlisted and went to France as a second lieutenant with the first Expeditionary Force. Ruth and Helen went into Red Cross work, leaving college before the end of their sophomore year for that purpose.
Ruth could not go as a nurse, but in the Supply Department she gained commendation and when a supply unit of the Red Cross was sent to France she went with it, while Helen went over with her father, who was on a commission to the front. Once there, the black-eyed girl found work to do in Paris while Ruth was enabled to be of use much nearer the front.
Indeed, at the opening of the present story the girl of the Red Mill is at work in the evacuation hospital at Clair, right behind a sector of the battle line that had been taken over by General Pershing's forces. Tom Cameron is with his regiment not many miles away. Indeed, his company might be engaged in this very activity that had suddenly broken out within sound, if not in sight, of Clair and the Chateau Marchand.
There was reason for Ruth Fielding's gravity of countenance—and grave it was, despite its natural cheerfulness of expression—for her interest in Tom Cameron and his interest in her had long been marked by their friends. Tom was in peril daily—hourly. It was no wonder that she revealed the ravages of war upon her mind.
"Sh!" whispered Henriette. "Here comes Dolge, the gardener. Now that Bessie is gone he is the oldest person Madame la Countess has in her employ."
"I wonder what became of Bessie. Monsieur Lafrane told me she was not apprehended with those men who helped her get away from the chateau."
"It is a mystery. She had served Madame so many years. And then—at the last—they say she was a spy for les Boches!"
Dolge appeared, with his toothless grin, at the round opening in the postern.
"The little Hetty and Mademoiselle l'Americaine," he mumbled. "Madame la Countess expects you."
He unchained the door and let them pass through. Then he shut and chained the door again just as though the chateau was besieged.
The girls did not wait for him. They walked up the curved avenue to the wide entrance to the great pile of masonry. The chateau was as large as a good-sized hotel.
Before the war there had been many comforts, Ruth understood, that now the countess was doing without. For instance, electric lights and some kind of expensive heating arrangement.
Now the lady of the chateau burned oil, or candles, like the peasants, and the chateau doors were wide open that the sun and air of this grateful day might help dry the tomb-like atmosphere of the reception hall.
"Ma foi!" said Henriette, commenting on this in a low voice, "even the beautiful old armor—the suits of mail that the ancient Marchands wore in the times of the Crusades—is rusty. See you! madame has not servants enough now to begin to care for the place."
"I suppose she has stored away the rugs and the books from the library shelves," began Ruth; but Henriette quickly said:
"Non! non! You do not understand, Mademoiselle, what our good lady has done. The wonderful rugs she has sold—that off the library floor, which, they say, the old count himself brought from Bagdad. And the books—all her library—have gone to the convalescent hospitals, or to the poilus in the trenches. For they, poor men, need the distraction of reading."
"And some of your neighbors suspect her," repeated Ruth thoughtfully.
"It is because of that awful Thing—the werwolf!" hissed Henriette.
Then there was time for no further speech. A middle-aged woman appeared, asked the girls in, and led the way to the library. A table was set near the huge open fireplace in which a cheerful fire crackled. On the table was a silver tea service and some delicate porcelain cups and saucers.
The kettle bubbled on the hob. Chairs were drawn close before the blaze, for, despite the "springiness" in the air without, the atmosphere in the vast library of the chateau was damp and chill.
As the girls waited before the fire a curtain at the end of the room swayed, parted, and the tall and plainly robed figure of the countess entered. She had the air of a woman who had been strikingly beautiful in her younger days. Indeed, she was beautiful still.
Her snowy hair was dressed becomingly; her checks were naturally pink and quite smooth, despite the countless wrinkles that netted her throat. The old lace at the neck of her gown softened her ivory-hued skin and made its texture less noticeable.
Her gown was perfectly plain, cut in long, sweeping lines. Nor did she wear a single jewel. She swept forward, smiling, and holding out her hand to Ruth.
"Here is our little Hetty," she said, nodding to the French girl, who blushed and bridled. "And Mademoiselle Fielding!" giving the latter a warm handclasp and then patting Henriette's cheek. "Welcome!" She put them at their ease at once.
The few family portraits on the walls were all the decorations of the room. The book cases themselves were empty. Madame la Countess made the tea. On the table were thin slices of war bread. There was no butter, no sugar, and no milk.
"We are learning much these days," laughed the countess. "I am even learning to like my chocolate without milk or cream."
"Oh!" And Henriette whipped from the pocket of her underskirt something that had been making her dress sag on that side. When she removed the wrappings she produced a small jar of thick yellow cream.
"My child! It is a luxury!" cried the countess. "I shall feel wicked."
"Perhaps it will be nice to feel wicked for once," Ruth said, feeling a little choke in her throat.
She drew from concealment her own contribution to the "feast"—several lumps of sugar.
"Do not fear," she added, smiling. "None of the poor poilus are deprived. This is from my own private store. I wish there was more of it, but I can't resist giving a lump now and then to the village children. They are so hungry for it. They call me 'Mam'zelle Sucre'."
"And I would bring you cream often, Madame," Henriette hastened to add, "but our good old Lally died, you know, and the little cow does not give much milk as yet, and it is not as rich. Oh! if that werwolf had not appeared to us! You remember, Mademoiselle Ruth? Then old Lally died at once," and the French girl nodded her head vigorously, being fully convinced of the truth of the old superstition.
The countess flushed and then paled, but nobody but Ruth noticed this. The American girl watched her hostess covertly. The bare mention of a superstition that had the whole countryside by the throat, disturbed much the countess' self-control.
The next moment there was a step in the hall and then the door opened to admit the same young officer Ruth Fielding had met in the lane—Major Henri Marchand.
"Pardon, Maman," he said, bowing, and speaking to his mother quite like a little boy. "Do I offend?"
"Do come in and have a cup of tea, Henri. There is sugar and real cream—thanks to our two young friends here. You remember our petite Hetty, of course? And this is our very brave Mademoiselle Ruth Fielding, of the American Red Cross. My younger son, Monsieur Henri," the countess said easily.
Major Marchand advanced into the room promptly. To Henriette he bowed with a smile. Ruth put out her hand impulsively, and he bowed low above it and touched his lips to her fingers.
The girl started a little and glowed. The manner of his address rather shocked her, for she was unused to the European form of greeting. Henri's deep, purple eyes looked long into her own brown ones as he lingeringly released her hand.
"Mademoiselle!" he murmured. "I am charmed."
Ruth did not know whether she was altogether charmed or not! She felt that there was something rather overpowering in such a greeting, and she rather doubted the sincerity of it.
She could understand, however, little Henriette's sentimental worship of the young major. Henri Marchand was the type of man to hold the interest of most girls. His eyes were wonderful; his cheek as clear and almost as soft as a woman's; he wore his uniform with an air scarcely to be expressed in ordinary words.
Henriette immediately became tongue-tied. Ruth's experience had, however, given her ease in any company. The wonderful Major Marchand made little impression upon her. It was plain that he wished to interest the Americaine Mademoiselle.
The little tea party was interrupted by the appearance of Dolge at the library door.
"A young American in an ambulance inquires for Mademoiselle Fielding at the gate," said Dolge, cap in hand. "She is needed in haste, below there at the hospital."
A PERILOUS PROJECT
"That can be no other than Charlie Bragg," announced Ruth, getting up in haste, and naming a young friend of hers from the States who had been an ambulance driver for some months. "Something must have happened."
"I fear something is happening," Major Marchand said softly. "The sudden activity along this front must be significant, don't you think, Mademoiselle Fielding?"
Ruth's lips were pressed together for a moment in thought, and she eyed the major shrewdly.
"I really could not say," she observed coldly. Then she turned from him to take the hand of the countess.
"I'm sorry our little tea must be broken in upon," the American girl said.
She could not help loving the countess, no matter what some of the neighbors believed regarding her. But Ruth had her doubts about this son who was always in Paris and never at the front.
Henriette was too bashful to remain longer than Ruth, so she rose to go as well. The countess kissed her little neighbor and sent her favor to the girl's father and mother. Major Marchand accompanied the two visitors out of the chateau and toward the entrance gate, which Dolge had not opened.
"I sincerely hope we may meet again, Mademoiselle Fielding," the major said softly.
"That is not likely," she responded with soberness.
"No? Do you expect to leave Clair soon?"
"No," she said, and there was sharpness in her voice. "But I am much engaged in our hospital work—and you are not likely to be brought there, are you?"
Evidently he felt the bite in her question. He flushed and dropped his gaze. Her intimation was not to be mistaken. He seemed unlikely to be brought wounded to the hospital.
Before he could recover himself they were at the gate. Dolge opened the postern and the two girls stepped through, followed by the French officer. The young fellow in the American ambulance immediately hailed Ruth.
"Oh, I say, Miss Ruth!" he cried, "sorry to hunt you out this way, but you are needed down at the hospital."
"So I presume, or you would not have come for me, Charlie," she told him, smiling. "What is it?"
"Supplies needed for one of the field hospitals," he said. "And I tell you straight, Miss Ruth, they're in bad shape there. Not half enough help. The supply room of that station is all shot away—terrible thing."
"Oh, dear!" gasped Ruth. "Do you mean that the Germans have bombed it?"
"It wasn't an air raid. Yet it must have been done deliberately. They dropped a Jack Johnson right on that end of the hospital. Two orderlies hurt and the girl who ran the supply room killed. They want somebody to come right up there and arrange a new room and new stock."
"Oh! you won't go, Mademoiselle Ruth?" shrieked Henriette.
"It would be extremely dangerous," Major Marchand said. "Another shell might drop in the same place."
"Oh, we settled that battery. They tell me it's torn all to pieces. When our doughboys heard the Red Cross girl was killed they were wild. The gunners smashed the German position to smithereens. But it was awful for her, poor thing.
"The station needs supplies dreadfully, just the same," added Charlie Bragg. "And somebody who knows about 'em. I told the medicin-chef I'd speak to you myself, Miss Ruth——"
"I'll go with you. They can get along at Clair without me for a few days, I am sure."
"Good," returned Charlie, and moved over a little to make room on the seat for her. Major Marchand said:
"There must be something big going on over there. Is it a general advance, Monsieur?"
Ruth flashed him a look and laid her fingers gently on Charlie Bragg's arm. The ambulance driver was by no means dull.
"I can't say what is on foot," he said to the French officer. "I should think you might know more about it than I do," he added.
His engine began to rattle the somewhat infirm car. Charlie winked openly at Henriette, who laughed at him. The car began to move. Major Marchand stood beside the road and bowed profoundly again to Ruth—that bow from the hips. It was German, that bow; it proved that his military education had not been wholly gained in France.
She could not help doubting the loyalty of Major Henri Marchand as well as that of his older brother, the present count. Their mother might be the loveliest lady in the world, but there was something wrong with her sons.
Here the younger one was idling away his time about the chateau, or in Paris, so it was said, while the count had suddenly disappeared and was not to be found at all! Neither had been engaged in any dangerous work on the battle front. It was all very strange.
The bouncing ambulance was swiftly out of sight of the chateau gate. Ruth sighed.
"Say! isn't there anybody at all who can go with those supplies they're in need of but you, Miss Ruth?" inquired Charlie Bragg, looking sideways at her.
"No. I am alone at Clair, you know quite well, Charlie. The supplies are entirely under my care. I can teach somebody else over there at the bombed hospital in a short time how to handle the things. Meanwhile, the matron—or somebody else—can do my work here. It would not do to send a greenhorn to such a busy hospital as this must be to which you are taking me."
"Busy! You said it!" observed the driver. "You'll see a lot of rough stuff, Miss Ruth; and you haven't been used to that. What'll Tom Cameron say?" and he grinned suddenly.
Ruth laughed a little. "Every tub must stand on its own bottom, Aunt Alvirah says. I must do my duty."
"It'll be a mighty dangerous trip. I'm not fooling you. There are places on the road—— Well! the Boches are all stirred up and they are likely to drop a shell or two almost anywhere, you know."
"You came through it, didn't you?" she demanded pluckily.
"By the skin of my teeth," he returned.
"You're trying to scare me."
"Honest to goodness I'm not. They sent me over for the supplies and somebody to attend to them."
"Well?" she said inquiringly, as Charlie ceased to speak.
"But I didn't think you'd have to make the trip. Isn't there anybody else, Miss Ruth?" and the young fellow was quite earnest now.
"Nobody," she said firmly. "No use telling me anything more, Charlie. For the very reason the trip is dangerous, you wouldn't want me to put it off on somebody else, would you?"
He said no more. The car rattled down into the little town, with its crooked, paved streets and its countless smells. Clair was the center of a farming community, and, in some cases, the human inhabitants and the dumb beasts lived very close together.
The hospital sprawled over considerable ground. It was but two stories in height, save at the back, where a third story was run up for the "cells" of the nurses and the other women engaged in the work. Ruth ran up at once to her own tiny room to pack her handbag before she did anything else.
The matron met her at the supply-room door when she came down. She was a voluble, if not volatile, Frenchwoman of certain age.
"I dread having you go, Mademoiselle Ruth," she said, with her arm about the girl. "I feel as though you were particularly in my care. If anything should happen to you——"
"You surely would not be blamed," said Ruth, smiling. "Somebody must go and why not I? Please send two orderlies to carry out these boxes. This list calls for a lot of supplies. Surely the ambulance will be filled."
Which was, indeed, the case. When she finally went downstairs, turning the key of her store-room over to the matron, the ambulance body was crowded with cases. The stretchers had been taken out before Charlie Bragg drove in. Ruth must occupy the seat beside him in front.
She did not keep him waiting, but ran down with her bag and crept in under the torn hood beside him. Several of the nurses stood in the door to call good-bye after her. The sentinel in the courtyard stood at attention as the car rolled out of the gate.
"Well," remarked Charlie Bragg, "I hope to thunder nothing busts, that's all. You've never been to the front, have you?"
"No nearer than this," she confessed.
"Humph! You don't know anything about it."
"But is the hospital you are taking me to exactly at the front?"
"About five miles behind the first dressing station in this sector. It's under the protection of a hill and is well camouflaged. But almost any time the Boches may get its range, and then—good-night!"
With which remark he became silent, giving his strict attention to the car and the road.
The day was fading into evening as the car went over the first ridge and dropped out of sight of Clair and the sprawling hospital in which Ruth Fielding had worked so many weeks.
She felt that she had grown old—and grown old rapidly—since coming to her present work in France. She was the only American in that hospital, for the United States Expeditionary Forces had only of late taken over this sector of the battle line and no changes had been made in the unity of the workers at Clair.
They all loved Ruth there, from the matron and the surgeon-in-chief down to the last orderly and porter. Although her work was supposed to be entirely in the supply department, she gave much of her time to the patients themselves.
Those who could not write, or could not read, were aided by the American girl. If there was extra work in the wards (and that happened whenever the opposing forces on the front became active) Ruth was called on to help the nurses.
Thus far no American wounded had been brought into the Clair Hospital—a fact easily understood, as the entire force save Ruth was French. It would not be long, however, before the American Red Cross would take over that hospital and the French wounded would be sent to the base hospital at Lyse, where Ruth had first worked on coming to France.
Up to this very moment—and not an unexciting moment it was—Ruth Fielding had never been so far away from Clair in this direction. In the distance, as they mounted another ridge, she saw the flaring lights which she had long since learned marked the battle front. The guns still muttered.
Now and again they passed cavities where the great shells had burst. But most of these were ancient marmite holes and the grass was again growing in them, or water stood slimy and knee-deep, and, on the edges of these pools, frogs croaked their evensong.
There were not many farmhouses in this direction. Indeed, this part of France was "old-fashioned" in that the agricultural people lived in little villages for the most part and went daily to their fields to work, gathering at night for self-protection as they had done since feudal times.
Now and again the ambulance passed within sight of a ruined chateau. The Germans had left none intact when they had advanced first into this part of the country. They rolled through two tiny villages which remained merely battered heaps of ruins.
Orchards were razed; even the shade trees beside the pleasant roads had been scored with the ax and now stood gaunt and dead. Some were splintered freshly by German shells. As the light faded and the road grew dim, Ruth Fielding saw many ugly objects which marked the "frightfulness" of the usurpers. It all had a depressing effect on the girl's spirits.
"Are you hungry, Miss Ruth?" Charlie Bragg asked her at last.
"I expect I shall be, Charlie," she replied. "Our tea at the chateau was almost a fantom tea."
"Gosh! isn't it so?" he said slangily. "What these French folks live on would starve me to death. Mighty glad to have regular Yankee rations. But," he added, "we'll be too late to get chow when we come to the hospital, I am afraid. We'll try Mother Gervaise."
"Who is Mother Gervaise?" asked Ruth, glad to have some topic of conversation with the ambulance driver.
"She's an old woman who used to be cook at one of these chateaux here, they say. She'll feed us well for four francs each."
"Sure. Price has gone up," said Charlie dryly. "These French folk are bound to think that every American is a millionaire. And I don't know but it is worth it," and he grinned. "Think of being looked on as a John D. Rockefeller everywhere you go! I'd never rise to such a height in the States."
"No, I presume not," Ruth admitted with a laugh. "But how is it that this Mother Gervaise, as you call her, is not afraid to stay here?"
"She stays to watch the gold grow in her stocking," Charlie replied, shrugging his shoulders almost as significantly as a Frenchman.
"Oh! Is she that much of a miser?"
"You've said it. She stayed when the Germans first came and fed them. When they retreated she stayed and met the advancing British (the French did not come first) with hot soup, and changed her price from pfennigs to shillings. Get her to tell you about it. It is worth listening to—her experience."
Charlie Bragg stopped the car suddenly and got out. Ruth looked ahead with curiosity. The road seemed rather smooth and quite unoccupied. There was a group of trees, tortured by gunfire, which hid a turn in the track and what lay beyond. Charlie was tinkering with the engine of the machine.
"What is the matter?" Ruth ventured to ask.
"Nothing—yet," he returned. "But we've got to get around that next turn in a hurry."
"It's a wicked corner," said Charlie. "I might as well tell you—then you won't squeal if anything happens."
"Oh! Do you think I am a squealer?" she demanded rather tartly.
"I don't know," and he grinned again. He was an imp of mischief, this Charlie Bragg, and she did not know how to take him.
"You're not 'spoofing me,' as our British brothers put it?"
"It's an honest-to-goodness bad corner—especially at night," Charlie returned quite seriously now. "Boches know we fellows have to use it——"
"You mean the ambulances?"
"Yep. They spot us. We run without lights, you know; but every once in a while they drop a shell there. They have the range perfectly. They caught one of my bunkies there only a week ago."
"Oh, Charlie! An American?"
"No. Scotch. Only Scotty in this section, and a mighty nice fellow. Well, he'll never drive that boat again."
"Oh!" gasped Ruth. "Was he killed?"
"Shucks! No!" scoffed Charlie. "But his ambulance was smashed to bits. Luckily he hadn't any load with him at the time. But it would have been all one to the Boches."
Bragg got in beside the girl again, tried out his levers, and suddenly shot the car ahead.
"Hang on!" cried Charlie Bragg under his breath.
The ambulance shot down to the corner. It was all black shadow there, and, as Charlie intimated, he dared use no lights. If there was an obstruction they would crash into it!
The dusk had fallen suddenly. The sky was overcast, so not a star flecked the firmament. Through the gloom the ambulance raced, the young fellow stooping low over the steering wheel, trying to peer ahead.
How many hundreds of times had he made similar runs? Ruth had never before appreciated just what it meant to be driving an ambulance through these roads so near the battle front.
For five minutes a heavy gun had not spoken. Suddenly the horizon ahead lit up with a broad white flare. There came the resonant report of a huge gun—so distant that Ruth knew it could be nothing but a German Bertha.
Almost instantly the whine of a shell was audible—coming nearer and nearer! Ruth Fielding, cowering on the seat of the automobile, felt as though the awful missile must be aimed directly at her!
The car shot around the curve where the broken trees stood. With a yell like that of a lost soul—a demon from the Pit—the shell went over their heads and exploded in the grove.
The ambulance was spattered with a hail that might have been shrapnel, or stones and gravel—Ruth did not know. The hood sheltered her. She was on the far side of the seat, anyway.
And then, with a shout of warning, Charlie shut down and tried to stop the car within its own length. Ruth saw a hole yawning before them—a pit in the very middle of the road.
"They've dropped one here since I came along!" yelled the young man, just as the ambulance pitched, nose first, into the cavity.
They were stalled. Suppose the Boches sent another shell hurtling to this spot? They were likely to be wiped out in a breath.
Neither Ruth nor the driver was thrown out of the stalled ambulance. But Charlie jumped out in a hurry and held out his hand to the girl.
"You got to beat it away from here, Miss Ruth," he urged. "Another of those shells is likely to drop any minute. Hurry!"
Ruth had no desire to stay at that perilous corner of the road; but when she started away from the stalled car she found that she was alone.
"Aren't you coming, Charlie Bragg?" she demanded, turning back.
"Go on! Go on!" he urged her. "I've got to get this old flivver out of the mud. Keep right on to a little house you'll see on the left under the bank. Don't go past it in the dark. That's Mother Gervaise's cottage. It's out of reach of the Boches' shells."
"But you'll be killed, Charlie Bragg!" wailed the girl, suddenly realizing all the peril of their situation.
"Haven't ever been killed yet," he returned. "I tell you I've got to get this flivver out of the hole. These supplies have got to be taken to that field hospital. They're needed. I can't leave 'em here and run."
"But you expect me to run!" burst out Ruth, in sudden indignation.
"You can't help here. No use your taking a chance. You'll be in enough danger later. Now, you go on, Miss Ruth. Scoot! Here comes another!"
They heard the whine of the flying shell almost on top of the thud of the distant gun. Charlie seized her hand and they ran up the road for several yards. Then he stopped short, as the shell burst—this time far to the left of the stalled ambulance.
"Gosh!" he exclaimed. "You've got me rattled, too. Here! I'll go along to Mother Gervaise with you. Some of the fellows may be there and I can get help. Come on."
"Oh, Charlie!" murmured the girl. "I'm afraid for you."
"Trying to make me a quitter, are you?" he demanded. "Don't you know that if the Boches get you, they get you, and that's all there is to it? And one way or another that fliver's got to be got out of that hole."
Ruth was silenced. This young fellow—"boy" he called him in her own mind—had a quality of courage that shamed her. It was just the kind of bravery needed for the work he was doing in the war—a measure of recklessness that keeps one from counting the cost too exactly. Charlie Bragg had a philosophy of his own that kept him cheerful in the face of peril and was eminently practical at just this time.
He hurried her along the road, his hand under her elbow, seemingly able to see in the dark like a cat. But it was all black before Ruth's eyes, and she stumbled more than once. Her knees felt weak.
"I—I am scared, Charlie," she confessed, almost in a whisper.
"Yep. So was I, at first. But you know a fellow can't give in to it. If he does he'll never get to be a first-class ambulance driver. I bet some of the boys will be here at Mother Gervaise's and I can get help."
Another moment, and they seemed to turn a corner in the road and Ruth saw a small patch of light at the left of the roadway. She made it out to be an open window—the swinging shutter flung back against the wall. There was no glass in the opening.
"There it is," Charlie said. "You might have passed it right by, alone. You see, the house is close up against the high bank, and the hill is between us and the front. The Boches can't drop a shell here. It's a regular wayfarer's rest. There's a car—and another. We'll be all right now."
Ruth saw the outlines of the two cars parked beside the road. The young fellow led her directly toward the patch of yellow lamplight. She saw finally a broad, thatched cottage, the eaves of the high-peaked roof almost within reach as they came to the door.
Charlie Bragg knocked, then, without waiting for a summons to enter, lifted the wooden latch and shoved the sagging door open.
"Hello, folks!" he said. "Got shelter for a couple of babes in the woods? I got stalled down there at the Devil's Corner, and—— Let me introduce Miss Fielding. She's real folks like ourselves."
He had pushed Ruth in and entered behind her. Two young men—plainly Americans—rose from the table where they were eating. A squarely built woman bent over the fire at the end of the room. She did not look around from her culinary task.
"Hello, Bragg!" was the response from the other ambulance drivers.
"Cub Holdness and Mr. Francis Dwyer," said Charlie, introducing the two. "I've got stalled, fellows."
He swiftly told of the accident and the two young men left the table. The Frenchwoman turned and waddled toward the table, stirring spoon in hand and volubly objecting.
"Non, non!" she cried. "You would spoil the so-good ragout. If you do not eat it while it is hot——"
"The ragout can be heated over," put in Charlie. "But if the Boches get my car with a shell—good-night! Come on, fellows. And bring a rope. I believe we three can pull the old girl out."
The boys tramped out of the cottage. Mother Gervaise turned to Ruth and stared at her with very bright, black eyes.
She was a broad-faced woman, brown and hearty-looking, and with a more intelligent appearance than many of the peasants Ruth had seen. She wore sabots with her skirt tucked up to clear her bare ankles. Her teeth were broad and strong and white, and she showed them well as she smiled.
"The mademoiselle is Americaine?" she said. "Like these ambulanciers? Ah! brave boys, these. And mademoiselle is of the Croix Rouge, is it not?"
"I am working in the hospital at Clair," Ruth told her. "I am on my way with supplies to a station nearer the front."
"Ma foi!" exclaimed Mother Gervaise. "This has been a bad business. You will sup, Mademoiselle, yes?"
"I will, indeed. The accident has not taken away my appetite."
"Isn't it so? We must eat, no matter what next happens," said the woman. "Me, now! I am alone. My whole family have been destroyed. My husband and his brother—both have been killed. I had no children. Now I think it is as well, for children are not going to have much chance in France for years to come. All my neighbors have scattered, too."
"Then you have always lived here? Even before the war?" Ruth asked.
"Oui, Mademoiselle. Always. I was born right in that corner yonder, on a straw pallet. The best bed my mother had. We have grown rich since those days," and she shrugged her shoulders.
"I was an only child and the farm and cot came to me. Of course, I had plenty of the young men come to make love to me and my farm. I would have none of that kind. Some said I went through the wood and picked up a crooked stick after all. But Pierre and me—ma foi! We were happy, even if the old father and Pierre's brother must come here to live, too.
"The old father he die before the Germans come. I thank le bon Dieu for that. Pierre and his brother were mobilized and gone before the horde of les Boches come along this road. I am here alone, then. I begin making coffee and soup for them. Well, yes! They are men, too, and become hungry and exhausted. I please them and they treat me well. I learn what it means to make money—cash-money; and so I stay. Money is good, Mademoiselle.
"I might have wished poison into their soup; but that would not have killed them. And had I doctored it myself I would have been hung, and been no better off. So I made friends," and she smiled grimly.
"But I learned how boastful men could be—especially Germans. One—he was a major and one of the nobility—stayed here overnight. He promised to take me back to Germany when the war was over—which would be in a few weeks. They were to be in Paris in a few days then.
"He promised I would be proud when I became all German. France, he said, would never be a separate country again. For most of the people—my people—he said, were weaklings. They would emigrate to America and the remaining would intermarry with Germans. So all France would become Germany.
"When he was awake, he was full of bombast, that major! When he was asleep he snored outrageously. Ugh! For the first time in my life I hate anybody," declared Mother Gervaise, shuddering.
"But he paid me well for his lodging. And his men paid me for the soup. They marched past steadily for two days. Then they were gone and the country all about was peaceful for a week. At the end of that time they come back."
Here Mother Gervaise smiled, but it was a victorious smile. Her face lighted up and her eyes shone again.
"Pellmell back they came," she repeated. "It was a retreat. Many had lost their guns and their packs. I had no soup for them. I said I had lost my poulets and all. But it was not so. I had them hidden.
"The orderly of my major came in here, threw up his hands, and shouted: 'No Paris! No Paris!' And then he tramped on with his fellows. They chopped the trees and blew up many houses. But mine was marked, as the Boches did in those first days: 'These are good people. Let them be.' So I was not molested," finished Mother Gervaise.
"Now, sit you down, Mademoiselle, at the table. Here where I have spread a napkin. The ragout——
"Bless us and save us!" she added, as a sudden roar of voices sounded outside the cot and the throaty rattle of a motor engine. "Whom have we here?"
She went to the door and flung it open. Ruth hesitated at the chair in which she had been about to be seated. Outside she saw bunched several uniformed men. They were hilariously pushing into the cottage, thrusting the excited Mother Gervaise aside.
Ruth Fielding's rising fear was quenched when she saw the faces of the newcomers more clearly. They were those of young men belonging to the American Expeditionary Forces, as their uniforms betrayed. And they were teasing Mother Gervaise in the free and easy way of American youth.
Nor was she anywhere near as angry as she assumed. They pushed her into the cottage and crowded in themselves before they saw Ruth standing at the end of the long table. Then, quite suddenly, their voices fell.
Not so Mother Gervaise. She fetched one of her tormentors a sharp smack with the palm of her hand.
"Un vaurien!" she cried, meaning, in the slang of the day, "good-for-nothing." "You would take my house by storm! Do you think it is a Boche dugout you charge when you come to Mother Gervaise?"
The silence of the rough and careless fellows was becoming marked. Already the Frenchwoman was noticing it. She turned, saw their eyes fixed upon Ruth, and remarked:
"Ha! It's well they respect the mademoiselle. Come in, wicked ones, and shut the door."
Ruth, relieved, saw that all were young commissioned officers—a very, very young captain, two first lieutenants, and several subalterns. They bowed rather bashfully to Ruth, and could not take their eyes off her.
One finally said: "You must be the lady at the Clair Hospital—Miss Fielding? You're the only American girl at that station."
"I am Miss Fielding," Ruth returned. Her eyes shone, her tone grew softer. She saw that he belonged to Tom Cameron's regiment. "I have a friend in your regiment—Mr. Cameron. Lieutenant Thomas Cameron. Is he on duty with you?"
Their respectful silence when they tumbled in and saw her was marked. But the utter dumbness that followed this question was so impressive that Ruth could almost hear her own heart beat.
"What—— He is not hurt?" she cried, looking from one to the other.
"I believe not, Miss Fielding," the captain said. "He is not on duty with us. I can tell you nothing about Lieutenant Cameron."
The decision with which he spoke and the expression upon the faces of the others, appalled the girl. She could not find breath to ask another question.
Mother Gervaise bustled forward to set upon the napkin she had spread a plate of the ragout for Ruth. The latter sank into the chair. The young officers gathered upon the other side of the hearth. They were hopelessly dumb.
There was a noise outside—the chugging of a car. It was a welcome relief. The door opened again and Charlie Bragg and the other two boys entered.
"Well, the Boches didn't get us that time," said Charlie, with satisfaction. "Nor the old fliver, either. Hello! Here's General Haig and all his staff. Or is it General Disorder? Hurry up with the Mulligan, Mother Gervaise—we've got to gobble and go."
He slipped into the seat next to Ruth, smiling at her. He was just a hungry, slangy boy. But those others——
Ruth could scarcely force the food down; but she determined to make a meal for her body's sake. She did not know what was before her—how much work, or how hard it would be, before she obtained another meal. She managed to ask:
"Is the car all right again, Charlie?"
"You can't bust it!" he declared enthusiastically. "The Britishers make all manner of fun of 'em. Call 'em 'mechanical fleas' and all that. But with a hammer, a monkey-wrench, and some bale-wire, a fellow can perform major and minor operations on a fliver in the middle of a garageless wilderness and come through all right when better cars are left for the junk department to gather up and salvage."
The other two ambulance drivers to whom Ruth had been introduced came to the table and finished their suppers, Mother Gervaise grumblingly dishing up more hot stew for them.
"It is for you and such as you I slave and slave," she said. "And what thanks do I get?"
"For la zozotte do you work, Mother," said one, laughing. "And who would want better thanks than money?"
But Ruth kissed the woman when she rose to depart. She believed Mother Gervaise was "tender under her rough skin," as is the saying.
The young officers had not come to the table while Ruth remained; nor did Charlie pay much attention to them. At least, he did not try to introduce them, and Ruth was glad of that.
There was something wrong. There was a mystery. Why should Tom Cameron's own associates act so oddly when his name was mentioned?
She merely bowed to the officers, but shook hands with Charlie's brother ambulanciers. There seemed to her something very wholesome and fine about these youths who drove the ambulances. They had—most of them—come to France and enlisted in their present employment before the United States got into the war at all.
She suspected that many of them were of that class known about their home neighborhoods as "that boy of Jones'," or "that Jackson kid." In other words, their overflow of animal spirits, or ambition, or whatever it was, had probably made them something of a trial to their neighbors, if not to their families.
Ruth began to see them in a sort of golden glow of heroism. They were the truer heroes because they denied this designation. Charlie grew red and gruff if she as much as suggested that he was doing anything out of the ordinary. Yet she knew he had written a book about his first year's experiences and his brother had found a publisher for it in New York. His share of the proceeds from that book was going to the Red Cross.
Into the ambulance they climbed, and again they were rolling over the dark and rough road. Ruth gathered together all her courage and asked:
"Do you know anything about Tom Cameron?"
"Yes," she said. "I want to know what's happened to him, Charlie."
"For the love of Pete!" gasped the young fellow. "I didn't know anything had happened to him—again."
"I must know," Ruth told him, her voice quivering. "Some of those officers belonged to his battalion. All were of his regiment. But when I asked about him they refused to answer."
"You don't mean it!" Plainly Charlie Bragg was nonplussed. "I thought they acted funny," he said, with a sudden grin, which she sensed rather than saw. "But I thought it was girlitis. It has a terrible effect upon these fellows that haven't seen a real American girl for so long."
"I am serious, Charlie," she told him. "Something has happened to Tom—or about him. It seems to me that those officers were afraid to speak of it. As though there was something—something disgraceful about it!"
"Oh, say!" murmured Charlie. "That's not sense, you know."
"Of course Tom could do nothing disgraceful. But why should those men be afraid to speak of him?" cried the shaken girl. "He can't be wounded again. That can't be it. Haven't you heard a word?"
She suddenly realized that her companion had grown silent. He made no comment now upon her speech. She waited a full minute before bursting out again:
"You have heard something, Charlie! Something about Tom!"
"I—I don't know," he muttered. "I didn't know it was Tom."
"What is it?" she demanded with rising eagerness.
"I don't know that it's about Cameron now," he muttered. "I should hope not."
"Charlie Bragg! Do you want to drive me wild?" she demanded, clutching at his arm.
"Hold on! You'll have us in the ditch," he warned her.
"You answer me—at once!" she commanded.
"Oh—— But what can I say? I don't know anything. I don't believe Tom Cameron would be tricky—not a bit. And as for selling out to the Boches——"
"What do you mean?" almost shrieked the girl. "Are you crazy, Charlie Bragg?"
"There you go," he grumbled. "I told you I didn't know anything—for sure. But I heard some gossip."
"I didn't know it was about Tom. And I don't know now. But what you say about how funny those chaps acted——"
"Do explain!" begged Ruth. "Come right out with it, Charlie."
"Why, I heard a chap had been accused of giving information to the enemy. Yes. One of our own chaps—an American. It's said he met a Boche spy on listening post—right out there between the lines. He was seen twice."
"No name told when I heard it. First a fellow saw him talking to a figure that stole away toward the German line. This fellow told his top sergeant, and toppy told his captain. They waited and watched. Three men saw the same thing happen. They were going to have the blamed traitor up before the brass hats when all of a sudden he disappeared."
"Who disappeared?" gasped Ruth Fielding.
"This chap they suspect gave information to the Boches. He's gone—like that!"
"Captured?" questioned Ruth breathlessly.
"Or gone over to them," returned Charlie, with evident unwillingness.
Ruth sighed. "But that never could be Tom Cameron!"
"You wouldn't think so," was the reply. "But that's all I can guess that those fellows had in mind when they would not answer you—good gracious, look at that!"
He braked madly. The ambulance rocked and came to an abrupt standstill. Across the track, scarcely two yards before the nose of the car, had dashed a white object, which, soundlessly, was gone in half a minute—swallowed up in the shadowy field beside the road.
"We see it again, Ruth," said Charlie Bragg, with a strange solemnity.
"What do you mean?" she demanded, but her voice, too, shook.
"The werwolf. That dog—whatever it is. Ghost or despatch-bearer, whatever you call it. I got a good sight of it again, Miss Ruth. Didn't you?"
WHERE IS TOM CAMERON?
That the peasants of the surrounding territory should believe in that old and wicked legend of the werwolf was not to be considered strange. There is not a country in Europe where the tale of the human being who can change his form at will to that of a wolf, is not repeated.
Ruth Fielding had come across the superstition—and for the first time in the company of Charlie Bragg—as she had approached the town of Clair to begin her work in that hospital some months before.
This same white figure which they had both now glimpsed had crossed the road, flying as it was now toward the trenches. The werwolf, as the superstitious French peasants declared it to be, crossed both to and from the battle line; for it was frequently seen.
It was of this mystery Henriette Dupay had spoken in the library of the chateau that very afternoon. The Dupays believed absolutely in the reality of the werwolf.
Only, they were not of those who connected the "Thing" with the lady of the chateau. Although Ruth Fielding had reason to believe that the police authorities trusted the Countess Marchand and were sure of her loyalty, many of the peasants about the chateau believed that the werwolf was the unfortunate countess herself in diabolical form.
And even Ruth could not help feeling a qualm, as she saw the fast-disappearing creature—ghost or what-not—that fled into the darkness.
"Gosh!" murmured the slangy Charlie Bragg. "Enough to give a fellow heart-disease. I thought I was going to run it down."
"I wonder," said Ruth slowly, as he again started the car, "if it would not have been a good thing if you had run it down."
"Can't bust up a ghost that way, Miss Ruth," he returned, beginning to chuckle again.
"Talk sense, Charlie," she urged, forgetting for the moment the subject of the suspicion resting upon Tom Cameron and giving her mind to this other mystery. "You know, I've an idea this foolishness about a white wolf can be easily explained."
"Go ahead and explain," he returned. "I'm free to confess it's got me guessing."
"I believe it is the big greyhound, Bubu, that belongs to the Chateau Marchand. It is sent on errands to and from the frontier."
"Canine spy?" chuckled Charlie.
"I don't know just what he does. But I did think that the old serving woman, Bessie, that the countess brought with her from Mexico so many years ago, knew all about Bubu's escapades. But Bessie is not at the chateau now."
"Oh," said Charlie, "she was the woman who went off with those two crooks who helped your friend, Mrs. Rose Mantel, rob the Red Cross supply department."
"Not my friend, I should hope!" Ruth said sharply, for the matter Charlie touched upon was still a tender subject with the girl.
Her mind dwelt for a moment upon the presence of Major Henri Marchand at the chateau. He was there, and the greyhound, Bubu, was running at large again at night. Was there not something significant in the two facts? But she said nothing regarding this suspicion to the ambulance driver.
Instead, she came back to the subject which had occupied their minds previous to the appearance of the white object that had crossed the road.
"Of course, it is quite ridiculous," she said, "to think of Tommy Cameron doing anything at all treacherous. I can imagine his doing almost anything reckless, but always on the right side."
"Some little hero, is he?" chuckled Charlie Bragg.
"I think he is the stuff of which heroes are made—just like yourself, Charlie Bragg."
"Oh! I say!" he objected. "Now you are getting personal."
"Then don't try to be funny with me," declared Ruth earnestly. "I have too good an opinion of all our well-brought-up American boys—to which class both Tom and you belong—to believe that any of them could be made under any conditions to betray their fellows."
"Oh, as to that!" he admitted. "Nor any of our roughnecks, either. We've got a mighty fine army over here, rank and file. Deliberately, I doubt if any of them would give information to the Heinies. But they do say that when the Huns capture a man, if they want information, they don't care what they do to him to get it. The old police third degree isn't a patch on what these Boches do."
"I am not afraid that even torture would make Tom do anything mean," she said, with a little sob. "But these officers back there at that cottage must actually believe that he has gone over to the enemy."
"If Cameron is the fellow I heard about this morning," Charlie said gloomily enough, "it is generally believed that he has been two days beyond the lines—and he didn't have to go."
"I'm repeating what I heard. This flurry during the afternoon is an outcome of his disappearance. The German guns caught a train of ammunition camions and smashed things up pretty badly. Many tricks like that pulled off will make us mighty short of ammunition in this sector. Then Heinie can come over the top and do with us just as he pleases. Naturally, if the boys believe Cameron is at fault, they are going to be as sore on him as a boil."
"It would be utterly impossible for Tom to do such a thing!" the girl declared with finality.
Her assurance made the matter no less terrible. Ruth had no belief at all in Tom's willingly giving himself up to the enemy. Had there been a hundred witnesses to see him go, she would have denied the possibility of his being a traitor.
But she was very silent during the rest of that wild ride. Now and then they were stopped by sentinels and had to show their papers. At least, the Red Cross girl had to show hers. Charlie was pretty well known by everybody in this part of the war zone.
They would come to a dugout in the hillside, or a half-hidden hut, and be challenged by a sentinel, or by one of the military police. A pocket lamp would play upon Ruth's face, then upon her passport, and the sentinel would grunt, salute, and the car would plunge on again. It seemed to Ruth as though this went on for hours.
All the time her brain was active with the possibilities surrounding Tom Cameron's disappearance. What could really have happened to him? Should she write to Helen in Paris, or to his father in America, of the mystery? Indeed, would the censor let such news pass?
Once she had believed Tom seriously wounded, and for several days had hunted for him, expecting to find him mutilated. Fortunately her expectations at that time had been unfounded.
It seemed now, however, as though there could be no doubt but something very dreadful had happened to her friend. Added to his peril, too, was this awful suspicion that others seemed to hold regarding Tom's faithfulness.
It was going to be very hard, indeed, for Ruth Fielding to keep her mind on her work in the Red Cross while this uncertainty regarding Lieutenant Cameron remained.
THE CHOCOLATE PEDDLER
There was the flash of a lamp ahead.
"Here we are!" cried Charlie Bragg, in a tone of relief, bringing the car to a rocking stop.
Ruth Fielding could see but little as she looked out from under the hood of the ambulance. Yet she imagined there was a ridge of land behind the compound at the entrance to which they had halted.
Charlie got out and helped her down. A second man appeared in the gateway of the stockade beside the sentinel. The girl approached with the ambulance driver, who said:
"Here she is, Doc. And a load of stuff she says you'll need. This is Miss Fielding—and she's a regular good fellow. Doctor Monteith, Miss Fielding."
"I am glad to see you," the surgeon said warmly, taking the bag from Ruth and seizing her cold hand in his warm clasp. "We are very busy here and very short of supplies. Our stores were utterly destroyed when——"
He did not finish his statement, but ushered her into the compound. There were a few twinkling lights. She saw that there were a number of huts within this enclosure, each being, of course, a ward.
They left Charlie Bragg and an orderly to remove the supplies from the ambulance while the surgeon took Ruth to the hut that was to be her own. On the way they passed a crushed and shapeless mass that might once, the girl thought, have been another hut.
"Is that——?" she asked, pointing.
"Yes. The shell dropped squarely on it. We got her out from under the wreckage after putting out the fire. She was killed instantly," said the surgeon. "You are not frightened, Miss Fielding?"
"Why—yes," she said gravely. "I have, however, been frightened before. We have had night air raids at Clair. But, as Charlie Bragg says, 'I have not been killed yet.'"
"That is the way to look at it," he said cheerfully. "It's the only way. Back in all our minds is the expectation of sudden death, I suppose. Only—if it is sudden! That is what we pray for—if it is to come."
"I know," Ruth said softly. "But let us keep from thinking of it. Who is this lady?" she asked a moment later.
"Ah!" said the gentlemanly surgeon, seeing the figure in the doorway of the new supply hut. "It is our matron, Mrs. Strang. A lovely lady. I will leave you to her kindness."
He introduced the girl to the elderly woman, who examined Ruth with frank curiosity as she entered the hut.
"You are a real American, I presume," the woman said, smiling.
"I hope so."
"Not to be frightened by what has happened here already?"
"We expect such sad happenings, do we not?"
"Yes. We must. But this was a terrible thing. They say," the matron observed, "that it was the result of treachery."
"Oh! You do not mean——?"
"They say a man has sold a map of this whole sector to the Boches. A man—faugh! There are such creatures in all armies. Perhaps there are more among our forces than we know of. They say many of foreign blood among the Expeditionary Force are secretly against the war and are friends of the enemy."
"I cannot believe that!" cried Ruth. "We are becoming tainted with the fears of the French. Because they have found so many spies!"
"We will find just as many, perhaps," said Mrs. Strang, bitterly. "France is a republic and the United States is a republic. Does freedom breed traitors, I wonder?"
"I guess," Ruth said gently, "that we may have been too kind to certain classes of immigrants to the United States. Unused to liberty they spell it l-i-c-e-n-s-e."
"There are people other than ignorant foreigners who must be watched in these awful times," the matron said bitterly. "There are teachers in our colleges who sneer at patriotism just as they sneer at religion. Whisper, Miss Fielding! I am told that the very man they suspect in this dreadful thing—the American who has sold a map of this sector to the Germans—came from one of our foremost colleges, and is an American bred and born."
Ruth could not speak in answer to this. Her heart throbbed painfully in her throat. To so accuse Tom Cameron of heartless and dastardly treachery!
She could not defend him. To defend was to accuse! If everybody believed this awful thing——
Ruth was just as sure of Tom Cameron's guiltlessness as she was of her own faithfulness. But how damning the circumstantial evidence must be against him!
She was thankful she heard nothing more of this thing that night. Charlie and other men brought in the supplies. She could not arrange them then, for she was exhausted. She only waited to lock the door when all the supplies were placed, and then found the hut where the women of the Red Cross slept.
She had here a narrow cot, a locker and chair, and the privacy of a movable screen. Nothing else.
This was real "soldiering," as she soon found. Her experiences at Lyse and at Clair had been nothing like this. In one town she had lived at a pension, while at the latter hospital she had had her own little cell in the annex.
However, the girl of the Red Mill never thought of complaining. If these other earnest girls and women could stand such rough experiences why not she?
She slept and dreamed of home—of the Red Mill and Uncle Jabez and Aunt Alvirah Boggs, with her murmured, "Oh, my back! and oh, my bones!" She was again a child and roamed the woods and fields along the Lumano River with Tom Cameron and Helen.
"I wish I were at home! I wish I were at home!" was her waking thought.
It was the first time she had whispered that wish since leaving the States. But never before had her heart been so sore and her spirit so depressed.
When, some weeks before, she had believed Tom Cameron seriously wounded, she had been frightened and anxious only. Now the whole world seemed to have gone wrong. There was nobody with whom she could confer about this awful trouble.
She arose, and, after making her toilet and before breakfast, went out of the hut. She beheld an entirely different looking landscape from that which she was used to about Clair.
Through the gateway of the compound she saw a rutted road, with dun fields beyond. Behind, the ridge rose abruptly between the hospital and the battle front.
A red-headed young Irishman in khaki stood at the gateway, or tramped up and down with his rifle on his shoulder. He could not look at the girl without grinning, and Ruth smiled in return.
"'Tis a broth of a mornin', Miss," he whispered, as she drew near. "Be you the new lady Charlie Bra-a-agg brought over last night?"
"Yes. I am to take the place of the girl who—who——"
She faltered and could not go on. The Irish lad nodded and blinked rapidly.
"Bedad!" he muttered. "We'll make the Boches pay for that when we go over the top. Never fear."
He halted abruptly, became preternaturally grave, and presented arms. The young surgeon, Dr. Monteith, who had met Ruth the night before, tramped in from a morning walk.
"Good morning, Miss Fielding. Did you sleep?"
She confessed that she did. He smiled, but there was a deep crease between his eyes.
"I am glad you are up betimes. We need some of your supplies. Can I send the orderlies with the schedule soon?"
"Oh, yes! I will try to be ready in half an hour," she cried, turning quickly toward the hut, of which she carried the key.
"Wait! Wait!" he called. "No such hurry as all that. You have not breakfasted, I imagine? Well, never neglect your food. It is vital. I shall not send to you until half-past eight."
He saluted and went on. Ruth went to the hut in which the nurses messed. The night shift had just come in and she found them a pleasant, if serious, lot of women. And of all nationalities by blood—truly American!
There was an air about the nurses in the field hospital different from those she had met in institutions farther back from the battle line. There were serious girls there, but there was always a spatter of irresponsibles as well.
Here the nurses were like soldiers—and soldiers in active and dangerous service. There was a marked reserve about them and an expression of countenance that reminded Ruth of some of the nuns she had seen at home—a serenity that seemed to announce that they had given over worldly thoughts and that their minds were fixed upon higher things.
There was a hushed way of speaking, too, that impressed Ruth. It was as though they listened all the time for something. Was it for the whine of the shells that sometimes came over the ridge and dropped perilously near the hospital?
As the day went on, however, the girl found that there was considerably more cheerfulness and light-heartedness in and about the hospital than she supposed would be found here. Having straightened out her own hut and supplied the various wards with what they needed for the day, she went about, getting acquainted.
It was a large hospital and there were many huts. In each of these shelters were from two dozen to forty patients. A nurse and an orderly took care of each hut, with a night attendant. Everybody was busy.
There were many visitors, too—visitors of all kinds and for all imaginary reasons. People came in automobiles; these had passes from military authorities to see and bring comforts to the wounded. And there were more modest visitors who came on foot and brought baskets of jams and jellies and cakes and home-made luxuries that were eagerly welcomed by the wounded. For soldiers everywhere—whether well or ill—develop a sweet tooth.
Into the compound about midafternoon Ruth saw a tall figure slouch with a basket on his arm. It had begun to drizzle, as it so often does during the winter in Northern France, and this man wore a bedrabbled cloak—a brigandish-looking cloak—over his blue smock.
She had never seen such a figure before; and yet, there was something about the man that seemed familiar to the keen-eyed girl.
"Who is he?" she asked a nurse standing with her at the door of a ward, and pointing to the man slouching along with his basket across the open way.
"Oh, that? It is Nicko, the chocolate peddler," said the nurse carelessly. "A harmless fellow. Not quite right—here," and she tapped her own forehead significantly. "You understand? They say he lived here when first the Boches used their nasty gas, and he was caught in a cellar where a gas bomb exploded, and it affected his brain. It does that sometimes, you know," she added sadly.
Ruth's eyes had followed the chocolate seller intently. Around a corner of a hut swung the surgeon, who was already the girl's friend. He all but ran against the slouching figure, and he spoke sharply to the man.
For an instant the chocolate peddler straightened. He stood, indeed, in a very soldierly fashion. Then, as the quick-tempered surgeon strode on, Nicko bowed. He bowed from the hips—and Ruth gasped as she saw the obeisance. Only yesterday she had seen a man bow in that same way!
COT 24—HUT H
The guns on the battle front had been silent for twenty-four hours; but there were whispers of the Yankees "getting back" at the Heinies in return for the outbreak of German gunfire which had startled Ruth Fielding the afternoon she had taken tea at the Chateau Marchand.
The outbreak of the new attack—this time from the American side—began about nine o'clock at night. A barrage was laid down, behind which, Ruth learned, several raiding parties would go over.
Just the method of this advance across No Man's Land Ruth did not understand. But all the time the guns were roaring back and forth (for, of course, the Germans quickly replied) she knew the American boys were in peril all along that sector.
That was a bad night for Ruth. She lay in her cot awake, but with her eyes closed, breathing deeply and regularly so that those about her thought she was asleep.
In the morning the matron said:
"You are really quite wonderful, Miss Fielding, to sleep through all that. I wish I could do the same."
And all night long Ruth had been praying—praying for the safety of the boys that had gone over the top, not for herself. That she was in danger did not greatly trouble her. She thought of the soldiers. She thought particularly of Tom Cameron—wherever he might be!
The flurry of gunfire was over by dawn. After breakfast Ruth went down to the gate. She had heard the ambulances rolling in for hours, and now she saw the stretcher-bearers stumbling into the receiving ward with the broken men. Here they were operated upon, when necessary, and sorted out—the grands blesses sent to the more difficult wards, the less seriously wounded to others.
Curiosity did not bring Ruth to the gate. It was in the hope of seeing Charlie Bragg that she went there. Nor was she disappointed.
His shaky old car rolled up with three men under the canvas and one with a bandaged arm sitting on the seat beside him. Charlie was pale and haggard. Half the top of the ambulance had been shot away since she had ridden in it, and the boy had roughly repaired the damage with a blanket. But he nodded to Ruth with his old cheerful grin. Nothing could entirely quench Charlie Bragg.
"Got tipped over and holed up in a marmite cave for a couple of hours during the worst of it last night," he told Ruth. "Never mind. It gave me another chapter for my new book. Surely! I'm going to write a second one. They all do, you know. You rather get the habit."
"But, Charlie! Is—is there any news?" she asked him, with shaking voice and eyes that told much of her anxiety.
He knew well what she meant, and he looked grim enough for a minute, and nodded.
"Yes. A little."
"Oh, Charlie! They—they haven't found him?"
"No. Maybe they'd better not," breathed the boy, shaking his head. "I don't think there's any hope, Miss Ruth."
"Oh, Charlie! He's not dead?"
"Better be," muttered the boy. "I wouldn't ask if I were you. It looks bad for him—everybody says so."
"You know him, Charlie Bragg!" she burst out angrily. "Can you believe Tom Cameron would do such a wicked thing as this they accuse him of?"
"We-ell. I don't want to believe it," he agreed. "But, look here!" and in desperation he pulled something from his pocket. "You know that, don't you?"
"Why! Tom's matchbox!" cried the girl, taking the silver box and seeing the initials of the lost soldier on the case. She had had it engraved herself—and Helen had paid for the box. They had given it to Tom when he went to Harvard for his Freshman course.
"Of course. I've seen him use it, too," Charlie Bragg hurried to say. "I knew it and begged it of the fellow who found it."
"Where did he find it?"
"You know, some of our boys went across and visited the Heinies last night," Charlie said gently. "They got right into the German trenches and drove out the Heinies. And in a German dugout—before they blew it up with bombs—this chap I talked with picked up that box."
"Oh, Charlie!" gasped the girl.
"Yes. He didn't see the significance of the monogram. He didn't know Mr. Cameron personally, I think. He was slightly wounded and I helped him with first aid. He gave the box to me as a German souvenir," and the driver of the ambulance looked grim.
"Then they surely have got poor Tom!" whispered Ruth.
"At least, it looks as though he went over that way," agreed the boy sadly.
"Don't speak so, Charlie!" she cried. "I tell you he has been taken prisoner."
"We-ell," drawled her friend again, "we can't know about that."
"But we will know!" she said, with added vehemence. "It will all come out in time. Only—it will be too late to help poor Tom, then."
"Gosh!" groaned Charlie Bragg. "It's too late to help him now—if you should ask me!"
Ruth had nobody to talk to about Tom Cameron save the young ambulance driver. And him she could see but seldom.
For fear of having to explain to her chum, she could not write to Helen Cameron, who was in Paris. Just now, too, she was too busy for letter writing.
Mrs. Strang found a girl to help Ruth in the supply hut, one who was willing and able to learn all about the merchandise under Ruth's care. The latter was not asked to remain at this hospital outpost for long. Her place was at Clair, and, until the Red Cross directors deliberately changed her, Ruth must give her first thought to the Clair Supply Headquarters.
She saw, however, that she would be several days at this field hospital. She had been glad to come in hope of learning something about Tom. Now she saw that she was doomed to disappointment.
This locality was the last place in which to search for news of the lost lieutenant. Everybody here (everybody who spoke of the matter at all) believed that Tom Cameron had played the traitor and, for money or some other unexplained reason, had gone over to the enemy.
"As though poor Tom could even dream of such a thing!" she thought.
She must keep her opinion to herself. She was too wise to start any argument on the affair. It might be, if she kept still, that she would learn something of significance that would lead to an explanation of the terrible event.
What she personally could do to save Tom's reputation she did not even imagine at the time. Nevertheless, there might be some chance of doing him a good turn.
As for his personal safety, she had lost all hope of that. She believed he had been captured by the Germans, and she had heard too many stories of their treatment of prisoners to hope that he would escape injury and actual torture.
It was said that the enemy would treat the first Americans captured with particular harshness, in hope of "frightening the Yankees." She knew that the advancing Canadians had found their captured brothers crucified on barn doors in the early months of the war. Why should the Yankees expect better treatment from the Huns?
With this load of anxiety and fear upon her heart, Ruth still found time for interest in what went on about her. She was an observant girl. And, as ever, her sympathies were touched in behalf of the wounded.
Although the American Red Cross had taken over this field hospital, most of the wounded were Frenchmen.
She was glad to see so many visitors daily bringing comforts for the men; but of all those who came she noted particularly the peculiar-looking Nicko, the chocolate vender. Daily he came, and Ruth always observed both his comings and goings.
Never did he fail to go into a particular ward—one of those in which the more seriously wounded patients lay—Hut H. She sometimes saw him going through the aisles at his funny, wabbling gait, offering his wares to the soldiers. The latter jeered at him, or joked with him, as their mood was. He wore an old battered hat, the brim of which flopped over his face and half masked his features.
One afternoon Ruth met the strange fellow at the door of Hut H. She was going out as he was coming in. The man backed away from her, mumbling. She threw a coin into his basket and took a small package of chocolate.
"Bien oblige, Mademoiselle!" he was startled into saying, and bowed to her. It was not the stiff, martial bow she had before noted, but the sweeping, ingratiating bow of the Frenchman. Ruth walked on, but she was startled.
Finally she turned swiftly and went back to the door of Hut H. The nurse on duty had just come from the end of the ward. Over her shoulder Ruth saw Nicko halt beside one of the cots far down the line.
"Who is that Nicko converses with?" Ruth asked idly.
"Oh, his friend, the Boche. Didn't you know we had a German officer with us? Cot 24. Not a bad fellow at all. Yes, Nicko never fails to sell our Boche friend chocolate. He is a regular customer."
"Cot 24—Hut H," Ruth repeated in her own mind. She would not forget that. And yet—did it mean anything? Was there something wrong with Nicko, the chocolate peddler?
She had been at the field hospital for a week. It seemed to Ruth Fielding at last as though she could not remain "holed up" like a rabbit any longer.
At Clair she had been used to going out of the hospital when she liked and going anywhere she pleased. Here she found it was necessary to have a pass even to step out of the hospital compound.
"And be careful where you walk, Miss Fielding," said Dr. Monteith, as he signed her pass. "Do not go toward the battle front. If you do you may be halted."
"Halted!" repeated Ruth, not quite understanding.
"And perhaps suspected," he said, nodding gravely. "Even your Red Cross will not save you."
"Oh, dear me!" exclaimed the girl. "Is everybody suspected of spying? I think it has become a craze."
"We do not know whom to suspect," he said. "Our closest friends may be enemies. We cannot tell."
"But, Doctor Monteith, who are in this district save our soldiers and the French inhabitants?" asked Ruth.
"True. But there may be a traitor among us. Indeed, it is believed that there has been," and Ruth winced and looked away from him. "As for our allies here—well, all of them may not be above earning German gold. And they would think it was not as though they were betraying their own countrymen. There are only United States soldiers in this sector now, as you say, Miss Fielding."
"I cannot imagine people being so wicked," sighed the girl.
"No matter how it is done, or who does it, the enemy is getting information about our troops and condition, as the last two attacks have proved. So take care where you go, Miss Fielding, and what you do," he added earnestly.
She promised, and went away with her pass. It was late afternoon and her duties were over for the day. She would not be needed at the supply hut until morning. And, indeed, the girl she was breaking in was already mastering the details of the work. Ruth could soon go back to her own work at Clair.
She walked nimbly out of the compound gate, making sure that she was following a road that led away from the front. Nobody halted her. Indeed, she was soon passing through a little valley that seemed as peaceful and quiet as though there was no such thing as war in the world.
The path she followed was plainly but a farm track. It wound between narrow fields that had not been plowed the season before—not even by cannon-shot. Somehow the big shells had flown over this little valley.
The sun was setting, and the strip of western sky above the hills was tinged with his golden glories. Already pale twilight lay in the valley. But in this latitude the twilight would long remain. She did not hasten her steps, nor did she soon turn back toward the field hospital.
She saw a cottage half hidden behind a hedge of evergreens. It stood in a small square of muddy garden. There was a figure at work in this patch—the tall, stoop-shouldered figure of a man. He was digging parsnips that had been left out for the frost to sweeten.
He used the mattock slowly and methodically. With the cottage as a background, and the muddy bit of garden, the picture he made was typical of the country and the people who inhabited it.
Suddenly she realized that she recognized the ragged blue smock and the old droop-brimmed hat he wore. It was Nicko, the chocolate vender. This must be his place of abode.
Ruth hesitated. She had felt some shrinking from the man before; now she realized she was afraid of him. He had not seen her and she stood back and watched him.
Of a sudden another man appeared from around the corner of the cottage. Ruth was more than glad, then, that she had not shown herself. She turned to retrace her steps.
Then she looked again at this new figure in the picture. She almost spoke aloud in her amazement. The newcomer was dressed exactly as Nicko was dressed—the same blue and ragged smock, shapeless trousers, wooden shoes, and with a hat the twin of the one the first Nicko wore. Indeed, it was a second Nicko who stood there in the bit of garden before the laborer's cot.
But amazement and suspicion did not hold her to the spot for long. She did not wish to be discovered by the pair. She was confident now that there was something altogether wrong with Nicko the chocolate peddler—and his double!
Out of view of the cottage she hurried her steps. Through the gloaming she sped up the path in the valley toward the high-road on which faced the hospital stockade.
Her thoughts were in a tangle of doubt. Yet one clear thread of determination she held. She must give her confidence to somebody—she must relate her suspicions to some person who was in authority.
Not the medical chief of staff at this field hospital. Nor did she wish to go to the commanding officer of this sector, whoever he might be. Indeed, she almost feared to talk with any American officer, for Tom Cameron seemed to be entangled in this web of deceit and treachery into which she believed she had gained a look.
There was a man whom she could trust, however; one who would know exactly what to do, she felt sure. And it would be his business to examine into the mystery. The moment she returned to Clair Ruth would get into communication with this individual.
Thus thinking, she hurried on and had almost reached the highway when something made her look back. Not a sound; for even the sleepy birds had stopped twittering and there was no rustle of night wind in the bare shrubbery about her.
But mysteriously she was forced to turn her head. She looked down the path over which her feet had sped from the laborer's cot. There was something behind her!
Ruth did not scream. A form came up the track swiftly and at first she saw it so indistinctly that she had no idea what it really was. Had she been spied by the men in the garden, and was one of them following her?
She trembled so that she could not walk. She crouched back against the hedge, watching fearfully the on-rush of the phantom-like apparition coming so swiftly up the path.
THE FLYING MAN
While yet the silent figure was some rods away Ruth Fielding realized that it was no human being. It was not one of the men she had seen in the garden of Nicko's cottage.
This creature came too swiftly up the path and skimmed the ground too closely. A light-colored object—swift, silent and threatening of aspect.
The girl shrank against the hedge, and the next instant—with a rush of passage that stirred the air all about her—the Thing was gone! It was again that strange and incomprehensible apparition of the werwolf!
If it was Bubu, the greyhound she had seen at the Chateau Marchand, he was much lighter in color than when he appeared pacing beside his mistress on the chateau lawns. The phantom had dashed past so rapidly that, in the gathering dusk, Ruth could make out little of its real appearance.
Headed toward the battle lines, it had disappeared within seconds. The girl, her limbs still trembling, followed in haste to the highway. Already the creature had been swallowed up in the shadows.
She went on toward the hospital gateway and had scarcely recovered her self-control when she arrived there. Altogether, her evening's experience had been most disconcerting.
The two men, dressed alike and apparently of the same height and shambling manner, whom she had seen in Nicko's garden, worried her quite as much—indeed, worried her even more than the sight of the mysterious creature the peasants called the werwolf.
More than ever was she determined to take into her confidence somebody who would be able to explain the mystery of it all. At least, he would be able to judge if what made her so anxious was of moment.
And Tom Cameron's disappearance, too! Ruth's worry of mind regarding her old friend propped her eyes open that night.
In the morning she went over the stock shelves again with the girl she had trained, and finally announced to Mrs. Strang that she felt she must return to Clair. After all, she had been assigned to the job there and must not desert it.
An ambulance was going down to Clair with its burden of wounded men, and Ruth was assigned to the seat beside the driver. He chanced to be "Cub" Holdness, one of the ambulance drivers to whom Ruth had been introduced by Charlie Bragg at Mother Gervaise's cottage the night of her trip up to the field hospital.
Holdness was plainly delighted to have the girl with him for the drive to Clair. He was a Philadelphia boy, and he confessed to having had no chance to drive a girl—even in an ambulance—since coming over.
"I had one of those 'reckless roadsters' back home," he sighed. "Dad said every time his telephone rang he expected it was me calling from some outlying police station for him to come and bail me out for overspeeding.
"And there was a bunch of girls I knew who were just crazy to have me take 'em for a spin out around Fairmount Park and along the speedways. Just think, Miss Fielding, of the difference between those times and these," and he nodded solemnly.
"I should say there was a difference," laughed Ruth, trying to appear in good spirits. "Don't you get dreadfully tired of all these awful sights and sounds?"
"No. Excitement keeps us keyed up, I guess," he replied. "You know, there is almost always something doing."
"I should say there was!"
She saw that while he talked he did not for a moment forget that he was driving three sorely wounded men. He eased the ambulance over the rough parts of the road and around the sharp turns with infinite skill. It was actually wonderful how smoothly the ambulance ran.
Occasionally they were caught in a tight corner and the machine jounced so that moans of agony were wrung from the lips of the wounded behind them on the stretchers. This, however, occurred but seldom.