WITH HAIG ON THE SOMME
WITH HAIG ON THE SOMME
D. H. PARRY
Author of "Gilbert the Outlaw"; "The Scarlet Scouts"; "The V.C.: Its Heroes and their Valour," etc. etc.
WITH FOUR COLOUR PLATES BY
CASSELL AND COMPANY, LTD
London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne
First Published 1917
1. AN UNCENSORED LETTER READ ALOUD 1
2. OFF TO THE FRONT 14
3. "AT TEN O'CLOCK SHARP!" 22
4. HIS FIRST TIME UNDER FIRE 33
5. HOW DENNIS CAME IN FOR A TASTE OF DISPATCH RIDING 42
6. A TERRIBLE ADVENTURE AT DAWN 50
7. A FRIEND IN NEED 60
8. IN THE ENEMY TRENCHES 70
9. IN THE SNIPER'S LAIR 78
10. IN WHICH DENNIS MEETS CLAUDE LAVAL, PILOTE AVIATEUR 87
11. A DARING DASH 97
12. IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY 107
13. A MAD GAMBLE FOR LIBERTY 116
14. THE SING-SONG IN THE DUG-OUT 128
15. "REEDSHIRES!—GET OVER!" 136
16. THE SILENCING OF THE GUNS 146
17. THE EXPLOITS OF A COMPANY 155
18. WITH THE LEWIS GUN—AND AFTER 163
19. WHAT THEY LEARNED ON THE GERMAN TELEPHONE 173
20. THE LAST RUNG OF A BROKEN LADDER 183
21. VON DUSSEL'S REVENGE 191
22. THE ROW IN THE RESTAURANT 200
23. "GAS!" 210
24. THE CHATEAU AT THE TRENCH END 219
25. FROM KITE BALLOON TO SADDLE 229
26. UNDER THE GERMAN EAGLE 240
27. ON THE PART DENNIS PLAYED IN THE RECAPTURE OF BIACHES 247
28. THE EXCITING ADVENTURES OF "CARL HEFT" 255
29. AN OLD FRIEND—AND A BITTER ENEMY! 265
30. UNDER THE ENEMY WALL 275
31. WITH DASHWOOD'S BRIGADE 284
32. THE REWARDS OF VALOUR 295
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"THE COMMANDANT THREW UP HIS ARMS AND PITCHED Frontispiece BACKWARD; DENNIS DROPPED HIS WEAPON, CAUGHT HIM AS HE FELL"
"DENNIS FLUNG HIS BOMBS INTO THE SPACE AND TREMENDOUS EXPLOSIONS ENSUED" 96
"BEFORE THE GERMANS REALISED WHAT WAS HAPPENING, THERE WAS AN UGLY BIT OF BAYONET WORK" 150
"NOTHING COULD CHECK THE VICTORIOUS RUSH" 286
WITH HAIG ON THE SOMME
An Uncensored Letter Read Aloud
Private Harry Hawke, of the 2/12th Battalion Royal Reedshire Regiment (T.F.), sat on the step of the fire trench, his back against the parapet, busy with the bolt of his rifle.
There were two things he loved more than anything else in life, and that rifle was one of them. The other was his platoon commander, Captain Bob Dashwood, who chanced to be coming along the communication at the moment, and the Cockney private's eyes lit up as he saw him.
"Hallo, Hawke! All quiet?" said Captain Dashwood with a jerk of his head in the direction of the German lines, only one hundred and twenty yards across the mangled strip of Dead Man's Land that intervened.
"Quiet as the bloomin' grave, sir," replied Harry Hawke with a grin, though he had almost to shout to make himself heard.
A howitzer battery was shelling the enemy from the wood on the left, and the Germans were replying with "crumps," which luckily all went wide.
"Seen anything more of that sniper that picked Marshall and Brown off last night?" questioned the captain.
"Not likely, sir. I got 'im 'arf an hour after we took over the relief," grinned the marksman of A Company, pointing with an oily finger to a fresh notch cut on the rifle stock. "He tumbled out of the willer tree flat, same as if you chucked a kipper from the top of a bus."
Dashwood smiled, and the smile was reflected with interest in the wizened, mahogany-coloured face that looked up at his own from under the rim of the steel helmet.
"You're a terrible chap, Hawke," he said. "How many does that make?"
"Seventeen with the rifle, sir, but I've kept no tally of all I've done in wiv the bayonet," and he caressed his beloved weapon.
"Don't get up, Hawke," said his officer, moving along the trench. "I'm only going to take a squint at the beggars," and as the private dropped back into his seat again, Bob Dashwood put his foot on the fire step and raised his head above the parapet.
He looked across a broken waste, full of shell holes and mine craters, with a line of barbed wire fencing that followed the curve of the white enemy trench capped by sandbags.
The marksman, having got rid of an imaginary speck of rust that had troubled his soul, replaced the bolt, and was putting away the oil rag, when there was a sharp stifled gasp, followed by a slithering fall, and Captain Dashwood lay in a heap among the white wet mud at the bottom of the trench. His cap had spun round and dropped into a sump, and the blood was pouring down his face and neck as Hawke reached him.
"'Strewth, he's dead, and it's my fault!" he moaned, as a sergeant and several other men ran up.
"It was nobody's fault but his own," said the sergeant savagely. "I've warned him a dozen times—and he's not dead, either. Pass the word there. We must get him down to the aid post sharp."
While Hawke supported the battered head upon his knee the sergeant hastily applied a field dressing, and when a couple of bearers came running along the communication trench they laid the wounded man carefully on the stretcher, Hawke watching the receding figures with a dazed look until the angle hid them from view.
"Now, you rotter, I've got to get you set!" he muttered, bending down and peering into the periscope with his rifle gripped tightly in his hands.
Two or three days later news came up that the captain, still unconscious, had been sent to London straightway from the base hospital, and then for several weeks they heard no more of him, and a fresh notch cut on the stock of the Mark III. gave Private Harry Hawke very little satisfaction.
"If I hadn't told him that all was clear he'd never have shoved his 'ead over the blinkin' sandbags," he kept muttering to himself. "Home ain't like home without a mother, and I reckon 'e was father and mother to us all art 'ere. Wish I was dead—I'm fed up!"
* * * * *
"By Jove, mater, this is good news indeed. Fancy Dennis being gazetted to our battalion after all!" and Captain Bob's face lit up as he looked across the breakfast table with the telegram that had just arrived in his hand. "Only got a week's kit leave too, which means that he's to join at once. I'll put him through his facings and show him just what to get and what not to get, and if the Medical Board will only pass me fit for service again we can go over together. He will be here this morning too!"
A chorus of delight went up from the four youngsters on one side of the table, and Master Billy Dashwood, aged eight, clapped his hands and overturned the milk jug.
"Billy, Billy!" said his mother reprovingly. "When will you learn to behave yourself and to take care?"
"When will you let me join the Boy Scouts?" retorted her youngest born, gazing up at the ceiling with the face of an innocent cherub, and Mrs. Dashwood was obliged to smile as she looked at her eldest son.
"Your father will be very pleased, Bob," she said. "There have been Dashwoods in the regiment for generations, and it is nice to feel that both my boys will be in a battalion in their father's brigade."
"You should be very proud, madame, that yours is such a military family," said a young man who sat opposite to the children with his back to the tall windows. "Let me see, you will now have four members serving at this great crisis?"
"Yes, it is an honour of which I am indeed more than proud, Monsieur Van Drissel," said his hostess.
"But Uncle Eric doesn't count—he's only at the War Office, and they do nothing there," interposed the irrepressible Billy.
"I shall send you out of the room if you're rude," said his mother. "The War Office is a most important branch."
It was a pleasant room in a charming house, whose grounds sloped down to the ornamental water in Regent's Park, and if one had not known it, one might have imagined it to be one of those countless English homes into which the war had not penetrated.
Captain Bob, looking very different now from the crumpled figure at the bottom of the trench, had escaped death from the sniper's bullet by a fraction of an inch, but he had made quick recovery, and before his month's sick furlough was at an end he was already secretly yearning to get back again. He knew that there was a great push in contemplation, and his only fear was that he might not be in it.
Everything in that room spoke of comfort and money, and everything was very English, except the young man with his back to the windows, and the young woman with the dark eyes on the opposite side of the table.
Lieutenant Van Drissel, of the Belgian army, whose wound, received in the fighting outside Dixmude long months before, obstinately refused to heal, found himself in very pleasant quarters, thanks to the hospitality of Mrs. Dashwood, who had also given his sister an asylum as French governess to the small fry.
Like Captain Bob, he was in khaki, but the contrast between the two officers was very striking. The one was lean and athletic in every line of his figure, with laughing grey eyes in a handsome face; the other, a stolid, fair-haired Fleming, whose square visage would have been rather colourless and commonplace but for the pleasant smile which showed his white teeth.
He followed Mrs. Dashwood's every movement with the expression of a grateful dog, and waited upon her hand and foot, doing his best to justify his presence there.
"Ah, you have better luck than I, Dashwood," he said in perfect English, with a doleful shrug of his shoulders.
"Don't worry, Van Drissel; keep smiling, as my fellows sing," laughed Captain Bob encouragingly. "Your turn will come, and we shall both march into Berlin one of these days."
"It is a long time," said the Belgian lieutenant gravely. "Even Ottilie here loses heart," and he looked across the table at his sister.
Mademoiselle Ottilie, as dark as her brother was fair, heaved a deep sigh and made a funny little gesture with her hands. "For myself, I dread to go back to poor Belgium," she murmured in broken English. "I wish it might be possible that perhaps I might stay here for evaire—you are all to me so kind."
"Mamma," said Billy with a perfectly grave face as he mimicked her accent, "I wish it might be possible that perhaps I could have that last piece of toast, eh?"
"Billy, go out of the room," said Mrs. Dashwood severely, but Mademoiselle Ottilie threw an impulsive arm round the young monkey's neck, and looked appealingly at his mother.
"Oh, no, please not, madame. He is so young," she interposed.
"Well," said Captain Bob, rising, "I think it's the weather that has given you the hump, old chap. Still raining," and he glanced at the windows. "What do you say to a game of billiards? I'll play you three hundred up if you like."
"With all my heart," replied Van Drissel, getting up with a limp and opening the door for Mrs. Dashwood, and the two officers went into the billiard-room, whence they were no more seen for a couple of hours.
"Hard luck," said Bob Dashwood at last, as the Belgian missed an easy shot. "And you've left them for me, too. I'm afraid your leg is worrying you."
"Oh, that is nothing," replied his companion with a wry smile, as he limped towards the scoring board. "You only want five to win."
"And there they are," said Bob apologetically, as the white ball followed the red into a pocket. "But, you know, you're playing a very good game."
"It is nice of you to say so," replied the Belgian. "Unhappily, I have so much time for practice these days," and he lit a cigarette. "There is not much news in the papers this morning."
"The calm before the storm, my boy," smiled the captain with a twinkle of his grey eyes. "There will be some big news directly. By Jove! you ought to see the munitions they're piling up behind us. It is incredible! The worst of it is, our sector simply swarms with spies, and the beggars get to know everything almost as soon as we know it ourselves; in fact, sometimes before.
"They're very slick," the captain went on. "As a matter of fact, Germans often come over into our lines in British uniforms, and they are so thundering clever that you can't tell the difference. Why, not long ago, I yarned for half an hour with a major of the R.E., as I thought—didn't tell him much, luckily, but we hadn't parted five minutes when he was 'wanted,' and there was no end of a hunt, but he managed to get clear, and a genuine English major was within an ace of being shot in mistake for him if he hadn't been recognised by one of the staff in time."
"Ah, there you are," said Van Drissel. "When do you think Sir Douglas Haig will make a move?"
"Almost directly," said Captain Bob. "The day before I was wounded I had it on first-rate authority that—— Hallo! here's my young brother. Excuse me, Van Drissel," and without further ceremony he darted into the hall as a lad in the uniform of the O.T.C., who had just got out of a taxi, flew up the steps three at a time and dashed in with a shout.
"Why, Bob, old boy!"
"Dennis, dear old man! This is a bit of luck! How are you?"
"Top-hole!" laughed the new-comer, beaming all over his face, which was a clean-shaven, boyish reproduction of his brother's, brown as a berry from the arduous training he had undergone with the Artists', and, breaking loose from Bob's grip, he kissed his mother tenderly.
"You got my wire, dear little mater, but you didn't expect me so soon. It is good to be home again, even if it's only 'How d'you do?' and 'Bye-bye.' But isn't it fine putting me in Bob's battalion? How are the kids? And, I say, mater, is there any grub going? I didn't wait for breakfast before I left, and I'm hungry as a hunter."
The wounded Belgian lieutenant in the adjoining room bit his lips as he overheard the joyful greetings. The rain had cleared, and as he stood looking out where the trim lawn sloped down to the water, he saw a couple of English Tommies in hospital blue sculling round one of the tufted islets.
"Dennis, let me introduce you to Lieutenant Van Drissel, of the Belgian army," said Bob, coming in as Van Drissel turned round. "This is my brother whom we have been talking about," and the two shook hands.
"Glad to meet you," said Dennis frankly.
"Lucky bargee," smiled Van Drissel. "Isn't that right?"
"Ah, you speak English? Yes, it is quite right. I am," laughed Dennis.
"He speaks everything under the sun," said his brother. "And, by the way, Dennis is a great stunt on languages. You two will be able to make us feel thoroughly ashamed of ourselves. My regular verbs are as rusty as a trench button."
"Will you smoke?" said the Belgian, producing a silver cigarette-case.
"Not just now, thanks. I'm going to have some grub first, and if you don't mind I'll bunk upstairs and get a sluice."
"That boy is one of the best in the world, although he's my own brother," explained Bob Dashwood when Dennis had gone.
"Eighteen and a half," replied Bob.
"It is young to be killed," said Van Drissel gravely.
"But he isn't killed yet. Never knew such a fellow for falling on his feet. Of course, we all have to take our chances out there, but I don't mind betting you he comes off with a D.S.O. or a Military Cross, or something or other. You will hear of him yet, mark my words."
Thanks to Bob's experience, the kit buying did not take long, and in three days the boy sported his service uniform, to the rather oppressive admiration of Billy and the huge delight of his sisters. The Medical Board, too, had passed Bob as fit for service again, and the kit leave went like a flash.
Altogether, it had been a great week, with Dennis like a sea breeze filling the house with his wonderful spirits. There were people to dinner almost every evening, among them Uncle Eric, who was a staff captain at the War Office.
And then it all came to an end, and the last night arrived, and the mother and her two soldier sons sat down to dinner alone.
Mademoiselle Ottilie pleaded a headache, and her brother also invented an excuse for being absent.
"You would like to be together," he had said confidentially in Bob's ear.
"They are very charming and considerate," said Mrs. Dashwood when Bob told her. "I do not care very much for Belgians, as a rule, but the Van Drissels are exceptionally nice people."
Dennis said nothing, but he had his own thoughts. He did not like mademoiselle's bright black eyes, and the lieutenant's perpetual smile had begun to get on his nerves.
Mrs. Dashwood had kept up very bravely, though her heart was sad enough in all conscience, and when eleven o'clock struck, and Dennis, who had been living at high pressure, suddenly yawned and said: "Would you mind, mater, if I turned in? I'm as tired as a dog." Mrs. Dashwood made no demur, but signed to her eldest son to remain a little longer.
"Come into the drawing-room, Bob," she said, when they heard Dennis close his bedroom door with a bang. "I have a letter from your father which I want you to read. I did not show it to Dennis because he is excited enough already."
"Any news, dear?" questioned the captain as they seated themselves on the great padded settee, into which one sank so luxuriously that one never wanted to get out of it again.
"Yes, there is news. I suppose he has really told me more than he ought to have done. The date of the Great Push is fixed. But here is the letter; it only came this evening, and you can read it aloud to me."
As he did so, Captain Bob's eyebrows lifted, for the brigadier had been remarkably outspoken.
* * * * *
"We are going to make a simultaneous advance, we and the French on our right," he wrote in one place. "Our sector will bear the brunt of it. The thing has been kept wonderfully quiet, and so far the enemy knows nothing. All their attention is turned on the 'Clown' Prince's insane operations against Verdun, and the German General Staff seem to have forgotten the Somme region altogether, and to underrate the British as usual. But there will be a big surprise for them.
"My fellows are in fine fettle; in fact, so is the whole army corps in this region," he continued. "You should see the artillery we have massed ready for the preliminary bombardment, which promises to be the biggest in history. I hope Bob will be out in time, but I have no news of Dennis, and, between ourselves, I am not really sorry."
* * * * *
"By Jove! the governor's let himself go for once in his life," said Bob, when he had finished the letter. "Half a minute, mater, I'll show you all these places on the map, and then when the thing comes off you will be able to follow it," and, going out into the hall where his brother's kit was ready for the morning and his own simple outfit with it, he returned with a chart of that sector of the British line where it joined up with the French.
The ormolu clock on the mantelpiece struck half-past twelve before he had finished his lecture, which Mrs. Dashwood followed with the keenest interest, and when at last they got up, the brave little mother clung to him for a moment, very near to the breaking point.
"You will look after Dennis, Bob, as far as you can?" she said in a hushed voice. "He is very young and very impetuous, and regards the whole thing as a glorious game to be played as keenly as he plays rugger."
"You know I will do all I can, darling," he said, taking her face in his hands and kissing it, and then she passed out, and he switched off the lights.
When the drawing-room door closed a figure rose from behind the settee, where he had crouched all the time, and Anton Van Drissel dusted the knees of his khaki trousers.
"Ach Himmel!" he muttered in German. "It is worth a stiff back to have heard what I have heard to-night!"
Off to the Front
He stood quite still for fully five minutes to make sure that they had really gone, and then he stole with catlike tread over the noiseless carpet, and, opening the door, listened again.
The billiard-room was at the opposite end of the vestibule, and, closing the door gently behind him, he switched on the electric light, which revealed Mademoiselle Van Drissel evidently waiting for him.
"What have you learned, Anton?" she whispered in German.
"I have learned everything, my little wife," he replied. "We leave this house to-morrow, as soon as those two fools have gone to catch their boat-train."
"Zo!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands. "I, for one, shall be delighted. I shall have but one regret."
"And what is that, Ottilie?" inquired her husband.
"That I shall not be able to twist the neck of that detestable little pig-dog, Billy, before I go. Ach, Anton, you do not know how I hate the little beast!"
"I do not love him myself," said the spy, seating himself beside her. "Listen, this is a good opportunity for us to talk without interruption, and there is much to be arranged. You will stay in London; I shall cross over to-morrow night from the usual place, for my information must be in the Kaiser's hands without delay. It is now June 20, and the great attack is to take place on the first day of July."
As he spoke he drew out a pocket-book, and the girl leaning over his shoulder read the words he wrote down rapidly while all he had overheard was still fresh in his memory.
"Is it possible?" murmured his female confederate. "Our time has not been wasted after all, then. Our people knew what they were doing when they sent us to this house."
"Our people always know what they are doing," said the sham Belgian, with a cunning leer. "What would you have? A family, the father of which is a brigadier-general at the front; the eldest son also a captain at the front; and the young boy on the point of joining the Army. They were just the very people likely to talk, to say nothing of that greatest fool of all, Uncle Staff Captain, who told me a great deal when he dined here on Wednesday. Ottilie, these English are lunatics, and it is not for nothing that we have opened their letters for the last six months without their discovering it. Still, I must confess I had never expected a piece of luck so complete and so timely as this," and he tapped the notebook in which he had recorded everything.
He stooped towards her and kissed with as much affection as lies in the German nature to bestow upon anyone outside itself, and when he spoke again his whisper was very earnest.
"You had a headache to-night—good. You can make the excuse in the morning to visit the pharmacy in Shaftesbury Avenue. I need not tell you where you will really go. But tell them that word must be sent to Fritz Hoffer to take me off at the old spot at seven o'clock to-morrow night."
"Are you certain of a train that will get you there in time?"
"I shall not bother about trains," he replied. "The Kilburn Rifles are doing coast duty there, and I will borrow Dennis Dashwood's motor-bike ten minutes after their car has left for Charing Cross. I shall be in the vicinity of Folkestone before their train arrives, and may possibly pass them in the Channel."
* * * * *
"Sure everything's in?" said Captain Bob with a keen glance round the hall, which looked so pathetically empty now that the little pile of brown cases had been carried to the car. "Well, time's up. Au revoir, mon lieutenant. I must air my bad French, you know," and he shook hands warmly with the "Belgian officer," who stood bareheaded on the step to see them off. "Hope to meet you over there one of these days. Buck up and get all right, you know."
"We shall meet, never fear; perhaps sooner than you think," said Van Drissel with a quiet smile. "Good-bye and good luck to you both."
Then the skunk saluted, and the car drove off, Mademoiselle Ottilie waving her handkerchief. Now they were gone, and as the three little girls filed back into the hall wiping their eyes, the Van Drissels exchanged a look.
"You have nothing that matters if you leave it behind?" said the man.
"Nothing at all—a refugee is not supposed to have belongings," replied his wife.
"Very well, do not go yet until you have heard me start the engine. Then when I have gone, walk quietly out of the house just as you are. They might trace a taxi."
* * * * *
The motor-car came to a stand outside Charing Cross Station, and Mrs. Dashwood's heart seemed to come to a stand with it. In less than half an hour she knew she would have parted with her boys, perhaps for the last time, but she kept a brave face as Bob helped her out, and they found themselves on the fringe of the busy throng that every day marks the departure of the boat-train.
There were not quite so many people as usual, for nearly all leave had been stopped.
A porter, well over military age, followed them through the barrier on to No. 2 platform, where the long train was waiting. Three men of the Lincolns, loaded with packs and rifles and bulging haversacks, were looking for three seats in the same compartment.
A family of eight, of assorted sizes, were gathered round a short private of the A.S.C., all talking at once. Farther along, a very pale officer of the Northamptons, going out for the first time, stood with three ladies, keeping his end up very well. Three lieutenants going back from short leave, and lucky to get it, stood chattering, with red V's on the back of their tunics, and as he passed them Dennis saw that they belonged to the Northumberland Fusiliers.
Bob had secured places in the Pullman, and they walked along the train until they reached it, and read the name "Clementina, seats 1-19," and when their clobber had been put inside they stood on the curving platform, watching the scene.
A chaplain with three stars on his black shoulder-straps and a pipe in his mouth was talking to a tall curate, and two French officers in the new blue-grey uniform, with black belts and gaiters, gave a touch of unusual colour as they passed backwards and forwards through the groups. One of them had a long beard; the other, a merry little man talking very good English to three friends, wore the red ribbon of the Military Cross on his breast.
Quite a number of British staff officers came along, one with a very purple face, and the three Lincolns, who had been turned out of a second-class carriage, made their way back again in search of a third.
A collector came along and examined the tickets, and everyone drew a little closer to his carriage door.
"Only five minutes now," said Bob, glancing at the clock.
The staff officer with the purple face sat in his corner in the dining-car, but almost everybody else was still out on the platform.
Then the railway officials moved quietly among the little groups, saying: "Time is up, gentlemen. Please take your seats," and the little groups separated, the officers climbing into the carriages.
From the rear of the platform a low whistle sounded, and another official pressed a button close to the clock at the other end and blew a little note himself. That was all, and almost imperceptibly the boat-train glided away, with here and there a wave of a khaki arm, and from the third-class compartments at the end a heedless cheer from some youngsters who were going back again and did not seem to mind.
* * * * *
"What is this, Smithson?" said Mrs. Dashwood, as the parlourmaid handed her an envelope when she reached home.
"Mademoiselle asked me to give it to you as soon as you arrived, ma'am," said the maid, and she opened the letter.
"My husband and I are much obliged to you for your hospitality," the German girl had written in scornful mood. "We shall not trouble you any further, as we have learned all we came to know. Gott strafe the English, and in particular your detestable little boy.
"OTTILIE VAN DRISSEL."
"Good heavens! What vile ingratitude!" exclaimed Mrs. Dashwood. "I have harboured spies!"
* * * * *
A drizzling rain blurred the Channel, and it was high tide.
The lap of the wavelets on the pebbles sounded in the ears of a sentry who swung suddenly round and challenged, rather surprised to see by the scarlet band that the man who had approached to within two paces of him unheard was a staff officer.
"That's all right, my boy, you needn't look so flurried," said the "brass hat." "Do you know if the boat has gone over yet?"
"I ain't seen her, sir, but, then, you can't see much in this drizzle. But I'll tell you what happened last night, sir; them there lights showed again up yonder."
"That is precisely what I have been sent down to investigate," said his interrogator.
"We are all certain there's something going on," said the sentry, "though they ain't been seen for ten days now."
They stood side by side looking inland, and the staff officer, with his hands behind the back of his drab mackintosh, pressed the button of a tiny electric torch rapidly three times.
The sentry was only a boy, and he talked volubly, not heeding the melancholy call of a sea-bird from the water.
"Ah, well, I think we shall have them to-night," said the staff officer. "I see you have still got the old Mark II.?"
"Yes, sir," smiled the unsuspecting lad. "They took the others away from us when we came down on this job."
"Let me look at it," said the staff captain, holding out his hand, and the moment his fingers closed round the rifle the boy dropped senseless on to the stones, felled by a smashing blow from the heavy butt.
"You'll do!" said his assailant, and, laying the rifle down and gathering up the skirts of his mackintosh, he walked deliberately into the sea!
A collapsible boat, rowed by two men in German naval uniforms, was rising and falling on the top of the tide, and in another moment the men were pulling out into the rain blur with their mysterious passenger.
No one spoke, until the nose of the boat met the dark grey hull of the submarine waiting less than a quarter of a mile out, and as the beam of a searchlight suddenly flashed through the mist, the top of the periscope sank noiselessly beneath the waves, and Captain Von Dussel, alias Van Drissel, sank with it.
"Good luck again, Kamerad?" inquired the commander as they stood in the conning-tower.
"The best of good luck this time, Heffer," laughed the spy. "How soon can you put me ashore on the other side?"
"As soon as I have accomplished a little scheme of my own," replied the commander of the U50, with a strange glitter in his eyes. "The boat is coming out of Folkestone now."
"That is not my affair," said Von Dussel.
"No, it is mine," replied the commander haughtily. "In less than an hour I shall send her to the bottom."
"You will do no such thing," said the spy in a low piercing voice, producing a Browning pistol and clapping it to his head. "In an hour I must be in France. The news I carry is worth the loss of forty Channel steamers. Hesitate another moment, and I will shoot you like a dog!"
"At Ten o'Clock Sharp!"
"Sir!" And the marksman of A Company jumped across the floor of the trench to the door of the dug-out with surprising alacrity, as the merry laughing face of Dennis Dashwood showed in the square hole in the wall of the parados.
From the moment Bob Dashwood had made Dennis known to Harry Hawke as "my brother," that worthy had attached himself to the new arrival with the same devotion he showed to the captain, and the more he saw of Dennis the more devoted he became.
"Hawke," said the subaltern, "I'm going over to-night, and I want three old hands to go with me. The Divisional C.O. wishes the enemy wire examined, and I've put in for the job. You can come if you fancy it. What do you say?"
"I says yus!" cried Harry Hawke, with a widening of the grin that puckered his dirty, mahogany-coloured face. "Better let me pick you out two more, sir, what knows the game."
"Right-o!" assented Dennis. "Of course, it all depends on whether their guns start strafing our trench at dusk. If not, and everything is fairly quiet, we'll move out at ten sharp," and he consulted his wristlet watch—Mrs. Dashwood's last present.
"What's this conspiracy? Can't I be in it too?" said a strange voice that made Harry Hawke jump round, ready to salute, but his hand dropped to his side again, for it was only an Australian corporal, who had come along the trench behind him unnoticed.
"Why, Dan, old fellow! Where on earth have you sprung from?" cried Dennis, emerging from his burrow and seizing the outstretched hand as though he never meant to let it go again.
"It isn't a long story, Dennis," laughed the corporal, who was a broad-shouldered young fellow a year or two the boy's senior. "They've just moved our crowd in behind the brigade on your right, and the first person I set eyes on was Uncle Arthur, who happens to know our old man. So, as we are in the reserve trenches and nothing doing, I asked leave to come over here to see you, and got it too. Uncle told me you had only just arrived. How long have you been here?"
"Forty-eight hours," said Dennis. "Come and see my quarters."
His cousin ducked his head and followed him down the three steps that led into the dug-out.
"'Will you walk into my parlour, said the spider to the fly,'" murmured Dan Dunn.
"Quite so," laughed Dennis. "But we haven't room for even a spider's web, though the rats are an infernal nuisance."
"There are worse things in this world than rats," said his cousin, looking round at the little square cave excavated months before by the Germans in the chalky soil, and seating himself on one of the two cots. "Who's your room-mate?"
"My brother Bob. He's our platoon commander, you know. He'll be in presently for tea. But, I say, isn't this just ripping?"
"It's certainly better than Gallipoli," said Dunn with a quiet, retrospective smile. "Gad, Dennis, that was an awful hash up!" And he blew a cloud of tobacco smoke to circle upwards among the shelves and lockers, where all sorts of things were stowed away.
"Beg pardon, sir," said Private Hawke, thrusting his head in at the door. "You didn't answer this gentleman's question. Does he want to come with us to-night?"
"Oh, yes—did you mean that, Dan? It's like this," explained Dennis. "The Boches have been putting up some fresh wire over yonder, and they want to know at D.H.Q. whether it's permanent or temporary. I rather fancy there's a bit of a raid on the cards, and I'm going out to reconnoitre."
"Do I mean it!" laughed his cousin. "As long as I report myself at sun-up it's all right."
"Very well, Hawke, my cousin will go with us."
"Then we'll only want one other man, sir, and I'll warn Tiddler. He can smell Germans in the dark."
"That doesn't take much doing," smiled Dennis. "They're a filthy crowd, anyhow. Ten o'clock sharp! And ask Smithers if that kettle's boiling."
Harry Hawke had scarcely removed his drab figure from the doorway when Captain Dashwood blotted out the light and dived in upon them with a dexterity born of much practice.
His greeting with the Australian cousin was warm enough, but they both saw something unusual in his face as Dan squeezed up on the cot and made room for him.
"Read this, Dennis," he said. "The mater's just sent it over," and he tossed Ottilie's farewell letter across the dug-out.
"The pigs!" cried Dennis hotly. "I can't say it doesn't surprise me, because it does; but, you know, I never tumbled either to the man or to his sister. What does the governor say?"
"He's very sick," replied Bob. "Especially as he gave the whole show away in his letter. Luckily the mater took it from the postman herself, and she doesn't think they can possibly have seen it. But there it is—one never knows. It is the beastly ingratitude that gets over me. The mater rigged that girl out from top to toe, and paid her jolly well, too, and Van Drissel had the run of the house, and then went away with three boxes of the brigadier's cigars into the bargain. A German isn't a human being when you come to look at it—he's just a mean beast, a bully when he's top dog, and a grovelling worm when he's cornered. Does your crush take many prisoners, Dan?"
Dan Dunn smiled, and his faultless teeth gleamed in the coffee-brown of his face.
"Am I compelled to answer that question, your worship?" he said, with an odd twinkle in his grey eyes, but he had already answered it to their complete satisfaction. "Do you?" he said.
"A few Saxons now and again, when they put up their hands," replied Captain Bob. "They're sick to death of the whole business, but Prussians or Bavarians, no. We've 'had some,' and we're not looking for more trouble."
Smithers made his appearance from the adjoining dug-out, which was their kitchen, and when Bob had fixed up the folding table and Dennis had dragged a Tate sugar box, which acted as cupboard, into the centre of the floor, they drank hot tea, which was good, and ate sardines and bread and butter, and finished up with jam, which Dan Dunn passed with an apologetic grin.
"No, thanks; we had enough of that at Anzac," he said. "Forty flies to the spoonful and enteric to follow. Our boys put in a requisition for apricot so that you could see them better, but it didn't come off."
After tea they smoked and talked over things, especially the new divisions that were marching up in a never-ending stream, and the huge shell stores at the artillery dumps, which had struck Dan Dunn very forcibly as his battalion passed them. And then Bob, having duties to attend to, went away in the gathering dusk, and they hung a ground sheet over the door and lit a candle, and Dan, with his huge arms behind his head, told in his quiet drawl of Quinn's Post and Lone Pine, and had hard things to say about the Higher Command, to all of which Dennis listened, enthralled, with his elbows on his knees.
At five minutes to ten by the wristlet watch there came a cough from the other side of the ground sheet, and Dan picked himself up.
"Right-o, Hawke!" called Dennis, with a glance at the watch. "Here's a spare revolver for you, Dan, or would you rather have a rifle?"
"Rifle's in the way if it's a long crawl," said his cousin. "I'll take the Smith and Wesson, old man."
Dennis settled his cap firmly on his head and extinguished the candle. On either side of the door of the dug-out, as they pulled aside the ground sheet and came up the steps, a dark figure loomed—Harry Hawke and his chum, Tiddler.
Against the lighter grey of the sky one could make out the ragged edge of the sandbags, and a little way off the rosy glow from a brazier showed through the trench mist which hung low over the ground.
"The listening post knows we're coming through 'em, sir; they're lying out in front of the bay on the left," volunteered Hawke.
"Very well," said Dennis in a low voice, "the idea is this: we want to strike a bee-line—barring shell holes, of course—straight out to their wire. You and Tiddler will keep twenty yards behind to cover us if necessary, but no firing unless you are absolutely obliged. You understand that?"
Both men whispered "Yus, sir!" in a ready chorus, and Dennis led the way to the bay in the trench, and climbed on to the fire step.
Another figure stood motionless there, his rifle on a sandbag before him, and everything was unusually still.
"Anything moving?" said Dennis, in the man's ear.
"Haven't known it so quiet all the week, sir," was the reply. "But don't forget there's a machine-gun yonder, thirty paces to the left of the willow stump, and they generally shove one of their posts out in front of that, sir."
"I won't forget," said Dennis. "Come on, Dan! Over we go!" And the next moment four dark forms clambered across the parapet and dropped on to their faces on the other side.
A little way out, glued to the ground with their eyes and ears wide open, our listening post lay, and as they crawled towards it one of the men tapped with the toe of his boot to let them know that their coming had been heard.
A long way off to southward, so far that it came only as a dull booming, the German guns were shelling the French lines intermittently, and there was the sharp bark of rifles to the north.
"How long do you calculate it will take us to reach their wire, Baker?" whispered Dennis to the last man of the listening post as he crawled up beside him.
"Somewhere about ten minutes, sir," was the reply. "There's one biggish crump-hole straight ahead, and two more on the left a bit farther on, and there's a tidy lot of dead lying out there."
Shoulder to shoulder Dennis and Dan crept forward across that No Man's Land, the wind rustling in the tangled grass, bringing with it the acrid odour of unburied corpses. Dan's hand encountered one of them, and he nudged his cousin to work away more to the right.
This brought them to the edge of the first crump-hole, and glancing every few yards at the luminous dial, they kept on for some distance unchecked.
"We ought to be on it now," murmured Dennis. "It's a quarter of an hour since we left the listening post." And he felt cautiously to the full extent of his arms, but without encountering an upright standard.
They did not know it, but they had passed through a gap!
"Hold on!" whispered the Australian; "I thought I heard something quite close on the left there."
Dennis heard it, too, at the same moment. It was like the solemn rattle of earth falling into a newly made grave.
"It's only the chalk settling in those other crump-holes Baker warned us about," he said, after they had listened breathlessly for a few moments. "Our two fellows must have gone wide and struck them."
But he was wrong. The crump-holes were on the left, far behind, if they had only known it; and it was from their right rear that a sudden muffled exclamation came out of the stillness.
"'Evins!" said Tiddler, as he felt the sharp barbs of a low-stretched strand bury themselves in the slack of his pants. "'Arry, I'm 'ung up!"
"Shut yer 'ead! What's the trouble?" growled his companion; and as Harry Hawke groped for his mate he shook the strand; the well-known jangle of an empty bully-beef tin warning them all that they had struck one of the simplest expedients of modern warfare, freely used by both sides.
A tin dangling on the barbed wire does not ring like a cracked bell unless somebody touches it; and from the darkness just in front and above their heads, Dan and Dennis heard a guttural whisper, and, realising that they were immediately under the enemy's parapet, lay as flat as playing cards.
"It's those two fellows of mine," breathed Dennis in his cousin's ear. "But how the dickens have we passed the wire without giving the alarm?"
Dan, with recollections of Anzac fresh upon him, remembered that slither of earth from those crump-holes on the left.
"I'll bet you anything there's a party gone out to your trench, and they've shifted a section of the wire to let them through," he replied. "We may meet them on the way back. Don't move! We know, anyhow, that their new wire's not fixed!"
Voices were humming above them now, and the German trench guards were evidently on the alert. Still nothing happened, and Dennis was just congratulating himself that their presence there was unsuspected when there was a sharp sound from the top of the sandbags, and a pistol light soared above their heads, illuminating the darkness.
For a moment everything was distinctly visible, although they themselves were so far hidden by the German sandbags; but as Dennis looked back over his shoulder, he saw the luckless Tiddler lying prone and helpless in the open, and the white face of Hawke telling out strong in the glare.
A hoarse shout from the German trench went up as the pistol flare died down, showing that they had been seen.
"Give us a hand, matey; I ain't 'arf caught!" entreated Tiddler, who, resting principally on his face and one knee, was making violent efforts to disengage himself.
"'Old still!" growled Hawke, producing his nippers and snapping the strand in two places, leaving a short piece about a foot in length embedded in the tough cloth. "Now yer clear; back out of it." And as he seized his rifle a green star-shell soared overhead, and there was an ear-splitting screech above them.
"That's high velocity," whispered Dan Dunn, as they heard the splosh of a heavy shell in rear of the British parapet, followed by a deafening explosion and a red flame. "We've drawn them this time, old man, but I can't make out why these beggars in the trench here don't fire. I'm for making a bolt for it before they start. What do you say?"
Dennis gathered his legs under him, and signalled with his arm to Hawke and Tiddler to go back, and expecting nothing but death for themselves, the two cousins suddenly jumped up under the very noses of the men lining the parapet behind them, and sprinted for the gap in the barbed wire.
One bullet sang by Dan's ear, and another spurted up the chalk dust a few feet ahead of Dennis, and as the vicious rat-tat of the machine-gun farther down the trench opened, they found themselves at the edge of a deep crump-hole, into which they rolled.
It was cover from the machine-gun, at any rate, but a cry of surprise broke from the young lieutenant's lips as he landed on something soft at the bottom of the hole, something which gripped him with a similar cry of surprise.
* * * * *
A shell-burst eighty yards away drowned the crack of Dan Dunn's revolver, and two out of the three Germans who had taken refuge in the same place rolled back and lay very still, just as another star-shell, a bright white one this time, broke above them and lit up the hole like day.
His First Time Under Fire
Over the edge leapt Hawke and his companion, and Hawke shortened his bayonet as he saw his idol's brother clutching the Saxon in tight embrace.
"Stand clear, sir!" he shouted, but the German's hands went up above his head, and in a quavering voice he cried, "Kamerad! Mercy, officer! I am married with two little ones, and this hateful war is not my fault!"
Harry Hawke's bayonet was only half its length from the man's ribs when Dennis put it aside.
"Strewth, Tiddler! I can't see no difference myself between one Boche and another," grumbled Hawke. "It's one more prisoner to feed, and Lloyd George talks about economy."
"I will tell you," said the Saxon, crouching down as half a dozen shells in quick succession hummed overhead. "We were sent out to reconnoitre your trench. You passed us just now, and we hid ourselves here. There is going to be an attack in a few minutes, only you gave the alarm a little sooner."
"Do you hear that, Dan?" said Dennis. "We must let them know somehow."
"Hum! If we'd nine lives apiece like a cat there might be some sense in risking eight of them," said the Australian corporal. "But it's no good stirring out of this hole just yet. Look at that!"
A perfect hurricane of shells was going over now, and the air was filled with a succession of explosions.
"They're firing shrapnel!" shouted Tiddler in Dennis's ear. "You can tell by the white burst and the sound of the flying balls, but we're safe enough in here for the present."
He dropped into a sitting position as he spoke, and instantly sprang up again with a yell.
"Are you hit?" said Dennis, feeling himself turn pale.
"No, I ain't hit, sir, but I'm 'urt. You don't do your jobs 'arf properly, 'Arry!" And he exhibited the piece of barbed wire on which, forgetting all about it, Tiddler had sat down heavily.
Hawke's uproarious laughter as he disengaged the offending thing sounded oddly to Dennis in the midst of that fearful din that shook the ground and brought the chalk rattling down into the hollow, but it was the first time he had been under fire, and he was yet to learn the absolute disregard of danger which the best and worst alike learn in the trenches.
"What's the strength of the attack?" said Dan Dunn to their prisoner, while the two privates went through the pockets of the men he had shot.
"Three battalions of us, and we were told the Brandenburgers were to be brought up in reserve," replied the Saxon. "Look! they are beginning now. That is a smoke shell that has just burst to cover our advance, and the other guns have ceased."
A dense white cloud rolled along the ground in front of the crump-hole, and Hawke and Tiddler instantly faced round, gripping their rifles as they looked up the jagged slope behind them.
"Don't say no this time, sir," said the Cockney private, "or there'll be a rare shermozzle darn 'ere if some of the blighters come on top of us in the dark."
"You can do as you like, Hawke," replied Dennis abstractedly. "But, I say, Dan, I can't stick this any longer. I wonder if our chaps would hear us if we shouted together?"
"Don't shout!" said the Saxon, pulling his sleeve. "See, they are going past now."
Looking up, Dennis made out a bunch of men against the smoke cloud passing on either side of their hole, and his impulse was to scramble up out of it and empty his revolver into their midst.
"What's the northernmost limit of the attack just here?" he said to the Saxon, speaking in such excellent German that the man was obviously surprised.
"Ten yards this side of the machine-gun, Herr Officer, and they will keep well within it," he added. "They are Prussians on that gun, and they don't care who they kill as long as they hit somebody."
"Look here, Dan, you can stay where you are if you like," said Dennis. "I'm off!"
"Wait a moment—don't be an ass," expostulated his cousin. "What's your plan? I'm with you if there's an earthly chance of doing anything."
"It's this," replied Dennis, slipping his revolver back into its case. "The top of our parapet is a couple of feet higher than that machine-gun emplacement. I noticed that yesterday. I'm going to crawl out under the line of their fire, and I'll bet you I'm back in our trench in ten minutes."
"It's risky," said his cousin. "But not as bad as Lone Pine. What about the prisoner?"
"If I am alive and we have not carried your trench," said the Saxon very earnestly, "I shall report myself to your people before daybreak."
"All right, that's a promise," said Dennis, and he climbed cautiously up to the lip of the hole and peeped over.
A wave of the enemy had just passed on, swallowed up in the dense vapour of the smoke-bombs, and as the two cousins flung themselves on their faces they heard the Lee-Enfields opening from their own trench.
So long as the smoke lasted they were safe from detection, but the whole air seemed alive with singing bullets, and Dennis felt a jar all along his right side as one of our own shots carried off the heel of his boot.
"Keep your direction, for Heaven's sake!" he called over his shoulder. "We've a hundred yards to go in a straight line," and then no one spoke, as the quartet wormed themselves on their stomachs as fast as they could crawl, parallel with the two trench lines which bordered that strip of No Man's Land.
Tiddler's bayonet was wrenched from the muzzle of his rifle, and a bullet chipped the brim of Hawke's steel helmet.
"Now look out for yourselves," called Dennis. "We're level with the gun," and, trying to squeeze themselves flatter, if such a performance had been humanly possible, they heard the rhythmical tac-tac abreast of them and the weird whistle of the deadly stream of bullets a few feet above their heads.
"That's better," said Dan Dunn when they had left it behind them. "Where shall we turn off, old chap?"
"Not yet," replied Dennis through his clenched teeth. "A bit farther, and then we shall have to face the music of our own men. That's why I'd rather have come on this job alone."
"Are you playing up for the V.C.?" he heard his cousin say, but he made no answer, and at the end of another couple of minutes he paused to take breath.
"Talk abart a bloomin' obstacle race—I got fust prize at Aldershot at the regimental sports—but this 'ere takes the cake," said Harry Hawke, as he and Tiddler overtook them.
"Hawke!" said Dennis sharply, "we're going to turn here and make for our own trench. Do you know any signal or any call that would prevent our platoon blazing at us?"
"Let's get a bit nearer fust," replied Harry Hawke. "Then I'll tip 'em a whistle. Wust of it is, the Boches are so bloomin' ikey—they 'aven't 'arf played us up before—but we'll try it on," and he said something to his companion.
Still on their faces, but swinging round at right angles now, the little party groped its perilous way towards their own sandbags, hearing the roar of the fight apparently limited in their direction by the spot on which the German machine-gun was working.
In front of them all was quiet.
The whole air trembled with the roar of firing, but perhaps the most trying thing to the nerves was the sudden transition from brilliant glare to black darkness in the momentary intervals between the extinguishing of one star-shell and the bursting of the next. For an instant they would see the line of their trench standing out as clear as at noonday, with the glint of bayonets above the sandbags, and then it would be blotted out, to be lit up again the next moment.
When they had crawled to within fifty yards of it, Harry Hawke thrust two fingers into his gash of a mouth and let loose a piercing whistle.
"Now, Tiddler, pipe up!" he shouted, and their two voices rose in a discordant rendering of a popular trench song, their rifles waving wildly the while.
At any other time Dennis would have been constrained to laugh at the incongruity of their choice, but Harry Hawke knew what he was doing, and that no German could have imitated the Cockney twang in which they brayed their chant at the top of their strident voices.
"There's a silver linin'—froo the dyark clard shinin', Turn the dyark clard inside art till the boys come 'ome!"
they howled, and as a fresh star-shell lit up the trench they saw a man in khaki thrust his head and shoulders over the topmost bag and look under his hand in their direction.
"Cut it out, 'Arry—there's Ginger Bill, and 'e's 'eard!" cried Tiddler, jumping to his feet. "Run for all you're worth, sir!"
His companions needed no second bidding, and in another minute they were clambering up the outer face of the parapet and falling in a heap on to the fire step inside.
"Well, I'm blowed!" said Ginger Bill, as they picked themselves up.
"And you ain't the only one," panted Harry Hawke. "Where's the other chaps?"
And then he saw that Ginger Bill was bleeding badly.
"Ordered over there at the double—ain't none of you got any ears?" said Ginger Bill, pointing to the hand-to-hand scrimmage which seemed to end in front of the Dashwoods' dug-out.
Harry Hawke, very excusably overstepping the deference due to commissioned rank, clutched the skirt of Dennis's tunic and nearly pulled him backwards.
"We four ain't no good, sir, in that scrum, but there's a shell-proof bomb store not a minute's run down this 'ere traverse. We could give 'em socks then!"
"Bravo, Hawke!" shouted Dennis. "Come on, Dan; he's right!" And they tore along the traverse like men possessed.
Back they came, Hawke and Tiddler girdled with a belt of racket bombs, Dennis and Dan Dunn each laden with two bags of that deadly variety so handy to the arm of the bowler.
Ginger Bill gave them a cheer as they went past him, but they heard nothing and saw nothing but that solid mass of grey German uniforms, wedged like herrings in a barrel where they had no right to be—in a British trench!
Without a moment's hesitation Dennis sprang on to the parados, and hurled bomb after bomb with perfect aim into the grey mass, which instantly began to yell and squirm as panic seized it. Nothing human could withstand that terrific shower that rained upon the victorious Saxons, who had been recovering their second wind; and as a lucky shell from one of our 18-pounders put the Prussian machine-gun out of action, Dan Dunn mounted the parapet, leaving the trench clear for Hawke and Tiddler.
The four advanced steadily, bombing as they went.
"Hold on!" sang a voice as Dennis reached the mouth of the next traverse. And, looking down, he saw that it was Bob who spoke, and behind him thirty or forty men of the platoon, who had been forced to take refuge there from the overwhelming rush of the enemy.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" cried the captain, darting out, revolver in hand. "Come on, boys! The bombers have got a move on them; it's our turn now!" And as Dennis launched a long ball, the men of the platoon poured out into the trench again and clambered over the hideous carpet of dead and dying.
Without hesitation Dennis leapt across the traverse, and was soon at the head of the bayonet party, Dan Dunn keeping neck and neck with him on the parapet, and only when he groped to the bottom of his second bag and found it empty did he jump down and flatten himself against the side of the trench.
"Here, what's wrong?" he shouted, as his own men came pouring back.
"Order's come to retire, sir; we've got to fall back on the next trench!" cried a panting private.
"Oh, hang it! I thought we'd got the beggars out!" exclaimed the lad, almost overthrown by the jostling crowd with packs and rifles that streamed past him. "I wonder what's become of Bob?"
Tiddler and Harry Hawke were nowhere to be seen, and Bob was equally invisible; but there could be no doubt about the order, for a staff-captain, his uniform stained with the white chalk, came running along the trench, crying: "Retire! Hurry up, there! Here come the Bavarians!"
"But I say, sir," expostulated Dennis, "isn't this all wrong? We've piled the Saxons up six deep behind us yonder, and surely we can hold on here?"
"The order has been given by the Brigade Commander. Who the deuce are you, young man, to dispute it?" thundered the staff-captain furiously.
Dan Dunn saw his cousin's eyes suddenly blaze and his clear-cut face turn crimson as he whipped out his revolver and covered the speaker!
The Australian's first impression was that in the excitement of it all his cousin had gone stark staring mad—he had seen such things happen in Anzac.
"Great Scott, Den! Do you know what you're doing?" he yelled, flinging his powerful arms round him.
But he was too late. The barrel of the revolver gleamed blue in the lurid glare of a big H.E. which burst behind them, and Dennis had already pressed the trigger!
How Dennis Came in for a Taste of Dispatch Riding
The staff cap, with its scarlet band and gold-edged peak, spun round in the air and dropped half a dozen yards away, as its late wearer sprang on to the parapet and vanished out of sight.
"Great Scott! Are you mad, Dennis?" shouted Dan, still holding him tightly; but there was no madness in the boy's face as he turned it to his cousin.
"You blithering ass! You seventeen different assorted kinds of an utter idiot!" yelled Dennis. "I know that man—he is a German spy, and you've made me miss him!"
Dan Dunn's arms released their grip and fell nerveless to his sides.
"Old chap!" he exclaimed in a voice of bitter regret. "How was I possibly to tell that? Perhaps it's not too late now!" And he bounded on to the sandbags, but there was no sign of Anton van Drissel.
For a moment they leaned side by side over the parapet, trying to penetrate the darkness that once more enveloped No Man's Land, and then as Captain Bob came hurrying up, blowing his whistle for all he was worth to recall the retiring platoon, Dennis drew his own, and the shrill signal brought the men tumbling back again into the fire trench.
"Line up!" cried the captain as Dennis and Dan, both speaking at once, told him what had happened.
"I knew something had gone wrong," said Bob bitterly. "What a thousand pities the skunk got clear! Well, it's no use crying over spilt milk, and the artillery's on them now. Do you hear that?"
The momentary lull was broken by a tremendous booming from our guns in the rear, and a hurricane of shells began to burst on the German front line trench and the ground beyond it, a steady, systematic bombardment, which grew in volume and increased in intensity.
"Do I hear it?" shouted Dennis. "One can't help hearing it. What do you mean?"
"I mean," replied his brother, making himself heard with considerable difficulty, "that it is the beginning of the artillery preparation, which will continue day and night without ceasing for the next week. After that the great push is coming. That is what I mean!"
The 18-pounders, the 9.2's, the big howitzers farther to the rear—guns of every kind and calibre blended in one infernal concert, which extended for more than eighty miles, from the Yser to the Somme.
"If those Brandenburgers are wise they'll stay where they are to-night," said the Australian corporal. "Hallo, Fritz! Why, Dennis, here's your prisoner, after all."
A white-faced man, crying "Kamerad!" at the top of his voice, climbed in over the sandbags, trembling like a leaf, and Dennis saw that it was indeed the Saxon he had captured at the bottom of the crump-hole over there.
"I told you I would come," said the prisoner. "I am sick of it all—it is horrible. The Emperor is a man without heart. He takes good care to keep out of harm's way, and sends us to our death by the thousand. Himmel! Look! This was my company!" And he lifted his quivering hands as he saw the litter of corpses that filled the trench from side to side. "We are told that you kill all prisoners and all the wounded, but I do not believe that. They feed us on lies and very little bread, while our officers have wine and even pianos in their dug-outs," and the nerve-shattered man burst into tears.
Captain Bob was in the act of giving instructions to one of his sergeants to pass the deserter to the rear, when another "brass hat" came along the trench—the genuine article this time, and one of the best, for it was Brigadier-General Dashwood himself, followed by his brigade-major.
The brigadier was a thick-set, soldierly looking man, fit as a fiddle in spite of the grey hairs which mingled with his brown moustache, and his eyes lit up as he saw his two sons still safe and well.
He was not one of those officers who paid a hasty visit now and then to the lines, ducking his head when his guide said, "Duck, sir!" where the wall of the traverse was low, and who, after a perfunctory glance about him through a gold-rimmed monocle went back again to headquarters, "having seen nothing and learned nothing." General Dashwood knew that he had a certain section of the front to defend, and did his work thoroughly, and the whisper often ran along the fire trench by night as well as day: "Look out, boys, here's the brigadier!"
He listened to all they had to tell him, and questioned the deserter closely, turning to his brigade-major several times and exchanging a meaning nod.
"The battalion has done very well, but that is nothing new," he said with a proud smile. "Still, it won't hurt them to hear my opinion. You'd better come with me, Dennis; there'll be nothing more doing here to-night, and I want someone to go to Divisional Headquarters with a message. You'll be back at your post by daylight," and, after picking his way along the trench to the far end and examining the German line carefully through a periscope, he returned, to find the men of Bob's platoon lifting out the dead Saxons and laying them on the reverse side of the parados to await the arrival of the sanitary squad with their picks and shovels.
"Well, so long, old chap," said Dan Dunn, as Dennis passed him. "I've enjoyed my visit. When you look me up I hope we shall be able to give you an equally good time. Fearfully sorry I spoiled your shot."
The cousins shook hands, and as Dennis followed his father and the brigade-major, Bob carried Dan into their dug-out, where he found that Australian panacea for all evils—hot tea.
It was only a short walk to Brigade Headquarters, a couple of cottages by the roadside under the lee of a rising bank which had so far preserved them from the German shells. One red lamp burned there, and a sentinel stood by the doorway, leaning on his rifle.
"I'm sorry you have got that confounded cigarette habit so soon," said Dashwood senior with a dry smile. "But you will find a box on that table, and you can amuse yourself while we get out a report."
Dennis looked round the bare little room, contrasting it with their luxurious home in London. A flagged map was pinned on one wall, some British warms and mackintoshes hung on pegs, a couple of field bedsteads, whose disarranged blankets showed that they had been hastily left when the alarm was given, occupied one end, everything else was bare and comfortless.
Standing in the doorway, Dennis heard the click of a typewriter, and could not help catching some of the report as his father paced backwards and forwards, filling a pipe with his favourite mixture as he dictated.
"Three Saxon battalions delivered a surprise attack at 10.35 to-night, and one of them succeeded in penetrating my first line trench, No. ——, through the failure of a machine-gun, which was put out of action by an H.E.," began the brigadier. "The 2/12th Royal Reedshire Battalion, Platoons 1 and 2, behaved with great gallantry, and scarcely a man of the enemy was left alive. The bodies were lying six deep when I visited the position. Some confusion was caused by a German in British staff uniform making his way along the trench shouting 'Retire!' but I have the honour to report that through the initiative of Second-Lieutenant Dashwood, of the battalion, and Corporal Daniel Dunn, of the Australians, gallantly supported by two privates, whose names I shall forward later on, and who successfully bombed the enemy, the attack completely broke down, and was not supported by the Brandenburg Division, which, I am informed by a prisoner, was waiting in reserve."
When Dennis heard his own name mentioned he stepped out into the darkness with a strange tingling all over him. It seemed like eavesdropping to listen any more, but he knew that proud thrill in his father's voice, and the boy's heart beat high with a great happiness.
Some horses, picketed under the lee of the bank, fidgeted at their shackles, and over everything was the thunder of that incessant bombardment which, as Bob had said, was to go on night and day. He was watching the shrapnel bursting in the distance far over the German lines, where our guns were delivering a barrage fire to isolate the front enemy trenches from food and supports, when the sentry called to him.
"The general is asking for you, sir," said the man, and Dennis stepped back and re-entered the cottage.
"Here you are, my boy," said his father. "You know the way to Divisional Headquarters. There are a couple of motor-cycles standing at the end of the cottage, take your pick and away with you."
"You will find the road has been badly shelled at the next village," said the brigade-major, holding up his map-case and tracing the route Dennis would have to follow. "And here, at this point, the supply column got it rather badly earlier in the night—there may be wagons still lying about. When you've passed that it's all plain sailing."
"Do I report to you, sir, on my return?" inquired the boy.
"Yes," said the brigadier. "Then you can leave the bike and rejoin your company. I could have 'phoned this, but it's all experience, and may stand you in good stead."
Perhaps the brigade-major, as he nodded a cheery good night, understood the father's wish to place the youngster out of danger, if it were only for a few hours, but as Dennis swung into the saddle and waved his hand, neither he nor the brigadier foresaw the things that were going to happen.
The road was a fairly straight one, and Dennis found the shell holes without difficulty, shutting off his engine only just in time as he plunged down into the first of them like Quintus Curtius of old.
"Hang it, that's a bad start," he laughed when he found the machine had sustained no injury, but it took him a good five minutes to get it up again, and after that he was more careful.
A little farther on he encountered a supply column of the A.S.C., and coasted by them without much difficulty, until at last a red lantern gleaming above a green one told him that he had reached Divisional Headquarters.
There he found the staff busy, and a good deal of quiet bustle as the various brigade commanders' reports arrived, and a telegraphic operator in a shell-proof dug-out was transmitting the night's news to Sir Douglas Haig at ——.
Dennis handed in his dispatch, which was duly read by the lieutenant-general commanding the division, a florid officer with a white moustache, who held the communication in one hand while he rubbed his chin thoughtfully with the other.
"Where is the officer from General Dashwood?" he inquired suddenly, and word was passed for Dennis.
The divisional general looked him up and down for a moment, and his brow cleared. "If you are not wanted immediately I should like you to carry a query for me to the officer commanding the brigade on the right of the division," he said. "There is something I do not quite understand in his report, and unfortunately, the field wire has broken down somewhere and we can't get through to him. Is your machine in order?"
"Yes, sir," said Dennis, and the general turned to a shorthand clerk.
"Just take this down, will you? And type it out quickly," he said, and he rapidly dictated to the man.
"Captain Thompson," he said when he had finished, "kindly explain to this officer how he is to reach Donaldson," and the staff captain took the young lieutenant to the large scale map at the end of the room, where everything was marked out in squares, each numbered and lettered.
The captain was lucid, and Dennis quick of intelligence, and in less than five minutes from entering the room he was turning his cycle round and darting off on his new mission.
A Terrible Adventure at Dawn
The Divisional Headquarters had been fixed at a spot where several roads branched off like the sticks of a fan, and the one Dennis followed was a typical French chaussee, paved down the centre and bordered on either side by tall trees.
It had been a good deal cut up by the passage of distribution columns, but its surface was fairly free from shell holes, and he covered the distance without much difficulty, a slight drizzle blowing in his face as he hung low over the handle-bars with his eyes fixed on the acetylene beam in front of him.
A man riding in the opposite direction whizzed past with a shout of, "Cheer-oh!" and he was not challenged until he drew near the brigade.
"Thought there was something wrong with the wire," said the C.O. "I've been trying to get through for the last half-hour."
"A wiring party went out just before I left, sir, to look for the damage," said Dennis.
"Very well, take this back to the general—that will tell him all he wants to know," and Dennis retraced his way, rather enjoying the ride, although it had not proved particularly exciting so far.
But the excitement was to come. Overhead the scream and whistle of our shells never ceased, but he was growing used to the thunder of the bombardment, until there was an explosion not far ahead in the centre of the road, and he slowed down with a glance over his shoulder.
"That's the enemy replying," he murmured, as another shell fell in the dark fields on the left, and another and another, so quickly that he lost count of them.
"Bit of a danger zone, this," he thought. "The sooner I'm through it the better," but as his thumb sought a lever there was a blinding flash very close to him, and following on the heels of the explosion he felt his machine quiver and the front tyre burst with a report like a rifle shot.
"By Jingo! I'm done," he cried, jumping off as his head-lamp went out. "That's shrapnel. Now what's to be done? The tyre's in ribbons!"
As he looked ahead his heart gave a bound as he saw a motor-car pull up some forty yards away and the driver spring out on to the road. Dennis left the damaged cycle where it was and ran forward.
"I say, I'm in no end of a hat, chauffeur. Can you give me a hand?" he cried.
The man stared at him with a white face, apparently dazed, and replied in a shaky voice: "Can you give me a hand, sir? Look at this!" and unshipping one of his lamps he turned the light on to the car.
Sitting rigidly erect was the body of a staff officer, decapitated.
"Great heavens!" exclaimed Dennis, bending over with eyes of horror as he recognised the officer who less than half an hour before had shown him his own route at Divisional Headquarters. "It's Captain Thompson!"
"It was Captain Thompson, and one of the nicest gentlemen I've ever driven," said the man. "I don't know what to do. He told me he was taking a message to the French general on the other side of Hardecourt, and that it was of the very greatest importance. We were doing sixty miles an hour, even on this road, when that shell copped us."
There were sobs in the man's voice as he pointed to the leather dispatch-case still clutched tightly in the dead hand.
"Look here," said Dennis. "My machine's smashed up. How long would it take you to reach the French lines?"
"A quarter of an hour—twenty minutes at the outside. But what's the good of that, sir? I can't speak a word of their blooming language."
"I can," said Dennis, gently disengaging the wallet. "I'll carry the dispatch, and I'll drive if you like, if your nerve's gone."
"My nerve's all right, sir. Haven't any left after eighteen months of this job," and as Dennis climbed into the front seat, the chauffeur turned the handle over and the engine began to whir.
It was good to turn one's back on that hideous thing, and when they heard the headless trunk topple over on to the floor of the car behind them, both shivered, and the chauffeur's knuckles stood out white as he gripped the steering-wheel.
"I've seen two officers, one a brigadier-general, treated the same way, and their shover huddled forward against the screen dead as a door nail," said the man. "That was up near St. Julien, when Princess Pat's got wiped out; but it sort of hits you when you know the man, and this was his own car too. You'd better have your papers ready now, sir; they'll stop us at yonder white house."
The examining post at the little cabaret detained them, but did not hold them up more than a moment or so.
"A dispatch for Monsieur le General," said Dennis to the sergeant in charge, who recoiled as he saw the tragedy that had taken place.
"Decapite, mon Dieu!" he exclaimed. "Pass, mon lieutenant," and they proceeded, leaving a red pool on the road where the car had halted.
While Dennis was inside the farmhouse a crowd of commiserating officers surrounded the car, and they would have rid it of its grim burden and interred poor Thompson among the little harvest of rude crosses that marked where their own dead were laid, but when one of them, who spoke English, suggested so doing, the chauffeur said "No."
"Beg your pardon, sir, but he'll be better buried in our own lines, where they'll give him the Last Post and all that." He was protesting when Dennis came out again quickly.
"It's a very good thing we took the bull by the horns," he said. "That message was tremendously important, and the general has been good enough to say all kinds of nice things about our bringing it along. We've got to go back top speed to Divisional Headquarters," and he stepped in.
All the officers saluted the dead man as the motor started on its return journey, and already the darkness was giving place before a ghostly grey feeling in the east, which was not light as yet, but heralded the near approach of dawn.
The chauffeur turned up his coat collar, for it had grown very cold, and he could not get rid of the oppression of that dread something which they were carrying—that something which a short hour before had been so full of life and vigour and kindly thought for all with whom it had come in contact.
"I shall put in for a rest after this," said the man as they repassed the post at the cabaret, and he opened out the engines. "They tell me there's going to be a week of this firing, and upon my sam, I don't think I can stand it now!"
"I suppose one gets used to the guns," said Dennis. "But what an infernal row they make!"
"Been out here long, sir?" said the chauffeur, whose quick eye had detected the newness of his companion's uniform, notwithstanding the chalk stains which were the result of his adventure earlier in the evening.
"As a matter of fact, I haven't been up at the front three days yet, but, of course, I've done a lot of training at Romford with the Artists'," replied Dennis.
"Lord! you don't know you're born yet, in a manner of speaking, sir," said the driver with a little toss of his head. "You've got a lot to go through before you've seen as much as I have. Blow 'em! Those Boches are still at it," and he craned his head forward over his wheel. "They've got the range of this blooming road to a T. I don't funk risks, but it's madness to shove ahead through that!" And he slowed the car down as a rain of shells crashed among the trees in front of them, bringing half a dozen tall poplars down on to the road itself, while the whole terrain to their left hand was alive with bursts of high explosives.
"Well, what's to be done? I must reach the general at once. Isn't there another way round?"
"There's only this turning on the right, sir," replied the man. "It seems to be pretty clear, and it will run us close behind our own line. I've been there before, and we can double back past General Dashwood's headquarters."
"Right-o!" assented Dennis eagerly, and the car swung into a narrow track between two swelling rises that had not long before been peaceful farm land under cultivation.
It was little more than a cart track, and they plunged and swayed like a boat on a choppy sea, the wheels now mounting the bank at a dangerous angle in the uncertain light of the dawn.
"It's better going a bit farther ahead," said the chauffeur. "You sit tight, and I'll bring you through somehow."
The words had scarcely left his lips when everything seemed to be suddenly swallowed up in a soul-terrifying roar. A vivid orange flame rose skyward, and as Dennis soared upward through the air and fell with a plump into a field of beetroot, the world turned black and he lost consciousness.
How long he lay he did not know, but when he opened his eyes it was almost light, and the face of his wristlet watch had been smashed to atoms.
For a few seconds he remained quite still, not daring to move from fear of what movement might tell him, but at last, sitting up, he felt himself all over and breathed a sigh of deep thankfulness to find that he had no bones broken.
He remembered that they had been running into an avenue where the trees met overhead and formed a species of tunnel, and the avenue was still there before him, one of the poplars headless like poor Captain Thompson, and showing a great white scar where the shell had caught it.
And then he rose to his feet, to find himself half a dozen yards from the narrow road, his heart standing still as he saw the mangled chassis of the motor, entirely stripped of its body works, reared up on one end at the edge of the crater.
The whole road seemed to have been scooped out to the depth of several feet, and how he had escaped destruction was little short of miraculous. The skirt of his own tunic was rent to rags and ribbons, his Sam Browne belt, map-case, and glasses were gone, and the French general's message with them, and a great sob shook the lad as he walked slowly to the ruined car.
The first thing he saw was a human leg swathed to the knee in a stained puttee, and a stride farther on was the rest of his companion, so shockingly mutilated that it was only with an effort he could bring himself to examine it.
"Poor chap, poor chap!" he muttered. "An end like this after eighteen months at the wheel!"
There was no trace of the captain's body; it was probably buried deep in the shell hole, or else plastered far and wide over the hillside with the debris of the motor.
He stooped and opened the chauffeur's coat, which bulged suggestively, and drew out a little case containing his identification papers and driver's licence, perhaps also letters from home.
Pulling himself together, he placed the case in one of his own breast pockets which had escaped injury, with a soldier's "small book" he had picked up from one of the dead Saxons in their own trench as a memento to send home to his mother, and then he looked about him, without seeing sign or trace of living thing or human habitation.
There was a green wheatfield on his right hand, from which the mist was curling away, and in the glory of the dawn overhead the larks were trilling. A patch of scarlet poppies was almost startling in its vividness, and beyond the poppies a long ribbon of yellow mustard was backed by a thick wood.
"Where on earth am I?" was the thought that passed through his brain. "This poor chap said the road would bring us near to our firing line, and I may be able to borrow another motor-bike there. I must return to the French headquarters and get that message duplicated, or I'm not worth my salt."
He straightened one of his leggings which had been twisted round, and, skirting the shell hole, started out on his voyage of discovery, feeling rather dizzy at first, but surprised to find that his cap was still upon his head, for he had not yet been served out with a trench helmet.
The narrow way wound along the edge of the wood through a hollow, the banks of which were clothed with purple scabious, and he had gone some distance before he thought of taking his bearings by the sun, which showed him that he was heading due south.
"I'm on the right road, anyhow," he muttered, and then he suddenly stopped and crouched low.
In the mist wreath that still filled the hollow he had caught sight of a figure in uniform, which recalled the field grey of the Saxon. The man was standing motionless beside a clump of trees that tufted the skyline, and, uncertain whether he could gain the shelter of the wood behind him unseen, Dennis was looking backwards over his shoulder when the decision was taken very unexpectedly out of his hands by the appearance of another man, who suddenly covered him with a rifle from the bank top not a yard away, and challenged him in German.
"Wer da!" said the man, and although he recognised that his interrogator was wearing a French uniform, Dennis unthinkingly replied to the question in German also.
"I am an English officer," he said. "Perhaps you will be good enough to direct me to our nearest brigade."
The man rose slowly from the wet wheat which had concealed his coming, and, still covering Dennis with his rifle, slid down the bank until he was within arm's length, a thick-set Alsatian corporal, powerful as a bull.
"So," he said with a short laugh, as he seized Dennis by the collar. "You are an English officer, are you? We shall see. We had one of your sort through our lines yesterday—a staff captain, who gave us orders from the British general which turned out to be false. Come along, my pig. We will see what our captain has to say to you. English officers do not speak German with a Prussian accent. You are a Boche, I tell you; and you will breakfast off ball cartridge unless I am very wrong!"
A Friend in Need
Dennis Dashwood laughed aloud, but though there was genuine amusement in his voice at the beginning, it quickly tailed off into a broken quiver, for the lad was still suffering from the effect of the shell burst.
"You will laugh on the other side of your mouth directly, if I know anything," said his captor gravely.
"I am quite content to leave that to the judgment of your officer, my friend," replied Dennis in French. "But have the goodness not to shake me like a rat. I've got a splitting headache as it is."
"Ha, you spies speak all languages. Ma foi! What a lot of clever scoundrels you are!" grunted the Alsatian corporal. "What a pity, for you have not got a really bad face when one comes to look at it."
"Is it far to your headquarters?" inquired his prisoner wearily.
"Not far, so you had better make the most of it. It will be your last walk on earth. How beautiful is the song of the lark! The little animals do not seem to mind the gunfire at all. Do you have larks in Prussia?"
"I hope we shall, my corporal, when you and I get there with our battalions," but the corporal was impervious to the harmless jest, and squared his shoulders as they came in sight of his commander's post.
The other man whom Dennis had seen on the slope had come down and joined them, and the pair marched their prisoner in with a brisk, businesslike stride.
The French trench ended, or began, whichever way you like to take it, in a wood of oaks, and the smoke of many fires drifted among the tree-trunks. At the door of a dug-out a group of officers sat round a trestle table taking their coffee, and they all looked up as the corporal cried, "Halt, prisoner!" and saluted with his rifle.
"Mon Commandant, I found this man hiding by the roadside behind yonder. He speaks German and French and all the languages under the sun, and I am convinced he is a spy."
The commandant was a spare, black-bearded man, whose uniform of horizon blue gave one rather the impression that it had been made by a dressmaker, but on the left breast was a little strip of crimson and green ribbon, showing that he had won the Military Cross during the war. He had black leggings and narrow black belts, and the wristbands of his shirt were spotlessly clean.
"What have you to say for yourself, prisoner?" said the commandant, eyeing him keenly from top to toe, through the chalk and dirt that encrusted him, and Dennis in excellent French told him who he was.
"Where is the dispatch of which you speak?" was the next question, and Dennis pointed to his torn tunic. "It was destroyed when the car was blown up, Monsieur le Commandant," he replied.
"But you must still have some proofs of your identity. What is that in his pocket?" And the commandant, who had lit a cigarette, pointed with the match.
The corporal thrust his hand into the drab tunic and produced two things which he laid on the table by the long loaf from which the officers had cut slices to dip in their coffee.
"Ha!" said the commandant, opening the wallet. "You told me your name was Dashwood, but here it is given as Alfred Robinson."
"I brought that away from the body of the man who drove me," explained Dennis. "That is the English chauffeur's licence from Scotland Yard."
"And this?" continued the officer, his face becoming graver as he examined the German soldier's "small book." "Here you are described as Hans Schrettelmeyer, Private in the 24th Reserve Battalion of the 108th Saxons; how do you account for it?"
"That I picked up in the fire trench of my own battalion when we repulsed the attack last night," said Dennis, drawing himself up a little and colouring indignantly as he found his position becoming serious.
"Oh, come, you are evidently fond of picking things up, my friend," said the commandant with a dry smile. "Is there anything else that you have found that will help you?"
"I have my own identification disc," said the lad hotly, and then he bit his lips as he groped between his shirt and undervest.
"Unfortunately, monsieur, it has also gone!" he exclaimed, turning pale.
"Ah, well, I do not think we want it," said the commandant, tilting his chair backwards. "We have had several of your kind prowling about our lines lately—one only last night, and an example is necessary. You are a spy, my friend, and that is the end of the matter."
"Look here, sir, this is all bosh!" exclaimed Dennis hotly in his own language, realising for the first time that appearances were dead against him.
"Quite right, my boy," laughed one of the other officers in English. "You are all Boche. I think there is very little doubt about that."
The commandant leaned across the table and said something in a low voice to the others, and they all nodded.
"May I be permitted to make an observation, sir?" said the lad.
"With pleasure," replied the commandant, bowing politely.
"A very short question over your wire to Monsieur le General commanding this army corps will convince you that I am what I tell you I am," said Dennis.
"Even if I thought there were any necessity it would, unfortunately, be impossible," said the commandant in a cold voice. "Your wires are not the only ones that suffer, and ours has undergone some damage during the night. It may be two hours before it is repaired, and you must not be surprised if we make short shrift of you."
"But, monsieur!" expostulated Dennis. "This is an outrage! My country and yours are firm friends, and I repeat, upon my word of honour, that I am an Englishman."
The officer who had laughed at him and who spoke English, said in an undertone: "Do you know, monsieur le commandant, I should feel inclined—with all due respect I say it—to postpone the execution. I must confess this boy is a marvellous linguist, and there is not a trace of fear in his bearing."
"My dear Laval, for myself I am convinced, and I shall take all responsibility," replied the commandant. "Prisoner, if you would like to write a letter to your friends you are at liberty to do so. We will endeavour to forward it afterwards. Also, if you care to avail yourself of the good offices of our chaplain they are at your disposal. But do not waste time, for you will be shot in half an hour," and he made a grave inclination with his head to intimate that the interview was at an end.
A contemptuous smile passed across the young lieutenant's face, and he bowed in return.
"Very well, sir, I can only say that you will be sorry for this decision," he said. "I have a fountain pen—will somebody kindly lend me a sheet of paper?"
One of the officers at the table handed him a blank form, at the same time offering his cigarette-case.
"No, thanks, I won't smoke," said the boy, and, sitting down on a billet of wood, he laid the paper on his knee.
"DEAR PATER," he wrote with a steady hand. "It seems a rotten thing to have to tell you, but the French are going to shoot me for a spy. The fool man in command here, who was probably a successful pork butcher before the war started, declines to communicate with headquarters, and I rather hope you'll rub it into him when you learn all. It seems I speak German too well, and I should not be surprised if the sham English 'brass hat' who upset them last night were that scoundrel, Van Drissel, whom I nearly shot."
He got thus far, the Alsatian corporal standing rigidly at his elbow, when he became aware of a bustle at the table, and looked up.
A French liaison officer had just arrived, and was explaining his mission to the group, while the commandant read a dispatch he had brought.
Dennis sprang to his feet, and the laugh which brought the corporal's grip on to his collar again turned every eye towards him.
"Good morning, mon Capitaine!" he cried. "Will you be good enough to tell the commandant the circumstances under which we met last night, and why I came to your headquarters with a message?"
"My dear lieutenant," said the liaison officer. "Enchanted to meet you again! But what in the name of heaven has happened to you?"
"Nothing to what was going to happen in a few minutes if you had not arrived," replied Dennis, unable to repress the triumph he felt at the consternation in the faces of his judges.
"Ciel, mon Commandant!" exclaimed the liaison officer. "It is a very fortunate thing for you that I came in time. If you had shot this young Englishman, Father Joffre would have had something to say about it."