SOMETIMES in the street you meet a man and check in your walk to speak to him. He, too, half stops, searching your face with a scrutiny which is half bewilderment and half pleasant anticipation. Then, as a third observer would see, the interest fades from both faces; there is. a muttered and incoherent apology on both sides, and you continue your several walks.
Psychologists have a ready explanation for the phenomenon, but Professor von Shellhorn of the Zurich University calls it by a German term, which means "Angle-Unity," meaning thereby that the human family is represented by many triangles and that triangles are only straight lines which follow different directions, but which, on occasion, and by some mysterious process, are straightened out again.
But for this theory and for the common character of the experience I should not tell the story of Lieutenant H. B. Meredith of the Fourteenth Kents and the Staff Officer.
It was a tradition of the Fourteenth Kents that they despised loopholes, were contemptuous of periscopes, and that they obtained their knowledge of enemy movement by a mysterious divination with which the Fourteenth Kent alone of all regiments in the British expeditionary force was gifted.
Coming back to Hesle from ninety-six hours' trench duty, the Fourteenth Kent were reproached, what time they rested in the battered village of Soissant, with a lapse from military vigilance--a lapse which had caused the gentlemen who addressed the reproach considerable labor.
These were the Fifty-fifth City of London Regiment, and they had just been relieved from the trenches to the left of those recently occupied by the Kent and were, in consequence, chief witnesses for the prosecution as well as judge and jury.
"Asleep in your trench last night, wasn't you?" asked one of the Londoners politely.
To which there was a confusion of reply, for every man of the Kents within earshot replied at once with certain vitriolic prefixes which need not be repeated
"I only arst you," said the unruffled Londoner, "because owin' to our bein' on the spot providentially, so to speak, we managed to save the line."
It may be explained that a half company of the enemy had seized the Fouteenth's trenches the night before, and had only been expelled after fierce and deadly bayonet fighting, in which no less than three battalions of the brigade had been involved.
"Perhaps," suggested a sympathetic Londoner with a large piece of cheese in his hand, "you didn't see the Bosches comin'—"
"How could we," sneered a man of the Fourteenth, "when the blighters came out of your trench?"
A lie, and an insulting lie, moreover, but the Londoners showed no resentment. They had reached their billets three hours before, and had changed into clean clothing and had fed, and, in consequence, they could afford a tolerance of attitude toward a "crush" that had yet four miles to march, were weary, hungry, and as short-tempered as soldiers become after ninety-six hours of trench duty.
"So long!" chorused the tormentors as the word "March!" came snapping down the Kents' line, "make a night of it—you had your sleep last night." The Kents departed in anything but dignified silence.
"Territorials," said a broken-nosed private from Bromley, and, as he said it, it sounded a challenge to the wisdom of Providence; "perishing counter-jumpers, that go out on a Saturday afternoon with a gun pretendin' to be soldiers!"
"A bloke of the Grenadiers told me," said his companion slowly, "that when the Guards took over their trenches they found every bloomin' section from traverse to traverse full of their boots!"
"What they jumped out of the first time they heard a Crump ("The Crump" is the German 8.2, and is so called because it bursts with a noise which is best described by the word) go off," said the other.
Ahead of A Company three weary officers walked abreast of Rider, the captain, and his two subalterns.
"You heard that infernal terrier?" asked the skipper fretfully. "That is the sort of fool talk that spreads up and down the line and is believed by the whole army."
"But why did B Company go back, sir?" asked the subaltern.
"Because they were ordered back," said the other shortly. "A staff officer turned up in the trench at one in the morning and told them to retire. The telephone wires had been hit and cut, and there was no chance of confirming the order."
"Who was the officer?"
The captain shrugged his shoulders.
"The only man who knew him was young Meredith, and he was bombed getting back to the trench. According to the men, Meredith knew the officer and shook hands with him as though he were an old acquaintance whom he had not seen for years—nobody else knew him."
There was a silence broken only by the orderly tramp of feet.
"It's rum, sir," said Baston, the subaltern, after a while; "in fact, it looks as though the whole thing was a put-up job—by the enemy, I mean. They've often sent fellows into the trenches disguised as our staff officers—"
"I think we had better all shut up," interposed Rider testily. "There will be a court of inquiry, and until then we must rack our brains and recall Meredith's friends—he hadn't many, poor chap."
Another long pause.
"Did we get Meredith's body, sir?" asked the third officer, and Captain Rider shook his head.
"That's the most curious thing of all," he said. "According to Sergeant Beale's statement, Meredith was killed, not in the recovered trench, but beyond. The sergeant says that the star shells were lighting up the ground as though it were broad day, and that he saw all that followed. No sooner had Meredith fallen than a big Prussian—a private—leaned down and picked the boy up as if he were a child and carried him back to the German lines under a perfect hail of shrapnel."
"Are we sure he is dead, sir?" asked Baston, and his superior nodded.
"There's no doubt about that." he said shortly. "Beale saw—March to attention!" he roared, for ahead, with a little sinking of heart, he saw a group of officers standing by the side of the road, and recognized not only the brigadier but the divisional general.
"Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward," said he sotto voce. It was his favorite quotation in these days, and he had occasion to employ it frequently, for war is not only a trouble, but a begetter of trouble.
The court of inquiry was held without any preliminary fuss. A white-mustached general of division, a keen-faced brigadier (he had started the war as a major), and the puzzled colonel of the Kents formed the informal tribunal, for informal it was, having as its object the unraveling of a mystery rather than the filling of voluminous minutes of evidence.
"Would you know the staff officer again, sergeant?" asked the brigadier.
SERGEANT BEALE, a taciturn man, brick-red of face and blue of chin, nodded.
"Yes, sir—I'd swear to him."
"And you say that he came down the communication trench and greeted Mr. Meredith as though he'd known him for a long time?"
"Just like an old friend, sir."
"What did Mr. Meredith do?"
The sergeant licked his lips as one who has a story to tell.
"Mr. Meredith, sir, seemed took aback for a minute. Then he says: 'You here! By gad, I am surprised!'— those were his words, and the way he shook the staff officer's hand showed me that he was glad as well."
"Did the staff officer say anything?"
"Nothing that I heard, sir. He spoke in a low voice, and afterward Mr. Meredith said 'Certainly,' and gave the order for the whole section to be evacuated and for us to fall back. I never saw the staff officer again and I did not see Mr. Meredith till after the counterattack, and then I saw him being carried off the field by a German, who seemed to be taking his orders from an officer."
The divisional general asked a question or two, and the sergeant was dismissed on an errand.
"It is inexplicable," said the senior officer; "Meredith was as straight as a die—I know his people and have known him since he was that high. His father has a brigade at the Dardanelles."
"I know Colonel Meredith too," said the brigadier; "in fact, he is a crony of mine." They consulted together for a while, and the sergeant was again sent for. He came with a little valise, which he laid on the table.
"This is all Mr. Meredith's private kit, sir," he said.
The general took the leather case and shook out the contents. There was a bundle of letters in a firm, official hand, and another packet of letters written in a sprawling feminine hand, which the general looked at for a moment before he slipped them into the pocket of his khaki jacket.
"My daughter," he said gruffly, "and these are in his father's writing"—he indicated the other bundle.
There was a diary half filled with the cramped writing of the dead boy and a pocketbook with a few papers and two photographs.
The first of these was the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man in uniform.
"His father," said the general, "you know—what is the matter, sergeant?"
THE sergeant was staring at the photograph, his mouth open, his every attitude betraying amazement.
"That's him!" he gasped.
"The staff officer—the officer that spoke to Mr. Meredith!"
There was a dead silence, the three officers regarding their subordinate in astonishment.
"That is impossible," said the brigadier, "absolutely impossible."
He thrust his hand in his pocket and took out a crumpled field-telegraph form.
"When I knew that the boy was killed this morning I cabled his father—here is his reply thanking me and asking that the body should be sent to England."
"But he may have returned from Gallipoli," said the colonel; "officers are constantly arriving."
The brigadier shook his head and smoothed out the telegram.
"It's him, sir—I'll swear it is him!" protested the sergeant vehemently. "And look, sir!"
The general had moved the first of the photographs, revealing a snapshot photograph of a laughing man in civilian garb. "That's how he looked when he laughed!"
"H'm," said the general after a pause, "that will do, sergeant."
When the man had gone the three officers looked one at the other.
"Of course it's absurd," said the brigadier quietly, "and yet—the boy said 'You here! By gad, I am surprised!'—the whole story fits in."
"I give it up," said the divisional commander and rose from the table. "If I were a believer in the supernatural—but I'm not, thank God!"
And there the mystery of the late Lieutenant Meredith of the Fourteenth Kents might have remained but for the fact that two days later the Ninth Wiltshire Regiment, while holding the fire trenches before Richebert d'Avoue, were visited by a staff officer who ordered the first line to be evacuated. An attempt to secure confirmation by telephone failed owing to the fact (which was not discovered until daylight) that the wire had been scientifically cut. The officer commanding took the precaution of sending a messenger back to the battalion headquarters, and spent the time chatting with the staff officer. When the messenger returned (and with him the adjutant of the Wiltshires), carrying instructions to hold on like grim death, the staff officer had disappeared—none knew whither.
Four nights later a mysterious staff officer walked into the map room of the Divisional Intelligence Department and carried away certain confidential plans of the British blockhouses on the La Fosse Taubers line, signing the book for their receipt.
Divisional corps and army commanders on this section of the line met by appointment at a little hotel in Methen, which is army headquarters.
"There's a pretty poisonous spy at work," said Sir George, the army chief, "and I think we'll catch him. He is evidently wandering at large in our midst. On Saturday next we will—"
He outlined a certain scheme.
On the Saturday afternoon the military police on duty at the village known as the Rue de Quatre held up a motor car driven by a solitary staff officer and, at the point of their revolvers, induced him to alight.
"But, my good man," he smiled, "I am an officer of the General Staff."
And he indicated the brassard about his arm and the scarlet band which ran round his cap.
"That's all right," said the corporal of police grimly, "but it doesn't alter the fact that you're a prisoner."
Now, this had been the order of the army chief.
On the appointed day—which was that Saturday—the order had been passed by word of mouth that every staff officer in the army, whether he were general or youthful aid-de-camp, should from sunrise to sunset wear a glove on his left hand—and no other.
And commanders of battalions, batteries, and companies had been secretly instructed to arrest and detain every staff officer who passed into their orbit who was not so attired.
There were many arrests, but that is beside the point. The main interest for the moment lies in the fact that the smiling officer at the wheel wore two gloves.
The divisional general, the brigadier, and the commander of the Fourteenth Kents were summoned hastily to army headquarters.
"I think we have bagged your staff officer, general," said Sir George, and gave particulars of the capture.
"We had better have him in," he concluded, and dispatched his A.D.C. to escort the prisoner. Presently the door opened and the officer ushered in the captive.
The divisional general sprang up from his chair as though he had been shot.
"Good God!" he breathed. "Colonel Meredith!"
THE prisoner said nothing. He merely raised his hand in salute and smiled at the acid-faced army commander.
"Sir George Chelyn, I believe," he said.
Sir George turned to the general.
"Do you know this officer?" he asked.
The other nodded slowly.
"He is Colonel Meredith, sir; he is commanding a brigade at the Dardanelles—"
"On the contrary," interrupted the prisoner pleasantly, "I am Colonel Baron von Kreissler of the Great General Staff and I am engaged in Intelligence work."
Sir George rang a bell and an officer appeared from an inner room.
"Send Major Grey of the Intelligence to me," he said.
"Admirable Major Grey," murmured the prisoner, "he passed through the Staff College in 1910 with honors and married the daughter of Dr. Sandy of Shrewsbury. He was in debt in 1911, owing to the failure of the Birkbeck Bank, in which he was a shareholder, but was saved by his father-in-law."
He repeated this as a child repeats a lesson.
"You see," he explained apologetically, "we know these things in our department—he also knows certain details."
Major Grey came in at that moment, a short but dapper man wearing a pince-nez.
"Do you know this officer?" asked Sir George.
The newcomer gave the smiling prisoner a brief glance.
"Yes, sir," he said, "he is Colonel Baron von Kreissler, chief of the Intelligence of the Fourth German army."
Have you ever seen Colonel Meredith?" asked the brigadier.
"No, sir," replied the other.
"You are certain this is Von Kreissler?" demanded Sir George.
"Absolutely—I have seen him a score of times in Berlin and in Mayence."
"True," admitted the prisoner cheerfully, "and now, gentlemen, I should be glad if you will give me the benefit of a summary trial. Frankly, I am very tired of life, for I have twice lost that which makes life worth living."
He paused and then repeated in a low voice: "Twice—twice!"
The smile had gone from his face now, and it was old and careworn. The forehead was puckered and the sensitive mouth beneath the bristling mustache drooped pathetically.
"Will you sit down, colonel?" asked Sir George gently.
He sensed a tragedy out of the common, and there will always be between soldiers, however bitter their enmity, a sympathy beyond civilian understanding. Besides which he had endured a loss in the war which had left his own heart empty and desolate.
THE man accepted the chair which the aid pushed to him and sank down, his face in his hands. Presently he sat up and the ghost of the old smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.
"You think I am—what shall I say, weak? My own general thinks I am mad. For myself, I also. Herr General, I will try your patience for a moment if you will be so kind—may I have a glass of water?"
This they brought, and after a while he spoke: "I have a son—my only son and my only friend, Lieutenant Otto von Kreissler of the Corps of the Guard. He was the—but perhaps you will guess."
Sir George nodded. He more than guessed. He knew.
"My son was in the battle of —— in November, and he was killed, according to the accounts I received—shot dead as he entered Plogstrante Wood, after the English trenches had been pierced. I have seen his grave in the English lines, and read his name and his regiment on the cross above his head. But to me he was not dead."
He shook his head.
"I believed nothing—not even his comrades who saw him fall; not even the cross above his head. I knew he was alive; knew it here in my heart."
He struck his chest with his fist.
"I came into your lines—many times. Sometimes on duty, sometimes to make private enquiries. I have even been to England and visited the prisoners' camps. Three nights ago I proved my faith. The boy was alive."
"Go on," said Sir George.
For the first time he noted the soft light which gleamed in the prisoner's eyes. He had seen such a glow before in the eyes of men who had been shattered inside by the monstrous and infernal business of war. He had seen it in the eyes of a crouching, giggling subaltern who had been found in a wrecked emplacement playing with shrapnel bullets as boys play with marbles.
"I went into an English trench to carry out orders of the higher command, and I met him."
"My son," repeated the prisoner triumphantly; he was wearing the English uniform, and spoke to me in English; we always spoke English together at home; it was one of our practices. After that I don't know what happened. I think he was killed by our own people. I saw him fall and ordered him to be carried back to the German lines, but the man who carried him did not arrive. I think they must both lie between the trenches."
Again there fell a silence, which was unbroken save for the swift tick of the little clock on Sir George's desk.
"Have you a portrait of your son?" he asked the army commander.
From his jacket pocket the German produced a thin gold case and opened it.
There were two portraits inside, the one of a woman of singular beauty and the other of a young man in the undress uniform of a Prussian officer. Sir George handed the case to the colonel of the 14th Kents, and that officer drew a sharp breath, for the portrait was that of Meredith.
He closed the case and handed it back to the father. Sir George swung around in his chair to face the prisoner.
"Colonel," he said, "à la guerre comme à la guerre—you will be tried by general court martial for espionage in an hour. You may trust me implicitly to carry out any instructions you have give for the disposal of your belongings. As to this case—"
"Bury it with me," said the colonel, and saluted as he turned stiffly and went from the room with his escort.
"IT is curious," said Sir George later. "Two men are identically alike and have two sons who are also doubles. The father recognises his son, he isn't his son. The boy recognises his father, who isn't his father. Our Col. Baron is a little mad, and by the strict letter of the law I should not shoot him. If I pitied him less I should send him to a lunatic asylum. As it is—see that he is buried in Plogstrate Wood near his son."