ALL that bitter black November the fight had been keen and merciless along the right bank of the Moselle, and now the tide had rolled on, leaving the village of St. Lie a veritable shambles. Then, as one wave rises higher than the rest, the red flood had come back for the moment, for the Uhlans were pressing hard upon a mob of franctireurs, and for the moment the strife had degenerated into downright murder. There was no quarter asked or given—every one of these irregulars taken with arms in his hands was promptly shot.
Here was work enough and to spare for the Red Cross, and hither came Major Eustace, late of her Majesty's Service, together with his colleague Captain Gray and all the paraphernalia for the formation of a flying field-hospital.
All France lay in the grip of winter. The torn roads were as iron now, the fields steel-grey under a powder of snow. The wounded as they lay in the open died of the cold—they were found there with their blood frozen on their mangled limbs. There was nothing to deaden the revolting horror of it all, no redeeming feature except the Red Cross flag flying over a little chapel by the roadside.
"My word! this is worse than the trenches before Sebastopol," Eustace muttered. "You remember?"
Gray nodded curtly. He beat his frozen hands together in a vain attempt to infuse a little warmth into them. He and Eustace had volunteered for Red Cross work, as scores of other English half-pay officers had done.
"It's murder," Gray growled. "Oh, I'm not defending the franctireur. He has brought a good deal of trouble on himself; but that's no reason why he should be treated like a brigand. A company of Bavarians, with a squad of Uhlans, caught a hundred of them down in the riverbed yesterday, and shot them down like sheep. It seems a burning shame to waste some of the best blood in France like this."
"Well, it makes work for us," Eustace said grimly. "Are the nurses all right?"
"Oh, I've looked after, them," Gray explained. "They are in the chapel yonder. Adamson is there, too. They've got about a score of wounded under their charge altogether—franctireurs to a man!"
"And Demarney?" Gray asked. "Did they down him?"
"By Jove, I hope not!" Eustace exclaimed. "Demarney's far too good a fellow to be wasted like that. What a daredevil he is, to be sure. And a better game-shot I never saw."
"Well, he hasn't considered himself much. And it's a confoundedly risky business, after all. But that was always Demarney's idea of enjoying himself. He had resigned a cavalry commission to throw in his lot with these devil-may-care freelances. The mere fact that he would be shot for a spy if he fell into the hands of the Germans was a special attraction. And, by Jove, he has been a thorn in their side, too!"
The other nodded approvingly. They had met young Demarney in more than one English country house; they had a warm regard for the handsome, reckless young Frenchman. They had come in contact with him many times during the last six weeks; he had shared a camp-fire with them on occasion and more than once when the Uhlans were actually searching for him in the neighbourhood. But it looked now as if Demarney had been caught at last, seeing that he had been the actual leader of the irregulars who had been wiped out in the horrible battle down amongst the orchards by the bend of the River Moselle. With his usual luck Demarney might have got away, for assuredly he could not be far off, to say nothing of the fact that the neighbourhood was patrolled with German cavalry, and Demarney was well known. He had no horse, there was not an ounce of provisions in the province which was not in the hands of the foe, and to sleep out in the open in that bitter weather was to invite a death swift if not merciful.
It was so bitterly, intensely cold that the birds were lying dead in the woods, and the foxes had come down from the Ardennes, ravenous and dangerous, in search of food. For miles round no buildings stood intact, with the solitary exception of the little chapel over which the Red Cross drooped. As the sky overhead turned from blue to steel-grey, and the sun dropped in the west like a copper shield, the twinkling camp-fires of the German cavalry flamed out here and there. Eustace and Gray pushed their way on in the direction of the chapel, for something in the nature of light and warmth and comfort lay there.
It was a strange sight—one of those amazing pictures that only war can inspire. The grateful warmth came from the stove which glowed in the centre of the building, and round about it a score of wounded men lay on piles of clean straw. A doctor was ministering to the wants of these; a couple of nurses flitted noiselessly from one patient to another. Up beyond the altar-rails half-a-dozen horses had been stalled, and the clatter of their hoofs sounded strangely grotesque and out of place amidst the carving and gorgeous colouring of the walls. Every scrap of woodwork had long since been torn away and used for fuel. The chapel was illuminated dimly enough with a few smoky oil lamps, the flame of which flickered unsteadily upon the carved stone pillars and the great picture over the altar. Still, it was warm there, and Eustace and his companion were thankful for that much.
The doctor Adamson came forward and stood himself wearily by the side of Gray and Eustace.
"Anything fresh?" the latter asked. "Have you heard news of Demarney, by any chance?"
Adamson jerked his thumb in the direction of the wounded lying inertly about the stove.
"He's not amongst that lot, at any rate," he said. "Von Kneller came in here just now. Said he had instructions to see if Demarney happened to be under my charge. He came swaggering in here as if the whole place belonged to him. What insolent beasts those Uhlan officers are! I should like to have kicked that chap. I had to be civil, of course."
"Must do that," Gray muttered. "Well, I'm glad they haven't got hold of Demarney yet. All I hope is he won't come here."
"It would be just like him if he did," Eustace said.
From out of the heap of rags and litter and tawdry pictures torn from the walls a white face appeared. The features were lank and drawn, the beard and the moustache were ragged, but the brown eyes were full of vivacity and a smile was on the lips.
"Well, my friends," Demarney whispered, "and how goes it, as they say in your country? I have been here since daybreak, and, ma foi, am I not hungry! I did not dare to speak, for fear of disturbing those ravishing angels of mercy yonder, for, had they known I had been here, their faces would have betrayed them. A crust of bread, my dear Eustace, and a morsel of cheese, if such a thing still remains in this poor France of mine. I can die with the best of them, but this hunger takes all the manhood out of me."
Under the rags and fragments of straw, Demarney crept nearer. It was good to know that this freelance was still in the land of the living, but at the same time his presence was a terrible embarrassment to Eustace and Gray. Within a few hundred yards of where they seated the German pickets were everywhere. It was a clear breach of faith on the understanding by which the Red Cross contingent was there at all. They were harbouring a spy on whose head a price had been placed. In his quick way Demarney read the trouble which was passing through the mind of Eustace and his colleagues.
"I have done wrong, is it?" he asked. "Forgive me, my friends. But the comedy was a thing that I could never resist. And you must admit that there has been little chance lately of anything in the way of vaudeville."
"It isn't exactly a comic opera," Gray said grimly.
"Ah, but you will not say that presently," Demarney went on. "The time has come when my presence is needed elsewhere. I have to go to join my colleagues on the other side of Rheims. To get there is no easy matter. I have no horse, and every spot is watched, so anxious are the Germans for the society of Gerald Demarney. And yet they might save themselves all this trouble. By this time to-morrow I shall be far enough away."
He spoke with an easy assurance that brought a smile to the lips of his listeners.
"You will give my compliments to Von Kneller," he said. "It is a great regret to me that I have had no opportunity of exchanging civilities with him. And now I have pressing business outside. Your bread and potted meat will make a new man of me."
He wriggled under the straw and littered refuse on the floor, there was a quick shadow across the doorway, and he was gone.
"Oh, he's mad," Adamson said. "He'll find himself in Von Kneller's power within half an hour. It seems a pity that he should be so restless. And look here, Eustace——"
But neither Eustace nor Gray was listening—the warmth of the chapel was grateful and the needful sleep imperative. They lay down on the straw in their great-coats and slept the dreamless sleep of the hardened campaigner all the world over. With something like a sigh of envy, Adamson turned to his patients. There was no sleep for him except the slumber he could snatch with one eye open. For an hour or more he moved from one sufferer to another, attended by the nurses. A breath of keen, icy air swept through the chapel as the door was opened and a woman came in. She was clad from head to foot in the shapeless black garment and white-lined hood usually affected by the Sisterhood everywhere. What was she doing here? Adamson wondered. So far as he knew, there was no convent in the neighbourhood.
The woman advanced with her pale face downcast. Adamson could see that the dark hair was plastered on either side of the white face, giving the newcomer a suggestion of maturity that was somewhat belied by the erectness of her figure. It seemed strange that she should be abroad on a night like this.
Adamson came politely forward.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.
The woman stood there with bent head, her hands crossed in her sleeves, a picture of patience and humility.
"I am in great trouble, Monsieur," she said, in passable English. "I am Sister Louise, and I belong to the Order of the Sacred Heart at Mireville. They told me that my brother was dead. He was one of the franctireurs. He was killed in that dreadful fight a day or two ago in the orchards. I came down to look for him and give him decent burial with my family in the cemetery at Mireville. I have found his body, Monsieur——"
The Sister paused, as if unable to proceed. Adamson listened with respectful sympathy.
"I found him," Sister Louise went on presently. "Some of the peasants helped me, and those kind people have lent me a cart to take the body of my dear brother to his last home. But, alas! there is no chapel left at Mireville, and no priest there to administer the last offices of the dead. My kind friends are waiting outside at this moment with the body. I thought if I might bring the remains of my dear brother and offer up one prayer for his eternal repose, it would be all I could do. Do you think it would be the same thing if I read the service myself?"
Adamson stammered his embarrassed sympathy. He kicked Eustace and Gray into wakefulness, and laid the problem before them.
"Why not, poor soul?" Eustace yawned sleepily. "She will be all the happier for doing this thing, and it will make no difference to us. What an extraordinary setting to such a pathetic scene!"
Sister Louise appeared to be listening, for she turned a wan, grateful face in Eustace's direction. She vanished into the bitter night for a moment, to return presently, followed by four peasants who staggered into the chapel carrying a rude bier on which seemed to be a body enclosed in the hastily constructed coffin. A white sheet lay over the silent form, which was deposited silently and reverently on the steps leading to the chancel.
"This is good of you, Messieurs," Sister Louise said tearfully. "It desolates me to disturb you like this, especially when you are attending to the wants of my dear fellow-countrymen. But it is only for a little time that I wish to be alone with all that remains of my brother."
The Englishmen bowed silently. Respectfully they turned their backs upon the slender figure in the black garments. A quarter of an hour passed in absolute silence, save for an occasional murmur from one of the wounded; then the door of the chapel was flung open, and Von Kneller, accompanied by a handful of Bavarian infantry, stride angrily up the aisle.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he demanded. "There are a dozen or more peasants outside, gathered together strictly against orders. If I did my duty I should have them all put with their backs to the wall and shot. They make some paltry excuse to the effect that they are attending a funeral."
"So they are," Eustace snapped. "And I'll trouble you, Herr Lieutenant, to speak a little more quietly. You are disturbing the wounded. We are under the Red Cross here, which means the protection of Europe. And, by Heaven, if you don't speak to me properly, I'll take you by the scruff of the neck and throw you into the road! You understand that?"
The Lieutenant's beard fairly bristled with anger. But he was in the wrong, and he knew it. He stammered some sort of an apology in an ungracious undertone.
"My orders are strict, Major," he said. "And the peasantry here know it. They told me some fairy story about one of the Sisters from Mireville who had come down here to find the body of her brother. According to what I hear, they raked out a coffin from somewhere with the idea of conveying the body to Mireville. They say the woman came here to hold a sort of funeral service. But I'm not going to believe that."
"It doesn't matter whether you believe it or not," Gray said curtly. "The poor creature made the request, and, having some sort of feeling left, we granted it. Haven't you got a pair of eyes in your head, man? Can't you see things for yourself?"
Once more Von Kneller looked red and uncomfortable. It was quite clear that the pathetic side was absolutely lost upon him. Orders to him were sacred things. The men behind him stood there sullen and rebellious. As the silence grew uncomfortable, Sister Louise came slowly down the chapel with hands meekly folded.
"It is a comfort to me, Monsieur, that I have been able to do this thing. Will you kindly call my faithful friends outside and tell them that I am ready to proceed?"
"Where do you come from?" Von Kneller asked harshly.
Just for an instant the Sister's eyes flashed, then she looked down demurely again. The three Englishmen there tingled to their fingertips. Gray stepped forward.
"We have already explained to you," he said between his teeth. "Confound it all, Lieutenant, does your Red Book expressly forbid you to remember you are a gentleman in time of war? Here, Adamson, go and fetch those peasants in. And, if necessary, Eustace and myself will see the cortege outside the German lines."
Von Kneller chewed his moustache impatiently. He was a creature of a system, and he had no desire to go too far. To bring himself into active contact with the Red Cross was no action to be lightly embarked upon. He stepped forward and laid a detaining hand on the Sister's shoulder.
"I've a few questions to ask you," he said sternly.
The Sister looked appealing in the direction of the Englishmen. The peasants were bringing the body down the chapel now; they were not far from the door. In a sudden fit of passion, Eustace grasped Von Kneller by the shoulders and threw him violently on one side. His spurs caught in some of the litter on the floor, and he sprawled at length on the straw. One of the Bavarians behind him drew a revolver and commenced to shoot promiscuously in all directions. It was only for a moment, then Gray was upon him and the revolver was snatched from the soldier's grasp. Apparently, no harm had been done, though a rent appeared to have been torn in the white sheet lying over the coffin. Eustace could see where the bullet had entered. Just for a moment he struggled hopelessly with the anger that possessed him, and just for a moment, had Von Kneller but known it, he lay there in peril of his life. Gray clutched Eustace's arm.
"Steady, old man, steady!" he whispered. "Don't go too far. We've got all the cards in our hands if you can only play them properly. If we report this business Von Kneller's career is finished, and he knows it. And I say, Adamson, some of your patients need attention. This sort of thing isn't good——"
But Adamson was not listening. With his eyes fairly starting from his head, he was gazing at the still figure under the white sheet. Near the feet, where the recklessly fired bullet had entered, a tiny red spot no larger than a sixpence had appeared. It seemed to be extending steadily. Adamson bent down swiftly, and apparently carelessly threw a handful of disused dressing over the red spot.
"Get outside," he whispered hoarsely to the bewildered peasants, "get outside at once."
The little procession started again steadily, and Adamson gave a great sigh of relief. Von Kneller had struggled sulkily to his feet, and stood there breathing defiantly.
"What are you going to do about it?" Eustace asked crisply.
"I have been insulted," Von Kneller declared. "My authority has been set at defiance——"
"Now let's have none of that," Eustace went on. "If you'll order your blackguards off and make us a proper apology in writing, you won't hear any more of this. We've got Europe behind us, my friend, and don't you forget it. Now you just come back here to-morrow with that apology nicely written, and we'll call the incident closed. And don't you molest that funeral party."
Von Kneller turned abruptly on his heel and strode out of the chapel without another word. Adamson's time was fully occupied for the next few minutes looking after his wounded and allaying the fears of the nurses. Then he slipped on his overcoat and turned eagerly to the other two men.
"Come on," he said; "we've got no time to lose. I thought you were going to see that funeral procession through the German lines. If you do, I think I can show you something that will astonish you. The best thing we can do is to follow at a respectful distance. Our chance will come when the coast is clear."
But apparently no attempt had been made to interfere with the procession, as it was quite alone when Adamson strode forward and addressed himself to Sister Louise.
"Is he badly hurt?" he asked eagerly.
"No, he isn't," a gay voice came from the coffin under the sheet. "Merely a scratch on the calf of the leg."
"What's all this mean?" Eustace demanded.
Sister Louise turned a smiling face in his direction. The plastered bands of hair had disappeared, and a charming set of piquant features looked out from under the ugly bonnet.
"I am Louise Demarney," the girl explained. "I am here to help my brother. Oh, I hope you don't think it was wicked of me to pretend so much. But it was Gerald's scheme, and there was no other way to save him from this terrible danger. I had to wait so long in the church because things were not altogether in readiness. We take our brother as far as Antou, where horses and powerful friends await him. You are good comrades of his—I wish you'd try and persuade him not to be so constantly running his head into danger."
Demarney sat up on the cart. There was a gay smile on his lips.
"Oh, it is as the breath of life to me," he cried. "And if you will ask Louise to confess the truth, she enjoyed the adventure as much as myself. Now confess, little one."
"Not when I saw the bullet-hole in the sheet." The girl shuddered. "Messieurs, how can I thank you—"
"By not thanking us at all," Eustace said.