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IT was very nice and clean in the convalescent ward of the hospital where Max Zabern sat. The beds were clean, and the floor was clean, scrubbed to a spick-and-span neatness by the hands of the hospital women. And the nurses were clean—those sure, positive, yet gentle, nurses. The doctors were clean, and their instruments displayed a glistening cleanliness beyond criticism. Max had noticed all along the clean food on clean dishes so unlike the food of the trenches. And even the sunshine which came through the windows was clean. There was a very smell of cleanness in the air. So it was very pleasant there in the convalescent ward, even though one had lost a piece of a hand.
In fact that made it pleasanter still in a rather odd sort of way. It meant that a man would not need to go back to the trenches, the dugouts, the slattern food, the roar of guns, the constant peril by day and night, the icy mud of winter or the choking hot dust of summer. It meant an end of all that—those things of which Max Zabern had grown woefully weary, deathly sick, before a bit of grenade had torn away half of his hand and so sent him to be healed in body and somewhat in spirit, in this clean different place, where women's voices in sympathy or direction had taken the place of an Oberoffizier's gruff and oft-times brutal commands.
The dressing hour was past. Max lifted his bandaged member and inspected it through the faint haze of the pipe he was smoking. The bandage was clean, too. It had been put on less than thirty minutes ago, and the surgeon doctor had pronounced his wound practically well. That meant that he would soon be discharged. And then he would go home.
Home! A rather far-away light crept into Max Zabern's blue eyes at the thought that leaped into his brain. Yes, he would go home and
—Gott, that would be good! His slightly widened pupils seemed to see the little village where he had been born and raised and had grown to manhood. He saw the homely houses, the little fields, the wooded slopes of the Alsatian hills. He nodded as he smoked. Ach, Gott! It would be good to go home—down there where it was quiet—away from the thunder of the guns. Not but what he had been willing enough to do his share in the war. He was not a coward. When the war came he had laid down his hammer in the little smithy which was his; had untied his apron of hide and hung it on a peg, and, shouldering his rifle, had marched away quite as a matter of course—quite as he had always known he would if war should come. It was a part of a German's duty —to fight for the Fatherland —part of the citizenship which was his. It was something to be accepted, just as one accepted the sunlight, the day and the night, birth, life, death, when those things came to one, too.
But that was over. Death had struck close to him, yet passed him by. He was unfit now to serve the Fatherland in the trenches, hence there was no reason why he should not go home and become one of those who kept things moving back of the lines. The badge of his crippled hand would show that he had served. He would go home and open the smithy and put on his apron again. He had seen his hand as the surgeon dressed it. It would suffice for a good deal. He could still work. Only—a little frown came up between his eyes—it would not be quite the same, after all, down there, because, although Max had gone first, his father had gone later, and had fallen in the very first trench into which he had been sent. And—his mother, the Alsatian woman, who had never been quite all German like husband and son had been, had died during the two years since Max had untied his apron and marched away.
Marie had written him about that—Marie Cirey, who lived with her old mother on the outskirts of the village. She had written to say his mother was dead; that she would take care of her grave until he, Max, came back. That was like Marie, Max thought. She was a sentimental creature. After one had spent two years in killing men and seeing them killed and burned rather than buried, or rolled like cholera-stricken hogs into trenches and covered with a few spadefuls of earth, one grave seemed a very little to make a fuss about. But—Max had known Marie ever since they had played together as children, and it was like her to put in that about caring for a woman's grave when she wrote to that woman's son. Max had not shed a tear when he received that letter. Death had grown too common. Yet, oddly enough now, he found himself wondering if Marie had wept by the grave she had tended. Probably she had. It would be like her—yes.
She was a pretty thing. She would make a fine mother of children, and the Fatherland was going to need many children. A slow smile grew on Zabern's lips. He had always liked Marie before the war, so when he went home he would see her and possibly—
There was a slight commotion at the end of the ward. Max turned his head, forsaking his daydream of the future for the present. There was a knot of officers just inside the door, stern-faced men, clad in close-fitting tunics, on the breasts of more than one of which the iron cross showed. They were speaking to the nurse in charge of the ward. And now she lifted a hand, pointed directly at Zabern, and drew aside.
The officers advanced. Their heavy feet rang loud in that place of soft-footed quiet.
Max rose to his feet, startled, questioning the reason for their coming, and then he stood at attention, his hand lifted to his close-cropped head in salute.
"You are Max Zabern?" The cross of the order of merit hung beside the cross of iron on the speaker's breast.
"Herr, ja." Max found his voice well-nigh sticking in his throat.
"The doctor tells me your hand is well?"
"Good!" The officer turned on his heel. "Come. We must find a place to talk."
Max followed down the ward. Once more one of the uniformed men addressed the nurse in charge. "A private room," he demanded gruffly and moved off behind her lead.
She opened the door of a room, and the officers crowded in. Zabern followed, and stood waiting, still at attention. "Take him, Kummer," said the man who had addressed him first.
A captain, trim, almost dapper, dark, thin-lipped, with eyes which seemed to Max to search him swiftly, measure, and appraise him, now fixed him with a stare.
"Your usefulness in the army is ended, I understand?" he began.
Zabern lifted his bandaged hand. "Three fingers and a part of the bones behind them, Herr," he replied.
The officer nodded. "So I have it already." He waved the answer aside. His thin lips retracted slightly. "That is the reason they give you to me. You're of no further use to them. But the intelligence service needs brains more than hands. How are your brains?"
"As good as ever, Herr," Zabern said. And suddenly he thrilled. This dark, slender man with the eyes of a hawk and the lips of scant mercy was an agent of that service which bulwarked the army's blind force which learned impossible things in impossible fashion. What could he have to say to him now in so unexpected a way?
He was not left long in ignorance, because Kummer kept up his questions: "You come from Alsace?"
The captain mentioned a name. It was that of Max's own village.
Once more Zabern gave assent.
"Born there—lived there always?"
"Know the people—all of them?"
"All who were there when I joined my command, Herr."
"So, then," said Kummer. "Since you are no longer physically fit for a soldier, there is another way in which you can be of use. Listen. The damned French are getting information from somewhere behind that sector of our line. I think it's coming from your town and it's got to be stopped. I could send a man down there, but I'd prefer one who knows the people—the district—and I knew you were here and about ready to go back. Well—go ahead, and when you get there find that source of the enemy's information and report it to the nearest command."
So that was it. What a wonderful thing the intelligence service was! They had even known he was here, nearly recovered, and that he was from the village where the French had planted a spy, as it would seem. That was how the Fatherland kept count of its men. That was efficiency—to use the wounded, no longer able to fight, to find out those who might be seeking to hinder the fighters who could still fight on. And for this they had picked out him. He was not so useless, after all. He could do something. He squared his shoulders to an even stiffer attention. "It is an order, Herr Captain?" he said.
"It is an order," Kummer repeated. "Herr Gott! What else? Find that dirty spy."
"And report to the nearest command?"
Max saluted. "So soon as I have my discharge," he accepted.
Kummer nodded. "That will be arranged." He turned and began a low-toned conversation with one of the officers who had come with him while Max still stood at attention. And presently, without so much as a glance at Zabern, they all left the room, clanking out with heavy feet and a rattle of side arms, just as they had clanked in some time before.
Then, and then only, did Max relax his rigid position, in which he was beginning to sway slightly because it had been weeks since he had stood like that. He left the room and went slowly back to his chair—where he had been sitting when Kummer and the rest had come and sought him out.
He would go home and meet every one he knew. He would inquire casually about any newcomers, any strangers. He would see Marie and ask her if any strange people had come to the village since he left—and how long since they arrived. Marie would know, and she would tell him, of course. She was a simple thing, always laughing, as he remembered her in the past. And she had always been like that. Max smiled now, a slow smile, as he recalled how as a child, when they roamed the hills together, she had sung and danced this way and that, while he had followed more slowly, more in stolid fashion; how her browned little legs had flashed among the grass and weeds, her brown hair waved, her brown eyes glanced back at him, and her red lips smiled. To-day it seemed to Max she had been like a little brown butterfly then, fluttering hither and thither, while he plodded along—and watched. He must meet her, seek her, indeed, to thank her for caring for his mother's grave.
Later in the day the nurse in charge of the ward told him he had been discharged. He was given his clothing, his cap and coat. She told him he was to report at the nearest railway station and make himself known; that his transportation had been arranged to his home.
Max said good-by to the nurse and several of the men in the ward and marched away to the station, where he found everything just as the nurse had said. That was Kummer's work, of course. Max smiled as he took a seat in the train. How everything worked out—how everything fitted in just like the cogs in a machine. It took clever management to bring about such perfect system, but the men at the head of all this Kriegsspiel, this war game, were clever. What fools the other peoples were to resist them. The High Command was bound to win in the end. But meanwhile there was a spy to be caught down there where he was going, and he had been chosen to catch him and thereby bring so much nearer the "certain" victory, which the High Command would gain.
The railway did not pass through his village, but that did not matter to Max. He was hardened to walking miles, after two years of life with haversack and blanket roll and rifle upon his sweating back. He got down from the train and watched it disappear, then turned along the highway at a swinging stride, trudging forward, head up; and after a time he began to sing—one of those marching songs he had sung with his comrades in those first weeks of the war, when their gray-green ranks had swept down across northern France; before Von Kluck's flank had been bent and edged south and east from its encircling move toward Paris, and the whole wonderful advance had stopped, lapping like a human flood against a human bank and then drawn sullenly back in the ebb of a human tide.
So, singing at times, at other times silent, he made little of the miles, until at length he came to the crest of a hill and gazed down on the village, which lay beyond him. That was home.
Home! Max paused and drew a deep, lung-filling breath, and allowed his eyes to rest upon the scene—the houses nestled in the little valley, protected by the wooded shoulders of the hills on the farther side where the road mounted again like a crooked, grayish white ribbon among the green of growing things.
Many times during those first weeks two years before he had pictured the scene to himself. The Heimweh—the "home-longing"—had nagged him then, yet now that he stood here there seemed no real reason why it should have been so. The village was the same. It was home. He had never known another. Yet it was not home really, for his father was dead and his mother also. Max felt almost a stranger as he began the descent of the road to the familiar place, the sight of which had brought back all that had been and was not now and made it all horribly real. In the shock of war he had scarcely realized just what it meant—was going to mean. It came to him now with an almost crushing force. He was coming home, but without any hope of that welcome of which also he had thought in those first weeks when the Heimweh gnawed.
But his eyes traveled faster than his feet, and soon he could locate a house set some distance back from the village, a stone house with whitewashed walls. There was a garden behind it, and farther back still a little wood, and Max knew that back of the wood was a meadow. In front of the house, he could catch the red and white and pink of hollyhocks growing on upstanding stalks— like the ranks of gayly-trapped soldiers—just as they used to do two years before. The home of the Widow Cirey and her daughter Marie! Max quickened his steps, and came at last to the house and paused. A path ran in from the road between the stiff hollyhock stalks, and a great white goose, thrusting its head around the corner of the house, gazed at him out of yellowish eyes and hissed an inquiry. Max put his feet apart and stared back. He grinned. There was the spirit of the Fatherland in that goose, which hissed a challenge to the stranger who would set foot on the soil of its home.
Then while he stood there a woman appeared. One would have said she had noted the posture of the great goose and came to investigate the cause of his actions. She saw a man at the end of the hollyhock rows, paused for a moment, while her eyes went wide with a wondering recognition. Then she was flying toward him down the path.
"Max! Max Zabern!" she cried.
Well, here was a welcome, Max thought, and he put out his uninjured palm. "Good day, Marie," he said, quite as though he might have seen her but a short time before.
Marie Cirey paused and placed her hand in his. "What brings you back, Max?" she began, and then caught sight of his bandage. Her face altered swiftly, became solicitous in its expression. "Oh, but I see! You are wounded, hurt. The poor hand!"
"Part of it shot away," said Max. "One-handed men are not fit for the Kriegsspiel. That is a two-handed game."
Marie touched the bandage tenderly. "Then you are back to stay?" she returned slowly, with a little warmth of color creeping up into her cheeks.
"Yes, but now. I stopped here first."
The girl's eyes lighted. She took hold of the strong, bronzed well hand and began pulling upon it, smiling upon him as he remembered she had always done since a child, urging him up the path. "Come," she cried. "You must go in and say good day to mother and tell her you are back."
"She will know that when she sees me," Max made literal answer. But he smiled, too. Marie's touch was soft and warm, and she displayed a strong, supple figure of a woman under her plain, coarse dress.
She was still smiling and her eyes were dancing as she continued to pull him along between the hollyhock rows with their white and red and pink bells.
He followed her around the side of the house to a door which gave entrance to a room he remembered very well. There was the same old table and chairs and a sand-scrubbed floor. On one side a ladderlike stair led to a sort of loft, and in a corner a second series of steps ran down to a storage cellar. There was a cupboard full of dishes and a stove, and between two closed doors was a clock on a shelf.
A woman was sitting in one of the chairs, mending a stocking. She was small, rather withered, with wrinkled cheeks and faded lips, but a pair of bright brown eyes shone under her neat gray hair.
"Mother," said Marie, "here is Max. He has lost a part of a hand and come back."
The woman in the chair glanced up. She rose slowly. One noted that she did not stand wholly erect. "Sit you, Max," she invited. "We are glad you are returned, and it is seldom we have a visitor nowadays."
"So?" said Zabern, sitting down. This looked like a very good opportunity to begin his work. It could not have fallen out better. "Then there are few people coming and going these days, mother?"
"Some are going," Marie made the answer; "the last the village can send."
"And no outsiders come to it?" said Max.
"No. Why should they? There is nothing for them here," Marie's mother returned in a quick, almost staccato voice.
"There is a very pretty maiden," Max rejoined in rather blundering fashion, with his eyes on Marie's face
Marie laughed, while her color deepened. "La! They taught you to be bold in the army, didn't they, my friend?"
Max grinned. He spent an hour telling of his life in the army before he left to go on to the house which had been his former home. "To-morrow I shall come again," he told Marie at parting. "And I shall want you to show me my mother's grave."
The girl sobered on the instant. Her eyes grew soft. "Max!" she exclaimed. "It will be lonely. Stay here to-night with us."
"Marie," said her mother, "Max will want to look over his people's things—and possibly visit his smithy. You forget yourself in the pleasure of seeing an old friend. He will come to-morrow again."
"Yes, I will come," Max promised, and went away. He felt a trifle puzzled that Marie's mother had not wanted him to stay. Marie was very glad to see him, but he wasn't so sure about her mother. Well, after all, it was Marie in whom he felt an interest. The old woman didn't really matter so much.
He entered the village, greeted a former acquaintance here and there, and came at last to his father's house. It was empty of life, but the familiar rooms were just as they had been left after his mother died. In a way it reminded Max of some of those homes in Belgium and northern France from which the owners had fled—homes he had seen during the first weeks of the war. He had his supper at a neighbor's table, and later that night went back and crawled into the bed in which he had slept before there had been a war. And he slept as he had learned to sleep during the past two years. In the morning he entered his little smithy, which stood on a corner of the same plot as his house, and in the afternoon he went to see Marie.
She led him to the little burial ground up on the side of the hill and to a grave, built around with stones that her hands had placed, until the rectangle which they marked was more like a bed of flowers than anything else. She knelt down beside it, while Max stood. Her eyes were moist as she raised them to his. "She wanted so much to see you," she said. "And all I could do was to promise her to write and tell you the best way I could. It was this dreadful war killed her, Max."
Zabern nodded. "Gewiss," he said. "I know. She never could forget the time when Alsace belonged to France, though then she was but a child. She loved France more than the Fatherland, I am afraid."
Marie shook her head. "But she loved you and your father more."
Again Max nodded his head. "It was very good of you to tend the grave, Marie," he mumbled.
"Good?" Marie rose. "Could I do less for her, my friend; for a woman of Alsace?"
For the third time Max nodded. "Ach, yes, that is so," he said.
They turned away, leaving the little burial ground to its quietness, and after walking a little way seated themselves on the side of the hill, where they could look down on the village. "Tell me," said Marie; "how the war really goes. Are you still winning, Max?"
"Yes, of course," Zabern replied.
Marie laughed. "But you haven't won yet?"
"No, not yet." Max shook his head. "But when Verdun falls."
"When Verdun falls." Marie drew back her red lips, showing her firm white teeth.
Max frowned. "I was forgetting," he said. "You are like my mother. Your mother, too, cannot forget when Alsace belonged to France. But—such talk is forbidden, Marie." She was just as she always had been, he thought; always laughing, always teasing.
"Forbidden? Why, Max!" Her hand fell on his. "What have I said, except what you said before me?"
"It wasn't what you said, but the way you said it," he replied.
"I jested, of course." Marie caught her breath and turned her face away. She was somewhat pale as she sat staring off across the valley.
Max watched her. "It is not well to jest about such things," he said in a voice which had grown a trifle thick. "But let that pass. You are like your mother, and my mother, too, it would seem, but—could you be still more like my mother was when she was young like you—could you love a German, Marie?"
Very slowly she turned her head, and her lips smiled softly. "Being your mother's son, you are only half German," she teased.
"So?" Max accepted. "Well, yes, that is true. But I am one who has given his service to the Fatherland, as no one can question. As my wife you would be safer—no one would question you then."
"Question me!" The girl's eyes widened swiftly. "Why, what do you mean?"
"Nothing," said Max, and told the truth. He had meant merely that as the wife of one who had served she would be in a position assured. "So, then, will you be my wife? We have known one another since we were children. Will you be my wife, Marie?"
Hot color dyed her cheeks. She bowed her head.
"Marie," he urged.
"Ich liebe dich," she faltered, hardly above a whisper, and flung up her head and turned her face to his. "Oh, Max, I never knew you cared."
Max told her the truth. "I did not know it myself until I knew I was coming home. Well, then, when shall it be? My hand will not keep me long from work."
Marie considered. "After the war," she decided at last.
"Himmel!" Zabern grunted. "After the war? Why not now?"
Marie met the question smiling. "Oh, now mein Lieber, there are things about which we would not agree."
Far over the hills beyond the valley appeared a number of dots. They looked like a covey of birds at that distance, but they came rapidly and swam above the valley, crossed it, and passed above man and girl with a rattle of whirring motors, to flit down the afternoon sky toward the west.
"Fokkers," said Max. "Coming from Strasbourg likely."
Marie nodded. "They pass here all the time."
"How far are the nearest enemy lines?" Max inquired.
"About sixteen or twenty kilometers. Quite often one may hear the sound of the guns."
"So? As close as that?" Max scrambled up and helped her rise. He was not at all displeased with the afternoon. One really relished the apple one climbed for the most, and he had made good progress for the first day home. He looked at the girl with an almost proprietary glance as they turned back toward the village. If it had not been for the mission on which Kummer had sent him, he would have been quite happy in a stolid sort of way.
But that mission was something not to be forgotten or delayed, and since Marie seemed to have failed him as a source of information, it appeared necessary to find another if he could. He went with her to her home, watched her flit up the path between the hollyhocks, turn to toss him a smile, and vanish into the house. He went back to the village and renewed some of the acquaintances of two years ago.
Though he questioned as casually as he could, careful always not to appear too anxious, he was unable to learn of any one unvouched for about the region, and made his way back to his home in a state bordering on disgust. He lay awake for a long time that night after he had retired, turning the thing in his brain, and after a time he thought that perhaps he was coming to understand. The Fokkers which had flown over the valley that afternoon first put the thing in his mind. Kummer had said the information was going out from back of this sector of the line, hence if there was no one here who might be suspected of sending it, then the spy might be somewhere else in the region. If Fokkers could fly west, allied air craft could fly east. They might even do so at times to meet their man and return with what he had learned. And—they would probably do that at night.
Therefore Max formed a plan and put it into operation. Making his hand the excuse for not opening his smithy as yet, he began to take long marches about the district always on the watch, yet always ready to stop and chat with any one he met on the chance that some dropped remark might give him the clue to the person he sought. He found, and made himself known to, the nearest garrison back of the lines, but he did not find the source of the information which Kummer had said was leaking out.
On two evenings of the week following his return he went to Marie Cirey's home and sat talking to the girl and her mother. Marie was frankly glad to see him, and their position of man and sweetheart leaped rather than grew into an accepted fact, now that it had found expression in words as it had that afternoon on the hill by the burial ground, when the Fokkers flew over their heads and on into the west. Marie laughed at him, teased him, was always finding some excuse to touch him with her hands. And the second night she followed him outside and kissed him before he went away. Yes, Marie was very glad to have him come.
But as regarded Madame Cirey, Max wasn't so sure of his welcome. More than once he found the older woman watching him out of her sharp brown eyes above her work. Indeed it seemed to Max that she regarded him at times almost with a suspicion which she never expressed in words. It was as though she was asking herself some question about him, not yet decided in her mind. It rather puzzled him if he let himself think about it, for she had never seemed so distant in the past when he had come to her home, or when, as an awkward, somewhat bashful youth, he came to see Marie. Then she had always appeared as glad to see him. And now she seemed actually ill at ease because of his presence. Max thought it rather odd.
Still—he had more important things to think about. He was failing in the work to which he had been assigned. He pondered it again that night as he trudged home with Marie's kiss warm on his lips. He had meant to be clever, but he had done nothing, and the thought annoyed him. He frowned; then stopped where he was, and his frown relaxed. Kummer had selected him, had said the information was going out from his part of the region. Kummer must have had some sort of rather definite knowledge. Therefore, if there were no strangers to be learned about, there was only one other conclusion to be reached, and Max reached it by a slow and sure process. Somebody not a stranger was sending the enemy word, and since Kummer had sent him here, Kummer must think it was here he was needed.
Though stubborn, somewhat stolid, Zabern was not a fool. He saw now where he had gone at the whole matter wrong, even in the time of his search. He must watch, not in the day time, but at night. He went toward home, stopped for a moment at his nearest neighbor's, then went on to his house, lighted a lamp, let it burn for a few moments, and then blew it out. He did not go to bed, but sat until every light in the village was dead so far as he could see. Then he slipped softly out into the starlit night and stole, not down the street, but back into the fields.
A rattle out of the air came to him where he lay stretched upon the grass. Max knew it, for he had heard it many times. It was a Fokker flying over. It passed and died away. Another came and went; Max could see them, dim flitting shapes against the stars. He lay there until a faint light crept into the east, then rose, regained his house without being observed, and slept late.
Another night and another he watched, and on the fourth there came a whirring out of the air. But now it was different—as different to the ears of one who had been trained to read it as the tones of two different pianos.
Max stiffened. This was not a Fokker. The drum of its motor had a wholly different note. And suddenly that drumming died. Plainly the pilot had shut off or his engine had stalled. Max lifted his head and searched the sky for the shadowy outline of the machine. All at once he saw it dimly, sliding silently down, down, until it passed below the lip of the hills and was lost.
Zabern had marked the line of the hills where it had disappeared, and, rising, he set off in that direction. He passed beyond the end of the village, and then went more cautiously, lest any noise should make known his approach, straining his ears for any sound from the vanished plane.
All at once the staccato pound of a motor suddenly sprung to life. Max stopped and stood rooted to the ground. The rising whir came from beyond him; from back of the dark mass of a tiny wood, and then the aeroplane was up, above the trees, shooting up and away in a long, rising slant, like some great night-buzzing beetle in its flight.
He knew now where it was. The little wood was that which stood between the meadow and the Widow Cirey's home, and the aeroplane had made a landing in the meadow. It was a very good place, and that the pilot had found it in the night showed something like previous knowledge of its existence, Max thought as he ran toward the wood.
He soon reached it, paused again, and glanced about before he entered its deeper shadow. Suddenly he crouched down, seeking cover as instinctively as some skulking thing of the wild, for his eyes had caught the pin-point of a light. A light in the village at two o'clock in the morning was not a usual thing, and there was only one place about here where that light could be—a window in the little loft of the Widow Cirey's house. It was stationary, steady. The thought flashed into Zabern's brain that it could be seen a long ways—from an aeroplane perhaps. His heart began beating slowly; his breath stuck in his throat. He turned away from the yellow ray and sought to pierce the shadows of the wood with his gaze.
His ears gave him warning first. Something was moving among the trees! There was a soft dragging. Max let himself down and lay upon his belly as the sound approached. But he did not think in a conscious way. His mind seemed for the time a blank—all its powers centered in the senses of hearing and sight.
A shadow detached itself from the background of the trees and advanced slowly on a line which would pass just beyond the point where he lay. It was the figure of a woman, bent halfway over, so that her hands might seize and hold some object she was pulling along through the grass and weeds. Intent on her task, she glanced neither to right nor left, but seemingly down at what she held.
Half on his hands and knees, like a creeping creature more than a man, Zabern followed, ready to drop down and lie flat if she should chance to look back the way she had come.
The woman reached the Cirey house. Max heard the door open, the noise of her burden being dragged inside with a soft, muffled scraping, then the door was closed. What might have been a full minute passed before the light in the window of the loft went out abruptly, and the whole thing was suddenly as though it had never occurred.
Max straightened from his crouching position, and stood alone in the night with a little breeze fanning about him. Now he knew what he had been trying to find out, and as he made his way back across the fields toward his house he understood why Marie had questioned him in teasing fashion about the war; why when he had said she would be beyond question as his wife, she had asked him in an almost startled manner what he meant. Knowing what she was doing, she had certainly thought for the moment that he might suspect or might have heard something about it in the village. It was plain now, too, why she had said she would marry him after the war, because before that there would be things about which they would not agree; why Madame Cirey was always seemingly ill at ease when he sat in her house at night. Oh, yes, Max understood it all now, and he had to admit it was clever in a way. The Fokkers were always flying over, and the meadow back of the woods was a secluded spot. But for the training of his ears he might not have picked out the different rattle of the engine of the allied aeroplane. Another hearing it would have passed it by, as it came only at night, when the village slept. He must be certain, and—he must think.
He regained his house, and sat down in his unlighted room. He turned the thing over with slow logic in his brain. He must find out the details, and be able to make his report beyond any chance of mistake. At length the same animal cunning—which had caused him to crouch to earth and which had kept him silent and watchful where another might have spoken or given some sign to warn the one upon whom he spied—came again to his aid.
The next day he opened his smithy, and in the evening went to call upon Marie. She was glad to see him, and Madame Cirey was far more cordial than she had been before. Quite plainly the aeroplane came to the meadow only at intervals, he decided, and it had come last night. He glanced at Marie. "Verdun has not yet fallen," he remarked.
"No, not yet." Marie smiled.
"I am not sure that it will ever fall," Max declared. "Still—they are sending in several new divisions."
Marie did not meet his glance directly. "How do you know that?" she inquired.
"Oh, I know—many things." Max nodded. He was following out the line he had laid down for himself, planned out that day while he worked about the smithy. "There is much I could tell. One hears things even in a hospital, Marie." And suddenly he sat up and took his pipe from his teeth and leaned toward her. "Yes, there is much I could tell if there were any way of getting that knowledge where it would do the most good; if "—he sank his voice—"there was a way to get it to—the people who hold Verdun."
"Max!" Marie Cirey sprang to her feet. Her eyes widened swiftly. Her lips parted. Her bosom swelled, and she raised a hand to her breast and held it there while she stood staring into the face of the man. "You—"she said in a whisper after a time.
"Marie!" Madame Cirey spoke from where she was sitting, beside the lamp, with the mending over which she seemed always busy.
Max turned his glance and found her eyes, dark and bright, upon him, her colorless lips set into a shadowed line. He held out his crippled hand, now free of the bandage, almost clawlike with its remaining finger and thumb.
"See you!" he exclaimed. "Do you think I forget this? And you must not forget that my mother was of Alsace, even as you, Mother Cirey, or that I am her son. What if I have fought in the German army? Could I do anything else, I who was a German subject? Had I a choice? Think you I may not have a choice now as to what I shall do? My hand I have given to the German, but"—almost unconsciously he voiced a paraphrase of Kummer's thought, spoken days before—"may I not now give my brains elsewhere if I so will?"
"And your brains could give information if there was a way to—use it?" Marie said quickly, before her mother could speak.
"Ja." Zabern's blue eyes did not waver as he made the reply.
"But—" Marie laughed. The sound was more that of nervous emotion than of any humor. "Did you not tell me that even to jest of anything contrary to German expectation was forbidden, Max?"
"Ja," he said again. "It is forbidden. One must decide whether he will obey."
"That is true." Madame Cirey caught up his words. "One must decide. And if there was a way to—use it—you would give—information?" she said slowly at last.
Zabern nodded. "Ja. I would give it now and you could write it down."
"I?" Marie caught her breath. Again her lips parted and her eyes went wide and her face a trifle pale.
"You, yes. You could give it to the aeroplane when it comes again," Max said.
And after that there was silence. Marie Cirey's face grew paler still, but her widened eyes did not falter, nor did she change her position, though her interlocked fingers gripped possibly closer the one upon the other until their backs grew white. "You—know?" she breathed in a sibilant whisper at length.
"I told you I knew many things." Max nodded his head.
"Who else—who else knows?" Marie's mother broke in with a question which quivered tensely. She laid down her work and sat staring at Max with her sharp brown eyes.
"No one, I think," he told her, and explained about the difference in the sound of the engine. "I was sleepless, and was walking the fields. I heard it come down, and started to find out about it. It flew away before I reached the meadow back of the woods, but I saw the light in the loft, and I saw Marie."
"You saw me! Why didn't you speak?" the girl exclaimed.
"I might have startled you—made you afraid," Max returned. "Besides I was surprised. I went home and thought. I made up my mind and came here to-night. What was in the thing you were dragging, Marie?"
"Tauben," she answered him in a word.
"Carrier pigeons," Max nodded. "Why so then we can write out what I know and send it off at once. It is important. That is better than to wait for the aeroplane."
"It comes only to bring the pigeons now and again. Mother?" Marie's last word was an appeal, a question. She turned toward the woman by the table.
Madame Cirey's glance rested on the face of her daughter, shifted, and seemed to search the heavier features of the man to whom the girl's heart was pledged. "It is what the pigeons are for, my children," she said after a time.
Marie nodded. She sprang up, smiling. She found paper, very light and very thin and very strong. She brought it back to the table, close to the lamp, and drew up a chair. "Tell me, Max, tell me, while I write it down," she prompted, and, lifting her eyes, ashine with emotion as he came to her side. "Oh, Max, isn't it splendid, when the body may serve the heart in its wish?"
"We will tell them of the new divisions to be sent in at Verdun," Zabern said. "Write what I say and be sure that you get it right."
In ten minutes it was done. Max had read it over, and Marie was rolling it up to be inserted in a quill for transmission. There was a great joy tonight in her heart as she carefully twisted the paper in her fingers, and there was a light in her face, a smile on her soft lips as she turned again to Max. "Come," she invited. "I shall show you where our little messengers are kept safe from prying eyes."
She led him to the steps that ran from a corner of the room into the cellar. With his hand in hers, she guided him down, bade him stand where he was until she found and lighted a candle, and gave it to him to hold. Then, while he watched, she approached the wall of the cellar, which was of rock, laid hold of a stone, and wrenched it out of place. Two other stones she removed in a similar fashion, and exposed a cavity in the earth, behind the wall. From this she dragged a wicker hamper which she set upon the floor. A rustle came from it—a sound of motion. Marie lifted the lid slightly, thrust in a hand and drew out a fluttering bird. While Max held this, she lifted the hamper back through the wall and replaced the stones. They put out the candle and went back up the stairs.
While Max watched, Marie affixed the tiny quill containing the message—that useless message which Zabern's strategy had suggested he should offer to send as an evidence of good faith. She took the bird in her hands and kissed it on the head, and over it with her lips against its plumage she looked into Max Zabern's eyes with her woman's soul in her own. "Come," she said, and rose. "Come, Max," and led him out of doors.
It was quiet there, quiet and dark, with a soft air blowing through the valley. Standing close beside him, holding the pigeon, Marie waited a moment, then tossed it into the air.
It fluttered and rose—was gone—lost to their vision in the night.
The woman turned to her companion. "Max," she whispered, "Max, dear—there isn't any reason why I cannot be your wife when you wish it. Kiss me, Max."
Zabern drew her into his arms. She was soft, rounded, yielding. "So you do not wish to wait until the war is ended?" he said in a voice which, though heavy, still shook as he felt the nearness of her form.
"Not now," she told him, with her lips on his. "Before—I could not have been your wife, and still have done my work for France."
"So that was it?" he muttered. She was a simple, honest little thing. She wouldn't give up her work and she wouldn't marry him and try to do anything against him or his or live a lie.
"Of course, stupid!" She laughed.
"Stupid I may be," said Zabern, "but I can understand a thing when I hear it. To-day I opened my smithy. I must see the results of my work."
Five minutes later he left her and turned along the road toward the village. He went slowly, because his feet lagged as he thought. He had meant to be clever to-night, and he had been. He had been very, very clever. He had fooled both Marie and her mother with his talk and that message of no value to those who would receive it, and he had learned all that Kummer had told him to find out. Still, he felt no elation in that; rather he felt something like a dull, gnawing pain.
Marie had been very sweet—very, very sweet—while they stood there in the dark outside the house. And her body had been so soft, so yielding as she lay against him. Every line of her feminine presence had cried to him in a voiceless appeal, and she had said she would be his whenever he desired. And he desired her, wanted her—as a strong man may. But he had told her he must first see the results of his work. There had been a sinister double meaning in that, which she did not suspect—which he had not meant her to even dream of. Only now he asked himself what the result of his work would be—not the work in the smithy, as Marie had thought, but that other work to which he had been sent by Kummer—that work which he had been told to do for the Fatherland, similar in its way to the work Marie was doing for France. Max Zabern clenched his one strong hand as he walked, and lifted his face to the star-sprinkled sky. "Herr Gott!" he questioned. "What is a man to do?"
Yet, even while he questioned, Max Zabern knew. Always he had been trained to obey. And was not the "certain" victory for which the High Command labored, a greater thing than the hunger of a human heart? Did not the needs of the High Command come always first? Had not he, Zabern, seen homes disrupted, men torn from wives, sons—yes, and daughters from mothers—in northern France and deported to do the work set them by the order of their conquerors? Pitiful, yes, if a man let himself think about it, but a thing brought about by the exigencies of the situation—by their own people's foolish resistance to the Fatherland's designs, and decreed by that same High Command which, through the person of Kummer, had set him also a task to perform. Kummer had said to his question: "It is an order." So, then, what was there to do but obey? What use to argue past that?
He was up and off with the first faint light, trudging along the road, away from the village with a face grimly set, toward the nearest garrison command.
He was back by the middle of the afternoon, somewhat hag- ridden by the knowledge that behind him a Vizefeldwebel and four men were headed for the village from the town to which he had gone. He entered the smithy and looked around. There was nothing to hold his interest there. He went into the house and sat down. But the room was hot with the afternoon sun, its air close.
He left it and went outside again and glanced up the street. No sign of the soldiers yet. Presently he turned back and gained the fields behind the house—those fields be had crossed two nights before, when the enemy aeroplane had come down back of the little wood behind Marie Cirey's home. He moved slowly across them now, and after a time, as he drew nearer the wood itself, he bent and went forward, skulking under such cover as he could find until he gained it, and had hidden himself behind a tree, from where he could see the little whitewashed house.
An hour passed while he stood there, shifting from one leg to the other. The sun was hanging just over the western line of the hills. And then he saw them—the Vizefeldwebel and his four men, five dusty, gray-green figures plodding heavily along the road.
They reached the whitewashed house, turned, and were lost to sight. Max could picture them passing between the rows of stiff- standing hollyhocks with their bells of pink and red and white Then once more he saw them coming around the house. He saw them halt, saw the Vizefeldwebel knock upon the door, saw the door open and the five men pass from sight.
A sudden weakness, such as he had never experienced before, came into his legs as he saw them vanish. His knees knocked together and he sank down to a sitting position without taking his eyes from the house. He began to breathe like one who has run far. After a bit he edged about the tree so that he could get his back against it, and sat flat-legged, watching for the five men to reappear.
What were they doing? What was going on inside the whitewashed house? Why didn't the men come out with the women they had come to take?
By and by the sun went quite down behind the hills and twilight fell. Still the Vizefeldwebel and the four privates had not reappeared. Zabern's eyes began to blur from the strain of his watching, and he rubbed them with his fingers. Why didn't the men come out? He commenced to feel a vague premonition of something amiss as the twilight deepened and the house became an indistinct mass. It struck him as very odd that they should have gone into it on such a mission and not come out.
Then he saw a light. It flashed from a window of that room where he and Marie and her mother had sat last night. He drew a deep breath. That was better. There was a sort of dumb reassurance in the light leaping up like that.
Very slowly he got to his feet and began to go forward through the grass and the weeds where he had seen Marie dragging the hamper of pigeons toward the house. He walked slowly, bent half over despite the cover of the darkness. Now that it was night he decided to see what was going on inside the room where some one had lighted a lamp.
By degrees he made his way quite to the house, sank down, and crept to a place beneath the lighted window, lifted himself, edged his head above the sill, and remained staring with starting eyes into the room.
It was occupied by a very strange company, Max thought, indeed. When he first caught sight of them he felt sure that he understood the reason for their delay in coming forth. The Vizefeldwebel and his attendants were still in the room. One of them had fallen on the floor, the Vizefeldwebel's head was sunk down so that it lay on the table. One of them was lying back in his chair with his jaw somewhat sagged, as though he slept in sodden slumber, and another had slumped down drunkenly where he sat.
That was odd enough in all conscience, but there was more yet to see. There were bottles on the table and glasses—one before each man's place—empty glasses—five of them in all. And there was a lamp on the table not far from the farther end—the same lamp beside which Madame Cirey had worked on her mending last night. And Madame Cirey was there at the end of the table now, so that the lamplight shone on her face. And she was smiling—smiling very queerly indeed, Max thought, and nodding her head, like one who bowed to this one and that of the Vizefeldwebel's men, who plainly didn't see her at all. And in front of her Max now noted a bottle, similar in every way to those others on the table.
So much he saw, and then quite suddenly he ducked down, because Madame Cirey lifted her face, and her eyes, very dark and seeming to glitter strangely, looked directly toward the window where he stood. Squatting against the wall of the house, Max frowned as he pondered what he had seen, the five men and the five empty glasses and the old woman nodding her head and smiling at her end of the table close by the lighted lamp. But there was no sign of Marie. What had become of her? Abruptly Max rose and passed with a heavy stride to the door, threw it open without so much as rapping, entered the room, and paused. "What does this mean?" he cried.
The woman at the table turned her withered face. Her dark eyes peered toward him. She simpered in a hideous way which showed her age-darkened teeth back of her bloodless lips. "Ah, Judas!" she quavered shrilly in recognition. "We have been waiting for you, Judas." She gestured toward the men about the table with a withered hand.
And those men were dead! Max knew it, knew it now that he saw them more closely. The aura of their dying hung in the closed-in atmosphere of the room as a faint taint in the air. In a stride he reached the simpering woman's side, seized her by her arm, and shook her with the impulsive fury of the realization. "What happened? What happened?" he cried
Her eyes, hard, dry, bright as the eyes of a mind unbalanced, lifted to his face. And again she leered. But she said no word; merely stared upward at him, with that horrible grin stretching the lines of her mouth and wrinkling her cheeks.
Zabern thrust her from him, so that she fell into her chair. His glance searched the room, came back to the Vizefeldwebel and his men and the five empty glasses before their places on the table. They were dead. But it was not to learn that that he had come. Once more he turned to the woman, who seemed watching his every action. "Where is Marie?" he spoke in gruff demand.
And now the woman by the table gave vent to an insane cackle. She nodded at the Vizefeldwebel and the bodies of his men. "Ask them," she said, and nodded again as she spoke. "They know."
"Herr Gott!" Zabern burst out. He twisted about on a heavy heel. There was no sense in the woman. She was crazy, to tell him to ask five dead men in answer to his question. He hurled himself in a rush at the closed door of a room he knew was Marie's bedroom, threw himself against it, and burst it open, peered into its small dimensions with pupil-widened eyes, reached the bed, and flung his arms across it gropingly, thrust a heavy leg and thigh beneath it in search of a crouching, hidden body, and found nothing, turned and dashed out of the room.
The woman still sat where he had left her. The simper had come back to her face. Her dark eyes met his, and she turned her head so that they followed him as he plunged into the other bedroom, failed once more in his search and came out.
He leaped up the stairs to the little loft where the light had burned the other night, reached the head, and stood peering into the shadows of the place. "Marie—Marie!" he called softly, and, gaining no answer, turned about and went down more slowly, while the woman at the table still watched.
He moved now in the clutch of a growing impression. The attitude of the old woman and her manner, the strange silence of the place and the presence of the five men were affecting him very oddly. They all breathed of something far more dreadful than he had touched as yet. And there remained but one place to search. The cellar! Suddenly Max knew that there he would find the answer to his question. Because the old woman had said the dead men knew, and—he had given very complete information to the commander of the garrison that morning; he had even told them how to find the pigeons back of the wall; the Vizefeldwebel had known just where to search when he came.
He caught up the light from the table, crossed to the cellar stairs, and went down, with the light lifted to throw its rays before him. He found what he sought at last.
The hole in the cellar wall was open. The hamper was out on the floor, and beside it was the form of a woman clad in a mere clinging shred of clothing, through which the beauty of her fair young body gleamed. She lay in what seemed a tortured huddle, her dark hair tangled about her face; the glaze of her dead eyes glistened as the lamplight struck them through her half-open lids, and across the bared whiteness of her body was a fearful sight—a great, gashing stab, which had nearly severed the breast before it entered her heart, from which the red blood was gushing.
"Herr Gott!" The words burst from Max Zabern's lips while he knelt and covered his eyes. After a time his lips moved again: "Marie!"
Horror—sick, blind horror—seized him. He turned drunkenly to the stairs, lurching and stumbling on their treads as he fled from that scene of ravished innocence to the room above.
The old woman was in the same place. Yet it would seem that she must have moved while he was below, because now, in addition to the bottle Max had noted beside her, he saw two other glasses, fresh and unsoiled by use.
Max replaced the light as she lifted her hard, bright eyes. "Did you find it, Judas—the result of your work?" she leered.
The result of his work! Heiliger Gott! The woman was quoting the very words he had spoken to Marie last night—to Marie, who now lay in the darkness of the cellar with her soft body gashed open, beside the wicker hamper. He drew back a pace, but without shifting his gaze from those eyes which seemed some way to hold him. "My work?" he found himself saying thickly.
The woman nodded. "He"—she pointed to the Vizefeldwebel—"told me, Judas. It was because of that I waited for your coming, because there could be no doubt you would come to see the result of your work."
A cold perspiration broke out on Zabern's forehead. His hand felt clammy and damp. He opened his lips as though to speak, but uttered no sound.
"Sit down, Judas," the woman said.
Her eyes still held him, and he obeyed and sank into a chair.
"They came," the woman went on. "They found the pigeons where you knew they were kept. But there was something else more to their liking than pigeons, Judas—a woman—a fair, young woman—just one for five human beasts. They drew lots for her, Judas. You remember the soldiers cast lots for the clothing of Christ, but these soldiers drew lots to see who should be the first to smirch the bloom of virtue in a little human flower. And"—she rose quickly, leaned over, and spat into the dead face of the Vizefeldwebel—"he won."
"But she fought," she said, sinking back. "You should have seen how she fought to protect that for which they had drawn lots. But—I am forgetting—you have seen that, haven't you, Judas—how she fought? She fought so hard that afterward they were thirsty from their work and demanded wine of her mother—the woman who had borne her for such a fate. I gave it to them, one bottle, two, three; you can see them on the table. I gave them a fourth, this one here beside me, which, knowing the German thirst, I had prepared while they were busy with the others. Only—the last, Judas, was not quite like the first. Into it I had put some of that substance I kept to kill other vermin in my garden. And after they had drunk it they became very tired—oh, very, very tired, as one may see from the postures into which they have fallen here about my table, where I have sat waiting for you. Because, you see, Judas, I knew you must come. It was but natural that you would be somewhere watching and would arrive when these other vermin of hell failed to reappear. And now that you have come, Judas, will you share my—hospitality?"
She lifted a clawlike hand and laid hold of the neck of the bottle. "See, Judas, here are two other glasses besides those five soiled ones from which they drank. Five for them, Judas, one for you, and one for me. Seven in all. And there is wine—not much, but enough. Will you drink with me, Judas, of this wine, which will make you forget—many things—and give you—rest?" She broke off and sat staring at him above the slanted neck of the bottle in her hand.
But Zabern made no reply. A hand seemed gripping his throat, choking his breath back into his chest, where his heart was beating slowly with dull, heavy strokes. It was an icy hand which appeared to have slipped up back of his jaws, defying any articulate answer to the woman's words.
"Come, Judas—will you drink?"
"Nein!" Suddenly Max found his tongue. He sprang to his feet. He had for the moment but one thought, one wish—to get out of this room of death, to get away from those dark, insane eyes under the gray hair in the midst of that wrinkled, leering face.
A cackle of mocking, sardonic laughter broke forth in the room. "No!" clucked the woman. "No!" As abruptly as her laughter had begun, it was checked. She rose, lifted an arm, and pointed to the door. "Then go, Judas—get you gone—to the hell of your thoughts—from which there is no escape—except—to drink—and forget!"
Toward the door Max Zabern flung himself, dashed through it into the night, running, running, running with heavy feet which pounded dully away from the whitewashed house, toward the woods, and blindly through them, to the meadow where the aeroplane had come down before he checked his course.
At last he found himself sitting in the little burial ground beside a rocked-in rectangle of flower-planted earth—that grave which had been so carefully tended by Marie. "Mutter," he said dully; "Mutter!"
Hours passed, wherein Max lived over his life, his childhood, boyhood, youth, and manhood, leading back along the path of the years to this night and the horror of the whitewashed house—the horror from which he had fled here to his mother's grave, cared for and tended by the hands of the girl he had betrayed.
Judas, the girl's mother had called him, her mind unhinged by that same horror which she had witnessed in all its dreadful details, because what had come to pass was the result of his work. It was to that he had betrayed her like that other Judas; betrayed her with her kiss upon his lips.
Kummer would be glad of that, glad of that horror, glad to know it. He would consider it but another incident in the progress toward the final fruition of the plans of the High Command. The High Command! Who were they? What right had they to order things which swept aside all the principles of human goodness, compassion, mercy, decency, right; which controverted all the standards toward the perfection of which man had been striving for centuries past; which took husbands, fathers, sons and made of them brute beasts to blindly do their bidding because it was "an order" to be obeyed; which sent him here to crouch in the night beside the grave, feeling that the name of Judas was one deserved because of the horror which had resulted from the work they had sent him to do?
He lifted his face and gazed at the star-sprinkled heavens. His mother was dead. This was her grave here, which Marie had tended. His father was dead, because the High Command had needed him in their plan. Marie was dead, and the Vizefeldwebel and his men. They were dead, too. And he sat here in the night, alone now in all the world.
By and by as horror had driven him forth, so horror led him back. There was something like a dreadful fascination about it. It seemed to call him, draw him to what it held. He found himself wondering what he would find on his return; if the old woman would be still sitting there at the table with her bottle of wine and the glasses, staring at the dead men out of her dark, bright eyes.
He approached it from the front, passing along the path between the hollyhock rows and so around to the rear.
A faint gray light was stealing up over the eastern hills, but the lamp still burned and the door was open, just as he had left it in rushing forth hours ago. The old woman still sat in her chair, but her head, too, had fallen forward upon the table, beside the bottle and the lamp, and—there was a sixth soiled glass where there had been only five before.
Max nodded in comprehension. He understood. She had not waited for his return after he rushed out to that hell of his thoughts, the remorse which had torn at his breast all night like the fangs of a wolf. She had drunk her portion of the wine.
Walking on tiptoe, he crossed the room and lifted the lamp, then went softly to the corner where the stairs led down to the cellar. He crept down slowly, made his way to the body, beside which he knelt and held the light above the motionless face.
A sound fell on his ear. It came from the hamper on the floor. Max approached it on his knees, and lifted the lid. A pigeon crouched within, looking up at him out of yellow-brown eyes. He took it in his hand. For a moment he thought it odd that the Vizefeldwebel and his men should have left it alive, but then he understood that it had been of far less interest to them than the girl whose tender body lay beside him here on the floor.
Catching the pigeon between the clawlike finger and thumb of his ruined hand, he took up the lamp and made his way back up the stairs.
He knew where Marie had kept her supply of paper and the quills. He had seen her produce them the night before. He found them now and a bit of pencil, and sat down to write. Very slowly he formed the message he wanted to send—the story of what had happened in the whitewashed house. He rolled it up and put it into the quill and affixed the quill to the pigeon, just as Marie had done.
His mind went back to the dead girl beneath him on the cellar floor. The lamp was dying now, its flame smoking and guttering out. The gray light of morning was to his sickened fancy a funeral pall. There was even a chill in the air. There was the chill of death all about him.
There was one way to escape the hell of his thoughts. That was to drink and forget. The old woman had said that just before he had rushed forth into the night. And what had that other Judas done when his work had been finished?
Very slowly he drew the unused glass and the bottle to him. Still holding the pigeon, he lifted the bottle and poured out the wine. It filled the glass and ran over on the table in a dull red flood—as red as blood—as red as the wound in the white breast of the girl he had betrayed.
The pigeon, held fast in his hand, sat warm against his flesh. It turned its head and watched him out of its yellowish-brown eyes.
"To the High Command!" said Max Zabern, and drank——the seventh glass.
The fingers which held the pigeon relaxed; it stirred. Then, finding itself freed from all restraint, it spread strong, sure wings, and, as Zabern's spirit passed his cold lips, flew out of the open door.