Four thick-necked, grey-haired German officers were seated at a long table in the front room of a chateau that had been in German hands for more than three years. Candles flickered uncertainly on the table, lighting the center of the large room but leaving the corners in dim shadows.
The four officers sat stiffly erect, without comment, their eyes on the double door as though they were awaiting someone. Outside, on the stone flagging of a courtyard, sounded the heavy tread of a Prussian Guardsman walking guard before the sanctum of these "Most High" ones who sat so stolidly waiting.
The resounding footfalls of the guardsman came to a clicking halt, followed by a guttural challenge which was replied to in a softer voice. The guardsman again took up his beat.
A moment later the door to the council room opened. A smooth-faced, blond young man stood at stiff salute in the doorway—dressed in the uniform of an English officer!
For a long minute he stood at salute while the four at the table eyed him studiously. Then the hand came down, and a quick smile spread over his face as he stepped forward into the brighter light of the room. He carried in his hand one of the swagger sticks so commonly used by English officers.
"Well, Herr Hauptmann," he addressed the officer at the head of the table, "do you find my disguise, and my English, sufficiently correct?"
"Correct, yes," the heavy-jowled officer replied in German, "but not pleasing, Count von Herzmann. Himmel! How I hate the sight of the Englander's uniform and the sound of his thin, squeaky tongue. And I say to you again that this wild plan of yours is a fool's errand. I would forbid it, had you not gained the consent of the General Staff. I do not understand it. You are too valuable to the cause for the General Staff to permit you to take such a chance. I say again, it is a fool's errand."
Count von Herzmann smiled reassuringly. "Fool's errand, Herr Hauptmann?" he responded in German. "Is there anything more precious to our cause than to learn just now where this next blow is to be struck? For the past ten days all of our secret operatives have sent us conflicting reports. The English and the French are too quiet on their fronts. It presages a storm. As for the Americans, we need not worry. They are still boasting of their victory at St. Mihiel. They will not be ready to strike again before late Fall—perhaps not until Spring. We must—"
"Speak in English," interrupted one of the other officers. "Much as we hate it, we must see to it that it is perfect."
"Right you are!" von Herzmann replied with the perfect accent of a well-bred Englishman. "My three years' schooling in England was not for nothing, sir. Accent top hole, eh, what! Rawther." He smiled at his own mimicry. "I was saying," he went on, "that we must discover where the English will strike next. Victory depends upon it."
"Ja, das ist richtig" spoke up the stolid Oberst-leutnant, who had been listening without comment as his grey eyes, deep set under stiff, bristling eyebrows, appraised the confident von Herzmann. "Ja, we must learn where the swine strike next. But must it be you to take the chance? You know the cost—should you fail?"
"Quite well, sir," von Herzmann replied, smiling. "A little party in front of a firing wall with myself as the center of attraction. Ah, well! What matter. I have about played out my string of luck in the air. Sooner or later, there must be an ending. I have a great fear that it will be the luck of some cub, fresh at the front, to bring me down. Ha! How he would swank around, boasting how he brought down the great von Herzmann. Bah! Death, Herr Hauptmann, I do not fear in the least, but I hate the thought of a cub boasting over my bones. Besides, there are no new adventures left for me in the air. I am a little weary of it all. But this—this is new adventure and—"
"And deadly dangerous," reminded the cadaverous, thin-faced officer at the far end of the table.
"If not dangerous, it is not adventure, sir," von Herzmann replied. "Do we not all enjoy the thing that presents some hazard? Youth lives it; age thrills to the reports of it. If I fail, I fail. If I succeed, the Fatherland is well served and I've another adventure in my kit. Perhaps even another bit of iron to dangle on my coat, eh? Rawther jolly prospect, what?" He again smiled at his own mimicry, as well he might, for the accent was perfect. "But I won't fail, Herr Hauptmann." He became serious as he drew some papers from the breast pocket of his well tailored, though well worn, English uniform coat which bore the marks of campaigning. "See," he said, tossing down a little black fold which the English issued to officers for identification, "I am Lieutenant Richard Larkin, R.F.C., known to his familiars as 'Buzz.' The picture, you will notice, is my own, placed there after we had carefully removed the one of the gentleman whose uniform and identification card I am to make use of.
"This," he tossed another paper on the table, "is a pass to Paris, properly indorsed, and giving authority for refueling and repairing, if needed. Neat enough, eh? The date, unfortunately, was originally in April, but our Intelligence section has some very clever penmen and you will note that the date now appearing there is as of September the twenty-sixth, and the period of the pass is for five days."
"The twenty-sixth!" exclaimed the Oberst-leutnant. "So soon! That is the day after to-morrow."
"Yes. Our operative will cross the lines to-morrow evening, just before sundown, in a two-seater Nieuport. He will land just back of Montfaucon, and I will then re-cross the lines, will be set down back of Neuvilly and will then begin the great adventure. I am to be back within five days, or—" he shrugged his shoulder expressively.
One of the officers banged his fist on the table. "It is a fool's errand, I repeat, a fool's errand! If this operative, with the Americans, is back of Neuvilly, what is he doing there? Perhaps the Americans are there in force, preparing to strike here."
"Impossible!" the senior officer snorted. "Attack the Hindenburg Line? The Americans are stupid, but not so stupid as that. We know that a few Americans are in the sector south of Vauquois Hill. They are relieving the French there. And for what reason? So that the French may be moved up in the Champagne, east of the Meuse. That is where the blow will be struck. But, even so, I have not the faith in this Operative Number Eighty-one which the High Command seems to place in him."
"He has brought us much information," one of the others reminded.
"Yes, erroneous and tardy information. Not one thing have we learned from him but what was too late to be of value. And much of it inaccurate."
"Not always," von Herzmann replied. "He brought correct and timely information concerning the movement of that new American pursuit squadron, you will recall. And but for the accursed luck that brought those French Spads upon us at the wrong time, my Circus would have potted half of them."
"Luck!" the senior officer retorted, heatedly. "You call it luck! It was luck that we did not lose you and that you got your crippled plane back across the line. But can you be sure that those Spads came upon the scene, at the right moment, by chance?"
Count von Herzmann shook his head. "No, Herr Hauptmann, in this war we can be sure of only one thing—death, if the war continues. It must be brought to a speedy close. Daily, now, we lose ground. It is because of this that I made the urgent request to be permitted to undertake this mission. But," he smiled expansively, "be not too fearful or alarmed. If I fail, if there be trickery in it, you shall have the privilege of avenging me."
"How do you mean, avenge you?"
"Herr Hauptmann, war is a world-old game, with modern applications. You have read, doubtless, how in the olden times hostages were held?"
"It is not always effective, but it furnishes the crumb of revenge and retaliation. I am not without some fear for my safety, and because of that I will provide a hostage."
"You talk in riddles."
"Perhaps, but I give you the answer. Operative Number Eighty-one will come for me in a two-seater just at dark. But he will not be the one to take me back."
"Das ist ziemlich gescheit!"
Count von Herzmann shrugged his shoulders at the exclamatory surprise and compliment. "Clever? No. Merely an old custom borrowed from old wars. Operative Number Eighty-one will be held at the headquarters at Montfaucon—pending my return. If I do not return in five days, then he too will hold the stage a brief minute before a firing wall. Then, perhaps we will meet beyond the Great Line—where there are no wars or rumors of wars. Is there anything else you have to take up with me now, Herr Hauptmann?"
"Ach, yes! If you are successful, and return within your scheduled time, how will this operative, held at Montfaucon, make a satisfactory explanation to the Americans regarding his long absence?"
Count von Herzmann snapped his fingers. "Poof! That is secondary, and a problem which I leave to the superior mind of Herr Hauptmann—and the High Command."
Wheels Within Wheels
Near noon, the following day, a motor cycle with side car snorted to a sudden stop at the newly erected hangar tents of an American Pursuit Group, and McGee crawled stiffly from the bone-racking, muscle-twisting "bath tub." He thanked the mud-splashed, goggled driver, adding, by way of left-handed compliment, that he had been given more thrills in the last five kilometers than he had received in all his months in the Allied Air Service.
He turned toward the hangar. There was but one ship on the field, a two-seater. By its side stood Siddons and his air mechanic. They seemed to be in close-headed conference.
McGee clicked his teeth in a little sound of suppressed emotion, slipped through the hangar door and stood face to face with his own old Ack Emma.
"For the luva Pete!" exclaimed the startled air mechanic. "When did you get here, Lieutenant?"
McGee extended his hand in greeting. Williams grasped it, eagerly.
"Well, for the luva Pete?" he repeated, lacking words in his surprise and pleasure. "Lieutenant Larkin! Oh, Lieutenant Larkin!" he began roaring. "Oh, Bill! Where's Larkin?"
"Just left a minute ago," came a voice from under the hood of a new Spad. "Went over to his quarters to wash up. Grease from head to foot."
"I'll go show you his quarters," Williams said, eagerly.
"Never mind, I'll find him," McGee said. "Have to check in at headquarters first. I hear Cowan is still C.O."
"Yes, sir. He sure is. And he's a darb, Lieutenant."
"So I hear. Piling up quite a record. How many of the old gang still here, Williams?"
"Not many. If the Hun doesn't get 'em, nerves and the smell of castor-oil does. Half a dozen of 'em gone flooey in the stomach. Couldn't eat enough to keep a bird alive and couldn't keep that down. It's a tough game, Lieutenant. Next war that comes yours truly is going to join the infantry."
"Don't do it," McGee warned, as he turned away. "I've just had a little experience with the infantry and it's not such a bed of roses. See you later, Williams."
"Well for the luva Pete!" Williams commented to himself, standing arms akimbo as he watched McGee cross over toward headquarters. "And they said that bird's head was busted wide open and his brains scattered all over France. Now there he is, big as life. I'll bet ten bucks to a lousy centime he lives to fall off a merry-go-round and break his neck. For the luva Pete!"
McGee's return to the squadron would have been fittingly celebrated but for the fact that five o'clock the following morning had been designated as "zero hour" for the greatest drive ever undertaken by Americans on foreign soil. He had arrived just in time to hurl himself into the feverish preparations for the support which all air units must give the massed ground forces that would hurl themselves upon the supposedly impregnable Hindenburg Line. With the coming of dawn the combat squadrons must gain and hold air supremacy. Nothing less than complete and absolute supremacy would satisfy Great Headquarters, who in planning the drive were high in the hope that the fresh divisions of American soldiers could break through the Hindenburg Line and by hammering, hammering, hammering at the enemy force him into peace terms before the coming of winter.
McGee was tickled pink by his timely arrival, but it was not all a matter of rejoicing. For one thing, it seemed that almost the entire group was made up of new faces. Of those flight pilots whom he had first met when he came to the squadron as an instructor, only three remained—Yancey, Nathan Rodd and Siddons. Of course Larkin was still on top, and Cowan not only held his command, but had established quite a reputation. Yancey had earned the right to a nickname more appropriately fitting than "the flying fool," for he was anything but a fool and his mounting victories proved that he had something more than luck.
Nathan Rodd, his nerve unshattered by his first unfortunate encounter with the enemy, was still as taciturn as ever, preferring to let his deeds speak for him.
As for Siddons, McGee could get no information out of Larkin save that everyone thought that Siddons had some pull. A good flyer, yes, Larkin admitted, but forever cutting formation, flying off where he pleased, absenting himself for two or three days, and returning with the thinnest of excuses. But he got by, somehow, and Cowan was the only one who appeared friendly toward him. For the past twenty-four hours, Larkin told McGee, Siddons had been working on a two-seater and had made two test flights. No one seemed to know what was back of it, but rather believed Siddons was to be transferred to Observation, at least during the coming battle.
To this information McGee made no reply, but secretly hoped that Siddons was in fact being transferred to Observation, where his activities would be more easily accounted for due to the fact that he would be carrying an observer.
Late that afternoon rain began falling, and at mess time the mess hall became the stage for exceptionally spirited banter and wild conjecture as to what would happen on the morrow. Confidential battle orders carried the information that artillery preparation would begin at midnight, continuing with great concentration until 5:30 a.m., zero hour, when the attacking forces of nine American divisions would storm over the top in the beginning of a titanic struggle to carry the famous Hindenburg Line and sweep the Germans back through the Argonne and beyond the Meuse.
Every fighting unit had been given comprehensive plans of the objectives and of the ground over which they were to advance. The air units were especially drilled in the battle plans, for Great Headquarters would look to the Observation section and to the pursuit planes for a full measure of information as to how the battle went.
Major Cowan's pursuit group was only one of the many ready to begin operations on this new front, but none could have shown more enthusiasm and eager expectancy than did this group of young men who wolfed down their evening meal and jested in a strained, light-hearted manner that betrayed the nerve tension under which they were laboring. To-morrow morning was the start of the Big Show!
All the pilots were present at this meal save Siddons, who had taken off alone, in a two-seater, a few minutes before sundown. He had let it be known that he was reporting to Observation for special duty, and no one seemed sorry to see him go.
The evening meal was scarcely finished when McGee and Larkin were forced to withdraw from the good-natured kidding match by a summons to report to Major Cowan. They obeyed, grumbling, and with heated, spirited contention that they were beyond doubt the most command-ridden lieutenants in the entire A.E.F.
"He wants to spend half the night with those maps all of us have been getting goggle-eyed over for the last two days," Larkin complained as they approached Cowan's hut. "He's a map hound, if there ever was one! I think that bird knows every trench line, strong point, pill box and artillery P.C., between here and Sedan. And so do I! He's pounded it into my head."
"I wish I knew as much," McGee quickly resigned himself. "This drive is all so sudden and unexpected, to me, that I hardly know where I am right now. I've an idea the Old Man is going to tell me I can't go along."
"Don't worry, fellow," Larkin told him, pausing at the Major's door. "Every guy with two arms, two legs and two eyes will be along on this little fracas. Believe me, this is to be some show!"
As they entered they noticed that Cowan stood with his back to the door, bending over a large map spread out on the table.
"What did I tell you?" Larkin whispered to McGee. "We're in for a session of night map flying."
McGee did not hear him. His interest was upon a sergeant and four privates who were seated on a bench against the wall just to the right of the door. He noted that they wore side arms only, and that on their sleeves were the blue and white brassards of the Military Police. M.P., eh? Then something was up!
Cowan turned from his map. "Ah, you are here. Sergeant," he addressed the non-com in charge of the detail, "post your detail just outside the door and wait. If anyone approaches with a—ah—prisoner, admit them."
"Yes, sir." The detail filed out.
Cowan saw the look of question on the faces of the two pilots.
"You are wondering why they are here, eh? Well, they have been sent down from Corps Headquarters to take charge of a prisoner. We hope to hold a little reception here within a short time—possibly any minute now."
"Who is to be honored, Major?" Larkin asked.
"A rather well known gentleman," Cowan replied, tantalizingly. "Both of you are quite well acquainted with Lieutenant Siddons, I believe?"
Larkin looked at McGee in astonishment.
"No, sir," McGee replied to Cowan, "no one in this outfit knows that fellow very well."
"Quite right," Cowan agreed. "Lieutenant Larkin, I recall that you lost your old R.F.C. uniform a good while back."
"And in the pocket was your old identification fold, and certain other papers? An old pass to Paris, for one thing?"
"Why—yes, sir. The identification card was there, but I don't recall what I did with that old pass."
"It was there," Cowan told him, "and it grieves me to inform you that the uniform, and all that the pockets contained, was stolen by Lieutenant Siddons."
"What! Are you sure?"
"There is no doubt about it. Furthermore, he delivered them into the hands of the enemy." Larkin was too dumbfounded for words, but McGee displayed little surprise.
"So you have at last found out what I knew all along, Major?" Red asked.
"Not at last," Cowan replied, with meaning emphasis. "Your uniform, Lieutenant Larkin, will be returned to you soon—we hope."
"Oh!" McGee jerked his head toward the door. "So that's the reason for the M.P.'s. You are going to nab him?"
"Not exactly that." Cowan was enjoying the curiosity provoked by the suspense he was creating. "I believe both of you have heard of a certain German ace, Count von Herzmann?"
"Have we!" Larkin replied.
McGee ran his fingers along a white scar still showing through the hair which had not yet grown out long enough to be the flaming red mop of old.
"Seems I've heard of him," he said. "And I seem to recall that one of his flyers left me this little souvenir on the top of my head. I'd like to pay the Count back—in person."
"You'll never get the chance!" Cowan replied. "But if all our plans work out, you will meet him in person soon—in this very room!"
"What!" It was a duet of surprise.
"Yes, here. Count von Herzmann in person—and in Lieutenant Larkin's long lost uniform."
Both McGee and Larkin sank weakly into two convenient chairs, the expression on their faces disclosing that they were trying to select the proper order of the first of a thousand questions.
"Well—what's that to do with—with Siddons?" McGee at last found stammering tongue. "Where does he come in?"
"He comes in a few minutes after the Count. He will land the Count in a field near here, let him alight, and then take off again and proceed to this 'drome. The Count, left alone, will doubtless make his way into the woods bordering the field, where he will promptly be nabbed. That little drama should be taking place now. For your information, the credit for this coup goes to Lieutenant Siddons."
McGee and Larkin stared at each other, scarce believing their ears.
"Well what do you know about that!" McGee's half audible remark was the trite expression so commonly used by those who are staggered by a sudden revelation.
"I know all about it," Cowan said, actually laughing—the first time either of the others had ever heard him even so much as chuckle. "I know all about it, and I've called you here for two reasons: I think you, McGee, are entitled to see the next to the last act in this little—ah—tragedy, I suppose it should be called; and I want Larkin to be present when his uniform reappears. I might need him for purposes of identification."
Cowan lifted a protesting hand. "Don't ask questions. Better let me tell it. The story will have to be brief, and a bit sketchy, for time flies. The things you don't know about all this would fill a book. Perhaps I had better start at the beginning:
"In 1914, when the war first broke out, the man you know as Siddons was living in Germany, with his father and mother, and was in his second year in a Berlin university. He was born in America, of German-American parents. For your information, his right name is Schwarz, not Siddons."
"I always thought he looked like a German," McGee said.
Cowan merely nodded. "Naturally, he does. His father, who had come to America in his youth to escape four years military service with the colors, developed into an exceedingly shrewd business man and had been sent back to Germany as the Berlin representative of one of our large exporters. Though he had become an American citizen, he was, quite naturally, genuinely sympathetic with Germany as against England and France. But when it began to be almost a certainty that America would be drawn into the war, the Schwarz family held a family conference and the old man declared himself as being loyal to America, his adopted country, if war actually came.
"During the months of strained relationship between our country and Germany, the Schwarz family had to keep their mouths shut and saw wood. Then, suddenly, America declared war. Many Americans, and German-Americans, were caught in Germany. This was the case of the Schwarz family. The old gentleman was arrested, in fact, and the military authorities claimed that since he had never served with the colors he was subject to their orders.
"Then young Schwarz—the man you know as Siddons—saw a chance to relieve the pressure and at the same time serve America in a most unusual way, a way not possible with one man in a million."
"Serve America? You mean Germany?" Larkin interjected.
"I said America," Cowan replied testily. He did not like to be interrupted. "You'd better let me tell it my way. As I was saying, Siddons, claiming to be in complete sympathy with the German cause, offered his services to them as a secret agent, unfolding a plan which they, in their alarm and need, swallowed—hook, line and sinker.
"The plan was this: He proposed that he be given instruction in secret service work and then be returned to America, where he would pose as a loyal American, get in the army, and serve as an under cover man for Germany. They fell for it like a ton of brick, following the stupid reasoning that because of his German blood he must by nature be truly German. It may sound funny to you, but they preach that very thing, and they truly believe it.
"Well, certainly young Schwarz was cast perfectly for the role. He was widely travelled, spoke German fluently, and his English was flawless. They were quick to see the advantages. His proposition was accepted. He was given a brief schooling in their spy system, and then, for show, he was ordered out of Germany—under the fictitious name of Siddons.
"The rest was easy. We had a very poor spy system at the beginning of the war. There was no such branch of service as we now call G 2. But it was forming, and to them Schwarz made his way, unfolded his plan, and after a careful checking up on his story they decided to take a chance. A spy within a spy! Wheels within wheels! It was a great idea. Do you see it?"
His two auditors made no sign other than a staring, amazed look.
"G 2 was at first suspicious," Cowan went on, "but he gave them so much information concerning actual conditions in Germany that they could no longer doubt him. They sent him to an aviation training school, telling him to guard his neck at all times and not run any undue risks.
"You know the rest—or most of it. He has been invaluable to us, and to-night he will pull his greatest job. And since I have made free to tell you all this, you may be certain it is his last trip across the lines. He reports that the German High Command is getting a bit suspicious, and he dare not trust his luck much further."
McGee, who had been listening with intense interest, exhaled audibly as Cowan finished his narration. "Well!" he exclaimed. "I'll never jump to conclusions again. Now I know why that fellow has always acted like he was answerable to no one but himself. And I thought him yellow! And next I thought he was a spy. Well, I was right about that—but the wrong way around. I take my hat off to him! It takes nerve to fill his job."
"It does indeed!" Cowan agreed fervently. "Perhaps you recall how I bawled him out for cutting formation over Vitry that day when we were on our way up for our first action? And how I sent him over the lines on a mission to locate von Herzmann's Circus?"
McGee nodded. "I certainly do remember it. You sure said plenty!"
"Hokum! All hokum!" Cowan said. "Actually, he was going over on a daylight mission of an entirely different nature, and what I said in your presence was merely to mislead you. Unfortunately, you happened to see him running the Archie fire and saw the signals which he had used again and again in crossing over. When you reported to me, we feared the cat was out of the bag. There seemed to be only one way out—to pledge you to secrecy and lead you to believe that we were simply waiting for the proper time to bag him. I knew you would keep your word, and that is another reason why you are here—as a sort of reward. You are the only one who has ever had any such suspicions."
Larkin laughed, mirthlessly. "That makes a lot of chuckle-heads out of the rest of us, doesn't it?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Lieutenant. But you did make life rather hard for Siddons. He was afraid to form close friendships. Poor Hampden was the only one he was ever very close to, and Hampden was as ignorant of the facts as any of you. Siddons had to be careful. He knows that the Germans also have spies. Should they get proof of his duplicity, he would be a doomed man."
"Well," McGee sighed again, "he can have my share of that kind of service. I prefer to meet mine without any blindfold over my eyes. I'll make my apologies to him, and admit to his face that he has more nerve than most men I know. But there is one thing I can't get through my head, Major. How could he keep fooling them if he never took them any information?"
"He did take them information. But it was always so cleverly false—just near enough the truth that he could hardly be blamed for not having it more accurate—or else it was the real truth but too late to be of any value to them. You can be sure we gained by his work."
"One more question from me, Major," Larkin spoke up. "What makes you so sure that Count von Herzmann—"
The door was thrown open by a helmeted, muddy doughboy sergeant from the lines. Then into the room, followed by the mud-spattered doughboy and the M.P. detail, walked a smiling, confident, blond young man, attired in the uniform of a member of the British Air Forces.
The suddenness and surprise of the movement started the ends of Cowan's moustache to twitching.
"Sir," spoke up the muddy infantryman, "here's that bozo we all been lookin' for."
Major Cowan arose. "Count von Herzmann, I believe?" he said as calmly as though it were a social meeting.
The prisoner lifted his eyebrows in well feigned surprise. "There is some dreadful mistake here, Major," he said with a calm assurance as he took from his pocket a small identification fold, bound in black leather. "I am—"
"Just a moment," the Major interrupted. "Permit me first to introduce one of these gentlemen. Count von Herzmann, this is Lieutenant Richard Larkin, whose uniform you are now wearing and whose identification card you hold in your hand. I am sure you are glad to meet him."
For the briefest moment von Herzmann's mouth dropped open. He knew the jig was up! Almost immediately, however, he regained the debonair, easy grace of a splendidly poised loser. He bowed to Larkin, who stood with mouth agape and eyes popping out.
"I am indebted to Lieutenant Larkin for the use of his uniform," von Herzmann said. "I regret that it will probably be returned to him with bullet holes in it. Oh, well—such is war, eh? Perhaps he can find some satisfaction in keeping it as a souvenir. He can point to the holes and say, 'Count von Herzmann, the German ace and spy, was just behind these holes.'"
Every man in the room felt awed and a trifle uneasy. Here was a man whose cool courage they could envy. Not every man can face death with so grim a jest.
"However," von Herzmann turned to Cowan, "it gives me pleasure to report that I foresaw the possibility of this very thing and so arranged matters that a certain Mr. Schwarz, whom you call Siddons, will be shot five days from now."
"What!" Cowan stormed. He wheeled to the sergeant. "Sergeant, where did this man—"
"The sergeant doesn't know," von Herzmann put in. "He is the third man in whose charge I have been placed. Perhaps you had better let me tell you, Major. Your planes are quite wretched and inferior, sir, and when the engine of the one I was making use of died suddenly, we were forced to land quickly and take what the Fates had in store. We struck an old shell hole, turned over, and my pilot was killed, poor fellow! Too bad it wasn't the other way round. He wore his own uniform, and could hardly have been shot as a spy."
Cowan sank into a chair, rather heavily. His poise was no match for von Herzmann's, who seemed to be getting a keen delight out of the Major's discomfiture.
"I was not at the controls," von Herzmann continued, "but the engine sputtered as though it were out of fuel."
Major Cowan nodded his head sadly. "It was. Poor Siddons was right," he mused, seemingly unconscious for the moment of the presence of the others.
"Only half right," von Herzmann corrected, smiling.
"No," Cowan replied with spirit, "all right. He feared you might become suspicious and double-cross him, and with that in mind he put just enough gas in the tank to carry the plane there and part way back. He made rather careful tests. But he installed another tank, with a feed line that he could cut in—in case he were flying the plane. If not—well, you see what happened."
Count von Herzmann merely shrugged his shoulders at this piece of news which must have been irritating in the extreme. "Ah, well," he said easily, "one cannot think of everything. In our haste to get away, neither I nor my pilot thought of that possibility. Very clever fellow, this man Schwarz. We both made good guesses, and we both lose. Kismet! We both serve our country, and we both get shot. So be it. Wars are very old, Major; death quite as common as life; and the old Hebraic law still operative—'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!' In this case, an ace for an ace and a spy for a spy. Even up, and the war rolls on. I wonder, Major, just when it will close?"
Seemingly, as in answer to his question, from toward the front came the sudden roaring of thousands of guns. Doors rattled, the ground quivered, and through the window the sky was alight with a pulsating red-white glare.
For a few minutes every man in the room stood listening.
"What is—that?" Count von Herzmann asked at last.
"The beginning of the end," Cowan answered. "You wondered when it would come. Soon now. Nearly five thousand heavy calibre guns are blowing your trenches to bits, and will continue until we go over in the morning."
"So?" The German's face was a picture of pained surprise. "So the attack comes here? Gott! Had I known—had we known." He paused, obviously pained, then again resumed his jesting poise. "You can be sure, Major, that I regret I am not on the receiving end of your artillery preparation and that I shall be unable to meet your squadron with my Circus to-morrow morning over the lines."
"I dare say," was Cowan's reply as he turned to the sergeant in charge of the Military Police detail. "Sergeant, take charge of the prisoner and deliver him to First Corps Headquarters. And make sure that he does not escape."
The sergeant saluted, grinning expansively.
"He's got a fat chance to get away from me, sir," he said. "I'm the spy bustin'est baby in this man's army."
"You will treat him with courtesy," Cowan ordered. "He is a brave man."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant replied. "So was Nathan Hale, sir—but he got shot just the same."
The Last of the Big Shows
The following morning had no dawning. A light rain had fallen during the night and a heavy, obliterating fog arose from the wet earth, blanketing hill and valley alike. So dense was it that troops in the front lines, peeping over the top in anxious nervousness as they awaited the zero hour, saw nothing but a wall of white that made the shell-tortured land before them more mysterious than any dream of battle ever fancied.
What did it hold? Where were the German lines? And just what had been the effect of this five hour tornado of screaming shells?
Machine guns, under cover of the fog, were boldly mounted on the trench parapets. They danced and chattered on their tripods as they pounded forth streams of lead upon the unseen enemy positions.
Zero hour at last! Along the line officers blew shrill whistles, or some, calmer than the others, gave the signal with a confidently shouted, "Let's go!"
Over the trench tops poured thousands of khaki clad warriors, sallying forth in the most resolute endeavor ever attempted by American troops.
They had not advanced ten feet from the trenches before the fog swallowed them, magically, and many were never to retrace their steps. The big show they had so long waited for was here with an ear-splitting, nerve-racking tempest of thundering guns. The Big Parade!
At any other time the air forces would have stayed safely at home, not daring to take wing on such a day when the ceiling was scarcely higher than a man's head. But now they must go out, at any cost, blindly flying and vainly seeking some view of the advancing troops. But they went out singly, for to attempt formation flight on such a morning would be to court disaster and death.
McGee and Larkin were the first of the squadron to take off for the front, the interval between their time of departure being sufficient to avoid any meeting as they climbed.
The fog bank was much thicker than McGee had anticipated. At a hundred feet he could not see a thing above, below, or on either side. He headed his new ship, a swift Spad, in the direction of Vauquois Hill, intending to cross the line there and hoping that the crest of the hill might loom up out of the fog.
Vain hope. It was impossible to see a thing. Any minute he might go plowing into some hillside or foul his landing gear in the tops of trees. It was eerie business, this flying by instinct and facing the dreaded possibility of coming a cropper.
Several times he cut his motor, and at such times could hear the din of battle below—and it was not any too far below, either.
Added to the fear of crashing was the thought that any second he might cross the path of a high angle shell which had been directed at some enemy strong point. It was not a pleasant thought, but he could not shake it off. Certainly the air was full of them, and if he was to get any information as to the progress of the battle he must keep low and accept all hazards. Then too, there was the chance that he might meet up with some other plane drilling through the fog.
"Well," he thought aloud, "I'm a poor prune if I lose my nerve now. I expressed my opinion of Siddons—and gee! how he'd like to be facing no more than this."
It was a depressing, angering thought. Five days, von Herzmann had said. Then Siddons would face a firing squad. In the meantime, there was no human agency, on the Allied side of the line, that could stop the inexorable march of time and the certain death which this man must meet.
It was this latter fact, the feeling of helpless impotency, that fired McGee's brain with reckless daring and sent him boring through the fog like an angry hornet.
He soon found that this was of no avail and at last, seeking something that might be of value, he climbed out of the earth-blanketing fog into the clear sunlight, encountering clear blue sky at some fifteen hundred feet.
Below him, now, was a billowing sea of fog banks, tinted by the sun which had climbed about it. A short distance ahead he sighted an enemy tri-plane Fokker, but before he could give chase it had dived into the fog.
Over to the right, in what he thought must be the general direction of Montfaucon, he saw a single seater Nieuport cruising around.
He headed for it, and soon identified it as Yancey's plane. The wild Texan was sitting above the fog, patiently waiting (as a cat waits for a mouse) for some observation sausage to come nosing out of the fog. Tex knew that the sun would eventually burn up the fog. The enemy, also knowing this, would be sending up their sausages so as to have them in position when the fog passed. Certainly the enemy had reason to see all that could be seen, for by this time they must be hard pressed indeed.
Directly in McGee's path, about half way between his plane and Yancey's, a black, formless bulk loomed out of the fog. A sausage!
McGee drove hard for it, and noted that he was in a race with Yancey, whose quick eye had sighted it.
The black bag was hardly out of the fog bank when tracers from McGee's and Yancey's guns began streaming into it. It exploded with amazing suddenness, the flaming cloth sinking back into enveloping billows of fog.
Yancey banked sharply, flew alongside McGee and shook his fist as though to say—"Go and find a rat hole of your own. This is my territory."
McGee chuckled. The Texan, instead of trying to catch some view of the far flung battle lines, was out to increase his score.
McGee dived back down into the fog, hoping that it might be lifting. Down below, he knew, a mighty struggle was on. Lines of communication would be shot all to pieces in the rain of heavy shells. Great Headquarters would be waiting anxiously for some news of the real status and progress of the battle.
At 8:30 the fog was still holding over the field and McGee reluctantly turned his ship homeward.
By that sixth sense which the seasoned pilot has, or develops, he found the field. No one had been able to catch sight of the ground forces.
Cowan was storming around, under pressure from headquarters.
"It's information we want," he told the pilots as they came in, "not a tale of what can't be done. Get back over the lines. This fog will pass. This is not a job for an hour. Headquarters wants information. Get it!"
To McGee, he said, with something of a sting in his voice, "Considering the chances Siddons used to take, I'd think this squadron—his own group—would be equal to this task."
It was a lash. Furious, yet realizing the justice of the taunt, McGee again took off, determined not to come back until he could bring some real news of the battle's progress.
That was the longest, hardest day ever put in by American aviators. They had little trouble in gaining and holding air supremacy, but they had a most difficult time, when the fog finally lifted, in getting any accurate information.
The advance had been so rapid, and so successful, that the Hindenburg Line had been carried by the soldiers in the first few hours of battle. But in pressing forward, in the fog, they had been unable to keep in close liaison. Instead of being a well-knit whole, they were little more than a storming, victory-drunk mob. They stopped at nothing—and nothing could stop them. As for displaying their white muslin panels to airplanes so that their positions might be known—poof! They were too busy to fool around with panels and those dizzy air birds who never did anything but fly around and look for panels. Panels be hanged! This was a day for doughboys and the bayonet!
That night, after mess, the members of the squadron sat around in glum silence. The success of the day, with reference to gains, was great indeed, but Cowan was riding with whip and spur. He seemed not at all pleased with the work of his own group. Added to this, word had gone around of the dramatic happenings of the previous night, with the result that Siddons, the most disliked man in the squadron, had suddenly become their mourned hero. Even now they counted him as dead, for one precious day had already slipped away and nothing in the world could save him. The success of the day seemed as nothing by the side of this tragic fact. Not the least distressing thought was the fact that they had treated him as one who had never earned the right to a full fellowship with them. And now they knew, too late, that he was a man of surpassing courage. They even learned, from Cowan, how Siddons, working with the French, had plotted trapping von Herzmann that day when the squadron was attacked for the first time. The lucky arrival of the French Spads, they now knew, was not a matter of luck at all, but a daring plan to overwhelm the greedy German war eagle and rid the air of him. Yes, Siddons had courage and brains. There was no longer any doubt of that.
Yancey voiced the thoughts of every man present when he said: "It wouldn't be so tough if he could get it in the air. But this way—at a wall—is tough."
"What about von Herzmann?" Fouche asked. "I guess it was tough for him, too."
Yancey grinned and scratched his head. "You know," he drawled, "down in my home state, we sometimes make a mistake and slap a brand on a calf that's not really ours. Well, that's not so awful. But when somebody else makes the same mistake, it's stealin'—pure and simple. War's a lot like that. We only see one side of it, and for my part, I'm fed up with seein' that side. Boy, I hone for Texas."
McGee and Larkin, as flight leaders, had been called to Major Cowan's headquarters for the usual evening conference. The Major declared himself as displeased with the work of the day, but both of the young pilots, experienced in the ways of the army, realized that Cowan's displeasure was but a reaction from pressure being put on him by the "higher ups." The General Staff, they knew, must be gratified with the success of the day, for all objectives had been taken and the enemy sorely pressed. It was true, however, that communication had been far from perfect. Liaison had broken down, and the ground gained, therefore, was the result of the grim determination of the soldier of the line to end the thing speedily rather than to a perfect coordination of all arms.
"But, Major," McGee was defending the work of the squadron by pointing out the unusual and unforeseen obstacles, "we couldn't see our wing tips until after nine o'clock, and when we could see, those doughboys wouldn't display their panels. They acted like they thought we would drop bombs on them. It's hard, Major, to get men to show white panels when they are under fire. They are afraid that the enemy will see them, too, and blow them off the face of the earth. It is always a hard problem."
"All battle problems are hard," Cowan replied. "The commanders of the troops in the line are being ridden just as we are. The General Staff feels that victory is in sight. They will accept nothing but the best of work, and we must do our full share."
"Yes, sir, of course. But I think the troops are to be congratulated for their success, and certainly this outfit was lucky in that we didn't hang any planes on the top of Vauquois or in the woods. Four balloons and three E.A. is not such a bad record for a day like this. We held complete supremacy."
"Congratulations will be in order after a complete success, Lieutenant. Now for to-morrow—here, see this map." Larkin winked shrewdly as Cowan led them over to a detailed wall map. "The lines of departure are here. Our most advanced positions, now, as near as we can tell, are well beyond the Hindenburg Line, with the Hagen Stellung line of defense facing our troops to-morrow. Montfaucon, the enemy's strongest point, and for months headquarters for the Crown Prince, blocks the way for the 5th Corps. It is a commanding and strong position. No one knows just how strong it is."
"Pardon me," a voice came from directly behind them, "but I know a great deal about its strength."
So interested had they been, that they had not heard anyone enter. At sound of the voice they wheeled around. There stood Siddons, mud from head to foot but smiling expansively.
"Siddons!" Cowan exclaimed. "You?"
All three of the startled men rushed forward to wring his hand. There was a hubbub of excited talk and exclamations of surprise, with no chance for the mind to put forth logical questions. Cowan was the first to gain some degree of composure.
"Heavens, man! How did you get here?"
"Crawled, walked and ran, and the last few miles in a side car," Siddons replied. "Last night, at midnight, I was being held at Montfaucon under the trumped up pretext that a staff officer was on his way down to see me and that I was to take off with von Herzmann later in the night. But I knew that von Herzmann had taken off with another pilot, and I knew that the jig was up. They weren't accusing me of anything—as yet—but they were very quiet and their manner told me all I needed to know. Then, bing! the barrage opened up. It was some surprise. They hadn't the foggiest notion that a blow was to be struck here. Almost the first pop out of the box that long range railway rifle at Neuvilly dropped one of those big G.I. cans just outside of headquarters. There was a grand scramble for the deep dugouts. You never saw so many High Ones streaking it for safety.
"I made tracks too, but I missed the dugout door—by design! Pretty soon another big shell came along and flopped down near the same place, but by that time I was a long ways from there and going strong.
"The night was as dark as the inside of a whale, but the glare of light from the guns on our side gave me direction. The rest was comparatively easy."
"Easy!" Cowan exclaimed. "How in the world did you get across the line?"
"Major, the confusion was so great, due to that barrage, that I could have led an elephant up to the line with no one taking the time to challenge me. You forget that my German is quite good. On a dark night, well covered by a German officer's coat, which I borrowed from a chap who won't ever need it again, it was not a difficult feat. Believe me, my biggest worry was that I would get sent west by one of our own shells. When I reached the front line I crawled in a funk hole and waited for dawning and for our own troops to come along. And when they started, man! how they came! The enemy is completely disorganized, Major, and victory will be ours within a month or six weeks. Maybe sooner. The Germans know it. Montfaucon will fall to-morrow. This is the last of the big shows."
He paused, and his eyes, which McGee had always thought so cold, twinkled with merriment.
"By the way," he said, "at Division Headquarters of the 79th, where I made a report and was given transportation back here, the Intelligence Officer told me a spy was nabbed last night—a chap by the name of von Herzmann. Plane forced down, the officer told me. I wonder if it could be possible that he ran out of gas?"
"Yes," Cowan replied, catching the spirit of the banter, "he ran out of gas."
"Tut! tut!" Siddons mockingly reproved. "Wasn't that a careless thing for a great ace to do?"
Ace One who has brought down five enemy air craft.
Ack Emma Air Mechanic. In military service certain letters are given distinguishing sounds, such as, A is Ack, D is Don, M, to distinguish it from N, becomes Emma.
Aileron Moveable segments of planes, which, though of small surface, control the lateral balance.
Albatross German combat plane.
Archie Anti-aircraft artillery fire. Probably so called because of arc of the projectile's flight.
Backwash The wind wash caused by the propeller.
Barrel roll A wing over acrobatic manoeuvre.
Black roses Puffs of black smoke appearing suddenly as shell explodes high in the air.
Blighty English slang for a wound. Generally applied to a wound serious enough to cause removal to England.
Blipped his motor Raced; rapid advancement of throttle.
Blotto To become unconscious.
Brass hat A General Officer, commonly used by British soldiers.
Bucked Encouraged, made confident.
Caisson An ammunition wagon for mobile artillery.
Caudron Early type of French plane. Slow and poor climber. Later used for instruction ship because of high factors of safety.
Ceiling Sometimes designates highest point to which a certain ship will climb; again, the altitude of cloud banks or fog stratas obscuring ground vision.
Circus Name applied to certain large air groups of the German army.
C.O. Commanding Officer. Applied to any who command a unit.
Contour chasing To fly low, following the contour of the ground and zooming over natural and artificial obstacles.
Crate Derisively applied to any old, or badly worn plane, or to ship types not liked by the pilots.
Dawn patrols Patrols going out for combat at dawn.
Dog-fighting Wherein a number of planes engage in a free-for-all fight. Generally develops into an every-man-for-himself fight.
'Drome Applied loosely to both hangars and landing fields. An air base.
E.A. Enemy Aircraft.
Elephants Semi-circular huts of steel, capable of being moved. So called, probably, because of color, and size.
Ferry pilot A pilot used to fly ships from aviation pool or supply base up to active squadrons.
Finis la guerre End of the war.
Flying pig A large projectile from a type of mortar used by the Germans. Could be seen in flight and because of appearance and size were nicknamed "flying pigs."
Fokker German plane. Very fast, good climber.
G.H.Q. Great Headquarters.
G 2 Intelligence Department of Great Headquarters. Great Headquarters was divided into several groups, designated, for convenience, by lettered numerals, such as G 1, G 2 and G 3, etc.
G.I. cans A large shell. Because of size and usual coat of grey paint, soldiers declared they resembled the galvanized iron cans used for garbage. Hence, G.I. Can.
G.O. General Order.
Hedge hopping Another name for contour chasing. Flying dangerously low and zooming over obstacles.
High-tail A plane, when at highest speed possible straight ahead, carries its tail high. To high-tail means to go at highest rate of speed.
Immelmann A sudden turn, reversing the direction. First used by a German aviator, Immelmann, and later used by all air pilots.
Intelligence That section of Great Headquarters devoted to the handling of all spies and the collection of information concerning the enemy. The activities of the department are too great to be outlined in a brief definition.
Liaison Contact, communication with. When several units are operating in unison, each dependent upon the other, the contact and coordination is called liaison—a French word.
Limey Nickname for a British soldier.
Looie A Lieutenant.
Observation balloon A captive balloon, of sausage shape, carrying an observer whose duty it is to spot artillery fire, etc. The balloon is paid out on a cable attached to a winch. Such balloons are always given protecting ground batteries to ward off enemy planes.
Observation bus Generally a two seated plane, carrying pilot and observer. Slower than pursuit planes, but more heavily armed.
O.D. Olive drab; color of uniform.
Old Man Captain, Major or Colonel. Usually applied to commander of the Units.
Panels White muslin, cut into various shapes, to designate positions of various headquarters, such as Regiment, Brigade, etc. When spread on the ground, pilots could see them and report positions. It was extremely difficult to get ground units to display them, since enemy planes, seeing them, could give location to their artillery.
P.C. Post of Command. Applied to any headquarters company on up.
Poilu French private soldier.
Pursuit pilot Pilot of combat plane.
Put the wind up To frighten; to cause to lose courage or morale.
Revving To accelerate motor rapidly.
Ring sights Type of sight designed to make it possible to get on a rapidly moving target. Much time was spent in training pilots in gunnery and proper understanding of ring sights.
R.F.C. British Royal Flying Corps.
Saw bones Army surgeon.
Sent west, Going west To be killed, to die.
Side slipping To slip off the wing.
Solo First flight student pilot makes alone.
Spandau German machine guns used on combat planes. Twin guns, frequently, with single control.
Stall To climb so rapidly as to stall the motor, putting upon it a load heavier than it can continue to pull. If care is not taken to ease off, plane will go into a spin.
Tarmac The line of departure on the field. Often applied to the entire field.
Toot sweet Tout de suite—French phrase, adopted by Americans. Quickly, hurry up, at once.
Tri-plane German planes, especially Fokker, had short fin-like projections under the usual planes, and while quite short, and not a true plane, gave the ship the name of tri-plane. Were quite fast, good climbers, and manoeuvred easily.
Upstairs Generally applied to high altitude flights. Sometimes applied to any flight, regardless of altitude.
Very light pistol A type of pistol used to fire a shell somewhat larger than a 12 gauge shotgun shell, and which contained luminous star signals, such as red stars, green stars, white stars, etc. The meaning of the signal depended upon the color and number of these floating stars.
Wash-out To destroy, or badly damage a plane. Variously applied. Sometimes applied to planes obsoleted by the air service.
White roses Allied anti-aircraft artillery used high-explosive, which showed white on bursting. Germans used black powder, which showed black.
Wind sock A conical strip of cloth on a staff atop the hangars to give pilots wind direction.
Wipers Nickname soldiers gave to Belgian town of Ypres.
Yaw off To slip off desired direction due to lack of speed or wind resistance.
Zoom To pull the nose up sharply and climb at an angle too great to be long sustained.