"Fortunate," he told himself, "for it'll drown any sounds that I may make. First thing will be to investigate the back of the house, where there's that glimmer. I shouldn't wonder if it was the kitchen."
Stealing round towards the back of the house, and passing through a wicket-gate which gave entrance to the farm-yard, he tiptoed across the cobbles of the latter, and was brought up sharply by cannoning into a barrel, which fell over with a crash. Instantly Henri leapt against the wall and crouched in the deep shadow, fearful lest the noise should have alarmed the inmates, or, worse still, should have set some watch-dog barking; but no noise followed to tell him that his presence was detected, while, as if to give him greater assurance, the notes of the organ and that deep, manly voice came even louder to his ears, proving that those within the house had heard nothing.
"It's a chance in a hundred," he told himself. "Here's the back door—shut and locked—eh? No, not locked—opens easily, and—and—ah!—the twinkling light is caused by a fire—a kitchen, right enough—that looks like food; now where is it?"
Entering the place without hesitation, he groped about till his fingers lit upon a dresser, and then upon a candle, which he lit by bending over the flames of the fire and igniting the wick. Then he made a thorough search of the place, only to discover that there was not a scrap of food present. However, there was a door leading out of the back of the kitchen into a small outhouse, and there he found a larder well stocked with provisions.
"All's fair in love and war," he said, as he looked about him. "A sausage—eh, that's something—and a round of beef, which is something better. Here's a loaf of bread, and, 'pon my word, a basket and some bottles of beer—what more does a fellow want?"
To appropriate the articles, to pop them into the basket, to blow out the candle, and to march from the kitchen were the work of a few moments. He slunk away from the farm, out through the wicket-gate, along the path which he had pursued, back towards the river, and then gave vent to a whistle. There came at once an answering whistle, and, getting his direction from the sound, Henri soon found himself by his companions.
"W—w—what have you got?" said Jules, his teeth chattering, his words broken and shredded by the cold from which he was suffering. Even the stalwart and healthy Stuart was no better.
"Y—y—yes?" he demanded, though there was no fire in his question, and but little eagerness. "W—w—what the d—d—dickens have you got in that b—b—basket? Lor! W—w—what a weight it is, and, by all the saints! b—b—beer bottles—well I'm b—b—b—blest!"
"You're beastly cold at any rate," said Henri; "too cold by far to enjoy cold bottled beer, cold beef, and cold sausage, while I'm beautifully warm, thanks to the exercise I've been taking. Look here, you fellows, it's no use our attempting to stay out here and eat our rations, for we'll catch our death of cold; and no wonder, seeing that it often freezes at night in this season. I'll tell you what we'll do. There's not a dog in that farm which I have just visited, and there are outhouses in plenty. Why not make our way to one of them and make a bed in some straw or hay if possible."
In any case active exercise was what was required by Jules and Stuart, for after their immersion in the river, and the thorough soaking they had received, lying still in the grass at the side of the road waiting for Henri's return—a cold and chilly business at any time—had become doubly cold. They were chilled to the bone now, their teeth chattering so hard that it was with difficulty they could speak, while a natural appetite—an appetite increased by their enforced abstention from food during a whole day, their rapid crossing of the country since they had broken out of Ruhleben, and their movements on this evening—was dulled by the temperature to which their bodies had been lowered. "B—b—beastly cold," Stuart admitted, and he was the very last individual to grumble as a general rule. "S—s—sound c—c—common sense, Henri. Let's get off to these b—buildings and search for some hay. Somehow or other we must get some warmth into our bodies."
He stood in the darkness before the other two, swinging his arms with vigour and trying to beat some sort of circulation into his frigid fingers; then, picking up the basket as if to increase the warmth of his body by added effort, he went off beside Henri, Jules marching on the farther side, his teeth still chattering, utterly cold and miserable. However, the sharp walk to the farm made them feel warmer, so that they had almost stopped shivering by the time they reached the yard. From outside the window of that front room, which was still illuminated, they listened to the sound of the notes of the organ which was still being played, and to the music of that deep bass voice still warbling in the interior.
"Jolly nice it sounds too," said Stuart, "and I reckon that anyone—even a German—ought to be able to sing when in a comfortable room, probably with a nice blazing fire. A nice fire, Henri—a nice fire. George! wouldn't that be ripping!"
Henri led them on round the end of the building, through the wicket-gate into the yard, and halted again outside the kitchen door. If only they had dared enter in a body, if only they could have found a welcome in that warm place, how great a relief it would have been, what comfort it would have brought to them all, and what a pleasure it would have been after the life they had lived in Ruhleben. But if they had found little comfort in the camp where they had been interned, if they had found few or no friends amongst their guards and amongst the staff appointed to watch over them, they were just as little likely to discover friends outside the camp in any portion of Germany. Indeed, every part of the land of the Kaiser was inhabited by a people antagonistic to the last degree to an enemy amongst them. In those early days, when Henri and Jules had first been captured, the arrogance of their captors, the hatred of the mob, and the unbridled passions of the Kaiser's people might easily have resulted in those two hapless prisoners being torn to pieces. But for the police they would probably have been slain in the streets of Berlin, for, thanks to them, all but minor injury was forbidden, while insults, blows if possible, and curses were hurled at them. But that was in August, 1914, at the commencement of the war—a war for which Germany had prepared during forty-two years of peace, a war anticipated and waited eagerly for by multitudes of Germans, and one which they believed was to make them the ruling nation of the world. That was in August, 1914, as we have said, and now see the change. Months had gone by since Germany, prepared to the last detail—with an army in full readiness and trained for its task, and with a population trained also for helpful service to the army—had thrown herself upon Russia and France and Belgium, had found them unprepared, had beaten them back, had decimated the country of King Albert of the Belgians, had made Louvain a shambles, and had set the streets of Dinant running with the blood of her victims. Yet she had not triumphed. She had captured enemy country, to be sure, she had driven France and the British ally—which had so quickly come to the side of the French—back towards the sea-coast, and she had hurled Russia out of East Prussia, and, after the sturdy advance of the Grand Duke Nicholas into Galicia and the fall of the fortress of Przemysl, had fallen upon him with mighty force, had discovered the Russians short of ammunition and of artillery, and had driven the forces of the Tsar back towards Warsaw and other cities. Yes, Germany had gained much territory, and had lost many, many lives. Yet, see what now faced her; not victory, but embarrassment on every side: a trench-line running from north to south in Russia—a trench-line against which her weakened battalions had battered in vain, a line held by the forces of the Tsar, even though short of ammunition, so securely that Germany could not advance; and on the west another trench-line, which, after the battle of the Marne, had been extended westward and northward to the sea-coast and blocked the advance of the Kaiser's forces just as securely as did those lines in Russia.
In short, the triumphal march of Germany had been abruptly stopped, in spite of those forty-two years of preparation. The prize so nearly seized—so certain to fall to the armies of Prussia, as the people of Germany thought—Paris, in fact, had been snatched from the armies of the Kaiser at the very last moment; the cup of triumph had, indeed, been dashed to pieces on the Marne, where French and British soldiers, turning at bay after that glorious retreat from Mons, had fallen upon the Germans, had driven them north across the river, had sent them fleeing to the Aisne, and had there read them a lesson.
Possessing still much territory of her enemies, but checked on every side, Germany had yet not achieved her object by a great deal. She had, in fact, failed most utterly and most miserably; for to have proved successful—as successful as she had designed and had confidently hoped to be—she should, in the first few months of the war, have thoroughly beaten the French and have crushed the armies of the Tsar. But she had failed to do either, in spite of her treacherous invasion of Belgium; for the coming of the British had helped not a little to turn the tables. It had held up the advance on Paris, it had helped to drive the Germans over the Marne, it had held the gate to Calais at Ypres—where the forces sent from England had shattered the Prussian Guard, the best of Germany's troops. Indeed, one may say that the inclusion of Great Britain in the fighting had given vital assistance to France and Belgium and Russia, had gone some long way to check the mad triumphal rush of the German bully upon her unready enemies, and had assisted in the erection of that barrier of trenches which held the enemy in check; while, beyond the fighting-line, Britain called for her volunteers to form new armies, and France completed the mobilization of her men and made ready to shatter the invader.
Disappointment had taken the place of elation, of arrogance, in Germany. Bitter hatred of England was paramount, and, next to it, detestation of France and all that was French. Such hatred was greater, we may say, amongst the civil population of Germany than amongst the men in the army. Indeed, so great was it that had the treatment of prisoners of war been left to them—treatment none too good and often diabolical when conducted by officials of the army—not a prisoner would have survived; and, for the same reason, escaping prisoners, such as Jules and Henri and Stuart, might look for little else from the inhabitants of Germany than blows, than immediate betrayal to guards, than persecution and harsh treatment.
"Here we are on the far side of the yard, and this looks like an open shed in which carts are stored. Yes, carts," repeated Henri, having driven his shin rather violently against a shaft, and with difficulty refrained from giving loud expression to his feelings. "Let's have a look at the roof. Stop here a minute, while I prospect and see whether there's a loft."
Stepping back into the yard, he stared up overhead, and, thanks to the fact that the night was not excessively dark, was able to detect the line of roof as it cut across the sky. From its height it gave promise of a loft under its shelter, and, searching round for some access to it, Henri presently stumbled upon a wooden staircase. Clambering up it, he was astonished to find a glimmer of light coming through the chinks of a door on his left, and, applying his eye to those chinks, discovered a fire burning on a brick hearth in a room of small dimensions. To open the door quietly was the most sensible procedure, and, lifting the latch and pushing the door before him, he carefully investigated every corner of the room.
"Looks as though it were used by some farm hand, or a groom of some sort," he told himself. "In any case, it's warm and comfortable and untenanted, and will allow us to strip off our clothes and dry ourselves."
Turning abruptly on his heel, he crept slowly down the staircase, and very soon had brought Stuart and Jules to the warm quarters he had discovered. There, indeed, they stripped off their wet clothing and hung it in front of the fire, which, by diligent prodding and by an addition of logs which lay beside it, was soon giving off a fine heat, and was crackling and blazing merrily.
"A mighty fine feed," declared Stuart, now without a stutter in his voice and without a chatter about his teeth. "Henri, my boy, you're a nobleman, or ought to be one; and if you aren't, all I can say is, that the French Government don't know what they're doing. And because why? Well, now, I'll just tell you," he proceeded, his mouth half full of sausage, a huge piece in one hand, and a slice of bread in the other, while between his feet, as he stood on the floor, there rested a bottle of beer already opened. "Because why, my boy? Well, here's the reason: our friend Henri contrived, in the first place, to attract our attention to a spot in Ruhleben where escape seemed possible—I'm not going to say that he was the chief cause of our undertaking the venture, but he was one of us—accompanied us to the outside of the entanglements, and led us away from the camp. It was his and Jules's idea to escape those dogs by swimming and floating all this distance down the river, and, though we ain't altogether clear of 'em yet, we're on the high road to be so. But—and here I'll take a denial from no one"—and at that moment he looked across at Jules, as if to challenge him to controvert the statement—"but our friend Henri is the man mainly responsible for bringing us to the farm, for procuring, first of all, food and drink, and then providing warm quarters. If I was the French Government, he'd have every honour possible. As it is, why—well—" said Stuart, hesitating, and taking another bite of sausage, "why, now—I'll drink his health, and that's the best I can do at the moment."
He lifted the bottle, and, tossing his head back, let the frothy fluid, so beloved of the Germans, trickle into his mouth and down his throat, and, gasping at last, replaced it on the floor beside him. Yes, it was a meal which delighted the hearts of all three of them, a meal to be looked back upon, one which, if they escaped safely from the country and lived to tell the tale, would be spoken of in glowing terms as a reminiscence to be thankful for, and an item amongst hundreds during their adventure to be emphasized, to be picked out as momentous, and to be expatiated on in the warmest language.
"And now, what do we do?" asked Stuart, when the meal was finished and each had enjoyed a cigarette—for the cautious Stuart had brought some with him. "One's natural inclination is to stretch out on these boards and sleep in the warmth of the fire; but that, just as naturally, raises the question as to whether it would be wise, and as to whether it would not lead to certain discovery in the morning."
"Of course we could take it in turns to sit up and watch," suggested Henri, yawning widely as he spoke; "but then, we are all of us dead tired, and the chances are that anyone who attempted to keep awake would be overpowered by drowsiness. It looks to me as though it would be far better for us to clear up the mess we have made and to retire into the loft; that is to say, if there is one. And I've another suggestion to offer: it may be that to-morrow we shall find our exit from the farm cut off, or we may find that we have to keep away from all dwellings as we cross country; that points to the need of replenishing the commissariat at this stage, particularly as we know that there is food almost within a stone's throw of us."
The big, beefy, ruddy, and smiling face of Stuart was turned upon him promptly.
"My boy," he exclaimed, smacking Henri heavily on the shoulder, "my boy, didn't I say that you were deserving of the highest honours, and here is another reason for giving you rewards. The idea of food for to-morrow had escaped my notice altogether, and I would say that both Jules and I were so satisfied with what we have had that we didn't give a thought to it. But it's just plain common sense—the common sense which you seem to have got a store of, Henri—which should prepare us to look to to-morrow, to make provision for the future, particularly when it can be done so easily. You get off, Henri, but take care that that fellow with the voice doesn't spot you. Jules and I will search round in the buildings for a loft, and then we'll return to this room and wait for you."
Separating at the door of the room, and leaving a goodly portion of their clothing still hanging in the warmth of the fire, the three parted, Jules and Stuart clambering up the staircase, which ascended again after it had passed the landing at the door of the room they had just vacated, while Henri slid to the floor below, and, marching into the yard, crossed to the kitchen doorway. Pausing there for a while, he listened for the notes of the organ, and presently heard them and the sound of a woman singing, a coarse, guttural, bucolic voice, very different from the other. As for the kitchen, the fire still flickered on the hearth, while the place was untenanted, and once more Henri, emboldened by the success of his previous visit, lit the candle at the fire, looked serenely about him, and entered the little storehouse at the end of the kitchen.
Perhaps three minutes later he emerged from that place with two baskets more than fully laden; for, be it mentioned, if the towns and cities of Germany at these times were feeling the pinch of war, if the blockade of the British Fleet had deprived the Kaiser's subjects of many food-stuffs and other commodities, and if, indeed, as undoubtedly was the case, there was shortage in many parts of Germany, there was still without doubt, abundance in many a farm and homestead, abundance, that is to say, of home-produced articles. Thus, there were strings of sausages in that larder, ready for the hand which sought to take them, there were hard-baked biscuits and bread, and home-brewed beer in abundance. It was indeed with provisions and drink enough to last for several days that Henri struggled from the larder into the kitchen, and, having blown out the candle and replaced it where he had found it, went to the door that led to the yard and made ready to emerge from it. It was indeed in that precise position that his further progress was suddenly arrested; for, as he pulled the door open and prepared to step into the yard, a gang of men came to the corner of the building, and, thrusting their way through that gate which gave admission to the yard, suddenly accosted him in the doorway. They were Germans; they were a party of guards sent from Ruhleben; and beyond them, secured to leashes, were a couple of dogs, sent with them to hound down the prisoners who had escaped from the camp.
Eluding the Pursuers
If a picture could have been taken of the astonished and nonplussed Henri at the precise moment when, as he stood half within and half without the door of the farmhouse from which he had been purloining food and drink, he was accosted by that German party from Ruhleben, his own devoted mother would have undoubtedly had the utmost difficulty in recognizing her offspring. To begin with, having discarded his drenched clothing and left it in that room which had provided such warmth and comfort to himself and Stuart and Jules, Henri had, because no other change was possible for the moment, borrowed an old pair of trousers hanging on the wall, which, from their dilapidated and mud-stained appearance, may well have belonged to the farm hand—the usual occupant of the building. An equally tattered coat was over his shoulders, while his bare feet were thrust into a pair of heavily nailed boots, which had been cleaned perhaps a year before. There was no hat on his head, and, thanks to his swim in the river, his hair—which had grown excessively long in Ruhleben—hung lankly over his eyes and forehead, producing altogether an appearance not very uncommon in the country. To be very precise, if not complimentary, we must admit that the usually debonair and dapper Henri looked like the village idiot at that moment; while his astonishment, causing his mouth to open, gave his face a vacant expression which matched well with his appearance.
"Ho, you at the door, and at the very right moment! What's this? Bring a light and throw it on him. Heavens! What a scarecrow! Where's your master, lad; and where are you going?"
A big, burly man, a non-commissioned officer, one of the staff at Ruhleben, barred Henri's progress, and, snatching the lantern which one of his men carried, held it over the youth he had accosted and surveyed him closely.
"Baskets—eh? And full of provender—beer and sausages and bread—well I never!" gasped the Sergeant. "Who may you be, my lad? And where's your master? That's a question you haven't answered, and, besides, who's all this stuff for? Good food and drink, and going outside the farm-house!"
He lowered his lamp and threw the rays of light on to the baskets and their contents, while his hungry eyes fixed themselves upon the sausages. Henri giggled. Intuitively he realized that he must indeed look like a scarecrow, and, employing his quick wits, that French perception which led him so quickly to realize the situation, he determined to act up to it. Not that he felt much inclined to giggle or ready for mirth; for, indeed, he was almost trembling with agitation. At any moment the door of the kitchen might be burst open by the farmer himself, and he would be discovered. The Sergeant had, indeed, spoken in the loudest tones—in those rough, bullying, spluttering tones so common to German sergeants, so loudly that he had drowned the sound of the organ beyond and the voice of the woman who was singing. Henri suppressed a shiver, giggled inanely again, and listened for sounds from the far part of the farm-house. Yes, he could hear the organ still, and that voice droning on, and at once took comfort.
"Sausages, Sergeant," he said, smirking at him, and lifting the basket so that the man could see its contents more clearly. "You like sausages too, and you are hungry, you and your men, eh?"
And once more the Frenchman giggled in the face of the non-commissioned officer.
"Why, yes. Now that you mention it, a man's mostly hungry who tramps the country at night, and rushes about the place in search of prisoners. Listen, youngster; you've seen three men crossing this way—three men who have broken out of Ruhleben?"
Henri looked at him vacantly.
"Prisoners?" he asked. "Germans?"
"Germans!" the man exclaimed. "What next! Why, two Frenchmen and a bull-necked, red-faced Englishman. Say, have you seen them?"
Once more Henri giggled inanely and lifted his basket.
"And about the sausages," he reminded the Sergeant; "you like them? You are hungry? Well, now, there are plenty in the larder; light up the kitchen, and take your seats; I'll be back in a few minutes, and will call the master to you."
They pressed round him, that sergeant and his men; pushed him rudely aside, and made their way, talking in loud voices, into the kitchen—talking so loudly, indeed, that those inhabitants of the farm-house, enjoying a musical evening, heard them, and, ceasing at once the playing of their organ, stood to their feet and listened. A minute later the doorway leading from the hall into the kitchen was burst open, and a very startled, very frightened, and exceedingly rotund and healthy farmer pushed his way into the apartment.
As for Henri, he crossed the yard in half a dozen strides, gained the staircase, and raced up it, to discover Stuart and Jules seated by the fire, chatting and smoking.
"My word!" exclaimed Jules as Henri entered; "two baskets of provender this time, and full—both of them. Now listen to us, Henri; we've found a beautiful little hole in a bundle of hay in the loft close handy, and, from the position of the place, we believe it to be seldom entered. It's just the spot in which to pass the night, and sleep throughout the following day if need be."
"And you listen for a moment," said Henri, speaking swiftly. "A party of Germans from Ruhleben have just reached the farm, and I met them face to face. I thought they would have recognized me, for amongst them was one whom I remember to have seen doing sentry duty; but I'm such a scarecrow in these clothes, and so dishevelled, that they took me for some farm hand or village lout, and let me pass. But in a little while they will be asking questions of the farmer, there'll be a hue and cry, and they'll know that one of the prisoners who escaped has been close to them. We must move. That comfortable little spot, which sounds so inviting, is out of the question. Let's pick up our clothes and make a dash into the open. It looks to me almost as if we should have to swim the river again, for there are two bloodhounds with the party I accosted, and they may easily trace us."
Pulling on their still damp clothing as rapidly as they could, they sent Jules first of all to the bottom of the staircase, to make sure that there was no sign of the farmer or his visitors; then Henri and Stuart each picked up a basket, and, stealing down into the yard, made their way out of it, and, skirting the house, gained the highway. Pressing along it, walking at a rapid rate, they pushed on during the hours of darkness, and just as the light began to grow, seeing some buildings away to their right, turned off along a country lane which led towards them, and presently discovered themselves to be close to a sugar factory, at one end of which a water-tower was erected. Carefully looking around them, to make sure that no one was about, they sought for a door, and, entering a yard round which buildings were erected, presently discovered a wide door which was unbolted. Entering without hesitation, and closing it after them, they found themselves in a huge apartment with bins on every side, with overhead shafts and pulleys. At the far end a staircase led to another floor, and, ascending that, they found themselves in an apartment of similar dimensions, the floor space of which was occupied by machines of various patterns. At the far end, where the tower was erected, there was another doorway, and passing through it they clambered up the steep stone stairs, which finally led them to a small room at the top, above which was an iron-girdered ceiling supporting a huge water-tank, to which supplies were pumped no doubt from the river. Having groped their way in the semi-darkness to this spot, they barred the door of the room by driving a wedge in above the latch, and then, thoroughly tired out after their long tramp and their adventures of the previous day and night, they lay down to sleep, careless almost of the consequences.
Two whole days passed during which Henri and his friends were unable to move from the room to which they had gained access—two days during which they slept in turns, and rested, while the one who watched posted himself at one of the four windows which looked out from each side of the tower, and surveyed the surrounding country. From that post of vantage they were able to see the river which they had crossed higher up, and even the roof of the farm where they had obtained food and temporary shelter; they could observe every feature of the country, the yard below, the hosts of women workers in the sugar factory, the coming and going of important-looking factory officials, and even the passage of search-parties along the road in their quest for the prisoners.
"It looks to me as though we'd found a safe haven," said Henri, when he had been on duty for some hours and the others had awakened. "I watched a party coming down the road with two dogs, and I'm sure that they are the fellows who so nearly captured me at the farm yonder. They turned up towards this factory, called loudly for the manager, and made a survey of the buildings. For all I know they may even have come to the foot of the tower, but they certainly did not ascend the staircase. You can imagine that I took particular notice of the bloodhounds who accompanied them."
"Ha!" exclaimed Stuart. "Show any signs of excitement—eh? Did they look about them and sniff as though they had scented us?"
"Not a bit of it. They were as quiet as lambs, and seemed utterly bored with the whole business, and as if they were thoroughly tired of being dragged at the heels of the search-party. As for the men, they looked weary and fagged out after their tramp, and I imagine that they take little interest in the business. You've got to remember that we've been now something like three days away from Ruhleben, and the authorities must know that we've had plenty of time to get farther away from the camp. They'd hardly be looking for us now so near it, and no doubt they've telegraphed our description across the country. That being so, it seems to me that the wisest course for us is to stay here as long as possible, until the hue and cry has died down and the event has been forgotten."
"And then," asked Jules inquisitively, "what's to happen? We are still a precious long way from France or from any of the neutral countries. It's time, I should think, that we made a plan for the future, for up to now we've followed the road, as it were, of least resistance; we took the direction which seemed best under pressing circumstances, and did not head for any particular destination."
"Then what about Holland?" demanded Stuart; "the people are friendly enough, and, if one only knew the truth, are precious frightened of the Germans. Once across the frontier there we shall receive hospitality; and, seeing that the Germans are hardly frightened of the Dutch, the frontier will not be so very heavily guarded. But in the direction of France and Belgium there's that trench-line we've heard so much about, and where I'd give a lot to be fighting."
"Holland's the country we should make for undoubtedly," agreed Henri, when they had discussed the matter a little further. "But in which direction it lies, precisely, is rather difficult to determine; we shall have to leave that to the future, and of course must find out the way by asking questions. That means that we must discover disguises first of all, and that is a thing that wants a lot of doing. As to staying here, I feel quite sure that it's a wise procedure; and, thanks to the food and the drink we brought along, we have rations enough, if we husband them carefully, to last for quite four or five days longer."
It was not particularly exciting or exhilarating in that lofty room at the top of the tower, and went little way towards meeting the wishes of any one of the party, yet the plan met with the hearty approval of the canny Stuart, and, since Henri himself had proposed it, met with the ready assent of Jules. That they had food sufficient to last them for several days was quite certain, while the question of drink was cleared up already—for they had discovered a trap-door in the girdered ceiling above them and an iron ladder outside the door of the room, which, when put in position, gave access to it. Clambering up that, one very early morning when a mist hung over the country, Henri had discovered a narrow gallery surrounding the huge water-tank, and, lifting the inspection-door over the latter, had found it full of water. It was from this that they replenished their supplies at night, and so made certain of the fact that, however long they remained as prisoners in that place, thirst would not assail them.
At the end of the week, however, impatience to be moving on was beginning to try them far more than their enforced idleness, and many a discussion did they indulge in with reference to their future movements. Numerous and various were the suggestions made by one or other of the party, but, excellent though some of them may have been, on discussion all were vetoed. Yet, something must be done, something definite decided upon; and finally, in desperation almost, Henri decided to emerge from their hiding-place and make a closer investigation of their surroundings.
"It stands to reason," he told his friends at the end of one of these fruitless discussions—"it stands to reason that if we leave the place now—and in the course of a few hours we shall be forced to, seeing that our food-supply is almost gone—we shall be hardly any better off than we were at the commencement; for you have to remember that a full and complete description of us has been telegraphed broadcast, and, though the novelty of the event has now worn off, no doubt there are hundreds of police officers on the look-out for us. Thus it follows that to make our escape successful we must either march at night-time only—which renders the purchase of food almost an impossibility, and compels us to steal it or get it in much the same way as we got this supply from the farm building—or we must find disguises which will alter our appearance entirely and allow us even to board a train and travel with ordinary people. I'll take a look round while you fellows stay up here. If I'm caught—well, it's bad luck, that's all, and needn't spoil your chances."
Slipping out of the room when dusk had fallen, and the voices of the work-people had subsided and their retreating footsteps had died away in the distance, Henri gained the huge room below, and, descending to the lower floor, made his way out into the yard; then, taking the utmost caution to guard against surprise, he visited each of the buildings in turn, narrowly escaping, in one of them, running face to face with a workman engaged in attending to a machine. Retreating hurriedly, he once more gained the yard, and finally gained a corridor which gave access to the manager's buildings. It was perhaps half an hour later, when Jules and Stuart were growing anxious, and were listening eagerly for sounds of their friend's return, that they heard steps on the stone staircase leading to their chamber.
"Henri without a doubt," said Stuart, a note of relief in his voice, for the lusty fellow had taken an enormous liking for Henri. "That's good! I was really beginning to get awfully anxious about him."
"And I had almost given him up for lost," said Jules, equally relieved. "There he is, just outside the door. Ha, Henri! we began to think that you would never return, and now——"
The two inmates of the room, peering through the dusk as the door opened, saw an unfamiliar figure enter: a man dressed in baggy clothing, a man whose eyes were encircled by the broad rims of heavy glasses, and upon whose head sat an absurdly small Homberg hat. He was a man getting on in years, one would have said—though the dusk made the question uncertain—yet a man who stepped actively, whose breath was not tried by the long ascent, and who knew his path well, and was thoroughly acquainted with the door-way. Could it be Henri?—Henri in disguise? A low chuckle escaped the man—a merry giggle—and then Henri's well-known voice awoke the silence.
"I do wish that it were daylight," he told Stuart and Jules; "you'd then see something that 'ud be good for sore eyes."
"Sore eyes—eh? It isn't so very dark here, and I can see enough to startle me as it is," came the astonished rejoinder. "What on earth have you been doing, Henri; and what's the meaning of this get-up? Of course, it's a disguise; but, bless us! what a disguise!"
"Stop! How's this, then? I'll do the heavy German, and you can judge the effect."
The gay, yet thoughtful, Henri closed the door of the room, and, with what was left of the fast-receding daylight illuminating his person, struck an attitude. Leaning on the stick with which he had provided himself, he twirled the heavy moustaches—artificial affairs which he had contrived to become possessed of—and glared at his comrades through that pair of big-rimmed spectacles which so completely altered his appearance. Then he talked to them—cross-questioned his friends in the gruff, staccato accents one might have expected from such an individual as he represented himself to be.
"German—the heavy German official—from the crown of that ridiculous hat right down to your big flat feet," declared Stuart with gusto, when the little performance was finished. "I'd never have thought it possible, but that moustache has done wonders, and now that one really gets a good glimpse of you, for it isn't so dark after all, I've no hesitation in saying that I'd pass you in the street every day and fail to spot you as Henri."
"As Henri, or even as a Frenchman," added Jules, "or even as any alien or enemy of the Germans. It's tremendous, Henri, a ripping turn-out! How did you manage it? And where on earth did you lay your hands on such garments?"
The somewhat bulky and voluminous individual who had joined them sat down before Stuart and Jules and treated the two of them to an amiable grin, made all the more amiable and owl-like by those glasses.
"I couldn't help grinning at myself," he told them after a minute; "the whole thing seems so awfully cheeky. But, 'pon my word! it occurs to me that cheek is more likely to carry one through in business of this sort than the greatest caution. Cheek and luck did it at that farm and deceived that German party, and now let us hope the same two things—you can't call them virtues—will set us safely in France. How did I do it?—eh! Well, I searched the machine-shops down below, and precious nearly ran my head against a workman; then I crossed the yard, and, on the principle that when you are in quest of anything it's better often enough to go to head-quarters, I boldly made for the manager's office. He's a bit of a Jew, that manager, and it appears that he sleeps in his office, or, rather, in a room attached to it. Anyway, he had quite an assortment of clothing, and I should imagine this to be his best suit, the sort of thing he wears when he's holiday-making—that is, if a German ever does take a holiday. It doesn't exactly fit to a T—it's too loose and baggy, I admit—but it'll do, and the glasses and the moustache help considerably. As to the moustache—well, I fancy the manager occasionally indulges in theatricals. He can't have wanted a false moustache for himself, for I've caught a glimpse of him before now from one of these windows, so it must be that he kept the paraphernalia about for dressing up other people. Talking of dressing up other people reminds me of you two. Stuart's the difficulty; he's so big and bony and strong. Jules would make a splendid girl, if he'd only remember to walk decently and not stride along as he does; but Stuart, what's to be done with him? I thought once of taking him along as my wife, dressed in a most elaborate costume I found in the manager's box of accessories; but it wouldn't do, for, though German women are fat enough in all conscience, heavily built like our friend opposite, they are not so broad in the shoulders, nor so bony."
Stuart's eyes had opened wide as Henri spoke, and more than once a flush came into his face. He felt half-angry for a moment, and then more than half-amused. A second later he seemed to have conjured up a picture of himself dressed as the heavy German lady, the wife of this baggy-breeched, spectacled German, represented by Henri, and the picture set him laughing, softly at first, then, with his mouth wide open, on the point of emitting a roar of mirth. Fortunately, however, Jules caught him in the act, and, clapping one hand over his mouth, arrested the sounds.
"Of course," he said, "if you want to shout and call in the whole crew outside, well, do so; only give us a little time to make our exit beforehand. I'm convinced now, after what Henri said, that you're going to be a trouble to us. You're too big, too big and too heavy by far to be smuggled through the country as a woman, and, 'pon my word, in whatever disguise you are hid—if one can hide such a monster—there's always the danger of your giving us away by ribald laughter."
You might have expected the huge Stuart to boil over with anger after such an outburst, and, indeed, Jules's indignant reproaches were uttered with that purpose; but, as we have inferred before, this great Englishman was not only big and strong and disgustingly healthy, the envy of all in Ruhleben camp, the suspected of every German guard in the place—for how could a fellow retain such proportions with such attenuated diet?—but, boasting of an excellent digestion, the fellow was seldom in an ill humour. Even when he grumbled and said scathing things of the Germans, he was half laughing, and it required a very great deal of annoyance indeed to rouse his passions. Yet the smallest hint of disloyalty to Great Britain, the smallest slur cast on his country's people, roused the giant in this fellow; then those muscles of his were braced for action. And if Henry and Jules had previously had any doubts as to his prowess, these were set at rest after they had witnessed his manner of tackling that under-officer at the mouth of the tunnel. But the friendly gibes of the merry Jules—this somewhat dilapidated and war-worn Frenchman, this individual who had come to Ruhleben camp months before as dapper as Henri, with clothes cut in the masterful manner peculiar to your London tailor, with boots of immaculate appearance, and socks which till then had been the envy of many a youngster—could not rouse Stuart. He was above such petty matters. He could read the meaning in the heart, could see deeply into the characters of the two who were his companions, and, seeing so clearly, the big fellow seated on the floor merely stared back at Jules and Henri and grinned a huge, capacious grin, which took them both in in the semi-darkness, which almost aggravated them, and which finally set them both laughing.
"I'll admit," he said then, almost shamefacedly—"I'll admit that I'm big and strong and bony, and a difficulty under the circumstances. Now, Henri can pass anywhere, I'm sure, as he's dressed and got up; and Jules, well, Jules should make a most dainty little German girl; but there's me—well," he went on, speaking slowly, "that's a job that can soon be ended, and I'll tell you how. You two will get off to-night, and board the nearest train, if you take my advice."
"And you?" demanded Henri.
"Yes, you?" asked Jules inquisitively.
"Oh, I? Well, I'll stay here for a time, and then I'll fare for myself. Supposing we have a race to the Dutch frontier? I shouldn't wonder if I got there as soon as you do, for I'm strong and big, and, you see, I can walk during the night, and, well—all's fair in love and war—there's many a hen-roost that I can rob on my journey."
Spoken flippantly enough, there was yet steady determination in the words of Stuart. He meant everything he said, and most generously gave up his prospects, at least of companionship, for the sake of those companions. More than that, he probably gave up all chances of making good his escape from Germany, for the task of marching to the Dutch frontier was no light one. Henri looked at him swiftly, and then across at Jules, who coughed uncomfortably enough, half-opened his mouth as if to speak, and then remained silent. At last Henri managed to address Stuart.
"You're rotting!" he said sharply.
"On the contrary, never more serious in all my life."
"Say it," said Stuart sweetly. "A fool, you were going to say, I think."
"No. Shake hands," Henri demanded, stretching out one of his own. "It's good to have a chum such as you are, Stuart, good to know that amongst France's allies there is such a fellow. From all accounts the British have stuck well by the French, as the French have stuck by the British. We haven't had much news through, but from what one's heard it appears that the British, retreating from Mons on the left of the French armies, did France an enormous and inestimable service—saved, indeed, our left flank from being crumpled up and driven in on the centre, helped to save Paris, and finally helped to defeat von Kluck's army. It wasn't only by pluck and endurance that British officers and soldiers did that; it was by a considerable display of self-sacrifice. What's this but a self-sacrificing plan on your part? And you think that we are going to agree?—that Jules and I will accept the proposal, and leave you here alone to face all the difficulties of escaping from Germany—you, who besides being big, as we have already said, hardly know a word of the language? Fool wasn't the word that I was going to use, Stuart, it was something stronger. Shake hands again. Jules and I refuse to leave the place unless you come with us."
There was silence for a while, and then the three set to work again to discuss plans for leaving the factory. It seemed, indeed, that Henri had made quite a find in the manager's office, and that he had already selected a dress for Jules which would suit that young gentleman splendidly; and at length it was decided that Stuart should be dressed in a suit of good material—such as might be worn by a dependant—and that he should accompany the party as if he were a male nurse looking after the aged Henri. That night, indeed, having raided the manager's office again, and relieved him of things essential to their journey, the three set off from the place, and about eleven o'clock on the following day were to be observed on an adjacent railway station. An old gentleman, who peered through round goggles, who stumbled as he walked, and whose shoulders and head were bent and wobbling, traversed the platform on the arm of a girl of fascinating appearance; while in the rear came a huge, ugly fellow, with reddish hair and brilliant complexion, on whose head was thrust a hat which overhung and darkened his features, and who carried a bag—none other than the one in which the manager of the sugar factory had been wont to carry his possessions.
A train came in, and the three embarked upon it. The whistle sounded shrilly, smoke issued from the engine, and in a trice they were off on another stage of their adventurous journey.
Changing their Direction
"Crikey! What a do! What a performance! Who'd have thought it?" gasped the huge Stuart, flinging himself back on the seat in the compartment and staring out of the window as the train moved away from the station. "Henri, you're a wizard, a conjuror, a most mysterious and clever individual. 'Pon my word, I looked at you as you boarded the train, and if I'd been a German official, one of these thick-headed, beer-drinking tubs of fellows, always on the look-out for aliens and enemies, I'd have failed to spot you."
"Magnificent!" ventured Jules, rubbing his hands and moving his limbs in a most unladylike fashion, in such masculine manner, in fact, that the cautious Henri, ever on the look-out for something which might attract the attention of enemies swarming about them, immediately pounced upon him.
"That's not right," he said; "no girl would sit like that, Jules, and you know it. Indeed, who should know it better than you, who, up to the outbreak of this war, were a regular lady's man? You've studied the fair sex, my boy, and now's the time to take advantage of that study."
Stuart guffawed. The whole adventure was so droll, so full of little incidents which tickled his mirth and which prompted laughter, that it was as much as he could do to keep his big, healthy features steady. And, seeing that they were in a compartment by themselves, why not make merry? For during the last two hours their actions had had to be serious enough in all conscience, and, indeed, the big Englishman spoke only the truth when he said that Henri had behaved like a perfect wizard. Stumbling down the platform, that ridiculously small Homberg hat only partially covering thin wisps of white hair—artificially whitened, let us explain, with the aid of some chalk—upon a head which if it were not bald, looked as if it ought to be so, Henri had acted the role of a feeble, querulous, short-sighted, and somewhat arrogant old gentleman to the life. He had snarled at his daughter—or his wife, whichever Jules was supposed to be, and, from the obvious youth of the young lady, probably she was the former. He had snapped at the big, beefy attendant who came behind him, and, reaching the train and making an effort to clamber aboard it—a none too easy performance on Continental railways—he had stumbled even more, had contrived to get into a position half-within and half-without the carriage, and had there stuck firmly, become jammed, as it were, a position which roused the wrath of the old gentleman still higher, which set him snarling at his lady companion, and caused him to throw a fiery imprecation at his attendant. It caused the officious station-master to hasten forward, and then, at the sight of this arrogant and somewhat important old gentleman, to bow obsequiously and assist his entrance to the carriage. Yes, altogether it was a splendid addition to their adventures.
"It's enough to make a cat laugh," said Stuart. "But here we are; and well now, I'm just wondering what our friend—sorry, your friend, Henri!—the manager of the sugar factory, will be saying just about this moment? Of course he'll learn that someone has entered his quarters."
Learn it, indeed! At that very moment the portly individual in question was in the centre of his bedroom, surveying the contents of a box which had been sadly depleted. He was rubbing the grizzly locks beside one ear, pondering deeply, staring through big goggles at the box, and trying to understand what had happened.
"But no," he said aloud; "I have not taken the things. Then who? And see this—my best suit of clothes has gone, my hat, and the goggles I placed on this chest last evening."
He made a movement towards the bell, and then dashed back, and once more came to an abrupt halt, pausing with feet far apart, with eyes peering into the distance, with wrinkled forehead, and with one hand still rubbing his grizzly locks.
"But, a thousand thunders! Then what does this mean?" he demanded, so loudly that a clerk dashed in from the adjacent office and asked what had happened. "Happened, indeed! Then see here, my Fritz, this box of clothing has been pilfered. My clothes are gone—my best suit of clothes—my hat, and what more I cannot say. Who, then, can have paid my quarters a visit?"
It puzzled the clerk also. For a while the two discussed the question in the most animated and Teutonic manner. Then a brilliant idea seized upon the brain of the clerk—an idea which sent a hot flush from the top of his head to the soles of his somewhat flat feet.
"That party of soldiers who came here a little time ago," he cried; "those prisoners who broke out of Ruhleben—who else, mein Herr Winterborgen—who else can have wanted such clothing, such disguises? Listen, there were three of them; now say what clothing you are missing."
When a further investigation was made of the losses which the portly manager had sustained, the incriminating fact was discovered that, besides his best suit of clothes and Homberg hat, a woman's dress and a man's had been purloined. That sent the manager flying to the telephone, and in due course of time set the police officials at the nearest police station bustling. Within half an hour a car dashed up to the gates of the sugar factory, and the most important and imposing of individuals commenced an official investigation on the spot. This investigation, sternly carried out, weighed every point so very closely, and went with so much minuteness into every little incident, that it set the unfortunate manager perspiring, and, indeed, after a while, made him begin to wonder whether he himself were a party to the theft which he had suffered, or a party to assisting the fugitives. The important official, if he did not actually accuse the manager of having aided the prisoners supposed to have purloined the articles of clothing, inferred it certainly, glared at the unhappy man, browbeat him in regular Germanic manner, and made him regret deeply that he had ever called for police assistance.
"You'll be ready to report personally at the police station," he was told. "Now I'll return and set a search in progress. Without doubt the three men who broke out of Ruhleben have paid you a visit; for we know already that they went to a farm farther back along the road and obtained supplies of food. Since then we have lost all sight of them, and it may very well be that they have been in hiding; and that may mean," he added severely, as he stood above the unhappy manager and glared down at him, "that someone has been providing a refuge for them, some unpatriotic and treacherous individual, who, if discovered, will certainly be shot in the morning—be shot in the cold, early morning," he added in unpleasant tones which did not fail to have their effect on the man he was addressing. "Yes, Herr Winterborgen, this is an important matter—so important, indeed, that for your own sake you will see that you attend promptly when called for."
It was with a gasp of relief that the manager saw the car driven away at furious speed, while he stood staring out of the window, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. His thoughts were still in a whirl, and even then he could not shake from his mind the more than half belief that in some unconscious way he had indeed, unwittingly and unwillingly—for he was as good a patriot as anyone—aided the runaways. In such a dilemma, feeling vexed and sore at his own loss, and indignant at the cross-examination he had just suffered, it was but natural that he should work himself up into a terrible passion, and should turn the vials of his wrath upon the police inspector who had treated him so brusquely. Yet in time, when his anger had died down, he, like every other patriot in Germany, put his own personal disadvantage aside for the sake of his beloved Fatherland. He sighed deeply, and resumed his work with the pious wish that, if he had suffered, his suffering might lead to the discovery and capture of the men who had treated him so shamefully.
It is hardly necessary to narrate what followed after that interview with the police inspector. How the car took him swiftly back to the station, how the telephone was jingled, and how every possible official within reasonable distance was informed of what had happened. The station-master at the station where Henri and his friends had boarded the train presently received a call.
"Yes, here, Inspector," he answered, politely enough, over the telephone. "You are there and you want me—well I am here, what then? Prisoners escaped from Ruhleben? Ah, yes, yes! I remember, the rascals escaped perhaps a week ago, and have not been heard of since. Have I seen them here? Pooh! If I had, you know as well as I do that I would have apprehended them. What's that you say? They have been to the station? You ask if I have seen three suspicious people—a man, perhaps an old man, in a dark-blue, well-cut suit, wearing a Homberg hat and goggles, a girl, and a man of whose appearance you have no knowledge? Come now, that's a conundrum! I have seen many such people."
He began to get rather angry at the cross-examination of the police inspector—an examination, let us add, far less severe than that inflicted upon the manager of the sugar factory, but he listened awhile.
"You may have seen many such people," he heard over the telephone, "but all together, Herr Station-master—three all together—an oldish man, not big, perhaps bald, with goggles; a girl, and another man of uncertain appearance. Think now; not a very great number of people travel on the railway nowadays unless they are soldiers; think, have you not had such passengers?"
The station-master did think, think violently one may say, for it was well to be on the best terms possible with the police. A station-master might be a most important individual, very important indeed in his own estimation, but an inspector of the police in Germany was an important individual both in his own estimation, which was undoubted, and also in that of the public.
"Hold on one little moment; three people such as you describe—one an oldish man, a girl, and a third, a man with no description—have I seen such people getting on a train together? Why, wait!"
The scene as the aged and snappy old gentleman clambered aboard the train that morning suddenly occurred to the station-master, only to be put aside in an instant; for it seemed impossible that he could have been an impostor. The girl, too, looked so natural, so feminine, so absolutely genuine, and yet——
"Wait though, was it a girl?" the station-master asked himself, for it flashed across his stolid brain that the movements of the lady in question had not been, after all, entirely feminine. Now that he thought about the matter he remembered that at the moment when the three were boarding the train the lady had shown a most extraordinary degree of agility. She had clambered like a cat aboard the carriage, and had given a heave to the old gentlemen which disclosed a degree of strength somewhat peculiar in a woman. Yes, he was sure of it now, of course the thing was strange—it was not a woman, he felt sure.
"Hold!" he shouted down the telephone. "I have them!"
"You have them!" came the excited answer. "You have taken the three? You have got those prisoners?"
"No, no, no! I did not say I had taken them. I have got to the bottom of the mystery. Those three you mention boarded a train here this morning, a train going westward."
It was the turn of the inspector to shout down the telephone, to shout a peremptory order, to inform the station-master that he was coming immediately; and there followed at the station a close questioning of the station-master, followed by frantic telegrams and telephone messages which were sent down the line in pursuit of the train on which Jules and Henri and Stuart were travelling.
"Now we have them securely, thanks to my promptness and energy," said the police inspector, as he adjusted his glasses and pocketed his notebook—yes, pocketed his notebook, for that familiar object, part and parcel of every constable in Great Britain, is likewise an important part of the equipment of German policemen. It was with a flourish that the man pushed it into the short tail of his tunic, then he hitched his belt a trifle tighter, expanded his manly chest, and set his helmet at just the slightest rakish angle. He was a "dog" indeed, this police Inspector, wonderfully pleased with himself, bursting with self-importance, and as arrogant as they make them.
"You will see," he coughed, turning upon the station-master; "we shall have them, thanks to the telegrams I have sent. And then, my friend, what will they think of us at the central station? Of me, and this brilliant capture?"
"You!" exclaimed the station-master, somewhat taken aback; "of you, Inspector! But wait a moment. It is true that you have sent those telegrams off, and that, thanks to them, the runaways may be captured, but I——"
"May be captured?" thundered the inspector; "as if indeed they were not already in the hands of my subordinates. But proceed."
"I was about to add, to suggest, may I say? that, after all, in carrying out your duties you have been largely assisted by my promptness in remembering that three such persons as you described had actually boarded a train at this station. Consider for a little while: your description was, after all, not too elaborate—a little vague, absolutely deficient in the case of one of the fugitives. Is it not due in some small measure to my acumen that you are on the track of these people? Come now, Inspector, be fair. If there is honour to be won, apportion it out, and do not forget the assistance you have received from others."
It was curious that, at that very moment, there should arrive at the station, brought there in the police officer's car, which he had sent to the sugar factory for that purpose, the manager whose office Henri had so lately entered. The poor fellow was shaking with trepidation, with fear of what was to happen; and if his thoughts had been vague before, and not a little muddled, if terror of the law had somewhat disconcerted him, and upset his equilibrium during and after his cross-examination, terror of the future had made him now little more than a babbling idiot—an object, indeed, for the contemptuous glances of the police inspector and for his gibes and sallies.
"So," he said, standing over the portly figure of the little man, as he came from the motor-car and stumbled down the platform, "so, you have obeyed, Herr Winterborgen, you are here to identify the three whose return in captivity we are waiting. That is good, and certainly you will be able to tell us that they are the individuals."
The manager held his hands up, expostulating weakly. There were tears in his eyes, tears of fear, of rage, and of anguish.
"But, identify them," he cried, almost shrieked indeed, "identify the three who purloined garments from my office? But no, it is impossible; for hear me, Inspector, I never saw those individuals; not once, to my knowledge, have I ever set eyes on them."
But if he expected pity or leniency, he might just as well have appealed to the wooden pillar which supported the roof of the platform. The huge police inspector was adamant, inflexible, unmoved, and surveyed the trembling figure of his victim with cold eyes which glinted cruelly. Very slowly, he slid one broad hand back into the short tail of his tunic, extricated his notebook with a flourish, and, opening it and producing a pencil, called upon the station-master to bear witness to the words uttered.
"Mark the words of this Herr Winterborgen," he said. "'Not to my knowledge,' he states, has he seen these three individuals; and yet, mark this again, he was able to describe their appearance fully, to describe the clothes they wore, their sex, and their possible destination."
By then the eyes of the manager were almost starting out of his head, and he was gaping and gasping with amazement at the story to which he listened. Never before, indeed, had he imagined that anyone—let alone a police inspector, a pillar of the law—could have invented such a story, could have produced such a lying fabrication. The words stunned his ears, and he felt more than ever that he was hopelessly involved in circumstances which would end in nothing less than his utter downfall. Nor did the hour which passed ere the train came to the station relieve him of his fears or make him any the happier. For even if the fugitives were captured—and it seemed more than likely that they would be brought to the station in the train then approaching—their coming could result in nothing but further embarrassment, for he would be expected to identify them definitely, and if he did that he well knew that difficulties would become greater.
"Ha! At last it is signalled, this train," said the police inspector, "and we shall soon know whether our friends have made this capture."
"Wait, though," the station-master cautioned him, coming from his office at that moment; "this is a special and does not stop, but behind it, only a few minutes intervening, there is another train, the ordinary train, which stopped at the station down the line to which your telegrams were forwarded, and where the fugitives will have been surrounded. Stand back there!"
The three of them—the station-master, the police inspector, and the trembling manager of the sugar factory—stood on the platform and watched the train as it ran through the station at moderate speed; and then, thinking nothing more of it, waited for that other one, the smoke from the engine of which was already visible in the distance. Nor need we describe how the inspector—determined upon a capture, confident, indeed, that his telegrams had produced that result, and already bursting with triumph and rehearsing the terrible things that he would do to his captives—pounced upon the train, ran from carriage to carriage, and eagerly interrogated the officials. Imagine his rage, his mortification, his disappointment, when he was informed that no such people as the three whose description he had sent could be found upon the train going westward.
"Not search the train completely!" shouted an official whom he had questioned, and who, being of sufficient rank himself and of equal importance with the inspector, was not to be easily frightened. "How then? Is a police inspector the only individual capable of searching for spies and discovering them? Is everyone on the line a fool, then, unless he be a policeman? You'll tell us soon that we don't know our own business; as if, indeed, it were possible to miss three such people as you described, or even one of them, particularly when one knows that there were few passengers on the train in question."
It was of no use shouting back at the man; it was of no use engaging in a wordy quarrel with him; and of little service to take note of the covert smiles of the station-master and the sidelong winks he directed at the manager of the sugar factory—a manager now wonderfully transformed—the worthy Herr Winterborgen, who was even smiling. Slowly, little by little, arrogance oozed out of every pore of that perspiring police inspector, and presently he took himself off to his car and drove furiously away, wishing that he had never had this case to investigate, and that, wherever the escaping prisoners were, someone would shoot them.
Meanwhile, let us glance into one of the carriages of that train—that special which had bustled through the station while the inspector was waiting. In one of the compartments sat an aged man, with a Homberg hat of ridiculously small size pressed down over his temples, upon which wisps of hair shone whitely in the sunlight—a man who looked through big goggles at the scenery as it flashed by, and whose lips were hidden behind a drooping moustache of iron-grey colour. Beside him sat a girl, well-grown—masculine one would have almost said—with laughing features, a girl who had spread herself out in the carriage, and, lying back against the cushions, had placed her two feet on the opposite seat, a most inelegant, unladylike, yet possibly comfortable position. And beside them sat a big, bony, healthy individual, whose face was shaded by a broad hat, yet not sufficiently shaded to hide the wide grins which crossed it and denoted the utmost merriment. He was rubbing his two big, strong hands together, laughing, chuckling, and gazing every moment out of the window.
"My hat! My uncle! Crikey!" he exclaimed; "but that has really done it! And what luck we have had, too. To think that we should have been in a compartment which drew up near the signal station where that message about us was shouted by the man in charge. I declare again that you're a regular wizard, Henri, for how else could you have arranged for the train to halt just in that position, and where, thanks again to your knowledge of German, it allowed you at once to hear and understand what was shouted. Let's have the words again."
The old and somewhat delicate-looking gentleman seated beside him turned upon the big man an expansive smile, a mischievous smile, and, pushing his goggles up on his forehead, burst into such a ripple of laughter that his drooping moustache, which seemed so natural, fell from its place, instantly transforming him. It was the jovial, yet cautious, Henri enjoying this amazing adventure to the utmost.
"My boy," he said, as he reached for the moustache and carefully adjusted it, "one moment while I take a glance at myself in the glass over the seat. That's better, ain't it? Quite straight, and makes me look the part to perfection. But what did that signalman shout, you ask? Well, rather an important message, and these are the words as I remember them: 'You'll stop at the station just beyond', he called to the driver; 'there are police there waiting for you, for there's information that there are three escaping prisoners from Ruhleben amongst the passengers, in disguise of course. Understand? Well, pull out and run through the tunnel.'"
It was little to be wondered at that the wits of the fugitives were at once set to work in lightning-like manner. If they were to escape, indeed, and were to avoid the police officials waiting for them at the station so near at hand, they must act instantly, must find some loophole, must alter their plans completely. Already the train was again in motion, for it had only pulled up for a few seconds, and, even while they were debating the matter, were looking at one another enquiringly, and were feeling already as if the case were hopeless, it ran into the tunnel. It was then that Henri gripped his two companions and spoke eagerly to them.
"Quick, to the end of the carriage," he said; "then hop out. It's dark, so that no one can see us. On no account must we be seen on the train when it has passed through the tunnel."
It was a fortunate thing for the trio that the train had been unable to get up any great speed since it got into motion again after leaving the signal station. It did little better than crawl into the tunnel, and, seeing that the station at which it was destined to halt, and where the police were waiting the fugitives, was only a short distance beyond, the driver made no effort to hurry. Thus it followed that the drop from the train was a matter of no great difficulty, particularly for such active individuals as Henri, Jules, and Stuart. Crouching between the wall of the tunnel and the passing train, they listened to it as it rumbled away in the distance towards a mere dot of light which disclosed the far end of the tunnel. Then that dot was of a sudden blotted out of sight, and the rumbling became louder.
"What's that?" demanded Stuart. "Not gone off the rails, I hope, for that will bring a pack of people into the place, and they'll find us."
"Another train has entered the tunnel, I think," came from Jules. "Listen, now, and look! You can see sparks coming from the funnel."
"Then, why not?" demanded Henri, in a voice which trembled with excitement. "Why not transfer ourselves to it? What matter if it is going in the opposite direction, so long as it throws our pursuers off the scent. Eh—what's the verdict?"
"That we snatch the goods the gods send us, and pile on to the new train."
That, too, was a matter of extreme simplicity to the three. Only, had the train been lighted, and had there been railway officials on it, they would have been staggered, no doubt, and vastly moved at witnessing the agility of these three unbidden passengers who now joined it. Indeed, the extraordinary and unexpected, if not masculine, agility of the lady would have simply and metaphorically floored any German official. But there was none to see, in the first place, because darkness flooded the scene; and, secondly, because no gaping official was on this special. Reaching a carriage and ensconcing themselves in a corner, Henri and his friends were presently whirled from the tunnel and swept on over the ground they had so recently covered, and in due course they ran through the station where the inspector, the station-master, and the unfortunate manager of the sugar factory were standing. Henri gave vent to an exclamation of astonishment, and then to a loud chuckle, while of a sudden he gripped his two friends by the arms and bade them lower their heads.
"It's all as clear as daylight now," he said. "I have been wondering how on earth these Germans discovered our whereabouts and our disguises; but that makes the whole matter perfectly transparent. The manager of the factory spotted the fact that his office had been entered, and that certain garments had been purloined. The police were called in, and then the station-master gave information of our arrival, and of our boarding the train. It's as clear as a pikestaff. Hurrah! How we've nonplussed them!"
"And if the hue and cry is all up the line, what happens to us?" asked Stuart, with a grim smile, some little time later, when the train had whirled them perhaps a couple of dozen miles onward. "We can't go on like this indefinitely. This train is bound to stop somewhere, and when it stops we are up against the same old difficulty again. Moreover, knowing our disguises, realizing that we have baffled them in some way, the police will be telegraphing all over the country, and may even guess that we are on this train. Common sense tells a fellow that the whole scheme must be pitched overboard and a new plan entered upon."
It was indeed a serious difficulty, for at any moment the train which carried them on so swiftly, so luxuriously one may say, might stop, and twenty or more gaping officials might investigate it. For all Henri and his chums knew, telegrams were already passing over the wires which flashed beside them as they ran through the country—telegrams warning officials, hungry for their capture, to be on the look-out, to be on the qui vive for three individuals—an oldish man in delicate health, his daughter, perhaps, and another, a big fellow, ostensibly an attendant. Yet, whatever plans they may have thought out, whatever intentions they may have had, were suspended for a while, seeing that the train did not halt but ran on for quite a considerable time, indeed until dusk had fallen. Nor was it until darkness had fallen and the evening had passed that it finally ran into the outskirts of a large town, where presently the brakes gripped the wheels, setting them skidding over the metals, and soon bringing the carriages to a standstill. Then the train began to back, and presently was brought to rest in a siding.
"Out we go," said Henri. "No one has seen us up to date, and therefore all we can say is that we have still plenty of chances of escaping; we are no worse off than we were certainly, and perhaps we're better off. At any rate, speaking personally, I've still every intention of clearing out of Germany."
A Friend in Need
"Half a mo'! What's that? Looks like a regular haystack," grunted Stuart, as he dropped from the train and stood in the fairway, one hand held out in front of him, and a ponderous finger pointing into the darkness.
"What's what? Oh, that!—that! Yes, it looks like a haystack," admitted Jules, following the direction of his indicating finger.
"On wheels! A hay-load on a truck," suggested Henri, peering into the gloom, and seeing the ghostly outline of twenty or more trucks which stood upon the rails in a siding quite close to them. "A truck of hay, Stuart—hay!"
"Or straw," growled the huge Englishman. "Well, what of it? What's it matter to us if it's straw or hay, or any sort of thing? What's anything matter, so long as it don't help us?"
He was in quite an irritable mood, and his voice sounded as though he were ready to quarrel with anyone on the smallest pretext. It was therefore with an exclamation of impatience that he realized that Henri, with quick impulsiveness, had gripped him by the arm and was shaking him eagerly.
"What's—what's up then?" he demanded peevishly; and then, looking in the direction in which the Frenchman was now pointing, grumbled loudly: "Still on about that hay or straw? You're wasting time, Henri."
"Idiot!" the impulsive Frenchman told him. "Haven't you heard of Germans hiding up in a hayrick—hiding as spies? It's a chance; let's take it. Get your knife ready."
When they had crossed the tracks and reached the line of trucks it was indeed to find that an opportunity for further escape was right before them. For here were half a dozen trucks stacked high with hay, and each covered with a tarpaulin. To cast off one end of the tarpaulin, to burrow a hole in the hay, to tread their way into the stacks, and to hack a space sufficient to accommodate their bodies was no great difficulty, and though, in the midst of their work, the train started, it made the job all the easier; for then, throwing discretion to the wind, they tossed what hay was superabundant overboard, and, having by that means obtained a cosy little nook in one of the stacks, put the tarpaulin back into position, and, sleepy now after their labours, and content that they were securely hidden, fell fast asleep, careless of the direction in which they might be travelling. And two days later, having in the meanwhile been lucky enough to obtain some food and water at a siding into which the trucks were shunted, they heard the brakes grind, and felt the train come to a gradual standstill.
"We shall have to get clear of this," said Henri. "Lucky it's night-time again. I wonder where we are?"
"Still in Germany, I suppose," said Stuart, as he peered from underneath the tarpaulin.
"No; Belgium," declared Jules of a sudden. "Look over there—it's—it's Louvain."
There, painted above the station building near which the trucks were halted, was the word, in large letters—Louvain.
"Louvain!" said Stuart, a bitter note in his voice; "where those brutes butchered the Belgians; where they burned the town and the library, and murdered women and children. Louvain! Just fancy! Still, it's Belgium, and that's nearer to England."
"And to France!" whispered Henri, a note of excitement in his voice—"and to France, Stuart! Let's get out and see what will happen."
Dropping from the truck, they presently found themselves in the streets of Louvain, with ruined and broken remnants of houses on either side of them, with a cowed population stepping sadly through the deserted streets, and with packs of arrogant German soldiers patrolling the town. In happier days both Jules and Henri had been at this place, had admired this Belgian city of learning, had known some of its professors—now dead or scattered, many of them having found a home in England—and had never imagined in those days that such a dreadful change could have been brought about in this once famous city of learning. Yet what changes had been wrought by the war which the Kaiser and his people had sought, and which had now deluged Europe!
What a tale of treachery and suffering; what a tale of furious fighting, of gallant deeds, of death, of victory, of wounds, had been wrought by those months of war which had elapsed since that eventful day when Henri and Jules discovered themselves in Berlin, the centre of a hissing, furious crowd, and were hurried to that camp of misery at Ruhleben! He who ventures to give a full narrative of the deeds done during those months, of the varying fortunes of the combatants, of the warfare waged by land and sea and in the air, would needs have a task far, far beyond him, seeing that every day has been so full of incidents of surpassing importance to the world that a mere summary of them would be an undertaking. Yet to realize the situation, as it was at the moment when Henri and his two friends clambered from the truck in which they had escaped from the heart of Germany, and dropped to the ground in the heart of Louvain; to understand the changes which had occurred during those weary months of waiting at Ruhleben, it becomes a matter of necessity at this stage to glance, if only briefly, at the major events which had happened.
We have said already that, at the moment when Germany had thrown down the gauntlet to France and Russia, Belgium was at peace with the world, and Britain also. And the tale does not need to be repeated of how Germany, one of the Powers which had sworn to preserve the sanctity of Belgium, which had, indeed, signed a declaration to that effect and sealed it in the sight of others, now tore up that sacred treaty, and hurled her legions into Belgium. No need even to do more than remind the reader of how Belgian troops held up the advance of these treacherous foes, smote them severely, caused them terrible losses, and then, overwhelmed by numbers, were swept back, leaving the citizens in the hands of ruthless men, who murdered and butchered them, who perpetrated unmentionable horrors in the fair cities of King Albert, and burned thousands of houses and public buildings to the ground. Everyone must know, too, how that vile act of the Kaiser brought Great Britain into the conflict; how a British Expeditionary Force sailed promptly for France, and arrived in the neighbourhood of Mons only just in time to take its place beside the French armies then at death's grips with the main forces of the Kaiser's armies, who, having burst their way through Belgium, now invaded France. That historic retreat towards Paris, and the swaggering triumphal march of the Germans, were followed by a striking blow against the Teutons, who were driven back across the Marne, hurled out of central and northern France, till but a strip of the country remained to them.
Meanwhile thousands of British soldiers were flocking in, shoulder to shoulder, ready for the fray; while French forces were being mobilized. A line—thin enough in all conscience, desperately thin—was stretched from the eastern frontier of France across its northern provinces, to the very tip of Belgium at Ypres, and so across it to the sea. This line of men who burrowed their way in trenches—a force of less than one man to the yard—was yet a force of heroes. Unprepared though they were, unsupported, without a doubt because there were as yet no new armies to support them, without reliefs for the very same reason, and therefore dependent entirely upon themselves, they stemmed the German tide. Hopelessly outnumbered, they yet held their ground, and, though deluged by shells and faced by an enemy superbly equipped and prepared with the latest machinery of war, held him back, causing enormous losses in his ranks, and barring his way onward. The tale of the First Battle of Ypres is a tale of splendour, of heroic British action—the tale of how those few divisions—war-worn, hardened divisions by now—barred the road to Calais, and smashed the power of the Prussian Guards, troops hitherto considered invincible.
There is no need to recall those other battles, the almost daily exchange of shots along the trench-line, though for the information of our readers it may be just as well to enumerate some of the more important. From the sea, in the neighbourhood of Nieuport, the line of trenches ran in a southerly direction across the flats of Belgium and Flanders in front of Ypres, and down towards Arras. Thence, curling towards the east, and skirting the River Aisne and the famous city of Reims—where the vandals who had destroyed Louvain and many another city had long since wrecked the Cathedral, famous throughout the world—their line swept on over hill and dale, and hollow and furrow, across chalky plains and wooded heights and forest country to Verdun—that famous city which for centuries has been a stronghold. An ancient city, girdled at the outbreak of this gigantic war by a ring of fortresses of modern construction, in which a complete battery of guns was mounted; forts, let it be added, strategically placed, which could sweep the country in all directions. Then, turning sharply round Verdun, the line cut its way through muddy plains, through heights once more, through miles of country, till it reached the Swiss frontier. All along that line, fighting continued, here bursting out into a violent conflict, simmering down elsewhere, and at times subsiding altogether. Yet never were the trenches without a sinister line of crouching men, whether British, Belgian, or French, and ever was there another sinister, remorseless gang holding the German trenches opposite.
Round about the city of Reims there had raged at times most furious fighting. In the Vosges, French riflemen and Germans contended for the mastery without cessation; while in the Woevre, before St. Mihiel, at Arras, in a thousand places, were desperate conflicts, in which the line swayed, trenches were captured and recaptured, men died, and the Kaiser's troops frantically struggled to break their way through the cordon stretched before them. Along the British line the battle of Neuve Chapelle gave opportunity to many a young soldier, and proved to the Germans that British and Indians could fight heroically together. Then the Second Battle of Ypres took place, a conflict more furious than any that had gone before it, in which, making their preparations secretly, throwing to the winds all thoughts of humanity, acting in that ruthless, treacherous manner which one now associates as a natural course with the Germans, the Kaiser and his staff deluged the French and British lines—where they joined—with asphyxiating gas, which choked hundreds. And yet, in spite of this diabolical manoeuvre, in spite of the unpreparedness of the French and British, and though the Algerian troops of the French, scared by the gas as by the mutterings of a wizard, gave way and fell back, leaving a gap in the line, yet the enemy failed to gain their object. For the 1st Canadian Division flung itself across the gap and held on like heroes, fought with desperate bravery indeed, and wrought for the people of the British Empire, and for their brothers and sisters in Canada, a tale which, so long as the British nation exists, will never be forgotten—never beaten.