Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 6
THE RUE LAFAYETTE RUINS
Tom Raymond and Jack Parmly alighted from the taxicab more quickly than they had gotten in. The chauffeur was anxiously scanning the sky. Excited men, women and children were rushing about, and yet it was not such excitement as might be caused by the first shelling of the beautiful city. It was more, as Tom said afterward, as though the populace had been taken by surprise by a new method in the same kind of warfare, for an occasional German Zeppelin or a bombing aircraft had, before this, dropped explosives. To these the French had become as much accustomed as one ever can to such terrible means of attack.
But this was different. There was no sign of a Hun aircraft, and, as the chauffeur had said, no police warning had been sounded.
"What is it?" asked Jack.
"It is a bombardment, that is all I know," replied the taxicab driver. He spoke in French, a language which the two boys used fairly well, though, as has been said, their accent left much to be desired.
"You had best seek shelter until it is over," went on the man. "I shall do so myself." He seemed to pause suggestively, and Jack handed him some money.
"Merci," he murmured, and an instant later was careening down the street at full speed.
"He isn't losing any time," said Jack.
"No. And perhaps we hadn't better, either. Where'd that shell fall?" asked Tom.
"I don't know, but it must have been somewhere about here, judging by the noise. Look, the crowd's over that way," and he pointed to the left.
It was true. Careless of the danger of remaining in the open, men, and women, too, as well as some children, were rushing toward the place where, undoubtedly, the shell from the German gun had fallen.
"Might as well take it in," suggested Jack. "I don't want to crawl down into a cellar or a subway quite yet, even if there's one around here; do you?"
"No," answered Tom, "I don't. Go on, I'm with you."
They followed the throng, but could not resist the impulse to gaze upward now and then for a possible sight of another shell, which, they half hoped, they might observe in time to run for shelter. But of course that would have been out of the question. However, quiet succeeded the din of the explosion, which had been close to the spot where the taxicab had stopped and the boys had alighted.
Following the crowd, Tom and Jack came to a side street, and one look down it showed the havoc wrought by the German engine of death. The shell, of what kind or calibre could not be even guessed, had fallen on top of an establishment where a number of women and girls were employed. And many of these had been killed or wounded. There were heart-rending scenes, which it is not good to dwell upon. But, even in the terror and horror, French efficiency was at the fore.
Ambulances were summoned, a guard was thrown about the building, and the work of aiding the injured and tenderly carrying out the dead was begun. A vast and excited throng increased in size about the building that had been hit and there was much excitement for a time.
Tom and Jack managed to get to a place where they could get a view of the havoc wrought to the structure itself, and the first thing that impressed them was mentioned by Jack, who said:
"They didn't use a very big shell, or there wouldn't have been such comparatively slight material damage done."
"The force was mostly expended inside the building," suggested Tom.
"Even so, if it had been a big shell, the kind they fired at Verdun and Liege, there'd be a crater here big enough to put a church in. As it is, only the two top stories are wrecked."
"That's right, agreed Tom. "I wonder what sort of explosive they are using? Must have been one from a bombing aeroplane."
"No, monsieur," interrupted a gendarme who was standing near. "Pardon, for speaking," he went on, with a salute, "but there was no airship observed over Paris at all. The shell came out of the clear sky."
"But it couldn't have," insisted Jack, in reply to this policeman. "If the Germans are firing on Paris they must have some place from which to shoot their gun. Either on the ground or from an airship."
"It was not an airship," insisted the gendarme. "Excuse me for insisting this to one who is in the air service," and he pointed with pride to the uniform the boys wore, "but I have seen several air raids, and I know! There was no airship seen, or I would have blown the alarm," and he motioned to his whistle which he carried for that purpose.
"It could have come from an immense airship, so high up as to be beyond observation," suggested Jack. "That's possible. Probably the Germans didn't want to be bombarded themselves by aircraft guns here, and they flew high."
The police officer shook his head. He was not convinced.
"But, man, how else could it be?" asked Tom, in some heat. "The Huns have to rest their gun somewhere, and you—Say, Jack!" he suddenly exclaimed, his face paling slightly, "you don't suppose they have broken through, do you?"
"Through our lines about Paris? Never!" cried the police officer. "They shall not pass! Our brave soldiers have said it, and they will maintain it. They shall not pass!"
"And yet," mused Tom, as he looked at the rescue work going on, "what other explanation is there? It's a bombardment of Paris all right, by German shells. If they don't come from an aeroplane, high up, they must come—"
His words were drowned by another great concussion, but farther off. The ground trembled, but there was no sign of flying debris.
"Another!" cried the gendarme. "There goes the gun again!"
"I didn't hear any gun," observed Jack. "What we heard was the explosion of the shell. Look up, Tom, and see if there's a Hun plane in sight. If there is, pity we haven't our machines right now."
The boys carried, slung over their shoulders, powerful binoculars, and with these they swept the sky. Others about them were doing the same. By this time the most seriously injured had been carried to the hospitals, and the dead had been removed, while those only slightly hurt, as well as those in the factory not at all injured, were telling their experiences. The second explosion seemed to create great terror.
"There isn't a sign of a hostile plane," said Tom, as he swept the sky with his glasses.
"I can't see any either," observed Jack. "And yet—"
There sounded the unmistakable roar of an aircraft's propeller.
"There she is!" cried some one.
But it was one of the first of a series of French planes that had hastily ascended to search the heavens for a sight of the supposed German craft that had dropped the bombs.
"What a chance we're missing!" murmured Jack.
"Yes," agreed Tom. "But they're going to have some flight before they locate that Hun. There isn't so much as a speck in the sky except the French craft."
"Let's go and see where that other explosion was," suggested Jack, when they had observed several of the French planes scurrying to and fro over the city, climbing higher and higher in search of the enemy.
"I'm with you," announced Tom. "I wonder what dad thinks of this?"
"It'll be something new for him," said Jack. "He'll have a good chance to see how his stabilizer works, if they're using it on these planes here. And maybe he can invent a better one."
"Perhaps," returned Tom. "But, Jack, do you know I'm worried about one thing."
"I have more than that on my mind, Tom. There are mighty serious times all about us, and it's terrible to think of those poor women and girls being killed like rats in a trap. I'd just like to be in my plane, and with a full gun, and then have a go at the Hun who did this."
"So would I," agreed Tom, as they made their way out of the crowd and in the direction in which many of the populace were hurrying to go to the scene of the second explosion. "But, Jack, do you know I shouldn't be surprised to learn that the shell was not from an airship at all."
"Where would it be from then?"
"The Germans may have massed such a lot of troops at some point opposite the French lines, that they have broken through and have brought up some of their heavy guns.*"
Jack shook his head.
"I don't believe they could do it," he said. "You know the nearest German line is about seventy miles from Paris. If they had started to break through, and had any success at all, the news would have reached here before this. And reinforcements would be on the way. No, it can't be. There must be some other explanation."
"But what is it?" asked Tom. "They've got to get nearer than seventy miles to bombard Paris. You know that."
"I don't think I really know anything about this war," said Jack simply. "So many strange things have happened, so many old theories have been discarded, and so many new things have been done that we don't know where we are."
"Well that's true. And yet how could the Germans get near enough to bombard Paris without some word of it coming in?"
"I don't know. But the fact remains. Now let's get to where the second shell fell. Maybe we can see a fragment of it and—"
Once again the words were interrupted by an explosion. This time it was closer and the shock was greater.
"That's the third!" cried Jack.
"Yes," added Tom, looking at his watch, "and it's just half an hour since the first one fell. That indicates they're firing every fifteen minutes. Jack, there's something weird about this."
"You're right. That last one came rather close, too. I wonder where it fell?"
A man, passing them, running in a direction away from the sound of the last explosion, heard Jack's question. He paused long enough to say:
"That shell fell in Rue Lafayette. Several buildings are in ruins. Many have been killed! It is terrible!"
"Rue Lafayette!" gasped Jack. "That—"
"That's where my father is supposed to be staying!" exclaimed Tom. "Come! We must see what happened!"