Air Service Boys over the Rhine/Chapter 7
With anxious hearts the Air Service boys ran on. There was no need to ask their way, for they had but to follow the throng toward the scene of the most recent exhibition of the Hun's frightfulness and horror.
As they drew near the Rue Lafayette, where Mr. Raymond had said he intended to stay while in Paris, the boys were halted by an officer on the outskirts of the throng.
"Pardon, but you may not go farther," he said, courteously enough. "There is danger. We are about to sound the alarm so that all may take to shelter. The Boches are raiding Paris again."
"We know it," said Tom. "But it is no idle curiosity that takes us on."
"No?" politely questioned the policeman.
"No. I am seeking my father. He wrote to me that he would stop in the Rue Lafayette, and I have not heard from him since. I was told that the last shell fell in that street."
"It did," assented the officer, "and it demolished two houses and part of another. Many were killed and injured."
"Then I must see if my father is among them!" insisted the young aviator.
"Pardon, monsieur, it is not possible. I have my instructions, and—"
He stopped, and for the first time seemed to become aware of the uniforms worn by Tom and Jack. Then the officer saluted as though proud to do it.
"Ah," he murmured. "Of the Lafayette Escadrille! You may go where you will. Only I hope it is not into danger," he said, as he drew aside for them to pass. "Pardon, I did not at first sense who you were. France owes you much, messieurs. Keep your lives save for her!"
"We will," promised Tom, as he hurried on, followed by Jack.
They came to the head of the street they sought, and, looking down it, beheld ruins greater than they had seen before. As the officer had said, two buildings had been completely demolished, and a third partly so, the wreckage of all mingling. And amid these ruins police and soldiers were working frantically to get out the injured and remove the dead, of whom there was a sad number.
Tom's face was white, but he kept his nerve. He had been through too many scenes of horror, had been too near death too often of late, as had his chum, to falter now, even though his father might be among those buried in the wreckage caused by the German shell.
"Do you know what number your father was to stop at?" asked Jack.
"Yes, I have his letter," Tom answered. "I'm afraid, Jack, it was in one of those buildings that have been blown apart."
"I'm afraid so. But, even at that, he may have had a chance for his life. He may have been out, or, after all, he may not have arrived yet. I'm not going to give up hope until I have to."
"That's the way to talk, old man. I'm with you to the last."
They pressed on, and populace and officers alike gave way before them as they saw the uniforms.
"We've got to help!" declared Tom. "We must pitch in. Jack, and lend a hand here. The soldiers seem to be in charge. Let's report to the commanding officer and offer our services."
"But your father?"
"That's the best way to find him if he's in those ruins. Let us help get the unfortunates out. I hope I don't find him, but I must make sure."
Making their way through the press of people, which, under order of the police and military authorities, had begun to disperse in some small measure, Tom and Jack reported to the officer in charge, giving him their names and rank, at the same time showing their papers.
"We want to help," the lads told him.
"And I ask no better," was the quick response. "There are dead and dying under that pile. They must be gotten out."
And then began heartrending scenes. Tom and Jack did valiant work in carrying out the dead and dying, in both of which classes were men, women and children.
The German beasts were living up to the mark they had set for themselves in their war of frightfulness.
Each time a dead or injured man was reached, to be carried out for hospital treatment or to have the last sad rites paid him, Tom nerved himself to look. But he did not see his father, and some small measure of thankfulness surged into his heart. But there were still others buried deep under the ruins, and it would be some time before their bodies, dead or alive, could be got out.
As the soldiers and police worked, on all sides could be heard discussions as to what new form or manner of weapon the Germans were using thus to reach Paris. Many inclined to the theory that it was a new form of airship, flying so high as to be not only beyond ordinary observation, but to be unreachable by the type of planes available at Paris.
"If we could only find a piece of the shell we could come nearer to guessing what sort of gun fired it," remarked Tom, as the two Air Service boys rested a moment from their hard, terrible labors.
"Do you mean if it was dropped from an airship it wouldn't have any rifling grooves on it?" asked Jack.
"That's it. A bomb, dropped from an aeroplane, would, very likely, be only a sort of round affair, set to explode on contact or by a time fuse. But if it was a shell fired from a long-range gun, there might be enough of it left, after the explosion, to observe the rifling."
"There isn't a gun with a range long enough to reach Paris from the nearest German lines, unless they have broken through," said Jack.
"Well, the last may have happened; though I should think we'd have got some word of it in that case. There'd be fierce fighting if the Germans tried that, and we'd rush reinforcements out in taxicabs as the Paris soldiers went out once before."
"Do you think then," asked Jack, as they went back, after their brief respite, to their appalling labors, "that they have a gun long enough to fire from their nearest point, which is about seventy miles from this city?"
"I don't know what to think," remarked Tom. "It seems like a wild dream to speak of a gun that can shoot so far; and yet reality is over-topping many wild dreams these days. I'm going to reserve judgment. My chief concern now, though of course I'm not going to let it interfere with my work, is to find my father. If he should have been in here, Jack—"
Tom did not finish, but his chum knew what he meant, and sympathized with his unexpressed fear for the safety of Mr. Raymond.
Digging and delving into the ruins, they brought out the racked and maimed bodies, and there was more than one whose eyes were wet with tears, while in their hearts wild and justifiable rage was felt at the ruthless Germans.
Ten had been killed and nearly twice that number wounded in the third shell from the Hun cannon.
From a policeman Tom learned that one of the two buildings that had been demolished was the number given by Mr. Raymond as the place he would stay.
"The place he picked out may have been full, and he might have gone somewhere else," said Tom. "We've got to find out about that, Jack."
"That's right. I should think the best person, or persons, to talk to would be the janitors, or 'concierges,' as they call 'em here."
"I'll do that," responded Tom.
Aided by an army officer, to whom the boys had recommended themselves, not only by reason of their rank, but because of their good work in the emergency, they found a man who was in charge of all three buildings as a renting agent. Fortunately he had his books, which he had saved from the wreck.
"You ask for a Monsieur Raymond," he said, as he scanned the begrimed pages. "Yes, he was here. It was in the middle building he had a room."
"In the one that was destroyed?" asked Tom, his heart sinking.
"I regret to say it—yes."
"Then I—then it may be all up with poor old dad!" and Tom, with a masterful effort, restrained his grief, while Jack gripped his chum's hand hard.