WE knew, of course, that Tish's fine brain was working on the problem of rescuing Charlie Sands; and Mr. Burton was on the whole rather keen about it.
"I've got to get a German officer some way," he said. "She's probably planning now to see Von Hindenburg about Sands. She generally aims high, I've discovered. And in that case I rather fancy myself taking the old chap back to Hilda as a souvenir." He then reflected and scowled. "But she'd be flirting with him in ten minutes, damn her!" he added.
Tish refused both sympathy and conversation during the afternoon.
On Aggie's offering her both she merely said: "Go away and leave me alone, for Heaven's sake. He is perfectly safe. I only hope he took his toothbrush, that's all."
It is a proof of Tish's gift of concentration that she thought out her plan so thoroughly under the circumstances, for the valley was shelled all that afternoon. We found an abandoned battery position and the three of us took refuge in it, leaving Tish outside knitting calmly. It was a poor place, but by taking in our folding table and chairs we made it fairly comfortable, and Mr. Burton taught us a most interesting game of cards, in which one formed pairs and various combinations, and counted with coffee beans. If one had four of any one kind one took all the beans.
It was dusk when Tish appeared in the doorway, and we noticed that she wore a look of grim determination.
"I have been to the top of the hill," she said, "and I believe that I know now the terrain thoroughly. In case my first plan fails we may be compelled to desperate measures—but I find my present situation intolerable. Never before has a member of my family been taken by an enemy. We die, but we do not surrender."
"You can speak for your own family, then," Aggie said. "I've got a family, too, but it's got sense enough to surrender when necessary. And if you think Libby Prison was any treat to my grandfather——"
Tish ignored her.
"It is my intention," she went on, "to appeal to the general of his division to rescue my nephew and thus wipe out the stain on the family honor. Failing that, I am prepared to go to any length."
Here she eyed Aggie coldly. "It is no time for craven spirits," she said. "We may be arrested and court-martialed for being so near the Front, to say nothing of what may eventuate in case of a refusal. I intend to leave no stone unturned, but I think it only fair to ask for a vote of confidence. Those in the affirmative will please signify by saying 'aye.'"
"Aye," I said stoutly. I would not fail my dear Tish in such a crisis. Aggie followed me a moment later, but feebly, and Mr. Burton said: "I don't like the idea any more than I do my right eye. Why bother with the general? I'm for going to V—— and breaking up the pinochle game, and bringing home the bacon in the shape of a Hun or two."
However, I have reason to think that he was joking, and that subsequent events startled him considerably, for I remember that when it was all over and we were in safety once again he kept saying over and over in a dazed voice: "Well, can you beat it? Can you beat it?"
In some way Tish had heard, from a battery on the hill, I think, that headquarters was at the foot of the hill on the other side. She made her plans accordingly.
"As soon as darkness has fallen," she said to Mr. Burton, "we three women shall visit the commanding officer and there make our plea—without you, as it will be necessary to use all the softening feminine influence possible. One of two things will then occur: Either he will rescue my nephew—or I shall."
"Now see here, Miss Tish," he protested, "you're not going to leave me out of it altogether, are you? You wouldn't break my heart, would you? Besides, you'll need me. I'm a specialist at rescuing nephews. I—I've rescued thousands of nephews in my time."
Well, she'd marked out a place that would have been a crossroads if the German shells had left any road, and she said if she failed with the C. O. he was to meet us there, with two baskets of cigarettes for the men in the trenches.
"Cigarettes!" he said. "What help will they be against the enemy? Unless you mean to wait until they've smoked themselves to death."
"Underneath the cigarettes," Tish went on calmly, "you will have a number of grenades. If only we could repair that machine gun!" she reflected. "I dare say I can salvage an automatic rifle or two," she finished; "though large-sized firecrackers would do. The real thing is to make a noise."
"We might get some paper bags and burst them," suggested Mr. Burton; "and if you feel that music would add to the martial effect I can play fairly well on a comb."
It was perhaps nine o'clock when we reached the crest of the hill, and had Tish not thoughtfully brought her wire cutters along I do not believe we would have succeeded in reaching headquarters. We got there finally, however, and it was in a cellar and—though I do not care to reflect on our gallant army—not as tidy as it should have been. Mr. Burton having remained behind temporarily the three of us made our way to the entrance, and Tish was almost bayoneted by a sentry there, who was nervous because of a number of shells falling in the vicinity.
"Take that thing away!" she said with superb scorn, pointing to the bayonet. "I don't want a hole in the only uniform I've got, young man. Watch your head, Lizzie!"
"The saints protect us!" said the sentry. "Women! Three women!"
Tish and I went down the muddy incline into the cellar, and two officers who were sitting there playing cribbage looked at us and then stood up with a surprised expression.
Tish had assumed a most lofty attitude, and picking out the general with an unfailing eye she saluted and said: "Only the most urgent matters would excuse my intrusion, sir. I——"
Unfortunately at that moment Aggie slipped and slid into the room feet first in a sitting posture. She brought up rather dazed against the table, and for a moment both officers were too surprised to offer her any assistance. Tish and I picked her up, and she fell to sneezing violently, so that it was some time before the conversation was resumed. It was the general who resumed it.
"This is very flattering," he said in a cold voice, "but if you ladies will explain how you got here I'll make it interesting for somebody."
Suddenly the colonel who was with him said: "Suffering Crimus! It can't be! And yet—it certainly is!"
We looked at him, and it was the colonel who had been so interested in Charlie Sands at the training camp. We all shook hands with him, and he offered us chairs, and said to the general: "These are the ladies I have told you about, sir, with the nephew. You may recall the helpful suggestions sent to the Secretary of War and forwarded back to me by the General Staff. I have always wanted to explain about those dish towels, ladies. You see, you happened on us at a bad time. Our dish towels had come, but though neatly hemmed they lacked the small tape in the corner by which to hang them up. I therefore——"
"Oh, keep still!" said the general in an angry tone. "Now, what brings you women here?"
"My nephew has been taken prisoner," Tish said coldly. "I want to know merely whether you propose to do anything about it or intend to sit here in comfort and do nothing."
He became quite red in the face at this allusion to the cribbage board, et cetera, and at first seemed unable to speak.
"Quietly, man," said the colonel. "Remember your blood pressure."
"Damn my blood pressure!" said the general in a thick tone.
I must refuse to relate the conversation that followed—hardly conversation, indeed, as at the end the general did all the talking.
At last, however, he paused for breath, and Tish said very quietly: "Then I am to understand that you refuse to do anything about my nephew?"
"Who is your nephew?"
"And who's Charlie Sands?"
"My nephew," said Tish.
He said nothing to this, but shouted abruptly in a loud voice: "Orderly! Raise that curtain and let some air into this rat hole."
Then he turned to the colonel and said: "Thompson, you're younger than I am. I've got a family, and my blood pressure's high. I'm going out to make a tour of the observation posts.
"Coward!" said the colonel to him in a low tone.
The colonel was very pleasant to us when the other man had gone. The general was his brother-in-law, he said, and rather nervous because they hadn't had a decent meal for a week.
"The only thing that settles his nerves is cribbage," he explained. "It helps his morale. Now—let us think about getting you back to safety. I'd offer you our humble hospitality, but somebody got in here today and stole the duckboard I've been sleeping on, and I can't offer you the general's cellar door. He's devoted to it."
"What if we refuse to go back?" Tish demanded. "We've taken a risky trip for a purpose, and I don't give up easily, young man. I'm inclined to sit here until that general promises to do something."
His face changed.
"Oh, now see here," he said in an appealing voice, "you aren't going to make things difficult for me, are you? There's a regulation against this sort of thing."
"We are welfare workers," Tish said calmly. "Behind us there stand the entire American people. If kept from the front trenches while trying to serve our boys there are ways of informing the people through the press."
"It's exactly the press I fear," he said in a sad voice. "Think of the results to you three, and to me."
"What results?" Tish demanded impatiently. "I'm not doing anything I'm ashamed of."
He was abstractedly moving the cribbage pins about.
"It's like this," he said: "Not very far behind the lines there are a lot of newspaper correspondents, and lately there hasn't been much news. But perhaps I'd better explain my own position. I am engaged to a lovely girl at home. I write to her every day, but I have been conscious recently that in her replies to me there has been an element of—shall I say suspicion? No, that is not the word. Anxiety—of anxiety, lest I shall fall in love with some charming Red Cross or Y. M. C. A. girl. Nothing could be further from my thoughts, but you can see my situation. Three feminine visitors at nightfall; news-hungry correspondents; all the rest of it. Scandal, dear ladies! And absolute ruin to my hopes!"
"Bosh!" said Tish. But I could see that she was uncomfortable. "If there's trouble I'll send her our birth certificates. Besides, I thought you said the general was your brother-in-law?"
Aggie says he changed color at that but he said hastily: "By marriage, madam, only by marriage. By that I mean—I—he—the general is married to my brother."
"Really!" said Tish. "How unusual!"
She said afterward that she saw at once then that we were only wasting time, and that neither one of them would move hand or foot to get Charlie Sands back. Aggie had been scraping her skirt with a table knife, and was now fairly tidy, so Tish prepared to depart.
"On thinking it over," she said, "I realize that I am confronting a situation which requires brains rather than brute force. I shall therefore attend to it myself. Good night, colonel. I hope you find another duckboard. And—if you are writing home present my compliments to the general's husband. Come, Aggie."
At the top of the incline I looked back. The colonel was staring after us and wiping his forehead with a khaki handkerchief.
"You see," Tish said bitterly, "that is the sort of help one gets from the Army." She drew a deep breath and looked in the general direction of the trenches. "One thing is sure and certain—I'm not going back until I've found out whether Charlie Sands is still in that town over there or whether he has been taken away so we'll have to get at him from Switzerland."
Aggie gave a low moan at this, and Tish eyed her witheringly.
"Don't be an idiot, Aggie!" she observed. "I haven't asked you to go—or Lizzie either. I'd be likely," she added, "to get through our lines unseen and into the very midst of the German Army with one of you sneezing with hay fever and the other one panting like a locomotive from too much flesh."
"Tish——" I began firmly. But she waved her hand in silence and demanded Aggie's flashlight. She then led the way behind the ruins of a wall and took a bundle of papers from under her jacket.
"If the Army won't help us we have a right to help ourselves," she observed. And I perceived with a certain trepidation that the papers were some that had been lying on the table at headquarters.
"'Memorandum,'" Tish read the top one. "'Write home. Order boots. Send to British Commissary for Scotch whisky. Insect powder!' Wouldn't you know," she said bitterly, "that that general would have to make a memorandum about writing home?"
Underneath, however, there was an aëroplane picture of the Front and V——, and also a map. Both of these she studied carefully until several bullets found their way to our vicinity, and a sentry ran up and was very rude about the light. On receiving a box of cigarettes, however, he became quite friendly.
"Haven't had a pill for a week," he said. "Got to a point now where we steal the hay from the battery horses and roll it up in leaves from my Bible. But it isn't really satisfying."
Tish gave him a brief lecture on thus mutilating his best friend, but he said that he only used the unimportant pages. "You know,"—he explained "somebody begat somebody else, and that sort of thing. You haven't any more fags about you, have you?" he asked wistfully. "I'll be sandbagged and robbed if I go back without any for the other fellows."
"We can bring some," Tish suggested, "and you might show us to the trenches. I particularly wish to give some to the men in the most advanced positions."
"You're on," he said cheerfully. "Bring the life savers, and we'll see that you get forward all right."
"Suppose," she said at last—"suppose that we wish to be able on returning to our native land to state that we have not only been to our advanced positions but have even made a short excursion into the debatable territory—that is, into what is commonly known as No Man's Land?"
"All of you?" he asked doubtfully.
"All of us."
He then considered and said: "How many cigarettes have you got?"
"About a hundred packages," Tish replied. "Say, five to you, and the rest used where considered most efficacious."
"Every man has his price," he observed. "That's mine. I'm taking a chance, but I've seen you round, so I know you're not spies. And if you get an extra helmet out there you might give me one. I've been here six months and I've never seen one, on a German or off. I let a woman reporter through last week," he added, "and d'you think she thanked me? No. She gave me hell because the Germans had a raid that night and nearly got her. I'm a soldier, not a prophet."
Tish left us immediately to go back to Mr. Burton, and Aggie clutched at my arm in a frenzy of anxiety.
"She's going to do it, Lizzie!" she said with her teeth chattering. "She's going to V—— to rescue Charlie Sands, and we'll all be caught, and—Lizzie, I feel that I shall never see home again."
"Well, if you ask me, I don't think you will," I said as calmly as possible. Aggie put her head on my shoulder and wept between sneezes.
"I know I'm weak, Lizzie," she moaned, "but I'm frightened, and I'm not afraid to say so. You'd think she only had to shoo those Germans like a lot of chickens. I love Tish, but if she'd only sprain her ankle or something!"
However, Tish came back soon, bringing Mr. Burton with her and two baskets with cigarettes on top and grenades below, and also our revolvers and a supply of extra cartridges. She had not explained her plan to Mr. Burton, so we sat down behind the wall and she told him. He seemed quite willing and cheerful.
"Certainly," he said. "It is all quite clear. We simply go into No Man's Land for souvenirs, and they pass us. Perfectly natural, of course. We then continue to advance to the German lines, and then commit suicide. I've been thinking of doing it for some time anyhow, and this way has an element of the dramatic that appeals to me." I have learned since that he felt that the only thing to do was to humor Tish, and that he was convinced that about a hundred yards in No Man's Land would hurt no one, and, as he expressed it, clear the air. How little he knew our dear Tish!
As it is not my intention to implicate any of those brave boys who sought to give us merely the innocent pleasure of visiting the strip of land between the two armies I shall draw a veil over our excursion through the trenches that night, where we were met everywhere with acclaim and gratitude, and finally assisted out of the trenches by means of a ladder. As it was quite dark the grenades in the basket entirely escaped notice, and we found ourselves at last headed toward the German lines, and fully armed, though looking, as Mr. Burton observed, like a picnic party.
He persisted in making humorous sallies such as: "Did any one remember the pepper and salt?" and "I hope somebody brought pickles. What's a picnic without pickles?"
I regret to say that we were fired on by some of our own soldiers who didn't understand the situation, shortly after this, and that the bottle of blackberry cordial which I was carrying was broken to fragments.
"If they hit this market basket there'll be a little excitement," Mr. Burton said. He then stopped and said that a joke was a joke, but there was such a thing as carrying it too far, and that we'd better look for a helmet or two and then go back.
"The Germans are just on the other side of that wood," he whispered; "and they don't know a joke when they see one."
"I thought, Mr. Burton, you promised to take Hilda a German officer," Tish said scornfully.
"I did," he agreed. "I did indeed. But now I think of it, I didn't promise her a live one. The more I consider the matter the more I am sure that no stipulation was made as to the conditions of delivery. I——"
But when he saw Tish continuing to advance he became very serious, and even suggested that if we would only go back he would himself advance as far as possible and endeavor to reach V——.
Just what Tish's reply would have been I do not know, as at that moment Aggie stumbled and fell into a deep shell hole full of water. We heard the splash and waited for her voice, as we were uncertain of her exact position.
But what was our surprise on hearing a deep masculine voice say: "Hands up, you dirty swine!"
"Let go of me," came in piteous accents from Aggie.
There was then complete silence, until the other voice said: "Well, I'll be damned!" It then said: "Bill, Bill!"
"Here," said still another voice, a short distance away, in a sort of loud whisper.
"There's a mermaid in my pool," said the first voice. "Did you draw anything?"
"Lucky devil," said the other voice. "I'm drawing about eight feet of water, that's all."
Tish then advanced in the direction of the voices and said: "Aggie, are you all right?"
"I'm half drowned. And there's a man here."
The first voice then said in an aggrieved manner: "This is my puddle, you know, lady. And if my revolver wasn't wet through I'm afraid there would be one mermaid less, or whatever you are."
The Germans at that moment sent up one of their white lights, which resemble certain of our Fourth of July pieces, which float a long time and give the effect of full moonlight.
"Down," said Mr. Burton, and we all fell flat on our faces. Before doing so, however, we had a short glimpse of Aggie's head and another above the water in the shell hole, and realized that her position was very uncomfortable.
When the light died away the two men emerged, and with some difficulty dragged her out. It was while this was going on that Tish caught my arm and whispered: "Lizzie, I have heard that voice before."
Well, it had a familiar sound to me also, and when he addressed the other man as Grogan I suddenly remembered. It was the man we had thrown from the ambulance in Paris the night Tish salvaged it! I told Tish in a whisper, and she remembered the incident clearly.
"You sure gave me a scare," he said to Aggie. "For if you were a German I was gone, and if you were an officer of the A. E. F. I was gone more. Bill and I just slipped out to take a look round the town behind those woods, account of our captain being a prisoner there."
"Who is your captain?" Tish asked.
"Name's Weber. We pulled off a raid last night, and he and a fellow named Sands got grabbed."
"Weber?" said Mr. Burton, forgetting to whisper.
"You—you don't mean Captain Weber?" I asked after a sickening pause.
"That's the man."
"Oh, dear!" said Aggie.
Suddenly Mr. Burton stopped and put down the basket of grenades.
"I'm damned if I'm going to rescue him!" he said firmly. "Now look here, Miss Tish, I hate to disappoint you, but I've got private reasons for leaving Weber exactly where he is.
"I don't wish him any harm, but if they'd take him and put him to road mending for three or four years I'd be a happier man. And as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to give them the chance."
The two men had stood listening, and now Bill spoke:
"Am I to understand that this is a rescue party?" he said. "Seeing the basket I thought it was a picnic. I just want to say this: If you have any idea of going to V——, and as we were going in that direction ourselves, we might combine. My friend here and I were over last night, and we know how to get into the town."
"Very well," Tish agreed after a moment's hesitation. "I have no objection. It must be distinctly understood, however, that I am in charge. Captain Sands is my nephew."
Another light went up just then, and I perceived that he was staring at her.
"My—my word!" he gasped.
We then fell on our faces, and while lying there I heard him whispering to Bill. He then said to Tish: "I believe, lady, that we have met before."
"Very possibly," Tish said calmly. "In the course of my welfare work I have met many of our brave men."
"I wouldn't call it exactly welfare work you were doing when I saw you."
"No?" said Tish.
"You may be interested to know that if you hadn't stolen that ambulance——"
"——salvaged that ambulance I would now be in safety in Paris, instead of—— Not that I'd exchange," he added. "I wouldn't have missed this excursion for a good bit. But they made it so darned unpleasant for me that I enlisted."
The starlight having now died we rose and prepared to advance. Mr. Burton, however, was very difficult and tried to get Tish to promise to leave Captain Weber if we found him.
"It's the only bit of luck I've had since I left home, Miss Tish," he said.
Tish, however, ignored him, and with the help of our new allies briefly sketched a plan of campaign.
I make no pretensions to military knowledge, but I shall try to explain the situation at V——, as our dear Tish learned it from the general's papers and the two soldiers. The real German position—a military term meaning location and not attitude—was behind the town, but they kept enough soldiers in it to hold it, and in case of an attack they filled it up with great rapidity. So far the church tower remained standing, as the Allies wished on taking the town to use it to look out from and observe any unfriendly actions on the part of the Germans.
"If only," Tish said, "we could have repaired that machine gun and brought it the affair would be extremely simple. It has from the beginning been my intention to give the impression of an attack in force."
She then considered for a short time, and finally suggested that the two soldiers return to the allied Front and attempt to secure two automatic rifles.
"And it might be as well," she added, "to take Miss Aggie with you. She is wet through, and will undoubtedly before long have a return of her hay fever, which with her has no season. A sneeze at a critical time might easily ruin us."
Aggie, however, absolutely refused to return, and said that by holding her nostrils closed and her mouth open she could, if she felt the paroxysm coming on, sneeze almost noiselessly. She said also that though not related to her by blood Charlie Sands was as dear as her own, and that if turned back she would go to V—— alone and, if captured, at least suffer imprisonment with him.
Tish was quite touched, I could see, and on the two men departing to attempt the salvage of the required weapons she assisted me in wringing out Aggie's clothing and in making her as comfortable as possible.
We waited for some time, eating chocolate to restore our strength, and attempting to comfort Mr. Burton, who was very surly.
"It has been my trouble all my life," he observed bitterly, "not to leave well enough alone. I hadn't any hope of the success of this expedition before, but now I know you'll pull it off. You'll get Sands and you'll get Weber and send him back—to—well, you understand. It's just my luck. I'm not complaining, but if I'm killed and he isn't I'm going to haunt that Y hut and make it darned unpleasant for both of them."
Tish reproved him for debasing the future life to such purposes, but he was firm.
"If you think I'm going to stand round and be walked through and sat on, and all the indignities that ghosts must suffer, without getting back," he said gloomily, "you can think again, Miss Tish!"
When the two men returned Tish gave them a brief talking-to.
"First of all," she said, "there must be no mistake as to who is in command of this expedition. If we succeed it will be by finesse rather than force, and that is distinctly a feminine quality. Second, there is to be no unnecessary fighting. We are here to secure my nephew, not the German Army."
The man we had bumped off the step of the ambulance, whose name proved to be Jim, said at once that that last sentence had relieved his mind greatly. A few prisoners wouldn't put them out seriously, but the Allies were feeding more than they could afford already.
"But a few won't matter," he added. "Say, a dozen or so. They won't kick on that."
I have never learned where Tish learned her strategy—unless from the papers she took from the general's cellar.
Military experts have always considered the plan masterly, I believe, and have lauded the mobility of a small force and the greater element of surprise possible, as demonstrated by the incidents which followed.
Briefly Tish adhered to her plan of making the attack seem a large one, by spreading the party over a large area and having it make as much noise as possible.
"By firing from one spot, and then running rapidly either to right or left, and firing again," she said, "those who have only revolvers may easily appear to be several persons instead of one."
She then arranged that the two automatic rifles attack the town from in front, but widely separated, while Aggie and myself, endeavoring to be a platoon—or perhaps she said regiment—would advance from the left. On the right Mr. Burton was to move forward in force, firing his revolver and throwing grenades in different directions. Of her own plans she said nothing.
"Forward, the Suicide Club!" said Mr. Burton with that strange sarcasm which had marked him during the last hour.
I have since reflected that certain kinds of men seem to take love very unpleasantly. Aggie, however, maintains that the deeper the love the greater the misery, and that Mr. Wiggins once sent back a muffler she had made for him on seeing her conversing with the janitor of the church about dust in her pew.
In a short time we had passed through the wood and the remainder of the excursion was very slow, owing to being obliged to crawl on our hands and knees. We could now see the church tower, and Tish gave the signal to separate. The men left us at once, but for a short time Tish was near me, as I could tell by an irritated exclamation from her when she became entangled in the enemy's barbed wire. But soon I realized that she had gone. Looking back I believe it was just before we met the Germans who were out laying wire, but I am not quite certain. There were about ten of the enemy, and they almost stepped on Aggie. She said afterward that she was so alarmed that she sneezed, but that having buried her entire face in a mudhole they did not hear her. We lay quite still for some time, and when they had gone and we could move again Tish had disappeared.
However, we obeyed orders and went on moving steadily to the left, and before long we were able to make out the ruins of V—— directly before us. They were apparently empty and silent, and concealing ourselves behind a fallen wall we waited for the automatic rifles to give the signal. Aggie had taken cold from her wetting, and could hardly speak.
"I'b sure they've taked Tish," were her first words.
"Not alive," I said grimly.
"Lizzie! Oh, by dear Tish!"
"If you've got to worry," I said rather tartly, "worry about the Germans. It wouldn't surprise me a particle to see her bring in the lot."
Well, the attack started just then and Aggie and I got our revolvers and began shooting as rapidly as possible, firing from the end of the village, and with Mr. Burton's grenades from one side and our revolvers from the other it made a tremendous noise. Aggie and I did our best, I know, to appear to be a large number, firing and then moving to a new point and firing again. I must say from the way those Germans ran toward their own lines behind the town I was not surprised at the rapidity of the final retreat which ended the war. As Aggie said later, we were not there to kill them unless necessary, but they ran so fast at times it was difficult to avoid hitting them. They fairly ran into the bullets.
In a very short time there was not one in sight, but we kept on firing for a trifle longer, and then made for the church, meeting the two privates on the way. When we arrived Mr. Burton was already there and had unfastened a large bolt on the outside of the door. We crowded in, and somebody closed the door and we had a moment to breathe.
"Well, here we are," said Mr. Burton in a quite cheerful tone. "And not a casualty among us—or the Germans either, I fancy, save those that died of heart disease. Are we all here, by the way?"
He then struck a match, and my heart sank.
"Tish!" I cried. "Tish is not here!"
It was then that a voice from the far end of the church said: "Suffering snakes! I'm delirious, Weber! I knew that beer would get me. I thought I heard——"
Some one was hammering at the door with a revolver, and we heard Tish's dear voice outside saying: "Keep your hands up! Lizzie!"
Mr. Burton opened the door and Tish backed in, followed by a figure that was muttering in German. She had both her revolvers pointed at it, and she said: "Close the door, somebody, and get a light. I think it's a general."
Well, Charlie Sands was coming with a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, and he seemed extremely surprised. He kept stumbling over things and saying "Wake me, Weber," until he had put a hand on my arm.
"It's real," he said then. "It's a real arm. Therefore it is, it must be. And yet——"
"Stop driveling," Tish said sharply, "and tie up this general or whatever he is. I don't trust him. He's got a mean eye."
It has been the opinion of military experts that the reason the enemy had apparently lost its morale and failed to make a counter-attack at once was the early loss of this officer. In fact, a prisoner taken later I believe told the story that V—— had been attacked and captured by an entire division, without artillery preparation, and that he himself had seen the commanding officer killed by a shell. But the truth was that Tish, having fallen into an empty trench a moment or so before I missed her, had after recovering from the shock and surprise followed the trench for some distance, finding that she could advance more rapidly than by crawling on the surface.
She had in this manner happened on a dugout where a German officer was sitting at a table with a lighted candle marking the corners of certain playing cards with the point of a pin. He seemed to be in a very bad humor, and was muttering to himself. She waited in the darkness until he had finished, and had shoved the cards into his pocket. When he had extinguished the candle he started back along the trench toward the village, and Tish merely put her two revolvers to his back and captured him.
I pass over the touching reunion between Tish and her beloved nephew. He seemed profoundly affected, and moving out of the candlelight gave way to emotion that fairly shook him. It was when he returned wiping his eyes that he recognized the German officer. He became exceedingly grave at once.
"I trust you understand," he said to him, "that this—er—surprise party is no reflection on your hospitality. And I am glad to point out also that the pinochle game is not necessarily broken up. It can continue until you are moved back behind the Allied lines. I may not," he added, "be able to offer you a church, because if I do say it you people have been wasteful as to churches. But almost any place in our trenches is entirely safe."
He then looked round the group again and said: "Don't tell me Aunt Aggie has missed this! I couldn't bear it."
"Aggie!" I cried. "Where is Aggie?"
It was then that the painful truth dawned on us. Aggie had not entered the church. She was still outside, perhaps wandering alone among a cruel and relentless foe. It was a terrible moment.
I can still see the white and anxious faces round the candle, and Tish's insistence that a search be organized at once to find her. Mr. Burton went out immediately, and returned soon after to say that she was not in sight, and that the retiring Germans were sending up signal rockets and were probably going to rush the town at once.
We held a short council of war then, but there was nothing to do but to retire, having accomplished our purpose. Even Tish felt this, and said that it was a rule of war that the many should not suffer for the few; also that she didn't propose losing a night's sleep to rescue Charlie Sands and then have him retaken again, as might happen any minute.
We put out the candle and left the church, and not a moment too soon, for a shell dropped through the roof behind us, and more followed it at once. I was very uneasy, especially as I was quite sure that between explosions I could hear Aggie's voice far away calling Tish.
We retired slowly, taking our prisoner with us, and turning round to fire toward the enemy now and then. We also called Aggie by name at intervals, but she did not appear. And when we reached the very edge of the town the Germans were at the opposite end of it, and we were obliged to accelerate our pace until lost in the Stygian darkness of the wood.
It was there that I felt Tish's hand on my arm.
"I'm going back," she said in a low tone. "Driveling idiot that she is, I cannot think of her hiding somewhere and sneezing herself into captivity. I am going back, Lizzie."
"Then I go too," I said firmly. "I guess if she's your responsibility she's mine too."
Well, she didn't want me any more than she wanted the measles, but the time was coming when she could thank her lucky stars I was there. However, she said nothing, but I heard her suggesting that we separate, every man for himself, except the prisoner, and work back to our own side the best way we could.
With her customary thoughtfulness, however, she held a short conversation with Mr. Burton first. I have not mentioned Captain Weber, I believe, since our first entrance into the church, but he was with us, and I had observed Mr. Burton eying him with unfriendly eyes. Indeed, I am quite convinced that the accident of our leaving the church without the captain, and finding him left behind and bolted in, was no accident at all."
Tish merely told Mr. Burton that the prisoner was his, and that if he chose and could manage to present him, to Hilda he might as well do it.
"She's welcome to him," she said.
"He's not my prisoner."
"He is now; I give him to you."
Finding him obdurate, however, she resorted to argument.
"It doesn't invalidate an engagement," she said rather brusquely, "for a man to borrow the money for an engagement ring. If it did there would be fewer engagements. If you want to borrow a German prisoner for the same purpose the principle is the same."
He seemed to be weakening.
"I'd like to do it—if only to see her face," he said slowly. "Not but what it's a risk. He's a good-looking devil."
In the end, however, he agreed, and the last we saw of them he was driving the German ahead, with a grenade in one hand and his revolver in the other, and looking happier than he had looked for days.
Almost immediately after that I felt Tish's hand on my arm. We turned and went back toward V——.
Military experts have been rather puzzled by our statement that the Germans did not reënter V—— that night, but remained just outside, and that we reached the church again without so much as a how-do-you-do from any of them. I believe the general impression is that they feared a trap. I think they are rather annoyed to learn that there was a period of several hours during which they might safely have taken the town; in fact, the irritable general who was married to the colonel's brother was most unpleasant about it. When everything was over he came to Paris to see us, and he was most unpleasant.
"If you wanted to take the damned town, why didn't you say so?" he roared. "You came in with a long story about a nephew, but it's my plain conviction, madam, that you were flying for higher game than your nephew from the start."
Tish merely smiled coldly.
"Perhaps," she said in a cryptic manner. "But, of course, in these days of war one must be very careful. It is difficult to tell whom to trust."
As he became very red at that she gently reminded him of his blood pressure, but he only hammered on the table and said:
"Another thing, madam. God knows I don't begrudge you the falderals they've been pinning on you, but it seems to me more than a coincidence that your celebrated strategy followed closely the lines of a memorandum, madam, that was missing from my table after your departure."
"My dear man," Tish replied urbanely, "there is a little military word I must remind you of—salvage. As one of your own staff explained it to me one perceives an object necessary to certain operations. If on saluting that object it fails to return the salute I believe the next step is to capture it. Am I not right?"
But I regret to say that he merely picked up his cap and went out of our sitting room, banging the door behind him.
To return. We reached the church safely, and from that working out in different directions we began our unhappy search. However, as it was still very dark I evidently lost my sense of direction, and while peering into a cellar was suddenly shocked by feeling a revolver thrust against my back.
"You are my prisoner," said a voice. "Move and I'll fire."
It was, however, only Tish. We were both despondent by that time, and agreed to give up the search. As it happened it was well we did so, for we had no more than reached the church and seated ourselves on the doorstep in deep dejection when the enemy rushed the village. I confess that my immediate impulse was flight, but Tish was of more heroic stuff.
"They are coming, Lizzie," she said. "If you wish to fly go now. I shall remain. I have too many tender memories of Aggie to desert her."
She then rose and went without haste into the church, which was sadly changed by shell fire in the last two hours, and I followed her. By the aid of the flashlight, cautiously used, we made our way to a break in the floor and Tish suggested that we retire to the cellar, which we did, descending on piles of rubbish. The noise in the street was terrible by that time, but the cellar was quiet enough, save when now and then a fresh portion of the roof gave way.
I was by this time exceedingly nervous, and Tish gave me a mouthful of cordial. She herself was quite calm.
"We must give them time to quiet down," she said. "They sound quite hysterical, and it would be dangerous to be discovered just now. Perhaps we would better find a sheltered spot and get some sleep. I shall need my wits clear in the morning."
It was fortunate for us that the French use the basements of their churches for burying purposes, for by crawling behind a marble sarcophagus we found a sort of cave made by the débris. Owing to that protection the grenades the enemy threw into the cellar did no harm what ever, save to waken Tish from a sound sleep.
"Drat them anyhow!" she said. "I was just dreaming that Mr. Ostermaier had declined a raise in his salary."
"Tish," I said, "suppose they find Aggie?"
She yawned and turned over.
"Aggie's got more brains than you think she has," was her comment. "She hates dying about as much as most people. My own private opinion is and has been that she went back to our lines hours ago."
"Tish!" I exclaimed. "Then why——"
"I just want to try a little experiment," she said drowsily, and was immediately asleep.
At last I slept myself, and when we wakened it was daylight, and the Germans were in full possession of the town. They inspected the church building overhead, but left it quickly; and Tish drew a keen deduction from that.
"Well, that's something in our favor," she said. "Evidently they're afraid the thing will fall in on them."
At eight o'clock she complained of being hungry, and I felt the need of food myself. With her customary promptness she set out to discover food, leaving me alone, a prey to sad misgivings. In a short time, however, she returned and asked me if I'd seen a piece of wire anywhere.
"I've got considerable barbed wire sticking in me in various places," I said rather tartly, "if that will do."
But she only stood, staring about her in the semidarkness.
"A lath with a nail in the end of it would answer," she observed. "Didn't you step on a nail last night?"
Well, I had, and at last we found it. It was in the end of a plank and seemed to be precisely what she wanted. She took it away with her, and was gone some twenty minutes. At the end of that time she returned carrying carefully a small panful of fried bacon.
"I had to wait," she explained. "He had just put in some fresh slices when I got there."
While we ate she explained.
"There is a small opening to the street," she said, "where there is a machine gun, now covered with débris. Just outside I perceived a soldier cooking his breakfast. Of course there was a chance that he would not look away at the proper moment, but he stood up to fill his pipe. I'd have got his coffee too, but in the fight he kicked it over."
"What fight?" I asked.
"He blamed another soldier for taking the bacon. He was really savage, Lizzie. From the way he acted I gather that they haven't any too much to eat."
Breakfast fortified us both greatly, but it also set me to thinking sadly of Aggie, whose morning meal was a crisp slice of bacon, varied occasionally by an egg. I had not Tish's confidence in her escape. And Tish was restless. She insisted on wandering about the cellar, and near noon I missed her for two hours. When she came back she was covered with plaster dust, but she made no explanation.
"I have been thinking over the situation, Lizzie," she said, "and it divides itself into two parts. We must wait until nightfall and then search again for Aggie, in case my judgment is wrong as to her escape. And then there is a higher law than that of friendship. There is our duty to Aggie, and there is also our duty to the nation."
"Well," I said rather shortly, "I guess we've done our duty. We've taken a prisoner. I owe a duty to my backbone, which is sore from these rocks; and my right leg, which has been tied in a knot with cramp for three hours."
"When," Tish broke in, "is a railroad most safe to travel on? Just after a wreck, certainly. And when, then, is a town easiest to capture? Just after it has been captured. Do you think for one moment that they'll expect another raid tonight?"
"Do you think there will be one?" I asked hopefully.
"I know there will."
She would say nothing further, but departed immediately and was gone most of the afternoon. She came back wearing a strange look of triumph, and asked me if I remembered the code Aggie used, but I had never learned it. She was very impatient.
"It's typical of her," she said, "to disappear just when we need her most. If you knew the code and could get rid of the lookout they keep in the tower, while I——"
She broke off and reflected.
"They've got to change the lookout in the tower," she said. "If the one comes down before the other goes up, and if we had a hatchet——"
"Exactly," I said. "And if we were back in the cottage at Penzance, with nothing worse to fight than mosquitoes——"
We had no midday meal, but at dusk Tish was lucky enough to capture a knapsack set down by a German soldier just outside the machine-gun aperture, and we ate what I believe are termed emergency rations. By that time it was quite dark, and Tish announced that the time had come to strike, though she refused any other explanation.
We had no difficulty in getting out of the cellar, and Tish led the way immediately to the foot of the tower.
"We must get rid of the sentry up there," she whispered. "The moment he hears a racket in the street he will signal for reënforcements, which would be unfortunate."
"What racket?" I demanded.
But she did not reply. Instead she moved into the recess below the tower and stood looking up thoughtfully. I joined her, and we could make out what seemed to be a platform above, and we distinctly saw a light on it, as though the lookout had struck a match. I suggested firing up at him, but Tish sniffed.
"And bring in the entire regiment, or whatever it is!" she said scornfully but in a whisper. "Use your brains, Lizzie!"
However, at that moment the sentry solved the question himself, for he started down. We could hear his coming. We concealed ourselves hastily, and Tish watched him go out and into a cellar across the street, where she said she was convinced they were serving beer. Indeed, there could be no doubt of it, she maintained, as the men went there in crowds, and many of them carried tin cups.
Tish's first thought was that he would be immediately relieved by another lookout, and she stationed herself inside the door, ready to make him prisoner. But finally the truth dawned on us that he had temporarily deserted his post. Tish took immediate advantage of his absence to prepare to ascend the tower, and having found a large knife in the knapsack she had salvaged she took it between her teeth and climbed the narrow winding staircase.
"If he comes back before I return, Lizzie," she said, "capture him, but don't shoot. It might make the rest suspicious."
She then disappeared and I heard her climbing the stairs with her usual agility. However, she returned considerably sooner than I had anticipated, and in a state of intense anger.
"There is another one up there," she whispered. "I heard him sneezing. Why he didn't shoot at me I don't know, unless he thought I was the other one. But I've fixed him," she added with a tinge of complacency. "It's a rope ladder at the top. I reached up as high as I could and cut it."
She then grew thoughtful and observed that cutting the ladder necessitated changing a part of her plan.
"What plan?" I demanded. "I guess my life's at stake as well as yours, Tish Carberry."
"I should think it would be perfectly clear," she said. "We've either got to take this town or starve like rats in that cellar. They've got so now that they won't even walk on the side next to the church, and some of them cross themselves. The frying pan seems to have started it, and when the knapsack disappeared—— However, here's my plan, Lizzie. From what I have observed during the day pretty nearly the entire lot, except the sentries, will be in that beer cellar across in an hour or so. The rest will run for it—take my word—the moment I open fire."
"I'll take your word, Tish," I said. "But what if they don't run?"
She merely waved her hand.
"My plan is simply this," she said: "I've been tinkering with that machine gun most of the day, and my conviction is that it will work. You simply turn a handle like a hand sewing machine. As soon as you hear me starting it you leave the church by that shell hole at the back and go as rapidly as possible back to the American lines. I'll guarantee," she added grimly, "that not a German leaves that cellar across the street until my arm's worn out."
"What shall I say, Tish?" I quavered.
I shall never forget the way she drew herself up.
"Say," she directed, "that we have captured the town of V—— and that they can come over and plant the flag."
I must profess to a certain anxiety during the period of waiting that followed. I felt keenly the necessity of leaving my dear Tish to capture and hold the town alone. And various painful thoughts of Aggie added to my uneasiness. Nor was my perturbation decreased by the reëntrance of the lookout some half hour after he had gone out. Concealed behind débris we listened to his footsteps as he ascended the tower, and could distinctly hear his ferocious mutterings when he discovered that the rope had been cut.
But strangely enough he did not call to the other man, cut off on the platform above.
"I don't believe there was another," I whispered to Tish. But she was confident that she had heard one, and she observed that very probably the two had quarreled.
"It is a well-known tendency of two men, cut off from their kind," she said, "to become violently embittered toward each other. Listen. He is coming down."
I regret to say that he raised an immediate alarm, and that we were forced to retire behind our sarcophagus in the cellar for some time. During the search the enemy was close to us a number of times, and had not one of them stepped on the nail which had served us so usefully I fear to think what might have happened. He did so, however, and retired snarling and limping.
I believe Tish has given nine o'clock in her report to G. H. Q. as the time when she opened fire. It was therefore about eight forty-five when I left the church. For some time before that the cellar across had been filling up with the enemy, and the search for us had ceased. By Tish's instructions I kept to back ways, throwing a grenade here and there to indicate that the attack was a strong one, and also firing my revolver. On hearing the firing behind them the Germans in the advanced trenches apparently considered that they had been cut off from the rear, and I understand that practically all of them ran across to our lines and surrendered. Indeed I was almost run down by three of them.
I was almost entirely out of breath when I reached our trenches, and had I not had the presence of mind to shout "Kamerad," which I had heard was the customary thing, I dare say I should have been shot.
I remember that as I reached the trenches a soldier called out: "Damned if the whole German Army isn't surrendering!"
I then fell into the trench and was immediately caught in a very rude manner. When I insisted that he let me go the man who had captured me only yelled when I spoke, and dropped his gun.
"Hey!" he called. "Fellows! Come here! The boches have taken to fighting their women."
"Don't be a fool!" I snapped. "We've taken V——, and I must see the commanding officer at once."
"You don't happen to have it in your pocket, lady, have you?" he said. He then turned a light on me and said: "Holy mackerel! It's Miss Lizzie! What's this about V——?"
"Miss Carberry has taken V——," I said.
"I believe you," was all he said; and we started for headquarters.
I recall distinctly the scene in the general's headquarters when we got there. The general was sitting, and both Charlie Sands and Mr. Burton were there, looking worried and unhappy. At first they did not see me, and I was too much out of breath to speak.
"I have already told you both that I cannot be responsible for three erratic spinsters. They are undoubtedly prisoners if they returned to V——."
"Prisoners!" said Charlie Sands. "If they were prisoners would they be signaling from the church tower for help?"
"I have already heard that story. It's ridiculous. Do you mean to tell me that with that town full of Germans those women have held the church tower since last night?"
Mr. Burton drew a piece of paper from his pocket.
"From eight o'clock to nine," he said, "the signal was 'Help,' repeated at frequent intervals; shortly after nine there was an attempt at a connected message. Allowing for corrections and for the fact that the light was growing dim, as though from an overused battery, the message runs: 'Help. Bring a ladder. They have cut the——' I am sorry that the light gave out just there, and the message was uncompleted."
How terrible were my emotions at that time, to think that our dear Tish had cut off Aggie's only hope of escape.
The general got up.
"I am, afraid you young gentlemen are indulging in a sense of humor at my expense. Unfortunately I have no sense of humor, but you may find it funny. Captain Sands to continue under arrest for last night's escapade. As Mr. Burton is a member of a welfare organization I do not find him under my direct jurisdiction, but——"
"Then I shall go to V—— myself!" Mr. Burton said angrily. "I'll capture the whole damned town single-handed, and——"
I then entered the cellar and said: "Miss Carberry has captured V——, general. She asks me to tell you that you may come over at any time and plant the flag. The signaling is being done by Miss Pilkington, who is at present holding the tower. I am acting as runner."
I regret to say that I cannot publish the general's reply.
As the remainder of the incident is a matter of historical record I shall not describe the advance of a portion of our Army into V——. They found the garrison either surrendered, fled or under Tish's fire in the beer cellar, and were, I believe, at first seriously menaced by that indomitable figure. It was also extremely difficult to rescue Aggie, as at first she persisted in firing through the floor of the platform the moment she heard any one ascending. In due time, however, she was brought down, but as any mention of the tower for some time gave her a nervous chill it was several weeks before we heard her story.
I doubt if we would have heard it even then had not Mr. Burton and Hilda come to Paris on their wedding trip. We had a dinner for them at the Café de Paris, and Mr. Burton told us that we were all to have the Croix de Guerre. He insisted on ordering champagne to celebrate, and Aggie had two glasses, and then said the room was going round like the weather vane on the tower at V——.
She then went rather white and said: "The ladder was fastened to it, you know."
"What ladder?" Tish asked sharply.
"The rope ladder I was standing on. And when the wind blew——"
Well, we gave her another glass of wine, and she told us the tragic story. She had fallen behind me, and was round a corner, when she felt a sneezing spell coming on. So seeing a doorway she slipped in, and she sneezed for about five minutes. When she came out there was nobody in sight, and after wandering round she went back to the doorway and closed the door.
There were stairs behind her, and when the counter attack came she ran up the stairs. She knew then that she was in the church tower, but she didn't dare to come down. When the firing stopped in the streets a soldier ran down the stairs and almost touched her. A moment later she heard him coming back, so she climbed up ahead and got out on a balcony above the clock. But he started to come out on the balcony, and just as she was prepared to be shot her hand touched a rope ladder and she went up it like a shot.
"It was dark, Tish," she said with a shudder, "and I couldn't look down. But when morning came I was up beside the weather vane, and a sniper from our lines must have thought I didn't belong there, for he fired at me every now and then."
Well, it seems she hung there all day, and nobody noticed her. Luckily the wind mostly kept her from the German side, and the sentry couldn't see her from the balcony. Then at last, the next evening, she heard him going down, and she would have made her escape, but he had cut the rope ladder below. She couldn't imagine why.
Tish looked at me steadily.
"It is very strange," she said. "But who can account for the instinct of destruction in the Hun mind?"