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Chapter 20 Peter Pienaar Goes to the Wars

  • This chapter is the tale that Peter told me - long after, sitting beside _tove in the hotel at Bergen, where we were waiting for our boat.
  • He climbed on the roof and shinned down the broken bricks of the outer wall.
  • The outbuilding we were lodged in abutted on a road, and was outside th_roper enceinte of the house. At ordinary times I have no doubt there wer_entries, but Sandy and Hussin had probably managed to clear them off this en_or a little. Anyhow he saw nobody as he crossed the road and dived into th_nowy fields.
  • He knew very well that he must do the job in the twelve hours of darknes_head of him. The immediate front of a battle is a bit too public for anyon_o lie hidden in by day, especially when two or three feet of snow mak_verything kenspeckle. Now hurry in a job of this kind was abhorrent t_eter's soul, for, like all Boers, his tastes were for slowness and sureness, though he could hustle fast enough when haste was needed. As he pushed throug_he winter fields he reckoned up the things in his favour, and found the onl_ne the dirty weather. There was a high, gusty wind, blowing scuds of snow bu_ever coming to any great fall. The frost had gone, and the lying snow was a_oft as butter. That was all to the good, he thought, for a clear, hard nigh_ould have been the devil.
  • The first bit was through farmlands, which were seamed with little snow-fille_ater-furrows. Now and then would come a house and a patch of fruit trees, bu_here was nobody abroad. The roads were crowded enough, but Peter had no us_or roads. I can picture him swinging along with his bent back, stopping ever_ow and then to sniff and listen, alert for the foreknowledge of danger. Whe_e chose he could cover country like an antelope.
  • Soon he struck a big road full of transport. It was the road from Erzerum t_he Palantuken pass, and he waited his chance and crossed it. After that th_round grew rough with boulders and patches of thorn-trees, splendid cove_here he could move fast without worrying. Then he was pulled up suddenly o_he bank of a river. The map had warned him of it, but not that it would be s_ig.
  • It was a torrent swollen with melting snow and rains in the hills, and it wa_unning fifty yards wide. Peter thought he could have swum it, but he was ver_verse to a drenching. 'A wet man makes too much noise,' he said, and besides, there was the off-chance that the current would be too much for him. So h_oved up stream to look for a bridge.
  • In ten minutes he found one, a new-made thing of trestles, broad enough t_ake transport wagons. It was guarded, for he heard the tramp of a sentry, an_s he pulled himself up the bank he observed a couple of long wooden huts, obviously some kind of billets. These were on the near side of the stream, about a dozen yards from the bridge. A door stood open and a light showed i_t, and from within came the sound of voices… . Peter had a sense of hearin_ike a wild animal, and he could detect even from the confused gabble that th_oices were German.
  • As he lay and listened someone came over the bridge. It was an officer, fo_he sentry saluted. The man disappeared in one of the huts. Peter had struc_he billets and repairing shop of a squad of German sappers.
  • He was just going ruefully to retrace his steps and try to find a good plac_o swim the stream when it struck him that the officer who had passed him wor_lothes very like his own. He, too, had had a grey sweater and a Balaclav_elmet, for even a German officer ceases to be dressy on a mid-winter's nigh_n Anatolia. The idea came to Peter to walk boldly across the bridge and trus_o the sentry not seeing the difference.
  • He slipped round a corner of the hut and marched down the road. The sentry wa_ow at the far end, which was lucky, for if the worst came to the worst h_ould throttle him. Peter, mimicking the stiff German walk, swung past him, his head down as if to protect him from the wind.
  • The man saluted. He did more, for he offered conversation. The officer mus_ave been a genial soul.
  • 'It's a rough night, Captain,' he said in German. 'The wagons are late. Pra_od, Michael hasn't got a shell in his lot. They've begun putting over som_ig ones.'
  • Peter grunted good night in German and strode on. He was just leaving the roa_hen he heard a great halloo behind him.
  • The real officer must have appeared on his heels, and the sentry's doubts ha_een stirred. A whistle was blown, and, looking back, Peter saw lantern_aving in the gale. They were coming out to look for the duplicate.
  • He stood still for a second, and noticed the lights spreading out south of th_oad. He was just about to dive off it on the north side when he was aware o_ difficulty. On that side a steep bank fell to a ditch, and the bank beyon_ounded a big flood. He could see the dull ruffle of the water under the wind.
  • On the road itself he would soon be caught; south of it the search wa_eginning; and the ditch itself was no place to hide, for he saw a lanter_oving up it. Peter dropped into it all the same and made a plan. The sid_elow the road was a little undercut and very steep. He resolved to plaste_imself against it, for he would be hidden from the road, and a searcher i_he ditch would not be likely to explore the unbroken sides. It was always _axim of Peter's that the best hiding-place was the worst, the least obviou_o the minds of those who were looking for you.
  • He waited until the lights both in the road and the ditch came nearer, an_hen he gripped the edge with his left hand, where some stones gave hi_urchase, dug the toes of his boots into the wet soil and stuck like a limpet.
  • It needed some strength to keep the position for long, but the muscles of hi_rms and legs were like whipcord.
  • The searcher in the ditch soon got tired, for the place was very wet, an_oined his comrades on the road. They came along, running, flashing th_anterns into the trench, and exploring all the immediate countryside.
  • Then rose a noise of wheels and horses from the opposite direction. Michae_nd the delayed wagons were approaching. They dashed up at a great pace, driven wildly, and for one horrid second Peter thought they were going t_pill into the ditch at the very spot where he was concealed. The wheel_assed so close to the edge that they almost grazed his fingers. Somebod_houted an order and they pulled up a yard or two nearer the bridge. Th_thers came up and there was a consultation.
  • Michael swore he had passed no one on the road.
  • 'That fool Hannus has seen a ghost,' said the officer testily. 'It's too col_or this child's play.'
  • Hannus, almost in tears, repeated his tale. 'The man spoke to me in goo_erman,' he cried.
  • 'Ghost or no ghost he is safe enough up the road,' said the officer. 'Kin_od, that was a big one!' He stopped and stared at a shell-burst, for th_ombardment from the east was growing fiercer.
  • They stood discussing the fire for a minute and presently moved off. Pete_ave them two minutes' law and then clambered back to the highway and set of_long it at a run. The noise of the shelling and the wind, together with th_hick darkness, made it safe to hurry.
  • He left the road at the first chance and took to the broken country. Th_round was now rising towards a spur of the Palantuken, on the far slope o_hich were the Turkish trenches. The night had begun by being pretty nearly a_lack as pitch; even the smoke from the shell explosions, which is ofte_isible in darkness, could not be seen. But as the wind blew the snow-cloud_thwart the sky patches of stars came out. Peter had a compass, but he didn'_eed to use it, for he had a kind of 'feel' for landscape, a special sens_hich is born in savages and can only be acquired after long experience by th_hite man. I believe he could smell where the north lay. He had settle_oughly which part of the line he would try, merely because of its nearness t_he enemy. But he might see reason to vary this, and as he moved he began t_hink that the safest place was where the shelling was hottest. He didn't lik_he notion, but it sounded sense.
  • Suddenly he began to puzzle over queer things in the ground, and, as he ha_ever seen big guns before, it took him a moment to fix them. Presently on_ent off at his elbow with a roar like the Last Day. These were Austria_owitzers - nothing over eight-inch, I fancy, but to Peter they looked lik_eviathans. Here, too, he saw for the first time a big and quite recent shell- hole, for the Russian guns were searching out the position. He was s_nterested in it all that he poked his nose where he shouldn't have been, an_ropped plump into the pit behind a gun-emplacement.
  • Gunners all the world over are the same - shy people, who hide themselves i_oles and hibernate and mortally dislike being detected.
  • A gruff voice cried 'Wer da?' and a heavy hand seized his neck.
  • Peter was ready with his story. He belonged to Michael's wagon-team and ha_een left behind. He wanted to be told the way to the sappers' camp. He wa_ery apologetic, not to say obsequious.
  • 'It is one of those Prussian swine from the Marta bridge,' said a gunner.
  • 'Land him a kick to teach him sense. Bear to your right, manikin, and you wil_ind a road. And have a care when you get there, for the Russkoes ar_egistering on it.'
  • Peter thanked them and bore off to the right. After that he kept a wary eye o_he howitzers, and was thankful when he got out of their area on to the slope_p the hill. Here was the type of country that was familiar to him, and h_efied any Turk or Boche to spot him among the scrub and boulders. He wa_etting on very well, when once more, close to his ear, came a sound like th_rack of doom.
  • It was the field-guns now, and the sound of a field-gun close at hand is ba_or the nerves if you aren't expecting it. Peter thought he had been hit, an_ay flat for a little to consider. Then he found the right explanation, an_rawled forward very warily.
  • Presently he saw his first Russian shell. It dropped half a dozen yards to hi_ight, making a great hole in the snow and sending up a mass of mixed earth, snow, and broken stones. Peter spat out the dirt and felt very solemn. Yo_ust remember that never in his life had he seen big shelling, and was no_eing landed in the thick of a first-class show without any preparation. H_aid he felt cold in his stomach, and very wishful to run away, if there ha_een anywhere to run to. But he kept on to the crest of the ridge, over whic_ big glow was broadening like sunrise. He tripped once over a wire, which h_ook for some kind of snare, and after that went very warily. By and by he go_is face between two boulders and looked over into the true battle-field.
  • He told me it was exactly what the predikant used to say that Hell would b_ike. About fifty yards down the slope lay the Turkish trenches - they wer_ark against the snow, and now and then a black figure like a devil showed fo_n instant and disappeared. The Turks clearly expected an infantry attack, fo_hey were sending up calcium rockets and Very flares. The Russians wer_attering their line and spraying all the hinterland, not with shrapnel, bu_ith good, solid high-explosives. The place would be as bright as day for _oment, all smothered in a scurry of smoke and snow and debris, and then _lack pall would fall on it, when only the thunder of the guns told of th_attle.
  • Peter felt very sick. He had not believed there could be so much noise in th_orld, and the drums of his ears were splitting. Now, for a man to who_ourage is habitual, the taste of fear - naked, utter fear - is a horribl_hing. It seems to wash away all his manhood. Peter lay on the crest, watchin_he shells burst, and confident that any moment he might be a shattere_emnant. He lay and reasoned with himself, calling himself every name he coul_hink of, but conscious that nothing would get rid of that lump of ice belo_is heart.
  • Then he could stand it no longer. He got up and ran for his life.
  • But he ran forward.
  • It was the craziest performance. He went hell-for-leather over a piece o_round which was being watered with H.E., but by the mercy of heaven nothin_it him. He took some fearsome tosses in shell-holes, but partly erect an_artly on all fours he did the fifty yards and tumbled into a Turkish trenc_ight on top of a dead man.
  • The contact with that body brought him to his senses. That men could die a_ll seemed a comforting, homely thing after that unnatural pandemonium. Th_ext moment a crump took the parapet of the trench some yards to his left, an_e was half buried in an avalanche.
  • He crawled out of that, pretty badly cut about the head. He was quite cool no_nd thinking hard about his next step. There were men all around him, sulle_ark faces as he saw them when the flares went up. They were manning th_arapets and waiting tensely for something else than the shelling. They pai_o attention to him, for I fancy in that trench units were pretty well mixe_p, and under a bad bombardment no one bothers about his neighbour. He foun_imself free to move as he pleased. The ground of the trench was littered wit_mpty cartridge-cases, and there were many dead bodies.
  • The last shell, as I have said, had played havoc with the parapet. In the nex_pell of darkness Peter crawled through the gap and twisted among some snow_illocks. He was no longer afraid of shells, any more than he was afraid of _eld thunderstorm. But he was wondering very hard how he should ever get t_he Russians. The Turks were behind him now, but there was the biggest dange_n front.
  • Then the artillery ceased. It was so sudden that he thought he had gone deaf, and could hardly realize the blessed relief of it. The wind, too, seemed t_ave fallen, or perhaps he was sheltered by the lee of the hill. There were _ot of dead here also, and that he couldn't understand, for they were ne_ead. Had the Turks attacked and been driven back? When he had gone abou_hirty yards he stopped to take his bearings. On the right were the ruins of _arge building set on fire by the guns. There was a blur of woods and th_ebris of walls round it. Away to the left another hill ran out farther to th_ast, and the place he was in seemed to be a kind of cup between the spurs.
  • Just before him was a little ruined building, with the sky seen through it_afters, for the smouldering ruin on the right gave a certain light. H_ondered if the Russian firing-line lay there.
  • just then he heard voices - smothered voices - not a yard away and apparentl_elow the ground. He instantly jumped to what this must mean. It was a Turkis_rench - a communication trench. Peter didn't know much about modern warfare, but he had read in the papers, or heard from me, enough to make him draw th_ight moral. The fresh dead pointed to the same conclusion. What he had go_hrough were the Turkish support trenches, not their firing-line. That wa_till before him.
  • He didn't despair, for the rebound from panic had made him extra courageous.
  • He crawled forward, an inch at a time, taking no sort of risk, and presentl_ound himself looking at the parados of a trench. Then he lay quiet to thin_ut the next step.
  • The shelling had stopped, and there was that queer kind of peace which fall_ometimes on two armies not a quarter of a mile distant. Peter said he coul_ear nothing but the far-off sighing of the wind. There seemed to be n_ovement of any kind in the trench before him, which ran through the ruine_uilding. The light of the burning was dying, and he could just make out th_ound of earth a yard in front. He began to feel hungry, and got out hi_acket of food and had a swig at the brandy flask. That comforted him, and h_elt a master of his fate again. But the next step was not so easy. He mus_ind out what lay behind that mound of earth.
  • Suddenly a curious sound fell on his ears. It was so faint that at first h_oubted the evidence of his senses. Then as the wind fell it came louder. I_as exactly like some hollow piece of metal being struck by a stick, musica_nd oddly resonant.
  • He concluded it was the wind blowing a branch of a tree against an old boile_n the ruin before him. The trouble was that there was scarcely enough win_ow for that in this sheltered cup.
  • But as he listened he caught the note again. It was a bell, a fallen bell, an_he place before him must have been a chapel. He remembered that an Armenia_onastery had been marked on the big map, and he guessed it was the burne_uilding on his right.
  • The thought of a chapel and a bell gave him the notion of some human agency.
  • And then suddenly the notion was confirmed. The sound was regular an_oncerted - dot, dash, dot - dash, dot, dot. The branch of a tree and the win_ay play strange pranks, but they do not produce the longs and shorts of th_orse Code.
  • This was where Peter's intelligence work in the Boer War helped him. He kne_he Morse, he could read it, but he could make nothing of the signalling. I_as either in some special code or in a strange language.
  • He lay still and did some calm thinking. There was a man in front of him, _urkish soldier, who was in the enemy's pay. Therefore he could fraterniz_ith him, for they were on the same side. But how was he to approach hi_ithout getting shot in the process? Again, how could a man send signals t_he enemy from a firing-line without being detected? Peter found an answer i_he strange configuration of the ground. He had not heard a sound until he wa_ few yards from the place, and they would be inaudible to men in the reserv_renches and even in the communication trenches. If somebody moving up th_atter caught the noise, it would be easy to explain it naturally. But th_ind blowing down the cup would carry it far in the enemy's direction.
  • There remained the risk of being heard by those parallel with the bell in th_iring trenches. Peter concluded that that trench must be very thinly held, probably only by a few observers, and the nearest might be a dozen yards off.
  • He had read about that being the French fashion under a big bombardment.
  • The next thing was to find out how to make himself known to this ally. H_ecided that the only way was to surprise him. He might get shot, but h_rusted to his strength and agility against a man who was almost certainl_earied. When he had got him safe, explanations might follow.
  • Peter was now enjoying himself hugely. If only those infernal guns kept silen_e would play out the game in the sober, decorous way he loved. So ver_elicately he began to wriggle forward to where the sound was.
  • The night was now as black as ink around him, and very quiet, too, except fo_oughings of the dying gale. The snow had drifted a little in the lee of th_uined walls, and Peter's progress was naturally very slow. He could no_fford to dislodge one ounce of snow. Still the tinkling went on, now i_reater volume. Peter was in terror lest it should cease before he got hi_an.
  • Presently his hand clutched at empty space. He was on the lip of the fron_rench. The sound was now a yard to his right, and with infinite care h_hifted his position. Now the bell was just below him, and he felt the bi_after of the woodwork from which it had fallen. He felt something else - _tretch of wire fixed in the ground with the far end hanging in the void. Tha_ould be the spy's explanation if anyone heard the sound and came seeking th_ause.
  • Somewhere in the darkness before him and below was the man, not a yard off.
  • Peter remained very still, studying the situation. He could not see, but h_ould feel the presence, and he was trying to decide the relative position o_he man and bell and their exact distance from him. The thing was not so eas_s it looked, for if he jumped for where he believed the figure was, he migh_iss it and get a bullet in the stomach. A man who played so risky a game wa_robably handy with his firearms. Besides, if he should hit the bell, he woul_ake a hideous row and alarm the whole front.
  • Fate suddenly gave him the right chance. The unseen figure stood up and move_ step, till his back was against the parados. He actually brushed agains_eter's elbow, who held his breath.
  • There is a catch that the Kaffirs have which would need several diagrams t_xplain. It is partly a neck hold, and partly a paralysing backward twist o_he right arm, but if it is practised on a man from behind, it locks him a_ure as if he were handcuffed. Peter slowly got his body raised and his knee_rawn under him, and reached for his prey.
  • He got him. A head was pulled backward over the edge of the trench, and h_elt in the air the motion of the left arm pawing feebly but unable to reac_ehind.
  • 'Be still,' whispered Peter in German; 'I mean you no harm. We are friends o_he same purpose. Do you speak German?' 'Nein,' said a muffled voice.
  • 'English?'
  • 'Yes,' said the voice.
  • 'Thank God,' said Peter. 'Then we can understand each other. I've watched you_otion of signalling, and a very good one it is. I've got to get through t_he Russian lines somehow before morning, and I want you to help me. I'_nglish - a kind of English, so we're on the same side. If I let go your neck, will you be good and talk reasonably?'
  • The voice assented. Peter let go, and in the same instant slipped to the side.
  • The man wheeled round and flung out an arm but gripped vacancy.
  • 'Steady, friend,' said Peter; 'you mustn't play tricks with me or I'll b_ngry.'
  • 'Who are you? Who sent you?' asked the puzzled voice.
  • Peter had a happy thought. 'The Companions of the Rosy Hours,' he said.
  • 'Then are we friends indeed,' said the voice. 'Come out of the darkness, friend, and I will do you no harm. I am a good Turk, and I fought beside th_nglish in Kordofan and learned their tongue. I live only to see the ruin o_nver, who has beggared my family and slain my twin brother. Therefore I serv_he Muscov ghiaours.'
  • 'I don't know what the Musky jaws are, but if you mean the Russians I'm wit_ou. I've got news for them which will make Enver green. The question is, ho_'m to get to them, and that is where you shall help me, my friend.'
  • 'How?'
  • 'By playing that little tune of yours again. Tell them to expect within th_ext half-hour a deserter with an important message. Tell them, for God'_ake, not to fire at anybody till they've made certain it isn't me.'
  • The man took the blunt end of his bayonet and squatted beside the bell. Th_irst stroke brought out a clear, searching note which floated down th_alley. He struck three notes at slow intervals. For all the world, Pete_aid, he was like a telegraph operator calling up a station.
  • 'Send the message in English,' said Peter.
  • 'They may not understand it,' said the man.
  • 'Then send it any way you like. I trust you, for we are brothers.'
  • After ten minutes the man ceased and listened. From far away came the sound o_ trench-gong, the kind of thing they used on the Western Front to give th_as-alarm.
  • 'They say they will be ready,' he said. 'I cannot take down messages in th_arkness, but they have given me the signal which means "Consent".'
  • 'Come, that is pretty good,' said Peter. 'And now I must be moving. You take _int from me. When you hear big firing up to the north get ready to beat _uick retreat, for it will be all up with that city of yours. And tell you_olk, too, that they're making a bad mistake letting those fool Germans rul_heir land. Let them hang Enver and his little friends, and we'll be happ_nce more.'
  • 'May Satan receive his soul!' said the Turk. 'There is wire before us, but _ill show you a way through. The guns this evening made many rents in it. Bu_aste, for a working party may be here presently to repair it. Remember ther_s much wire before the other lines.'
  • Peter, with certain directions, found it pretty easy to make his way throug_he entanglement. There was one bit which scraped a hole in his back, but ver_oon he had come to the last posts and found himself in open country. Th_lace, he said, was a graveyard of the unburied dead that smelt horribly as h_rawled among them. He had no inducements to delay, for he thought he coul_ear behind him the movement of the Turkish working party, and was in terro_hat a flare might reveal him and a volley accompany his retreat.
  • From one shell-hole to another he wormed his way, till he struck an ol_uinous communication trench which led in the right direction. The Turks mus_ave been forced back in the past week, and the Russians were now in th_vacuated trenches. The thing was half full of water, but it gave Peter _eeling of safety, for it enabled him to get his head below the level of th_round. Then it came to an end and he found before him a forest of wire.
  • The Turk in his signal had mentioned half an hour, but Peter thought it wa_earer two hours before he got through that noxious entanglement. Shelling ha_ade little difference to it. The uprights were all there, and the barbe_trands seemed to touch the ground. Remember, he had no wire-cutter; nothin_ut his bare hands. Once again fear got hold of him. He felt caught in a net, with monstrous vultures waiting to pounce on him from above. At any moment _lare might go up and a dozen rifles find their mark. He had altogethe_orgotten about the message which had been sent, for no message could dissuad_he ever-present death he felt around him. It was, he said, like following a_ld lion into bush when there was but one narrow way in, and no road out.
  • The guns began again - the Turkish guns from behind the ridge - and a shel_ore up the wire a short way before him. Under cover of the burst he made goo_ few yards, leaving large portions of his clothing in the strands. Then, quite suddenly, when hope had almost died in his heart, he felt the groun_ise steeply. He lay very still, a star-rocket from the Turkish side lit u_he place, and there in front was a rampart with the points of bayonet_howing beyond it. It was the Russian hour for stand-to.
  • He raised his cramped limbs from the ground and shouted 'Friend! English!'
  • A face looked down at him, and then the darkness again descended.
  • 'Friend,' he said hoarsely. 'English.'
  • He heard speech behind the parapet. An electric torch was flashed on him for _econd. A voice spoke, a friendly voice, and the sound of it seemed to b_elling him to come over.
  • He was now standing up, and as he got his hands on the parapet he seemed t_eel bayonets very near him. But the voice that spoke was kindly, so with _eave he scrambled over and flopped into the trench. Once more the electri_orch was flashed, and revealed to the eyes of the onlookers an indescribabl_irty, lean, middle-aged man with a bloody head, and scarcely a rag of shir_n his back. The said man, seeing friendly faces around him, grinne_heerfully.
  • 'That was a rough trek, friends,' he said; 'I want to see your general prett_uick, for I've got a present for him.'
  • He was taken to an officer in a dug-out, who addressed him in French, which h_id not understand. But the sight of Stumm's plan worked wonders. After tha_e was fairly bundled down communication trenches and then over swampy field_o a farm among trees. There he found staff officers, who looked at him an_ooked at his map, and then put him on a horse and hurried him eastwards. A_ast he came to a big ruined house, and was taken into a room which seemed t_e full of maps and generals.
  • The conclusion must be told in Peter's words.
  • 'There was a big man sitting at a table drinking coffee, and when I saw him m_eart jumped out of my skin. For it was the man I hunted with on the Pungwe in
  • '98 - him whom the Kaffirs called "Buck's Horn", because of his long curle_oustaches. He was a prince even then, and now he is a very great general.
  • When I saw him, I ran forward and gripped his hand and cried, "Hoe gat het, Mynheer?" and he knew me and shouted in Dutch, "Damn, if it isn't old Pete_ienaar!" Then he gave me coffee and ham and good bread, and he looked at m_ap.
  • '"What is this?" he cried, growing red in the face.
  • '"It is the staff-map of one Stumm, a German skellum who commands in yo_ity," I said.
  • 'He looked at it close and read the markings, and then he read the other pape_hich you gave me, Dick. And then he flung up his arms and laughed. He took _oaf and tossed it into the air so that it fell on the head of anothe_eneral. He spoke to them in their own tongue, and they, too, laughed, and on_r two ran out as if on some errand. I have never seen such merrymaking. The_ere clever men, and knew the worth of what you gave me.
  • 'Then he got to his feet and hugged me, all dirty as I was, and kissed me o_oth cheeks.
  • '"Before God, Peter," he said, "you're the mightiest hunter since Nimrod.
  • You've often found me game, but never game so big as this!"'