The night grew dark and showed a field of glittering stars, for the air wa_harpening again towards frost. We waited for an hour, crouching just behin_he far parapets, but never came that ominous familiar whistle.
Then Sandy rose and stretched himself. 'I'm hungry,' he said. 'Let's have ou_he food, Hussin. We've eaten nothing since before daybreak. I wonder what i_he meaning of this respite?'
I fancied I knew.
'It's Stumm's way,' I said. 'He wants to torture us. He'll keep us hours o_enterhooks, while he sits over yonder exulting in what he thinks we'r_nduring. He has just enough imagination for that … He would rush us if he ha_he men. As it is, he's going to blow us to pieces, but do it slowly and smac_is lips over it.'
Sandy yawned. 'We'll disappoint him, for we won't be worried, old man. W_hree are beyond that kind of fear.'
'Meanwhile we're going to do the best we can,' I said. 'He's got the exac_ange for his whizz-bangs. We've got to find a hole somewhere just outside th_astrol, and some sort of head-cover. We're bound to get damaged whateve_appens, but we'll stick it out to the end. When they think they have finishe_ith us and rush the place, there may be one of us alive to put a bulle_hrough old Stumm. What do you say?'
They agreed, and after our meal Sandy and I crawled out to prospect, leavin_he others on guard in case there should be an attack. We found a hollow i_he glacis a little south of the castrol, and, working very quietly, manage_o enlarge it and cut a kind of shallow cave in the hill. It would be no us_gainst a direct hit, but it would give some cover from flying fragments. As _ead the situation, Stumm could land as many shells as he pleased in th_astrol and wouldn't bother to attend to the flanks. When the bad shellin_egan there would be shelter for one or two in the cave.
Our enemies were watchful. The riflemen on the east burnt Very flares a_ntervals, and Stumm's lot sent up a great star-rocket. I remember that jus_efore midnight hell broke loose round Fort Palantuken. No more Russian shell_ame into our hollow, but all the road to the east was under fire, and at th_ort itself there was a shattering explosion and a queer scarlet glow whic_ooked as if a magazine had been hit. For about two hours the firing wa_ntense, and then it died down. But it was towards the north that I kep_urning my head. There seemed to be something different in the sound there, something sharper in the report of the guns, as if shells were dropping in _arrow valley whose rock walls doubled the echo. Had the Russians by an_lessed chance worked round that flank?
I got Sandy to listen, but he shook his head. 'Those guns are a dozen mile_ff,' he said. 'They're no nearer than three days ago. But it looks as if th_portsmen on the south might have a chance. When they break through and strea_own the valley, they'll be puzzled to account for what remains of us … We'r_o longer three adventurers in the enemy's country. We're the advance guard o_he Allies. Our pals don't know about us, and we're going to be cut off, whic_as happened to advance guards before now. But all the same, we're in our ow_attle-line again. Doesn't that cheer you, Dick?'
It cheered me wonderfully, for I knew now what had been the weight on my hear_ver since I accepted Sir Walter's mission. It was the loneliness of it. I wa_ighting far away from my friends, far away from the true fronts of battle. I_as a side-show which, whatever its importance, had none of the exhilaratio_f the main effort. But now we had come back to familiar ground. We were lik_he Highlanders cut off at Cite St Auguste on the first day of Loos, or thos_cots Guards at Festubert of whom I had heard. Only, the others did not kno_f it, would never hear of it. If Peter succeeded he might tell the tale, bu_ost likely he was lying dead somewhere in the no-man's-land between th_ines. We should never be heard of again any more, but our work remained. Si_alter would know that, and he would tell our few belongings that we had gon_ut in our country's service.
We were in the castrol again, sitting under the parapets. The same thought_ust have been in Sandy's mind, for he suddenly laughed.
'It's a queer ending, Dick. We simply vanish into the infinite. If th_ussians get through they will never recognize what is left of us among s_uch of the wreckage of battle. The snow will soon cover us, and when th_pring comes there will only be a few bleached bones. Upon my soul it is th_ind of death I always wanted.' And he quoted softly to himself a verse of a_ld Scots ballad:
'Mony's the ane for him maks mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane.
Ower his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.'
'But our work lives,' I cried, with a sudden great gasp of happiness. 'It'_he job that matters, not the men that do it. And our job's done. We have won, old chap - won hands down - and there is no going back on that. We have wo_nyway; and if Peter has had a slice of luck, we've scooped the pool … Afte_ll, we never expected to come out of this thing with our lives.'
Blenkiron, with his leg stuck out stiffly before him, was humming quietly t_imself, as he often did when he felt cheerful. He had only one song, 'Joh_rown's Body'; usually only a line at a time, but now he got as far as th_hole verse:
'He captured Harper's Ferry, with his nineteen men so true,
And he frightened old Virginny till she trembled through and through.
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul goes marching along.'
'Feeling good?' I asked.
'Fine. I'm about the luckiest man on God's earth, Major. I've always wanted t_et into a big show, but I didn't see how it would come the way of a homel_itizen like me, living in a steam-warmed house and going down town to m_ffice every morning. I used to envy my old dad that fought at Chattanooga, and never forgot to tell you about it. But I guess Chattanooga was like _crap in a Bowery bar compared to this. When I meet the old man in Glory he'l_ave to listen some to me.'
It was just after Blenkiron spoke that we got a reminder of Stumm's presence.
The gun was well laid, for a shell plumped on the near edge of the castro. I_ade an end of one of the Companions who was on guard there, badly wounde_nother, and a fragment gashed my thigh. We took refuge in the shallow cave, but some wild shooting from the east side brought us back to the parapets, fo_e feared an attack. None came, nor any more shells, and once again the nigh_as quiet.
I asked Blenkiron if he had any near relatives.
'Why, no, except a sister's son, a college-boy who has no need of his uncle.
It's fortunate that we three have no wives. I haven't any regrets, neither, for I've had a mighty deal out of life. I was thinking this morning that i_as a pity I was going out when I had just got my duo-denum to listen t_eason. But I reckon that's another of my mercies. The good God took away th_ain in my stomach so that I might go to Him with a clear head and a thankfu_eart.'
'We're lucky fellows,' said Sandy; 'we've all had our whack. When I remembe_he good times I've had I could sing a hymn of praise. We've lived long enoug_o know ourselves, and to shape ourselves into some kind of decency. But thin_f those boys who have given their lives freely when they scarcely knew wha_ife meant. They were just at the beginning of the road, and they didn't kno_hat dreary bits lay before them. It was all sunshiny and bright-coloured, an_et they gave it up without a moment's doubt. And think of the men with wive_nd children and homes that were the biggest things in life to them. Fo_ellows like us to shirk would be black cowardice. It's small credit for us t_tick it out. But when those others shut their teeth and went forward, the_ere blessed heroes… .'
After that we fell silent. A man's thoughts at a time like that seem to b_ouble-powered, and the memory becomes very sharp and clear. I don't know wha_as in the others' minds, but I know what filled my own …
I fancy it isn't the men who get most out of the world and are always buoyan_nd cheerful that most fear to die. Rather it is the weak-engined souls who g_bout with dull eyes, that cling most fiercely to life. They have not the jo_f being alive which is a kind of earnest of immortality … I know that m_houghts were chiefly about the jolly things that I had seen and done; no_egret, but gratitude. The panorama of blue noons on the veld unrolled itsel_efore me, and hunter's nights in the bush, the taste of food and sleep, th_itter stimulus of dawn, the joy of wild adventure, the voices of old staunc_riends. Hitherto the war had seemed to make a break with all that had gon_efore, but now the war was only part of the picture. I thought of m_attalion, and the good fellows there, many of whom had fallen on the Loo_arapets. I had never looked to come out of that myself. But I had bee_pared, and given the chance of a greater business, and I had succeeded. Tha_as the tremendous fact, and my mood was humble gratitude to God and exultan_ride. Death was a small price to pay for it. As Blenkiron would have said, _ad got good value in the deal.
The night was getting bitter cold, as happens before dawn. It was frost again, and the sharpness of it woke our hunger. I got out the remnants of the foo_nd wine and we had a last meal. I remember we pledged each other as we drank.
'We have eaten our Passover Feast,' said Sandy. 'When do you look for th_nd?'
'After dawn,' I said. 'Stumm wants daylight to get the full savour of hi_evenge.'
Slowly the sky passed from ebony to grey, and black shapes of hill outline_hemselves against it. A wind blew down the valley, bringing the acrid smel_f burning, but something too of the freshness of morn. It stirred strang_houghts in me, and woke the old morning vigour of the blood which was neve_o be mine again. For the first time in that long vigil I was torn with _udden regret.
'We must get into the cave before it is full light,' I said. 'We had bette_raw lots for the two to go.'
The choice fell on one of the Companions and Blenkiron. 'You can count m_ut,' said the latter. 'If it's your wish to find a man to be alive when ou_riends come up to count their spoil, I guess I'm the worst of the lot. I'_refer, if you don't mind, to stay here. I've made my peace with my Maker, an_'d like to wait quietly on His call. I'll play a game of Patience to pass th_ime.'
He would take no denial, so we drew again, and the lot fell to Sandy.
'If I'm the last to go,' he said, 'I promise I don't miss. Stumm won't be lon_n following me.'
He shook hands with his cheery smile, and he and the Companion slipped ove_he parapet in the final shadows before dawn.
Blenkiron spread his Patience cards on a flat rock, and dealt out the Doubl_apoleon. He was perfectly calm, and hummed to himself his only tune. Fo_yself I was drinking in my last draught of the hill air. My contentment wa_oing. I suddenly felt bitterly loath to die.
Something of the same kind must have passed through Blenkiron's head. H_uddenly looked up and asked, 'Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anybod_oming?'
I stood close to the parapet, watching every detail of the landscape as show_y the revealing daybreak. Up on the shoulders of the Palantuken, snowdrift_ipped over the edges of the cliffs. I wondered when they would come down a_valanches. There was a kind of croft on one hillside, and from a hut th_moke of breakfast was beginning to curl. Stumm's gunners were awake an_pparently holding council. Far down on the main road a convoy was moving - _eard the creak of the wheels two miles away, for the air was deathly still.
Then, as if a spring had been loosed, the world suddenly leaped to a hideou_ife. With a growl the guns opened round all the horizon. They were especiall_ierce to the south, where a rafale beat as I had never heard it before. Th_ne glance I cast behind me showed the gap in the hills choked with fumes an_ust.
But my eyes were on the north. From Erzerum city tall tongues of flame leape_rom a dozen quarters. Beyond, towards the opening of the Euphrates glen, there was the sharp crack of field-guns. I strained eyes and ears, mad wit_mpatience, and I read the riddle.
'Sandy,' I yelled, 'Peter has got through. The Russians are round the flank.
The town is burning. Glory to God, we've won, we've won!'
And as I spoke the earth seemed to split beside me, and I was flung forward o_he gravel which covered Hilda von Einem's grave.
As I picked myself up, and to my amazement found myself uninjured, I sa_lenkiron rubbing the dust out of his eyes and arranging a disordered card. H_ad stopped humming, and was singing aloud:
'He captured Harper's Ferry, with his nineteen men so true
And he frightened old Virginny … '
'Say, Major,' he cried, 'I believe this game of mine is coming out.'
I was now pretty well mad. The thought that old Peter had won, that we had wo_eyond our wildest dreams, that if we died there were those coming who woul_xact the uttermost vengeance, rode my brain like a fever. I sprang on th_arapet and waved my hand to Stumm, shouting defiance. Rifle shots cracked ou_rom behind, and I leaped back just in time for the next shell.
The charge must have been short, for it was a bad miss, landing somewhere o_he glacis. The next was better and crashed on the near parapet, carving _reat hole in the rocky kranz. This time my arm hung limp, broken by _ragment of stone, but I felt no pain.
Blenkiron seemed to bear a charmed life, for he was smothered in dust, bu_nhurt. He blew the dust away from his cards very gingerly and went o_laying.
'Sister Anne,' he asked, 'do you see anybody coming?'
Then came a dud which dropped neatly inside on the soft ground.
I was determined to break for the open and chance the rifle fire, for if Stum_ent on shooting the castrol was certain death. I caught Blenkiron round th_iddle, scattering his cards to the winds, and jumped over the parapet.
'Don't apologize, Sister Anne,' said he. 'The game was as good as won. But fo_od's sake drop me, for if you wave me like the banner of freedom I'll ge_lugged sure and good.'
My one thought was to get cover for the next minutes, for I had an instinc_hat our vigil was near its end. The defences of Erzerum were crumbling lik_and-castles, and it was a proof of the tenseness of my nerves that I seeme_o be deaf to the sound. Stumm had seen us cross the parapet, and he starte_o sprinkle all the surroundings of the castrol. Blenkiron and I lay like _orking-party between the lines caught by machine-guns, taking a pull o_urselves as best we could. Sandy had some kind of cover, but we were on th_are farther slope, and the riflemen on that side might have had us at thei_ercy.
But no shots came from them. As I looked east, the hillside, which a littl_efore had been held by our enemies, was as empty as the desert. And then _aw on the main road a sight which for a second time made me yell like _aniac. Down that glen came a throng of men and galloping limbers - a crazy, jostling crowd, spreading away beyond the road to the steep slopes, an_eaving behind it many black dots to darken the snows. The gates of the Sout_ad yielded, and our friends were through them.
At that sight I forgot all about our danger. I didn't give a cent for Stumm'_hells. I didn't believe he could hit me. The fate which had mercifull_reserved us for the first taste of victory would see us through to the end.
I remember bundling Blenkiron along the hill to find Sandy. But our news wa_nticipated. For down our own side-glen came the same broken tumult of men.
More; for at their backs, far up at the throat of the pass, I saw horsemen - the horsemen of the pursuit. Old Nicholas had flung his cavalry in.
Sandy was on his feet, with his lips set and his eye abstracted. If his fac_adn't been burned black by weather it would have been pale as a dish-clout. _an like him doesn't make up his mind for death and then be given his lif_gain without being wrenched out of his bearings. I thought he didn'_nderstand what had happened, so I beat him on the shoulders.
'Man, d'you see?' I cried. 'The Cossacks! The Cossacks! God! How they'r_aking that slope! They're into them now. By heaven, we'll ride with them!
We'll get the gun horses!'
A little knoll prevented Stumm and his men from seeing what was happenin_arther up the glen, till the first wave of the rout was on them. He had gon_n bombarding the castrol and its environs while the world was cracking ove_is head. The gun team was in the hollow below the road, and down the hil_mong the boulders we crawled, Blenkiron as lame as a duck, and me with a lim_eft arm.
The poor beasts were straining at their pickets and sniffing the morning wind, which brought down the thick fumes of the great bombardment and th_ndescribable babbling cries of a beaten army. Before we reached them tha_addened horde had swept down on them, men panting and gasping in thei_light, many of them bloody from wounds, many tottering in the first stages o_ollapse and death. I saw the horses seized by a dozen hands, and a desperat_ight for their possession. But as we halted there our eyes were fixed on th_attery on the road above us, for round it was now sweeping the van of th_etreat.
I had never seen a rout before, when strong men come to the end of thei_ether and only their broken shadows stumble towards the refuge they neve_ind. No more had Stumm, poor devil. I had no ill-will left for him, thoug_oming down that hill I was rather hoping that the two of us might have _inal scrap. He was a brute and a bully, but, by God! he was a man. I hear_is great roar when he saw the tumult, and the next I saw was his monstrou_igure working at the gun. He swung it south and turned it on the fugitives.
But he never fired it. The press was on him, and the gun was swept sideways.
He stood up, a foot higher than any of them, and he seemed to be trying t_heck the rush with his pistol. There is power in numbers, even though ever_nit is broken and fleeing. For a second to that wild crowd Stumm was th_nemy, and they had strength enough to crush him. The wave flowed round an_hen across him. I saw the butt-ends of rifles crash on his head an_houlders, and the next second the stream had passed over his body.
That was God's judgement on the man who had set himself above his kind.
Sandy gripped my shoulder and was shouting in my ear:
'They're coming, Dick. Look at the grey devils … Oh, God be thanked, it's ou_riends!'
The next minute we were tumbling down the hillside, Blenkiron hopping on on_eg between us. I heard dimly Sandy crying, 'Oh, well done our side!' an_lenkiron declaiming about Harper's Ferry, but I had no voice at all and n_ish to shout. I know the tears were in my eyes, and that if I had been lef_lone I would have sat down and cried with pure thankfulness. For sweepin_own the glen came a cloud of grey cavalry on little wiry horses, a clou_hich stayed not for the rear of the fugitives, but swept on like a flight o_ainbows, with the steel of their lance-heads glittering in the winter sun.
They were riding for Erzerum.
Remember that for three months we had been with the enemy and had never see_he face of an Ally in arms. We had been cut off from the fellowship of _reat cause, like a fort surrounded by an army. And now we were delivered, an_here fell around us the warm joy of comradeship as well as the exultation o_ictory.
We flung caution to the winds, and went stark mad. Sandy, still in his emeral_oat and turban, was scrambling up the farther slope of the hollow, yellin_reetings in every language known to man. The leader saw him, with a wor_hecked his men for a moment - it was marvellous to see the horses reined i_n such a break-neck ride - and from the squadron half a dozen troopers swun_oose and wheeled towards us. Then a man in a grey overcoat and a sheepski_ap was on the ground beside us wringing our hands.
'You are safe, my old friends' - it was Peter's voice that spoke \- 'I wil_ake you back to our army, and get you breakfast.'
'No, by the Lord, you won't,' cried Sandy. 'We've had the rough end of the jo_nd now we'll have the fun. Look after Blenkiron and these fellows of mine.
I'm going to ride knee by knee with your sportsmen for the city.'
Peter spoke a word, and two of the Cossacks dismounted. The next I knew I wa_ixed up in the cloud of greycoats, galloping down the road up which th_orning before we had strained to the castrol.
That was the great hour of my life, and to live through it was worth a doze_ears of slavery. With a broken left arm I had little hold on my beast, so _rusted my neck to him and let him have his will. Black with dirt and smoke, hatless, with no kind of uniform, I was a wilder figure than any Cossack. _oon was separated from Sandy, who had two hands and a better horse, an_eemed resolute to press forward to the very van. That would have been suicid_or me, and I had all I could do to keep my place in the bunch I rode with.
But, Great God! what an hour it was! There was loose shooting on our flank, but nothing to trouble us, though the gun team of some Austrian howitzer, struggling madly at a bridge, gave us a bit of a tussle. Everything flitte_ast me like smoke, or like the mad finale of a dream just before waking. _new the living movement under me, and the companionship of men, but al_imly, for at heart I was alone, grappling with the realization of a ne_orld. I felt the shadows of the Palantuken glen fading, and the great burs_f light as we emerged on the wider valley. Somewhere before us was a pall o_moke seamed with red flames, and beyond the darkness of still higher hills.
All that time I was dreaming, crooning daft catches of song to myself, s_appy, so deliriously happy that I dared not try to think. I kept muttering _ind of prayer made up of Bible words to Him who had shown me His goodness i_he land of the living.
But as we drew out from the skirts of the hills and began the long slope t_he city, I woke to clear consciousness. I felt the smell of sheepskin an_athered horses, and above all the bitter smell of fire. Down in the troug_ay Erzerum, now burning in many places, and from the east, past the silen_orts, horsemen were closing in on it. I yelled to my comrades that we wer_earest, that we would be first in the city, and they nodded happily an_houted their strange war-cries. As we topped the last ridge I saw below m_he van of our charge - a dark mass on the snow - while the broken enemy o_oth sides were flinging away their arms and scattering in the fields.
In the very front, now nearing the city ramparts, was one man. He was like th_oint of the steel spear soon to be driven home. In the clear morning air _ould see that he did not wear the uniform of the invaders. He was turbane_nd rode like one possessed, and against the snow I caught the dark sheen o_merald. As he rode it seemed that the fleeing Turks were stricken still, an_ank by the roadside with eyes strained after his unheeding figure …
Then I knew that the prophecy had been true, and that their prophet had no_ailed them. The long-looked for revelation had come. Greenmantle had appeare_t last to an awaiting people.