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Chapter 22 The Guns of the North

  • But no more shells fell.
  • 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.