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Chapter 9 The Return of the Straggler

  • Before I turned in that evening I had done some good hours' work in th_ngine-room. The boat was oil-fired, and in very fair order, so my duties di_ot look as if they would be heavy. There was nobody who could be properl_alled an engineer; only, besides the furnace-men, a couple of lads fro_amburg who had been a year ago apprentices in a ship-building yard. They wer_ivil fellows, both of them consumptive, who did what I told them and sai_ittle. By bedtime, if you had seen me in my blue jumper, a pair of carpe_lippers, and a flat cap - all the property of the deceased Walter \- yo_ould have sworn I had been bred to the firing of river-boats, whereas I ha_cquired most of my knowledge on one run down the Zambesi, when the prope_ngineer got drunk and fell overboard among the crocodiles.
  • The captain - they called him Schenk - was out of his bearings in the job. H_as a Frisian and a first-class deep-water seaman, but, since he knew th_hine delta, and because the German mercantile marine was laid on the ice til_he end of war, they had turned him on to this show. He was bored by th_usiness, and didn't understand it very well. The river charts puzzled him, and though it was pretty plain going for hundreds of miles, yet he was in _erpetual fidget about the pilotage. You could see that he would have been fa_ore in his element smelling his way through the shoals of the Ems mouth, o_eating against a northeaster in the shallow Baltic. He had six barges in tow, but the heavy flood of the Danube made it an easy job except when it came t_oing slow. There were two men on each barge, who came aboard every morning t_raw rations. That was a funny business, for we never lay to if we could hel_t. There was a dinghy belonging to each barge, and the men used to row to th_ext and get a lift in that barge's dinghy, and so forth. Six men would appea_n the dinghy of the barge nearest us and carry off supplies for the rest. Th_en were mostly Frisians, slow-spoken, sandy-haired lads, very like the bree_ou strike on the Essex coast.
  • It was the fact that Schenk was really a deep-water sailor, and so a novice t_he job, that made me get on with him. He was a good fellow and quite willin_o take a hint, so before I had been twenty- four hours on board he wa_elling me all his difficulties, and I was doing my best to cheer him. An_ifficulties came thick, because the next night was New Year's Eve.
  • I knew that that night was a season of gaiety in Scotland, but Scotland wasn'_n it with the Fatherland. Even Schenk, though he was in charge of valuabl_tores and was voyaging against time, was quite clear that the men must hav_ermission for some kind of beano. Just before darkness we came abreast _air-sized town, whose name I never discovered, and decided to lie to for th_ight. The arrangement was that one man should be left on guard in each barge, and the other get four hours' leave ashore. Then he would return and reliev_is friend, who should proceed to do the same thing. I foresaw that ther_ould be some fun when the first batch returned, but I did not dare t_rotest. I was desperately anxious to get past the Austrian frontier, for _ad a half-notion we might be searched there, but Schenk took hi_ylvesterabend business so seriously that I would have risked a row if I ha_ried to argue.
  • The upshot was what I expected. We got the first batch aboard about midnight, blind to the world, and the others straggled in at all hours next morning. _tuck to the boat for obvious reasons, but next day it became too serious, an_ had to go ashore with the captain to try and round up the stragglers. We go_hem all in but two, and I am inclined to think these two had never meant t_ome back. If I had a soft job like a river-boat I shouldn't be inclined t_un away in the middle of Germany with the certainty that my best fate woul_e to be scooped up for the trenches, but your Frisian has no more imaginatio_han a haddock. The absentees were both watchmen from the barges, and I fanc_he monotony of the life had got on their nerves.
  • The captain was in a raging temper, for he was short-handed to begin with. H_ould have started a press-gang, but there was no superfluity of men in tha_ownship: nothing but boys and grandfathers. As I was helping to run the tri_ was pretty annoyed also, and I sluiced down the drunkards with icy Danub_ater, using all the worst language I knew in Dutch and German. It was a ra_orning, and as we raged through the river-side streets I remember I heard th_ry crackle of wild geese going overhead, and wished I could get a shot a_hem. I told one fellow - he was the most troublesome - that he was a disgrac_o a great Empire, and was only fit to fight with the filthy English.
  • 'God in Heaven!' said the captain, 'we can delay no longer. We must make shif_he best we can. I can spare one man from the deck hands, and you must give u_ne from the engine-room.'
  • That was arranged, and we were tearing back rather short in the wind when _spied a figure sitting on a bench beside the booking- office on the pier. I_as a slim figure, in an old suit of khaki: some cast-off duds which had lon_ost the semblance of a uniform. It had a gentle face, and was smokin_eacefully, looking out upon the river and the boats and us noisy fellows wit_eek philosophical eyes. If I had seen General French sitting there an_ooking like nothing on earth I couldn't have been more surprised.
  • The man stared at me without recognition. He was waiting for his cue.
  • I spoke rapidly in Sesutu, for I was afraid the captain might know Dutch.
  • 'Where have you come from?' I asked.
  • 'They shut me up in tronk,' said Peter, 'and I ran away. I am tired, Cornelis, and want to continue the journey by boat.'
  • 'Remember you have worked for me in Africa,' I said. 'You are just home fro_amaraland. You are a German who has lived thirty years away from home. Yo_an tend a furnace and have worked in mines.'
  • Then I spoke to the captain.
  • 'Here is a fellow who used to be in my employ, Captain Schenk. It's almight_uck we've struck him. He's old, and not very strong in the head, but I'll g_ail he's a good worker. He says he'll come with us and I can use him in th_ngine-room.'
  • 'Stand up,' said the Captain.
  • Peter stood up, light and slim and wiry as a leopard. A sailor does not judg_en by girth and weight.
  • 'He'll do,' said Schenk, and the next minute he was readjusting his crews an_iving the strayed revellers the rough side of his tongue. As it chanced, _ouldn't keep Peter with me, but had to send him to one of the barges, and _ad time for no more than five words with him, when I told him to hold hi_ongue and live up to his reputation as a half-wit. That accurse_ylvesterabend had played havoc with the whole outfit, and the captain and _ere weary men before we got things straight.
  • In one way it turned out well. That afternoon we passed the frontier and _ever knew it till I saw a man in a strange uniform come aboard, who copie_ome figures on a schedule, and brought us a mail. With my dirty face an_eneral air of absorption in duty, I must have been an unsuspicious figure. H_ook down the names of the men in the barges, and Peter's name was given as i_ppeared on the ship's roll - Anton Blum.
  • 'You must feel it strange, Herr Brandt,' said the captain, 'to be scrutinize_y a policeman, you who give orders, I doubt not, to many policemen.'
  • I shrugged my shoulders. 'It is my profession. It is my business to g_nrecognized often by my own servants.' I could see that I was becoming rathe_ figure in the captain's eyes. He liked the way I kept the men up to thei_ork, for I hadn't been a nigger-driver for nothing.
  • Late on that Sunday night we passed through a great city which the captai_old me was Vienna. It seemed to last for miles and miles, and to be a_rightly lit as a circus. After that, we were in big plains and the air gre_erishing cold. Peter had come aboard once for his rations, but usually h_eft it to his partner, for he was lying very low. But one morning - I thin_t was the 5th of January, when we had passed Buda and were moving throug_reat sodden flats just sprinkled with snow - the captain took it into hi_ead to get me to overhaul the barge loads. Armed with a mighty type- writte_ist, I made a tour of the barges, beginning with the hindmost. There was _ine old stock of deadly weapons - mostly machine-guns and some field-pieces, and enough shells to blow up the Gallipoli peninsula. All kinds of shell wer_here, from the big 14-inch crumps to rifle grenades and trench-mortars. I_ade me fairly sick to see all these good things preparing for our ow_ellows, and I wondered whether I would not be doing my best service if _ngineered a big explosion. Happily I had the common sense to remember my jo_nd my duty and to stick to it.
  • Peter was in the middle of the convoy, and I found him pretty unhappy, principally through not being allowed to smoke. His companion was an ox-eye_ad, whom I ordered to the look-out while Peter and I went over the lists.
  • 'Cornelis, my old friend,' he said, 'there are some pretty toys here. With _panner and a couple of clear hours I could make these maxims about as deadl_s bicycles. What do you say to a try?'
  • 'I've considered that,' I said, 'but it won't do. We're on a bigger busines_han wrecking munition convoys. I want to know how you got here.'
  • He smiled with that extraordinary Sunday-school docility of his.
  • 'It was very simple, Cornelis. I was foolish in the cafe - but they have tol_ou of that. You see I was angry and did not reflect. They had separated us, and I could see would treat me as dirt. Therefore, my bad temper came out, for, as I have told you, I do not like Germans.'
  • Peter gazed lovingly at the little bleak farms which dotted the Hungaria_lain.
  • 'All night I lay in tronk with no food. In the morning they fed me, and too_e hundreds of miles in a train to a place which I think is called Neuburg. I_as a great prison, full of English officers … I asked myself many times o_he journey what was the reason of this treatment, for I could see no sense i_t. If they wanted to punish me for insulting them they had the chance to sen_e off to the trenches. No one could have objected. If they thought me useles_hey could have turned me back to Holland. I could not have stopped them. Bu_hey treated me as if I were a dangerous man, whereas all their conduc_itherto had shown that they thought me a fool. I could not understand it.
  • 'But I had not been one night in that Neuburg place before I thought of th_eason. They wanted to keep me under observation as a check upon you, Cornelis. I figured it out this way. They had given you some very importan_ork which required them to let you into some big secret. So far, good. The_vidently thought much of you, even yon Stumm man, though he was as rude as _uffalo. But they did not know you fully, and they wanted to check on you.
  • That check they found in Peter Pienaar. Peter was a fool, and if there wa_nything to blab, sooner or later Peter would blab it. Then they would stretc_ut a long arm and nip you short, wherever you were. Therefore they must kee_ld Peter under their eye.'
  • 'That sounds likely enough,' I said.
  • 'It was God's truth,' said Peter. 'And when it was all clear to me I settle_hat I must escape. Partly because I am a free man and do not like to be i_rison, but mostly because I was not sure of myself. Some day my temper woul_o again, and I might say foolish things for which Cornelis would suffer. S_t was very certain that I must escape.
  • 'Now, Cornelis, I noticed pretty soon that there were two kinds among th_risoners. There were the real prisoners, mostly English and French, and ther_ere humbugs. The humbugs were treated, apparently, like the others, but no_eally, as I soon perceived. There was one man who passed as an Englis_fficer, another as a French Canadian, and the others called themselve_ussians. None of the honest men suspected them, but they were there as spie_o hatch plots for escape and get the poor devils caught in the act, and t_orm out confidences which might be of value. That is the German notion o_ood business. I am not a British soldier to think all men are gentlemen. _now that amongst men there are desperate skellums, so I soon picked up thi_ame. It made me very angry, but it was a good thing for my plan. I made m_esolution to escape the day I arrived at Neuburg, and on Christmas Day I ha_ plan made.'
  • 'Peter, you're an old marvel. Do you mean to say you were quite certain o_etting away whenever you wanted?'
  • 'Quite certain, Cornelis. You see, I have been wicked in my time and kno_omething about the inside of prisons. You may build them like great castles, or they may be like a backveld tronk, only mud and corrugated iron, but ther_s always a key and a man who keeps it, and that man can be bested. I knew _ould get away, but I did not think it would be so easy. That was due to th_ogus prisoners, my friends, the spies.
  • 'I made great pals with them. On Christmas night we were very jolly together.
  • I think I spotted every one of them the first day. I bragged about my past an_ll I had done, and I told them I was going to escape. They backed me up an_romised to help. Next morning I had a plan. In the afternoon, just afte_inner, I had to go to the commandant's room. They treated me a littl_ifferently from the others, for I was not a prisoner of war, and I went ther_o be asked questions and to be cursed as a stupid Dutchman. There was n_trict guard kept there, for the place was on the second floor, and distant b_any yards from any staircase. In the corridor outside the commandant's roo_here was a window which had no bars, and four feet from the window the lim_f a great tree. A man might reach that limb, and if he were active as _onkey might descend to the ground. Beyond that I knew nothing, but I am _ood climber, Cornelis.
  • 'I told the others of my plan. They said it was good, but no one offered t_ome with me. They were very noble; they declared that the scheme was mine an_ should have the fruit of it, for if more than one tried, detection wa_ertain. I agreed and thanked them - thanked them with tears in my eyes. The_ne of them very secretly produced a map. We planned out my road, for I wa_oing straight to Holland. It was a long road, and I had no money, for the_ad taken all my sovereigns when I was arrested, but they promised to get _ubscription up among themselves to start me. Again I wept tears of gratitude.
  • This was on Sunday, the day after Christmas, and I settled to make the attemp_n the Wednesday afternoon.
  • 'Now, Cornelis, when the lieutenant took us to see the British prisoners, yo_emember, he told us many things about the ways of prisons. He told us ho_hey loved to catch a man in the act of escape, so that they could use hi_arshly with a clear conscience. I thought of that, and calculated that now m_riends would have told everything to the commandant, and that they would b_aiting to bottle me on the Wednesday. Till then I reckoned I would be slackl_uarded, for they would look on me as safe in the net …
  • 'So I went out of the window next day. It was the Monday afternoon … '
  • 'That was a bold stroke,' I said admiringly.
  • 'The plan was bold, but it was not skilful,' said Peter modestly. 'I had n_oney beyond seven marks, and I had but one stick of chocolate. I had n_vercoat, and it was snowing hard. Further, I could not get down the tree, which had a trunk as smooth and branchless as a blue gum. For a little _hought I should be compelled to give in, and I was not happy.
  • 'But I had leisure, for I did not think I would be missed before nightfall, and given time a man can do most things. By and by I found a branch which le_eyond the outer wall of the yard and hung above the river. This I followed, and then dropped from it into the stream. It was a drop of some yards, and th_ater was very swift, so that I nearly drowned. I would rather swim th_impopo, Cornelis, among all the crocodiles than that icy river. Yet I manage_o reach the shore and get my breath lying in the bushes …
  • 'After that it was plain going, though I was very cold. I knew that I would b_ought on the northern roads, as I had told my friends, for no one could drea_f an ignorant Dutchman going south away from his kinsfolk. But I had learne_nough from the map to know that our road lay south-east, and I had marke_his big river.'
  • 'Did you hope to pick me up?' I asked. 'No, Cornelis. I thought you would b_ravelling in first-class carriages while I should be plodding on foot. But _as set on getting to the place you spoke of (how do you call it? Constan_ople?), where our big business lay. I thought I might be in time for that.'
  • 'You're an old Trojan, Peter,' I said; 'but go on. How did you get to tha_anding-stage where I found you?'
  • 'It was a hard journey,' he said meditatively. 'It was not easy to get beyon_he barbed-wire entanglements which surrounded Neuburg - yes, even across th_iver. But in time I reached the woods and was safe, for I did not think an_erman could equal me in wild country. The best of them, even their foresters, are but babes in veldcraft compared with such as me … My troubles came onl_rom hunger and cold. Then I met a Peruvian smouse, and sold him my clothe_nd bought from him these. [Peter meant a Polish-Jew pedlar.] I did not wan_o part with my own, which were better, but he gave me ten marks on the deal.
  • After that I went into a village and ate heavily.'
  • 'Were you pursued?' I asked.
  • 'I do not think so. They had gone north, as I expected, and were looking fo_e at the railway stations which my friends had marked for me. I walke_appily and put a bold face on it. If I saw a man or woman look at m_uspiciously I went up to them at once and talked. I told a sad tale, and al_elieved it. I was a poor Dutchman travelling home on foot to see a dyin_other, and I had been told that by the Danube I should find the main railwa_o take me to Holland. There were kind people who gave me food, and one woma_ave me half a mark, and wished me God speed … Then on the last day of th_ear I came to the river and found many drunkards.'
  • 'Was that when you resolved to get on one of the river-boats?'
  • 'Ja, Cornelis. As soon as I heard of the boats I saw where my chance lay. Bu_ou might have knocked me over with a straw when I saw you come on shore. Tha_as good fortune, my friend … I have been thinking much about the Germans, an_ will tell you the truth. It is only boldness that can baffle them. They ar_ most diligent people. They will think of all likely difficulties, but not o_ll possible ones. They have not much imagination. They are like steam engine_hich must keep to prepared tracks. There they will hunt any man down, but le_im trek for open country and they will be at a loss. Therefore boldness, m_riend; for ever boldness. Remember as a nation they wear spectacles, whic_eans that they are always peering.'
  • Peter broke off to gloat over the wedges of geese and the strings of wil_wans that were always winging across those plains. His tale had bucked me u_onderfully. Our luck had held beyond all belief, and I had a kind of hope i_he business now which had been wanting before. That afternoon, too, I go_nother fillip. I came on deck for a breath of air and found it pretty col_fter the heat of the engine-room. So I called to one of the deck hands t_etch me up my cloak from the cabin - the same I had bought that first mornin_n the Greif village.
  • 'Der grune mantel?' the man shouted up, and I cried, 'Yes'. But the word_eemed to echo in my ears, and long after he had given me the garment I stoo_taring abstractedly over the bulwarks.
  • His tone had awakened a chord of memory, or, to be accurate, they had give_mphasis to what before had been only blurred and vague. For he had spoken th_ords which Stumm had uttered behind his hand to Gaudian. I had hear_omething like 'Uhnmantl,' and could make nothing of it. Now I was as certai_f those words as of my own existence. They had been 'Grune mantel'. Grun_antel, whatever it might be, was the name which Stumm had not meant me t_ear, which was some talisman for the task I had proposed, and which wa_onnected in some way with the mysterious von Einem.
  • This discovery put me in high fettle. I told myself that, considering th_ifficulties, I had managed to find out a wonderful amount in a very few days.
  • It only shows what a man can do with the slenderest evidence if he keep_hewing and chewing on it …
  • Two mornings later we lay alongside the quays at Belgrade, and I took th_pportunity of stretching my legs. Peter had come ashore for a smoke, and w_andered among the battered riverside streets, and looked at the broken arche_f the great railway bridge which the Germans were working at like beavers.
  • There was a big temporary pontoon affair to take the railway across, but _alculated that the main bridge would be ready inside a month. It was a clear, cold, blue day, and as one looked south one saw ridge after ridge of snow_ills. The upper streets of the city were still fairly whole, and there wer_hops open where food could be got. I remember hearing English spoken, an_eeing some Red Cross nurses in the custody of Austrian soldiers coming fro_he railway station.
  • It would have done me a lot of good to have had a word with them. I thought o_he gallant people whose capital this had been, how three times they had flun_he Austrians back over the Danube, and then had only been beaten by the blac_reachery of their so-called allies. Somehow that morning in Belgrade gav_oth Peter and me a new purpose in our task. It was our business to put _poke in the wheel of this monstrous bloody juggernaut that was crushing th_ife out of the little heroic nations.
  • We were just getting ready to cast off when a distinguished party arrived a_he quay. There were all kinds of uniforms - German, Austrian, and Bulgarian, and amid them one stout gentleman in a fur coat and a black felt hat. The_atched the barges up-anchor, and before we began to jerk into line I coul_ear their conversation. The fur coat was talking English.
  • 'I reckon that's pretty good noos, General,' it said; 'if the English have ru_way from Gally-poly we can use these noo consignments for the bigger game. _uess it won't be long before we see the British lion moving out of Egypt wit_ore paws.'
  • They all laughed. 'The privilege of that spectacle may soon be ours,' was th_eply.
  • I did not pay much attention to the talk; indeed I did not realize till week_ater that that was the first tidings of the great evacuation of Cape Helles.
  • What rejoiced me was the sight of Blenkiron, as bland as a barber among thos_wells. Here were two of the missionaries within reasonable distance of thei_oal.