IT was April above Lucerne, in
the year of grace nineteen hundred and fourteen, and everything was
young. A witchery of sunlight and scent and blossom etherealised the
earth and the heavens; and fields, green as the green diamond at the
heart of the world, rioted wantonly to kiss the white dazzling peaks
that glittered in the sapphire sky.
On a fallen tree, its bark all frosted with
lichen, two young people sat at the edge of a pine copse. They were both
in the springtide of life, and they sat in enchanted silence inhaling
the perfume of the trees and listening to the birth song of an awakening
universe. She was not much over twenty, perhaps, and she was enhaloed
with the soul of France. It lurked in the dark glistening coils of her
hair, in the gestures of her shoulders and white, nervous hands, her
lips. Her eyes, half mystic, half tigerish, wells of lightly slumbering
passion, told the eternal story of that indomitable race whose destiny
it seems to have been to demonstrate to the world that the life of a
nation's soul may be unquenchable, though drowned in every century with
He was obviously
from across the Channel; clean built, healthy and handsome. One versed
in the characteristic physiognomy of the denizens of our islands would
have told you after a moment's observation that he was a Celt. And
indeed, the Honourable Gordon Niall, son and heir of the fifteenth Baron
Niall of the Western Isles, could play the piob mhor and speak the
Gaelic as his mother tongue. Twelve years of public school and
university life had left him still dreaming foolish dreams and seeing
great visions. Which is a proof that he was born into this world a
They were happy, these two, in
their nest in the hills. They looked out on the world as the good God
made it. Among the flower-smothered fields stretched at their feet a
placid-minded peasantry lived and moved and had their being. Content
with their tree-bowered, log-built chalets and their daily bread, they
follow the slow-footed oxen and their wooden ploughs, just as their
fathers did a thousand years ago. From day to day their stainless,
uneventful life unfolds to them the secret of the untroubled heart, and
they believe in the beauty of the world they see and the goodness of the
Creator they one day hope to see. They are simple folk, of course.
Helene von Behr loved it as she looked. It made
her remember so vividly an old-age worn chateau in the peace of southern
France. She felt again in her inmost soul those scents of childhood
which outlive all human forgetfulness. She sat and dreamed of it all,
and as she dreamed her thoughts became words, and she told them to her
companion, who listened with his blue eyes full of a boyish unconcealed
adoration for the lovely girl beside him. Her eyes sometimes puzzled
him; they puzzled him now. A sad, lambent light was in them ; like
sunset glints on the shadowing hills of vanished years.
She talked on: about the moat round the grey
creeper-covered house, the moat into which she had fallen one (lay when
only six years old. And the forest—so deep and dark and wonderful—with
the great oak, into whose branches Napoleon III. had climbed to smoke
his everlasting cigarette in peace when he had been the unwelcome guest
of her great-uncle, a grand scigncur who had despised the new régime.
Old Jean Barbé, the coachman, was remembered too—old Jean, who was
always cross but didn't mean to be ; and what a funny scar it was over
his left eye where her white cat had scratched him.
Then there was the village curé. She said, with
simple innocence, that her nurse had told her as a secret that it was
whispered lie was her uncle, and would have reigned in the chateau had
lie only travelled into this life down the broad road which leadeth from
the altar. But, what a dear he was! She remembered when she made her
first confession to him, and how she had wondered if he was smiling, or
angry, behind the grating when she told that she had stolen a cigarette
from the big silver box on the writing- table of M. le Vicomte de
Fontaigne, her father, and had smoked it surreptitiously in the stable
beside her pet horse. He used to dine with them every Wednesday evening;
and in the calm summer night the table was laid beneath the pear tree at
the end of the terrace near the river, which glowed so red in the light
of the westering sun. How shabby his soutane always was, and all brown
lArith the stains of snuff.
So she rambled on and spoke of her father, that
proud aristocrat, bearing a name to be found in the most abbreviated
histories. She laughed when she said that he lived there in magnificent
isolation, too proud to serve the Republic.
Then she sighed, and did not tell that
nevertheless he had married her against her will to that dull old German
diplomatist sitting down there in the Schweizerhof immersed in the
voluminous correspondence which was the breath of his life : that
correspondence which she secretly blessed in her heart for the free,
careless hours it had given her these last ten days with this
fresh-faced boy, the only occupant of the scantily filled hotel with
whom her lord and master would allow her to associate.
She sat silent, and gazed dreamily at the
undulating countryside, radiant in bloom and light and colour, with old
Pilatus in the distance, sentinel of ages. The shimmering sunshine
quivered all over it, and the scattered chalets, and orchards pink and
white with foam, seemed lulled to sleep in the security of God. Once a
priest passed, trudging down the white dusty road beneath; once a
peasant, the smoke of his long black cigar hanging in a blue filmy
wreath about his round felt hat. Far down in the valley tinkled the
music of cow bells. A little stream, crystal clear, trickled at her feet
. . . flies danced in clouds above the edging rushes. The warm smell of
the earth was intoxicating like incense. . .
She was dimly conscious that her companion was
whistling softly. He had a habit of doing this when deep in thought, and
she recognised the odd little refrain. She had heard him whistle it a
dozen times—queer, uncanny, elusive as the mountain mist, with the
mystery of the hills in it, and sorrow, and the spirit of brave men. She
glanced at him. She knew that this boy had begun to exercise a strange
fascination over her, stronger and more dangerous than she dared to
confess even to herself. It was not unnatural, for her life these last
three years in that grim, dull old schloss in Hanover had been very
lonely. The bud will not mate with the yellow leaf, but spring must call
to spring; albeit the mongers of the matrimonial market prattle as they
"What is it you whistle, my Gordon?"
she asked suddenly. "There are strange things in the air. Has it a story
from your Scottish hills?" He sat back and laughed his gay laugh.
"Yes, it has," he answered. I'll tell it you, if it won't bore you."
"But no: tell me," she said, and prepared to listen, her chin in her
It was a tune they played on the pipes, he said
: and it was a wild, barbaric story of war and the fierce passion of men
and the tottering fortunes of his race. Six hundred years ago Castle
Niall had been besieged by a neighbouring clan, for the Niall of the day
had carried off the daughter of its chief, and held her within his
walls. The beleaguered garrison was on the verge of starvation, when to
Niall came a dream which told him that deliverance would come from a
black chanter which would drop from heaven upon the castle roof. Three
times, and three times only, would it play a mysterious tune, which none
but the head of the house would be able to awaken from the reed; and in
the hour of peril or distress the playing of the chanter would bring
salvation. When the morning dawned grey over the castle ramparts, they
found, lying on the roof, a black chanter as had been foretold. The
chief blew on it with trembling lips, and lo it played of its own
accord. Immediately Niall and his men sallied from the fortress and
drove their enemies into the sea.
In the intervening
centuries the chanter had again been used and brought deliverance. Its
virtue would be efficacious only once more. The strange, haunting air
had become the battle charge of his race. It was that which lie had been
whistling. The last time it had been played, in the sixteenth century,
the family piper had caught the air and fixed it indelibly on the scroll
of memory. He laughed nervously when he had finished. He was afraid she
would treat it lightly. But he had told his tale with an old-world
seriousness, and although she had felt inclined to smile when he had
ended his recital of it, something in his face restrained her. Instead,
she patted his brown curly head.
"Come," she said, "it
is late. We must go home."
It was their last evening
together, for Helene and her husband were leaving the following day. As
they walked along under the chestnut trees on the Schweizerhof Quai,
Niall was dull and silent. She had stirred the very depths of his young,
impressionable heart, this girl. He didn't attempt to deceive himself :
he knew he was passionately in love with her. He felt that he hated old
von Behr. But—it was all so hopeless.
That night he
dined with them. The dinner was not a great success. They were all
pre-occupied--Helene and Gordon with crowding thoughts that were very
much akin, the Count with a disquieting dispatch from the Wilhelmstrasse
and a severe attack of indigestion. At ten o'clock he excused himself:
he had writing to do. He pointedly suggested that his wife should go to
bed; and lie made his adieux to Niall, remarking that they were leaving
early in the morning and would not likely see him. Furious with stifled
anger, the boy said a conventional good-bye to the woman he loved. She
moved away. Count von Behr lingered for a moment, and then betook
himself with shambling gait to his accustomed corner of the
writing-room, which, for some reason, lie preferred to his own private
The moment he was out of sight Niall
hurriedly left the lounge and hastened upstairs. On the first floor he
saw her, obviously lingering, a little way down the corridor. She came
back as she saw him approach. The boy blushed deeply as lie took her
hand, and stammered something about not being able to say good-bye in
such a beastly cold fashion. His head seemed to be swimming. He had some
confused impressions about the white of her evening gown and a great
crimson rose at her breast.
"My Gordon," she said
softly, with that fascinating inability to control her r's that thrilled
him; "Whistle me your tune once again—quickly, for I must go. I shall
remember you by it, boy. Perhaps, some day if we meet again, I may be
able to whistle it to you.
She smiled, but her eyes
were moist. And Niall drew his parched lips together and managed to
whistle the strange, mysterious air. He finished and stood awkwardly
facing her, tall and distinguished in his evening clothes. No word of
love had ever passed between them, but as they looked into each others
eyes, each read the secret that nothing could hide.
"Adieu, my Gordon," she whispered hastily. "You have been good to me. I
won't forget you ... and you'll help me often . . . but be sensible,
boy—and forget me."
A moment later she was running
down the corridor and vanished at the end. The boy stood for a minute or
two rigid where he was, staring blankly at a red rose in his hands, his
head reeling with the delicious joy of the knowledge that for one
never-to-be-forgotten moment her arms had been thrown round his neck,
and on his mouth her warm lips had pressed a swift, burning kiss.
Captain Gordon Niall of the IJist Highlanders lay
flat on his face beside a loophole in the wall. With a subaltern, two
men, and a stray sergeant of the Yorkshire Rifles, he occupied the
remains of a former farmstead, now a jumbled heap of bricks and mortar.
The only portion of this mass of refuse that looked like a house was a
right angle formed by the ends of two walls which rose like a skeleton
from the shattered piles of rafters, rubbish, stones, lime, and dead
bodies of mangled men.
It was one of the supreme
moments resultant upon the German break through near Armentières, that
grim, bloody month of April, 1918. The British line existed only in the
imagination of an exhausted and bewildered Staff, their faculties half
paralysed with fatigue and over work. No one knew with anything even
approaching certainty what the situation was. Only one thing was certain
because it was obvious, and that was that the very existence of our
Armies was hanging in the balance. The British front was hopelessly,
irretrievably broken; and a disorganised rabble of tattered regiments,
half crazy with weariness and strain and hunger, were retreating in
mixed, irregular bands back from the river Lys, through a withering hail
of bullets and a raging tornado of shrapnel and high explosive valiantly
and uncomplainingly to take up new positions and renew the desperate
struggle against overwhelming odds.
Gordon Niall had
arrived at the stage when all emotion had been frozen to its depths. He
looked phlegmatically out upon a dreary, muddy countryside literally
alive with the grey advancing hordes of the enemy. The little group
huddled in the shelter of the tottering walls manipulated a Lewis gun
with the dull ceaseless energy of men in a dream. Dirty, ragged,
verminous, with a week's growth on their smoke-grimed emaciated faces,
they were unquestioningly carrying out to the last their final act in
the mighty drama of that last awful month which clouded their minds like
a nightmare from Hell.
They had been all through the
sickening horror of the struggle on the Somme, and after three weeks
hard fighting had arrived a week ago at Armentières for a rest, to find
themselves swirled into the vortex of the new German offensive. Gordon
Niall as he stoically waited for death, knew very little about the facts
of it all. lie had been told that the Portuguese who held the line on
the left had broken; and that out of the welter of shattered, scurrying,
disordered units, he had been ordered to take up an advanced position,
to stem the rush with a handful of men he had managed to gather round
him out of the retreating forces. And there he was, with four others—all
that were left—with the German masses two hundred yards ahead, and
behind him the river Lys, its muddy waters splashing under the bursting
barrage, ironically emphasising the fact that for him there was no
It was only a matter of minutes, and at last
the end came. A confused babel of sounds; a smothering avalanche of men,
stamping, yelling, pushing; the collapse of the whole universe about
him; a deadly pain in his head; a strange, swift, kaleidoscopic vision
of home . . . his mother's face . . . then darkness.
He didn't know how long afterwards it was that he felt himself jerked
roughly to his feet. As his senses slowly returned he realised that a
German officer was searching him. He watched the man stupidly as he went
through the papers in his pocket-book : then something fell from a
letter to the ground, something brown like a dead leaf, and Niall
lurched forward with a snarl.
"Give it me " he said
The officer looked up, surprised, and then
down at his feet. He stooped and picked the little fragment from the
ground, glanced at it casually, and handed it to Niall with a look of
half amused wonder in his eyes. Then he went on reading. Mall thrust the
recovered treasure into his tunic pocket—only a faded rose given to him
four years ago by a girl at Lucerne, whose memory the passion of war had
not succeeded in effacing.
The officer soon finished,
and Niall was marched off with a small escort. It all seemed like a bad
dream, that scurry over the fire-swept zone, the arrival at the battered
hamlet where more prisoners were waiting. Then the long weary march,
hour after hour, their numbers constantly swelling, on through the
fading twilight and a dark drizzling night. Like drunken men the
straggling column reeled along, half delirious with hunger and fatigue,
past stores and camps and dumps and villages, while ever past them the
reserve masses of horse, foot and artillery incessantly pressed on the
heels of the advancing German forces. At last, long after midnight, they
reached a smallish town; and, packed into an empty building, they fell
on the cold concrete floor and slept the sleep of utter exhaustion.
Early in the morning they were marched to the station, and Niall found
himself in a third class compartment with eleven other officers. Some
time before the train started a bowl of some sticky, soupy substance was
handed in, with a loaf of bread; and on this they subsisted during the
twenty-six hours which elapsed before they were detrained at their
destination, a dreary, drab little town; and, cramped and weak as
children, they marched two miles out into the country to the
wire-encircled encampment which awaited their coming.
Those unfortunates who endured the lonely
monotonous horror of prison life in Germany will tell you what
"barbed-wire madness " was. They will tell you of men who got the
disease and of that furtive, piteous look that haunted the tragic sunken
eyes of weary creatures who became frenzied with the longing for
freedom. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate from the depths of an
arm-chair the terrible gnawing pain of this consuming passion to which
some natures were so very susceptible. But strong men who have lived, if
only just lived, for three long ghastly months, without letters or
parcels, on a diet of turnip-soup and small lumps of black bread, till
the skin was stretched tight over their protruding cheek-bones like
yellow parchment, their filthy, ragged clothes hanging like mildewed
sacks on their emaciated bodies, and their hollow eyes gleaming like the
eyes of famished beasts—they understand how easy it was to fall a prey
to "barbed-wire madness."
Gordon Niall got it, and got
it badly. It was inevitable. The restless Celtic spirit was the first to
fall a victim to the mania for escape. Five times he eluded his watchful
guard, and five times was recaptured, sullen and still determined,
taking his punishment of solitary confinement as a matter of course,
with a purpose dogged and unbroken. For solitary confinement in cells
was no cure for the disease it was like malaria, once in the system it
was ineradicable. The weeks dragged on. Parcels and letters arrived from
home and conditions gradually improved, but Niall remained obsessed with
his yearning for liberty. Other men who had escaped and been recaptured
began to realise the futility of it, and the news which filtered through
the German newspapers of the turn of the tide and the progress of the
Allied forces tended to encourage them to settle down to await
developments. And one night the camp was electrified with the
announcement of the defection of Bulgaria. It was the beginning of the
end, and the star of hope shone clear in the firmament. Yet it had no
effect on Gordon Niall, for the following night he made yet another
attempt to escape.
He had thought it out carefully ;
and at midnight, three friends, strenuously protesting at his
foolishness, hoisted him up to the little window of their hut which
overlooked the prison yard. It was not more than twelve yards from the
wire enclosure, and within four feet of it rose a telegraph pole. The
window had been very carefully prepared, and it did not take Niall many
minutes to remove the glass, drop the panes into the keeping of his
friends below, and wriggle on to the narrow ledge. 1e listened
carefully, and looked up and down the yard, white in the searching glare
of the great electric lamps which turned night into day. A high wind and
a driving sleet favoured him, for the sentry who passed shortly
afterwards on his beat by the barbed wire was walking quickly with his
chin sunk in the collar of his coat. Niall waited till he had gone,
then, crouching for a moment on the window ledge, he sprang forward,
clutched at the telegraph pole, clung to it for a few seconds, then
laboriously hauled himself up to the cross-bars. Here he rested for a
while and allowed the sentry once more to pass. Then, judging that he
would just have time to reach the further pole, which was a few feet on
the far side of the wire, before the man returned, he commenced his
perilous journey. Painfully and cautiously he straddled across the wires
and began to work himself along. The swirling blasts of the strong wind
more than once almost swept him from his precarious hold, and the icy
rain numbed his cut and bleeding hands. Beneath his weight the wires
swayed and sagged . . yet he struggled on his desperate way. It was more
difficult than he had supposed, and sick, with nervous strain and
physical exhaustion, he determined to risk discovery and hang where he
was, halfway across, until the sentry passed again. The minutes dragged,
and then round the corner of the next hut the man appeared, his
shoulders hunched in the driving rain, his eyes on the ground. Above
him, clinging frantically to the wire, Niall waited, his heart in his
mouth. The man walked almost beneath him, seeing nothing; and in a few
seconds the prisoner again began to toil along the wires. At length,
almost fainting with fatigue and strain, lie clutched his goal and drew
himself across the cross-bars, and waited, panting, his heart throbbing
as if it would burst, until the sentry should repass him. He soon
approached. Nearer and nearer he came. He tramped beneath the crouching
figure on the top of the telegraph pole. Niall muttered a prayer of
thankfulness for the fierce wind and the torrential rain.
The blood suddenly roared in his cars Nvith excitement . . . the man had
stopped . . . was he going to look up ....he stamped his feet for a
minute or two, then resumed his monotonous beat.
quickly clutched the pole with his arms and knees and slithered to the
ground. Bending low he ran swiftly across the area illumined by the
glare from the prison yard, and found himself in the enveloping darkness
of the night.
The fugitive had a roughly accurate
knowledge of the immediate countryside, gained by constant observation
during the occasional walks which had been permitted the prisoners,
under escort. lie purposed making for a thick wood which lay about two
miles to the westward, and there concealing himself during the following
day when the hue and cry would be in full swing. When night again came
round he would push ahead; if possible, keeping a general course to the
north-west, which, he anticipated, would in time bring him to some point
on the Dutch frontier. He had saved up a quantity of food, which, with
strict economy, he hoped might last him at a pinch for a fortnight. If,
by that time, he had not reached the frontier, things might become
awkward; but this was an eventuality too distant to be considered at the
He found himself at the outskirts of the
forest an hour later, and forged ahead through the crowding trees and
thick undergrowth until dawn broke, when he searched about for a secure
hiding-place. He resolved not to climb a tree as he felt that sleep was
a necessity. Fortune favoured him by the discovery of a large fox-hole
in a dense thicket; and down this he forced his way feet first,
carefully wound up his wrist watch, and in five minutes was fast asleep.
It was one o'clock in the afternoon when he awoke. Scarcely a sound
broke the tense silence of the wood. The rain had passed and the sun
shone clear above the trees. He ate some biscuits and a meagre slice of
tinned meat, washed his face and hands in a neighbouring stream, made
some rough calculations on a sheet of paper as to direction, and settled
down to wait for nightfall. With the advent of dusk he again set off
through the forest.
For twelve long weary days and
nights he successfully eluded capture and kept up the same monotonous
round—hiding by day and pushing ahead by night. He had been forced on
many occasions to retrace his steps or make circuitous rounds owing to
coming suddenly on villages or towns, and he had not made the progress
he had resolved to make. His food, too, he had miscalculated and at the
close of the twelfth day he found himself with his rations at an end,
and hopelessly befogged as to his whereabouts. For another day and night
he held out bravely, and then narrowly avoided detection in a fruitless
attempt to steal a chicken from a farmyard. At the expiry of a fortnight
he was starving and in the throes of a fever.
to a final decision. He would start again at dusk and press on. If by
daylight there was no sign of the frontier he would give himself up.
There was nothing else for it. He was in desperate straits his clothes
were torn to rags and he was almost overcome by the fierce grip of the
fever that was rapidly consuming his little remaining strength. He had
given up all hope of winning to the haven of neutral territory it might
not be far away, perhaps, but his power of endurance was at an end.
However, he would forge ahead that night, whatever happened.
As soon as darkness rendered it safe he emerged from his concealment and
struck westward along the edge of a rough country road. For hours lie
toiled along meeting with nobody, but making poor progress. He was
becoming light-headed, and he lurched heavily as he walked. At intervals
he burned and shivered and sweated fiercely. Time and again he fell on
his face, but on each occasion he staggered to his feet and struggled
The night wore on, and through the clouds on
the eastern skyline a palish light began to filter. The skies grew dull
grey and then softer like the wing of a dove. Over the fields and
hedgerows the luminous glow grew clearer as the wheels of the Dawn
rolled on, touching the bare branches of the trees and silvering the
green stagnant water in the ditch, by whose edge reeled and pitched an
exhausted atom of humanity.
Niall raised his bloodshot
eyes to the heavens.
"Well, this is the end of it," he
muttered, "and probably the end of me too. I don't mind . . . it's been
a good effort, and I'm so tired my God, how tired I am!"
A hundred yards ahead a high wall began, evidently the bound of some
large country residence, and not much further on was a small iron gate.
Inside, a footpath led winding among the trees of a wide parkland. With
shaking hands Niall unlatched the gate and followed the path. He could
not see now where he was going : a red mist hung like a veil before his
eyes. Once he ran against a tree, striking his head violently against
the trunk. Dazedly he raised his hand to his forehead and felt it wet.
Shortly afterwards he reached the end of the parkland. Things grew
clearer again, and he saw before him, not three hundred yards away, the
grey battlemented towers of a stately castle. For a few moments he
stared at it in a fuddled manner, then he collapsed into a ditch full of
When he regained consciousness it was
night. He must have lain there all day. Slowly past events came back to
him, and he raised himself with difficulty on his elbow and looked at
the winking lights in the castle windows. The fever did not trouble him
now: all he was conscious of was a fierce, overpowering craving for food
and warmth and rest. The twinkle of the lights called to him. It was a
German house, certainly, but he would get something to eat there, and
they would let him rest—how he wanted rest His thoughts flew back to his
home in the distant western isles. Would they be thinking of him? he
wondered. Thank God, they couldn't see him now. His mother, and Eileen
his sister . . . they would be in the old library where they always sat
at night, that vast stone-walled room above the cliff where the moaning
of the sea rose eternally. And his father would be asleep in the red
leather chair by the gun-room fire. He smiled as the vision rose before
him. Would he ever see it again? Great God, why did men want to kill one
another? . .
His rambling thoughts switched off in
another direction . . . if they could see him now, perhaps his old
father would go to the glass case on the library wall, take from its
resting place the black chanter, and blow on it for the last time He
laughed hoarsely—a good joke that Delirious and cracked, his voice
suddenly croaked forth the weird notes of the black chanter's tune.
Horrible and broken it rose on the still night air.
a few moments the delirium passed, and with a mighty effort he got on
his hands and knees. Painfully and slowly he began to crawl across the
damp grass of the park towards the shadowy mass of the silent castle.
"They'll give me food," he gasped . . . "and let me rest."
The Countess von Behr sat in a deep chair by the
open fireplace of her boudoir in the Schloss Bersenburg. On the white
marble mantelshelf a painted china clock pointed to a quarter past
eleven. The luxuriously furnished room was in deep shadow, the only
light coming from two massive silver candelabra upon the grand piano in
a recess by the window. The flickering glow from the red embers lit UI)
fitfully the face of the woman who gazed abstractedly into the fire.
Four years of mental strain and suffering had left their mark on Helene
von Behr, for there were lines about her eyes and her mouth had grown
harder. These years had fallen with tragic weight upon the shoulders of
the exiled girl, doomed by the exigencies of the times to live alone in
this vast gloomy house, her heart in bleeding France, her body in a
country which by hereditary instinct she had always disliked, but now
hated with all the intensity of her passionate southern heart. So she
had dragged out her solitary days in the seclusion of the Schloss, one
of that vast multitude, young in years but old in suffering, whose souls
have been ruthlessly crushed beneath the iron wheels of the chariots of
The Count had been keenly alive to the delicacy
of his domestic situation, and from the outbreak of hostilities, though
he had been almost constantly resident in Berlin owing to his important
connection with the Foreign Office, he had deemed it the prudent course
to leave his French wife in the solitariness of his country home a
policy which saved both himself and her from inevitable embarrassments
which might at once prove detrimental to the interests of the one, and
intolerable to the other.
The unutterable agony of the
weary months in a position which was both false and horrible to her,
conscious as she could not fail to be of the veiled contempt and
cleverly concealed hostility of her servants, and the less disguised
dislike of her few neighbours, had told heavily, upon the lonely woman.
Two months ago things had become almost insufferable when the news came
that the Vicomte de Fontaigne had been laid in a soldier's grave. To
fight for the Republic was one thing, but to fight for France was quite
another and so, at the hour of crisis, like the rest of his order, the
haughty nobleman had put his politics in his pocket and offered his
services to the Government. The grief of her father's death, borne
alone, friendless and exiled, had almost crushed Helene. Yet it seemed
as if her perplexities were never to end : for that very afternoon a
telegram had come intimating in crude staring words, that the Count von
Behr had been shot dead in the Wilhelmstrasse while endeavouring from a
window to appease a revolutionary mob.
She had tried
to analyse her feelings when the news was conveyed to her. She had never
loved him, but in his own blunt way he had been kind and considerate to
her; and the sudden tears which she shed were from the heart, for she
sincerely regretted his death. Yet despite this fact she could not
stifle the insistent thought that she was free—free to go back to France
and to the Chateau Fontaigne, that pearl of her soul, when this
holocaust of death was past and over ; a thought rendered doubly moving
by the knowledge that the dawn was already breaking! She had often
wondered what it would be like in the future for a child of France to be
wedded for ever to a German.
As she sat before the
fire she felt restless and ill at ease. Her jumbled thoughts refused to
be focussed on any one aspect of her affairs. She felt something strange
in the atmosphere, something that oppressed her. It seemed in the air,
it was all around, real yet indefinable. Time and again she looked round
half nervously as if expecting to find someone in the room with her. .
.She settled deeper into her chair and listlessly watched a morsel that
fell red from the fire . . . it grew pink and then grey. It still smoked
a little, then died. As the lonely woman stared into the embers there
suddenly rose before her a boyish face, so clear and vivid that she was
startled by it. There was pain in the eyes that looked at her, pain and
dull weariness, and the dumb suffering of a yearning spirit. Helene
How often during these last years had that
face risen before her, and the sunlight and happiness of ten brief days
in a deserted Lucerne had fallen oil tired heart like the dew of heaven.
She had never forgotten him— how could she ? She had wondered so often
where he was. She knew he was not dead: for he was first in that list of
names which she had given to a friend in Berne, desiring him to keep her
acquainted witli their fortunes. She often thought, had she done wrong
that night when she kissed his young mouth ? But it didn't really
matter, after all : she had done him no harm, and long ago he would have
forgotten her. Men forgot so quickly. For his own sake she hoped he had
yet—in spite of herself she prayed that he hadn't. And as she looked
ahead, to-night, to her coming liberty, she wondered. . . . But the face
in the fire made her uneasy. A queer tune throbbed in her head—his tune
! She had heard it in her thoughts all night wild, unrythmical, it
seemed to have vibrated in the stillness of the shadowy room—mysterious,
passionate, compelling. Once it had been so realistic that she had been
convinced that she actually, heard it—out in the night and she had
pulled aside the curtains and peered out into the darkness.
She stretched her arms above her head. She felt stifled surely the room
was very hot. Rising, she moved restlessly to the window and looked out.
It was a clear, starry night ; with a silver moon peeping from behind
some scudding clouds. She lingered, gazing up at the beauty of the
heavens. Then, just as she was about to let the thick curtain drop,
suddenly, irniffled yet distinct, she heard a man's voice rise oil night
air. It cried one English word—"Help!"
For a minute
she stood startled and irresolute, then she flung open the window.
Below, on the white of the wide gravel sweep, she could dimly see a dark
form lying stretched before the massive steps of the doorway. She leaned
over the edge and called. No answer came. She drew back into the room
and touched the electric bell. A few seconds later, an old sleepy-eyed
footman appeared, their last remaining manservant.
"Quick," she cried, "there is a man lying outside on the gravel. I think
he is dead. Get some help and bring him into the hail. Ill come down
The man bowed solemnly and
withdrew; and when five minutes later she descended the broad oak
staircase, Helene saw an excited knot of servants depositing a human
burden on the great fur rug before the cavernous hall fireplace. She
approached and looked down upon the form of a man, little more than a
skeleton, his clothes ragged and smeared with filth, his thin sunken
face bearded and dirty. The cluster of servants stared at him
The sick man moved an arm. lie drowsily
muttered a few words feebly, but Helene and the domestics heard them.
Must be near the frontier now. ...Thank God!
"English," said the old footman resentfully, but a quick look from his
mistress silenced any further remark. She despatched the man for the
local doctor and sent the women for blankets, hot water, brandy,
pillows; and she herself knelt by the miserable creature and gently
loosened his ragged collar. The emaciated face recalled nothing to her
as she looked— but, a few seconds later, Gordon Niall opened his eyes,
and, trembling like an aspen leaf, and white to the lips, Helene von
Behr recognised him.
"Mother of God! " she gasped.
The floodgates of memory opened and the great waters poured over her
soul. She felt the walls and the floor of the vast gloomy hall reeling
about her; but, with an almost superhuman effort of will, she regained
her composure, and met the eyes that looked into her ashen face with a
look of wonder and amazement. The fever seemed to have left him, and for
the moment Niall was perfectly conscious. She bent down and pillowed his
head on her arm.
"Helene," he whispered, "is it you
.....where am I?"
"It's all right, dear," she said
soothingly. "You're quite safe. Don't speak—you must rest."
The servants returned and Niall was made as comfortable as possible.
Helene thought rapidly. At all costs she must be alone with him for a
time. She dismissed the whispering women upon various errands. Yes, she
said to their enquiries, she would stay with him till they returned.
When they were alone Niall looked up.
"I escaped, you
know," he said weakly. "I've had an awful time—but I'm safe now, Helene,
am I not? . . . across the frontier, eh""
my Gordon," she answered, smoothing back his matted hair, you're across
the frontier, and you'll soon be well." She almost choked as she
remembered that the frontier was only five miles away.
He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes. For a while he lay very still
; then he spoke, with difficulty.
"My left tunic
pocket," he gasped, "feel in it, Helene . . . that's right . . . now,
open that flap."
From the tattered leather pocket-book
she pulled out a dried withered flower. His eyes gleamed as he saw it.
He turned his face to her. "Your rose," he whispered—."at Lucerne, you
A severe fit of shivering seized him. His eyes
closed. From the corners of his mouth two thin rivulets of blood began
to trickle . . . he opened his eyes.
muttered spasmodically, "Helene—the frontier. . . I must get across the
frontier . . . before the morning."
The end was near
and she knew it. With her left hand she extracted from her bosom a
little gold crucifix and held it before the dying eyes. In a voice,
choked with emotion, she said in his ear,
me, my Gordon ... 'Jesu, have mercy!'
"Now, and in the hour of death "-
"Have mercy on me, a sinner!"
"Have mercy—on—me--a sinner! "
He shivered as in a
blast of icy wind, then smiled like a tired child and nestled his head
against her breast. And very quietly he crossed the silent frontier of
that shadowy country, whence no traveller returns.
servants were clustered about her, and the stout village doctor was
bending over the thin body stretched on the fur rug; but Helene, her
head bowed, neither looked up nor spoke.