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John glanced back toward the point from which the shots had come, but it was already hidden by the curve of the hill. Moreover, the car was going so fast now that the Uhlans would be left as if standing still, and he turned his attention to the man who had crumpled at his very feet.
The stranger lay in a heap on the floor of the car, his breath coming in short gasps from sobbing lungs. There were red stains on the arms and right shoulder of his coat. John felt a great pity and dragged him into one of the seats. Then he uttered a cry of surprise. The features under their mask of blood and dirt were familiar.
"Weber!" he exclaimed.
Weber stared back.
"You, whom I met at the inn!" he said, "and your friends!"
"Yes, we're all here," said John cheerily. "This is indeed a singular chance!"
"A most fortunate one for me," said Weber, straightening himself, and endeavoring to arrange his clothing—it appeared that his pride was returning. "After this I shall think that Providence is watching over me. A man on foot seeking to escape has little chance against horsemen. I saw the automobile moving slowly and I sprang into it, intending to make the appeal which has been successful."
"Look who's here," said John to his comrades. "We've rescued Weber, the Alsatian, from the Uhlans. Battered a bit, but still in the ring and good for many another escape."
"So it is," said Carstairs, reaching back a hand. "We happened along just in time, Weber. It's a way we three have. I've no doubt that we'll rescue you at least a half dozen times more."
Weber grasped the proffered hand and shook it eagerly. Wharton bowed in a friendly manner, but he was still preoccupied. His hand rested on that point in his coat, beneath which the papers lay, and his thoughts were not with the fourth arrival in the car.
"Your wounds!" said John. "This is an automobile of princes, and for the present we are the princes. I've no doubt we can find in these lockers and drawers material of which to make bandages."
"They're slight. They don't matter," said Weber. "Pay no attention to them at a time like this. I know that you must be going toward the main French army, and time is of value. My strength is coming back now, and my courage, too. I will admit I was frightened. I thought my time had come. Perhaps that may seem a disgraceful confession, but it's true."
"Not disgraceful at all," said John sympathetically. "I haven't been a soldier more than a few days, but it's been long enough to teach me that brave men are often scared. What were you doing and how did you happen to come so near to being caught?"
"I've been inside the German lines. Oh, they're not so far away! And I was slipping out I had passed all, but a body of Uhlans, under a captain, von Boehlen, an uncommonly shrewd man. If I had been caught by him I would now be singing with the angels in Paradise."
He smiled faintly.
"I've met von Boehlen," said John, "and if he suspected you, you acted wisely to run with all your might. I saw him in Dresden on the eve of the war, and I've seen him since, though at some distance."
"We'll forget my narrow escape now," said Weber cheerfully.
"One can't remember such things long in these times."
"They're tremendous times."
"So tremendous that as soon as you've made one escape with your life you're due for another."
"You haven't heard of any Germans on this road?"
"No, but they're raiding far and wide, and von Boehlen will attempt anything."
"We've had uncommon luck so far, and I think it will continue. I see you're admiring our automobile. I wasn't jesting, when I told you it belonged to a prince."
"It's rather small for an armored car. They usually have seven or eight men in them."
"Yes, and it's fortunate for us that it's small. I told you luck was running our way. But as it is, it's a pretty heavy strain on the man at the wheel, although Carstairs there is an expert."
"I'm a pretty good chauffeur," said Weber, "and whenever Mr. Carstairs wishes it I'll relieve him at the wheel. Besides I know the country thoroughly, and I can take advantage of every short cut."
"I'll call on you soon," said Carstairs. "A lot of my enthusiasm for speeding has gone out of me. My arms ache all the time, but I'm good for another hour yet."
Weber did not insist. John understood why, as it was patent that he needed rest. He made himself comfortable in the seat, and the others left him in peace. The machine rolled on swiftly and smoothly. It was one of the beautiful roads so common in France, and John felt scarcely a jar. A full sun tinted the green country with gold.
The warmth was penetrating and soothing. John had lost so much sleep and the nervous drain had been so great that his eyelids became heavy. They came to a clear little brook, and decided to stop that all might have a drink. Weber used the chance also to bathe his face and hands and get rid entirely of blood, dirt and dust. He seemed then to John a rather handsome man, having the touch of the scholar in his face.
John walked about a little, stretching his arms, and thumping his chest in order to make himself more wakeful. But when he returned to the automobile, and sat down in the cushioned seat the old sleepiness returned. The effort to keep the eyelids from going down was painful. Carstairs in the driver's seat also yawned prodigiously.
"All my strength has returned now, and my nerve has come with it," said Weber. "Let me take the wheel. I see that you three are exhausted, as well you may be after such tremendous energy and so many dangers. I don't boast, when I say that I'm a good driver."
"Take the wheel, and welcome," said Carstairs, yawning prodigiously and retreating to a seat in the body of the car, beside John.
It was evident that Weber understood automobiles. He handled the wheel with a practised hand, and sent it forward with a skill and delicacy of touch equal to that of Carstairs.
"It is, indeed, a beautiful machine," he said. "Splendid work went into the making of it, and I can well believe as you do that it belonged to a prince."
John's sleepiness increased. The motion was so smooth and pleasant! And the absence of danger and strained effort lulled one to slumber. He fought it off, and then concluded that he was foolish. Why shouldn't he go to sleep? Carstairs was asleep already and Wharton, who felt such a tremendous weight of responsibility, was nodding. His eyelids fell. He raised them with a desperate effort, but they fell again and remained closed.
When John awoke a dimness over the western hills showed that the twilight was advancing. Through sleepy eyes he saw Weber's back as he bent a little over the wheel, steering steadily. The road now led through forest.
"Where are we, Weber?" he asked.
"Ah, awake are you," said the Alsatian, not looking back. "You saved my life, but it was most fortunate that you had the chance of doing it. Otherwise all of you would have perished from lack of sleep."
"Lack of sleep? What's that?" exclaimed Carstairs, waking up and hearing the last words. "Why, I'm always lacking sleep. I believe the greatest hardship of war is the way it deprives you of sleep. When I've helped take Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and other important German cities, and this war's over, I'm going back to England to sleep a month, and if anybody wakes me before the right time there'll be a merry civil war in that blessed isle."
Wharton, who had been somewhat uneasy in his sleep, woke up in turn, and his hand flew to his tightly buttoned coat. But he felt the papers safely there and his heart resumed its natural beat. Yet he was angry with himself. No man who carried perhaps the fate of a continent should ever close his eyes a moment.
"We're crossing a range of hills," said Weber, replying as soon as he could to John's question. "We've been making good time. We ought to strike the French line by midnight and then our journey will be over."
"And I'll be glad when we get there," said Carstairs. "I love automobiles, but I've had enough for the present even of such a fine machine as this. I judge that we slept well, Mr. Weber."
"I never saw two sleep better," replied Weber. "Mr. Wharton was a little troubled in his slumbers though."
"Oh, he's a very grave individual with great responsibilities," said Carstairs.
But he did not add anything about the dispatches.
"A little farther back," said Weber, "I saw a biplane. Although it was high in air I'm quite sure from its make that it was German."
"Scouting," said John. "It was pretty venturesome to come this far west."
"The Germans shun no risks," said Weber, gravely. "The biplane flew back toward the east. It did not alarm me greatly, but I saw another thing that did. Just before you awoke I noticed a gleam in the valley to the right, and I know that it was made by a sunbeam falling on the spiked helmet of a Uhlan."
The three stiffened with alarm, not so much for themselves as for their errand. Wharton's hand moved again toward the pocket, containing the papers, which had transformed him into a man with but a single thought.
"Uhlans here close to this road!" exclaimed John.
"Do you think it can be von Boehlen?"
"It may be. On the whole I think it probable," replied Weber. "Von Boehlen is a most daring man, and to scout along the skirts of the French army would be the most natural thing for him to do. I'm going to speed up a bit—that is, if you gentlemen agree that it's necessary."
"Of course," said John, and the machine sprang forward. He had taken the prince's glasses as his own share of the spoil. They were of great power, and now he searched the forest with them for their enemies. He soon found that Weber was right. He saw steel helmets on the right, and then he saw them on the left. They were surely Uhlans, and evidently they had seen the car.
He quickly put away the glasses and snatched up his rifle.
"You were right, Weber," he exclaimed. "They're German cavalry, and they've begun to pursue us. Faster! Faster! This machine can leave any horsemen behind!"
Weber turned back a despairing face.
"The car is doing its best!" he said. "Something has gone wrong with the machinery!"
He wrenched at the wheel, but he produced no such speed as that which Carstairs had got out of the car, when they were fleeing from the German automobiles. The two forces of Uhlans had now joined and were in the road galloping in swift pursuit. Many of them carried lances, which glittered in the late sun. The sight of the steel points made John shiver. It would be horrible to feel one of them in his back.
He turned to his machine gun. A touch of that old madness returned. The sight of the Uhlans had set his brain on fire.
"I'll teach you not to come too close, my fine lads," he said.
He aimed the gun and undertook to start the mechanism, but nothing moved. No shots came. He jerked at it widly, but it refused to budge. It was jammed, and it would take a long time to put it in order. His heart stood still and a cold perspiration came out on his face. How did it happen? Was it possible that he had left it in such a condition?
"What's the matter, John?" asked Wharton.
"The machine gun's jammed, and I can't fire a shot. The car seems to be breaking down, too. Don't you see that the Uhlans are gaining!"
"So, they are," said Wharton.
He and John snatched up their rifles and fired rapidly at the horsemen. Some of the bullets struck, but did not impede the pursuit. Carstairs pushed Weber out of the driver's seat, and seized the wheel himself. All his pride and confidence were aroused, and he did not have time to be polite. He could get the speed out of that machine and save them.
But it did not obey his hand. It staggered along like a tired man. Weber was right again. Something had gone wrong with the internal organism, and one could not stop to right it with pursuing Uhlans only a few hundred yards away.
"What shall we do?" exclaimed Weber. "Shall we jump for it and run? We may escape in the shelter of the forest?"
"Not yet," replied Carstairs firmly. "Not yet for three of us, though it may be best for you, since you'll be executed as a spy, when you're taken."
"If you don't go, I don't go either," said Weber. "We'll all stay together."
"Brave man!" said Carstairs admiringly. But he had time for no more words. He was wrenching at the machine as a rider for his life would pull at the mouth of a stubborn horse. Crippled as it was he managed to drag a little increase of speed from it. The Uhlans had dropped back somewhat and none of them fired. John believed that they refrained because they were sure of a capture. Wharton suddenly uttered a cry.
"A river," he exclaimed. "It's not more than five hundred yards ahead!"
His cry was echoed by Weber, but its tone was very different. The Alsatian's voice showed despair.
"I had forgotten," he exclaimed. "The river is too deep for fording, and the French have blown up the bridge! We're trapped!"
A deep flush came into the face of Carstairs. As in the case of John a touch of his first madness was returning. The three comrades were now wild together.
"Can you swim?" he shouted back to John.
"And you?" to Wharton.
"And you, too?" to Weber.
"Yes, fairly well; but what do you mean?"
"You wait two or three minutes and you'll see something. But when it's time to swim all of you be ready for it!"
A great shout came from the Uhlans, who had begun to gain again, and who could not now keep from seeing the river that cut off the fugitives. But Carstairs wrenched another pound or two of speed out of the automobile, and it shot forward.
"Stop! Stop for God's sake!" cried Weber. "You'll drown us all! It's better to jump out and take to the woods!"
"Never!" cried Carstairs, his daring flaming to the utmost. "We captured the automobile of a prince, and we'll not give it back again! Ah, the machine is returning to life! Look how much faster we're going! On, my beauty! Your last and greatest run is before you!"
The machine seemed to come out of its maimed and crippled condition, its strength flaring up for the last burst of speed. The jarring and jerking ceased and the road flew behind it.
The river came near at an astonishing rate, and John saw that it was wide and deep. He saw, too, the pillars of the ruined bridge, and he heard another cry from Weber, who started to spring out, but drew back.
Carstairs uttered a wild shout, and then the automobile, leaping far out into the stream, where the bridge had been, sank beneath the deep waters. John had prepared himself for the desperate stroke, and before the machine touched the surface he had sprung clear. Then he struck out desperately for the opposite bank, and his heart filled with gladness, when he saw Wharton and Carstairs swimming almost by his side.
They reached the shore before the Uhlans could come up, and darted into the shelter of the forest, where they threw themselves down on the ground and lay panting, every touch of wildness gone.
"Is Weber here?" asked John.
"No," replied Wharton, who felt of his papers again, and saw that they were wet, but safe.
"Did either of you see him?"
"Not after the auto made its jump."
"Then he must have been drowned. Poor fellow! But I'd rather be drowned than be executed as a spy."
It saddened them. They had learned to like Weber, and, having saved him once, they were sorry they could not save him twice. But one could not mourn long at such a time. The more daring of the Uhlans would certainly swim the river and continue the pursuit, and it was for the three to hide their trail as soon as possible. John rose first.
"Come, boys," he said. "Our clothes will dry faster while we're running."
"Put it that way if you like," said Carstairs. "At any rate I'm going to toddle."
They had lost their rifles, but they had their automatic pistols which might be of service in spite of their dips, but they wished to avoid the need of their use. They already heard the splashes as the Uhlans made their horses leap into the river, and they ran at their best speed through the forest, coming presently to a vineyard, which they crossed between the rows of vines, finding a high wire fence on the other side. As they darted between the strands they recognized that they could have no better barrier between them and pursuing horsemen.
Near them on the left was a large château, with a flower garden in front and a kitchen garden behind. They resisted the inevitable temptation of man to run to a roof for shelter and protection, and sped instead into the dense foliage and shrubbery that spread away toward the fields. There they threw themselves down again and panted for the breath that came so hardly through their exhausted lungs.
But they did not hear the sinister tread of the Uhlans, nor did they notice the presence of any human being, a fact which for the present failed to impress them, because the Uhlans filled their minds. Five minutes, ten, fifteen passed and still no sound.
"Perhaps they think we're drowned," whispered John. "They were not near enough to see us swim away from the automobile."
"I hope you're right, and maybe you are," said Wharton. "In any case I don't think they'll hunt for us long. We're not important enough for them to waste time on when they're so near the French lines."
"I'm going to stay where I am until I hear the tread of hoofs," said Carstairs. "I'm drying fast and it's comfortable lying here under the vines. You didn't lose those papers, when we were in the river; did you, Wharton?"
"They're safe in my pocket," replied Wharton, "and I had them wrapped up so thoroughly that they didn't have a chance to get wet."
"If the Uhlans don't find us in the next half hour," said John, "it's quite certain they won't find us at all. They won't spend more time than that on us."
Then they lay quite still, sheltered well under the vines. Their armored car, the car of the prince was now lying at the bottom of the river, but it had served them well. John was sure that they would find some other means of reaching the Franco-British army. He was fast learning that ways nearly always opened to daring and persistence.
The half hour passed, and no Uhlans appeared. They had crossed the river, as the splashes indicated, but, doubtless, finding no trail of the fugitives, they had believed them pinned under the car at the bottom of the river, and had gone away on some other more profitable quest.
But the three waited another half hour for the sake of precaution, and then came from under the vines. Twilight was now at hand, and they realized that they were physically weak after so much excitement and exertion.
"I might be able to limp along through the night," said Wharton, "but I doubt it."
"I know I can't," said Carstairs.
"Why try to go on?" said John. "Here's a house. Being in France it must be inhabited by French sympathizers. They'll shelter us and give us food."
"I think we'd better try it," said Carstairs.
"I agree with you," said Wharton, "but I think it strange that we've seen nobody attached to this place. So large a house and grounds must have at least twenty people about, and an affair like ours would certainly attract their attention. Yet, we see nobody."
"That's so," said John. "Suppose we wait a bit—it's darkening fast—and see what's happened."
They still stood among the vines, and, as the night was coming on and their clothing was only partially dried, they shivered with chill. The tile roof of the château, showing among the trees looked attractive. But no light appeared in any of the windows, and not a sound came from the house itself, nor any of the buildings about it.
The windows glittered like fire with the last rays of the sun, and then the darkness soon swept down, heavy and thick. The three holding their automatics, and shivering in the chill wind of the night, approached the silent château. John felt a little awe, too. Chance certainly was taking him into strange places, and he was devoutly glad that he had two good comrades by his side.
They passed out of the vineyard and entered the grounds, which were large, adorned with ancient trees, several statues, and a fountain, in which the water was still playing. The moonlight, coming out now, gave to the château an appearance of great age.
"I fancy that some old noble family lived here," he said. "It must have been quite a place once."
"Whoever they are, evidently they have no welcome for us," said Carstairs, "but I'm going in, anyhow. Whew, this wind cuts to the bone!"
"I'm just as cold as you are," said John, "and I'm just as much resolved as you are to find shelter here, whether I'm asked in or not. It may belong to a noble family, but I'm a nobleman myself, a king, one of a hundred million American kings."
"Then, king, you lead," said Carstairs. "It's your place. Go right up those steps."
A half dozen marble steps led to the great central door, and John walked up boldly, followed closely by the others. He lifted a huge brass knocker, and beat heavily with it again and again. No sound came back but its echo.
"Push, king," said Carstairs. "Any door will open to royalty. Besides your majesty has been insulted by the refusal to answer your summons."
John pushed hard, and the great door swung back slowly, quivering a little, but with the automatic in his hand, he walked into a hall, the other two at his shoulders. They closed the door behind them and stood there for a little space, accustoming their eyes to the dusk.
It was a long hall with tall windows, through which a faint light filtered. To the right was a stairway, on the first step of which was a figure, of complete medieval armor. Several faded pictures of ancient knights hung on the walls.
"It's old, very old," said Carstairs, "but its owners, whoever they are, have left with all their people. There's nobody to dispute our claim to lodgings, but did you ever see anything more lonesome?"
"There's a double door, leading into the interior of the house," said John. "Let's explore."
They entered a large apartment which John took to be the drawing-room. It was at once splendid and dignified, furnished in a style at least two centuries old. John liked it, and thought what it would be when it was filled with light and people.
A magnificent chandelier hung from the ceiling, and there were ornamented sconces about the walls, all containing many candles. Evidently the owner of this château scorned such modern lights as gas and electricity.
"We might light a candle or two," said Carstairs. "Doubtless we can find matches about."
"No! No!" exclaimed Wharton. "I'm not at all sure that we're safe here from intrusion!"
"Think you're right," said Carstairs. "Let's explore further."
"Then I vote that we go downward," said John. "I've gathered from my reading that in the big European houses the kitchens are below stairs, and just now a kitchen will be much more welcome to me than a drawing-room."
True to John's reading the kitchen and storerooms were in the basement. Nothing had been disturbed, and they found ample food. Carstairs discovered a wine cellar, and he returned with a bottle of champagne.
"It's an old and famous vintage," he said, "and there'll be no harm in taking one."
"Here's a furnace in the cook-room," said John, "and billets of wood. Suppose we make a fire, and dry ourselves thoroughly while we eat and drink. It's too far down for the reflections of the flames to be seen outside."
The others promptly agreed with him. All wanted to get rid of the wet chill which struck so deeply into their bodies. A search disclosed matches, and John built the fire which was soon burning redly in the furnace. What a glorious warmth it threw out! It created them anew, and they realized that light and heat were the great vital elements of the world.
They drew a table before the fire, and put upon it the food and the bottle of champagne.
"We've been made welcome here after all," said John. "The souls of the absent owners have provided these things for us."
"That's dreamy sort of talk, John," said Wharton.
"Maybe, but I'll go further and say that the house itself invited us to come in. I've an idea that a house doesn't like to be abandoned and lonely. It prefers to be filled with people and to hear the sounds of voices and laughter. These old European houses which have sheltered generation after generation must be the happiest houses of all. I'd like to live in a house like this and I'd like for a house like this to like me. It would help life a lot for a house and its occupant to be satisfied with each other."
"We feel that way in England about our old country houses," said Carstairs, "and you'll come to it, too, in America, after a while."
"No doubt, but will you have a little more of this champagne? Only a half glass. I don't believe the owner, who must be a fine French gentleman, would ever begrudge it to us."
"Just a little. We're rather young for champagne, we three, but we've been doing men's work, and we've been through men's dangers. I wonder what they're doing along the Strand, tonight, John!"
"The same that they've been doing every night for the last hundred years. But you listen to me, Carstairs, old England will have to wake up. This war can't be won by dilettantes."
"Oh, she'll wake up. Don't you worry. It's not worth while to get excited."
"To take a serious view of a serious situation is not to grow excited. You Britishers often make me tired. To pretend indifference in the face of everything is obviously an affectation, and becomes more offensive than boasting."
"All right, I won't resent it. Here, John, take another piece of this cold ham. I didn't know they had such fine ham in France."
"They've a lot of splendid things in France," retorted John, in high, good humor, "and we'll find it out fast. I'm thinking the French soldiers will prove a good deal better than some people say they are, and this château is certainly fine. It must have been put here for our especial benefit."
"Now that we've eaten all we want and our clothing is dried thoroughly," said Carstairs, "I suggest that we put out the fire. There isn't much smoke, but it goes up that flue and escapes somewhere. Even in the night the Germans might see it."
"Good advice, Carstairs," said Wharton. "You're as intelligent sometimes as the Americans are all the time."
"Pleasant children you Americans."
"Some day we'll save the aged English from destruction."
"Meanwhile we'll wait."
They extinguished the fire, carefully put away all the dishes they had used, restored everything to its pristine neatness, and then the three yawned prodigiously.
"Bedrooms next," said Carstairs.
"Do you propose that we spend the night here," said Wharton.
"That's my idea. We're worn out. We've got to sleep, somewhere. No use breaking ourselves down, and we've found the château here waiting for us."
"What about the Germans?"
"We'll have to take our chances. War is nothing but a chain of chances, so far as your life is concerned."
The other two wanted to be persuaded, and they yielded readily, but John insisted upon one precaution.
"Old houses like this are likely to have isolated chambers," he said. "Some of them I suppose have their secret rooms, and if we can find such a place, lock the door on ourselves, and go to sleep in it we're not likely to wake up prisoners of the Germans."
Wharton and Carstairs approved of his suggestion, and they examined the house thoroughly. John concluded from the presence of all the furniture and the good order in which they found everything that the departure of its owners had been hasty, perhaps, too, with the expectation of a return on the morrow.
The room that they liked best they found on the third floor, not a secret chamber, but one that chance visitors to the house would not be likely to see. A narrow stairway starting near it led down through the rear of the house, and the door was fastened with a heavy lock in which the key remained.
It contained only some boxes, and John surmised that it was a storeroom. But it seemed to suit their purpose admirably, and, bringing blankets from one of the bedrooms, they made their beds on the floor.
John was the last to go to sleep. The others were slumbering soundly before he lay down, but he stood a little while at the single window, looking out. The window was closed ordinarily with a heavy shutter, which was now sagging open. The boughs of a great tree waved almost against it.
The night was clear, but John saw nothing unusual outside. The château, and all its buildings and grounds were bathed in clear moonlight. The only sound was the soothing murmur of leaves before a light wind. It was hard to realize that a great war was sweeping Europe, and that they were in the thick of it.
But utter exhaustion claimed him, too, and soon three instead of two were sleeping soundly.
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