In Secret

Robert W. Chambers




There was no escape that way. From the northern and eastern edges of the forest sheer cliffs fell away into bluish depths where forests looked like lawns and the low uplands of the Alsatian border resembled hillocks made by tunnelling moles. And yet it was from somewhere not far away that a man once had been, carried safely into Alsace on a sudden snowslide. That man now lay among the trees on the crag's edge looking down into the terrific chasm below. He and the girl who crouched in the thicket of alpine roses behind him seemed a part of the light-flecked forest--so inconspicuous were they among dead leaves and trees in their ragged and weather-faded clothing. 

They were lean from physical effort and from limited nourishment. The skin on their faces and hands, once sanguine and deeply burnt by Alpine wind and sun and snow glare, now had become almost colourless, so subtly the alchemy of the open operates on those whose only bed is last year's leaves and whose only shelter is the sky. Even the girl's yellow hair had lost its sunny brilliancy, so that now it seemed merely a misty part of the lovely, subdued harmony of the woods. 

The man, still searching the depths below with straining, patient gaze, said across his shoulder: 

"It was here somewhere--near here, Yellow-hair, that I went over, and found what I found.... But it's not difficult to guess what you and I should find if we try to go over now." 

"Death?" she motioned with serene lips. 

He had turned to look at her, and he read her lips. 

"And yet," he said, "we must manage to get down there, somehow or other, alive." 

She nodded. Both knew that, once down there, they could not expect to come out alive. That was tacitly understood. All that could be hoped was that they might reach those bluish depths alive, live long enough to learn what they had come to learn, release the pigeon with its message, then meet destiny in whatever guise it confronted them. 

For Fate was not far off. Fate already watched them--herself unseen. She had caught sight of them amid the dusk of the ancient trees--was following them, stealthily, murderously, through the dim aisles of this haunted forest of Les Errues. 

These two were the hunted ones, and their hunters were in the forest--nearer now than ever because the woodland was narrowing toward the east. 

Also, for the first time since they had entered the Forbidden Forest, scarcely noticeable paths appeared flattening the carpet of dead leaves--not trails made by game--but ways trodden at long intervals by man--trails unused perhaps for months--then rendered vaguely visible once more by the unseen, unheard feet of lightly treading foes. 

Here for the first time they had come upon the startling spoor of man--of men and enemies--men who were hunting them to slay them, and who now, in these eastern woods, no longer cared for the concealment that might lull to a sense of false security the human quarry that they pursued. 

And yet the Hun-pack hunting them though the forbidden forest of Les Errues had, in their new indifference to their quarry's alarm, and in the ferocity of their growing boldness, offered the two fugitives a new hope and a new reason for courage:--the grim courage of those who are about to die, and who know it, and still carry on. 

For this is what the Huns had done--not daring to use signals visible to the Swiss patrols on nearer mountain flanks. 

Nailed to a tree beside the scarcely visible trail of flattened leaves--a trail more imagined and feared than actually visible--was a sheet of white paper. And on it was written in the tongue of the Hun,--and in that same barbarous script also--a message, the free translation of which was as follows: 


The three Americans recently sent into Les Errues by the Military Intelligence Department of the United States Army now fighting in France are still at large somewhere in this forest. Two of them are operating together, the well-known escaped prisoner, Kay McKay, and the woman secret-agent, Evelyn Erith. The third American, Alexander Gray, has been wounded in the left hand by one of our riflemen, but managed to escape, and is now believed to be attempting to find and join the agents McKay and Erith. 

This must be prevented. All German agents now operating in Les Errues are formally instructed to track down and destroy without traces these three spies whenever and wherever encountered according to plan. It is expressly forbidden to attempt to take any one or all of these spies alive. No prisoners!  No traces! Germans, do your duty! The Fatherland is in peril! 

(Signed) "HOCHSTIM." 

McKay wriggled cautiously backward from the chasm's granite edge and crawled into the thicket of alpine roses where Evelyn Erith lay. 

"No way out, Kay?" she asked under her breath. 

"No way THAT way, Yellow-hair." 


"I don't--know," he said slowly. 

"You mean that we ought to turn back." 

"Yes, we ought to. The forest is narrowing very dangerously for us. It runs to a point five miles farther east, overlooking impassable gulfs.... We should be in a cul-de-sac, Yellow-hair." 

"I know." 

He mused for a few moments, cool, clear-eyed, apparently quite undisturbed by their present peril and intent only on the mission which had brought them here, and how to execute it before their unseen trackers executed them. 

"To turn now, and attempt to go back along this precipice, is to face every probability of meeting the men we have so far managed to avoid," he said aloud in his pleasant voice, but as though presenting the facts to himself alone. 

"Of course we shall account for some of the Huns; but that does not help us to win through.... Even an exchange of shots would no doubt be disastrous to our plans. We MUST keep away from them.... Otherwise we could never hope to creep into the valley alive,... Tell me, Yellow-hair, have you thought of anything new?" 

The girl shook her head. 

"No, Kay.... Except that chance of running across this new man of whom we never had heard before the stupid Boche advertised his presence in Les Errues." 

"Alexander Gray," nodded McKay, taking from his pocket the paper which the Huns had nailed to the great pine, and unfolding it again. 

The girl rested her chin on his shoulder to reread it--an apparent familiarity which he did not misunderstand. The dog that believes in you does it--from perplexity sometimes, sometimes from loneliness. Or, even when afraid--not fearing with the baser emotion of the poltroon, but afraid with that brave fear which is a wisdom too, and which feeds and brightens the steady flame of courage. 

"Alexander Gray," repeated McKay. "I never supposed that we would send another man in here--at least not until something had been heard concerning our success or failure.... I had understood that such a policy was not advisable. You know yourself, Yellow-hair, that the fewer people we have here the better the chance. And it was so decided before we left New York.... And--I wonder what occurred to alter our policy." 

"Perhaps the Boches have spread reports of our capture by Swiss authorities," she said simply. 

"That might be. Yes, and the Hun newspapers might even have printed it. I can see their scare-heads: 'Gross Violation of Neutral Soil! 

"'Switzerland invaded by the Yankees! Their treacherous and impudent spies caught in the Alps!'--that sort of thing. Yes, it might be that... and yet--" 

"You think the Boche would not call attention to such an attempt even to trap others of our agents for the mere pleasure of murdering them?" 

"That's what I think, Eve." 

He called her "Eve" only when circumstances had become gravely threatening. At other times it was usually "Yellow-hair!" 

"Then you believe that this man, Gray, has been sent into Les Errues to aid us to carry on independently the operation in which we have so far failed?" 

"I begin to think so." The girl's golden eyes became lost in retrospection. 

"And yet," she ventured after a few moments' thought, "he must have come into Les Errues learning that we also had entered it; and apparently he has made no effort to find us." 

"We can't know that, Eve." 

"He must be a woodsman," she argued, "and also he must suppose that we are more or less familiar with American woodcraft, and fairly well versed in its signs. Yet--he has left no sign that we could understand where a Hun could not." 

"Because we have discovered no sign we can not be certain that this man Gray has made none for us to read," said McKay. 

"No.... And yet he has left nothing that we have discovered--no blaze; no moss or leaf, no stone or cairn--not a broken twig, not a peeled stick, and no trail!" 

"How do we know that the traces of a trail marked by flattened leaves might not be his trail? Once, on that little sheet of sand left by rain in the torrent's wake, you found the imprint of a hobnailed shoe such as the Hun hunters wear," she reminded him. "And there we first saw the flattened trail of last year's leaves--if indeed it be truly a trail." 

"But, Eve dear, never have we discovered in any dead and flattened leaf the imprint of hobnails,--let alone the imprint of a human foot." 

"Suppose, whoever made that path, had pulled over his shoes a heavy woolen sock." He nodded. 

"I feel, somehow, that the Hun flattened out those leaves," she went on. "I am sure that had an American made the trail he would also have contrived to let us know--given us some indication of his identity." 

The girl's low voice suddenly failed and her hand clutched McKay's shoulder. 

They lay among the alpine roses like two stones, never stirring, the dappled sunlight falling over them as harmoniously and with no more and no less accent than it spotted tree-trunk and rock and moss around them. 

And, as they lay there, motionless, her head resting on his thigh, a man came out of the dimmer woods into the white sunshine that flooded the verge of the granite chasm. 

The man was very much weather-beaten; his tweeds were torn; he carried a rifle in his right hand. And his left was bound in bloody rags. But what instantly arrested McKay's attention was the pack strapped to his back and supported by a "tump-line." 

Never before had McKay seen such a pack carried in such a manner excepting only in American forests. 

The man stood facing the sun. His visage was burnt brick colour, a hue which seemed to accentuate the intense blue of his eyes and make his light-coloured hair seem almost white. 

He appeared to be a man of thirty, superbly built, with a light, springy step, despite his ragged and weary appearance. 

McKay's eyes were fastened desperately upon him, upon the strap of the Indian basket which crossed his sun-scorched forehead, upon his crystal-blue eyes of a hunter, upon his wounded left hand, upon the sinewy red fist that grasped a rifle, the make of which McKay should have known, and did know. For it was a Winchester 45-70--no chance for mistaking that typical American weapon. And McKay fell a-trembling in every limb. 

Presently the man cautiously turned, scanned his back trail with that slow-stirrng wariness of a woodsman who never moves abruptly or without good reason; then he went back a little way, making no sound on the forest floor. 


At the same time Evelyn Erith drew her little length noiselessly along his, and he felt her mouth warm against his ear: 

"Gray?" He nodded. 

"I think so, too. His left hand is injured. He wears American moccasins. But in God's name be careful, Kay. It may be a trap." 

He nodded almost imperceptibly, keeping his eyes on the figure which now stood within the shade of the trees in an attitude which might suggest listening, or perhaps merely a posture of alert repose. 

Evelyn's mouth still rested against his ear and her light breath fell warmly on him. Then presently her lips moved again: 

"Kay! He LOOKS safe." 

McKay turned his head with infinite caution and she inclined hers to his lips: 

"I think it is Gray. But we've got to be certain, Eve." She nodded. 

"He does look right," whispered McKay. "No Boche cradles a rifle in the hollow of his left arm so naturally. It is HABIT, because he does it in spite of a crippled left hand." 

She nodded again. 

"Also," whispered McKay, "everything else about him is convincing--the pack, tump-line, moccasins, Winchester: and his manner of moving.... I know deer-stalkers in Scotland and in the Alps. I know the hunters of ibex and chamois, of roe-deer and red stag, of auerhahn and eagle. This man is DIFFERENT.  He moves and behaves like our own woodsmen--like one of our own hunters." 

She asked with dumb lips touching his ear: "Shall we chance it?" 

"No. It must be a certainty." 

"Yes. We must not offer him a chance." 

"Not a ghost of a chance to do us harm," nodded McKay. "Listen attentively, Eve; when he moves on, rise when I do; take the pigeon and the little sack because I want both hands free. Do you understand, dear?" 


"Because I shall have to kill him if the faintest hint of suspicion arises in my mind. It's got to be that way, Eve." 

"Yes, I know." 

"Not for our own safety, but for what our safety involves," he added. 

She inclined her head in acquiescence. 

Very slowly and with infinite caution McKay drew from their holsters beneath his armpits two automatic pistols. 

"Help me, Eve," he whispered. 

So she aided him where he lay beside her to slip the pack straps over his shoulders. Then she drew toward her the little osier cage in which their only remaining carrier-pigeon rested secured by elastic bands, grasped the smaller sack with the other hand, and waited. 

They had waited an hour and more; and the figure of the stranger had moved only once--shifted merely to adjust itself against a supporting tree-trunk and slip the tump-line. 

But now the man was stirring again, cautiously resuming the forehead-straps. 

Ready, now, to proceed in whichever direction he might believe lay his destination, the strange man took the rifle into the hollow of his left arm once more, remained absolutely motionless for five full minutes, then, stirring stealthily, his moccasins making no sound, he moved into the forest in a half-crouching attitude. 

And after him went McKay with Evelyn Erith at his elbow, his sinister pistols poised, his eyes fixed on the figure which passed like a shadow through the dim forest light ahead. 

Toward mid-afternoon their opportunity approached; for here was the first water they had encountered--and the afternoon had become burning hot--and their own throats were cracking with that fierce thirst of high places where, even in the summer air, there is that thirst-provoking hint of ice and snow. 

For a moment, however, McKay feared that the man meant to go on, leaving the thin, icy rivulet untasted among its rocks and mosses; for he crossed the course of the little stream at right angles, leaping lithely from one rock to the next and travelling upstream on the farther bank. 

Then suddenly he stopped stock-still and looked back along his trail--nearly blind save for a few patches of flattened dead leaves which his moccasined tread had patted smooth in the shadier stretches where moisture lingered undried by the searching rays of the sun. 

For a few moments the unknown man searched his own back-trail, standing as motionless as the trunk of a lichened beech-tree. Then, very slowly, he knelt on the dead leaves, let go his pack, and, keeping his rifle in his right hand, stretched out his sinewy length above the pool on the edge of which he had halted. 

Twice, before drinking, he lifted his head to sweep the woods around him, his parched lips still dry. Then, with the abruptness--not of man but of some wild thing--he plunged his sweating face into the pool. 

And McKay covered him where he lay, and spoke in a voice which stiffened the drinking man to a statue prone on its face: 

"I've got you right! Don't lift your head! You'll understand me if you're American!" 

The man lay as though dead. McKay came nearer; Evelyn Erith was at his elbow. 

"Take his rifle, Eve." 

The girl walked over and coolly picked up the Winchester. 

"Now cover him!" continued McKay. "Find a good rest for your gun and keep him covered, Eve." 

She laid the rifle level across a low branch, drew the stock snug and laid her cheek to it and her steady finger on the trigger. 

"When I say'squeeze,' let him have it! Do you understand, Eve?" 


Then, with one pistol poised for a drop shot, McKay stepped forward and jerked open the man's pack. And the man neither stirred nor spoke. For a few minutes McKay remained busy with the pack, turning out packets of concentrated rations of American manufacture, bits of personal apparel, a meagre company outfit, spare ammunition--the dozen-odd essentials to be always found in an American hunter's pack. 

Then McKay spoke again: 

"Eve, keep him covered. Shoot when I say shoot." 

"Right," she replied calmly. And to the recumbent and unstirring figure McKay gave a brief order: 

"Get up! Hands up!" 

The man rose as though made of steel springs and lifted both hands. 

Water still ran from his chin and lips and sweating cheeks. But McKay, resting the muzzle of his pistol against the man's abdomen, looked into a face that twitched with laughter. 

"You think it's funny?" he snarled, but the blessed relief that surged through him made his voice a trifle unsteady. 

"Yes," said the man, "it hits me that way." 

"Something else may hit you," growled McKay, ready to embrace him with sheer joy. 

"Not unless you're a Boche," retorted the man coolly. "But I guess you're Kay McKay--" 

"Don't get so damned familiar with names!" 

"That's right, too. I'll just call you Seventy-Six, and this young lady Seventy-Seven.... And I'm Two Hundred and Thirty." 

"What else?" 

"My name?" 


"It isn't expected--" 

"It is in this case," snapped McKay, wondering at himself for such ultra precaution. 

"Oh, if you insist then, I'm Gray.... Alec Gray of the States United Army Intelligence Serv___" 

"All right.... Gad!... It's all right, Gray!" 

He took the man's lifted right hand, jerked it down and crushed it in a convulsive grasp: "It's good to see you.... We're in a hole--deadlocked--no way out but back!" he laughed nervously. "Have you any dope for us?" 

Gray's blue eyes travelled smilingly toward Evelyn and rested on the muzzle of the Winchester. And McKay laughed almost tremulously: 

"All clear, Yellow-hair! This IS Gray--God be thanked!" 

The girl, pale and quiet and smiling, lowered the rifle and came forward offering her hand. 

"It's pleasant to see YOU," she said quite steadily. "We were afraid of a Boche trick." 

"So I notice," said Gray, intensely amused. 

Then the weather-tanned faces of all three sobered. 

"This is no place to talk things over," said Gray shortly. 

"Do you know a better place?" 

"Yes. If you'll follow me." 

He went to his pack, put it swiftly in order, hoisted it, resumed the tump-line, and looked around at Evelyn for his rifle. 

But she had already slung it across her own shoulders and she pointed at his wounded hand and its blood-black bandage and motioned him forward. 

The sun hung on the shoulder of a snow-capped alp when at last these three had had their brief understanding concerning one another's identity, credentials, and future policy. 

Gray's lair, in a bushy hollow between two immense jutting cakes of granite, lay on the very brink of the chasm. And there they sat, cross-legged in the warmth of the declining sun in gravest conference concerning the future. 

"Recklow insisted that I come," repeated Gray. "I was in the 208th Pioneers--in a sawmilll near La Roche Rouge--Vosges--when I got my orders." 

"And Recklow thinks we're caught and killed?" 

"So does everybody in the Intelligence. The Mulhausen paper had it that the Swiss caught you violating the frontier, which meant to Recklow that the Boche had done you in." 

"I see," nodded McKay. 

"So he picked me." 

"And you say you guided in Maine?" 

"Yes, when I was younger. After I was on my own I kept store at South Carry, Maine, and ran the guides there." 

"I noticed all the ear-marks," nodded McKay. 

Gray smiled: "I guess they're there all right if a man knows 'em when he sees 'em." 

"Were you badly shot up?" 

"Not so bad. They shoot a pea-rifle, single shot all over silver and swallowtail stock--" 

"I know," smiled McKay. 

"Well, you know them. It drills nasty with a soft bullet, cleaner with a chilled one. My left hand's a wreck but I sha'n't lose it." 

"I had better dress it before night," said Evelyn. 

"I dressed it at noon. I won't disturb it again to-day," said Gray, thanking her with his eloquent blue eyes. 

McKay said: "So you found the place where I once slid off?" 

"It's plain enough, windfall and general wreckage mark it." 

"You say it's a dozen miles west of here?" 


"That's odd," said McKay thoughtfully. "I had believed I recognised this ravine. But these deep gulfs all look more or less alike. And I saw it only once and then under hair-raising circumstances." 

Gray smiled, but Evelyn did not. McKay said: 

"So that's where they winged you, was it?" 

"Yes. I was about to negotiate the slide--you remember the V-shaped slate cleft?" 


"Well, I was just starting into that when the rifle cracked and I jumped for a tree with a broken wing and a bad scare." 

"You saw the man?" 

"I did later. He came over to look for dead game, and I ached to let him go; but it was too risky with Les Errues swarming alive with Boches, and me with the stomach-sickness of a shot-up man. Figure it out, McKay, for yourself." 

"Of course, you did the wise thing and the right one." 

"I think so. I travelled until I fainted." He turned and glanced around. "Strangely enough I saw black right here!--fell into this hole by accident, and have made it my home since then." 

"It was a Godsend," said the girl. 

"It was, Miss Erith," said Gray, resting his eloquent eyes on her. 

"And you say," continued McKay, "that the Boche are sitting up day and night over that slide?" 

"Day and night. The swine seem to know it's the only way out. I go every day, every night. Always the way is blocked; always I discover one or more of their riflemen there in ambush while the rest of the pack are ranging Les Errues." 

"And yet," said McKay, "we've got to go that way, sooner or later." 

There was a silence: then Gray nodded. 

"Yes," he said, "but it is a question of waiting." 

"There is a moon to-night," observed Evelyn Erith. 

McKay lifted his head and looked at her gravely: Gray's blue eyes flashed his admiration of a young girl who quietly proposed to face an unknown precipice at night by moonlight under the rifles of ambushed men. 

"After all," said McKay slowly, "is there ANY other way?" 

In the silence which ensued Evelyn Erith, who had been lying between them on her stomach, her chin propped up on both hands, suddenly raised herself on one arm to a sitting posture. 

Instantly Gray shrank back, white as a sheet, lifting his mutilated hand in its stiffened and bloody rags; and the girl gasped out her agonised apology: 

"Oh--CAN you forgive me! It was unspeakable of me!" 

"It--it's all right," said Gray, the colour coming back to his face; but the girl in her excitement of self-reproach and contrition begged to be allowed to dress the mutilated hand which her own careless movement had almost crushed. 

"Oh, Kay-I set my hand on his wounded fingers and rested my full weight! Oughtn't he to let us dress it again at once?" 

But Gray's pluck was adamant, and he forced a laugh, dismissing the matter with another glance at Evelyn out of clear blue eyes that said a little more than that no harm had been done--said, in one frank and deep-flashing look, more than the girl perhaps cared to understand. 

The sun slipped behind the rocky flank of a great alp; a burst of rosy glory spread fan-wise to the zenith. 

Against it, tall and straight and powerful, Gray rose and walking slowly to the cliff's edge, looked down into the valley mist now rolling like a vast sea of cloud below them. 

And, as he stood there, Evelyn's hand grasped McKay's arm: 

"If he touches his rifle, shoot! Quick, Kay!" 

McKay's right hand fell into his side-pocket--where one of his automatics lay. He levelled it as he grasped it, hidden within the side-pocket of his coat. 

"HIS HAND IS NOT WOUNDED," breathed the girl. "If he touches his rifle he is a Hun!" 

McKay's head nodded almost imperceptibly. Gray's back was still turned, but one hand was extended, carelessly reaching for the rifle that stood leaning against the cake of granite. 

"Don't touch it!" said McKay in a low but distinct voice: and the words galvanised the extended arm and it shot out, grasping the rifle, as the man himself dropped out of sight behind the rock. 

A terrible stillness fell upon the place; there was not a sound, not a movement. 

Suddenly the girl pointed at a shadow that moved between the rocks--and the crash of McKay's pistol deafened them. 

Then, against the dazzling glory of the west a dark shape staggered up, clutching a wavering rifle, reeling there against the rosy glare an instant; and the girl turned her sick eyes aside as McKay's pistol spoke again. 

Like a shadow cast by hell the black form swayed, quivered, sank away outward into the blinding light that shone across the world. 

Presently a tinkling sound came up from the fog-shrouded depths--the falling rifle striking ledge after ledge until the receding sound grew fainter and more distant, and finally was heard no more. 

But that was the only sound they heard; for the man himself lay still on the chasm's brink, propped from the depths by a tuft of alpine roses in full bloom, his blue eyes wide open, a blue hole just between them, and his bandaged hand freed from its camouflage, lying palm upward and quite uninjured on the grass!  


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