THE GREATER LOVE
As the blinding lens of the sun glittered level and its
first rays poured over tree and rock, a man in the faded field-uniform
of a Swiss officer of mountain artillery came out on the misty ledge across
"You over there!" he shouted in English. "Here is a Swiss
officer to speak with you! Show yourselves!"
Again, after waiting a few moments, he shouted: "Show
yourselves or answer. It is a matter of life or death for you both!"
There was no reply to the invitation, no sound from the
forest, no movement visible. Thin threads of vapour began to ascend from
the tremendous depths of the precipice, steaming upward out of mist-choked
gorges where, under thick strata of fog, night still lay dark over unseen
Alpine valleys below.
The Swiss officer advanced to the cliff's edge and looked
down upon a blank sea of cloud. Presently he turned east and walked cautiously
along the rim of the chasm for a hundred yards. Here the gulf narrowed
so that the cleft between the jutting crags was scarcely a hundred feet
in width. And here he halted once more and called across in a resonant,
"Attention, you, over there in the Forest of Les Errues!
You had better wake up and listen! Here is a Swiss officer come to speak
with you. Show yourselves or answer!"
There came no sound from within the illuminated edges
of the woods.
But outside, upon the chasm's sparkling edge, lay a dead
man stark and transfigured and stiff as gold in the sun.
And already the first jewelled death-flies zig-zagged
over him, lacing the early sunshine with ominous green lightning.
They who had killed this man might not be there behind
the sunlit foliage of the forest's edge; but the Swiss officer, after waiting
a few moments, called again, loudly. Then he called a third time more loudly
still, because into his nostrils had stolen the faint taint of dry wood
smoke. And he stood there in silhouette against the rising sun listening,
certain, at last, of the hidden presence of those he sought.
Now there came no sound, no stirring behind the forest's
sunny edge; but just inside it, in the lee of a huge rock, a young girl
in ragged boy's clothing, uncoiled her slender length from her blanket
and straightened out flat on her stomach. Her yellow hair made a spot like
a patch of sunlight on the dead leaves. Her clear golden eyes were as brilliant
as a lizard's.
From his blanket at her side a man, gaunt and ragged and
deeply bitten by sun and wind, was pulling an automatic pistol from its
holster. The girl set her lips to his ear:
"Don't trust him, for God's sake, Kay," she breathed.
He nodded, felt forward with cautious handgroping toward
a damp patch of moss, and drew himself thither, making no sound among the
"Watch the woods behind us, Yellow-hair," he whispered.
The girl fumbled in her tattered pocket and produced a
pistol. Then she sat up cross-legged on her blanket, rested one elbow across
her knee, and, cocking the poised weapon, swept the southern woods with
calm, bright eyes.
Now the man in Swiss uniform called once more across the
chasm: "Attention, Americans I I know you are there; I smell your fire.
Also, what you have done is plain enough for me to see--that thing lying
over there on the edge of the rocks with corpse-flies already whirling
over it! And you had better answer me, Kay McKay!"
Then the man in the forest who now was lying flat behind
a birch-tree, answered calmly:
"You, in your Swiss uniform of artillery, over there,
what do you want of me?"
"So you are there!" cried the Swiss, striving to pierce
the foliage with eager eyes. "It is you, is it not, Kay McKay?"
"I've answered, have I not?"
"Are you indeed then that same Kay McKay of the Intelligence
Service, United States Army?"
"You appear to think so. I am Kay McKay; that is answer
enough for you."
"Your comrade is with you--Evelyn Erith?"
"None of your business," returned McKay, coolly.
"Very well; let it be so then. But that dead man there--why
did you kill your American comrade?"
"He was a camouflaged Boche," said McKay contemptously.
"And I am very sure that you're another--you there, in your foolish Swiss
uniform. So say what you have to say and clear out!"
The officer came close to the edge of the chasm: "I can
not expect you to believe me," he said, "and yet I really am what I appear
to be, an officer of Swiss Mountain Artillery. If you think I am something
else why do you not shoot me?"
McKay was silent. "Nobody would know," said the other.
"You can kill me very easily. I should fall into the ravine--down through
that lake of cloud below. Nobody would ever find me. Why don't you shoot?"
"I'll shoot when I see fit," retorted McKay in a sombre
voice. Presently he added in tones that rang a little yet trembled too--perhaps
from physical reasons--"What do you want of a hunted man like me?"
"I want you to leave Swiss territory!"
"Leave!" McKay's laugh was unpleasant. "You know damned
well I can't leave with Les Errues woods crawling alive with Huns."
"Will you leave the canton of Les Ernies, McKay, if I
show you a safe route out?"
And, as the other made no reply: "You have no right to
be here on neutral territory," he added, "and my Government desires you
to leave at once!"
"I have as much right here as the Huns have," said McKay
in his pleasant voice.
"Exactly. And these Germans have no right here either!"
"That also is true," rejoined McKay gently, "so why has
your Government permitted the Hun to occupy the Canton of Les Errues? Oh,
don't deny it," he added wearily as the Swiss began to repudiate the accusation;
"you've made Les Errues a No-Man's Land, and it's free hunting now! If
you're sick of your bargain, send in your mountain troops and turn out
"And if I also send an escort and a free conduct for you
and your comrade?"
"You will not be harmed, not even interned. We set you
across our wire at Delle. Do you accept?"
"With every guarantee--"
"You've made this forest a part of the world's battle-field....
No, I shall not leave Les Errues!"
"Listen to reason, you insane American! You can not escape
those who are closing in on you--those who are filtering the forest for
you--who are gradually driving you out into the eastern edges of Les Errues!
And what then, when at last you are driven like wild game by a line of
beaters to the brink of the eastern cliffs? There is no water there. You
will die of thirst. There is no food. What is there left for you to do
with your back to the final precipice?"
McKay laughed a hard, unpleasant laugh: "I certainly shall
not tell you what I mean to do," he said. "If this is all you have to say
to me you may go!"
There ensued a silence. The Swiss began to pace the opposite
cliff, his hands behind him. Finally he halted abruptly and looked across
"Why did you come into Les Errues?" he demanded.
"Ask your terrified authorities. Perhaps they'll tell
you--if their teeth stop chattering long enough--that I came here to find
out what the Boche are doing on neutral territory."
"Do you mean to say that you believe in that absurd rumour
about some secret and gigantic undertaking by the Germans which is supposed
to be visible from the plateau below us?"
And, as McKay made no reply: "That is a silly fabrication.
If your Government, suspicious of the neutrality of mine, sent you here
on any such errand, it was a ridiculous thing to do. Do you hear me, McKay?"
"I hear you."
"Well, then! And let me add also that it is a physical
impossibility for any man to reach the plateau below us from the forest
of Les Errues!"
"That," said McKay, coldly, "is a lie!"
"What! You offer a Swiss officer such an injury--"
"Yes; and I may add an insulting bullet to the injury
in another minute. You've lied to me. I have already done what you say
is an impossibility. I have reached the plateau below Les Errues by way
of this forest. And I'm going there again, Swiss or no Swiss, Hun or no
Hun! And if the Boche do drive me out of this forest into the east, where
you say there is no water to be found among the brush and bowlders, and
where, at last, you say I shall stand with my back to the last sheer precipice,
then tell your observation post on the white shoulder of Thusis to turn
their telescopes on me!"
"In God's name, for what purpose?"
"To take a lesson in how to die from the man your nation
has betrayed!" drawled McKay.
Then, lying flat, he levelled his pistol, supporting it
across the palm of his left hand.
"Yellow-hair?"' he said in a guarded voice, not turning.
"Slip the pack over your shoulders. Take the pigeon and
the rifle. Be quick, dear."
"It is done," she said softly.
"Now get up and make no noise. Two men are lying in the
scrub behind that fellow across the chasm. I am afraid they have grenades....
Are you ready, Yellow-hair?"
"Go eastward, swiftly, two hundred yards parallel with
the precipice. Make no sound, Yellow-hair."
The girl cast a pallid, heart-breaking look at him, but
he lay there without turning his head, his steady pistol levelled across
the chasm. Then, bending a trifle forward, she stole eastward through the
forest dusk, the pigeon in its wicker cage in one hand, and on her back
And all the while, across the gulf out of which golden
vapours curled more thickly as the sun's burning searchlight spread out
across the world, the man in Swiss uniform stood on the chasm's edge, as
though awaiting some further word or movement from McKay.
And, after awhile, the word came, clear, startling, snapped
out across the void:
"Unsling that haversack! Don't touch the flap! Take it
The Swiss seemed astounded. "Quick!" repeated McKay harshly,
"or I fire."
"What!" burst out the man, "you offer violence to a Swiss
officer on duty within Swiss territory?"
"I tell you I'll kill you where you stand if you don't
take off that haversack!"
Suddenly from the scrubby thicket behind the Swiss a man's
left arm shot up at an angle of forty degrees, and the right arm described
an arc against the sun. Something round and black parted from it, lost
against the glare of sunrise.
Then in the woods behind McKay something fell heavily,
the solid thud obliterated in the shattering roar which followed.
The man in Swiss uniform tore at the flap of his haversack,
and he must have jerked loose the plug of a grenade in his desperate haste,
for as McKay's bullet crashed through his face, the contents of his sack
exploded with a deafening crash.
At the same instant two more bombs fell among the trees
behind McKay, exploding instantly. Smoke and the thick golden steam from
the ravine blotted from his sight the crag opposite. And now, bending double,
McKay ran eastward while behind him the golden dusk of the woods roared
and flamed with exploding grenades.
Evelyn Erith stood motionless and deathly white, awaiting
"Are you all right, Kay?"
"All right, Yellow-hair."
He went up to her, shifting his pistol to the other hand,
and as he laid his right arm about her shoulders the blaze in his eyes
almost dazzled her.
"We trust no living thing on earth, you and I, Yellow-hair....
I believed that man for awhile. But I tell you whatever is living within
this forest is our enemy--and if any man comes in the shape of my dearest
friend I shall kill him before he speaks!"
The man was shaking now; the girl caught his right hand
and drew it close around her body--that once warm and slender body now
become so chill and thin under the ragged clothing of a boy.
"Drop your face on my shoulder," she said.
His wasted cheek seemed feverish, burning against her
"Steady, Kay," she whispered.
"Right!... What got me was the thought of you--there when
the grenades fell.... They blew a black pit where your blanket lay!"
He lifted his head and she smiled into the fever-bright
eyes set so deeply now in his ravaged visage. There were words on her lips,
trembling to be uttered. But she dared not believe they would add to his
strength if spoken. He loved her. She had long known that--had long understood
that loving her had not hardened his capacity for the dogged duty which
lay before him.
To win out was a task sufficiently desperate; to win out
and bring her through alive was the double task that was slowly, visibly
killing this man whose burning, sunken eyes gazed into hers. She dared
not triple that task; the cry in her heart died unuttered, lest he ever
waver in duty to his country when in some vital crisis that sacred duty
clashed with the obligations that fettered him to a girl who had confessed
she loved him.
No; the strength that he might derive from such a knowledge
was not that deathless energy and clear thinking necessary to blind, stern,
unswerving devotion to the motherland. Love of woman, and her love given,
could only make the burden of decision triply heavy for this man who stood
staring at space beside her here in the forest twilight where shreds of
the night mist floated like ghosts and a lost sunspot glowed and waned
and glowed on last year's leaves.
The girl pressed her waist with his arm, straightened
her shoulders and stood erect; and with a quick gesture cleared her brow
of its cloudy golden hair.
"Now," she said coolly, "we carry on, you and I, Kay,
to the honour and glory of the land that trusts us in her hour of need...
Are you are right again?"
"All right, Yellow-hair," he said pleasantly.
On the third day the drive had forced them from the hilly
western woods, eastward and inexorably toward that level belt of shaggy
forest, scrub growth, and arid, bowlder-strewn table-land where there was
probably no water, nothing living to kill for food, and only the terrific
ravines beyond where cliffs fell downward to the dim green world lying
somewhere below under its blanket of Alpine mist.
On the fourth day, still crowded outward and toward the
ragged edge of the mountain world, they found, for the first time, no water
to fill their bottles. Realising their plight, McKay turned desperately
westward, facing pursuit, ranging the now narrow forest in hopes of an
opportunity to break through the closing line of beaters.
But it proved to be a deadline that he and his half-starved
comrade faced; shadowy figures, half seen, sometimes merely heard and divined,
flitted everywhere through the open woods beyond them. And at night a necklace
of fires--hundreds of them--barred the west to them, curving outward like
the blade of a flaming scimitar.
On the fifth day McKay, lying in his blanket beside the
girl, told her that if they found no water that day they must let their
The girl sat up in her torn blanket and met his gaze very
calmly. What he had just said to her meant the beginning of the end. She
understood perfectly. But her voice was sweet and undisturbed as she answered
him, and they quietly discussed the chances of discovering water in some
sunken hole among the outer ledges and bowlders whither they were being
slowly and hopelessly forced.
Noon found them still searching for some pocket of stale
rain-water; but once only did they discover the slightest trace of moisture--a
crust of slime in a rocky basin, and from it a blind lizard was slowly
creeping--a heavy, lustreless, crippled thing that toiled aimlessly and
painfully up the rock, only to slide back into the slime again, leaving
a trail of iridescent moisture where its sagging belly dragged.
In a grove of saplings there were a few ferns; and here
McKay dug with his trench knife; but the soil proved to be very shallow;
everywhere rock lay close to the surface; there was no water there under
the black mould.
To and fro they roamed, doggedly seeking for some sign
of water. And the woods seemed damp, too; and there were long reaches of
dewy ferns. But wherever McKay dug, his knife soon touched the solid rock
below. And they wandered on.
In the afternoon, resting in the shade, he noticed her
lips were bleeding--and turned away, sharply, unable to endure her torture.
She seemed to understand his abrupt movement, for she leaned slightly against
him where he sat amid the ferns with his back to a tree--as a dog leans
when his master is troubled.
"I think," she said with an effort, "we should release
our pigeon now. It seems to be very weak."
The bird appeared languid; hunger and thirst were now
telling fast on the little feathered messenger.
Evelyn shook out the last dusty traces of corn; McKay
removed the bands. But the bird merely pecked at the food once or twice
and then settled down with beak gaping and the film stealing over its eyes.
McKay wrote on tissue the date and time of day; and a
word more to say that they had, now, scarcely any chance. He added, however,
that others ought to try because there was no longer any doubt in his mind
that the Boche were still occupied with some gigantic work along the Swiss
border in the neighbourhood of Mount Terrible; and that the Swiss Government,
if not abetting, at least was cognizant of the Hun activities.
This message he rolled into a quill, fastened it, took
the bird, and tossed it westward into the air.
The pigeon beat the morning breeze feebly for a moment,
then fluttered down to the top of a rock.
For five minutes that seemed five years they looked at
the bird, which had settled down in the sun, its bright eyes alternately
dimmed by the film or slowly clearing.
Then, as they watched, the pigeon stood up and stretched
its neck skyward, peering hither and thither at the blue vault above. And
suddenly it rose, painfully, higher, higher, seeming to acquire strength
in the upper air levels. The sun flashed on its wings as it wheeled; then
the distant bird swept westward into a long straight course, flying steadily
until it vanished like a mote in mid-air.
McKay did not trust himself to speak. Presently he slipped
his pack over both shoulders and took the rifle from where it lay against
a rock. The girl, too, had picked up the empty wicker cage, but recollected
herself and let it fall on the dead leaves.
Neither she nor McKay had spoken. The latter stood staring
down at the patch of ferns into which the cage had rolled. And it was some
time before his dulled eyes noticed that there was grass growing there,
too--swale grass, which he had not before seen in this arid eastern region.
When finally he realised what it might signify he stood
staring; a vague throb of hope stirred the thin blood in his sunken cheeks.
But he dared not say that he hoped; he merely turned northward in silence
and moved into the swale grass. And his slim comrade followed.
Half an hour later he waited for the girl to come up along
side of him. "Yellow-hair," he said, "this is swale or marsh-grass we are
following. And little wild creatures have made a runway through it... as
though there were--a drinking-place--somewhere--"
He forced himself to look up at her--at her dry, blood-blackened
"Lean on me," he whispered, and threw his arm around her.
And so, slowly, together, they came through the swale
to a living spring.
A dead roe-deer lay there--stiffened into an indescribable
attitude of agony where it had fallen writhing in the swale; and its terrible
convulsions had torn up and flattened the grass and ferns around it.
And, as they gazed at this pitiable dead thing, something
else stirred on the edge of the pool--a dark, slim bird, that strove to
move at the water's edge, struggled feebly, then fell over and lay a crumpled
mound of feathers.
"Oh God!" whispered the girl, "there are dead birds lying
everywhere at the water's edge! And little furry creatures--dead--all dead
at the water's edge!"
There was a flicker of brown wings: a bird alighted at
the pool, peered fearlessly right and left, drank, bent its head to drink
again, fell forward twitching and lay there beating the grass with feeble
After a moment only one wing quivered. Then the little
bird lay still.
Perhaps an ancient and tragic instinct possessed these
two--for as a wild thing, mortally hurt, wanders away through solitude
to find a spot in which to die, so these two moved slowly away together
into the twilight of the trees, unconscious, perhaps, what they were seeking,
but driven into aimless motion toward that appointed place.
And somehow it is given to the stricken to recognise the
ghostly spot when they draw near it and their appointed hour approaches.
There was a fallen tree--not long fallen--which in its
earthward crash had hit another smaller tree, partly uprooting the latter
so that it leaned at a perilous angle over a dry gully below.
Here dead leaves had drifted deep. And here these two
came, and crept in among the withered branches and lay down among the fallen
leaves. For a long while they lay motionless. Then she moved, turned over,
and slipped into his arms.
Whether she slept or whether her lethargy was unconsciousness
due to privation he could not tell. Her parted lips were blackened, her
mouth and tongue swollen.
He held her for awhile, conscious that a creeping stupor
threatened his senses--making no effort to save his mind from the ominous
shadows that crept toward him like live things moving slowly, always a
little nearer. Then pain passed through him like a piercing thread of fire,
and he struggled upright, and saw her head slide down across his knees.
And he realised that there were things for him to do yet--arrangements
to make before the crawling shadows covered his body and stained his mind
with the darkness of eternal night.
And first, while she still lay across his knees, he filled
his pistol. Because she must die quickly if the Hun came. For when the
Hun comes death is woman's only sanctuary.
So he prepared a swift salvation for her. And, if the
Hun came or did not come, still this last refuge must be secured for her
before the creeping shadows caught him and the light in his mind died out.
With his loaded pistol lifted he sat a moment, staring
into the woods out of bloodshot eyes; then he summoned all his strength
and rose, letting his unconscious comrade slip from his knees to the bed
of dead leaves.
Now with his knife he tried the rocky forest floor again,
feeling blindly for water. He tried slashing saplings for a drop of sap.
The great tree that had fallen had broken off a foot above
ground. The other tree slanted above a dry gully at such an angle that
it seemed as though a touch would push it over, yet its foliage was still
green and unwilted although the mesh of roots and earth were all exposed.
He noted this in a dull way, thinking always of water.
And presently, scarcely knowing what he was doing, he placed both arms
against the leaning trunk and began to push. And felt the leaning tree
sway slowly earthward.
Then into the pain and confusion of his clouding mind
something flashed with a dazzling streak of light--the flare-up of dying
memory; and he hurled himself against the leaning tree. And it slowly sank,
lying level and uprooted.
And in the black bed of the roots lay darkling a little
pool of water.
The girl's eyes unclosed on his. Her face and lips were
dripping under the sopping, icy sponge of green moss with which he was
bathing her and washing out her mouth and tongue.
Into her throat he squeezed the water, drop by drop only.
It was late in the afternoon before he dared let her drink.
During the night she slept an hour or two, awoke to ask
for water, then slept again, only to awake to the craving that he always
Before sunrise he took his pack, took both her shoes from
her feet, tore some rags from the lining of her skirt and from his own
coat, and leaving her asleep, went out into the grey dusk of morning.
When he again came to the poisoned spring he unslung his
pack and, holding it by both straps, dragged it through marsh grass and
fern, out through the fringe of saplings, out through low scrub and brake
and over moss and lichens to the edge of the precipice beyond.
And here on a scrubby bush he left fragments of their
garments entangled; and with his hobnailed heels he broke crumbling edges
of rock and smashed the moss and stunted growth and tore a path among the
Alpine roses which clothed the chasm's treacherous edge, so that it might
seem as though a heavy object had plunged down into the gulf below.
Such bowlders as he could stir from their beds and roll
over he dislodged and pushed out, listening to them as they crashed downward,
tearing the cliff's grassy face until, striking some lower shelf, they
bounded out into space.
Now in this bruised path he stamped the imprints of her
two rough shoes in moss and soil, and drove his own iron-shod feet wherever
lichen or earth would retain the imprint.
All the footprints pointed one way and ended at the chasm's
edge. And there, also, he left the wicker cage; and one of his pistols,
too--the last and most desperate effort to deceive--for, near it, he flung
the cartridge belt with its ammunition intact--on the chance that the Hun
would believe the visible signs, because only a dying man would abandon
For they must believe the evidence he had prepared for
them--this crazed trail of two poisoned human creatures--driven by agony
and madness to their own destruction.
And now, slinging on his pack, he made his way, walking
backward, to the poisoned spring.
It was scarcely light, yet through the first ghostly grey
of daybreak a few birds came; and he killed four with bits of rock before
the little things could drink the sparkling, crystalline death that lay
there silvered by the dawn.
She was still asleep when he came once more to the bed
of leaves between the fallen trees. And she had not awakened when he covered
his dry fire and brought to her the broth made from the birds.
There was, in his pack, a little food left. When he awakened
her she smiled and strove to rise, but he took her head on his knees and
fed her, holding the pannikin to her lips. And after he too had eaten he
went to look into the hollow where the tree had stood; and found it brimming
So he filled his bottles; then, with hands and knife,
working cautiously and noiselessly he began to enlarge the basin, drawing
out stones, scooping out silt and fibre.
All the morning he worked at his basin, which, fed by
some deep-seated and living spring, now overflowed and trickled down into
the dry gully below.
By noon he had a pool as large and deep as a bathtub;
and he came and sat down beside her under the fallen mass of branches where
she lay watching the water bubble up and clear itself of the clouded silt.
"You are very wonderful, Kay," she sighed, but her bruised
lips smiled at him and her scarred hand crept toward him and lay in his.
Seated so, he told her what he had done in the grey of morning while she
And, even as he was speaking, a far voice cried through
the woods--distant, sinister as the harsh scream of a hawk that has made
Then another voice shouted, hoarse with triumph; others
answered, near and far; the forest was full of the heavy, ominous sounds.
For the Huns were gathering in eastward from the wooded western hills,
and their sustained clamour filled the air like the unclean racket of vultures
sighting abomination and eager to feed.
McKay laid his loaded pistol beside him.
"Dear Yellow-hair," he whispered.
She smiled up at him. "If they think we died there on
the edge of the precipice, then you and I should live.... If they doubt
it they will come back through these woods.... And it isn't likely that
we shall live very long."
"I know," she said. And laid her other hand in his--a
gesture of utter trust so exquisite that, for a moment, tears blinded him,
and all the forest wavered grotesquely before his desperately fixed gaze.
And presently, within the field of his vision, something moved--a man going
westward among the trees his rifle slung over his shoulder. And there were
others, too, plodding stolidly back toward the western forests of Les Errues--forms
half-seen between trees, none near, and only two who passed within hearing,
the trample of their heavy feet loud among the fallen leaves, their guttural
voices distinct. And, as they swung westward, rifles slung, pipes
alight, and with the air of surly hunters homeward bound after a successful
kill, the hunted, lying close under their roof of branches, heard them
boasting of their work and of the death their quarry had died--of their
agony at the spring which drove
them to that death in the depths of the awful gulf beyond.
"And that," shouted one, stifling with laughter, "I should
like to have seen. It is all I have to regret of this jagd-that I did not
see the wilde die!"
The other Hun was less cheerful: "But what a pity to leave
that roe-deer lying there. Such good meat poisoned! Schade, immer schade!--to
leave good meat like that in the forest of Les Errues!"