In Secret

Robert W. Chambers




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 the chasm. 

"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, penetrating voice: 

"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 dry leaves. 

"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 the Huns." 

"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 the chasm. 

"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. 

"Yes, Kay." 

"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?" 

"Ready, dear." 

"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 the pack. 

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 off, quick!" 

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 him. 

"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 breast. 

"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 carrier-pigeon go. 

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." 

He nodded. 

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 lips: 

"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 wings. 

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 satisfied. 

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 such things. 

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 with water. 

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 slept. 

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 its kill. 

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!" 


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