In Secret

Robert W. Chambers




The girl sat bolt upright on her bed of dead leaves, still confused by sleep, her ears ringing with the loud, hard voice which had awakened her to consciousness of pain and hunger once again. 

Not ten feet from her, between where she lay under the branches of a fallen tree, and the edge of the precipice beyond, full in the morning sunlight stood two men in the dress of Swiss mountaineers. 

One of them was reading aloud from a notebook in a slow, decisive, metallic voice; the other, swinging two dirty flags, signalled the message out across the world of mountains as it was read to him in that nasty, nasal Berlin dialect of a Prussian junker. 

"In the Staubbach valley no traces of the bodies have been discovered," continued the tall, square-shouldered reader in his deliberate voice; "It is absolutely necessary that the bodies of these two American secret agents, Kay McKay and Evelyn Erith, be discovered, and all their papers, personal property, and the clothing and accoutrements belonging to them be destroyed without the slightest trace remaining. 

"It is ordered also that, when discovered, their bodies be burned and the ashes reduced to powder and sown broadcast through the forest." 

The voice stopped; the signaller whipped his dirty tattered flags in the sunlight for a few moments more, then ceased and stood stiffly at attention, his sun-dazzled gaze fixed on a far mountain slope where something glittered--perhaps a bit of mica, perhaps the mirror of a helio. 

Presently, in the same disagreeable, distinct, nasal, and measured voice, the speaker resumed the message: 

"Until last evening it has been taken for granted that the American Intelligence Officer, McKay, and his companion, Miss Erith, made insane through suffering after having drunk at a spring the water of which we had prepared for them according to plan, had either jumped or fallen from the eastward cliffs of Les Errues into the gulf through which flows the Staubbach. 

"But, up to last night, my men, who descended by the Via Mala, have been unable to find the bodies of these two Americans, although there is, on the cliffs above, every evidence that they plunged down there to the valley of the brook below, which is now being searched. 

"If, therefore, my men fail to discover these bodies, the alarming presumption is forced upon us that these two Americans have once more tricked us; and that they may still be hiding in the Forbidden Forest of Les Errues. 

"In that event proper and drastic measures will be taken, the air-squadron on the northern frontier co-operating." 

The voice ceased: the flags whistled and snapped in the wind for a little while longer, then the signaller came to stiffest attention. 

"Tell them we descend by the Via Mala," added the nasal voice. 

The flags swung sharply into motion for a few moments more; then the Prussian officer pocketed his notebook; the signaller furled his flags; and, as they turned and strode westward along the border of the forest, the girl rose to her knees on her bed of leaves and peered after them. 

What to do she scarcely knew. Her comrade, McKay, had been gone since dawn in quest of something to keep their souls and bodies en liaison--mountain hare, a squirrel perhaps, perhaps a songbird or two, or a pocketful of coral mushrooms--anything to keep them alive on that heart-breaking trail of duty at the end of which sat old man Death awaiting them, wearing a spiked helmet. 

And what to do in this emergency, and in the absence of McKay, perplexed and frightened her; for her comrade's strict injunction was to remain hidden until his return; and yet one of these men now moving westward there along the forest's sunny edges had spoken of a way out and had called it the Via Mala. And that is what McKay had been looking for--a way out of the Forbidden Forest of Les Errues to the table-land below, where, through a cleft still more profound, rushed the black Staubbach under an endless mist of icy spray. 

She must make up her mind quickly; the two men were drawing away from her--almost out of sight now. 

On her ragged knees among the leaves she groped for his coat where he had flung it, for the weather had turned oppressive in the forest of Les Errues-and fumbling, she found his notebook and pencil, and tore out a leaf: 

"Kay dear, two Prussians in Swiss mountain dress have been signalling across the knees of Thusis that our bodies have not been discovered in the ravine. They have started for the ravine by a way evidently known to them and which they speak of as the Via Mala. You told me to stay here, but I dare not let this last chance go to discover what we have been looking for--a path to the plateau below. I take my pistol and your trench-knife and I will try to leave signs for you to follow. They have started west along the cliffs and they are now nearly out of sight, so I must hurry. Yellow-hair." 

This bit of paper she left on her bed of leaves and pinned it to the ground with a twig. Then she rose painfully, drew in her belt and laced her tattered shoes, and, taking the trench-knife and pistol, limped out among the trees. 

The girl was half naked in her rags; her shirt scarcely hung to her shoulders, and she fastened the stag-horn buttons on her jacket. Her breeches, which left both knees bare, were of leather and held out pretty well, but the heavy wool stockings gaped, and, had it not been for the hob-nails, the soles must have fallen from her hunter's shoes. 

At first she moved painfully and stiffly, but as she hurried, limping forward over the forest moss, limbs and body grew more supple and she felt less pain. 

And now, not far beyond, and still full in the morning sunshine, marched the men she was following. The presumed officer strode on ahead, a high-shouldered frame of iron in his hunter's garb; the signaller with furled flags tucked under his arm clumped stolidly at his heels with the peculiar peasant gait which comes from following uneven furrows in the wake of a plow. 

For ten minutes, perhaps, the two men continued on, then halted before a great mass of debris, uprooted trees, long dead, the vast, mangled roots and tops of which sprawled in every direction between masses of rock, bowlders, and an indescribable confusion of brush and upheaved earth. 

Nearer and nearer crept the girl, until, lying flat behind a beech-tree, she rested within earshot--so close, indeed, that she could smell the cigarette which the officer had lighted--smell, even, the rank stench of the sulphur match. 

Meanwhile the signaller had laid aside his flags and while the officer looked on he picked up a heavy sapling from among the fallen trees. Using this as a lever he rolled aside a tree-trunk, then another, and finally a bowlder. 

"That will do," remarked the officer. "Take your flags and go ahead." 

Then Evelyn Erith, rising cautiously to her scarred knees, saw the signaller gather up his flags and step into what apparently was the bed of the bowlder on the edge of the windfall. But it was deeper than that, for he descended to his knees, to his waist, his shoulders; and then his head disappeared into some hole which she could not see. 

Now the officer who had remained, calmly smoking his cigarette, flung the remains of it over the cliff, turned, surveyed the forest behind him with minute deliberation, then stepped into the excavation down which the signaller had disappeared. 

Some instinct kept the girl motionless after the man's head had vanished; minute after minute passed, and Evelyn Erith never stirred. And suddenly the officer's head and shoulders popped up from the hole and he peered back at the forest like an alarmed marmot. And the girl saw his hands resting on the edge of the hole; and the hands grasped two pistols. 

Presently, apparently reassured and convinced that nobody was attempting to follow him, he slowly sank out of sight once more. 

The girl waited; and while waiting she cut a long white sliver from the beech-tree and carved an arrow pointing toward the heap of debris. Then, with the keen tip of her trench-knife she scratched on the silvery bark: 

"An underground way in the windfall. I have followed them. Yellow-hair." 

She crept stealthily out into the sunshine through the vast abatis of the fallen trees and came to the edge of the hole. Looking down fearfully she realised at once that this was the dry, rocky stairs of some subterranean watercourse through which, in springtime, great fields of melting snow poured in torrents down the face of the precipice below. 

There were no loose stones to be seen; the rocky escalier had been swept clean unnumbered ages since; but the rocks were fearfully slippery, shining with a vitreous polish where the torrents of many thousand years had worn them smooth. 

And this was what they called the Via Mala!--this unsuspected and secret underground way that led, God knew how, into the terrific depths below. 

There was another Via Mala: she had seen it from Mount Terrible; but it was a mountain path trodden not infrequently. This Via Mala, however, wormed its way downward into shadows. Where it led and by what perilous ways she could only imagine. And were these men perhaps, lying in ambush for her somewhere below--on the chance that they might have been seen and followed? 

What would they do to her--shoot her? Push her outward from some rocky shelf into the misty gulf below? Or would they spring on her and take her alive? At the thought she chilled, knowing what a woman might expect from the Hun. 

She threw a last look upward where they say God dwells somewhere behind the veil of blinding blue; then she stepped downward into the shadows. 

For a rod or two she could walk upright as long as she could retain her insecure footing on the glassy, uneven floor of rock; and a vague demi-light reigned there making objects distinct enough for her to see the stalactites and stalagmites like discoloured teeth in a chevaux-de-frise. 

Between these gaping fangs she crept, listening, striving to set her feet on the rocks without making any noise. But that seemed to be impossible and the rocky tunnel echoed under her footsteps, slipping, sliding, hob-nails scraping in desperate efforts not to fall. 

Again and again she halted, listening fearfully, one hand crushed against her drumming heart; but she had heard no sound ahead; the men she followed must be some distance in advance; and she stole forward again, afraid, desperately crushing out the thoughts--that crowded and surged in her brain--the terrible living swarm of fears that clamoured to her of the fate of white women if captured by the things men called Boche and Hun. 

And now she was obliged to stoop as the roof of the tunnel dipped lower and she could scarcely see in the increasing darkness, clearly enough to avoid the stalactites. 

However, from far ahead came a glimmer; and even when she was obliged to drop to her knees and creep forward, she could still make out the patch of light, and the Via Mala again became visible with its vitreous polished floor and its stalactites and water-blunted stalagmites always threatening to trip
her and transfix her. 

Now, very far ahead, something moved and partly obscured the distant glimmer; and she saw, at a great distance, the two men she followed, moving in silhouette across the light. When they had disappeared she ventured to move on again. And her knees were bleeding when she crept out along a heavy shelf of rock set like a balcony on the sheer face of the cliff. 

Tufts of alpine roses grew on it, and slippery lichens, and a few seedlings which next spring's torrent would wash away into the still, misty depths below. 

But this shelf of rock was not all. The Via Mala could not end on the chasm's brink. 

Cautiously she dragged herself out along the shadow of the cliff, listening, peering among the clefts now all abloom with alpen rosen; and saw nothing--no way forward; no steep path, hewn by man or by nature, along the face of that stupendous battlement of rock. 

She lay listening. But if there was a river roaring somewhere through the gorge it was too far below her for her to hear it. 

Nothing stirred there; the distant bluish parapets of rock across the ravine lay in full sunshine, but nothing moved there, neither man nor beast nor bird; and the tremendous loneliness of it all began to frighten her anew. 

Yet she must go on; they had gone on; there was some hidden way. Where? Then, all in a moment, what she had noticed before, and had taken for a shadow cast by a slab of projecting rock, took the shape of a cleft in the facade of the precipice itself--an opening that led straight into the cliff. 

When she dragged herself up to it she saw it had been made by man. The ancient scars of drills still marked it. Masses of rock had been blasted from it; but that must have been years ago because a deep growth of moss and lichen covered the scars and the tough stems of crag-shrubs masked every crack. 

Here, too, bloomed the livid, over-rated edelweiss, dear to the maudlin and sentimental side of an otherwise wolfish race, its rather ghastly flowers starring the rocks. 

As at the entrance to a tomb the girl stood straining her frightened eyes to pierce the darkness; then, feeling her way with outstretched pistol-hand, she entered. 

The man-fashioned way was smooth. Or Hun or Swiss, whoever had wrought this Via Mala out of the eternal rock, had wrought accurately and well. The grade was not steep; the corridor descended by easy degrees, twisting abruptly to turn again on itself, but always leading downward in thick darkness. 

No doubt that those accustomed to travel the Via Mala always carried lights; the air was clean and dry and any lighted torch could have lived in such an atmosphere. But Evelyn Erith carried no lights --had thought of none in the haste of setting out. 

Years seemed to her to pass in the dreadful darkness of that descent as she felt her way downward, guided by the touch of her feet and the contact of her hand along the unseen wall. 

Again and again she stopped to rest and to check the rush of sheerest terror that threatened at moments her consciousness. 

There was no sound in the Via Mala. The thick darkness was like a fabric clogging her movements, swathing her, brushing across her so that she seemed actually to feel the horrible obscurity as some concrete thing impeding her and resting upon her with an increasing weight that bent her slender figure. 

There was something grey ahead.... There was light--a sickly pin-point. It seemed to spread but grow duller. A pallid patch widened, became lighter again. And from an infinite distance there came a deadened roaring--the hollow menace of water rushing through depths unseen. 

She stood within the shadow zone inside the tunnel and looked out upon the gorge where, level with the huge bowlders all around her, an alpine river raged and dashed against cliff and stone, flinging tons of spray into the air until the whole gorge was a driving sea of mist. Here was the floor of the canon; here was the way they had searched for. Her task was done. And now, on bleeding little feet, she must retrace her steps; the Via Mala must become the Via Dolorosa, and she must turn and ascend that Calvary to the dreadful crest. 

She was very weak. Privation had sapped the young virility that had held out so long. She had not eaten for a long while--did not, indeed, crave food any longer. But her thirst raged, and she knelt at a little pool within the cavern walls and bent her bleeding mouth to the icy fillet of water. She drank little, rinsed her mouth and face and dried her lips on her sleeve. And, kneeling so, closed her eyes in utter exhaustion for a moment. 

And when she opened them she found herself looking up at two men. 

Before she could move one of the men kicked her pistol out of her nerveless hand, caught her by the shoulder and dragged the trench-knife from her convulsive grasp. Then he said in English: 

"Get up." And the other, the signalman, struck her across her back with the furled flags so that she lost her balance and fell forward on her face. They got her to her feet and pushed her out among the bowlders, through the storming spray, and across the floor of the ravine into the sunlight of a mossy place all set with trees. And she saw butterflies flitting there through green branches flecked with sunshine. 

The officer seated himself on a fallen tree and crossed his heavy feet on a carpet of wild flowers. She stood erect, the signaller holding her right arm above the elbow. 

After the officer had leisurely lighted a cigarette he asked her who she was. She made no answer. 

"You are the Erith woman, are you not?" he demanded. 

She was silent. 

"You Yankee slut," he added, nodding to himself and staring up into her bloodless face. 

Her eyes wandered; she looked at, but scarcely saw the lovely wildflowers under foot, the butterflies flashing their burnished wings among the sunbeams. 

"Drop her arm." The signaller let go and stood at attention. 

"Take her knife and pistol and your flags and go across the stream to the hut." 

The signaller saluted, gathered the articles mentioned, and went away in that clumping, rocking gait of the land peasant of Hundom. 

"Now," said the officer, "strip off your coat!" 

She turned scarlet, but he sprang to his feet and tore her coat from her. She fought off every touch; several times he struck her--once so sharply that the blood gushed from her mouth and nose; but still she fought him; and when he had completed his search of her person, he was furious, streaked with sweat and all smeared with her blood. 

"Damned cat of a Yankee!" he panted, "stand there where you are or I'll blow your face off!" 

But as he emptied the pockets of her coat she seized it and put it on, sobbing out her wrath and contempt of him and his threats as she covered her nearly naked body with the belted jacket and buttoned it to her throat. 

He glanced at the papers she had carried, at the few poor articles that had fallen from her pockets, tossed them on the ground beside the log and resumed his seat and cigarette. 

"Where's McKay?" 

No answer. 

"So you tricked us, eh?" he sneered. "You didn't get your rat-poison at the spring after all. The Yankees are foxes after all!" He laughed his loud, nasal, nickering laugh--"Foxes are foxes but men are men. Do you understand that, you damned vixen?" 

"Will you let me kill myself?" she asked in a low but steady voice. 

He seemed surprised, then realising why she had asked that mercy, showed all his teeth and smirked at her out of narrow-slitted eyes. 

"Where is McKay?" he repeated. 

She remained mute. 

"Will you tell me where he is to be found?" 


"Will you tell me if I let you go?" 


"Will you tell me if I give you back your trench-knife?" 

The white agony in her face interested and amused him and he waited her reply with curiosity. 

"No!" she whispered. 

"Will you tell me where McKay is to be found if I promise to shoot you before--" 

"No!" she burst out with a strangling sob. 

He lighted another cigarette and, for a while, considered her musingly as he sat smoking. After a while he said: "You are rather dirty--all over blood. But you ought to be pretty after you're washed." Then he laughed. 

The girl swayed where she stood, fighting to retain consciousness. 

"How did you discover the Via Mala?" he inquired with blunt curiosity. 

"You showed it to me!" 

"You slut!" he said between his teeth. Then, still brutishly curious: "How did you know that spring had been poisoned? By those dead birds and animals, I suppose.... And that's what I told everybody, too. The wild things are bound to come and drink. But you and your running-mate are foxes. You made us believe you had gone over the cliff. Yes, even I believed it. It was well done--a true Yankee trick. All the same, foxes are only foxes after all. And here you are." 

He got up; she shrank back, and he began to laugh at her. 

"Foxes are only foxes, my pretty, dirty one!--but men are men, and a Prussian is a super-man. You had forgotten that, hadn't you, little Yankee?" 

He came nearer. She sprang aside and past him and ran for the river; but he caught her at the edge of a black pool that whirled and flung sticky chunks of foam over the bowlders. For a while they fought there in silence, then he said, breathing heavily, "A fox can't drown. Didn't you know that, little fool?" 

Her strength was ebbing. He forced her back to the glade and stood there holding her, his inflamed face a sneering, leering mask for the hot hell that her nearness and resistance had awakened in him. Suddenly, still holding her, he jerked his head aside and stared behind him. Then he pushed her violently from him, clutched at his holster, and started to run. And a pistol cracked and he pitched forward across the log upon which he had sat, and lay so, dripping dark blood, and fouling the wild-flowers with the flow. 

"Kay!" she said in a weak voice. 

McKay, his pack strapped to his back, his blood-shot eyes brilliant in his haggard visage, ran forward and bent over the thing. Then he shot him again, behind the ear. 

The rage of the river drowned the sound of the shots; the man in the hut across the stream did not come to the door. But McKay caught sight of the shack; his fierce eyes questioned the girl, and she nodded. 

He crossed the stream, leaping from bowlder to bowlder, and she saw him run up to the door of the hut, level his weapon, then enter. She could not hear the shots; she waited, half-dead, until he came out again, reloading his pistol. 

She struggled desperately to retain her senses--to fight off the deadly faintness that assailed her. She could scarcely see him as he came swiftly toward her--she put out her arms blindly, felt his fierce clasp envelop her, passed so into blessed unconsciousness. 

A drop or two of almost scalding broth aroused her. He held her in his arms and fed her--not much--and then let her stretch out on the sun-hot moss again. 

Before sunset he awakened her again, and he fed her--more this time. 

Afterward she lay on the moss with her golden-brown eyes partly open. And he had constructed a sponge of clean, velvety moss, and with this he washed her swollen mouth and bruised cheek, and her eyes and throat and hands and feet. 

After the sun went down she slept again: and he stretched out beside her, one arm under her head and about her neck. 

Moonlight pierced the foliage, silvering everything and inlaying the earth with the delicate tracery of branch and leaf. 

Moonlight still silvered her face when she awoke. After a while the shadow slipped from his face, too. 

"Kay?" she whispered. 

"Yes, Yellow-hair." 

And, after a little while she turned her face to his and her lips rested on his. 

Lying so, unstirring, she fell asleep once more.  


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