THE GREAT SECRET
All that morning American infantry had been passing through
Delle over the Belfort road. The sun of noon saw no end to them.
The endless column of shadows, keeping pace with them,
lengthened with the afternoon along their lengthening line.
Now and then John Recklow opened the heavy wooden door
in his garden wall and watched them until duty called him to his telephone
or to his room where maps and papers littered the long table. But he always
returned to the door in the garden wall when duty permitted and leaned
at ease there, smoking his pipe, keen-eyed, impassive, gazing on the unbroken
line of young men--men of his own race, sun-scorched, dusty, swinging along
the Belfort road, their right elbows brushing Switzerland, their high sun-reddened
pillar of dust drifting almost into Germany, and their heavy tread thundering
through that artery of France like the prophetic pulse of victory.
A rich September sunset light streamed over them; like
a moving shaft of divine fire the ruddy dust marched with them upon their
right hand; legions of avenging shadows led them forward where, for nearly
half a century beyond the barriers of purple hills, naked and shackled,
the martyr-daughters of the Motherland stood waiting--Alsace and Lorraine.
"We are on our way!" laughed the Yankee bugles.
The Fortress of Metz growled "Nein!"
Recklow went back to his telephone. For a long while he
remained there very busy with Belfort and Verdun. When again he returned
to the green door in his garden wall, the Yankee infantry had passed; and
of their passing there remained no trace save for the smouldering pillar
of fire towering now higher than the eastern horizon and leagthened to
a wall that ran away into the north as far as the eye could see.
His cats had come out into the garden for "the cats' hour"--that
mysterious compromise between day and evening when all things feline awake
and stretch and wander or sit motionless, alert, listening to occult things.
And in the enchantment of that lovely liaison which links day and night--when
the gold and rose soften to mauve as the first star is born--John Recklow
raised his quiet eyes and saw two dead souls come into his garden by the
little door in the wall.
"Is it you, Kay McKay?" he said at last.
But the shock of the encounter still fettered him so that
he walked very slowly to the woman who was now moving toward him across
"Evelyn Erith," he said, taking her thin hands in his
own, which were trembling now.
"It's a year," he complained unsteadily.
"More than a year," said McKay in his dead voice.
With his left hand, then, John Recklow took McKay's gaunt
hand, and stood so, mute, looking at him and at the girl beside him.
"God!" he said blankly. Then, with no emphasis: "It's
rather more than a year!... They sent me two fire-charred skulls--the head
of a man and the head of a woman.... That was a year ago.... After your
pigeon arrived... I found the scorched skulls wrapped in a Swiss newspaper-lying
inside the garden wall--over there on the grass!... And the swine had written
your names on the skulls...."
Into Evelyn Erith's eyes there came a vague light--the
spectre of a smile. And as Recklow looked at her he remembered the living
glory she had once been; and wrath blazed wildly within him. "What have
they done to you?" he asked in an unsteady voice. But McKay laid his hand
on Recklow's arm:
"Nothing. It is what they have not done--fed her. That's
all she needs--and sleep."
Recklow gazed heavily upon her. But if the young fail
rapidly, they also respond quickly.
"Come into the house,"
Perhaps it was the hot broth with wine in it that brought
a slight colour back into her ghastly face--the face once so youthfully
lovely but now as delicate as the mask of death itself.
Candles twinkled on the little table where the girl now
lay back listlessly in the depths of an armchair, her chin sunk on her
Recklow sat opposite her, writing on a pad in shorthand.
McKay, resting his ragged elbows on the cloth, his haggard face between
both hands, went on talking in a colourless, mechanical voice which an
iron will alone flogged into speech:
"Killed two of them and took their clothes and papers,"
he continued monotonously; "that was last August--near the end of the month....
The Boche had tens of thousands working there. AND EVERY ONE OF THEM WAS
"Yes, that is the way they were operating--the only way
they dared operate. I think all that enormous work has been done by the
insane during the last forty years. You see, the Boche have nothing to
dread from the insane. Anyway the majority of them died in harness. Those
who became useless--intractable or crippled--were merely returned to the
asylums from which they had been drafted. And the Hun government saw to
it that nobody should have access to them.
"Besides, who would believe a crazy man or woman if they
babbled about the Great Secret?"
He covered his visage with his bony hands and rested so
for a few moments, then, forcing himself again:
"The Hun for forty years has drafted the insane from every
asylum in the Empire to do this gigantic work for him. Men, women, even
children, chained, guarded, have done the physical work.... The Pyramids
were builded so, they say.... And in this manner is being finished that
colossal engineering work which is never spoken of among the Huns except
when necessary, and which is known among them as The Great Secret.... Recklow,
it was conceived as a vast engineering project forty-eight years ago--in
1870 during the Franco-Prussian war. It was begun that same year.... And
it is practically finished.
Except for one obstacle."
Recklow's lifted eyes stared at him over his pad.
"It is virtually finished," repeated McKay in his toneless,
unaccented voice which carried such terrible conviction to the other man.
"Forty-eight years ago the Hun planned a huge underground highway carrying
four lines of railroad tracks. It was to begin east of the Rhine in the
neighbourhood of Zell, slant into the bowels of the earth, pass deep under
the Rhine, deep under the Swiss frontier, deep, deep under Mount Terrible
and under the French frontier, and emerge in France BEHIND Belfort, Toul,
Nancy, and Verdun."
Recklow laid his pad on the table and looked intently
at McKay. The latter said in his ghost of a voice: "You are beginning to
suspect my sanity." He turned with an effort and fixed his hollow eyes
on Evelyn Erith.
"We are sane," he said. "But I don't blame you, Recklow.
We have lived among the mad for more than a year--among thousands and thousands
and thousands of them--of men and women and even children in whose minds
the light of reason had died out.... Thirty thousand dying minds in which
only a dreadful twilight reigned!... I don't know how we endured it--and
retained our reason.... Do you, Yellow-hair?"
The girl did not reply. He spoke to her again, then fell
silent. For the girl slept, her delicate, deathly face dropped forward
on her breast.
Presently McKay turned to Recklow once more; and Recklow
picked up his pad with a slight shudder.
"Forty-eight years," repeated McKay--"and the work of
the Hun is nearly done--a wide highway under the earth's surface flanked
by four lines of rails--broad-gauge tracks--everything now working, all
rolling-stock and electric engines moving smoothly and swiftly.... Two
tracks carry troops; two carry ammunition and munitions. A highway a hundred
feet wide runs between.
"Ten miles from the Rhine, under the earth, there is a
Hun city, with a garrison of sixty thousand men!... There are other cities
along the line--"
"Deep under the earth."
"There must be shafts!" said Recklow hoarsely.
"No shafts to the surface?"
"No pipe? No communication with the outer air?"
Then McKay's sunken eyes glittered and he stiffened up,
and his wasted features seemed to shrink until the parting of his lips
showed his teeth. It was a dreadful laughter--his manner, now, of expressing
"Recklow," he said, "in 1914 that vast enterprise was
scheduled to be finished according to plan. With the declaration of war
in August the Hun was to have blasted his way to the surface of French
soil behind the barrier forts! He was prepared to do it in half an hour's
"Do you understand? Do you see how it was planned? For
forty-eight years the Hun had been preparing to seize France and crush
"When the Hun was ready he murdered the Austrian archduke--the
most convenient solution of the problem for the Hun Kaiser, who presented
himself with the pretext for war by getting rid of the only Austrian with
whom he couldn't do business."
Again McKay laughed, silently, showing his discoloured
"So the archduke died according to plan; and there was
war--according to plan. And then, Recklow, GOD'S HAND MOVED!--very slightly--indolently--scarcely
stirring at all.... A drop of icy water percolated the limestone on Mount
Terrible; other drops followed; linked by these drops a thin stream crept
downward in the earth along the limestone fissures, washing away glacial
sands that had lodged there since time began."... He leaned forward and
his brilliant, sunken eyes peered into Recklow's:
"Since 1914," he said, "the Staubbach has fallen into
the bowels of the earth and the Hun has been fighting it miles under the
"They can't operate from the glacier on the white Shoulder
of Thusis; whenever they calk it and plug it and stop it with tons of reinforced
waterproof concrete--whenever on the surface of the world they dam it and
turn it into new channels, it evades them. And in a new place its icy water
bursts through--as though every stratum in the Alps dipped toward their
underground tunnel to carry the water from the Glacier of Thusis into it!"
He clenched his wasted hands and struck the table without
"God blocks them, damn them!" he said in his ghost of
a voice. "God bars the Boche! They shall not pass!"
He leaned nearer, twisting his clenched fingers together:
"We saw them, Recklow. We saw the Staubbach fighting for right of way;
we saw the Hun fighting the Staubbach--Darkness battling with Light!--the
Hun against the Most High!--miles under the earth's crust, Recklow....
Do you believe in God?"
"Yes.... We saw Him at work--that young girl asleep there,
and I--month after month we watched Him check and dismay the modern Pharaoh--we
watched Him countermine the Nibelungen and mock their filthy Gott! And
Recklow, we laughed, sometimes, where laughter among clouded minds means
nothing--nothing even to the Hun--nor causes suspicion nor brings punishment
other than the accustomed kick and blow which the Hun reserves for all
who are helpless."... He bowed his head in his hands. "All who are weak
and stricken," he whispered to himself.
Recklow said: "Did they harm--HER?" And,
McKay looked up at that, baring his teeth in a swift snarl:
"No--you see her clipped hair--and the thin body.... In
her blouse she passed for a boy, unquestioned, unnoticed. There were thousands
of us, you see.... Some of the insane women were badly treated--all of
the younger ones.... But she and I were together.... And I had my pistol
in reserve--for the crisis!--always in reserve--always ready for her."
Recklow nodded. McKay went on:
"We fought the Staubbach in shifts.... And all through
those months of autumn and winter there was no chance for us to get away.
It is not cold under ground.... It was like a dark, thick dream. We tried
to realise that war was going on, over our heads, up above us somewhere
in daylight--where there was
sun and where stars were.... It was like a thick dream,
Recklow. The stars seemed very far...."
"You had passed as inmates of some German asylum?"
"We had killed two landwehr on the Staubbach. That was
a year ago last August--" He looked at the sleeping girl beside him: "My
little comrade and I undressed the swine and took their uniforms.... After
a long while--privations had made us both light-headed I think--we saw
a camp of the insane in the woods--a fresh relay from Mulhaus. We talked
with their guards--being in Landwehr uniform it was easy. The insane were
clothed like miners. Late that night we exchanged clothes with two poor,
demented creatures who retained sufficient reason, however, to realise
that our uniforms meant freedom.... They crept away into the forest. We
remained.... And marched at dawn--straight into the jaws of the Great Secret!"
Recklow had remained at the telephone until dawn. And
now Belfort was through with him and Verdun understood, and Paris had relayed
to Headquarters and Headquarters had instructed John Recklow.
Before Recklow went to bed he parted his curtain and looked
out at the misty dawn.
In the silvery dusk a cock-pheasant was crowing somewhere
on a wheat-field's edge. A barnyard chanticleer replied. Clear and truculent
rang out the challenge of the Gallic cock in the dawn, warning his wild
neighbour to keep to the wilds. So the French trumpets challenge the shrill,
barbaric fanfares of the Hun, warning him back into the dull and shadowy
wilderness from whence he ventured.
Recklow was awake, dressed, and had breakfasted by eight
McKay, in his little chamber on the right, still slept.
Evelyn Erith, in the tiny room on the left, slept deeply.
So Recklow went out into his garden, opened the wooden
door in the wall, seated himself, lighted his pipe, and watched the Belfort
About ten o'clock two American electricians came buzzing
up on motor-cycles. Recklow got up and went to the door in the wall as
they dismounted. After a short, whispered consultation they guided their
machines into the garden, through a paved alley to a tiled shed. Then they
went on duty, one taking the telephone in Recklow's private office, the
other busying himself with the clutter of maps and papers. And Recklow
went back to the door in the wall. About eleven an American motor ambulance
drove up. A nurse carrying her luggage got out, and Recklow met her.
After another whispered consultation he picked up the
nurse's luggage, led her into the house, and showed her all over it.
"I don't know," he said, "whether they are too badly done
in to travel as far as Belfort. There'll be a Yankee regimental doctor
here to-day or to-morrow. He'll know. So let 'em sleep. And you can give
them the once-over when they wake, and then get busy in the kitchen."
The girl laughed and nodded.
"Be good to them," added Recklow. "They'll get crosses
and legions enough but they've got to be well to enjoy them. So keep them
in bed until the doctor comes. There are bathrobes and things in my room."
"I understand, sir."
"Right," said Recklow briefly. Then he went to his room,
changed his clothes to knickerbockers, his shoes for heavier ones, picked
up a rifle, a pair of field-glasses and a gas-mask, slung a satchel containing
three days' rations over his powerful shoulders, and went out into the
Six Alpinists awaited him. They were peculiarly accoutred,
every soldier carrying, beside rifle, haversack and blanket, a flat tank
strapped on his back like a knapsack.
Their sergeant saluted; he and Recklow exchanged a few
words in whispers. Then Recklow strode away down the Belfort road. And
the oddly accoutred Alpinists followed him, their steel-shod soles ringing
on the pavement.
Where the Swiss wire bars the frontier no sentinels paced
that noon. This was odd. Stranger still, a gap had been cut in the wire.
And into this gap strode Recklow, and behind him trotted
the nimble blue-devils, single file; and they and their leader took the
ascending path which leads to the Calvary on Mount Terrible.
Standing that same afternoon on the rocks of that grim
Calvary, with the weatherbeaten figure of Christ towering on the black
cross above them, Recklow and his men gazed out across the tumbled mountains
to where the White Shoulder of Thusis gleamed in the sun.
Through their glasses they could sweep the glacier to
its terminal moraine. That was not very far away, and the "dust" from the
Staubbach could be distinguished drifting out of the green ravine like
a windy cloud of steam.
"Allons," said Recklow briefly.
They slept that night in their blankets so close to the
Staubbach that its wet, silvery dust powdered them, at times, like snow.
At dawn they were afield, running everywhere over the
rocks, searching hollows, probing chasms, creeping into ravines, and always
following the torrent which dashed whitely through its limestone canon.
Perhaps the Alpine eagles saw them. But no Swiss patrol
disturbed them. Perhaps there was fear somewhere in the Alpine Confederation--fear
in high places.
Also it is possible that the bellowing bluster of the
guns at Metz may have allayed that fear in high places; and that terror
of the Hun was already becoming less deathly among the cantons of a race
which had trembled under Boche blackmail for a hundred years. However,
for whatever reason it might have been, no Swiss patrols bothered the blue
devils and Mr. Recklow.
And they continued to swarm over the Alpine landscape
at their own convenience; on the Calvary of Mount Terrible they erected
a dwarf wireless station; a hundred men came from Delle with radio- impedimenta;
six American airmen arrived; American planes circled over the northern
border, driving off the
squadrilla of Count von Dresslin.
And on the second night Recklow's men built fires and
camped carelessly beside the brilliant warmth, while "mountain mutton"
frizzled on pointed sticks and every blue-devil smacked his lips.
On the early morning of the third day Recklow discovered
what he had been looking for. And an Alpinist signalled an airplane over
Mount Terrible from the White Shoulder of Thusis. Two hours later a full
battalion of Alpinists crossed Mount Terrible by the Neck of Woods and
exchanged flag signals with Recklow's men. They had with them a great number
of cylinders, coils of wire, and other curious-looking paraphernalia.
When they came up to the ravine where Recklow and his
men were grouped they immediately became very busy with their cylinders,
wires, hose-pipes, and other instruments.
It had been a beautiful ravine where Recklow now stood--was
still as pretty and picturesque as a dry water-course can be with the bowlders
bleaching in the sun and green things beginning to grow in what had been
the bed of a rushing stream. For, just above this ravine, the water ended:
the Staubbach poured its full, icy volume directly downward into the bowels
of the earth with a hollow, thundering sound; the bed of the stream was
bone-dry beyond. And now the blue-devils were unreeling wire and plumbing
this chasm into which the Staubbach thundered. On the end of the wire was
an electric bulb, lighted. Recklow watched the wire unreeling, foot after
foot, rod after rod, plumbing the dark burrow of the Boche deep down under
And, when they were ready, guided by the wire, they lowered
the curious hose-pipe, down, down, ever down, attaching reel after reel
to the lengthening tube until Recklow checked them and turned to watch
the men who stood feeding the wire into the roaring chasm.
Suddenly, as he watched, the flowing wire stopped, swayed
violently sideways, then was jerked out of the men's hands.
"The Boche bites!" they shouted. Their officer, reading
the measured wire, turned to Recklow and gave him the depth; the hose-pipe
ran out sixty yards; then Recklow checked it and put on his gasmask as
the whistle signal rang out along the mountain.
Now, everywhere, masked figures swarmed over the place;
cylinders were laid, hose attached, other batteries of cylinders were ranged
in line and connections laid ready for instant adjustment.
Recklow raised his right arm, then struck it downward
violently. The gas from the first cylinder went whistling into the hose.
At the same time an unmasked figure on the cliff above
began talking by American radiophone with three planes half a mile in the
air above him. He spoke naturally, easily, into a transmitter to which
no wires were attached.
He was still talking when Recklow arrived at his side
from the ravine below, tore off his gas-mask, and put on a peculiar helmet.
Then, taking the transmitter into his right hand: "Do you get them?" he
demanded of his companion, an American lieutenant.
"No trouble, sir. No need to raise one's voice. They hear
quite perfectly, and one hears them, sir."
Then Recklow spoke to the three airplanes circling like
hawks in the sky overhead; and one by one the observers in each machine
replied in English, their voices easily audible.
"I want Zell watched from the air," said Recklow. "The
Boche have an underground tunnel beginning near Zell, continuing under
Mount Terrible to the French frontier.
"I want the Zell end of the tunnel kept under observation.
"Send our planes in from Belfort, Toul, Nancy, and Verdun.
"And keep me informed whether railroad trains, camions,
or cavalry come out. And whether indeed any living thing emerges from the
end of the tunnel near Zell.
"Because we are gassing the tunnel from this ravine. And
I think we've got the dirty vermin wholesale!"
At sundown a plane appeared overhead and talked to Recklow:
"One railroad train came out. But it was manned by dead
men, I think, because it crashed into the rear masonry of the station and
"Nothing else, living or dead, came out?"
"Nothing, sir. There is wild excitement at Zell. Troops
at the tunnel's mouth wear gas-masks. We bombed them and raked them. The
Boche planes took the air but two crashed and the rest turned east."
"You saw no living creature escape from the Zell end of
"Not a soul, sir."
Recklow turned to the group of officers around him:
"I guess they're done for," he said. "That fumigation
cleaned out the vermin. But keep the tunnel pumped full of gas.... Au revoir,
On his way back across Mount Terrible he encountered a
relay of Alpinists bringing fresh gas. tanks; and he laughed and saluted
their officers. "This poor old world needs a de-lousing," he said. "Foch
will attend to it up here on top of the world. See that you gentlemen,
purge her interior!"
The nurse opened the door and looked into the garden.
Then she closed the door, gently, and went back into the house.
For she had seen a slim girl with short yellow hair curling
all over her head, and that head was resting on a young man's shoulder.
It seemed unnecessary, too, because there were two steamer
chairs under the rose arbor, side by side, and pillows sufficient for each.
And why a slim young girl should prefer to pillow her
curly, yellow head upon the shoulder of a rather gaunt young man--the shoulder,
presumably, being bony and uncomfortable--she alone could explain perhaps.
The young man did not appear to be inconvenienced. He
caressed her hair while he spoke:
"From here to Belfort," he was saying in his musing, agreeable
voice, "and from Belfort to Paris; and from Paris to London, and from London
to Strathlone Head, and from Strathlone Head to Glenark Cliffs, and from
Glenark Cliffs to Isla Water, and from Isla Water--to our home! Our home,
Yellow-hair," he repeated. "What do you think of that?"
"I think you have forgotten the parson's house on the
way. You are immoral, Kay."
"Can't a Yank sky-pilot in Paris--"
"Darling, I must have some clothing!"
"Can't you get things in Paris?"
"Yes, if you'll wait and not become impatient for Isla.
And I warn you, Kay, I simply won't marry you until I have some decent
gowns and underwear."
"You don't care for me as much as I do for you," he murmured
in lazy happiness.
"I care for you more. I've cared for you longer, too."
"How long, Yellow-hair?"
"Ever--ever since your head lay on my knees in my car
a year ago last winter! You know it, too," she added. "You are a spoiled
young man. I shall not tell you again how much I care for you!"
"Say 'love',' Yellow-hair," he coaxed.
"Don't I what?"
"Then won't you say it?"
She laughed contentedly. Then her warm head moved a little
on his shoulder; he looked down; lightly their lips joined.
"Kay--my dear--dear Kay," she whispered.
"There's somebody opening the garden door," she said under
her breath, and sat bolt upright.
McKay also sat up on his steamer chair.
"Oh!" he cried gaily, "hello, Recklow! Where on earth
have you been for three days?"
Recklow came into the rose arbour. The blossoms were gone
from the vines but it was a fragrant, golden place into which the September
sun filtered. He lifted Miss Erith's hand and kissed it gravely. "How are
you?" he inquired.
"Perfectly well, and ready for Paris!" she said smilingly.
Recklow shook hands with McKay.
"You'll want a furlough, too," he remarked. "I'll fix
it. How do you feel, McKay?"
"All right. Has anything come out of our report on the
Recklow seated himself and they listened in strained silence
to his careful report. Once Evelyn caught her breath and Recklow paused
and turned to look at her.
"There were thousands and thousands of insane down there
under the earth," she said pitifully.
"Yes," he nodded.
"Did--did they all die?"
"Are the insane not better dead, Miss Erith?" he asked
calmly.... And continued his recital.
That evening there was a full moon over the garden. Recklow
lingered with them after dinner for a while, discussing the beginning of
the end of all things Hunnish. For Foch was striking at last; Pershing
was moving; Haig, Gouraud, Petain, all were marching toward the field of
Armageddon. They conversed for a while, the men smoking. Then Recklow went
away across the dewy grass, followed by two frisky and factious cats.
But when McKay took Miss Erith's head into his arms the
girl's eyes were wet.
"The way they died down there--I can't help it, Kay,"
she faltered. "Oh, Kay, Kay, you must love me enough to make me forget--forget--"
And she clasped his neck tightly in both her arms.