In Secret

Robert W. Chambers




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 the grass. 

"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 breast. 

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 INSANE." 


"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 down!" 

"Deep under the earth." 

"There must be shafts!" said Recklow hoarsely. 


"No shafts to the surface?" 

"Not one." 

"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 mirth. 

"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 time. 

"Do you understand? Do you see how it was planned? For forty-eight years the Hun had been preparing to seize France and crush Europe. 

"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 teeth. 

"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 earth's surface. 

"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 a sound: 

"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 o'clock. 

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 road. 

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 street. 

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 the earth. 

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 was smashed." 

"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 the tunnel?" 

"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, messieurs!" 

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 you?" 

"Don't I what?" 

"Love me?" 


"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 Great Secret?" 

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.  



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