Brighton boys with the f.., p.10
Brighton Boys with the Flying Corps,
James R. Driscoll
PLANNING THE ESCAPE
No breaking in was found necessary. The back door opened readilyenough. The boys stepped into the rude kitchen and closed the door,listening for a moment in the silence. A meal of sorts was stillspread on the plain deal table, but it had evidently been there forsome days. The place seemed to have been deserted by its inhabitantswithout any preparation or warning. The stillness was uncanny, andBob's voice sounded unusually loud as he remarked:
"Not even a cat left behind."
The poverty of the former occupants was apparent from a glance aboutthe room, on one side of which was a half-cupboard, half-wardrobe, theopen door of which showed sundry worn, dirty garments, little morethan collections of rags.
"There is another room in front," remarked Bob. "From the look ofthings here, though, we can hardly expect to find any clothing thatwill serve our purposes."
Dicky stepped toward the door leading to the front of the building."It is as silent as the grave, without a doubt," he said as he turnedthe handle and pushed gently. The door would not open.
"Stand back and let me shove," said Bob.
He put his shoulder against the door and threw his weight againstit. The flimsy lock broke at the first strain, and Bob caught himselfjust in time to save himself from falling. No sooner had the boysgained an entrance to the room than they saw they were not the onlyoccupants of it. On one side stood a low bed, upon which rested thewasted form of an old woman, her white hair pushed smoothly backfrom her forehead, but spread in tumbled disorder on the pillow.
The old woman was dead.
The locked front door showed she had shut herself in to die, andhad died alone. How long she had lain there, as if asleep, for soshe appeared, was a matter of conjecture. The thin, gnarled hands,brown with outdoor labor, were folded on her breast. Her faceshowed that calm with which death stamps the faces of long-suffering,simple-minded peasant folk. The patient resignation through thelong years of toil, through years, perhaps, of pain and suffering,suffering more likely than not borne in silence, taken as a matterof course---all seemed to have culminated in the quiet peace on theseamed dead face.
No wonder the boys involuntarily uncovered and stood for some timewithout speaking.
"Somebody's mother," said Dicky at last, with a catch in his throat ashe uttered the words.
"Yes, perhaps," said Bob, as he gently covered the body with a blanket."We must bury her decently. Who knows how long she might have lainhere but for our chance coming?"
Under a dust sheet, strung on a bit of string along the side of theroom, the boys found many women's garments, of the cheapest, simplestsort, and some men's clothing. Dicky stripped off his uniform andpulled on a random selection of what lay to his hand. With theaddition of a dirty cap, found on the floor at the foot of the bed,and a pair of coarse boots, one without a heel, that were discoveredin the cupboard in the kitchen, Dicky's disguise was complete. Givena plentiful application of dirt on face and hands, and a couple ofdays' growth of stubble on his chin, no one could have imagined hima smart young officer.
Bob was not so easy to outfit. His larger size made it impossible forhim to find a coat that he could get into, so he had to content himselfwith an old shirt and a dilapidated pair of trousers which did notcome near his feet. No other hat or cap could he find.
Toward dusk, at Dicky's suggestion, they went out and made a searchfor some rude instrument wherewith to dig a grave. They found abroken shovel and a dull adze-like implement. The grave prepared,and dusk having come, Bob was struck with the idea that they had bestbury their uniforms.
"If the Germans should happen to clap eyes on us and decided tosearch us, it would be all up with two Brighton boys," said Bob."So it's my think that we'd better hide the certain evidences asto our identity."
Dicky not only agreed to this, and started at once to put the ideainto practice, but made a further suggestion. "We might give thepoor old woman a better resting place further afield, if we knewwhere to find a graveyard," he said.
"We can search for one," replied Bob. "To carry her away from herewould be the best plan, and bury her when we find a proper burialground. We certainly should not have to take her far."
"If we were discovered doing so, I suppose the fact we were actuallycarrying our dead, or what the Germans would think was our dead, wouldhelp us to get a bit further, too," Dicky argued.
"Fine! And if I can't talk Belgian-French better than any Germanthat ever lived I'll eat my helmet!"
So they took the cupboard door from its hinges, wrapped the body ofthe dead woman carefully in the tattered blankets from her bed, andlaid it on the improvised stretcher.
"We should leave some sort of word as to what we are doing," said Bob."Suppose some of her folks come back and do not find any trace of her?They might never know of her death."
"When we find a place to bury her we will find someone to whom we cantell her story, so much as we know of it," answered Dicky. "Perhapswe might even find a priest to help lay her away."
Thus, without definite plan except to beam their lifeless burden tosome decent burial ground, the boys set out. They had not proceededfar along the lane that led away from the house when they heard voices.They plodded on, and passed a group of persons whom they took to beGermans from the deep gutturals in which they spoke. They were closeto this group, too close for comfort, but passed unobserved in thegathering darkness.
For half an hour they bore the dead woman, passing houses at times,shrouded invariably in darkness. At last they came to a town. Germansoldiers were in evidence there, in numbers, but took no notice ofthe two bent forms bearing the stretcher. Bob, who was leading,bumped into a man in the dark.
"_Pardon_," said the man.
"_Pardon, monsieur_," replied Bob at once.
This was met with a soft-voiced assurance, in French that it wasof no consequence, the remark concluding with the words, "_mon fils_."
"Are you the Father?" Bob blurted out in English.
"Yes," came in low tones in return. "I am Pere Marquee, my son. Sayno more. You may be overheard. Follow me."
Around a corner, down a lane went Pere Marquee, the boys following withtheir strange load. Once well clear of the main street, the Fatherstopped.
"Speak slowly," he said. "I understand your language but imperfectly,my son."
Whereupon Bob promptly told him, in few words, of their quest. Hetold him, too, that they were American aviators in imminent dangerof capture.
"Bring the poor woman this way," said the priest. He led them toa house which he entered without knocking, and asked them to enter.They took the dead woman into a room occupied by two old ladies,and set down their load as Pere Marquee hurriedly told the shortstory he had heard from Bob.
Dicky was nearest to the priest as he finished speaking and turnedto the boys. The old man gave the young one a searching scrutiny,up to that time Dicky had not spoken.
"You, too, are American?" he asked, as if doubtful that so perfecta disguise could have been so hurriedly assumed.
Dicky's answer was short, and made in a tone and with an accent thatmade the good Father look still more sharply into the boy's eyes.
"No one would dream it," he murmured. "You are very like the poordead woman's son---so like that the resemblance is startling. Itis no doubt the clothes that make me note it."
"Not altogether," interposed one of the old ladies. "His voice isstrangely like that of Franois. I know, for Francois frequentlyworked here for us until they took him away. If the American wouldlimp as Franois limped, most folk would take him for Franois, surely."
Franois, it was explained, had been hurt when a boy of twelve, andwhile not seriously crippled, always walked with a slight limp in theright leg.
Once having convinced their new-found friends that they were Americansoldiers whose object it was to restore Belgium to the Belgians, theyall set about the discussion of what should be the next step.
The German colonel was not a hard man, "for a German," said the priest.The soldiers molested but little the townsfolk that were left. Aftersome discussion the Father decided that the best plan would be tohave a funeral in the morning, attended by the two American boysopenly. Both spoke French sufficiently well to answer any questioningby the Germans. Dicky's disguise was perfect, they all declared.With the addition of the limp, which he decided to adopt, he mighteven fool some of the townsfolk. Before they lay down on the floorand snatched some sleep Bob's wardrobe had been replenished with oldclothes gathered from a house nearby.
Little interest was taken in the funeral next morning so far as theGermans were concerned. For that matter but few townsfolk attendedthe actual interment. Those who did were very old folk or veryyoung. Not one of them spoke to either Bob or Dicky. The wholeaffair seemed uncanny to the boys. Bob stooped as he walked at thesuggestion of the priest, and Dicky's limp was very naturally assumed.No sharp scrutiny was given them, though each was bathed inperspiration when they regained the shelter of the house where theyhad spent the night.
"Not a moment must now be lost," said Pre Marquee. "You must get asfar away from this village as possible without delay. Your presencehere will lead to inquiry before many hours have passed, and subsequentregistration. If that comes, you would be shot as spies withoutdoubt, sooner or later. I advised that you take the chance of discoveryat the funeral so that we could say that you came from a nearby townfor that ceremony and had at once returned. Be sure that I shallselect a town in the opposite direction to that in which you will beworking your way. I am sure that the end justifies the means, andI wish you Godspeed."
Ten minutes later the two boys slipped out the rear door of thehouse. Dicky was soon limping through the trees of a thickly-foliagedorchard, Bob close behind. Stooping under the low branches, step bystep they advanced. No one was in sight. A last glance behind andthe boys ducked through the leafy hedge, wriggled over a low wall,and rolled into a deep ditch beside it. Stooping as low as theycould, the boys followed this ditch for some hundreds of yards, untilthey were well clear of the town, and out of sight of anyone in it.Finally they reached a spot which seemed particularly well suitedfor a hiding place, and decided to remain there until dark beforeattempting to proceed further. All the rest of the day they lay inthe moist, muddy ditch-bottom. Bob had torn a map from the back ofan old railway guide he had seen in the house in which he had slept,and it was to prove of inestimable value to him. To strike north,edging west, and reach one of the larger Belgian towns was the firstplan. What they should do once they had accomplished that, time musttell them. So far they had been blessed by the best of fortune, andthe part of the country in which they had descended did not seem tohold very many German troops. Even Bob began to hope.
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