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Title: Sister Louise
Author: Fred. M. White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201931.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: May 2012
Date most recently updated: May 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Sister Louise
Author: Fred. M. White

*

Published in the Warwick Examiner and Times, Qld. Monday 28 June, 1915.

*



All that bitter black November the fight had been keen and merciless
along the right bank of the Moselle, and now the tide had rolled on,
leaving the village of St. Lie a veritable shambles. Then, as one wave
rises higher than the rest, the red flood had come back for the moment,
for the Uhlans were pressing hard upon a mob of franctireurs, and for
the moment the strife had degenerated into downright murder. There was
no quarter asked or given--every one of these irregulars taken with arms
in his hands was promptly shot.

Here was work enough and to spare for the Red Cross, and hither came
Major Eustace, late of her Majesty's Service, together with his
colleague Captain Gray and all the paraphernalia for the formation of a
flying field-hospital.

All France lay in the grip of winter. The torn roads were as iron now,
the fields steel-grey under a powder of snow. The wounded as they lay in
the open died of the cold--they were found there with their blood frozen
on their mangled limbs. There was nothing to deaden the revolting horror
of it all, no redeeming feature except the Red Cross flag flying over a
little chapel by the roadside.

"My word! this is worse than the trenches before Sebastopol," Eustace
muttered. "You remember?"

Gray nodded curtly. He beat his frozen hands together in a vain attempt
to infuse a little warmth into them. He and Eustace had volunteered for
Red Cross work, as scores of other English half-pay officers had done.

"It's murder," Gray growled. "Oh, I'm not defending the franctireur. He
has brought a good deal of trouble on himself; but that's no reason why
he should be treated like a brigand. A company of Bavarians, with a
squad of Uhlans, caught a hundred of them down in the riverbed
yesterday, and shot them down like sheep. It seems a burning shame to
waste some of the best blood in France like this."

"Well, it makes work for us," Eustace said grimly. "Are the nurses all
right?"

"Oh, I've looked after, them," Gray explained. "They are in the chapel
yonder. Adamson is there, too. They've got about a score of wounded
under their charge altogether--franctireurs to a man!"

"And Demarney?" Gray asked. "Did they down him?"

"By Jove, I hope not!" Eustace exclaimed. "Demarney's far too good a
fellow to be wasted like that. What a daredevil he is, to be sure. And a
better game-shot I never saw."

"Well, he hasn't considered himself much. And it's a confoundedly risky
business, after all. But that was always Demarney's idea of enjoying
himself. He had resigned a cavalry commission to throw in his lot with
these devil-may-care freelances. The mere fact that he would be shot for
a spy if he fell into the hands of the Germans was a special attraction.
And, by Jove, he has been a thorn in their side, too!"

The other nodded approvingly. They had met young Demarney in more than
one English country house; they had a warm regard for the handsome,
reckless young Frenchman. They had come in contact with him many times
during the last six weeks; he had shared a camp-fire with them on
occasion and more than once when the Uhlans were actually searching for
him in the neighbourhood. But it looked now as if Demarney had been
caught at last, seeing that he had been the actual leader of the
irregulars who had been wiped out in the horrible battle down amongst
the orchards by the bend of the River Moselle. With his usual luck
Demarney might have got away, for assuredly he could not be far off, to
say nothing of the fact that the neighbourhood was patrolled with German
cavalry, and Demarney was well known. He had no horse, there was not an
ounce of provisions in the province which was not in the hands of the
foe, and to sleep out in the open in that bitter weather was to invite a
death swift if not merciful.

It was so bitterly, intensely cold that the birds were lying dead in the
woods, and the foxes had come down from the Ardennes, ravenous and
dangerous, in search of food. For miles round no buildings stood intact,
with the solitary exception of the little chapel over which the Red
Cross drooped. As the sky overhead turned from blue to steel-grey, and
the sun dropped in the west like a copper shield, the twinkling
camp-fires of the German cavalry flamed out here and there. Eustace and
Gray pushed their way on in the direction of the chapel, for something
in the nature of light and warmth and comfort lay there.

It was a strange sight--one of those amazing pictures that only war can
inspire. The grateful warmth came from the stove which glowed in the
centre of the building, and round about it a score of wounded men lay on
piles of clean straw. A doctor was ministering to the wants of these; a
couple of nurses flitted noiselessly from one patient to another. Up
beyond the altar-rails half-a-dozen horses had been stalled, and the
clatter of their hoofs sounded strangely grotesque and out of place
amidst the carving and gorgeous colouring of the walls. Every scrap of
woodwork had long since been torn away and used for fuel. The chapel was
illuminated dimly enough with a few smoky oil lamps, the flame of which
flickered unsteadily upon the carved stone pillars and the great picture
over the altar. Still, it was warm there, and Eustace and his companion
were thankful for that much.

The doctor Adamson came forward and stood himself wearily by the side of
Gray and Eustace.

"Anything fresh?" the latter asked. "Have you heard news of Demarney, by
any chance?"

Adamson jerked his thumb in the direction of the wounded lying inertly
about the stove.

"He's not amongst that lot, at any rate," he said. "Von Kneller came in
here just now. Said he had instructions to see if Demarney happened to
be under my charge. He came swaggering in here as if the whole place
belonged to him. What insolent beasts those Uhlan officers are! I should
like to have kicked that chap. I had to be civil, of course."

"Must do that," Gray muttered. "Well, I'm glad they haven't got hold of
Demarney yet. All I hope is he won't come here."

"It would be just like him if he did," Eustace said.

From out of the heap of rags and litter and tawdry pictures torn from
the walls a white face appeared. The features were lank and drawn, the
beard and the moustache were ragged, but the brown eyes were full of
vivacity and a smile was on the lips.

"Well, my friends," Demarney whispered, "and how goes it, as they say in
your country? I have been here since daybreak, and, ma foi, am I not
hungry! I did not dare to speak, for fear of disturbing those ravishing
angels of mercy yonder, for, had they known I had been here, their faces
would have betrayed them. A crust of bread, my dear Eustace, and a
morsel of cheese, if such a thing still remains in this poor France of
mine. I can die with the best of them, but this hunger takes all the
manhood out of me."

Under the rags and fragments of straw, Demarney crept nearer. It was
good to know that this freelance was still in the land of the living,
but at the same time his presence was a terrible embarrassment to
Eustace and Gray. Within a few hundred yards of where they seated the
German pickets were everywhere. It was a clear breach of faith on the
understanding by which the Red Cross contingent was there at all. They
were harbouring a spy on whose head a price had been placed. In his
quick way Demarney read the trouble which was passing through the mind
of Eustace and his colleagues.

"I have done wrong, is it?" he asked. "Forgive me, my friends. But the
comedy was a thing that I could never resist. And you must admit that
there has been little chance lately of anything in the way of
vaudeville."

"It isn't exactly a comic opera," Gray said grimly.

"Ah, but you will not say that presently," Demarney went on. "The time
has come when my presence is needed elsewhere. I have to go to join my
colleagues on the other side of Rheims. To get there is no easy matter.
I have no horse, and every spot is watched, so anxious are the Germans
for the society of Gerald Demarney. And yet they might save themselves
all this trouble. By this time to-morrow I shall be far enough away."

He spoke with an easy assurance that brought a smile to the lips of his
listeners.

"You will give my compliments to Von Kneller," he said. "It is a great
regret to me that I have had no opportunity of exchanging civilities
with him. And now I have pressing business outside. Your bread and
potted meat will make a new man of me."

He wriggled under the straw and littered refuse on the floor, there was
a quick shadow across the doorway, and he was gone.

"Oh, he's mad," Adamson said. "He'll find himself in Von Kneller's power
within half an hour. It seems a pity that he should be so restless. And
look here, Eustace----"

But neither Eustace nor Gray was listening--the warmth of the chapel was
grateful and the needful sleep imperative. They lay down on the straw in
their great-coats and slept the dreamless sleep of the hardened
campaigner all the world over. With something like a sigh of envy,
Adamson turned to his patients. There was no sleep for him except the
slumber he could snatch with one eye open. For an hour or more he moved
from one sufferer to another, attended by the nurses. A breath of keen,
icy air swept through the chapel as the door was opened and a woman came
in. She was clad from head to foot in the shapeless black garment and
white-lined hood usually affected by the Sisterhood everywhere. What was
she doing here? Adamson wondered. So far as he knew, there was no
convent in the neighbourhood.

The woman advanced with her pale face downcast. Adamson could see that
the dark hair was plastered on either side of the white face, giving the
newcomer a suggestion of maturity that was somewhat belied by the
erectness of her figure. It seemed strange that she should be abroad on
a night like this.

Adamson came politely forward.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.

The woman stood there with bent head, her hands crossed in her sleeves,
a picture of patience and humility.

"I am in great trouble, Monsieur," she said, in passable English. "I am
Sister Louise, and I belong to the Order of the Sacred Heart at
Mireville. They told me that my brother was dead. He was one of the
franctireurs. He was killed in that dreadful fight a day or two ago in
the orchards. I came down to look for him and give him decent burial
with my family in the cemetery at Mireville. I have found his body,
Monsieur----"

The Sister paused, as if unable to proceed. Adamson listened with
respectful sympathy.

"I found him," Sister Louise went on presently. "Some of the peasants
helped me, and those kind people have lent me a cart to take the body of
my dear brother to his last home. But, alas! there is no chapel left at
Mireville, and no priest there to administer the last offices of the
dead. My kind friends are waiting outside at this moment with the body.
I thought if I might bring the remains of my dear brother and offer up
one prayer for his eternal repose, it would be all I could do. Do you
think it would be the same thing if I read the service myself?"

Adamson stammered his embarrassed sympathy. He kicked Eustace and Gray
into wakefulness, and laid the problem before them.

"Why not, poor soul?" Eustace yawned sleepily. "She will be all the
happier for doing this thing, and it will make no difference to us. What
an extraordinary setting to such a pathetic scene!"

Sister Louise appeared to be listening, for she turned a wan, grateful
face in Eustace's direction. She vanished into the bitter night for a
moment, to return presently, followed by four peasants who staggered
into the chapel carrying a rude bier on which seemed to be a body
enclosed in the hastily constructed coffin. A white sheet lay over the
silent form, which was deposited silently and reverently on the steps
leading to the chancel.

"This is good of you, Messieurs," Sister Louise said tearfully. "It
desolates me to disturb you like this, especially when you are attending
to the wants of my dear fellow-countrymen. But it is only for a little
time that I wish to be alone with all that remains of my brother."

The Englishmen bowed silently. Respectfully they turned their backs upon
the slender figure in the black garments. A quarter of an hour passed in
absolute silence, save for an occasional murmur from one of the wounded;
then the door of the chapel was flung open, and Von Kneller, accompanied
by a handful of Bavarian infantry, stride angrily up the aisle.

"What's the meaning of all this?" he demanded. "There are a dozen or
more peasants outside, gathered together strictly against orders. If I
did my duty I should have them all put with their backs to the wall and
shot. They make some paltry excuse to the effect that they are attending
a funeral."

"So they are," Eustace snapped. "And I'll trouble you, Herr Lieutenant,
to speak a little more quietly. You are disturbing the wounded. We are
under the Red Cross here, which means the protection of Europe. And, by
Heaven, if you don't speak to me properly, I'll take you by the scruff
of the neck and throw you into the road! You understand that?"

The Lieutenant's beard fairly bristled with anger. But he was in the
wrong, and he knew it. He stammered some sort of an apology in an
ungracious undertone.

"My orders are strict, Major," he said. "And the peasantry here know it.
They told me some fairy story about one of the Sisters from Mireville
who had come down here to find the body of her brother. According to
what I hear, they raked out a coffin from somewhere with the idea of
conveying the body to Mireville. They say the woman came here to hold a
sort of funeral service. But I'm not going to believe that."

"It doesn't matter whether you believe it or not," Gray said curtly.
"The poor creature made the request, and, having some sort of feeling
left, we granted it. Haven't you got a pair of eyes in your head, man?
Can't you see things for yourself?"

Once more Von Kneller looked red and uncomfortable. It was quite clear
that the pathetic side was absolutely lost upon him. Orders to him were
sacred things. The men behind him stood there sullen and rebellious. As
the silence grew uncomfortable, Sister Louise came slowly down the
chapel with hands meekly folded.

"It is a comfort to me, Monsieur, that I have been able to do this
thing. Will you kindly call my faithful friends outside and tell them
that I am ready to proceed?"

"Where do you come from?" Von Kneller asked harshly.

Just for an instant the Sister's eyes flashed, then she looked down
demurely again. The three Englishmen there tingled to their fingertips.
Gray stepped forward.

"We have already explained to you," he said between his teeth. "Confound
it all, Lieutenant, does your Red Book expressly forbid you to remember
you are a gentleman in time of war? Here, Adamson, go and fetch those
peasants in. And, if necessary, Eustace and myself will see the cortege
outside the German lines."

Von Kneller chewed his moustache impatiently. He was a creature of a
system, and he had no desire to go too far. To bring himself into active
contact with the Red Cross was no action to be lightly embarked upon. He
stepped forward and laid a detaining hand on the Sister's shoulder.

"I've a few questions to ask you," he said sternly.

The Sister looked appealing in the direction of the Englishmen. The
peasants were bringing the body down the chapel now; they were not far
from the door. In a sudden fit of passion, Eustace grasped Von Kneller
by the shoulders and threw him violently on one side. His spurs caught
in some of the litter on the floor, and he sprawled at length on the
straw. One of the Bavarians behind him drew a revolver and commenced to
shoot promiscuously in all directions. It was only for a moment, then
Gray was upon him and the revolver was snatched from the soldier's
grasp. Apparently, no harm had been done, though a rent appeared to have
been torn in the white sheet lying over the coffin. Eustace could see
where the bullet had entered. Just for a moment he struggled hopelessly
with the anger that possessed him, and just for a moment, had Von
Kneller but known it, he lay there in peril of his life. Gray clutched
Eustace's arm.

"Steady, old man, steady!" he whispered. "Don't go too far. We've got
all the cards in our hands if you can only play them properly. If we
report this business Von Kneller's career is finished, and he knows it.
And I say, Adamson, some of your patients need attention. This sort of
thing isn't good----"

But Adamson was not listening. With his eyes fairly starting from his
head, he was gazing at the still figure under the white sheet. Near the
feet, where the recklessly fired bullet had entered, a tiny red spot no
larger than a sixpence had appeared. It seemed to be extending steadily.
Adamson bent down swiftly, and apparently carelessly threw a handful of
disused dressing over the red spot.

"Get outside," he whispered hoarsely to the bewildered peasants, "get
outside at once."

The little procession started again steadily, and Adamson gave a great
sigh of relief. Von Kneller had struggled sulkily to his feet, and stood
there breathing defiantly.

"What are you going to do about it?" Eustace asked crisply.

"I have been insulted," Von Kneller declared. "My authority has been set
at defiance----"

"Now let's have none of that," Eustace went on. "If you'll order your
blackguards off and make us a proper apology in writing, you won't hear
any more of this. We've got Europe behind us, my friend, and don't you
forget it. Now you just come back here to-morrow with that apology
nicely written, and we'll call the incident closed. And don't you molest
that funeral party."

Von Kneller turned abruptly on his heel and strode out of the chapel
without another word. Adamson's time was fully occupied for the next few
minutes looking after his wounded and allaying the fears of the nurses.
Then he slipped on his overcoat and turned eagerly to the other two men.

"Come on," he said; "we've got no time to lose. I thought you were going
to see that funeral procession through the German lines. If you do, I
think I can show you something that will astonish you. The best thing we
can do is to follow at a respectful distance. Our chance will come when
the coast is clear."

But apparently no attempt had been made to interfere with the
procession, as it was quite alone when Adamson strode forward and
addressed himself to Sister Louise.

"Is he badly hurt?" he asked eagerly.

"No, he isn't," a gay voice came from the coffin under the sheet.
"Merely a scratch on the calf of the leg."

"What's all this mean?" Eustace demanded.

Sister Louise turned a smiling face in his direction. The plastered
bands of hair had disappeared, and a charming set of piquant features
looked out from under the ugly bonnet.

"I am Louise Demarney," the girl explained. "I am here to help my
brother. Oh, I hope you don't think it was wicked of me to pretend so
much. But it was Gerald's scheme, and there was no other way to save him
from this terrible danger. I had to wait so long in the church because
things were not altogether in readiness. We take our brother as far as
Antou, where horses and powerful friends await him. You are good
comrades of his--I wish you'd try and persuade him not to be so
constantly running his head into danger."

Demarney sat up on the cart. There was a gay smile on his lips.

"Oh, it is as the breath of life to me," he cried. "And if you will ask
Louise to confess the truth, she enjoyed the adventure as much as
myself. Now confess, little one."

"Not when I saw the bullet-hole in the sheet." The girl shuddered.
"Messieurs, how can I thank you--"

"By not thanking us at all," Eustace said.



THE END


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