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Title: The Despatch Rider Author: Edgar Wallace * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305661h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2013 Most recent update: Oct 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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LADY GALLIGAY was always always starting things: other people usually carried them on, complaining bitterly the while that they had ever been born to assume the responsibilities which Lady Galligay created. For the "things" that she started with such zest invariably ended and finished without any assistance whatsoever. They faded away without violence and without noise. In January all Tadminster would be talking of Lady Galligay's newest project; there would be drawing-room meetings innumerable. They might even develop shape as a "cause," and attain to thc dignity of a public meeting, recorded in large type in the Tadminster Times. But by April, so feeble would the flame of interest flicker, that it was a case of "By the way, what happened to that great scheme of Lady Gally's?" when men and women met.
The Tadminster Mounted Nurse and Despatch-Rider Corps was one of this feather-brained little lady's most brilliant inventions. She was forty, and vague. and rich, and immensely energetic, and if she lacked stamina it was not to be expected that all the virtues of organization should dwell in one small body. It was after her "Cottage and Pigsty" for the democracy had been rejected by the same democracy, although two cottages were built and a whole drove of pigs had been mobilized, that Lady Galligay had planned her Mounted Nurses' Corps. It was an idea—even George Mestrell agreed that it was an idea, but, of course, he never dreamt that Jo would take up with the beasly thing. If the truth be told, Jo was rather aghast at finding herself enrolled, but Lady Gally was so awfully plausible, and well, there it was; George must take the situation as he found it, or leave it.
George, full of good spirits, came down from Aldershot one Saturday in spring, bringing, so to speak, the good news from Aix, for there had been an unexpected resignation and he had got his company. It made all the difference in the world, because matrimony was not encouraged amongst subaltern officers. He was entirely full of his good news, and sat on the edge of the settee in the dinky little drawing-room of Nearminster House, and told Gresham, demure and beautiful, her tender grey eyes smiling approval of her soldier lover and his enthusiasm, waited to impart her own news.
She broke it obliquely, with a line pretense of unconcern. Instinctively she felt, or he felt, that there was something in Lady Gallagay's latest which was not quite—
"I suppose you've heard of Lady Gally's corps?" she asked, carelessly.
He had a trick of smiling with his eyes which ordinarilv was very pleasing. For the first time in their acquaintance it failed to disarm her. Rather it sent her heart sinking down and down.
"Why do you smile?"
"I read something about it in the papers," he laughed. What a dear, funny old bird she is! Not a bad idea, hut imagine a corps of attractive young women gallivanting over a modern battlefield!
"In the sacred cause of humanity," she said. She knew she was being horribly trite, and felt no sweeter in consequence.
He stared up at her solemnly, for she had risen and stood, a slim, heroic figure, her rebellious chin tilted up, her fine brows set in menace.
"You are a soldier and you are biased," She went on, slowly. "You don't realize how women's positions have changed, how their capacities have enlarged. You don't underrtand.
Now the curious thing was, as she admitted to herself, that she herself had thought the corps a little ridiculous, and on the first "parade" she had felt so self-conscious as to vow a vow never again to appear in public so arrayed. But now, encountering a half-anticipated opposition, her attitude of mind had changed, and she indulged herself in a veritable orgy of inconsistency. She was unreasonably angry with him.
"Wait!" she commanded, suddenly, and whisked out of the room.
He waited, frowning his bewilderment, a neat, cleanly soldier man. How like Jo to jump down his throat for nothing at all! She was the dearest and sweetest and most perverse and obstinate of girls, and why on earth she should champion Gally the Lord only knew. So he thought, and, thinking, wondered why she had left him so dramatically.
After ten minutes' wait, ten minutes in the course of which he was by turn angry, amused, alarmed—suppose she was crying over something he had said—and resigned, he heard her footsteps on the parquet of the hall, and rose as she entered. He had had no intention of rising, because George's manners were deplorable, as everybody in Tadminster knows, but he rose—and gasped.
She came into the room, closing the door behind her, and stood, a little flushed, a little defiant, confronting him. Upon her pretty head was a wide sombrero hat, which was fastened under her chin by a strap. She wore a tight-fitting tunic blouse of blue cloth, with two rows of silver buttons; a skirt of serge braided in scarlet, which reached only so far as midway between knee and ankle; patent leather riding boots; and a suggestion of dark blue riding breeches went with snow-white haversack, military cross-belt, and riding gauntlets to complete the picture.
For a moment there was silence; then he spoke.
"Fancy dress or something?"
She pressed her lips tightly together and shook her head. There was a light in her eyes which should have warned him.
"What is the joke?" he asked, earnestly. "Is it private theatricals?"
She withered him with one glance.
"This is the uniform," she said.
"Lady Galligay's Mounted Nurses and Messengers," she explained, with unnatural patience.
He looked at her from head to toe, and in his scrutiny there was to Jo something unpardonably offensive.
"But," he said, slowly, "you're not rowing in that galley, dearie—dash it all, I mean you're not one of those infernally sill—I mean one of those?" He blundered himself to a standstill.
"Go on, please," she encouraged him, though her eyes were very moist and she was biting her very red lips with unnecessary vehemence.
"But, my girlie, it's so dashed absurd!" He blurted out the truth in his despair, this tall young man (something of a strategist in another field).
"I mean," he floundered, "it's so jolly theatrical, and the girls look such guys, and—"
"But don't you see," he protested, "you can do nothing—you can't gallop about on a battlefield, darling; it isn't done. What can you do? You can't carry wounded soldiers about on horseback; and, as for despatch-riding, who the dickens is going to take order from you?"
"I can—we can do many things," she said, firmly and coldly; "but it would be foolish of me to argue the matter—I think you are just horrid, and I hate you!"
He stood in the centre of the room after she had flounced out, and for exactly three minutes he was penitent. Then he became annoyed, and when a tight-lipped and wholly antagonistic maid had informed him curtly that Miss Josephine was not to be seen, he was very angry indeed, and went back to town by the next train.
And that was the beginning of a tactless correspondence between two young people, a correspondence in which the effect of a certain scrappy tenderness was utterly annihilated by the indiscriminate use of notes of exclamation.
Jo resigned her membership of the Flying Nurses, gave her uniform to the gardener—an unimaginative man who saw possibilities for little boys' breeches in the voluminous riding-skirt—and she went abroad on the long-planned motor tour through South-Western France, previously dispatching a half-hoop of diamonds with a curt note to "Lieutenant G. Mestrell, 1st Southamptonshire Regiment, Talavera Barracks, Aldershot." And this though George had explained to her the highly important fact that he had secured his captaincy.
Of her adventures, her spasms of remorse, of letters reproachful and letters affectionate and letters completely penitent which she wrote and tore up, it is not necessary to tell. She lost her girl companion at a little town between Paris and Orleans.
Of her adventures, her spasms of remorse, of letters reproachiul and letters affectionate and letters completely penitent which she wrote and tore up, it is not necessary to tell. She lost her girl companion at a little town between Paris and Orleans.
There were rumours of war in the air, but that was no unusual experience in France. Bertha Mansell, however, was nervous, and must go home, and Jo was left with her little two-seater to decide whether she should take the Paris-Amiens road, or whether she should continue northward to the old-world town of Senlis. Here in the heart of the country an aunt had a little château. Jo decided on the second course, and came to the Château Verte to find herself its sole occupant, Aunt Martha having been bitten by the war scare and having left in a hurry for England.
It suited Jo, this month of absolute rest after the strenuous days of motoring. She sketched and slept and listened with amusement to the wild stories of war which an ancient French servitor and his no more youthful spouse regaled her with.
Then one day she awoke with a shock to learn the truth. There was war. Motoring out towards Beauvais, she had seen French soldiers marching northward. Belgium had been invaded, Liège was in their hands—even Brussels, they said, but that was unbelievable. Yes, it was possible to get to Ostend, but she must hurry.
The English were also at war, they told her, but only on the sea. She felt a sudden lightening of heart at this—hugged the obviously unlikely story to her heart, though reason told her that one Service could not be engaged without the other.
She hurried hack to the château, packed her traps, and strapped them to the rear of her little car. The servitor and his wife had already made preparations for departure.
"Take the road through Maubeuge, and branch off to Condé, mademoiselle," said the man; "but" — his face was troubled — "it would be better to go to Calais; that is only five hours away."
She shook her head.
It was a perfectly absurd consideration. but she had come to the Continent by way of Ostend, and had her return ticket by that route. Moreover, there was a rebate to be claimed at the frontier; a rebate of the provisional duty she had paid on her car.
Besides, she might see something of the fighting—an exhilarating and joyous thought. She set her car at the hill which led from the château to the plateau above Senlis with a sense of glorious anticipation.
OVER by Condé the guns were sobbing fitfully. You had to listen with your ears strained to catch the insistent note. If you climbed to the high belfry of St. Peter's you saw, through good glasses, little woolly balls of smoke appearing in the air, saw the shapeless drift of it as it thinned, and, listening with all your nerves tense, you might identify one of the far-off sobs with that lazy smoke spume.
"I think mademoiselle had better go quickly." The old priest, his cassock white with the dust of the roads, was hollow-eyed and weary. His shoes were hard and burnt and grimy, and there was a two-days' stubble of beard on his chin. He stood by the side of the girl in the bellry, plucking at his lip thoughtfully, his anxious eyes divided between the northern horizon and the slim girl by his side. Jo was young and immensely pretty—not the rose and cream prettiness of England, but the old-ivory beauty of the South. The eyes were big and grey and wide set, her mouth small but full-parted now in her excitement. The rough tweed dress, the short skirt, and puttied ankles suggested a bicycle, but it was a little two-seater "Mombo" that stood by the porch of the old church, a worn trunk strapped to the carrier. Altogether, thought Father Pierre, an incongruous figure in this area of horrible war. Her trim hat appeared grey—it had once been a most uncompromising black, but the roads of Southern Belgium in July are inclined to revolutionize the intentions of the modiste. "They are returning this way," said the priest, after a while, and fidgeted nervously. "Mademoiselle must abandon her idea of crossing Belgium—her way lies through Lille to the coast. She will be safe, for the English hold—"
"The English?" she gasped. "Are there English here?"
He nodded and smiled.
"There is a great division—there." He pointed towards Condé. "Also there are others in the rear."
"But they told me— Are you sure, father?"
He nodded again.
He was very sure, for had he not seen the yellow coats go swaying past through Rheims—yellow coats open to show grey-blue shirts and bare brown throats.
"The regiments?" He shook his head regretfully in answer to her question.
"No, I do not know the regiments. They wore badges—here, on the collar. Some had tigers in brass, one had a sphinx in white metal, some wore little grenades, and one had a bronze fox—"
"A bronze fox!" she gasped.
There is only one regiment in the British Army that wears the "red fox," and that is the Southamptonshire Regiment—that famous fox which they won in the Nepalese War. It took her a second to decide. Somewhere over there where the guns were going "glang!" "glang!" was George—George unreconciled—in danger.
She must see him. She must tell him she was sorry. It was the maddest of ideas. She knew how absurd it was even as she went stumbling down the belfry steps, followed by the startled curé. "No, mademoiselle!" he cried, in apprehension, as she turned the car to the northern road; "not that way—not that way!"
But with a cheery wave of her hand she put the little car to the long, straight road which led towards those dreadful guns.
She passed soldiers busily entrenching, French cavalry stealing along the side of the road. Once she slowed down before a cottage where a bare-armed surgeon was busy with the wreck of a man that lay stretched on a big kitchen table, They glanced at her curiously, but did not stop her. Then there was a clearer stretch of road, and she let out the little Mombo to its top licks. The guns were nearer now, their "boom-boom" was incessant, there was a horrible sound in the air—a whining, whistling, shrieking sound, and once she saw a white house far away to her right burst into flames and crumble slowly to pieces.
She passed through a tiny village which was still blazing. Men and horses lay by the side of the road in curious, unreal attitudes. They had been dragged to the side to allow a battery of artillery to pass. Later she was to see the shattered limber of one of these guns in a ditch with the feet and legs of a French soldier protruding from the wreck. It was as though he had crawled underneath to investigate the cause of the trouble—only he was so terribly still, and the girl went white and felt deadly sick.
She recovered herself with an effort, stiffened her back till she sat bolt upright, and grasped the wheel more firmly.
Then she came suddenly upon more soldiers lying by the side of the road, and occupying the centre of the broad roadway, at a place where it topped the hill before dipping again to the valley, a group of mounted men. She knew it for the general staff of a French division. They were pointing to the left, and two of the officers were looking through their glasses. The girl stopped the car behind them. Here the roads branched off. A cross-road to the left led to Mons, as she knew; the one to the right would take her to Charleroi. But she realized she had reached the end of her journey. Here was Authority, which would send her back the way she had come. For the moment the staff were too occupied to notice her.
The dapper little general with the gold-laced képi was talking sharply, impatiently, to his chief of staff.
"Send a messenger at once to withdraw that company," he rapped. "Mon Dieu, it will be annihilated! The English have retired also. It is madness."
"I think they have—" began the other, when he was interrupted.
A group of soldiers were reclining by the side of the road. One had a small telephone receiver to his ear, and a trailing wire from a post above led down to him.
As the staff officer spoke one of the group rose and came towards the general with a slip of paper in his hand. He reached up the slip, saluting, and the general scanned the message.
"Cannot communicate with a company of the Southamptonshire Regiment on my right," he read. "Can you reach Captain Mestrell and order him to retire?"
For a moment the girl in the car swayed backward and forward; for that space of time the rush and roar of battle faded into a far-away buzz.
"Send a cyclist—it is risky." She heard the general speaking. "Tell the Englishman to take the road back to the hills by the stone cross. There's a way out for him."
She saw a young officer leap into the seat of his dirty motor-cycle, heard the pat-pat-pat of the engine, and watched him like one in a dream as he streaked down the hill to the right.
She watched him fascinated, gradually receding from view, then suddenly the cycle swayed left and right as though the driver were trying to evade some invisible obstacle. With one final lurch, cycle and rider went crashing to the ground,and the messenger did not rise.
"Send another man."
The curt tone of the general came to her.
Again an ofhcer mounted and went whizzing down the hill. He reached the bottom before, without warning, he went tumbling over and over till at last he lay an inert little bundle of humanity under his broken machine.
The girl heard the impatient click of lips.
"I can't risk another man. The road is swept by rifle fire."
They were going to leave him—to leave George and his men! Her eyes opened wide in horror at the thought. Yet she knew that the general was just.
"He will stay there till he is cut up," said the staff officer's voice, very slowly and deliberately. He had a solemn, mournful voice, she noted mechanically. She wondered in a numb, cold-blooded way if he were married. He spoke like a father of a family. A stout man, who sat his horse ungracefully. And George was to be left—to be cut up.
The car still purred and trembled under her. The wheel on which her hand rested shivered at intervals, as though it was part of a living, reasoning organism, dreading the ordeal ahead. She did what she did without thought. She gently pressed her foot downward, and the car moved.
"Stop! Who are you, madam?" It was the general, swinging round on his restive horse.
She could not speak; she could only point to the road that lcd to Mons.
She heard a warning shout, a cry of command, but they were too late to stop her.
Gathering momentum with every turn of its wheels, the little Mombo leapt down the hill. Her eyes were fixed on the road ahead. The first dead man she could pass without difficulty. She must slow to the next and go round him, and that was the danger point. She flew past the first obstacle, caught a fleeting glimpse of a doubled-up figure and a white face that stared up to the blue heaven, then the glass wind-shield smashed into a thousand pieces, and her lap was filled with splinters of glass. But she was not hit; only one flying splinter had drawn blood from her gloved hand. She was cool now, steadied the car for the man who lay in the middle of the road, and breathed a sigh of relief when she found that she had misjudged the space. There was room enough to pass. One sorrowful glance she gave to the pitiful thing which a few minutes before had been a living, breathing man, and then she began the ascent of a stiff little hill. And all the time she heard the smack, smack of bullets as they struck her car. She saw the off-side lamp jump up and fall, and once there was a sensation as though somebody had breathed a sharp, cold breath before her face.
On the crest of the hill she had immunity from danger. She ran through a cutting for half a mile, then the road turned suddenly, and she saw at the foot a rugged line of men retiring by short, sharp rushes from cover to cover. She heard the shrill whistle of an officer, and the line came with a run over the stubble field to the deep road. At full speed she sent the car forward, laughing and crying, for she had distinguished the tall young man in command, had indeed picked him out five hundred yards away.
Captain George Mestrell, unshaven and grimy, heard the wheels of the car and turned as the tiny two-seater jarred to a standstill.
"My God!" he breathed. "Jo!" She was still laughing, though her face was wet with tears.
"There is a road behind you," she cried, shrilly, "in the wood by the stone cross, and you've got to retire at once. The general says so."
"Jo!" he repeated, and pressed his hands before his eyes.
"The road by the stone cross," she said. "Look, look! there it is; I'll show you." She ran the car farther along the road till she came to the stone cross. There was little sign of road, only an opening in the thick bush which apparently led to the hill above, but she turned the car, and turned again, and struck a smooth track which wound between the densely-planted trees round the base of the hill on the left. She looked behind her. The men were following, and George, limping painfully, was with them.
"It is very wonderful," admitted a wholly mystified young officer a little later when a French surgeon had finished dressing an ugly bullet wound in his leg. "Can you tell me in what capacity you are serving?"
She smiled mysteriously.
"Lady Galligay's corps has been mobilized," she answered, untruthfully. And George winced.
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