a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: Moray the Traitor Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402471h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Aug 2014 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
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
AS the red tide of conquest streamed over France, another foe, born of the north-east wind, followed. A winding-sheet of snow lay like a pall upon a country stricken to the death. The thin air smote upon the cheek like a lash. Day by day the white powder grew to the crispness of diamond dust; along the whitened fields in the valley of the Moselle the birds lay dead, as if they too had fought their fight and perished. Here and there a few Prussian troops straggled forward There were wounds in the sides of the horses, dull red spots where the congealed blood had frozen.
Along the road into the dim heart of the evening came a train of waggons, each drawn by two horses. At the head of the procession was the Red Cross of the Geneva Convention, at the rear the Union Jack hung sullenly. The carts conveyed stores—some tons of stores in all—for Versailles. From first to last the route was not more than a thousand miles; and yet, aided by money and stout horses, the journey occupied a whole month. And on one of the adventures of this convoy on the way I propose to dwell.
The hour was getting late, the air nipped more shrewdly. Major Eustace scanned the white horizon anxiously; then he turned to his comrade, Captain Huddlestone, who had dozed under the tilt of the cart
"Surely we must be close to Marny now," he said.
"I hope so," Huddlestone responded. "And I also devoutly hope that we shall cross the Moselle by the bridge at Fontnoy by daybreak. If that bridge has gone, our chance of success becomes hopeless."
Eustace was perfectly well aware of the fact. The blowing up of these river bridges had become a serious matter. It was all very well for the Prussians to boast full sway of the roads, but those ubiquitous Francs-tireurs seemed to spring armed and snarling from the ground; a bridge was blown up, a convoy cut off, and they had vanished into the frosty rime.
"They are bound to keep the bridge at Fontnoy," said Huddlestone. "They know quite well that General Moritz lies over yonder with his army corps. Until they are cut off and destroyed, Moritz' force is a serious menace to the line of communication up to Paris. And Von Stein's force behind us would be absolutely useless if the bridge were to go. It would amount to a calamity."
Eustace agreed. All the same, the French could not be blind to the fact: they would make every effort to destroy the bridge at Fontnoy. Still, with the fatal blindness that stigmatised the French all through that disastrous campaign, General Moritz was probably ignorant that Von Stein, with a superior force, was pressing on to Fontnoy to destroy him. As a matter of fact, Moritz did not know of this.
How he learnt the news this story will tell.
Night had already fallen, and the moon rose redly over the belt of snow as the convoy waggons rumbled into the village of Tour. Not more than a score of houses remained, and these were in the hands of half a troop of Uhlans. All the same, an old campaigner like Eustace had no difficulty in finding food and shelter in the village. The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention carried with it a fine moral force.
In a large barn littered with straw and indifferently warmed by a brazier of charcoal, Eustace and Huddlestone lay down with the waggons and the horses. The drivers of the carts had found shelter elsewhere. By ten o'clock the whole village was wrapped in slumber.
The Englishmen crouched closer under the straw. The glow of the brazier filled the barn with red tremulous shadows. It seemed presently to the sleepy eyes of Eustace that something was moving yonder. An icy blast rustled amongst the straw, as if the door had been opened and closed again. Eustace struggled to a sitting position. There were some tons of provisions amongst his stores, and hunger ere now, he knew, had stirred simple peasants to desperate things.
It was no fancy. A human form was creeping along between the horses. Then it seemed to Eustace that there were two of them.
"Who are you, and what are you after?" he demanded.
A human figure shot up, outlined by the glow of the brazier. Then another man rose promptly. Something glittered in the hand of the foremost intruder.
"Do you want me to shoot you?" he said hoarsely.
Huddlestone still slept soundly. He was drunk with tiredness, sodden with fatigue. Eustace could see the humour as well as the danger of the situation.
"Not unless you can do so without inconvenience to me," he said.
The other man frowned. He advanced close to the brazier in order to warm his frozen hands. As he did so his great-coat fell away and disclosed, to Eustace's surprise, the uniform of a French general officer.
"Surely you are rash to venture here!" he cried.
The other man smiled bitterly. His thin lean face grew stern, his ragged moustache drooped over the corners of a sullen mouth. A settled melancholy lay upon him, as on a man who finds fate too strong for him.
"What matters it?" he said. "I am General Moray."
Major Eustace fairly started. The Frenchman announced his name as if he had no doubt it would be recognised. He spoke defiantly.
"The traitor of Metz?" Eustace cried.
He would have given much to recall the words the next moment, for they had escaped him in an unguarded phrase. Moray did not appear to resent the speech.
"Time was when I should have shot a man for that," he said. "Still, why should I blame you for saying what France thinks? Bazaine was the traitor, not I. When I think of the disaster at Metz, I could dash my brains out. There was a man to lead an army for you! Incompetent, careless—why, the man was not known by half the troops in the fortress. A better judge of pâté de-foie-gras than an army corps was he. And when I found him out, and would have exposed the charlatan who sold us as a sheep is sold in the market, he laid the blame on my shoulders. Nobody waited to hear my defence. Then I would have died with my back to the wall, had it not seemed better to me that I should live. But I see you know the story, Major Eustace."
"As well as you appear to know my name," Eustace replied.
The Major spoke truly. Moray had been the intermediary between Bazaine and the Germans prior to that shameful capitulation. There were some who held that Moray had been a scapegoat in the matter; that Bazaine had trumped up a charge against Moray, backed up by his tools, in order to save himself from the disaster which eventually followed. But France as a whole saw in Moray the typical traitor.
"What is your view of the matter?" the latter asked.
"I have no view on the matter," Eustace said evasively. "With a non-combatant like myself passing indifferently between French and German lines 'views' are apt to be dangerous things. The safe delivery of my stores is all that concerns me."
Moray smiled sourly. He had been answered much as he had expected. "You are going to Versailles, I understand?" he said.
"Yes. I hope to be over the bridge at Fontnoy to-morrow."
"Ah! there you are quite wrong, my friend," said Moray grimly. "Before daybreak there will be no bridge over the Moselle at Fontnoy."
"You mean to say--"
"Precisely. General Moritz is in absolute ignorance of the fate that awaits him. At great risk to myself, and after many privations and dangers, I passed successfully through Von Stein's lines this evening. Then I heard of you and came here. For the present I am too exhausted to proceed farther. Therefore I have come to borrow a cart and pair of horses from you."
"To enable you to blow up the bridge, General Moray?"
"Allow me to compliment you on the quickness of your perceptions."
"All the same, what you ask is impossible," said Eustace quietly. "I cannot allow anything to stand between myself and my duty. I am pledged to deliver my stores at Versailles as quickly as possible. The destruction of the Fontnoy bridge would delay me for many, many weeks. Your aims and ambitions are as nothing to me. Not only must I decline to help you, but it becomes my positive duty to put every obstacle in your way."
Moray strode across to the place where Eustace was seated. He stooped down and with grim playfulness laid the barrel of his revolver to Eustace's forehead. The iron was so cold it actually seemed to blister the skin.
"You are a brave man, and I have no wish to blow your brains out," he whispered, "but if you show any signs of mischief I shall not hesitate. My companion here is armed with a rifle. Like myself, he is absolutely reckless of consequences. Whilst I am trespassing on your hospitality, he will remain here to see that you remain passive. If either of you move he is to shoot you both. And, speaking from knowledge of the man, he will assuredly do it."
Eustace choked down his rising anger. Like a brave man who knows his own limits, Eustace bowed to the inevitable.
It was a terrible nuisance, and it represented the loss of much valuable time. Eustace could but admire the pluck and resource and daring of the man who had risked so much to do so much single-handed. To some folks the scheme would have savoured of madness. But Eustace knew better. Given a resolute man and a barrel of gunpowder, and he would have been a bold speculator who ventured to insure the bridge of Fontnoy.
"They call me a traitor," Moray whispered huskily. "Am I acting like one now? Should I have incurred all these dangers when I might have been revelling in German gold? Is the project I have before me now the act of a renegade? Look here!"
Moray pointed to his Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.
"It is dishonoured, they say," he continued. "I am going to show them their mistake. And I am going to prove my right to retain it. But enough of this. My friend, I beg of you not to move. It is dangerous for you."
Eustace could only smile grimly. From under the straw Huddlestone was snoring peacefully. In a short space of time Moray had emptied one of the carts, and dexterously proceeded to attach a pair of horses thereto. Then, with as much politeness as the circumstances would allow, he requested the favour of an interchange of great-coats with Eustace.
"Your mad scheme will fail," said the latter, as he grudgingly complied. "It will be strange to me if the Uhlan guard permits you to leave the village."
"There is no guard," said Moray. "Eh, Pierre?"
The other silent form saluted and nodded grimly. Evidently Moray had been thorough in his plans. And Eustace did not inquire more closely into the fate of the Uhlans who had guarded the road to Fontnoy.
The doors were thrown back, and the cart was led into the snowy road. A brilliant moonlight streamed over the whole camp. From out of the shadow Eustace could see Moray lift something and place it in the cart. He had no need to be told this was a keg of powder.
Then the big doors closed and all was still again. Out on the hard snow the cart rolled and tumbled until the sounds died out in the distance. A quarter of an hour passed, and no further noise was heard. Had Moray got clear through, and was he fairly on his journey of six miles lying between the village and the bridge?
Eustace lunged out with his feet and kicked Huddlestone sharply.
THE operation was repeated with great heartiness ere Huddlestone struggled back to his senses. He rose sleepily, to see a pair of dark eyes gleaming at him along the shining barrel of a rifle.
"Now what's the matter?" he asked with grumbling somnolence. "No peace for the wicked."
Eustace explained as curtly as possible. It was easy to speak freely in the presence of the sentry, seeing that he had absolutely no knowledge of the Saxon tongue.
"Moray is no traitor," said Huddlestone: "Bazaine's cat's-paw, if you like. Before I joined you I was at Metz, remember."
"This is no time for quixotic sentiment, though," Eustace replied. "In the name of common humanity it is our duty to save the bridge. Our duty is clearly defined, whatever happens."
"That's very pretty; but what do you propose to do? Our sombre friend there is evidently an enthusiast. He hath a murderous eye."
By way of reply Eustace kicked out his foot and turned over the brazier of livid charcoal into the straw. A dozen points of crocus flame shot up. With a malediction upon Eustace's clumsiness, the Frenchman commenced to stamp out the hissing, purple flame. Anything like an alarm of fire would be fatal to his master's plans. With feverish energy he beat down the flames. But his preoccupation gave Eustace just the opportunity he required. Like a flash he was on the Frenchman and had him by the throat. Down they fell, writhing and struggling in the sullen smoulder of the straw until Huddlestone dashed in and caught up the chassepot. Pierre yielded to the inevitable with a careless shrug. Constant misfortune had developed the salient points of his philosophy; and there was balm in the reflection of Moray's fifteen minutes' start.
Eustace flung open the door and plunged blindly into the snow. A hard diamond-faced moon rose high in the heavens, it was bright enough to show the dead birds lying on the frozen fields. A piercing wind swept over the valley, filling the air with crystals. At the inn down the village street a window glared redly. Eustace thundered on the door with both fists and called aloud for help. The affair had resolved itself into a mere matter of moments.
A sleepy-looking lieutenant of Uhlans, with points untrussed and eyes aflame with cold, stumbled to the door.
"Ah, Major," he muttered, "and what the devil does this mean?"
Eustace explained briefly. A minute later a bugle note cut the rarefied air and went echoing sullenly across the arctic plain. A score or so of Uhlans came straggling up, cursing the cause of this confusion. In an astonishingly short time the horses were saddled and the troops ready to proceed.
"A two miles start, and six odd miles to the bridge," Lieutenant Troop muttered. "But then the fellow has a waggon, and our horses are fairly fresh. I doubt not that we shall overtake our man yet. You will come, Major!"
The request was in the form of a command. All the same Eustace and Huddlestone had no desire to refuse. Sleep was now out of the question; and, moreover, the adventure promised to be an exciting one. Besides, the destruction of the Fontnoy bridge would be a serious matter for them.
Lieutenant Troop was equally alive to the gravity of the situation. To protect the line of communication up to Paris the bridge must remain intact, else how would Von Stein cross over and fall upon the army corps of General Moritz—at present a veritable thorn in the side of the Prussians? Moritz was utterly unconscious of the foe bearing down upon him. The destruction of the bridge would frustrate all this. Once Moray had accomplished his purpose, he would doubtless push on and acquaint Moritz with his danger. The Lieutenant muttered strange things in his beard.
"How did that fool of a sentry come to let the fellow pass?" he growled.
"You will find the sentry has a good excuse," said Eustace significantly.
He had indeed. In a little hollow at the bend of the road leading from the village was a black mass inert on the frozen snow. A dead horse and man lay there. A heavy metal-tipped helmet had rolled a little distance away, like a football. The horse, hamstrung, had fallen, and doubtless had perished of the cold, for the night was exceedingly bitter.
They turned the man over. The face was white and bloodless, the front of his great-coat shone with a crimson breastplate hard as steel. The poor fellow's life-blood had flowed over the cloth and stiffened into a grim and hideous surtout of mail. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.
"This is murder," Troop said hoarsely. "Forward!"
There was no attempt made at discipline or order. It was a headlong race for the bridge over the frozen road. The brilliant rays of the sunshine and the heavy traffic caused by artillery and the like had beaten the way down to iron when bound up once more with the black night frosts.
But there was no thought of this, no picking of the way. They raced forward as men follow the hounds across fair English meadows. 'Twas light as day, and as the clattering clump of Uhlans breasted a hill, far ahead of them they could see a little black speck creeping westward.
A loud yell of triumph followed the viewing of the quarry. All the same Moray was two good miles ahead, and, despite the noise and clatter, the rate of progression was of necessity slow.
Ever and anon a horse would come crashing to the ground, there would be a dissolving view of man and beast, a wild, harsh jingling of brass and steel, followed by a guttural anathema.
But Troop stopped for nothing. A man or two more or less made little difference. The others could find their way back to the village again. And so the midnight chase went on. Troop's heart glowed as he recognised the fact that they were gradually gaining on Moray.
"We shall have him yet," he cried exultingly. "At any rate, should he reach the bridge before us, we shall be near enough to render his purpose impossible. You need have no further anxiety, Major."
"I don't see it quite in the same light," said Eustace, as he bumped along by the lieutenant's side. "Bar accidents, Moray is certain to cross the bridge before we get there, and Moritz is lying at Beray yonder, not more than four miles from the bridge."
"That is so," Troop muttered.
"Very well. The outposts cannot be very far away. And where a body of Francs-tireurs may be, one can never tell. If Moray succeeds in giving the alarm, the bridge will be held long before you can bring up enough men to do anything. And Moray knows what General Von Stein's plans are. If we fail to actually capture Moray, you can say good-bye to that bridge before the day breaks."
"By heavens! you are right," Troop cried. "Fool that I was not to see this before! Here you, Junker, Herzell, ride back to Plassy without delay. Explain to the Colonel what has happened, and beg him to send me a field battery and a troop of cavalry. Away with you at once!"
The troopers saluted, and slewed their horses round, not without chagrin. By this time the sides of the road had begun to trend down, the highway taking the form of a railway embankment; and so it continued for at least three miles right up to the bridge at Fontnoy.
In piping times of peace this fine piece of roadmaking had been fenced off on either side, for the fall both ways was sheer, and in the dark night had formed an element of considerable danger. But the posts and rails had long since been torn up by a predatory invader for firewood. The snow had caked and frozen till the road was positively hog-backed, the glassy slopes into the valley were fairly sheer.
To proceed along this portion of the road when frost-bound as at present was a thing of more or less danger even on foot. To race along it now at full speed on a maddened horse was positive insanity. Anything like a slip meant a plunge down a cliff of some forty feet on to a field hard as granite.
"Festina lente," Eustace muttered. "I don't like this much. It looks like an emphatic case of more haste less speed."
But Troop would have none of caution. His blood was fairly up by this time, and his quarry was a bare half-mile in front. How Moray, driving a cart and a pair of half-broken horses, continued to keep to the highway was a thing that seemed almost in the light of a miracle.
"He must come to grief," said Troop. "It is impossible.... ah!" There was a clang as of a hammer on an anvil, a violent concussion of man and beast upon the roadway, and then a trooper and his steed slid like lightning down the side of the road and shot headlong into the valley. A sickening crash was followed by a faint cry, and all was still.
Troop ground his teeth and groaned inwardly. He did not fail to notice that the chilling catastrophe had, perhaps unconsciously, slackened the speed of his men. Fiercely he dug spurs into his own horse.
"Forward!" he cried. "Forward! The like of that will not come again. And, see, we are even now gaining upon our man. Nortgen, try a shot at him."
A bullet sped harmlessly on its way. A moment later, and from the fugitive there came back a faint yell of defiance. But the echo of the exultant ring had hardly died away when Moray's cart suddenly heeled over to the right, there was a clatter and ring of struggling hoofs, and as if by magic the whole thing, man, horses, conveyance, disappeared from view. Moray had failed with victory almost in his grasp, and the Fontnoy bridge was saved!
"There goes a brave man and two of the best horses I ever had," Eustace groaned. "You won't require your supports now, Lieutenant."
Troop nodded exultingly. His eyes glittered with triumph. He pressed on to the scene of the catastrophe, but more cautiously now. He could afford to move slowly. When they reached the spot they could see the horses kicking and plunging, but no sign of Moray could they discern.
"We can't get down there," said Huddlestone. "Lieutenant, get your men to put a bullet or two into those poor beasts."
One or two rifle shots rang out, and the picture grew still. From the edge of the river came a piping scream of defiance. Troop rubbed his eyes. By the edge of the black water stood a thin figure. Moray had escaped after all. Doubtless he had taken the shots as fruitless essays in his own direction.
"He can't escape us how," Troop cried.
But he was mistaken. In the moonlight they saw two arms go up, there was a splash in the sullen flood, and almost before the Uhlans could take in what had happened something like a big black fly was seen crawling up the steep bank on the other side of the icy Moselle.
"What a man!" Troop muttered with involuntary admiration. "All the same, there is no time for sentiment, and he must not be allowed to escape. Come along. It is only a question of minutes."
Moray meanwhile had passed into a little hollow beyond the crest of the steep opposite bank. The small German force could hear him calling as he ran. Then, apparently out of the snow like midges on sunny mornings, a host of dark figures appeared. As the Uhlans crowded over the bridge there came a dozen or so of quick flashes, and with bewildering quickness a trio of German saddles were empty.
Something sharp and short came from Troop's lips. It seemed as if the pear had been snatched ripe and juicy from his hands.
"Sound the retreat!" he cried. "To press forward now would be madness. A malediction on the French in general and those cursed Francs-tireurs in particular!"
MEANWHILE Moray had got clear away behind the scarp of the hill on the far side of the Moselle. The icy coldness of the water struck to his heart like a knife; a man less grimly set upon his task would have gone down and perished in the chill stream.
Not so Moray: it mattered nothing to him whether he lived or died. He was actually courting Death. From the fatalist's point of view there was nothing further left to live for. He could clear his tarnished honour and die for France.
Men in his desperate case rarely perish. So it was with Moray. He knew no fear: for the time being he was possessed with one idea, like the madman that he was—to destroy the bridge and save General Moritz.
He ran on and on, hardly heeding his way and barely conscious of the fact that his wet garments were freezing to his body. Then as he slid down into the hollow he saw a building, a cottage, before him. A red glow shone out from one of the latticed windows.
"Halt, or I fire!" a stern voice rang out crisply. Moray gave a cry of joy. The challenge came from a Franc-tireur.
"Heaven be praised!" Moray exclaimed. "I may be in time yet. My friend, you must take me to your captain without delay."
The captain proved to be a second lieutenant, a beardless stripling hardened by events to a sternness beyond his years. A score or so of men lounged and smoked and slept in the cottage. A wood fire roared on the hearth.
"I am General Moray," said the intruder, half defiantly. An ominous growl followed. Eyes were turned up insolently.
"There is no time to explain now," said Moray. "When history comes to be written, France shall have no cause to blush for me. But enough of that. Know that at great danger and privation to myself I have passed through the lines of Von Stein's army. They lie not two leagues across the Moselle."
An incredulous snort followed. Moray's eyes flashed. "I speak the truth," his voice rang out. "You knew nothing of this. General Moritz knows nothing of the destruction that awaits him. It is the same fatal ignorance that has strangled France. It is a marvellous chance that brings me here to-night Even now I have had to swim the Moselle to escape from Von Stein's Uhlans. See!"
Moray pointed to his clothes, now glistening in the light of the fire. The young officer's heart softened; the stress of war had not crushed all the oil from the kernel.
"We must find you a change between us," he said. "Surely we can procure spare garments. General, what shall we do?"
"Turn out your men and defend the bridge," Moray said promptly. "You have a slight advantage in the point of numbers. Then send post haste along the road to Fleury for supports from General Moritz' main body."
"But they are a good eight miles away, General."
"And Von Stein is not more than six miles. If those Uhlans yonder get over first, the bridge will stand. If the bridge stands, Von Stein will be upon General Moritz in four-and-twenty hours. My aim is to blow up the bridge. For this I have risked everything. I may think of a plan yet. Away with you."
All this had been a mere matter of seconds. Leaving Moray to put off his icy garments, the lieutenant hurried out, followed by his men. They were only just in time, for the first of the Uhlans was already breasting the brickwork of the bridge. The foot soldiers certainly had the advantage, for they presented a much fainter mark, they were better armed, and they took full advantage of their chassepots.
At the first hurried discharge two of Troop's men pitched out of their saddles and lay out without a groan. As the rifles continued to creak and sputter, Troop, loth to do so, ordered his men to retire.
"There's absolutely no help for it," he said. "They have us at a terrible disadvantage. I dare not try and force that narrow bridge. Such a thing would be to play into their hands. So long as we can save the bridge I shall be satisfied. General Von Stein cannot be far behind."
Eustace was by no means so sanguine.
"That is all very well," he pointed out "If General Von Stein is close at hand, so also is General Moritz. This is a case of first come first served."
"Ah, you are thinking of your stores, Major."
"Yes, Lieutenant. They are my wife and family for the time being. It is a point of honour with me to get to Versailles as soon as possible. If this bridge goes, goodness knows when we shall get there."
Troop laughed under the collar of his big coat.
"Pity you did not bring them along," he said.
Eustace and Huddlestone heartily endorsed. Under the Red Cross, the passage of the stores over the bridge had been an easy matter. Meanwhile there was nothing to do but wait and wait on either side, like two terriers standing over a bone.
Neither side cared to fight, fearing the issue. No doubt by this time a trooper had posted away in the direction of General Moritz' force. Ere long there would be a big battle for the possession of the bridge of Fontnoy.
"They can't destroy it, which is a comfort," said Troop, as he dismounted and stamped his chilly feet on the gritty snow. "Meanwhile, we shall both play the waiting game. And a cold game it is, on my honour."
It was—a bitterly cold game. As the moon commenced to slide down the polished face of the heavens the air nipped still more shrewdly. Backwards and forwards tramped the Uhlans, holding their horses by the bridles and involuntarily keeping a sharp eye on the bridge in case of strategy.
Thus things continued for the longest hour Eustace ever remembered. The cold seemed to get into the brains of the Germans and freeze them. Still with dogged tenacity they held on, since a retreat was impossible.
Suddenly Troop halted in his walk.
"What are those men doing yonder?"
Four of the Frenchmen had crept on to the bridge. The last two were carrying some heavy object between them; another bore a coil of rope. At the first shot from a Uhlan carbine they scattered and concealed themselves behind the pillars of masonry dotted along the bridge.
Troop would have charged forward, but from the crest beyond the river a dozen sharpshooters were keeping the approaches open with a galling fire. The whole troop of Uhlans fell back along the road. The sharp trend of it enabled them to get almost out of carbine range a half-profile view of the bridge and its piers.
"They are trying it on," Troop said between his teeth.
As he spoke something long and sinuous shot out and struck the water. After that the figure of a man swaying and twisting went slowly downwards until he rested securely on the central pier of the bridge. A carbine shot splintered the stonework about his head. As he turned the white moonbeams fell on the fierce haggardness of Moray's face. With a gesture of defiance he stepped behind a flange of the pier.
Troop fairly danced with impotent fury. Moray had not stepped down that rope unburdened. A small round object was dimly outlined, a tiny spark like a glow-worm could be seen in an archway under the foot of the pier.
A score of carbines rang out, the bullets flattening against the stonework. But Moray seemed to bear a charmed life. Once he was positively hit, and staggered to his fall; then he recovered himself, and his voice rang out with a hoarse defiant scream. There were two glow-worms now, each increasing in brilliancy.
"Fools!" said Troop. "Is there not one of you who can shoot straight?"
It was easy to talk but difficult to execute, with that galling fire from the far side of the bridge. More than one of the Uhlans had ceased to take any further interest in mundane affairs. And as the moments sped on, Moray seemed to grow more and more reckless.
Something suddenly floated out like a white cloud from the pier. An instant later and Moray threw up his hands as he plunged for a second time that night into the icy stream. The water was smooth and inky black between the snowy fields, and when Moray came up again a steely ripple betrayed his whereabouts.
A chance shot hurriedly fired found its billet. A bubbling scream came from the throat of the Frenchman as he went down.
He came up once more. His defiant cry rang out clearly.
"A bas!" he said, "A bas--" something seemed to choke him. "Vive la France! Vive--"
Then he sank to be seen no more. As the water closed over the grey head there came a spurt of flame from the centre pier of the bridge; the fuse was kindled with the force of the concussion. Then, like a house of cards, the bridge of Fontnoy collapsed into the Moselle. A wild cheer of defiance came from the other side, and all was still.
"What a man!" was all that Troop could say. "What a man!"
They found him two days later, did a party of Moritz' chasseurs, lying upon a spit of sand, calm and placid, with a smile upon his face. They carried the body in silence back to the camp, and there they discovered rigidly clasped in his right hand his cross of the Legion of Honour. General Moritz gazed for a time upon that placid face till he turned away with quivering lips.
"They say he was a traitor," he said huskily. "Would to Heaven that France had a thousand such, for she needs them sorely now!"
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia