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   Chapter 1 THE EVE OF VERDUN

The Boy Allies at Verdun; Or, Saving France from the Enemy By Clair W. Hayes Characters: 10600

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

On the twenty-second of February, 1916, an automobile sped northward along the French battle line that for almost two years had held back the armies of the German emperor, strive as they would to win their way farther into the heart of France. For months the opposing forces had battled to a draw from the North Sea to the boundary of Switzerland, until now, as the day waned-it was almost six o'clock-the hands of time drew closer and closer to the hour that was to mark the opening of the most bitter and destructive battle of the war, up to this time.

It was the eve of the battle of Verdun.

The occupants of the automobile as it sped northward numbered three. In the front seat, alone at the driver's wheel, a young man bent low. He was garbed in the uniform of a British lieutenant of cavalry. Close inspection would have revealed the fact that the young man was a youth of some eighteen years, fair and good to look upon. As the machine sped along he kept his eyes glued to the road ahead and did not once turn to join in the conversation of the two occupants on the rear seat. Whether he knew that there was a conversation in progress it is impossible to say, but the rush of wind would have made the conversation unintelligible, to say the least.

This youth on the front seat was Hal Paine, an American.

The two figures in the rear seat were apparently having a hard time to maintain their places, as they bounced from side to side as the car swerved first one way and then the other, or as it took a flying leap over some object in the road, which even the keen eye of the driver had failed to detect. But in spite of this, even as they bounced, they talked.

One of the two figures was tall and slender and there was about him an air of youthfulness. He was in fact a second American boy. His name was Chester Crawford, friend and bosom companion of Hal Paine. Like the latter he, too, was attired in the uniform of a British lieutenant of cavalry.

The second figure in the rear seat was built along different lines. He was short and chunky; also, he was stout. Had he been standing it would have been evident that he was almost as wide as he was long. He had a pleasant face and smiled occasionally, though upon each occasion this smile died away in a sickly grin as the car leaped high in the air after striking a particularly large obstruction in the road, or veering crazily to one side as it turned sharply. In each case the grin was succeeded by a gasp for breath.

The figure was that of Mr. Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent of the New York Gazette, on the firing line in Europe to gather facts for his newspaper. He was attired in a riding suit of khaki.

Said Mr. Stubbs:

"Well, we may get there and we may not."

"Oh, we'll get there all right, Mr. Stubbs!" Chester raised his voice to make himself heard.

"We're likely to land out here in the ditch," was Stubbs' reply. "The way

Hal runs this car, there is no telling what may happen."

"Not frightened, are you, Mr. Stubbs?" asked Chester, grinning.

"Frightened?" echoed Stubbs. "Why should I be frightened? We can't be going more than a couple of hundred miles an hour. No, I'm not frightened. I'm what you call scared. Wow!"

This last ejaculation was drawn from the little man as he was pitched over into Chester's lap by an extra violent lurch of the car. He threw out a hand, seeking a hold, and his open palm came in contact with Chester's face. Chester thrust Stubbs away from him.

"I say, Stubbs!" said the lad half angrily. "If you want to jump out of here, all right; but don't try and push me out ahead of you. Keep your hands out of my face."

"I wasn't trying to push you out," gasped Stubbs. "I was hunting something to hang on to."

"Well, my face is no strap," declared Chester.

The automobile slowed down suddenly and a moment later came to a stop at a fork in the road.

"I'll have to have a look at this chart," Hal called over his shoulder to his companions, as he thrust a hand into a pocket. "Forget which way we head from here."

"We're headed for the happy hunting grounds no matter which road we take," mumbled Stubbs.

"Don't croak, Mr. Stubbs," said Hal. "Barring accidents, we'll reach General Petain at Verdun in time to deliver these despatches before it's too late."

"What I don't understand," said Chester, "is why it is necessary to deliver these despatches by courier. What's the matter with the wire?"

"I don't know," said Hal, as he returned the chart to his pocket after a quick scrutiny, "unless there is a leak of some kind."

"Hardly," said Chester.

Hal shrugged his shoulders as he settled his cap more firmly on his head and laid a hand on the wheel.

"You never can tell," he said.

"Well," said Stubbs, "I don't-hey! what're you trying to do, anyhow?"

For the little man again had been hurled violently against Chester as Hal sent the car forward with a lurch. "Trying to leave me behind? What?"

"Can't be done, Mr. Stubbs," said Chester.

Mr. Stubbs glared at the lad angrily, but deigned to make no reply. So the big army automobile continued on its way in silence.

Darkness fell. Hal stopped the car and lighted the lamps.

"Can't take any chances while going at this speed," he said.

Stubbs gr

inned feebly to himself, seemed as if about to speak, then thought better of it and remained silent. But he waved a hand in disgust.

A moment later the car was rushing through the darkness at the speed of an express train; and while this journey in the night continues it will be well to explain the presence of the three companions in the big army car, how they came there and why, and the nature of the mission upon which they were bound.

A month before the three had been in the Balkans. There the two lads, together with Anthony Stubbs, had gone through many dangerous adventures, finally reaching Greek soil in the nick of time, with a horde of Bulgarians just behind them. With them had been others-Ivan, a Cossack, a third British officer and a young girl. Ivan had elected to join the Anglo-French forces at Salonika; the other British officer had found his own regiment there and the girl, whom it had been the good fortune of the boys to save from the Bulgarians, found friends in the Greek city who had taken her in charge.

Hal, Chester and Stubbs had embarked on a French battleship, homeward bound. After due time they landed in Marseilles.

"Now," said Chester, when he once more felt French soil under his feet,

"I suppose the thing for us to do is to return to the Italian lines and

see if we can learn anything of Uncle John, then return to Rome and to

New York."

Uncle John was the brother of Chester's mother. All had been bound for home when Hal and Chester had become involved in a matter that took them forward with the Italian troops. Uncle John had been along to keep them out of mischief, if he could. He hadn't succeeded and had fallen into the hands of the Austrians. The boys had saved him. Later they had been forced to seek refuge in the Balkans, having found it impossible to get back into the Italian lines, and they had lost Uncle John. Their arrival in Marseilles had really been the first step toward a return to Rome, where they intended to try and find their mothers.

But their plans to return to Rome did not materialize. As Hal said: "Luck was with us."

In a little room in a Marseilles restaurant they had overheard a conversation between two men, plainly foreigners, that had resulted in their once more being sent on active service. While they had been unable to gather all the details, they had learned enough to know that the German Crown Prince had laid careful plans for an attack on Verdun. They had taken their information to the French commanding officer in Marseilles. The latter had been somewhat skeptical, but Colonel Derevaux, an old friend of the boys, had arrived at the psychological moment and vouched for them.

Immediately the French officer decided that something must be done. The plans of the Germans, so far as he knew, had not been anticipated. For some reason he did not wish to trust the information to the telegraph wires, and the two lads had volunteered to deliver it in person to General Petain. Their offer had been accepted, which accounts for the fact that we find them upon the last leg of their journey to Verdun at the opening of this story.

Stubbs had elected to accompany them, for, as he said, "I've got to get the news."

The two lads had seen considerable active service. They had fought with the Belgians at Liège; with the British on the Marne; with the Cossacks in Russian Poland and in the Carpathians; with the Montenegrins and Serbians in the Balkans, and with the Italian troops in the Alps.

They had been participants in many a hard blow that had been delivered by the Allies. They had won the confidence of Field Marshall John French, commander of the British forces in France until he was succeeded by General Sir Douglas Haig after the battle of the Champagne, and of General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief.

While they ostensibly were British army officers, their titles were purely honorary, but they held actual lieutenancies in the Belgian army, these having been bestowed upon them by King Albert in recognition of services accomplished in and around Liège in the early days of the war.

The boys had been chums since early childhood. They had been brought up together. They attended school together and were inseparable companions. Each spoke German and French fluently, and service with other armies had given them a knowledge of other tongues. Both were strong and sturdy, crack shots, good with sword and sabre, and particularly handy with their fists. These accomplishments had stood them in good stead in many a tight place. But better than all these accomplishments was the additional fact that each was clear-headed, a quick thinker and very resourceful. They depended upon brains rather than brawn to pull them through ticklish situations, though they did not hesitate to call on the latter force when occasion demanded.

Hal, peering ahead by the glare of the searchlight on the large army car, suddenly slowed down; the car stopped. A group of mounted men rode up. Hal stood up and gave a military salute as one of the group advanced ahead of the others.

"I am from General Durand at Marseilles, sir," he said. "I have important dispatches for General Petain."

The French officer returned the salute.

"Follow me," he said briefly.

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