The Escape by Annie S. Swan

A GIRL'S STORY FROM GALLANT BELGIUM

Not a sound broke the exquisite hush of the early morning.

The old courtyard, with its tiled pavement, its cool fountain, and its cooing doves, the dog asleep in the sunshine, made a picture of perfect peace.

The house, once the Château of a great family that had fallen on evil days, was grey and old, and beautiful still, though now merely une pension de demoiselles.

It was August, when, as a rule, all the merry throng had scattered from the Château to their respective homes, leaving it to its former dignity and quiet. Mademoiselle usually went to England, perhaps seeking fresh pupils, or to enjoy the sea breezes on the Normandy coast.

La Royat, in the village of Coutane, was inland from the sea, about fifteen miles from Brussels. It was a sweet spot, beloved of the understanding traveller, and many came to look at the fine old church, whose spire and windows were among the treasures known to lovers of the beautiful all over the world. Mademoiselle Ledru had nothing to complain of in her lot, with which she had been hitherto content. Success had flowed in upon her earnest efforts, though looking at her anxious face that summer morning one would have thought her oppressed by care. She was an elderly woman now, with the remains of beauty still on her face. The place where she stood that morning, before her household was astir, was certainly unusual, being the square tower of the Château, from whose low ramparts she was sweeping the horizon with a powerful glass. It was all very peaceful and beautiful, a wide rolling plateau, with fields white to harvest, not a hint of approaching desolation on its smiling face.

It was very early, hardly an hour past daybreak, but already some of the thrifty peasants were busy in the fields. Far away on the red horizon there was a slight haze, regarding which Mademoiselle seemed more than a little curious. Again and again she focused her glass, until confident that the haze was not altogether stationary, but moved and broke and thickened again. Then with a sickening apprehension at her heart, she turned and fled down the stairs and went to open the big door of the Château. Jules, the fat and sleepy porter, was undoing the bolts as she got down.

"Bonjour, Mademoiselle. Some one is at the gate, an early visitor." He chuckled as he undid the last bolt, and threw wide the door. When he would have hobbled across the courtyard to open the gate his mistress was before him. When she undid the bolts the Curé, bareheaded, stood before her.

"Ah, Mademoiselle, it is bad news," he said in a firm voice, though his face was tense with apprehension. "They come, the barbarians. I have information, now it behoves us to consult what we will do."

Mademoiselle whitened to the lips, and drew him in and shut the door. She signed to Jules to depart, but the Curé intervened.

"Let him stay. It will save a twice-told tale. I have certain news that they are not more than a couple of hours' march away, and for sure they will come this way to Brussels. What shall we do?"

"I will remain at my post," answered Julie Ledru firmly. "I have no fear for myself, but my charges, Father—Rosalie and Biddy, with whom their English parents have trusted me. My spirit fails! What must we do with them?"

"It will not be safe to leave them here, Mademoiselle, nor even for you to stay. We will take you to the crypt of the church, where, with a little food and drink, you will be safe until they have passed through. We have no treasure here in Coutane, and are simple folk. Perhaps we shall be beneath their notice."

Julie Ledru clasped her hands in an ecstasy of apprehension. They had been without newspapers for four days, but chance travellers from the East had brought strange and appalling tales of the invaders' desolating march. They told of ruined villages and burning homes, and helpless people mercilessly shot down in places as simple and as unimportant as Coutane. Julie Ledru looked round her little domain with a kind of sad pride. It did not contain many treasures, it is true, but it was her home, enshrined by many sweet memories. It contained her all.

"Now, Father?" she asked feverishly. "Do you think we should come now?"

"Without a moment's delay," he answered. "Go and get your charges roused and bring all with you; a little food also in a basket, lest you have to stop there several days."

"You will be with us, Father?" said Julie anxiously.

He shook his head.

"My place is in the open street with such of my people as feel strong and brave in their innocence and faith. But you have English charges. If it was known, Mademoiselle, believe me, nothing would save them or you. Their fury against the English is so great."

"Shall we take Jules? Besides him, there is only our faithful Babette."

Before the Curé could reply Jules intervened, scratching his old grey head.

"I hide not from them, Mademoiselle; I will stay and guard the Château and keep them out, if I can, barbarians that they are, making war on women and children."

"They will shoot you, Jules, if you are so foolish," his mistress reminded him. His answer was a shrug of the shoulders.

"A man dies but once—that is to say, a good man, who has faith in God and does his duty."

So saying, Jules went back to take up his waiting duty.

The Curé departed the way he had come, and Julie Ledru, with a feeling of strange calm upon her, hurried indoors to make her few simple preparations. Babette, the elderly servant, one of the best of the old Brabant type, was cool and ready for any emergency, and in an incredibly short time they had packed some food and a few necessaries in two considerable baskets. Then Mademoiselle Ledru essayed the task she dreaded—that of awaking her two young charges, and preparing them for the ordeal through which they had to pass.

They were still asleep, in two beds side by side, in one of the pleasantest rooms of the Château. Rosalie Bentham, fair and rosy, like an English flower, her golden hair lying on her pillow like an aureole, and Biddy Connaught, the dark-eyed Irish girl, whose long black lashes swept her cheek, while her dimpled chin was in her open palm, as she smiled over some passing imagery of her dream. Something caught Julie Ledru's throat as she regarded these two pictures of innocence and beauty, and reflected on the greatness of her charge. Both were only children, entrusted to her care in the holidays, because their parents, both in the exercise of duty, could not take them home. But with a strong effort she controlled herself and awakened them gently. It was a process of some length, because the sleep of youth is sound and deep, but at last they were sitting up, drinking in her news.

"We have to run away and hide in the crypt until the Germans have marched through the village. Do you hear, Biddy?" called Rosalie, as she sprang from her bed and began to get into her clothes. "But how ripping! What lots we shall all have to write about and to tell them when we get home!"

Julie Ledru faintly, tremulously, smiled, and with her own hands she assisted them to make a hasty toilet. Some coffee was ready for them downstairs, for Babette was a methodical person, not easily upset. Thus fortified, they left the Château presently, leaving Babette and Jules in charge. Babette made the same excuse—some one must stay to guard the place, and surely when they found nobody but two simple old servants they would pass on.

Julie had no time to argue; perhaps even she did not fully realise the peril to which these two faithful souls thus willingly exposed themselves. She looked back on their serene faces as she passed through the gate, and it was the last time she was to look on them in life. She never saw them again, nor found them. They disappeared in the ruins of La Royat as many had disappeared in other ruins, leaving no trace behind. At the church, which was but a few paces off, they found the Curé busy arranging shelter. It was a very tiny village, and the number of those willing to accept the shelter he offered and, indeed, advised was comparatively few. For though a simple they were a brave people, nor could they conceive of a wickedness and barbarity that would seek to destroy innocent souls who had naught to do with war. So they went about their ordinary avocations as usual, a trifle more apprehensively perhaps, but none the less bravely, and the morning wore on.

The Curé took his charges, about twenty souls in all, down the narrow stairs to the crypt, where he had already provided light and such small comforts as he could spare from his own store.

"Isn't it ripping, Biddy?" asked Rosalie, but perhaps her young voice had lost a little of its gallant ring. But Biddy, who had the imaginative temperament of her race, shivered a little, and burst into tears. It was strange and ominous to come in out of the warm, hopeful sunshine to this place of tombs, an adventure with which the child could very well have dispensed. The church was very old, and many who had been born in Coutane had never seen the crypt. Its very existence was unknown to a large number, and the entrance to it was so cunningly arranged, and so difficult of access, that it was of all hiding-places in the village the most secure.

Then there was always the belief, founded on all precedent of war, that the sacred things would be respected, and sanctuary in God's house left undesecrated. The hours seemed long down there and the stillness profound. Not a sound from the upper air penetrated to that strange hiding-place. Though sure of their sanctuary, it seemed natural to lower their voices, to move softly, and even to watch apprehensively. Even the two girls, usually so high-spirited, found themselves naturally becoming quiet. It was only the very little children, of whom there were five, who, unconscious of danger, crowed and laughed and babbled in their usual glee. These little ones provided incessant interest and occupation for the two girls, and Julie Ledru smiled as she watched their pretty efforts to amuse and keep them quiet. She had brought her watch, and it pointed to nine o'clock at the moment when they heard a dull thud several times repeated, which caused them all to start and look at one another in quick alarm.

"It is the guns," said old Monsieur Rollin, whose legs were twisted with rheumatism, so that they had half-carried him down the steps of the crypt. "They have come, and are starting their fiendish work."

No one could gainsay him, and for the next half-hour they had to listen to a repetition of the same sound gradually getting nearer and nearer. Presently their terror was increased by the deafening roar of artillery much nearer and the sound of falling masonry, indicating that the church itself, cradle and sanctuary of the life of Coutane for centuries, had not been respected. The two English girls, now thoroughly frightened, clung together fearfully, and the whole little company, some of them on their knees, did not exchange a word. After a time the firing ceased, and they were left to absolute stillness. But none of them moved, or offered to go up to discover what had actually happened in the village.

After what seemed an interminable interval—in reality it was not more than a couple of hours from the moment the din ceased overhead—the door of the crypt was cautiously opened, and the Curé looked in. He was all dishevelled, his face blackened with smoke, and his whole appearance that of a man who had seen some terrible and haunting vision.

"Ah, there you are, my children," he cried as they crowded round him; "I think you may come up presently, but be prepared to have your hearts broken. A regiment of the enemy has passed through, and left nothing behind. Mademoiselle, the Château is in flames, and the beautiful spire of the church has been blown to pieces, and at the Mairie the devastation is complete. But, above all, we mourn the death of so many helpless people—I myself escaped by a miracle."

"Have they gone?" asked Mademoiselle, with a shivering breath.

"They have, and I think that they are pursued, and that this was the hurried work of destruction prompted by hatred and revenge. Will you come up now and see for yourselves, or remain here in safety through the night? Alas! you will find no other refuge, Mademoiselle, for your home is in ruins."

Such fear was upon them that with one accord they determined to remain in the crypt until the dawn of another day.

Even the natural gaiety and high spirits of youth were not proof against the terror which all felt might swoop down upon them again at any moment.

They had arranged themselves as comfortably as possible to pass the night, when they were suddenly disturbed by the grating of a door and the swinging of a lantern. All scrambled to their feet, some of them shrieking and hiding their eyes, certain that there had been a fresh arrival of the invaders, and that instant death would meet them.

But once more the Curé smiled upon them reassuringly.

"Courage, my children! Our trouble is for the moment at an end. Our own brave soldiers have arrived. It is as I said—they are in pursuit, but part of them will camp here to-night. Alas! we have little or no food to offer them, for the barbarians stripped the village of everything."

Then Julie Ledru, hurriedly throwing on her cloak, said she would ascend with the Curé and give what stores she could from the Château.

"But it is no more, my daughter. You have forgotten how I told you yesterday that they have burned it to the ground."

"But my stores are hidden in the grotto in the garden, and there is a secret passage to it. I think, Father, they had not time, or did not take it, to explore, and we shall find things there. I have been putting them away since the war began."

So in the pearly dawn, a strange sight was to be seen in the trampled, desecrated garden of the Château behind its smoking ruins.

Led by Julie Ledru, the Commandant of the troops that had halted in the village found stores sufficient to help assuage the hunger of his men. He was profuse in his thanks.

"What can I do for you in exchange, Mademoiselle?" he asked, as he stood at the salute. Instantly Mademoiselle pointed to her charges, who, still shivering a little with fear, yet profoundly, poignantly interested in the extraordinary scene of desolation, in what but a few hours ago was one of the fairest spots in Belgium.

"These are my English children. Get them to their parents, Monsieur le Capitaine, and I shall be amply repaid."

The officer shook his head.

"Easier said than done, Madame; but leave it, and I will see what can be done. How is it you have been so indiscreet as to remain here? You ought to have removed yourself, and them, while there was still time."

Mademoiselle shook her head.

"We imagined we were of no account, and we have had no news for several days. We were assured that the tide of battle had flowed in a different direction."

"It is everywhere, Mademoiselle—an evil flood, rolling over the whole of our country. But, look you, I will see what can be done."

He was as good as his word, and that evening after dark, in an armoured motor-car, Julie Ledru and her charges were driven for hours and miles by tortuous ways which kept them out of danger, until they reached Ghent, where it was still possible to get a train for Ostend.

Two days later, she landed in England with Rose and Biddy, herself utterly ruined, her home gone, one of the most pitiful of the refugees.

But she was welcomed warmly and gratefully by Biddy's father, and in a few days' time was safe in a warm, comfortable home on the Irish coast, where Rose, too, was made welcome, until her own relatives in India could be communicated with.

It was an experience the two girls would never forget, one which will remain with them through life as a very poignant personal experience of the Great War.