“Well, somebody might have slipped one into your pocket, as far as that goes,” said General Petain; “and then you might be standing here under suspicion.”
“Tha—that’s so, too,” Stubbs stammered. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Well, you should have thought of it,” exclaimed General Petain. “It’s no small thing to cast suspicion upon a man and then be able to prove nothing.”
“But the peas—”
“Never mind about the peas,” stormed the general. “By any chance, when you had these officers in your tent last night, did they admit connection with the plot?”
“No, sir; they professed ignorance. But they had the peas—”
“Mon Dieu! Can’t you think of anything but peas? What kind of a war correspondent are you, anyhow?”
Stubbs was offended. He drew himself up and would have made reply, but General Petain silenced him with a gesture.
“I don’t question your loyalty,” he said, “and I know that you acted with the good of these lads at heart. But I am convinced you have been mistaken. I am going to release these boys. Lieutenant Paine! Lieutenant Crawford! you are—”
“Sir!” exclaimed Stubbs at this juncture.
The general eyed him closely.
“Well?” he demanded.
“Please, General, do not let them go until I have a few moments’ start. I don’t know what they will do to me.” Stubbs looked nervous.
“Very well,” said General Petain with a smile. “Then hurry and take your departure, Mr. Stubbs.”
Stubbs needed no urging and he disappeared from the general’s tent with agility; and Hal called after him:
“Better hunt a hole, Mr. Stubbs; we’ll be on your trail in a few minutes!”
THE TURNING OF THE TIDE
In the days immediately following their interview with General Petain, the lads saw much fighting; and with the close of each day there came bitterness to them, to the French troops, their officers and to the people of France and of all the allied nations.
For the armies of the German Crown Prince continued to advance steadily in spite of the heroic resistance of the French; and it began to appear that the “Gateway to France” must ere long fall into alien hands.
Day after day the Germans hurled themselves forward in herculean efforts to break the French lines; and most every day found them fighting a little nearer to Verdun. In vain the French attempted to stem the onslaught of the invading forces; the Germans were not to be denied.
On the days when the fiercest of the German assaults were made, it was learned that the Emperor of Germany had directed the assaults in person. From the top of a small hill, surrounded by his staff, the Kaiser looked down upon the battlefield for days at a time, showing no signs of emotion as his countrymen fell right and left, that the German flag might be planted a few yards—sometimes only a few feet—farther westward.