‘Yes, sir,’ came the answer from the soldier still on guard at the other door.
‘Has the chaplain returned?’
‘Not yet, sir.’
With an impatient exclamation, the officer went on towards the village; and gaining their feet, the two men reached the road.
‘There’s a path alongside, sir,’ whispered Mathews, ’and you and me is goin’ to put as much terry-firmy atwixt this village and us as our four legs can do. Now, sir, we’re off!’
With lowered heads, they broke into a run. Stumbling over unseen stones, lacerating their hands and faces against bushes which over-hung the path, they ran on into the dark. Once a staff car passed them, and they huddled in a ditch; but it was only for a few seconds, and they were up again. Unless they were unfortunate enough to run right into the arms of the military police, the night was offering every chance of success. A barking dog warned them that they had come to the outskirts of another village. Leaving the road, they circled the place by tortuously making their way through uneven fields, until they thought it safe once more to take the path. On they ran—past silent fields—by streams—by murky swamps.
Towards dawn Dick was faint with fatigue. The ordeal of the last month had cruelly sapped his vitality, and as he ran he found himself stumbling to his knees.
‘Hold hard, sir,’ said the groom, who was leading. ’Another mile or so, and you and me, sir, will breathe ourselves proper.’
Only another mile—but a mile of utter anguish. Twice Dick fell, and the second time he could not rise without assistance.
‘Mas’r Dick,’ pleaded the groom, ’look ’ee, sir. Up yonder hill somewheres about I knows there is a cornfield, for I have noted it many a time. ’We can’t hide here, sir, in this stubble. Lean on me, Mas’r Dick—that’s the way. Now, sir, for England, ‘ome, and beauty.’
Struggling to retain his consciousness, Dick limped beside the old servitor, until, gaining the hill, they saw an abandoned cornfield. There was a roll of guns as they made their way into the field, and through the dense blackness of the night a few streaks of gray could be seen towards the east.
Without a sound, Dick sank to the ground in complete exhaustion. The groom unstrapped his own greatcoat, which had been carried rolled, and covered the lad with it. Taking a thermos bottle from his haversack, he poured some hot tea between Dick’s lips, and saw a little glow of warmth creep into the cheeks.
‘Now, sir,’ he said, ’take a bit ‘o’ this sandwich. ’Ave another swig o’ the tea. Bless my heart, sir, won’t them fellers be surprised when they finds as how they ain’t got no corpse for their funeral? That’s better, sir. I will say about army tea that even if it ain’t what my old woman would make, it’s rare an’ strong, Mas’r Dick—rare an’ strong an’ powerful, likewise and sim’lar.’