Once, as they strode forward in the roar and horror of the dark, they heard the explosion of a shell that, by a trick of ill-luck, had found the road. There followed the shriek of wounded horses, quick commands penetrating the darkness. Corpses of men, dead horses, and shattered vehicles were drawn aside, and the long line that had been halted for four minutes closed the gap and moved on.
When they reached the turn in the road, they left the shadowy procession and made for the river by following a soft wagon-path that cut across the fields. For two hours they hurried on through the night’s madness. More than once they were almost thrown to the ground by the terrific explosion of heavy guns that had taken up positions by the path; and by the flashes in the fields they could see the weird figures of the gunners toiling at their work of death.
As they neared the river they caught a glimpse of coloured flares not far ahead, and there came a momentary lull in the confused bombardment.
‘Listen!’ cried Dick.
From somewhere on the banks of the river there was the sound of rifle-fire, and the rat-tat-tat-tat of machine-guns, like the rattle of riveters at work on a steel structure.
Following a tow-path which ran by the river, they appeared to be entering a zone of comparative quiet. Although the sound of rifle-fire grew more clear, the noise of the guns came from behind them, but to the right and the left. For an hour they ran rapidly forward, and it seemed that the tide of battle had swept to the north, leaving this area denuded of troops. They saw neither guns nor infantry, although a renewed burst of machine-gun fire told them they were nearing their unknown destination.
They had not started from their hiding-place until nearly midnight, and as they reached a slight rise of the ground they could see that the darkness was slowly lifting with day’s approach.
‘See, sir,’ said the groom, pointing ahead, ‘yonder side o’ the river to the right.’
‘I can’t see anything,’
’Look ’ee, Mas’r Dick. Follow the river. I think that that there gray streak is a bridge.’
It was not until they had gone ahead a considerable distance that Durwent could make out a heavy bridge spanning the river, which ran with a swift current, and was more than two hundred feet in width. A blurring red was tinting the black clouds in the east as they crept along the path, when they heard a sharp challenge.
‘Friends,’ cried Dick, and halted.
‘Stand still until I give you the once over.’ An American corporal, who had apparently been running and was out of breath, came up to them, carrying a revolver, and looked closely into their faces.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
‘Stragglers,’ answered Durwent, ‘separated from our unit.’
‘Where in Samhill is the rest of your army?’
‘There are no troops back here for ten miles,’ answered Dick.