Realising that further expostulation was useless, Dick followed the groom to the bridge. As they crossed it he noted that it was strongly built of steel, with supports that would bear the heaviest of weights. Gaining the opposite side, they waited as Dick took his bearings by the tree; and crossing a hard, chalky field, they stole towards the sunken road. They could hear the occasional crack of a rifle, and there was the ping of a bullet passing over their heads as they pressed on through the lightening gloom.
A voice rang out, and they were questioned as to their identity. On being ordered to advance, they jumped down into a sunken road which constituted an admirable trench, and were at once surrounded by American soldiers.
‘I was ordered to report to Major Van Derwater,’ said Durwent.
They were asked various questions, and were then escorted a few yards to the right, where an officer was looking over the bank which hid the road.
‘British stragglers, sir,’ said the sergeant who had taken charge of them.
‘What unit are you from?’ asked the officer.
His voice was calm and deep, but gave no indication as to how he felt disposed towards the two fugitives. In answer to his question Dick gave the name of his battalion, and Mathews did the same.
‘How did you know my name?’
‘We met your corporal, sir,’ said Durwent.
‘Where are your rifles?’
‘Lost them, sir.’
‘In what engagement were you cut off from your units?’
Dick tried to reply, but not only was he ignorant of the locality through which he had travelled, but his soul burned with resentment at being forced into lying. Mathews said nothing, and seemed quite untroubled. He was prepared to accept his young master’s choice of engagements for his own, no matter where or when it might have taken place.
‘I don’t like this,’ said the officer. ’These men are a long way from the British lines, and are either deserters or worse. Guard them closely, and if things get hot, tie their arms together so they will give no trouble.’
‘Very good, sir,’ answered the sergeant, preparing to lead them away; but Durwent, whose blood, had run cold with dismay at the officer’s words, struggled forward.
‘Sir,’ he cried, ’if you think I’m not to be trusted, give me a dirty job—anything. A bombing-raid, or a patrol—I’ll do anything at all, sir, if you’ll only give me a chance.’
‘Well spoke, Mas’r Dick,’ said Mathews proudly. ’Werry well spoke indeed.’
The officer, who had been about to issue a peremptory order, stopped at the sturdy honesty of the groom’s voice. ‘Send for Captain Selwyn,’ he said. ‘You will find him at the creek.’
By a creek that trickled across the road, Captain Austin Selwyn was watching the brushwood which concealed the enemy. Beside him, lining the bank, every available man was on the alert, waiting the developments which would follow the raising of night’s curtain. In the misty gray of dawn they looked fabulous in size, and indistinct.