‘Major Van Derwater would like to speak to you right away, sir.’
Telling a non-commissioned officer to take his place, Selwyn followed the messenger along the road until they came to the spot which Van Derwater had chosen for his headquarters. Daylight was emerging from its retreat, and there was the promise of a warm day in the glowing east.
‘You sent for me, sir?’ he said.
’Yes. You might question these two British stragglers. Their story is not straight, but they seem decent enough fellows. If you are not satisfied’——
He was interrupted by an exclamation of astonishment from Selwyn, who had noticed the Englishmen for the first time.
‘Great Scott!’ gasped Selwyn. ‘Dick Durwent!’
Dick looked up, and at the sight of the American’s face he uttered a cry of relief. ’Is that really you, Selwyn? What luck! You remember Mathews at Roselawn, don’t you? You can say’——
‘Good-mornin’, sir,’ said the unperturbed groom. ’This is a werry pleasant surprise, to be sure. How are you, sir?’
‘Van,’ said Selwyn, after shaking hands with them both, ’this is Lord Durwent’s son, and the other is his groom, Mathews. I will vouch for them absolutely.’
‘Good!’ Van Derwater slightly inclined his head as an indication that he was satisfied. ’We need every man. You had better take them in your section and equip them with rifles from casualties.’
A few minutes later, after he had procured food for the two men, who were growing faint with hunger, Selwyn resumed his post. The heavy grass fringing the bank made it possible to keep watch without being directly exposed as a target; but beyond a desultory rifle-fire about a mile on their right, there was no indication of enemy activity.
When Durwent had been equipped with a steel helmet and a rifle, Selwyn called him over to his side, and as concisely as possible explained the military situation. In the German attack against the French forces (with which the Americans were brigaded) the line had been swept back. Deep salients had been driven in on both their flanks, but orders had been received to hold the bridge at all costs, as, if a counter-attack could be launched, it would be an enfilading one made by troops brought across the river. Relying on their machine-gun and rifle fire to overcome the Americans’ resistance, the enemy’s artillery had been drawn into the deepening salients; but in spite of all-day fighting the straggling line had held.
After a few questions from Durwent they relapsed into silence, gazing at the undulating expanse of country revealed by the ascending sun.
‘Selwyn.’ Dick cleared his throat nervously. ’I must tell you the truth. You were decent enough to stand sponsor for Mathews and me, and I want you to know everything. The major was right. We’re not stragglers—we’re deserters.’