As waves breaking against a rock, the Huns retreated, rallied, and attacked again and again, and each time the resistance was less formidable as the heroic little band grew smaller and the ugly story passed that ammunition was giving out.
They had just thrown back an assault, and Van Derwater had sent for his section commanders to advise an attack on the enemy in preference to waiting to be wiped out with no chance of successful resistance, when he heard a shout, and bullets spat over their heads. Turning swiftly about, they saw a tank lurching across the bridge. Amidst wild shouting from the Americans, the clumsy landship stumbled towards them, with bullets glancing harmlessly off its metal carcass. Lumbering on to the road, the tank stopped astride it.
In almost complete forgetfulness of the impending enemy attack, the jubilant Americans crowded about the machine and cheered its occupants to the echo, as a small door was opened and two French faces could be seen. In a few words Van Derwater explained the situation, receiving the discouraging information that no troops were anywhere near the vicinity. The tank had been discovered by the ex-Belmont waiter and sent on to the bridge.
‘Pass word along,’ said Van Derwater crisply, ’to prepare for an attack. The tank will go first, and when it is astride their machine-gun position we will go forward and drive them out of the brushwood into the open.—Messieurs, the machine-guns are gathered there—straight across, about forty yards from the great tree.’
The Frenchmen tried to locate the spot indicated, but were obviously puzzled and too excited to listen attentively. Van Derwater was about to repeat his instructions, when Dick Durwent shouldered his way into the group. Men’s voices were hushed at the sight of his blazing eyes.
In a bound he was on the bank, and stood exposed to the enemy’s fire. With something that was like a laugh and yet had an unearthly quality about it, he threw his helmet off and stood bareheaded in the golden sunlight. ‘En avant, messieurs!’ he cried. ‘Suivez-moi!’
There was a grinding of the gears and a roar of machinery as the tank reared its head and lunged after him.
‘Stop that man, Selwyn!’
Van Derwater’s voice rang out just in time. The old groom had scrambled to the bank to follow his master, but four hands grasped him and pulled him back. With a moan he clung to the bank, following Dick with his eyes. And his face was the colour of ashes.
With their voices almost rising to a scream, the chafing Americans watched the Englishman walk towards the enemy lines. Bullets bit the ground near his feet, but, untouched, he went on, with the metal monster following behind. Once he fell, and a hush came over the watchers; but he rose and limped on. His face pale and grim, Van Derwater moved among his men, urging them to wait; but they cursed and yelled at the delay.