It was not long after old Luppe’s death that a terrible thing happened. Père Jean came in one afternoon with a piece of yellow paper which he and Mère Marie and Gran’père studied very gravely for a long time. The children were sent to bed early but they could hear their elders talking until very late. They could not imagine what it meant, but when Henri woke up once in the night he heard Mère Marie weeping, which was strange, for she was usually so cheerful. Perhaps she was thinking about Luppe.
In Brussels there seemed to be more excitement than usual, and nearly every one bought papers of the pretty newsgirls at the corner. All were serious looking and many appeared to be frightened. Also there were soldiers marching through the streets, which was a grand sight to Henri.
It was from the newsgirls that Henri at last learned what it was all about. It was war, which of course explained the soldiers. Henri’s heart leaped as he watched them in the hope that he might see some fighting, but he was a little frightened, too. On the way home he plied his mother with questions, but she was very quiet and he did not learn much from her.
At last he found out that Père Jean, who had once served a term in the army, had been called to the colours and attached to a company of reserves. Every day he had to leave the farm and the dairy in Gran’père’s hands and go away to drill. On these occasions he wore a uniform which, while not quite so gay as the one he wore in the band, was more martial looking. This made Henri very proud, but Mère Marie had not much to say about it.
Once, when Henri stayed at home to help Gran’père, they heard a great sound of tramping and went out to see what it was. Up the road a cloud of dust appeared and through it the legs of many men all moving together and the glint of sun on steel. Presently the soldiers came, hundreds and hundreds of them, marching past the little dairy farm toward Brussels. Henri wanted to cheer, but Gran’père seemed so stern that he refrained. Together they stood beside the road, old man and little boy, very straight and rigid, saluting solemnly as the officers rode past. It was all most impressive.
Henri continued to go to the city frequently with Mère Marie, not because Pierrot was likely to misbehave, for he had learned his lessons well, but because Mère Marie more and more wanted him with her. Everywhere he heard talk of the great war and learned to keep his ears open. The Germans had come and there was fighting at Liège—though Henri did not in the least know where Liège might be. Every one was proud of the brave men who were holding the forts, and Henri could understand something of that. He was proud, too, especially as his father was a soldier, though he did not understand why Père Jean had not been fighting and winning battles. Wounded men were occasionally brought in to Brussels, and Mère Marie seemed much troubled by the sight of them. Henri wanted very much to question them about fighting but was given no opportunity.
Then came the day when the terrible news that Liège had fallen sent Brussels into a fever of excitement. Some of Mère Marie’s customers packed up and moved away to Antwerp or Ostend or England, so that Pierrot’s route grew shorter. There seemed to be fear that the Germans might appear at any moment.
“The French!” cried the people in despair. “Where are they?”
When Mère Marie and Henri reached home that day Père Jean was waiting nervously in his uniform, with his rifle and accoutrements ready.
“We have been called to the front,” said he. “The Germans must be kept from Brussels.”
Not much more was said; it was not a time for talking. Père Jean kissed them all, even old Gran’père, and said good-bye, and hurried off down the road. Mère Marie was very brave and did not weep till he had gone. Then she pressed Henri and wee Lisa close to her and sobbed bitterly, which made the children cry, too, and Pierrot, who had not been unharnessed, came dragging his cart and thrust his moist nose among them in sympathy. But Gran’père stood alone by the road, looking toward Brussels, his shoulders squared and his lips closed in a thin line.
Then terrible events took place very rapidly: The Belgians could not hold back the Germans and Père Jean and the rest were forced to fall back to Antwerp. The Gardes de Ville in Brussels advised Mère Marie not to come to town any more, so they said good-bye to the pretty newsgirls and their other friends and tried to explain the matter to Pierrot who complained the next morning because he was not harnessed to his cart.
That is why they were not in town when the news came that Louvain had been destroyed and many peaceful people who were not soldiers at all had been shot. But the news was not long in reaching the dairy farm, and Mère Marie turned very white. Some of their neighbours packed up their belongings and drove away, but Gran’père and Mère Marie did not know where to go, so they stayed at home.
Three Belgian soldiers came and drove off Medard and all the cows except one spotted heifer, and gave Mère Marie a receipt, saying that she would be paid some time. They all knew the Germans would soon be there, so it didn’t matter much; and with only one cow to milk and no trip to make to town there was less work to do. Gran’père, with the help of Mère Marie and Henri and Pierrot, began to harvest such of their small crops as he could.
On August 18th a frightened neighbour brought word that the King had left for Antwerp and that Brussels was in the hands of the Germans.
“Why cannot we go to Antwerp, lieve moeder,” asked Henri, “and be with the King and Père Jean and the soldiers?”
But Mère Marie only shook her head; she could not speak.
Of all this Pierrot understood but little. He only knew that he missed the pleasant clatter of the milk-cart at his heels, and the shade of the lime trees on the Avenue Louise, and all the interesting sounds and smells of the city, and the sweet laughter of les petites marchandes de journaux. Also he missed the strong, kind hands and deep voice of Père Jean. But he, too, was soon to learn something of the meaning of war.
A few years before a regiment of carabiniers had started to use dogs to haul small supply carts and mitrailleuses or machine-guns. They are the soldiers who wear dark green uniforms with narrow yellow braid and yellow badges, wide-collared overcoats in winter, and queer, high-crowned hats with chin straps and plumes of glossy, green-black cock feathers sprouting from green and yellow rosettes. That is, of course, the parade hat. In action they wear little round caps or take the feathers out of their hats and cover them with black oilcloth. The experiment with dogs proved successful, and now that there seemed a prospect of much fighting and marching in the rough country the army decided to extend this branch of the service and began to commandeer hundreds of strong, well-trained chiens de trait.
Just before the first Uhlan appeared at the Van Huyk farm a Belgian carbineer came very hurriedly one morning and led Pierrot away. The dog resisted at first but soon found he had got to go and trotted off up the road by the soldier’s side. The children clung to his rough neck and wept until Mère Marie dragged them into the house, but Gran’père stood very straight and still and put his hand to his forehead when the soldier and Pierrot marched away. The last thing Pierrot saw as he turned back at the bend in the road was the stiff, brave figure of the old man standing before the little farmhouse, and the last thing he heard was the wild wailing of wee Lisa who could not understand and would not be comforted.
Pierrot and the carbineer were soon joined by other soldiers with other dogs, and they all hurried along the strange roads together. It was a long journey, more than twenty miles, for they made a wide detour around Brussels, passing north through Anderlecht.
When they arrived at last at Malines Pierrot was placed in an enclosure with many other dogs. They were not used to being together in this way, and two men had to go about among them with whips to keep them from fighting. But Pierrot, who was always friendly, found this contact with his kind rather pleasant, though he was greatly perplexed by it all and wanted to go home.
At night the dogs were fed and given straw to lie upon, but none of them slept well in the new surroundings, and their guards were tired and irritable before morning.
After daybreak soldiers came and took out the dogs two by two. Finally a big, bearded carbineer named Conrad Orts approached Pierrot. He patted Pierrot’s head, opened his mouth to look at his teeth, and ran his hand down the hairy back and legs, as Père Jean used to do, and Pierrot liked him. Also he seemed to like Pierrot, for he smiled, and said, “Un bon garçon.” Then he selected a big, strong, surly looking dog named Jef, so Pierrot afterward learned, and led the two dogs on leashes out into an open field where there were tents and carts and piles of boxes and bundles and much bustling about.
They came to a strange little cart the like of which Pierrot had never seen before. It was a rapid-fire machine-gun mounted on two bicycle wheels. In place of shafts there was a single tongue with two collars fastened at the end, one on each side. One of these Conrad snapped about Pierrot’s neck and the other about Jef’s, and then fastened the traces. Then he trotted them about for a few moments till he seemed satisfied. The gun and carriage weighed less than 200 pounds altogether, which was a very easy load for two strong dogs on level ground. Other dogs were being harnessed to similar vehicles, only some of them had ammunition boxes in place of the little cannon. Then Conrad tied the dogs and went in search of the two soldiers who had brought them, in order that he might learn their names, which was a wise thing for him to do.
For a day or two Conrad Orts spent much time training Jef and Pierrot, taking them through water and over all kinds of rough country that they might be ready for anything. Commands in the Belgian army are given mostly in French, which was strange to Pierrot, for Gran’père and Père Jean had taught him Flemish words. So he had to learn the meaning of such commands as “Halte-là!” “Marche!” and “Va vite!” But he and Jef soon learned to obey Conrad even when he did not hold the reins, pulling the little cannon with a will across creeks and up and down steep banks, and dashing with it through thickets where neither horses nor automobiles could have gone. The dogs soon discovered each other’s ways and learned to save their strength for the hard places and to pull well together. And in spite of Jef’s taciturnity, Pierrot found him to be an honest fellow, always ready to do his share of the work, and he came to like him. Conrad seemed much pleased with them both.
Then came a morning when there was great excitement in the camp of the carbineers. Men were running all about and officers were shouting commands. Conrad came and hurriedly harnessed Pierrot and Jef to their carriage and they started off on a run down the road toward Brussels with some of the other dogs and guns. When they had gone about a mile the dogs were unharnessed and tied to trees, and the guns were placed in the road. Presently the galloping of horses was heard and shots were fired, which frightened the dogs and made them try to break loose. But they were much more frightened when their own guns began to speak. A horrible din arose, and some of the dogs lay down and cowered and others pranced and howled. Men came and kicked them and told them to be still; all of the soldiers seemed hurried and excited. Pierrot was trembling Violently and wished he were at home with Gran’père and wee Lisa, but stolid Jef took it all very calmly and that put courage into Pierrot.
A company of Belgian infantry came running up, and throwing themselves flat on the ground by the roadside, or standing behind trees, they began firing at the Uhlans. Then, after a little, two armoured automobiles came rushing along and charged down the road, and the firing of the machine-guns ceased.
By and by the order came for the carbineers to fall back, and the dogs were quickly harnessed up again. Some of them had to be kicked and cuffed into action, but Pierrot and Jef obeyed Conrad Orts in spite of their fear. Beside their gun a soldier lay moaning, and Pierrot sniffed at him curiously. He could not understand any of it.
It had been only a little outpost skirmish, but it was Pierrot’s first taste of war.
There followed many days of this sort of thing. Sometimes there were skirmishes, sometimes false alarms, but the dogs never knew when they might be called upon to run into action with their little cannon. Day or night, it was always the same, and it was fortunate for them that they learned to snatch such moments for rest and sleep as were offered. And dinner-time became a very irregular affair. It was all quite different from the orderly course of a cart-dog’s life in Brussels. But gradually they learned to know what was expected of them and responded willingly. In fact, there was an excitement about it which kept them constantly keyed up and eager. They got used to the smell of powder and the sound of firing, too, and Pierrot did not tremble any more.
In the main, Conrad was kind, though frequently hurried and a little rough, and there were never sweetmeats any more nor caresses. It was all very hard to understand.
Two or three times the camp was moved, and finally they withdrew to the circle of the Antwerp forts. And then once more Pierrot heard the sounds and sniffed the smells of a city. Conrad hitched his dogs one day to a supply cart and took them in to town. Here again Pierrot trotted along paved streets between high buildings, and once his sharp ear caught the sound of milk cans rattling over paving stones. It made him feel very homesick.
On their way back they had to wait for a long column of soldiers to march past. They looked tired and dusty, and the tramp, tramp of their feet sounded strange in Pierrot’s ears. Suddenly his eye was caught by a face he thought he knew. Could it be Père Jean? Perhaps he had come to take him home.
Pierrot sniffed, but in the strong man-smell of the marching troops he detected no familiar scent. He barked with all his might, “Here I am, Père Jean; here I am!” But Conrad bade him be still, and the soldier in the line kept his eyes fixed sternly ahead and marched on without turning. So Pierrot must have been mistaken. It made him very unhappy, and he whined in a low, whistling tone till the column passed and Conrad started on again.
There came a day when a fiercer battle took place than any Pierrot had yet been engaged in. The Germans had spread out their forces until they were very near to the Antwerp forts, and there was need of an action in force to drive them back again. Many soldiers were ordered hastily to the front—galloping dragoons, close ranks of infantry, and horse-drawn field guns. When the command came to the carbineers, the machine-gun battery was ready and the dogs waiting in their harnesses, and they started off at a run down the road.
After they had gone about a mile an officer came galloping up and sent them off to the left around a little wood, in which a battalion of infantry was in action. The rattle of their rifles made an incessant din, and now and then shrapnel shrieked overhead and shells exploded in the soft earth or among the trees.
The men urged their dogs to greater efforts, and they tore over the rough ground, dragging their guns and wagons in and out of gullies and through underbrush at a mad pace.
As they skirted the wood they came into full view of a gray German column making its way slowly around the flank of the Belgians. The carbineers quickly deployed, falling on their faces behind any bush or hillock they could find, and opened fire. But the men in charge of the batteries could not hide. They must get their guns into action and take their chances.
There was no time to unharness the dogs, so they were turned about and were obliged to stand facing away from the tumult of battle as the machine-guns began to rattle directly behind them. It was very hard to bear, and some of them might have broken and run but for a half-dozen men who had been told off to squat by the dogs’ heads and hold them steady.
Bullets began to whistle about their ears and to go plop! plop! into the ground about them. Now and then a man fell silently or with a sharp cry, and over on the right Pierrot heard a dog’s sharp yelp of anguish. Behind him Conrad Orts grunted and breathed through his teeth as he desperately worked his gun.
Suddenly one of the men at the dogs’ heads grasped his throat, uttered a rattling moan, and fell over in the grass, and two of the dogs started wildly off, their gun bumping and careening behind them. Other dogs reared and snarled, and it was all the men could do to prevent a stampede. A panic seized Pierrot and the desire for swift flight, but Conrad turned about for a moment, crying, “Steady, boys, steady!” Stolid old Jef growled in his throat and Pierrot stood firm.
The fire of the machine-guns had checked the advancing Germans, and the carbineers began to dart ahead from hillock to hillock, continuing their fire. At length the Germans withdrew and the battle centre shifted. The carbineers were recalled and fell in with their battery behind the trees to catch their breath. Just as they were turning a speeding bullet caught a spotted young dog that Pierrot had become acquainted with. He was trotting close by with his mate and their gun, and with a cry of pain and terror he leaped into the air and fell at Pierrot’s feet, the red blood spurting from his shoulder.
In terrified amazement Pierrot stopped short and sniffed at his fallen comrade. Then Conrad urged him on again while the men cut the dead dog from the traces.
For the carbineers the battle was over for that day, but Pierrot had looked upon his dead and he began to understand.