At length came the day of the evacuation of Antwerp, and the Belgian king and his brave but beaten army moved sorrowfully westward, leaving their fair land to suffer unprotected. The carbineers were sent on ahead with their battery, leaving the horse artillery and armoured motor cars and cavalry to cover the army’s retreat. Some of the troops went on railway trains through Ghent, Bruges, and Ostend, but for the most part the army, including the carbineers, was obliged to travel on foot.
It was a forced march, long and arduous. Seventy miles they covered in three days, sometimes keeping to the roads, sometimes cutting across country, but always hurrying on until it seemed to the dogs as though their legs would collapse and their lungs burst.
Once they came out upon the seashore, and Pierrot would have liked to tarry here and contemplate the new wonder, but always there seemed to be the need for haste and Conrad would not let him rest. They left behind them the pleasant farms and the wooded country and came at length to the land of canals and dykes and sand dunes, with queer, pollarded willows along the roadsides and canal banks. Also there was a great deal of rain and mud which made the hauling of the guns doubly difficult.
At last, weary and wretched, they came to a halt, and the dogs were allowed a brief rest while the ranks were reformed and the men established camps and dug trenches.
It was here that Pierrot occasionally saw soldiers in brown khaki who sang wild songs and spoke in a strange tongue but who seemed very friendly. A few of them came one day to visit the carbineers, and there was much handshaking and smoking, but very little conversation. They seemed particularly interested in the dogs, and one of them, a short, stocky fellow, with a very red face and a wide grin, strode among them as though he had been waiting for weeks to rub his hand up and down a dog’s back and pinch a dog’s ears. Jef remained coldly suspicious, but Pierrot wagged his stump tail violently and placed his muddy forepaws on the soldier’s broad chest. Whereupon the soldier gave Pierrot a stifling hug and a pat on the head and walked quickly away.
This did Pierrot a world of good, for though Conrad Orts was a good master he seemed to have no time for caresses, and in Pierrot’s heart there was a mighty craving for the love of man. When the brown khaki man was gone Pierrot stood looking after him and whining. Then he lay down, whimpering a little, and the great wave of homesickness swept over him afresh.
If a dog cannot fully reason, he can at least remember, and Pierrot felt that he had lost what was best in life and he could not understand why. He saw it all again—the peaceful dairy farm with Medard and the cows; Mère Marie, with her fresh face and the shiny milk cans; the busy city and the laughing newsgirls; mild old Gran’père and merry little Lisa; the gentle hands and voices and the joy of being loved. But of course Pierrot was only a dog and war is war. One cannot be bothered with such trivial matters when the fate of dynasties is at stake.
Soon the fighting began again, only now there were no gallant dashes along hard roads or across green fields, but weary plodding through the mud, climbing in and out of trenches, short, heartbreaking charges, and hasty retreats. It was close-range fighting, and almost continuous. There was a constant roaring of big guns and the sickening bursting of bombs near at hand. The dogs were seldom unharnessed, slept by snatches when they could, and were often obliged to go hungry.
During one of the many encounters, a miserable little affair among the dunes ungilded by any of the fabled glory of battle, Conrad Orts suddenly tumbled over in the wet sand and lay still. The order to retreat was given, but no word came from Conrad. Jef and Pierrot stood perplexedly watching the other men and dogs flounder back around the sand-hills. Then came shouts and the sound of running feet behind them, and of hostile firing. Turning about, they saw the men in gray coming on, rushing from dune to dune. Partly through fear and partly through an instinctive feeling that they should return to their friends, the two Belgian dogs started off on a mad gallop after the retreating carbineers, leaving the silent form of their master where it had fallen.
By a miracle they reached the trenches in safety, though a rain of bullets fell all about them, and a man named André Wyns took charge of them and their gun.
And now a new burden was laid upon Jef and Pierrot, for André was a rough man and knew little about the handling of dogs. He beat and prodded and kicked them, not in anger but in the mistaken belief that such treatment was necessary to get the most out of them. At first Pierrot was terrified and enraged and showed his resentment, for he had never been beaten in this manner before; but he soon learned the uselessness of rebellion and submitted with what grace he could. Eagerly he waited for the coming again of Conrad Orts, but Conrad never returned. As for Jef, he bore it all in sullen silence, but it was plain to be seen that he bore no love for André.
When the cold winter weather came there was added misery for dogs and men. Icy water stood in the bottoms of the trenches and the nights were raw and chill. It was fortunate for Pierrot that he had always been an outdoor dog, used to rain and frost and sleet, and that his rough coat was thick and matted. But that did not save his feet from getting frost-bitten after his runs through the water, and cut by the frozen mud and ice-crusted pools. Little balls of ice would form between his toes, which hurt him cruelly. Some of the men bandaged the feet of their dogs, but André Wyns seemed to have no time for that. He only beat them the harder when they started out stiffly or showed signs of weariness on the return. At night the men drew blankets around them and huddled about such small fires as they could find fuel for, but there were neither fires nor blankets for the dogs.
If Czar and Kaiser can bring such suffering to men, what chance that they will heed the aching limbs and bleeding feet of shivering dumb brutes?
The days and weeks slipped by and some of the dogs died of pneumonia, or, weakened by hunger and exposure, had to be shot. Pierrot, grown gaunt and haggard, was nearing the end of his strength. He had become almost insensible to Andre’s beatings, and his mind had become so dulled that he worked mechanically and without initiative. The happy days on the Waterloo Road seemed now so dim and unreal that he scarcely thought of them; only in the back of his brain there was always an aching, hopeless longing.
One midwinter morning at daybreak Pierrot was aroused from restless slumber by a great noise and confusion all about him. He and Jef had been sleeping unharnessed beneath their gun in a little hollow at the lip of the trench, huddled close together for warmth. In the night a light snow had fallen and partly covered them.
Pierrot rose to his feet, stretched, shook himself wearily, and stood blinking stupidly out upon a white world. Across the trench, a few hundred yards away, he could see the helmets of a great host of Germans advancing rapidly in solid ranks. The Belgian soldiers were hurrying to the escarpment to meet the attack, and already their rifles were speaking, while German bullets ploughed sharp lines in the snow or buried themselves in the bank behind. Already one or two of the dogs who were in exposed positions were yelping with pain or had stiffened out upon the ground, and now and then one of the carbineers went tumbling down to the bottom of the trench.
The men in charge of the little battery made a rush for their guns, and a few of the dogs were hastily harnessed. Presently Pierrot saw André Wyns come labouring toward them with an armful of ammunition. He had nearly reached them when he pitched forward upon his face and rolled down the bank.
Then came the Germans—hundreds, thousands of them—not cheering, but pressing grimly on and filling the gaps as their comrades fell. There was a sharp order, and the Germans broke into a run and stormed the trench with fixed bayonets.
Then all was a frightful confusion of struggling men. They filled the trench, fighting desperately, and Belgians and Germans fell together in the awful agonies of sudden death. The Belgians fought stubbornly, but foot by foot the survivors were forced back, and the Germans swarmed into the trench, across the bodies of foe and comrade, and up the opposite bank.
One or two of the carbineers had succeeded in getting their machine-guns into action, but they were soon overwhelmed and the dogs who were harnessed were quickly bayonetted that they might not run off with the guns. Some of the other dogs fled and perhaps a few escaped, but there was little chance for them.
Pierrot and Jef stood waiting, the impulse to flee not having come to them. Men scrambled past them, but they stood dazed and terrified. Then a big brute of a fellow, his face distorted with the battle madness which sometimes turns a man into a fiend, came grunting and cursing up the bank, and finding the dogs in his path, thrust his bayonet wantonly through poor Jef’s heart. Pierrot saw his team-mate fall without a cry. The German put his foot on the animal and drew out his bayonet with an effort. A spurt of blood followed it and made a red pool in the snow.
Unreasoning rage seized Pierrot, and with what remained of his once agile strength he leaped at the man’s throat and sank his fangs into the flesh. The soldier dropped his rifle, and grasping Pierrot in his strong hands sought to choke him and force him off. But the dog was crazed and blind with rage and insensible to pain. He felt the tearing of the man’s neck muscles between his jaws and he tasted the hot blood. Then the man’s grip relaxed and he fell backward. Pierrot fell with him, the breath well-nigh gone out of his body. But the man lay quiet, struggling no more, and Pierrot extricated himself and rose unsteadily.
The fight raging about him made no impression on his stunned senses. But suddenly another gray form appeared before him; a heavy boot caught him under the chin and sent him sprawling. Then the report of a rifle sounded loudly in his ears and he felt a sharp and awful pain in his right hind leg.
After that, darkness.