Unmatched in history is the Retreat of the British Army from Mons. It was caught unprepared; it had to fight three weeks before it was ready; it was outnumbered three to one by a triumphant enemy; it was not co-ordinated with the French armies, and they failed to support it at critical moments; yet it fought that aweful dogged fight from house to house, and field to field, through league on league of Northern France. The line was forced to lengthen constantly as the retreat continued; it was attenuated by that and by its losses to beyond any human breaking-point; but luckily for England, her soldiers are made of such metal that the thinner the wire is drawn the tougher it becomes.
However, there is a point at which "open order" is like the word "decolletee" used to describe a smart American woman's dinner dress; and General Cripps was feeling it at the moment when his new Intelligence Officer presented himself. It was about six o'clock at night; Cripps and his staff were bivouacked in the mairie of a small village. They were contemplating a further retreat that night.
"Sit down, Captain Grey," said the chief kindly. "Join us at dinner — just as soon as we can get these orders out — listen and you'll pick up the outlines — we'll talk after dinner — on the road."
Cyril took a chair. To his delight, an aide-de-camp, Lord Juventius Mellor, an exquisite young dandy with a languid lisp, who, in time of peace, had been pupil and private secretary of Simon Iff, came to greet him.
"Ju, dear boy, help me out. I've got to tell Cripps something, and he'll think I'm mad. It's bluff, too; but it's true for all that — and it's the one chance in the world."
"Are we retreating again?"
"All through the night. There's not a dog's chance to save Paris, and the line stretches every hour."
"Don't worry about Paris — it's as safe as Bordeaux. Safer, because the Covernment is at Bordeaux!"
"My poor friend, wouldn't you be better in a home?"
The British Army had no illusions about its situation. It was a thin, drab line of heroes, very thin and very drab, but there was no doubt about the heroism, and no uncertainty about what would happen to it if the Germans possessed a leader with initiative. So far the hostile legions had moved according to the rules, with all due scientific precaution. A leader of temperament and intuition might have rushed that tenuous line. Still, science was as sure as it was as slow — and the whole army knew it. They prepared to die as expensively as possible, with simplicity of manhood. They had not yet heard that Press and Pulpit had made them the laughing-stock of the world by the invention of the ridiculous story of the "Angels of Mons." Lord Juventius Mellor was something of a hero-worshipper. From Simon Iff he would have taken any statement with absolute respect, and Grey's remark had been somewhat of the Simon Iff brand. It was, therefore, almost as much an impertinence as it was an absurdity. Paris was as certain to fall as the sun to set. It was in rotten bad taste to joke about it.
"Look here!" said Cyril, "I'm serious."
"All the worse!" retorted Mellor. "You really would be better in a home."
"You wouldn't talk like that if we were discussing magick."
"Then you are an ass. I am talking magick. If you had only ears to hear!"
"Everything's a magical phenomenon, in the long run. But war's magick, from the word jump. Come now therefore and let us reason together, saith the Lord. I have done a divination by the Tarot, by a method which I cannot explain, for that it pertaineth to a grade so much more exalted than yours that you have never even heard the name of it; and I know the plans of the German General Staff in detail." Cyril's tone transformed his asinine utterance into something so Sybilline, Oracular, Delphic, Cumaean, that his interlocutor almost trembled. Verus incessu patuit Deus — when Cyril thought it necessary to impress the uninitiate. To the majority of mankind gold looks like dross unless it be wrapped up in tinsel, and tenfold the proper price marked on it in plain figures, with the word "Sacrifice." Hence it is that the most successful merchants omit the gold altogether.
"Oh; I didn't understand."
"You'll observe that I can't explain this to Cripps,; I shall have to spin some sort of a yarn."
In point of fact the "yarn" was already spun; Cyril had not been divining by any means more occult than his innate sagacity; but Lord Juventius was one of those people who bow only before the assumption of authority supported by mystery and tomfoolery, since their reason is undeveloped. Such people make excellent secondary figures in any campaign; for their confidence in their leaders impresses the outsider, who does not know how mentally abject they are. It is said that no man is a hero to his valet. On the contrary, every man is a God to his secretary — if not, he had better get rid of the secretary!
Lord Juventius could not have followed Cyril's very astute calculations — those which he meant to lay before General Cripps; but he would have staked his life on the accuracy of a Tarot divination so obscure that he was not allowed even to hear its nature, and which in fact had not been performed. Indeed, it did not even exist, having been invented on the spur of the moment by the unscrupulous magician.
"I shall tell him that the military situation is inextricably bound up with political and dynastic considerations; I shall drop a word about Anschauung and Welt-politik; you know!"
Lord Juventius giggled adorably.
"By the way," continued Cyril "have you any influence — personal, I mean — with the old man?"
Lord Juventius bent forward with lowered eyelids, and sank his voice to a confidential whisper.
"The day we crossed," he murmured.
"Great. But I thought — "
"Prehistoric. It's perfectly Cocker."
Such conversations lack the merit of intelligibility to the outsider; but then the outsider is particularly to be kept from understanding. Dialogues of this curious sort determine most important events in English society and "haute politique."
"Then see to it that I get taken seriously."
"Precetur oculis mellitis!"
When Englishmen return to the use of the dead languages, it is a sign of that moral state which is said by the Psalmist to resemble the Holy Oil that flowed down upon the head of Aaron, even unto the skirts of his garments.
The orderly called the Staff to dinner. Cyril, as the guest of the evening, was on the Commander-in-Chief's right hand.
"You have been very highly recommended to me," said the old Cavalry leader, when the time came to smoke, "and I look to you to distinguish yourself accordingly. You will be under the orders of Colonel Mavor, of course; you should report to him at once."
"May I give you some information direct?" asked Cyril. "The matter hardly brooks delay, as I see it: you should know it at once, and — to be frank — I think this my best chance of your ever hearing it."
"A damned funny beginning," growled the general. "Well, get on!" The permission was not very gracious; but an irregularity is a serious thing in the British Army. General Cripps made bad worse.
"Unofficially, mind, absolutely unofficially," he added, before Cyril could begin.
This is the English expedient for listening to anything without hearing it, or saying anything without meaning it. An official conversation cannot be thus sterile; it involves notes, memoranda, dockets, recommendations, reports, the appointment of commissions, interminable deliberations, more reports, questions in Parliament, the introduction of bills, and so on. Nothing is done in the end, exactly as in the case of an unofficial conversation; so you can take your choice, sir, and be damned to you!
"Unofficially, of course, General!" agreed Cyril. "My object is merely to disclose the plans of the German General Staff."
"Thank you, Captain Grey," replied the great man, sarcastically;" this will indeed be a service. To save time, begin from Von Kluck's occupation of Paris, about four days hence."
"Impossible, General! Von Kluck will never capture Paris. Why, the man is actually of plebeian origin!"
"After dinner — but only then — such observations are in perfectly good taste. Proceed!"
"I am not joking in the least, General. Von Kluck will not be allowed to try to capture Paris."
"It is at least curious that he is marching straight upon the city!"
"Only to thin out our line, sir. Do you observe that the Germans have driven a salient to St. Mihiel?"
"The object, sir, I submit, is to cut off Verdun from the South."
"Why Verdun? Because the Crown Prince is at the head of the army which threatens it. Paris will never be taken but by that modern Caesar!"
"Something in that, I admit. The little beast is certainly unpopular."
"They are bound to make him the national hero, at any cost."
"And where do we come in?"
"What could be clearer? Their right wing will break through somewhere, or roll us up. Verdun will be isolated. Der Kronprinz (God bless his noble heart!) will walk through, and goose-step all the way to Paris. It is the only chance for the Hohenzollern dynasty."
"It is military madness."
"They think they have enough in hand to risk it. But see, sir, for God's sake see the conclusion! If I'm right, Von Kluck is bound to swerve East, right across our front — and we'll smash him!"
"He couldn't risk such a crazy manoeuvre."
"Mark my word, sir, he will."
"And what do you suggest that I should do about it? Unofficially, Captain Grey, quite unofficially!"
"Get ready to lam it in, sir — quite unofficially."
"Well, sir, I congratulate you — on having talked the most amusing nonsense that I've heard since my last talk with General Buller! And now perhaps you had better report to Colonel Mavor as Intelligence Officer." The general's tone was contemptuous. "Facts are required in this army."
"Psychological facts are facts, General."
"Nonsense, sir; you are not in a debating society or at a scientific tea-party."
"That last, sir," replied Cyril coldly "is my unavailing regret."
But Lord Juventius Mellor frustrated the effect of this impolitic speech. He fixed his languid eyes upon the red face of the veteran, and his voice came in a soft caressing whisper.
"Pardon me; do let us be unofficial for five minutes more!"
"I think it's only fair to let General Foch enjoy the joke. I hear he has been depressed lately."
"He might not take it so easily. The French do not care to be played with when their country is at stake."
"He can only shoot poor Cyril, mon vieux! Just give him two days leave, so that he can run over before reporting to Mavor."
"Oh well, I dare say the Intelligence Department can get on without its champion guesser for a day or so. Trot along, Grey; but for your own sake I advise you to think up a fact or two."
Cyril saluted, and took his leave. Juventius came to see him into the car. "I'll wheedle the old ass," he whispered to his friend, "I'll get him to make such dispositions as he can without disturbing the line too much; so that if Foch should see any sense in your scheme, by any chance, we shan't be too backward in coming forward."
Cyril drove off. It was a terrible and ominous journey to the headquarters of General Foch. The line sagged hideously here and there so that long detours were necessary. The roads were encumbered not only with every kind of military supply, all in disorder, but with fugitive soldiers and civilians, some burdened with their household goods, some wounded, a long trail of agony lumbering to the rear. The country was already patrolled by herds of masterless and savage dogs, reverted, in a month of war, to the type of the coyote and the dingo. But Cyril shouted in his joy. His confidence rose as he went; he had thought out one of General Cripps's "facts" which he felt sure would carry conviction to the mind of the French commander.
Arrived at the chateau where the general was quartered, he found no trouble in gaining audience. The Frenchman, splendidly built, his eyes glittering with restless intelligence, concentrated all his faculties instantly on his visitor. "You have come from General Cripps?"
"Yes, my General, but on my own responsibility. I have an idea —"
"But you are in an English uniform!" he could not help saying with brisk Gallic surprise.
"Cuchullus non facit monachum," retorted Cyril Grey. "I am half Scotch, half Irish."
"Then pray give yourself the trouble to continue."
"I may premise that I have told my idea to General Cripps. It convinced him that I am an imbecile or a joker."
That was his "fact," his master-argument. It told heavily. The face of Foch grew instantly keen and eager with all expectation.
"Let me hear it!" The General reached for a memorandum.
Grey laughed. In a few words he repeated his theory of the German plans.
"But it is certain!" cried Foch. "One moment; excuse me; I must telephone."
He left the room. In five minutes he was back.
"Rest easy, Captain Grey," he said, "we shall be ready to catch Von Kluck as he turns. Now, will you do me the pleasure to take this note back to your chief? The British must be ready to strike at the same moment. I won't ask you to stay; but — I beg of you to come to dine with me after the victory."
It is impossible to give any idea of how the word "victoire" sounds in the mouth of a French soldier. It has in it the ring of a sword thrust home to the hilt, and the cry of a lover as he seizes his mistress, and the exultation of a martyr who in the moment of his murder reaches conclusively to God.
Cyril went back to the British Headquarters, and handed in General Foch's request, through Colonel Mavor, officially.
The events of the next week are of the very spine of history. The cruel blow was definitely parried. More still, that first great victory not only saved France for all time, but showed that the men of Bonaparte had come into their own moral sublimity again. It proved 1870 to have been but a transient weakness like our own year of shame when Van Tromp swept our ships from the seas.
General Cripps summoned Cyril Grey to his quarters.
"I'm afraid," said the old man, "that nothing can be done to recognize your services. That your crazy theory should have proved correct is only one more example — we have many such every day — of the operation of the laws of Chance. The weather forecasters themselves cannot guess wrong every time. But even if your act had merited reward, we should still have been powerless; for, as you remember, our conversation was strictly unofficial.
"Unofficially, however, you get your step and the K.C.B. Favouritism, sir, rank favouritism! Now go across to General Foch, Major — he wishes to present you to two gentlemen named respectively Joffre and Poincar'e. Boot and saddle! No time to waste," he said hastily, to check any expression of gratitude. But as the two men gripped hands, their eyes were dim — they were thinking of England.
So off went Cyril on the road to Paris, where his rendezvous was fixed.
The victory had changed the aspect of the country in the rear of the armies as by stage-craft. There were no more fugitives, no more disorder. Still the long trains of wounded clogged the roads, here and there, but the infection of glory had spread like sunlight over a sky swept clear of storm. The supply trains radiated confidence. Always the young man met new guns, new wagons, new horses. At every turn of the road were fresh regiments, gaily singing on their way to the front. Cyril was enchanted at the aspect of the troops. Their elasticity and high spirits were overwhelming. Once he came upon a regiment of Turcos being transferred to another sector — every man of them with a trophy of the great battle. His intense love for all savage men, true men unspoilt by civilization, almost mastered him: he wanted to embrace them. He saw life assurgent, the menace of the enemy thwarted, and his joy flooded his heart so that his throat caught fire, and song leaped to his lips.
And then chill caught him as he came suddenly upon a dreadful sight.
Before him on the road stood a sign-post, the lance of a Spahi, thrust into the bank of a ditch; nailed to it was a placard on which was coarsely chalked the one word ESPION. A fatal curiosity drew him to the spot; as he approached, the wild dogs that were fighting around the sinister signal fled in terror from their ghastly meal.
A sword had been thrust through the belly of the corpse; the tongue had been torn out. One could recognize at a glance the work of Algerian troops — men who had lost a third of their effectives through the treacheries of the German spies. But, despite all mutilation, he recognized more than that: he recognized the carcass. This carrion had once been Douglas.
Cyril Grey did a strange thing, a thing he had not done for many years: he broke into a strong sobbing.
"I know now," he murmured, "that Simon Iff is right. The Way of the Tao! I must follow that harder path, the Path where he who would advance draws back."
He put spurs to his horse; half-an-hour later he saw the sunset glint upon the Eiffel Tower, and on the wings of one of those gallant birds that circled about it to keep watch and ward on Paris.
The next morning he reported himself to the British authorities; and it was Lord Antony Bowling who presented him to the President and Commander-in-Chief.
At the banquet he found himself an Officer of the Legion of Honour; but his brilliancy and buoyancy were gone. He dined in dull decorum. His thoughts still turned to the shameful corpse in the ditch by the wayside. He excused himself early, and left the Elysee. At the gate stood an automobile. In it sat Lisa la Giuffria. She jumped out and caught him by the shoulders. She poured out the tale of her madness, and its result, and its cure, her careful tracking of his movements, her determination to recover him at any cost. He listened in silence — the silence of incurable sadness. He shook his head.
"Have you no word for me?" she cried impetuously, torn by her agony.
"Have you no gift for me?" he answered.
She understood. "Oh, you are human! you are human!" she cried.
"I do not know what I am," he answered. "Yesterday I saw the end of the game — for one!"
He told her in a few words of the horror on the roadside.
"Go!" he said, "take that girl, Douglas's last victim, for your maid. Go to America; find the Child of the Moon. There may, or there may not be, other tasks for us to do; I know not — time will show."
"I will, I will," she cried, "I will go now, quickly. Kiss me first!"
Once again the tears gathered in the magician's eyes; he understood, more deeply than he had ever done, the Sorrow of the Universe. He saw how utterly incompatible are all our human ideals with the Laws of Life. He took her slowly and gently in his arms; and he kissed her. But Lisa did not respond; she understood that this was not the man whom she had loved: this was a man that she had never known, one whom she dared not love. A man set apart, an idea to adore! She knew herself unworthy, and she withdrew herself.
"I go," she said, "to seek the Child. Hail and farewell!"
The girl mounted unsteadily into her car. Cyril Grey, his head bowed upon his breast, plunged into the wooded pleasaunce of the Champs Elysees.
An ineffable weariness came upon him as he walked. He wondered dully if he were going to be ill. He came up against the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde with a shock of surprise. He had not noticed that he had left the trees. The Obelisk decided him; its shape smote into his soul the meaning of the Mysteries of Egyptian Magick. It was as invigorating as a cold plunge. He strode away towards Montmartre.
The Profess-House of the Order had been converted into a hospital. But who should come to greet him if not Sister Cybele?
Beside her stood the severe figure of Simon Iff. There were two others in the background. Cyril was not surprised to see his old master, the Mahathera Phang; but the other? It was Abdul Bey.
"Come forward and shake hands," cried Simon Iff. "I have not been inactive, Cyril," added the old man. "I have had my eye on our young friend for a long time. I put my hand on him at the right moment. I showed him that spying was a dog's game, with a dog's death at the end of it. He has renounced his errors, and he is now a Probationer of our Holy Order."
The young men greeted each other, the Turk stammering out an appeal for pardon, the other laughing off his embarrassment.
"But you are ill, Cyril!" cried Sister Cybele. And in truth the boy could hardly stand.
"Action and reaction are equal and opposite," explained Simon Iff, cheerily. "You will sleep, Brother Cyril, and you will then pass seven days in meditation, in one of the high trances. I will see to the extension of your leave."
"There is a meditation," said Cyril firmly, "given by the Buddha, a meditation upon a corpse torn by wild beasts. I will take that."
Simon Iff acquiesced without comprehending. He did not know that Cyril Grey had understood that the corpse of Douglas was his own; that the perception of the identity of himself with all other living things had come to him, and raised him to a great Adeptship.
But there was one to comprehend the nature of that initiation. As Cyril walked, leaning on the arm of Sister Cybele, to the room appointed for his prescribed solitude, he beheld a great light. It shone serenely from the eyes of the Mahathera Phang.