David and Franz lay relaxing in the stone tool hut in the centre of the German vineyard on Thursday afternoon, having just finished installing a new wooden floor. "Hear that?" David asked.
"That's more hammering, they're installing another shoring sett." Franz rolled onto his belly and hung his head down through the hatch opening. "Seems so close this time."
"Sergeant Perrier told me sound travels about ten times faster in damp chalk than it does in air, but I've been unable to relate the loudness with distance. The other day as they were nearing breakthrough with the drainage tunnel, the sound became sharper as they approached. Listening now to the tool striking the chalk face, it's still a bit dull." David looked at his watch. "It's sixteen forty-eight, still almost half an hour until his estimated time. Let's clean up our mess here. Take the tools and scraps to the lorry."
Twenty minutes later, they were back inside and both lying on their bellies, looking down through the hatch. "Much sharper now. That's close to the sound I remember when Sergeant Perrier said there was half a foot left." They lay still and listened.
Six minutes later, a tool broke through at the edge of the pit. "Hello, welcome to Germany," David said down toward the hole. "That's at the extreme edge of the pit. All the way to your left."
A few more tool thrusts enlarged the hole enough for Sergeant Perrier to poke his head up through and take a quick look around. He smiled. "Looks like we're about four feet off-centre. The bearing is always more difficult than the distance." He smiled wider. "I was hoping we wouldn't have to search left and right."
Three minutes later, the hole had been enlarged sufficiently for him to crawl through, stand in the bottom of the pit and shake hands with David and Franz. After another look around with his electric torch, he said, "Actually, the off-centre can work to our advantage, we'll dig a set of steps as we move back to the middle." He looked again and nodded. "That will bring us up to the top of the chalk and save needing the lower ladder. Let me instruct the crew."
He reclined on the chalk and poked his head into the hole, his voice making an unintelligible muffled sound to those above. When he had finished and had pulled his head out and sat up, David said to him, "Tell the crews to knock off for the day now, it's nearly seventeen twenty, and there's not enough time for you to finish the fancy stuff. Franz and I will drive around, and we'll see you up the slope for some celebrations."
"We'll clean up here, Sir, then we'll take our bags of spoils out and leave the face ready for a fresh start in the morning."
When David drove into the courtyard, he pointed up the slopes. "Franz, you go up and tell Georg to knock off for the day and have everyone clean for the celebration. He's aware of it." Then David went to the kitchen and told the cooks, "You can plan on having the first things ready to serve at eighteen forty-five."
Back outside in the courtyard, he walked toward the lower slopes to meet Sergeant Perrier. Taking him aside, he said, "We've a feast planned this evening. Hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, followed by a mess dinner. We're doing Saint Barbara's two days early to celebrate the your breakthrough. Have the men assemble in the schloss at eighteen forty-five."
"Yes, Sir. Shall I tell them about the mess dinner, or only the wine and nibbles? It would be fun to leave the dinner as a surprise."
"Good idea. I'll announce it after ten minutes or so."
"Thank you, Sir. I'll make sure they're all spiffy for the schloss."
At eighteen fifty-five, David rung his wine glass with his pen and spoke rather loudly to get the attention of the twenty-two others gathered in the reception room. "Listen here, everyone." Then he spoke in a normal voice. "We're here to celebrate the breakthrough. You've all done a superb job and the War Office appreciates the extra effort you've put in to keep us close to schedule."
He held up a small quiche tart. "These are delicious, but I advise you all to go lightly with them. We have a mess dinner following, beginning in half an hour or so. For those of you who aren't familiar, an annual tradition with the Engineers is the Saint Barbara's Day dinner. That's this Saturday, but we're doing ours two days early to add to our celebration of jobs well done by all. Both the tunnelling and the field work, all of it. Let's relax and enjoy."
He paused and looked around the room at the smiling faces, then he added, "Oh! And to help you enjoy this evening, work starts after coffee tomorrow. You can sleep-in a bit if you wish. Breakfast runs from eight until ten, and there'll be plenty of extra coffee."
After lunch on Friday, Sergeant Perrier led David and Georg through the completed tunnel and they crouched in the pit under the tool hut floor. David looked around using his electric torch. "These steps are well-crafted, Sergeant, your men do fine work."
"Thank you, Sir." Perrier reached up and lifted the hatch, then slid it aside and stood through the opening. "It's an easy lift for your loads from the pit to the floor up here. I'm proud of what the teams have done, both yours and mine."
"They certainly showed last night that they're also proud. What a fine spirit they all have. I'll be sad to see you go, Sergeant."
"Any word on that yet. Sir?"
"We're still waiting to hear on arrangements at the border. Marcel is no longer an option after a group was apprehended there last week. I'm to keep you busy here until they've arranged another route. They're talking of false papers for an exit by train."
"Let's hope they're slow with it, Sir. We're in no rush to get back to the trenches in Belgium, to the muck and wet tents. But worse, to the British rations." Perrier laughed. "This is a very fine place to wait. Tell them to take their time."
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Back In ActionHistorical Fiction
In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...