Read CHAPTER IX - A SUNDAY MORNING CALL of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

As a boy, Arthur Lanstron had persisted in being an exception to the influences of both heredity and environment. Though his father and both grandfathers were officers who believed theirs to be the true gentleman’s profession, he had preferred any kind of mechanical toy to arranging the most gayly painted tin soldiers in formation on the nursery floor; and he would rather read about the wonders of natural history and electricity than the campaigns of Napoleon and Frederick the Great and my lord Nelson. Left to his own choice, he would miss the parade of the garrison for inspection by an excellency in order to ask questions of a man wiping the oil off his hands with cotton-waste, who was far more entertaining to him than the most spick-and-span ramrod of a sergeant.

The first time he saw a dynamo in motion he was spellbound. This was even more fascinating than the drill that the family dentist worked with his foot. His tutor found him inclined to estimate a Cæsar, self-characterized in his commentaries, as less humanly appealing than his first love, the engine-driver, with whom he kept up a correspondence after his father had been transferred to another post. He was given to magic lanterns, private telegraph and telephone lines, trying to walk a tight rope, and parachute acts and experiments in chemistry. When the family were not worried lest he should break his neck or blow his head off investigating, they were irritated by a certain plebeian strain in him which kept all kinds of company. His mother disapproved of his picking an acquaintance with a group of acrobats in order to improve his skill on the trapeze. His excuse for his supple friends was that they were all “experts” in something, just as his tutor was in Greek verbs.

Very light-hearted he was, busy, vital, reckless, with an earnest smile that could win the post telegrapher to teach him the code alphabet or persuade his father not to destroy his laboratory after he had singed off his eyebrows. This may explain why he had to cram hard in the dead languages at times, with a towel tied around his head. He complained that they were out of date; and he wanted to hear the Gauls’ story, too, before he fully made up his mind about Cæsar. But for the living languages he had a natural gift which his father’s service abroad as military attache for a while enabled him to cultivate.

Upon being told one day that he was to go to the military school the following autumn, he broke out in open rebellion. He had just decided, after having passed through the stages of engine-driver, telegraph operator, railroad-signal watchman, automobile manufacturer, and superintendent of the city’s waterworks, to build bridges over tropical torrents that always rose in floods to try all his skill in saving his construction work.

“I don’t want to go into the army!” he said.

“Why?” asked his father, thinking that when the boy had to give his reasons he would soon be argued out of the heresy.

“It’s drilling a few hours a day, then nothing to do,” Arthur replied. “All your work waits on war and you don’t know that there will ever be any war. It waits on something nobody wants to happen. Now, if you manufacture something, why, you see wool come out cloth, steel come out an automobile. If you build a bridge you see it rising little by little. You’re getting your results every day; you see your mistakes and your successes. You’re making something, creating something; there’s something going on all the while that isn’t guesswork. I think that’s what I want to say. You won’t order me to be a soldier will you?”

The father, loath to do this, called in the assistance of an able pleader then, Eugene Partow, lately become chief of staff of the Browns, who was an old friend of the Lanstron family. It was not in Partow’s mind to lose such a recruit in a time when the heads of the army were trying, in answer to the demands of a new age, to counteract the old idea that made an officer’s the conventional avocation of a gentleman of leisurely habits.

“No army that ever worked as hard in peace as the average manufacturer or bridge-builder was ever beaten in battle if it fought anything like equal numbers,” he said. “The officer who works hard in the army deserves more credit than he would in any other profession because the incentive for results seems remote. But what a terrible test of results may be made in a single hour’s action. There is nothing you have learned or ever will learn that may not be of service to you. There is no invention, no form of industrial organization that must not be included in the greatest organization of all, whose plant and methods must be up to date in every particular. To be backward in a single particular may mean disaster-may mean that the loss of thousands of lives is due to you. You must have self-control, courage, dash, judgment If you have not kept up, if you are not equal to the test, your inefficiency will mean your shame and your country’s suffering; while efficiency means a clear conscience and your country’s security.”

Thus Partow turned the balance on the side of filial affection. He kept watch of the boy, but without favoring him with influence. Young Lanstron, who wanted to see results, had to earn them. He realized in practice the truth of Partow’s saying that there was nothing he had ever learned but what could be of service to him as an officer. What the acrobats had taught him probably saved his life on the occasion of his first flight across the range. The friendships with all sorts of people in his youth were the forerunner of his sympathy with the giant, wall-eyed Stransky who had mutinied on the march.

“Finding enough work to do?” Par tow would ask with a chuckle when they met in these days, for he had made Lanstron both chief of intelligence and chief aerostatic officer. Young Colonel Lanstron’s was the duty of gaining the secrets of the Gray staff and keeping those of the Brown and organizing up-to-the-moment efficiency in the new forces of the air.

He had remarked truly enough that the injury to his left hand served as a better reminder against the folly of wool-gathering than a string, even a large red string, tied around his finger. Thanks to skilful surgery working ingeniously with splintered bone and pulpy flesh, there was nothing unpleasant to the eye in a stiffened wrist and scarred knuckles slightly misshapen. The fingers, incapable of spreading much, were yet serviceable and had a firm grip of the wheel as he rose from the aeroplane station on the Sunday morning after Marta’s return home for a flight to La Tir.

He knew the pattern weaving under his feet as one knows that of his own garden from an overlooking window. Every detail of the staff map, ravines, roads, buildings, battery positions, was stitched together in the flowing reality of actual vision. No white posts were necessary to tell him where the boundary between the two nations lay. The line was drawn in his brain.

Nature was in a gracious humor, the very tree tops motionless. The rich landscape in Sunday quiet appealed to his affections. He loved his country and he loved Marta. It had been on such a day as this when there would be no danger, that he had taken her for her first flight. The glimpses, as they flew, of her profile, so alive and tense, were fresh to his eye. How serious she had been! How vivid her impressions! How tempestuous her ideas! He recalled their talk upon their return; all his questions and her answers.

“Sublime and ridiculous!” she had begun in a summing up. “It is like seeing the life of a family through a glass roof-the big, universal family! Valleys seemed no larger than sauce-dishes on a table.”

“What was the sublime thing?”

“Man’s toil! The cumulative result of it, on every hand, in the common aim for food, comfort, happiness, and progress! Little details of difference disappeared. Towns, villages, houses were simply towns, villages, houses of any country.”

“And the supremely ridiculous thing?”

“A regiment of cavalry of the Grays and one of the Browns on the same road! They appeared so self-important, as if the sky would fall or the earth heave up to meet the sky if they got out of formation. I imagined each man a metal figure that fitted astride a metal horse of the kind that comes to children at Christmas time. They might better be engaged in brass-ring-snatching contests at the merry-go-rounds of public fairs. I wanted to brush them all over with a wave of the hand as you might the battalions of the nursery floor. Just drilling and drilling in order to slash at one another some day. Flight! flight! It makes one’s mind as big and broad as the world. Oh, what a wonderful talk I’ll have for my kids next Sunday!”

Now that Lanstron was the organizer of the aviation corps his own flights were rare. Mostly they were made to La Tir. His visits to Marta were his holidays? All the time that she was absent on her journey around the world they had corresponded. Her letters, so revealing of herself and her peculiar angles of observation, formed a bundle sacredly preserved. Her mother’s joking reference about her girlish resolution not to marry a soldier often recurred to him. There, he sometimes thought, was the real obstacle to his great desire.

He wished, this morning, that he were not Colonel Lanstron, but the bridge-builder returning from his triumph after he had at last spanned the chasm and controlled the floods. Ah, there was something like romance and real accomplishment in that! What an easy time a bridge-builder had, comparatively, too! What an easy master capital must be compared to Eugene Partow! But no! If Marta loved it would not matter whether he were bridge builder or army builder. Yes, she was like that. And what right had he to think of marriage? He could not have any home. He was now in the capital; again, along the frontier-a vagabond of duty and Partow’s orders.

When he alighted from the plane he thrust his left hand into his blouse pocket. He always carried it there, as if it were literally sewn in place. In moments of emotion the scarred nerves would twitch as the telltale of his sensitiveness; and this was something he would conceal from others no matter how conscious he was of it himself. He found the Galland veranda deserted. In response to his ring a maid came to the open door. Her face was sad, with a beauty that had prematurely faded. But it lighted pleasurably in recognition. Her hair was thick and tawny, lying low over the brow; her eyes were a softly luminous brown and her full lips sensitive and yielding. Lanstron, an intimate of the Galland household, knew her story well and the part that Marta had played in it.

Some four years previously, when a baby was in prospect for Minna, who wore no wedding-ring, Mrs. Galland had been inclined to send the maid to an institution, “where they will take good care of her, my dear. That’s what such institutions are for. It is quite scandalous for her and for us-never happened in our family before!”

Marta arched her eyebrows.

“We don’t know!” she exclaimed softly.

“How can you think such a thing, let alone saying it-you, a Galland!” her mother gasped in indignation.

“That is, if we go far back,” said Marta. “At all events, we have no precedent, so let’s establish one by keeping her.”

“But for her own sake! She will have to live with her shame!” Mrs. Galland objected. “Let her begin afresh in the city. We shall give her a good recommendation, for she is really an excellent servant. Yes, she will readily find a place among strangers.”

“Still, she doesn’t want to go, and it would be cruel to send her away.”

“Cruel! Why, Marta, do you think I would be cruel? Oh, very well, then we will let her stay!”

“Both are away at church. Mrs. Galland ought to be here any minute, but Miss Galland will be later because of her children’s class,” said Minna. “Will you wait on the veranda?”

He was saying that he would stroll in the garden when childish footsteps were heard in the hall, and after a curly head had nestled against the mother’s skirts its owner, reminded of the importance of manners in the world where the stork had left her, made a curtsey. Lanstron shook a small hand which must have lately been on intimate terms with sugar or jam.

“How do you do, flying soldier man?” chirruped Clarissa Eileen. It was evident that she held Lanstron in high favor.

“Let me hear you say your name,” said Lanstron.

Clarissa Eileen was triumphant. She had been waiting for days with the revelation when he should make that old request. Now she enunciated it with every vowel and consonant correctly and primly uttered; indeed, she repeated it four or five times in proof of complete mastery.

“A pretty name. I’ve often wondered how you came to give it to her,” said Lanstron to Minna.

“You do like it!” exclaimed Minna with girlish eagerness. “I gave her the most beautiful name I could think of because”-she laid her hand caressingly on the child’s head and a madonna-like radiance stole into her face-“because she might at least have a beautiful name when”-the dull blaze of a recollection now burning in her eyes-“when there wasn’t much prospect of many beautiful things coming into her life; though I know, of course, that the world thinks she ought to be called Maggie.”

Proceeding leisurely along the main path of the first terrace, Lanstron followed it past the rear of the house to the old tower. Long ago the moat that surrounded the castle had been filled in. The green of rows of grape-vines lay against the background of a mat of ivy on the ancient stone walls, which had been cut away from the loopholes set with window-glass. The door was open, showing a room that had been closed in by a ceiling of boards from the walls to the circular stairway that ran aloft from the dungeons. On the floor of flags were cheap rugs. A number of seed and nursery catalogues were piled on a round table covered with a brown cloth.

“Hello!” Lanstron called softly. “Hello!” he called louder and yet louder.

Receiving no answer, he retraced his steps and seated himself on the second terrace in a secluded spot in the shadow of the first terrace wall, where he could see any one coming up the main flight of steps from the road. When Marta walked she usually came from town by that way. At length the sound of a slow step from another direction broke on his car. Some one was approaching along the path that ran at his feet. Around the corner of the wall, in his workman’s Sunday clothes of black, but still wearing his old straw hat, appeared Feller, the gardener. He paused to examine a rose-bush and Lanstron regarded him thoughtfully and sadly: his white hair, his stoop, his graceful hands, their narrow finger-tips turning over the leaves.

As he turned away he looked up, and a glance of definite and unfaltering recognition was exchanged between the two men. Feller’s hat was promptly lowered enough to form a barrier between their eyes. His face was singularly expressionless. It seemed withered, clayish, like the walls of a furnace in which the fire has died out. After a few steps he paused before another rose-bush. Meanwhile, both had swept the surroundings in a sharp, covert survey. They had the garden to themselves.

“Gustave!” Lanstron exclaimed under his breath.

“Lanny!” exclaimed the gardener, turning over a branch of the rose-bush. He seemed unwilling to risk talking openly with Lanstron.

“You look the good workman in his Sunday best to a T!” said Lanstron.

“Being stone-deaf,” returned Feller, with a trace of drollery in his voice, “I hear very well-at times. Tell me”-his whisper was quivering with eagerness-“shall we fight? Shall we fight?”

“We are nearer to it than we have ever been in our time,” Lanstron replied.

The hat still shaded Feller’s face, his stoop was unchanged, but the branch in his hand shook.

“Honest?” he exclaimed. “Oh, the chance of it! the chance of it!”

“Gustave!” Lanstron’s voice, still low, came in a gust of sympathy, and the pocket which concealed his hand gave a nervous twitch as if it held something alive and distinct from his own being. “The trial wears on you! You feel you must break out?”

“No, I’m game-game, I tell you!” Still Feller spoke to the branch, which was steady now in a firm hand. “No, I don’t grow weary of the garden and the isolation as long as there is hope. But being deaf, always deaf, and yet hearing everything! Always stooped, even when the bugles are sounding to the artillery garrison-that is somewhat tiresome!”

“The idea of being deaf was yours, you know, Gustave,” said Lanstron.

“Yes, and the right plan. It was fun at first going through the streets and hearing people say, ‘He’s deaf as a stone!’ and having everybody work their lips at me while I pretended to study them in a dumb effort to understand. Actors have two hours of it an evening, and an occasional change of parts, but I act one part all the time. I get as taciturn as a clam. If war doesn’t come pretty soon I shall be ready for a monastery of perpetual silence.”

“Confound it, Gustave!” exclaimed Lanstron. “It’s inhuman, old boy! You shan’t stay another day!” Discretion to the winds, he sprang to his feet.

An impulse of the same sort overwhelmed Feller. His hand let go of the branch. The brim of the hat shot up, revealing a face that was not old, but in mercurial quickness of expressive, uncontrollable emotion was young, handsomely and attractively young in its frame of prematurely white hair. The stoop was wholly gone. He was tall now, his eyes sparkling with wild, happy lights and the soles of the heavy workman’s shoes unconsciously drawn together in a military stance. Lanstron’s twitching hand flew from his pocket and with the other found Feller’s hand in a strong, warm, double grip. For a second’s silence they remained thus. Feller was the first to recover himself and utter a warning.

“Miss Galland-Minna-some one might be looking.”

He drew away abruptly, his face becoming suddenly old, his stoop returning, and began to study the branch as before. Lanstron dropped back to his seat and gazed at the brown roofs of the town. Thus they might continue their conversation as guest and gardener.

“I didn’t think you’d stick it out, but you wanted to try-you chose,” said Lanstron. “Come-this afternoon-now!”

“This is best for me-this to the end of the chapter!” Feller replied doggedly. “Because you say you didn’t think I’d stick it out-ah, how well you know me. Lanny!-is the one reason that I should.”

“True!” Lanstron agreed. “A victory over yourself!”

“How often I have heard in imagination the outbreak of rifle-fire down there by the white posts! How often I have longed for that day-for war! I live for war!”

“It may never come,” Lanstron said in frank protest. “And, for God’s sake, don’t pray for it in that way!”

“Then I shall be patient-patient under all irritations. The worst is,” and Feller raised his head heavily, in a way that seemed to emphasize both his stoop and his age, “the worst is Miss Galland.”

“Miss Galland! How?”

“She is learning the deaf-and-dumb alphabet in order the better to communicate with me. She likes to talk of the flowers-gardening is a passion with her, too-and all the while, in face of the honesty of those big eyes of hers and of her gentle old mother’s confidence, I am living a lie! Oh, the satire of it! And I have not been used to lying. That is my only virtue; at any rate, I was never a liar!”

“Then, why stay, Gustave? I will find something else for you.”

“No!” Feller shot back irritably. “No!” he repeated resolutely. “I don’t want to go! I mean to be game-I-” He shifted his gaze dismally from the bush which he still pretended to examine and suddenly broke off with: “Miss Galland is coming!”

He started to move away with a gardener’s shuffling steps, looking from right to left for weeds. Then pausing, he glanced back, his face in another transformation-that of a comedian.

“La, la, la!” he clucked, tossing his head gayly. “Depend on me, Lanny! They’ll never know I’m not deaf. I get my blue fits only on Sundays! And deafness has its compensations. Think if I had to listen to all the stories of my table companion, Peter, the coachman! La, la, la!” he clucked again, before disappearing around a bend in the path. “La, la, la! I’m the man for this part!”

Lanstron started toward the steps that Marta was ascending. She moved leisurely, yet with a certain springy energy that suggested that she might have come on the run without being out of breath or seeming to have made an effort. Without seeing him, she paused before one of the urns of hydrangeas in full bloom that flanked the third terrace wall, and, as if she would encompass and plunge her spirit into their abundant beauty, she spread out her arms and drew the blossoms together in a mass in which she half buried her face. The act was delightful in its grace and spontaneity. It was like having a page out of her secret self. It brought the glow of his great desire into Lanstron’s eyes.

“Hello, stranger!” she called as she saw him, and quickened her pace.

“Hello, pedagogue!” he responded.

As they shook hands they swung their arms back and forth like a pair of romping children for a moment.

“We had a grand session of the school this morning, the largest class ever!” she said. “And the points we scored off you soldiers! You’ll find disarmament already in progress when you return to headquarters. We’re irresistible, or at least,” she added, with a flash of intensity, “we’re going to be some day.”

“So you put on your war-paint!”

“It must be the pollen from the hydrangeas!” She flicked her handkerchief from her belt and passed it to him. “Show that you know how to be useful!”

He performed the task with deliberate care.

“Heavens! You even have some on your ear and some on your hair; but I’ll leave it on your hair; it’s rather becoming. There you are!” he concluded.

“Off my hair, too!”

“Very well. I always obey orders.”

“I oughtn’t to have asked you to do it at all!” she exclaimed with a sudden change of manner as they started up to the house. “But a habit of friendship, a habit of liking to believe in one’s friends, was uppermost. I forgot. I oughtn’t even to have shaken hands with you!”

“Marta! What now, Marta?” he asked.

He had known her in reproach, in anger, in laughing mockery, in militant seriousness, but never before like this. The pain and indignation in her eyes came not from the sheer hurt of a wound but from the hurt of its source. It was as if he had learned by the signal of its loss that he had a deeper hold on her than he had realized.

“Yes, I have a bone to pick with you,” she said, recovering a grim sort of fellowship. “A big bone! If you’re half a friend you’ll give me the very marrow of it.”

“I am ready!” he answered more pathetically than philosophically.

“There’s not time now; after luncheon, when mother is taking her nap,” she concluded as they came to the last step and saw Mrs. Galland on the veranda.