Read CHAPTER XIV - IN PARTOW’S OFFICE of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

Partow was a great brain set on an enormous body. Partow’s eyes had the fire of youth at sixty-five, but the pendulous flesh of his cheeks was pasty. Partow was picturesque; he was a personality with a dome forehead sweeping back nobly to scattered and contentious, short gray hairs. Jealousy and faction had endeavored for years to remove him from his position at the head of the army on account of age. New governments decided as they came in that he must go, and they went out with him still in the saddle. He worked fourteen hours a day, took no holidays and little exercise, violated the rules of health, and never appeared at gold-braid functions. The business of official display, as he said pungently, he delegated to that specialist, his handsome vice-chief of staff.

He had set up no silhouette of a charging soldier peppered with bullet marks on the wall of his office, for this was a picture that he carried in his mind. Pertinent to his own taste, under the glance of the portraits of the old heroes, was a little statuette of a harvester called Toil on his desk.

“That’s the fellow we’re defending,” he would say, becoming almost rhapsodical. “I like to think back to him. He’s the infantry before you put him in uniform.”

Let officers apply themselves with conspicuous energy and they heard from a genial Partow; let officers only keep step and free of courts martial, and they heard from a merciless taskmaster. Resign, please, if you like a leisurely life, he told the idlers; and he had a way of making them so uncomfortable that they would take the advice. Among the sons of rest who had retired to mourn over the world going to the devil he was referred to as not being a gentleman, which amused him; some said that he was crazy, which amused him even more.

Peculiarly human, peculiarly dictatorial, dynamic, and inscrutable was Partow, who never asked any one under him to work harder than himself.

Lanstron appeared in the presence of Jove shortly after eight o’clock the next morning after he left La Tir. Jove rolled his big head on his short neck in a nod and said:

“Late!”

“The train was late, sir!”

“And you have disobeyed orders!” grumbled Partow.

“Disobeyed orders? How, sir?”

“And you look me in the eye as you always do! You think that excuses you, perhaps?”

“No, sir. But I am bound to ask what orders?”

“Well, not orders, but my instructions; at least, my desire. Flying yourself-directing a manoeuvre-racing the Grays!”

“You heard about it?”

“I hear about everything! I have told you not to risk your life. Lives are assets of various kinds in an army. It is my business to determine the relative value of those of my subordinates. You are not to sacrifice yours.”

“I haven’t yet, sir. I have it with me this morning,” Lanstron replied, “and I have some news about our thousandth chance.”

“Hm-m! What is it?” asked Partow. When Lanstron had told the story, Partow worked his lips in a way he had if he were struck by a passing reflection which might or might not have a connection with the subject in hand. “Strange about her when you consider who her parents were!” he said. “But you never know. His son,” nodding to Toil, “might be a great painter or a snob. Miss Galland has an idea-that’s something-and character and a brain making arrows so fast that she shoots them into the blue just for mental relief. She’s quite a woman. If I were thirty, and single, I believe I’d fall in love with her. But don’t you dare tell Mrs. Partow. I want the fun of telling her myself. Hm-m! Why don’t you sit down, young man?”

Partow turned his thick, white palm toward a chair, and his smile, now clearly showing that he was not deeply offended with Lanstron’s insubordination, had a singular charm. The smile vanished as Lanstron seated himself and in its place came such a look as friend Toil had seen on very rare occasions.

“The way that the Grays gave out our despatch convinces me of their intentions,” Partow said. “Their people are rising to it and ours are rising in answer. The Grays have been transferring regiments from distant provinces to their frontier because they will fight better in an invasion. We are transferring home regiments to our frontier because they will fight for their own property. By Thursday you will find that open mobilization on both sides has begun.”

“My department is ready,” said Lanstron, “all except your decision about press censorship.”

“A troublesome point,” responded Partow. “I have procrastinated because two definite plans were fully worked out. It is a matter of choice between them: either publicity or complete secrecy. You know I am no believer in riding two horses at once. My mind is about made up; but let me hear your side again. Sometimes I get conviction by probing another mans.”

Lanstron was at his best, for his own conviction was intense.

“Of course they will go in for secrecy; but our case is different,” he began.

Partow settled himself to listen with the gift of the organizer who draws from his informant the brevity of essentials.

“I should take the people into our confidence,” Lanstron proceeded. “I should make them feel that we were one family fighting for all we hold dear against the invader. If our losses are heavy, if we have a setback, then the inspiration of the heroism of those who have fallen and the danger of their own homes feeling the foot of the invader next will impel the living to greater sacrifices. For the Grays are in the wrong. The moral and the legal right is with us.”

“And the duty of men like you and me, chosen for the purpose,” said Partow, “is worthily to direct the courage that goes with moral right. The overt act of war must come from them by violating our frontier, not in the African jungle but here. Even when the burglar fingers the window-sash we shall not fire-no, not until he enters our house. When he does, you would have a message go out to our people that will set them quivering with indignation?”

“Yes, and I would let the names of our soldiers who fall first be known and how they fell, their backs to their frontier homes and their faces to the foe.”

“Our very liberality in giving news will help us to cover the military secrets which we desire to preserve,” Partow said, with slow emphasis. “We shall hold back what we please, confident of the people’s trust. Good policy that, yes! But enough! Your orders are ready, in detail, I believe. You have nothing to add?”

“No, sir, nothing; at least, not until war begins.”

“Very well. We shall have the orders issued at the proper moment,” concluded Partow. “And Westerling is going to find,” he proceeded after a thoughtful pause, “that a man is readier to die fighting to hold his own threshold than fighting to take another man’s. War is not yet solely an affair of machinery and numbers. The human element is still uppermost. I know something, perhaps, that Westerling does not know. I have had an experience that he has not had and that few active officers of either army have had-I have been under fire.”

His eyes flashed with the memory of his charge, and visions of the day when Grandfather Fragini was a beau sabreur and Marta Galland’s father toasted quick death and speedy promotion seemed to cluster around him.

“Experience plus an old man’s honest effort for a mind open to all suggestion and improvements!” he exclaimed. “An open mind that let you have your way in equipping more dirigibles and planes than Westerling guesses we have, eh? And, perhaps, a few more guns! And you, too, have been under fire,” he added. “Give me your hand-no, not that one, not the one you shake hands with-the one wounded in action!”

Partow enclosed the stiffened fingers in his own with something of the caress which an old bear that is in very good humor might give to a promising cub.

“I have planned, planned, planned for this time,” he said. “I have played politics with statesmen to hold my place in the belief that I was the man for the work which I have done. The world shall soon know, as the elements of it go into the crucible test, whether it is well done or not. I want to live to see the day when the last charge made against our trenches is beaten back. Then they may throw this old body onto the rubbish heap as soon as they please-it is a fat, unwieldy behemoth of an old body!”

“No, no, it isn’t!” Lanstron objected hotly. He was seeing only what most people saw after talking with Partow for a few minutes, his fine, intelligent eyes and beautiful forehead.

“All that I wanted of the body was to feed my brain,” Partow continued, heedless of the interruption. “I have watched my mind as a navigator watches a barometer. I have been ready at the first sign that it was losing its grip to give up. Yet I have felt that my body would go on feeding my brain and that to the last moment of consciousness, when suddenly the body collapses, I should have self-possession and energy of mind. Under the coming strain the shock may come, as a cord snaps. At that instant my successor will take up my work where I leave it off.”

“Goerwitz, you mean.” Lanstron referred in unmistakable apprehension to the vice-chief of staff, whom all the army knew had no real ability or decision underneath his pleasing, confident exterior.

“No, not Goerwitz,” said Partow, with a shrug. “Some one who will go on with the weaving, not by knotting threads but with the same threads in a smooth fabric.” Lanstron felt an increased pressure of the hand, a communicated tingling to his nerves. “I have chosen him. The old fogy who has aimed to join experience to youth chooses youth. You took your medicine without grumbling in the disagreeable but vitally important position of chief of intelligence. Now you-there, don’t tremble with stage fright!” For Lanstron’s hand was quivering in Partow’s grasp, while his face was that of a man stunned.

“But Goerwitz-what will he say?” he gasped.

“Goerwitz goes to a division in reserve.”

“And the army! The government! What will they say at such-such a jump for a colonel?”

“The government leaves all to me from the day war begins. I shall transfer others than Goerwitz-others who have had influence with the premier which it was not wise to deny in time of peace.”

“Very well, sir,” answered Lanstron, with a subordinate’s automatic consent to a superior’s orders. His words sounded ridiculous in view of his feelings, yet they were more expressive than any florid speech.

“You are to be at the right hand of this old body,” continued Partow. “You are to go with me to the front; to sleep in the room next to mine; to be always at my side, and, finally, you are to promise that if ever the old body fails in its duty to the mind, if ever you see that I am not standing up to the strain, you are to say so to me and I give you my word that I shall let you take charge.”

Lanstron was too stunned to speak for a moment. The arrangement seemed a hideous joke: a refinement of cruelty inconceivable. It was expecting him to tell Atlas that he was old and to take the weight of the world off the giant’s shoulders.

“Have you lost your patriotism?” demanded Partow. “Are you afraid? Afraid to tell me the truth? Afraid of duty? Afraid in your youth of the burden that I bear in age?”

His fingers closed in on Lanstron’s with such force that the grip was painful.

“Promise!” he commanded.

“I promise!” Lanstron said with a throb.

“That’s it’ That’s the way! That’s the kind of soldier I like,” Partow declared with change of tone, and he rose from his chair with a spring that was a delight to Lanstron in its proof of the physical vigor so stoutly denied. “We have a lot to say to each other to-day,” he added; “but first I am going to show you the whole bag of tricks.”

His arm crooked in Lanstron’s, they went along the main corridor of the staff office hung with portraits of generals who had beaten or held their own with the Grays. Passing through a door for which Partow held the key, they were in a dim, narrow passage with bare walls, lighted by two small gas flames. At the end was another, a heavy steel door, of the sort associated with the protection of bonds and securities, but in this case for the security of a nation’s defence. Partow turned the knob of the combination back and forth and with the smooth swing of a great weight on noiseless hinges the door opened and they entered a vault having a single chair and a small table in the centre and lined by sections of numbered pigeonholes, each with a combination lock At the base of one section was a small safe. It was not the first time that Lanstron had been in this vault. He had the combination of two of the sections of pigeonholes, aerostatics and intelligence. The rest belonged to other divisions.

“The safe is my own, as you know. No one opens it; no one knows what is in it but me,” said Partow, taking from it an envelope and a manuscript, which he laid on the table. “There you have all that, is in my brain-the whole plan. The envelope contains the combinations of all the pigeonholes, if you wish to look up any details.”

“Thank you!” Lanstron half whispered. It was all he could think of to say.

“And you will find that there is more than you thought, perhaps: the reason why I have fought hard to remain chief of staff; why-” Partow continued in a voice that had the sepulchral uncanniness of a threat long nursed now breaking free of the bondage of years within the sound-proof walls. “But-” he broke off suddenly as if he distrusted even the security of the vault. “Yes, it is all there-my life’s work, my dream, my ambition, my plan!”

Lanstron heard the lock slide in the door as Partow went out and he was alone with the army’s secrets. As he read Partow’s firm handwriting, many parts fell together, many moves on a chess-board grew clear. His breath came faster, he bent closer over the table, he turned back pages to go over them again. Every sentence dropped home in his mind like a bolt in a socket.

When he had finished the manuscript the trance of his thoughts held him in the same attitude. “Five millions to our three!” a voice kept repeating to him. “In face of that this dream!” another voice was saying. Had it been right to intrust such responsibility to one man of Partow’s age and right to transfer that responsibility to himself in an emergency? Yet how clear the plan in the confidence of its wisdom! Unconscious of the passage of time, he did not hear the door open or realize Partow’s presence until he felt Partow’s hand on his shoulder.

“I see that you didn’t look into any of the pigeonholes,” the chief of staff observed.

Lanstron pressed his finger-tips on the manuscript significantly.

“No. It is all there!”

“The thing being to carry it out!” said Partow. “God with us!” he added devoutly.