Read CHAPTER XV - CLOSE TO THE WHITE POSTS of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

Have you forgotten Hugo Mallin, humorist of Company B of the 128th Regiment of the Grays, whom we left in their barracks under orders for South La Tir on the afternoon that Westerling called on Marta Galland? Have you forgotten Eugene Aronson, the farmer’s son, and Jacob Pilzer, the butcher’s son, and pasty-faced little Peterkin, the valet’s son, and the judge’s son, and the other privates of the group that surrounded Hugo Mallin as he aired hérésies that set them laughing?

Through the press, an unconscious instrument of his purpose, the astute premier has inoculated them with the virus of militant patriotism. Day by day the crisis has become more acute; day by day the war fever has risen in their veins. Big Eugene Aronson believes everything he reads; his country can do no wrong. Jacob Pilzer is most bellicose; he chafes at inaction, while they all suffer the discomforts of an empty factory building in the rear of South La Tir which has become a temporary barracks.

On Tuesday they hear of crowds around the Foreign Office demanding war, on Wednesday of panics on the stock exchanges, on Thursday of mobilization actually begun and a rigid press censorship established, and on Friday other regiments and guns and horses are detraining and departing right and left. Hurrying officers know nothing except what they have been told to do.

“When do we start? What are we waiting for?” demanded Pilzer. “I want to be in the thick of the fighting and not trailing along with the reserves!” If any one in the 128th wins the bronze cross he means that it shall be he and not Eugene Aronson.

“Never mind, you’ll have a chance. There’ll be war enough to go around, I am sure!” said Hugo Mallin.

“More than you’ll want!” Pilzer shot back, thrusting out his jaw.

“I’m sure of that!” answered Hugo, the mask of his face drawn in quizzical solemnity. “I don’t want any at all.”

This brought a tremendous laugh. All the laughs had been tremendous since mobilization had begun in earnest, and the atmosphere was like the suspense before a thunder-storm breaks.

On Saturday evening the 128th was mustered in field accoutrements and a full supply of cartridges. In the darkness the first battalion marched out at right angles to the main road that ran through La Tir and South La Tir. At length Company B, deployed in line of skirmishers, lay down to sleep on its arms.

“We wait here for the word,” Fracasse, the captain, whispered to his senior lieutenant. “If it comes, our objective is the house and the old castle on the hill above the town.”

The tower of the church showed dimly when a pale moon broke through a cloud. By its light Hugo saw on his right Eugene’s big features and massive shoulders and on his left the pinched and characterless features of Peterkin. A few yards ahead was a white stone post.

“That’s their side over there!” whispered the banker’s son, who was next to Peterkin.

“When we cross war begins,” said the manufacturer’s son.

“I wonder if they are expecting us!” said the judge’s son a trifle huskily, in an attempt at humor, though he was not given to humor.

“Just waiting to throw bouquets!” whispered the laborer’s son. He, too, was not given to humor and he, too, spoke a trifle huskily.

“And we’ll fix bayonets when we start and they will run at the sight of our steel!” said Eugene Aronson. He and Hugo alone, not excepting Pilzer, the butcher’s son, spoke in their natural voices. The others were trying to make their voices sound natural, while Pilzer’s voice had developed a certain ferocity, and the liver patch on his cheek twitched more frequently. “Why, Company B is in front! We have the post of honor, and maybe our company will win the most glory of any in the regiment!” Eugene added. “Oh, we’ll beat them! The bullet is not made that will get me!”

“Your service will be over in time for you to help with the spring planting, Eugene,” whispered Hugo, who was apparently preoccupied with many detached thoughts.

“And you to be at home sucking lollipops!” Pilzer growled to Hugo.

“That would be better than murdering my fellowman to get his property,” Hugo answered, so soberly that it did not seem to his comrades that he was joking this time. Pilzer’s snarling exclamation of “White feather!” came in the midst of a chorus of indignation.

Captain Fracasse, who had heard only the disturbance without knowing the cause, interfered in a low, sharp tone:

“Silence! As I have told you before, silence! We don’t want them to know that we are here. Go to sleep! You may get no rest to-morrow night!”

But little Peterkin, the question in his mind breaking free of his lips, unwittingly asked:

“Shall-shall we fight in the morning?”

“I don’t know. Nobody knows!” answered Fracasse. “We wait on orders, ready to do our duty. There may be no war. Don’t let me hear another peep from you!”

Now all closed their eyes. In front of them was vast silence which seemed to stretch from end to end of the frontier, while to the rear was the rumble of switching railway trains and the rumble of provision trains and artillery on the roads, and in the distance on the plain the headlight of a locomotive cut a swath in the black night. But the breathing of most of the men was not that of slumber, though Eugene and Pilzer slept soundly. Hours passed. Occasional restless movements told of efforts to force sleep by changing position.

“It’s the waiting that’s sickening!” exploded the manufacturer’s son under his breath, desperately.

“So I say. I’d like to be at it and done with the suspense!” said the doctor’s son.

“They say if you are shot through the head you don’t know what killed you, it’s so quick. Think of that!” exclaimed Peterkin, huddling closer to Hugo and shivering.

“Yes, very merciful,” Hugo whispered, patting Peterkin’s arm.

“Sh-h-h! Silence, I tell you!” commanded Fracasse crossly. He was falling into a half doze at last.