Read CHAPTER XVIII - THE BAPTISM OF FIRE of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

After the morning sun commenced to tickle the back of his neck, Eugene Aronson, the giant of the 128th of the Grays, stretched his limbs as healthily as a cub bear.

“No war yet!” he exclaimed, rubbing his eyes.

“Oh, we’d have called you if there were!” said the manufacturer’s son, trying to make a joke, which was hard work with his clothes dew-soaked after a sleepless night in the open.

“Wouldn’t want you to miss it after coming so far,” added the laborer’s son, aiming to show that he, too, was in a light-hearted mood.

“And how did you sleep?” asked Eugene, cheerily, of his neighbors.

“Fine!”

“First rate!”

“Like a stone!”

Every man was too intent in forcing his own spontaneity to notice that that of the others was also forced.

“Like a top!” chimed in pasty-faced Peterkin, the valet’s son, to be in fashion.

“I didn’t sleep much myself; in fact, not at all,” said Hugo Mallin.

“Oh, ho!” groaned Pilzer, the butcher’s son, with a broad grin that made a crease in the liver patch on his cheek.

“You see, it’s a new experience for me,” Hugo explained in a drawl, his face drawn as a mask. “I’m not so used to war as you other fellows are. I’m not so brave!”

There was a forced laugh because Hugo appeared droll, and when he appeared droll it was the proper thing to laugh. Besides, in the best humor there is a grain of truth, whether you see it or not. This time a number saw it quite clearly.

“I was thinking how ridiculous we all are,” Hugo went on without change of tone or expression, “grovelling here on our stomachs and pretending that we slept when we didn’t and that we want to be killed when we don’t!”

“White feather again!” Pilzer exclaimed.

“Oh, shut up!” snapped the doctor’s son irritably. “Let Hugo talk. He’s only gassing. It’s so monotonous lying here that any kind of nonsense is better than growling.”

“Yes, yes!” the others agreed.

Hugo’s outburst of the previous evening was forgotten. They welcomed anything that broke the suspense. Let the regimental wag make a little fun any way that he could. As the officers had withdrawn somewhat to the rear for breakfast, there was no constraint.

“I was thinking how I’d like to go out and shake hands with the Browns,” said Hugo. “That’s the way fencers and pugilists do before they set to. It seems polite and sportsmanlike, indicating that there’s no prejudice.”

There was a ripple of half-hearted merriment punctuated by exclamations.

“What a fool idea!”

“How do all your notions get into your head, Hugo?”

“Sometimes by squinting at the moonlight and counting odd numbers; sometimes by knowing that anything that’s different is ridiculous; and sometimes by looking for tangent truths out of professorial ruts,” Hugo observed with a sort of erudite discursiveness which was the rank dissimulation of a hypocrite to Pilzer and wholly confusing to Peterkin, not to say a draught on mental effort for many of the others. “For instance, I got a good one from two fellows of the Browns whom I met on the road the first day we arrived. They were reservists. We were soon talking together and so peaceably that I was sceptical if they were Browns at all. So I determined on a test. I told them I was from a distant province and hadn’t travelled much and wouldn’t they please take off their hats. They consented very good-naturedly.”

“Oh, good old Hugo! He got one on the Browns!”

“I’d like to have been there to see it!”

“And when they took off their hats, what then?”

“Why, I said: ‘This isn’t convincing at all.’” Hugo’s drawl paused for a second while interest developed. “’You haven’t any horns! Haven’t you any forked tails, either? Or are they curled up nicely inside your trousers’ legs?’”

“Whew! But they must have felt cheap to have been got in that way!”

“And old Hugo looking so solemn!”

“Just like he does now!”

But the judge’s son said under his breath, “Very pretty!” and the doctor’s son, who was next him in the ranks, nodded understandingly.

“It seems they had checked their horns and tails at the frontier,” Hugo continued, “and, as I had left mine hanging in the rifle racks at the barracks, we got on together like real human beings. I found they could speak my language better than my lesson-book try at theirs-yes, as well as I can speak it myself-and that made it all the easier. After a while I mentioned the war. They were very amiable and they didn’t begin to call me a swill-eating land-shark or any other of the pretty names I’ve heard they are so fond of using. ‘We want to keep what is ours,’ they said. ’Your side will have to start the fight by crossing the line. We shall not!"’

“Because they know they’ll be licked!” put in Pilzer hotly.

“No, we may beat them in fighting,” agreed Hugo, “but these two fellows had me beaten on the argument!”

“They hauled down our flag! They insulted us in their despatches! They quibble! They’re the perfidious Browns!” cried big Eugene Aronson, speaking the lesson taught him by the newspapers, which had it from the premier.

“There, he’s got you again, Gene!”

“Yes, you funny old simpleton! You are almost too easy!”

There was something of the vivacity of the barrack-room banter in the exclamations at Eugene’s expense. Yet they were not the same. The look on no man’s face was the same. The humorist was silent.

“What next, Hugo?”

He half stared at them, and his mask was not solemn but tragic.

“I was thinking how men work their courage up, as if patriotism were a Moloch of which they were afraid,” he said. “How in order to get killed we go out to kill others, when right is on their side! How you, Armand, or you, Eugene, might be dead before to-morrow! How .”

“The bullet is not made that will get me!” exclaimed Eugene, with a swelling breath from his bellows-like lungs.

“Take him home to mother!” groaned Pilzer.

“That will do for you, Hugo Mallin!” came another interruption, a sharp one from Captain Fracasse, who had returned unobserved from the rear in time to overhear Hugo’s remarks. “And that’s the way to talk, Aronson and Pilzer. As for you, Mallin, I’ve a mind to put you under arrest and send you back for a coward! A coward-do you hear?”

“Ah-h!” breathed Pilzer in a guttural of satisfaction.

Hugo crimsoned at first in confusion, then he looked frankly and unflinchingly at the captain.

“Very well, sir!” he said with a certain dignity which Fracasse, who was a good deal of a martinet, found very irritating.

“No, that would suit you too well!” Fracasse declared. “You shall stay! You shall do the duty for which your country trained you and take your share of the chances.”

“Yes, sir!” answered Hugo. “But won’t you,” he asked persuasively and with the wondering inquiry of the suggestion that had sprung into his heretic brain, “won’t you ask the men if there are not some here who really, in their hearts, the logic of their hearts-which is often better than brain logic-do not believe just as I do?”

“Have you gone insane? There are none!” In the impulse of anger that swept his cheeks with a red wave Fracasse half drew his sword as if he would strike Hugo. “And, Mallin, you are a marked man. I shall watch you! I’ll have the lieutenants and sergeants watch you. At the first sign of flunking I’ll make an example of you!”

“Yes, sir,” answered Hugo, with the automatic deference of private to officer but with a reserved and studious inquiry that made the captain bite his lip.

“I’ll have Aronson and Pilzer watch you, too!” Fracasse added.

“Yes, sir!” said Pilzer promptly.

Then, under the restraint of the captain’s presence, there was a silence that endured. The men were left to the sole resource of their thoughts and observation of their surroundings. They were lying in a pasture facing the line of white posts whose tops ran in an even row over level ground. On the other side of the boundary was a wheat-field. Here a farmer had commenced his fall ploughing. His plough was in the furrow where he had left it when he unhitched his team for the day, before an orderly had come to tell him that he must move out of his house overnight. The wheat stubble swept on up to a knoll in the distance.

All the landscape in front of Fracasse’s company seemed to have been deserted; no moving figures were anywhere in sight; no sign of the enemy’s infantry. No trains came or went along the lines of steel into the mountain tunnel, which had been mined at a dozen points by the Browns. No vehicles and no foot-passengers dotted the highway into the town. Over the mountains and over the plain, planes and dirigibles moved in wide circles restively, watching for a signal as hawks watch for prey. Suspense this-suspense of such a swift vibration that it was like a taut G string of a violin under the bow!

Faintly the town clock was heard striking the hour. From eight to nine and nine to ten Fracasse’s men waited; waited until the machine was ready and Westerling should throw in the clutch; waited until the troops were in place for the first move before he hurled his battalions forward. Every pawn of flesh facing the white posts had a thousand thoughts whirling in such a medley that he could be said to have no thought at all, only an impression juggled by destiny. No one would have confessed what he felt, while physical inactivity gave free rein to mental activity. That thing of a nation’s nightmare; that thing for which generations had drilled without its materializing; that thing of speculation, of hazard, of horror; that thing of quick action and long-enduring consequences was coming.

They did not know how the captain at their back received his orders; they only heard the note of the whistle, with a command familiar to a trained instinct on the edge of anticipation. It released a spring in their nerve-centres. They responded as the wheels respond when the throttle is opened. Jumping to their feet they broke into a run, bodies bent, heads down, like the peppered silhouette that faced Westerling’s desk. What they had done repeatedly in drills and manoeuvres they were now doing in war, mechanically as marionettes.

“Come on! The bullet is not made that can get me! Come on!” cried the giant Eugene Aronson.

He leaped over a white post and then over the plough, which was also in his path. Little Peterkin felt his legs trembling. They seemed to be detached from his will, and the company’s and the captain’s will, and churning in pantomime or not moving at all. If Hugo Mallin had been called a coward, what of himself? What of the stupid of the company, who would never learn even the manual of arms correctly, as the drill-sergeant often said? A new fear made him glance around. He would not have been surprised to find that he was already in the rear. But instead he found that he was keeping up, which was all that was necessary, as more than one other man assured his legs. After thirty or forty yards most of the legs, if not Peterkin’s, had worked out their shiver and nearly all felt the exhilaration of movement in company. Then came the sound that generations had drilled for without hearing; the sound that summons the imagination of man in the thought of how he will feel and act when he hears it; the sound that is everywhere like the song snatches of bees driven whizzing through the air.

“That’s it! We’re under fire! We’re under fire!” flashed as crooked lightning recognition of the sound through every brain.

There was no sign of any enemy; no telling where the bullets came from.

“Such a lot of them, one must surely get me!” Peterkin thought.

Whish-whish! Th-ipp-whing! The refrain gripped his imagination with an unseen hand. He seemed to be suffocating. He wanted to throw himself down and hold his hands in front of his head. While Pilzer and Aronson were not thinking, only running, Peterkin was thinking with the rapidity of a man falling from a high building. Worse! He did not know how far he had to go. He was certain only that he was bound to strike ground.

“An inch is as good as a mile!” He recollected the captain’s teaching. “Only one of a thousand bullets fired in war ever kills a man”-but he was certain that he had heard a million already. Then one passed very close, its swift breath brushing his cheek with a whistle like a s-s-st through the teeth. He dodged so hard that he might have dislocated his neck; he gasped and half stumbled, but realized that he had not been hit. And he must keep right on going, driven by one fear against another, in face of those ghastly whispers which the others, for the most part, in the excitement of a charge, had ceased to hear.

Again he would be sure that his legs, which he was urging so frantically to their duty, were not playing pantomime. He looked around to find that he was still keeping up with Eugene and felt the thrill of the bravery of fellowship at sight of the giant’s flushed, confident face revelling in the spirit of a charge. And then, just then, Eugene convulsively threw up his arms, dropped his rifle, and whirled on his heel. As he went down his hand clutched at his left breast and came away red and dripping. After one wild, backward glance, Peterkin plunged ahead.

“Eugene!” Hugo Mallin had stopped and bent over Eugene in the supreme instinct of that terrible second, supporting his comrade’s head.

“The bullet is not-made .” Eugene whispered, the ruling passion strong to the last. A flicker of the eyelids, a gurgle in the throat, and he was dead.

Fracasse had been right behind them. The sight of a man falling was something for which he was prepared; something inevitably a part of the game. A man down was a man out of the fight, service finished. A man up with a rifle in his hand was a man who ought to be in action.

“Here, you are not going to get out this way!” he said in the irritation of haste, slapping Hugo with his sword. “Go on! That’s hospital-corps work.”

Hugo had a glimpse of the captain’s rigid features and a last one of Eugene’s, white and still and yet as if he were about to speak his favorite boast; then he hurried on, his side glance showing other prostrate forms. One form a few yards away half rose to call “Hospital!” and fell back, struck mortally by a second bullet.

“That’s what you get if you forget instructions,” said Fracasse with no sense of brutality, only professional exasperation, “Keep down, you wounded men!” he shouted at the top of his voice.

The colonel of the 128th had not looked for immediate resistance. He had told Fracasse’s men to occupy the knoll expeditiously. But by the common impulse of military training, no less than in answer to the whistle’s call, in face of the withering fire they dropped to earth at the base of the knoll, where Hugo threw himself down at full length in his place in line next to Peterkin.

“Fire pointblank at the crest in front of you! I saw a couple of men standing up there!” called Fracasse. “Fire fast! That’s the way to keep down their fire-pointblank, I tell you! You’re firing into the sky! I want to see more dust kicked up. Fire fast! We’ll have them out of there soon! They’re only an outpost.”

Hugo was firing vaguely, like a man in a dream, and thinking that maybe up there on the knoll were the two Browns he had met on the road and perhaps their comrades were as fond of them as he was of Eugene. It is a mistake for a soldier to think much, as Westerling had repeatedly said.

Pilzer was shooting to kill. His eye had the steely gleam of his rifle sight and the liver patch on his cheek was a deeper hue as he sought to avenge Eugene’s death. Drowned by the racket of their own fire, not even Peterkin was hearing the whish-whish of the bullets from Dellarme’s company now. He did not know that the blacksmith’s son, who was the fourth man from him, lay with his chin on his rifle stock and a tiny trickle of blood from a hole in his forehead running down the bridge of his nose.

Fracasse, glancing along from rifle to rifle, as a weaver watches the threads of a machine loom, saw that Hugo was firing at too high an angle.

“Mallin!” he called. Hugo did not hear because of the noise, and Fracasse had to creep nearer, which was anything but cooling to his temper. “You fool! You are shooting fifty feet above the top of the knoll! Look along your sight!” he yelled.

Fracasse observed, with some surprise, that Hugo’s hand was steady as he carefully drew a bead. Hugo saw a spurt of dust at the point slightly below the crest where he aimed; for he was the best shot in the company at target practice.

“I’m not killing anybody!” he thought happily.