Read CHAPTER XXVIII - AN APPEAL TO PARTOW of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

“You, Marta-you are still there!” Lanstron exclaimed in alarm when he heard her voice over the tunnel telephone. “But safe!” he added in relief. “Thank God for that! It’s a mighty load off my mind. And your mother?”

“Safe, too.”

“And Minna and little Clarissa Eileen?”

“All safe.”

“Well, you’re through the worst of it. There won’t be any more fighting around the house, and certainly Westerling will be courteous. But where is Gustave?”

“Gone!”

“Gone!” he repeated dismally.

In a flash he had guessed another tragedy for poor Gustave, who must have once more failed to stick to his purpose, thus shattering the last hope that the thousandth chance would ever come to anything.

“Wait until you hear how he went,” Marta said. With all the vividness of her impressions, a partisan for the moment of him and Dellarme, she sketched Feller’s part with the automatic.

As he listened, Lanstron’s spirit was twenty again, with the fever that Feller’s “let’s set things going!” could start rollicking in his veins. What did the thousandth chance matter? Only a wool-gatherer would ever have had any faith in it. Victory for Gustave! Victory for the friend in whom he believed when others had disbelieved! Victory for those gifts that had broken a career against army routine in peace, once they had full play in war!

“I can see him,” he said. “It was a full breath of fresh air to the lungs of a suffocating man. I-”

Marta was off in interruption in the full tide of an appeal.

“You must-I promised-you must let him have the uniform again!” she begged. “You must let him keep his automatic. To take it away would be like separating mother and child; like separating Minna from Clarissa Eileen.”

“Better than an automatic-a battery of guns!” replied Lanstron. “This is where I will use any influence I have with Partow for all it is worth. Now, let the red-tapists dare to point to his past when I ask anything for him and I’ll overwhelm them with the living present! Yes, and he shall have the iron cross. It is for such deeds as his that the iron cross was meant.”

“Thank you,” she said. “It’s worth something to make a man as happy as you will make him. Yes, you are real flesh and blood to do this, Lanny.”

Her point won with surprising ease, when she had feared that military form and law could not be circumvented, she leaned against the wall in reaction. For twenty-four hours she had been without sleep. The interest of her appeal for Feller had kept up her strength after the excitement of the fight for the redoubt was over. Now there seemed nothing left to do.

“No doctor who ever examined me for promotion has yet found that I wasn’t flesh and blood,” Lanstron remarked a little plaintively.

“Then the doctor must have kept the truth from Partow,” she told him with a faint return of the teasing spirit that he knew well. “He wants only men of steel, with nerves of copper wire run by an electric battery, on his staff, I’m sure.”

Lanstron laughed very humanly for an automaton.

“I’ll suggest the battery to him. It might prove a labor saver,” he said. “Being a little old-fashioned, he has depended on clockwork, which requires a special orderly to wind us when we fun down and nod at our desks.” Then he turned solicitous. “The Gray staff will certainly give you an escort beyond the Gray lines, where you will find a place to establish yourselves comfortably.”

The suggestion brought her energy back with the snap of a whip.

“No!” she declared. “We stay in our home. It’s ours! No one else has any right there while our taxes are paid. Doesn’t my children’s oath say: ’I’ll not let a burglar drive me out of my house’?”

“Isn’t that coming around to my view, Marta?” he asked. “Aren’t we refusing to leave the nation’s house because a burglar is trying to enter?”

“Lanny, you, with all your intellect-when you know the oath as well as I-you pettifog like that! The oath says to appeal to justice and reason even after the first blow is struck. Why doesn’t our premier appeal to the people of the Grays?”

“They garbled his last despatch, as it was, to suit their purpose.”

“Their government garbled it. I meant to appeal not to their premier but to the people, as human beings to human beings. Over there they’re human beings just as much as we are. Why didn’t Partow speak, too, as chief of staff, if he is so fond of peace? He is the one-not the Fellers and the Dellarmes and the Stranskys, who merely act up to their faith and training as pawns-he in the security of his cabinet making war. Why didn’t he say: ’We do not want war. We will not mobilize our army. We will do nothing to arouse the war passion?’”

“Their government would only have been convinced of an easier conquest, and by this time they would have been up to the main line of defence. Marta, when the diplomatic history of the war is known it will be found that the Gray government struck as a matter of cold, deliberate intention. Bodlapoo was only an excuse to carry out a plan of conquest.”

“So Partow has taught the Browns,” she answered stubbornly. “That is one partisan view. What is theirs? What is Westerling teaching the Grays?”

“Marta-really, I-”

“What a smashing argument really is! You see that you really are not for peace, but for war. But won’t you ask Partow to do one thing, if he still insists that he is for peace? I wonder if he will chuckle or laugh at my suggestion, or will he grin or roar? Though you know that he will do them all, ask him to send out a flag of truce to the Grays and beg them to stay their operations while his appeal-an appeal with a little of the Christ spirit in it, from one Christian nation to another to stop the murder-is read to the Gray soldiers and ours; to those who have to suffer and die! Oh, I’d like to help write that appeal, telling the women what I have seen! Do you think if it were given to the world that the Grays would still come on? Ask him, Lanny, ask him to make that simple human appeal, as brother to brother, to the court of all humanity! Ask him, please, Lanny!”

“I shall, Marta!” he replied seriously, in respect for her seriousness throbbing with the abandoned play of her vitality, though he knew how fruitless the request would be. He loved her the more for this outburst. He loved her for her quick sympathies with any one in trouble, whether Feller or Minna; for all of her inconsistencies which were so real to her; for her dreams, her visions, her impulses, because she tried to put them in action, and he envied Feller for having fought in defence of her house. How could he expect her to interest herself exclusively in him as one human being when all human beings interested her so profoundly? If the world were peopled with Martas and their disciples then her proposal would be practicable.

“That’s fine of you, Lanny!” she said. “You’ve taken it like a good stoic, this loss of your thousandth chance. You really believed in it, didn’t you?”

“Forgotten already, like the many other thousandth chances that have failed,” he replied cheerfully. “One of the virtues of Partow’s steel automatons is that, being tearless as well as passionless, they never cry over spilt milk. And now,” he went on soberly, “we must be saying good-by.”

“Good-by, Lanny? Why, what do you mean?” She was startled.

“Till the war is over,” he said, “and longer than that, perhaps, if La Tir remains in Gray territory.”

“You speak as if you thought you were going to lose!”

“Not while many of our soldiers are alive, if they continue to show the spirit that they have shown so far; not unless two men can crush one man in the automatic-gun-recoil age. But La Tir is in a tangent and already in the Grays’ possession, while we act on the defensive. So I should hardly be flying over your garden again.”

“But there’s the telephone, Lanny, and here we are talking over it this very minute!” she expostulated.

“You must remove it,” he said. “If the Grays should discover it they might form a suspicion that would put you in an unpleasant position.”

The telephone had become almost a familiar institution in her thoughts. Its secret had something of the fascination for her of magic.

“Nonsense!” she exclaimed. “I am going to be very lonely. I want to learn how Feller is doing-I want to chat with you. So I decide not to let it be taken out. And, you see, I have the tactical situation, as you soldiers call it, all in my favor. The work of removal must be done at my end of the line. You’re quite helpless to enforce your wishes. And, Lanny, if I ring the bell you’ll answer, won’t you?”

“I couldn’t help it!” he replied.

“Until then! You’ve been fine about everything to-day!”

“Until then!”

When Marta left the tower she knew only that she was weary with the mind-weariness, the body-weariness, the nerve-weariness of a spectator who has shared the emotion of every actor in a drama of death and finds the excitement that has kept her tense no longer a sustaining force.

As she went along the path, steps uncertain from sheer fatigue, her sensibilities livened again at the sight of a picture. War, personal war, in the form of the giant Stransky, was knocking at the kitchen door. His two-days-old beard was matted with dust and there were dried red spatters on his cheek. War’s furnace flames seemed to have tanned him; war seemed to be breathing from his deep chest; his big nose was war’s promontory. But the unexposed space of his forehead seemed singularly white when he took off his cap as Minna came in answer to his knock. Her yielding lips were parted, her eyes were bright with inquiry and suspicion, her chin was firmly set.

“I came to see if you would let me kiss your hand again,” said Stransky, squinting through his brows wistfully.

“Would that do you any good?” Minna asked.

“A lot-a big lot!” said Stransky. “But if it is easier for you, why, you can give me another blow in the face. I deserve it. It would show that you weren’t quite indifferent; that you took some interest in me.”

“I see your nose has been broken once. You don’t want it broken a second time. I’m stronger than you think!” Minna retorted, and held out her hand carelessly as if it pleased her to humor him.

He was rather graceful, despite his size, as he touched his lips to her fingers. Just as he raised his head a burst of cheering rose from the yard.

“So you’ve found that we have gone, you brilliant intellects!” he shouted, and glared at the wall of the house in the direction of the cheers.

“Quick! You have no time to lose!” Minna warned him.

“Quick! quick!” cried Marta.

Stransky paid no attention to the urgings. He had something more to say to Minna.

“I’m going to keep thinking of you and seeing your face-the face of a good woman-while I fight. And when the war is over, may I come to call?” he asked.

His feet were so resolutely planted on the flags that apparently the only way to move them was to consent.

“Yes, yes!” said Minna. “Now, hurry!”

“Say, but you make me happy! Watch me poke it into the Grays for you!” he cried and bolted.

“It seems to me that he is the biggest, most ridiculous man I ever saw!” said Minna, as she watched him out of sight. “I’m tired, just tired to death, aren’t you?” she added to Marta.

“Exactly!” agreed Marta. “I feel as if I had worked my way through hell to heaven and heaven was the chance to sleep.”

Within the kitchen Mrs. Galland was already slumbering soundly in her chair. Overhead Marta heard the exclamations of male voices and the tread of what was literally the heel of the conqueror-guests that had come without asking! Intruders that had entered without any process of law! Would they overrun the house, her mother’s room, her own room?

Indignation brought fresh strength as she started up the stairs. The head of the flight gave on to a dark part of the hall. There she paused, held by the scene that a score or more of Gray soldiers, who had riotously crowded into the dining-room, were enacting.