Read CHAPTER XXX - MARTA MEETS HUGO of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

The general staff-officer of the Grays, who had tasted Marta’s temper on his first call, when he returned the next morning did not enter unannounced. He rang the door-bell.

“I have a message for you from General Westerling,” he said to her. “The general expresses his deep regret at the unavoidable damage to your house and grounds and has directed that everything possible be done immediately in the way of repairs.”

In proof of this the officer called attention to a group of service-corps men who were removing the sand-bags from the first terrace. Others were at work in the garden setting uprooted plants back into the earth.

“His Excellency says,” continued the officer, “that, although the house is so admirably suited for staff purposes, we will find another if you desire.”

He was too polite and too considerate in his attitude for Marta not to meet him in the same spirit.

“That is what we should naturally prefer,” and Marta bowed her head in indecision.

“We should have to begin installing the telegraph and telephone service on the lower floor at once,” he remarked. “In fact, all arrangements must be made before the general’s arrival.”

“He has been a guest here before,” she said reminiscently and detachedly.

Her head dropped lower, in apparent disregard of his presence, as she took counsel with herself. She was perfectly still, without even the movement of an eyelash. Other considerations than any he might suggest, he subtly understood, held her attention. They were the criterion by which she would at length assent or dissent, and nothing could hurry the Marta of to-day, who yesterday had been a creature of feverish impulse.

It seemed a long time that he was watching that wonderful profile under the very black hair, soft with the softness of flesh, yet firmly carved. She lifted her head gradually, her eyes sweeping past the spot where Dellarme had lain dying, where Feller had manned the automatic, where Stransky had thrown Pilzer over the parapet. He saw the glance arrested and focussed on the flag of the Grays, which was floating from a staff on the outskirts of the town, and slowly, glowingly, the light rippling on its folds was reflected in her face.

“She is for us! She is a Gray!” he thought triumphantly. The woman and the flag! The matter-of-fact staff-officer felt the thrill of sentiment.

“I think we can arrange it,” Marta announced with a rare smile of assent.

“Then I’ll go back to town and set the signal-corps men to work,” he said.

“And when you come you will find the house at your disposal,” she assured him.

Except that he was raising his cap instead of saluting, he was conscious of withdrawing with the deference due to a superior.

In place of the smile, after he had gone, came a frown and a look in her eyes as if at something revolting; then the smile returned, to be succeeded by the frown, which was followed by an indeterminate shaking of the head.

The roar of battle kept up its steady refrain in the direction of the range. Marta had heard it when she fell asleep and heard it when she awakened. A battery of heavy guns of the Grays broke their flashes from a knoll this side of the one where Dellarme’s men had made their first stand. At the foot of the garden, where yesterday she had distributed flowers to the wounded Browns, a regiment of Gray infantry was marching past a train of siege-guns. All the figures moving on the landscape, which yesterday had been brown, had changed to gray. The Grays were masters of the town and all the neighborhood.

Marta stepped down from the veranda in response to the call of the open air to physical vigor renewed after sweet sleep. Rather than return directly to the kitchen, where breakfast was waiting, she would go around the house. She stopped before a Japanese maple which had been split by a shell striking in a crotch. Was there any hope of saving it? No. She turned white about the lips, with red spots on her cheeks, and at length nodded her head as if in answer to some inward question.

Over the sward, cut by shell fragments, lay torn limbs and bits of bark, and in the shade of a tree near the road she had a glimpse of the shoulder of the gray uniform of a prostrate man. The rest of him was hidden by the low-hanging branches of one of the Norway spruces which bordered the estate at this point. Another step and she saw a circular red spot on a white leg bandage; another, and a white square of paper pinned to a blouse; another, and she identified the wounded man as her hero of the scene in the dining-room.

Hugo’s eyes were closed, his breaths slow, in restless sleep. His face, flushed with fever, was winningly boyish and frank. He who had had the courage to speak alone against the opinion of his fellows, to voice a belief that made every sympathetic chord in her own mind sing with praise and understanding, the courage to say that invasion was wrong even when made by his own people, had been labelled coward and left to die!

The exaltation of his features when he had been the champion of her beliefs and her impulse against the barbarism of his comrades and the charm of their resignation now, the pitifulness of his condition-all had an appeal as she bent over him that called for an expression having the touch of the sublimely feminine. She took his hand in hers and pressed it gently. He awoke and brought himself jerkily to a sitting posture. The effort made a crash in his head that sent his senses swimming. She thought that he was going to swoon and slipped her arm behind him in support and, the Marta of impulse, pressed her lips to his brow. After the first racking throb of his temples he was able to steady himself, and as she drew away she saw his blue eyes starting in wonder at her act.

“I-I had to do it to thank you for what you did in the dining-room!” she stammered.

“Oh! Oh! It was very beautiful of you, but I couldn’t help being surprised, for it was rather unusual-from a stranger.” He smiled, and Hugo had a gift in smiles, as we know: smiles for laughter, smiles for reassurance, and smiles to cure embarrassment. “It was almost as refreshing as a drink of water,” he concluded impersonally.

“You are thirsty?”

“This-this is morning, isn’t it?” Hugo went on quizzically.

“Yes, yes!”

“Then it must be the next day,” he pursued, still quizzically. “You see, I said I would not kill any more-and I will not-and I was shot and got tagged without even being shipped as freight. I was thirsty last night, very thirsty, and some one-I think it was Jake Pilzer-some one said to go to the fountain of hell for a drink, but I-I don’t think that a very good place to get a drink, do you?”

Weak and faint as he was, he put a touch of drollery into the question which made her laugh, her eyes sparkling through a moist haze.

“You’re real, aren’t you?” he inquired in sudden perplexity. “I’m not dreaming?”

“As real as the water I shall bring you.”

Soon Marta was back, holding a glass to his lips.

“There’s no doubt about it; you are real!” said Hugo.

“I feel as if the chimney were still hot but that you had drenched the fire in the grate.”

“Who put this on you?” she asked as she unpinned the placard.

“I’ve a vague idea, from a vague overhearing of the colonel’s remarks, that it is public opinion,” he replied, and seeing, that she was about to tear it up, he arrested her action. “No, I think I’d like to save it as a souvenir-the odds are so greatly against me-as a sort of souvenir to keep up my courage.”

His tone, the way he drew the muscles of his face, ironed out her frown of disgust at public opinion with a smile. For he made his kind of courage no less light-hearted and free of pose than Dellarme had made his.

Directly the coachman, whom Marta had summoned when she went for the water, appeared with an improvised litter, and the two bore in at the kitchen door a guest for breakfast whose arrival gave Mrs. Galland a distinctly visible surprise. His uniform was gray, and in her heart of hearts she hated gray as the symbol of an enemy whom her husband had fought. But when Marta told the story of the part he had played in defence of the chandelier, personal partisanship abetted the motherly impulse that was already breaking down prejudice. She was busy with a dozen suggestions for his comfort, quite taking matters out of Marta’s hands.

“I know more about the care of the sick than you do!” she insisted. “One lump or two in your coffee, sir? There, there, you had better let me hold the cup for you. You are sure you can sit up? Then we must have a pillow.”

“I’ll fetch one from the other room,” put in Minna.

“Two will be better!” Marta called after her.

“It is delightful to have breakfast in your kitchen, madame,” said Hugo to Mrs. Galland in a way that ought to have justified her in thinking herself the most charming and useful person in the world.