Read CHAPTER XLII - THE RAM of The Last Shot, free online book, by Frederick Palmer, on ReadCentral.com.

“I’ve learned that the greatest, most desperate attack of all is coming,” Marta told Lanstron. “But I don’t know at what point. I see Westerling only when he comes into the garden, and he does not come so frequently of late.”

Very sweet and very harrowing to him was the intimacy of their conspiracy over that underground wire. With the prolongation of the strain, he feared for her. He understood how she suffered. Sometimes he felt that the Marta of their holiday comradeship was dead and it was the impersonal spirit of a great purpose that brought him information and inspiration. Her voice was taut, without inflection, as if in pain, occasionally breaking into a dry sob, only to become even more taut after a silence.

“I don’t-I can’t urge you to any further sacrifice,” Lanstron replied. “You have endured enough.”

“But it will help? It will be of vital service?”

“Yes, tremendously vital.”

“I will try to learn more when I see him,” she continued. “But it cannot be done by questioning. A single question might be fatal. The thing must come in a burst of confidence. That’s the horrible part of it, the-” There was a dry sob over the wire as the voice broke and then went on steadily: “But I’m game! I’m game!”

In the closet off the Galland library, where the long-distance telephone was installed, Westerling was talking with the premier in the Gray capital.

“Your total casualties are eight hundred thousand! That is terrific, Westerling!” the premier was saying.

“Only two hundred thousand of those are dead!” replied Westerling. “Many with only slight wounds are already returning to the front. Terrific, do you say? Two hundred thousand in five millions is one man out of every twenty-five. That wouldn’t have worried Frederick the Great or Napoleon much. Eight hundred thousand is one out of six. The trouble is that such vast armies have never been engaged before. You must consider the percentages, not the totals.”

“Yet, eight hundred thousand! If the public knew!” exclaimed the premier.

“The public does not know!” said Westerling.

“They guess. They realize that we stopped the soldiers’ letters because they told bad news. The situation is serious.”

“Why not give the public something else to think about?” Westerling demanded.

“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. The murmurs increase. I repeat, my fears of a rising of the women are well grounded. There is mutiny in the air. I feel it through the columns of the press, though they are censored. I-”

“Then, soon I’ll give the public something to think about, myself!” Westerling broke in. “The dead will be forgotten. The wounded will be proud of their wounds and their fathers and mothers triumphant when our army descends the other side of the range and starts on its march to the Browns’ capital.”

“But you have not yet taken a single fortress!” persisted the premier. “And the Browns report that they have lost only three hundred thousand men.”

“Lanstron is lying!” retorted Westerling hotly. “But no matter. We have taken positions with every attack and kept crowding in closer. I ask nothing better than that the Browns remain on the defensive, leaving initiative to us. We have developed their weak points. The resolute offensive always wins. I know where I am going to attack; they do not. I shall not give them time to reinforce the defence at our chosen point. I have still plenty of live soldiers left. I shall go in with men enough this time to win and to hold.”

“The army is yours, Westerling,” concluded the premier. “I admire your stolidity of purpose. You have my confidence. I shall wait and hold the situation at home the best I can. We go into the hall of fame or into the gutter together, you and I!”

For a while after he had hung up the receiver Westerling’s head drooped, his muscles relaxed, giving mind and body a release from tension. But his spine was as stiff as ever as he left the closet, and he was even smiling to give the impression that the news from the capital was favorable. When the telegraphers’ jaws had dropped as the reports of casualties came in, when discouragement lengthened the faces around him and whispered in the very breezes from the fields of the dead, he had automatically maintained his confident mien. Any sign of weakening would be ruinous in its effect on his subordinates. The citadel of his egoism must remain unassailable. He must be the optimist, the front of Jove, for all.

When he called his chiefs of divisions it was hardly for a staff council. Stunned by the losses and repulses, loyally industrious, their opinions unasked, they listened to his whirlwind of orders without comment-all except Turcas.

“If they are apprised of our plan and are able to concentrate more artillery than our guns can silence, the losses will be demoralizing,” he observed.

Westerling threw up his head, frowning down the objection.

“Suppose they amount to half the forces that we send in!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t the position, which means the pass and the range, worth it?”

“Yes, if we both take and hold it; not if we fail,” replied Turcas, quite unaffected by Westerling’s manner.

“Failure is not in my lexicon!” Westerling shot back. “For great gains there must be great risks.”

“We prepare for the movement, Your Excellency,” answered Turcas.

It was a steel harness of his own will that Westerling wore, without admitting that it galled him, and he laid it off only in Marta’s presence. With her, his growing sense of isolation had the relief of companionship. She became a kind of mirror of his egoism and ambitions. He liked to have her think of him as a great man unruffled among weaker men. In the quiet and seclusion of the garden, involuntarily as one who has no confidant speaks to himself, reserving fortitude for his part before the staff, while she, under the spell of her purpose, silently, with serene and wistfully listening eyes, played hers, he outlined how the final and telling blow was to be struck.

“We must and we shall win!” he kept repeating.

Through a rubber disk held to his ear in the closet of his bedroom a voice, tremulous with nervous fatigue, was giving Lanstron news that all his aircraft and cavalry and spies could not have gained; news worth more than a score of regiments; news fresh from the lips of the chief of staff of the enemy. The attack was to be made at the right of Engadir, its centre breaking from the redoubt manned by Fracasse’s men.

“Marta, you genius!” Lanstron cried. “You are the real general! You-”

“Not that, please!” she broke in. “I’m as foul and depraved as a dealer in subtle poisons in the Middle Ages! Oh, the shame of it, while I look into his eyes and feign admiration, feign everything which will draw out his plans! I can never forget the sight of him as he told me how two or three or four hundred thousand men were to be crowded into a ram, as he called it-a ram of human flesh!-and guns enough in support, he said, to tear any redoubts to pieces; guns enough to make their shells as thick as the bullets from an automatic!”

“We’ll meet ram with ram! We’ll have some guns, too!” exclaimed Lanstron. “We’ll send as heavy a shell fire at their infantry as they send into our redoubts.”

“Yes; oh, yes!” she replied. “Westerling couldn’t say it any better! What difference is there between you? Each at his desk is saying: ’This regiment will die here; that regiment will die there!’ I bring you word of one human ram going to destruction in order that you may send another to destroy and be destroyed! And I’m worse than you. I am the go-between in the conspiracy of universal murder, sleeping in a good bed every night, in no danger-when I can sleep; but I can’t. I go mad from thinking of my part, keying myself up deliriously to each fresh deceit!”

With every sentence her voice broke and it seemed that she would not be able to utter another. Yet she kept on in the alternation of taut, pitiful monotone and dry, coughing sobs.

“How have I ever been able to go as far as I have? How did I get through this last scene? When it seems as if I were about to collapse, something supports me. When the thing grows too horrible and I am about to cry out to Westerling that I am false, I hear his boast that he made the war as a last step in his ambition. And there is Dellarme’s smile rising before me. He died so finely in defence of our garden! When my brain goes numb and I can’t think what to say, can’t act, Feller appears, prompting with ready word and facile change of expression, and I have my wits again. I go on! I go on!”

A racking sob, now, and silence; then, in the sudden effort of one who must change the subject to hold his sanity, she asked:

“How is Feller? Is he doing well?”

“Yes.”

“At least I have brought him happiness. Sometimes I think that is about all the good I have accomplished-I, his successor in carrying out your plans! Oh, I’m burned out, Lanny! I’m ashes. It doesn’t seem that I can ever be sane or clean and human again. In order to forget I should have to find a new life, like Feller. Each morning when I look in the mirror I expect to see my hair turned white, like his.”

Lanstron felt her suffering as if it were his own. He had let his patriotic passion overwhelm every other consideration. He had allowed her to be a spy; he had sacrificed her sensibilities along with the battalions he had sent into battle. She was right: he was only the inhuman head of a machine. And she and Feller-they were human. Destiny playing in the crux of war’s inconsistencies had formed a bond between them.

“But, go on, Lanny. Play your part as you see it-as Westerling sees his and Feller his and I mine,” she said. “That is the only logic clear to me; only I can’t play any more. I haven’t the strength.”

“Yes, I shall go on, Marta,” he replied, “but you must not. Your work is over, and perhaps this last service may bring a quick end and save countless lives.”

“Don’t. It’s too like Westerling! It has become too trite!” she protested. “The end! If I really were helping toward that and to save lives and our country to its people, what would my private feelings matter’ My honor, my soul-what would anything matter? For that, any sacrifice. I’m only one human being-a weak, lunatic sort of one, just now!”

“Marta, don’t suffer so! You are overwrought. You-”

“I can say all that for you, Lanny,” she interrupted with the faintest laugh. “I’ve said it so many times to myself. Perhaps when I call you up again I shall not be so hysterical. Tell Feller how I have played his part, and, in the midst of all your responsibilities, remember to give him a chance.”

Lanstron was not thinking of war or war’s combination when he hung up the receiver.

“Yes, it is Gustave!” he thought. “I understand!” It was some moments before he returned to the staff room, and then he had mastered his emotion. He was the soldier again.

“They are clearing the wires for the chief of staff to speak to you, sir,” announced the telephone aide in Feller’s eyrie artillery lookout.

Feller received the word with his clucking “La, la, la!” and hummed a tune while the connection was being made. He had not spoken with Lanny since his own promotion to a colonelcy and Partow’s death.

“My ear-drums split for joy at hearing your voice again!” Feller cried. “A regiment of guns for yours truly! You’ve made me the happiest man in the world. And haven’t I smacked the Grays in the tummy, not to mention in the nose and on the shins! Well, I should say so! La, la, la!”

“You certainly have, you bully old boy!” said Lanstron. “Miss Galland sends her congratulations and regards.”

“Eh, what? Her regards to me! The telephone still continues to work? Our own original trunk-tunnel private line? Eh? Tell me; tell me, quick!”

“Yes, she has performed the greatest service of the war-better than you could have done it, Gustave!”

“Whee-ee! Why not? Of course! I’m not surprised. She’s the greatest woman in the world, I tell you, and I know! And she sends her regards to her old gardener? Think of that! If trouble never comes singly, why shouldn’t joys come in a pour? Oh, it she could see me now, so cosey up here among the birds, chucking shells about as cheerily as if I were tossing roses to the ladies in a ballroom!”

“She wants you to have every chance,” said Lanstron.

“She asks that for me!”

The peculiar intimate fervor of the exclamation sprang from a Feller in an officer’s uniform who could now move in Marta’s world. Lanstron hurried on to explain the nature of the next attack.

“If we repulse them we are going to throw in a ram of our own,” he said. “We’re going to take the aggressive for the moment. It is the only sure policy for successful defence.”

“Right! Now you’re talking. We learned that principle at school, didn’t we?”

“And that means a bigger chance for you, Gustave. We are bringing up reserve artillery and making new dispositions. I am going to give you charge of the field-guns. But the chief of artillery will tell you about your work.”

“This is heaven, Lanny! How am I ever going to-”

“There, no thanks, Gustave. You are the man. It is a time when only efficiency must be considered.”

“Then I have made good! Then I’ve been worthy of my opportunity! I’d rather be a good gunner than a king. I’ll eat this new work and smack my lips for more. Tell Miss Galland that every shell that hits the mark is a thought from the old gardener for her. Six weeks ago trimming rose-bushes and now-this is life! La, la, la! There’s been romance and destiny in the whole business for us both, Lanny. And you-you are acting chief of staff! I forgot to congratulate you, Your Excellency. Your Excellency! Think of that! But it’s no surprise to me. Didn’t we go to school together? How could any one ever go to school with me and not be a great man? And I’m wearing a flower in my buttonhole! La, la, la!”

All that night and day before the night set for the attack, while the guns were being emplaced and the infantry formed in a gray carpet behind the slopes, a chill, misty rain fell, which the devout of the Grays might say proved that God was with them rather than with the Browns; for it screened their movements from the Brown lookouts. The judge’s son and Peterkin and others of Fracasse’s company had finished their mine; the fuses were laid. There was no dry place for a seat in their flooded redoubt and they had to stand, eating cold rations and shivering in their filthy, wet clothes. The whole army was drenched; the whole army shivered.

If only the air did not clear when darkness fell! The last thing the staff of the Grays wanted was to see a star in the sky. Had they believed in prayer they would have gone on their knees for a black fog, unaware that all that they would hide had been made known to the Browns through Marta almost from the hour that the preparations for the attack were begun.

With darkness, the rain ceased; but the mist remained a thick mantle over the landscape, impenetrable to the watchful search-lights of the Browns, which never stopped playing from sunset to dawn. The gray carpet of the reserves that were to form Westerling’s ram moved over the slopes, dipping and rising with the convolutions of the earth, with no word spoken except the repeated whispered warnings of silence from the officers. Sweeping on up toward the redoubts, it found that parallels and trenches had been filled to give footing for the swifter impulse of the tide, once it was started for the heights.

A flash from Fracasse’s pocket lamp showed faces pasty white and eyes of staring glassiness. Fracasse’s face and the colonel’s were also white-white with the rigidity of carved marble, carved with a set frown of determination. Fracasse was going in with his company and the colonel with his regiment. It was their duty. Both realized the nature of the risk; and, worse, each knew that the men realized it. In another age, when education was not so common and unthinking, unforeseeing passion could be aroused in ignorant minds, a stimulant on an empty stomach might have made them animals, oblivious to danger. They were about to offer their lives to pave the way for others to reach the works that none of them, probably, would ever reach. For the like of this, in gathering the enemy’s spears to his breast, a saga had risen around one national hero. But Fracasse’s veterans were only the shivering units of the millions; the part of the machine that happened to be the first to strike another machine in collision. Such was the end of all the training, the marching, the drilling in the gallant business of arms, with no more romance or glory than beeves going to the slaughter.

“You’ll be the first out into the glacis, the first into the enemy’s redoubt,” said the colonel, forcing a tone of good, old-fashioned “up-guards-and-at-’em” vigor, as he touched the bronze cross on Peterkin’s breast with his forefinger.

Little Peterkin, always pale but not so pale now as his comrades, flushed at the distinction.

“Yes, sir!” and he saluted.

In his eyes was the exaltation of his simple-minded faith. He did not think too much. What more could kings and conquerors ask than such a soldier as the valet’s son, secure in the belief that his charmed life would bring him through the assault unharmed?

“My God! I can’t!” exclaimed the banker’s son. “I’ve suffered enough. There’s life and wealth and all that it gives waiting for me at home! I’m young-I can’t!”

There was a rustle of bodies in a restless movement of drawn breaths at common thought taking form, desperately fraught with alarm to Fracasse.

“You will!” Fracasse said, thrusting his revolver muzzle against the ribs of the banker’s son. “If you don’t, I’ll shoot you dead, or you’ll be trampled to death by the rush from the rear!”

The wedge point may not strike back at the hammer that drives it. Close packed behind Fracasse’s company was a seemingly limitless mass of soldiery, palpitant with their short breaths, a steamy, sickening odor rising from their water-soaked clothes. Here were men so wet, so tired, so nerve-worn that they did not care when death came; men who wanted to curse and strike out against their fate; men who wanted to turn in flight, their natural impulse held down by the bonds of discipline and that pride of fellowship which is shamed to confess to a shiver along the spine. Some saw pictures of home, of sweethearts; some saw nothing. Some were in a coma of merciless suspense that grew more and more unendurable, until it seemed that anything to break it would be welcome.

Occasionally came a sob from a man gone hysterical under the strain, a moan of mental misery; and once a laugh, a strange, hiccoughy, delirious laugh, a strident attempt at the wit that keeps up courage; and from Pilzer, the butcher’s son, a string of oaths mixed with brimstone and obscenity. After each outbreak an automatic, irritable whisper for silence came from an officer. Legs and arms, bodies and souls and brains in a nauseating press! Humanity reckoned by the pound, high-priced from breeding and rearing and training; yet very cheap.

Hearts thumped and watches ticked off the time, until suddenly the heavens were racked by the prologue of the guns. Child’s play that baptism of shell fire in the first charge of the war beside later thunders; and these, in turn, mild beside this terrific outburst, with all the artillery concentrated to support the ram in a sudden blast. The passing projectiles formed the continuous scream and roar of some many-toned siren that penetrated the flesh as well as the ears with its sound. Orders could not have been heard if given. There was no need for orders. Fracasse, counting off the minutes between him and eternity on his watch face by his flash-light, saw that ten had passed. Then his finger that pressed a button, his brain that spoke to his hand, were those of an automaton acting by time release. He exploded the mine. This was the signal for the charge; for all the legs of the ram to move.