“Yes, sir,” answered Hugo. “It was very hard to maintain a semblance of dignity. Yes, sir, I kept near you all the time so you could watch me. Wasn’t that what you wanted me to do, sir?”
“Good old Hugo! The same old Hugo!” breathed the spirit of the company. Three or four men burst into a hysterical laugh as if something had broken in their throats. Everybody felt better for this touch of drollery except the captain. Yet, possibly, it may have helped him in recovering his poise. Sometimes even a pin-prick will have this effect.
“Silence!” he said in his old manner. “I will give you something to joke about other than a little setback like this! Get up there with your rifles!”
He formed the nucleus of a firing-line under cover of the shoulder, and then set the remainder of his company to work with their spades making a trench. The second battalion of the 128th, which faced the knoll, was also digging at the base of the slope, and another regiment in reserve was deploying on the plain. After the failure to rush the knoll the Gray commander had settled down to the business of a systematic approach.
And what of those of Fracasse’s men who had not run but had dropped in their tracks when the charge halted? They were between two lines of fire. There was no escape. Some of the wounded had a mercifully quick end, others suffered the consciousness of being hit again and again; the dead were bored through with bullet holes. In torture, the survivors prayed for death; for all had to die except Peterkin, the pasty-faced little valet’s son.
Peterkin was quite safe, hugging the bottom of the shell crater under a swarm of hornets. In a surprisingly short time he became accustomed to the situation and found himself ravenously hungry, for the strain of the last twelve hours had burned up tissue. He took a biscuit out of his knapsack and began nibbling it, as became a true rodent.
MARTA’S FIRST GLIMPSE OF WAR
As Marta and the children came to the door of the chapel after the recitation of the oath, she saw the civil population moving along the street in the direction of the range. Suddenly they paused in a common impulse and their heads turned as one head on the fulcrum of their necks, and their faces as one face in a set stare looked skyward.
“Keep on moving! No danger!” called the major of the brigade staff. “Pass the word—no danger! It’s not going to drop any bombs; it’s only a scout plane trying to locate the positions of the defences we’ve thrown up overnight. No danger—keep moving!”
He might as well have tried to distract the attention of the grand stand from the finish of a horse-race. More than the wizard’s spell, years before, at the first sight of man in flight held them in suspense as they watched a plane approaching with the speed of an albatross down the wind straight on a line with the church tower where the sharpshooters were posted. The spread of the wings grew broader; the motor was making a circle of light as large as a man’s hat-box, and the aviator was the size of some enormous insect when three or four sharp reports were audible from the church tower.