Peterkin could hear his heart thumping and feel chills running down his spine. How should he ever live up to a bronze cross—the precious cross given for valor alone, which marked him as heroic for life—when all he wanted to do was to crawl away to some quiet, safe place and munch more biscuits? He had once been a buttons who looked down on scullery boys, but how gladly would he be a scullery boy forever if he could escape to the rear where he would hear no more bullets!
His conscience smote him; he wanted a confessor. He had an impulse to tell the whole truth to Hugo Mallin, for Hugo was the one man in the company who would sympathetically understand the situation. Yet he did not find the words, because he was rather pleased with the reclame of being a hero, which was an entirely new experience in a family that had been for generations in service.
Hugo Mallin had fired when the others fired; advanced when the others advanced. He had done his mechanical part in a way that had not excited Fracasse’s further acute displeasure, and he had no sense of physical fatigue, only of mental depression, of the elemental things that he had seen and felt this day in a whirling pressure on his brain.
It seemed to him that all his comrades had changed. They could never be the same as before they had set out to kill another lot of men on the crest of the knoll. He could not keep a comparison out of mind: One of the dead Browns, lying in almost the same position, looked enough like the manufacturer’s son to be his brother. He pictured Eugene Aronson’s parents receiving the news of his death—the mother weeping, the father staring stonily. And he saw many mothers weeping and many fathers staring stonily.
THE TERRIBLE NIGHT
The satire of war makes the valet’s son a hero; the chance of war kills the manufacturer’s son and lets the day-laborer’s son live; the sport of war gives the latent forces of a Stransky full play; the mercy of war grants Grandfather Fragini a happy death; the glory of war brings Dellarme quick promotion; the glamour and the spectacular folly of war turn the bolts of the lightnings which man has mastered against man. Perhaps the savage who learned that he could start a flame by rubbing two dry sticks together may have set fire to the virgin forest and wild grass in order to destroy an enemy—and naturally with disastrous results to himself if he mistook the direction of the wind.
Marta Galland’s thoughts at dusk when she returned up the steps to the house were much the same as Hugo Mallin’s after Fracasse had taken the knoll. While he had felt the hot whirlwind of war in his face, she had witnessed the wreckage that it left. She also was seeing fathers staring and mothers weeping. Her experience with the wounded drawing deep on the wells of sympathy, heightened her loathing of war and of all who planned and ordered it and led its legions. A Stransky righting would have been repulsive to her, but a Stransky trying to save a life was noble.