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.
An hour or so before the attack the telegraph instruments in the Galland house had become pregnantly silent. There were no more orders to give; no more reports to come from the troops in position until the assault was made. Officers of supply ceased to transmit routine matters over the wire, while they strained their eyes toward the range. Officers of the staff moved about restlessly, glancing at their watches and going to the windows frequently to see if the mist still held.
No one entered the library where Westerling was seated alone with nothing to do. His suspense was that of the mothers who longed for news of their sons at the front; his helplessness that of a man in a hospital lobby waiting on the result of an operation whose success or failure will save or wreck his career. The physical desire of movement, the conflict with something in his own mind, drove him out of doors.
“I want to blow my lungs in the fresh air! Call me if I am needed. I shall be in the garden,” he told his aide; and he thought that his voice sounded calm and natural, as became Jove in a crisis that unnerved lesser men. “Though I fancy it is the other chief of staff who will have the work to do this evening, eh?” he added, forcing one of the smiles which had been the magnetic servant of his personal force in his rise to power.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” said the aide.