Hugo was firing vaguely, like a man in a dream, and thinking that maybe up there on the knoll were the two Browns he had met on the road and perhaps their comrades were as fond of them as he was of Eugene. It is a mistake for a soldier to think much, as Westerling had repeatedly said.
Pilzer was shooting to kill. His eye had the steely gleam of his rifle sight and the liver patch on his cheek was a deeper hue as he sought to avenge Eugene’s death. Drowned by the racket of their own fire, not even Peterkin was hearing the whish-whish of the bullets from Dellarme’s company now. He did not know that the blacksmith’s son, who was the fourth man from him, lay with his chin on his rifle stock and a tiny trickle of blood from a hole in his forehead running down the bridge of his nose.
Fracasse, glancing along from rifle to rifle, as a weaver watches the threads of a machine loom, saw that Hugo was firing at too high an angle.
“Mallin!” he called. Hugo did not hear because of the noise, and Fracasse had to creep nearer, which was anything but cooling to his temper. “You fool! You are shooting fifty feet above the top of the knoll! Look along your sight!” he yelled.
Fracasse observed, with some surprise, that Hugo’s hand was steady as he carefully drew a bead. Hugo saw a spurt of dust at the point slightly below the crest where he aimed; for he was the best shot in the company at target practice.
“I’m not killing anybody!” he thought happily.
RECEIVING THE CHARGE
What about Stransky of the Reds, who would not fight to please the ruling classes? What about Grandfather Fragini, who would fight on principle whenever a Gray was in sight? Now we leave the story of Fracasse’s men at the foot of the knoll for that of the Browns on the crest.
Young Dellarme, new to his captain’s rank, with lips pressed tightly together, his delicately moulded, boyish features reflecting the confidence which it was his duty to inspire in his company, watching the plain through his glasses, saw the movement of mounted officers to the rear of the 128th as a reason for summoning his men.
“Creep up! Don’t show yourselves! Creep up—carefully—carefully!” he kept repeating as they crawled forward on their stomachs. “And no one is to fire until the command comes.”
Hugging the cover of the ridge of fresh earth which they had thrown up the previous night, they watched the white posts. Stransky, who had been ruminatively silent all the morning, was in his place, but he was not looking at the enemy. Cautiously, to avoid a reprimand, he raised his head to enable him to glance along the line. All the faces seemed drawn and clayish.
“They don’t want to fight! They’re just here because they’re ordered here and haven’t the character to defy authority,” he thought. “The leaven is working! My time is coming!”