|Chapter XII||Contents etc.||Chapter XIV|
WITH the first discharge from the fortress, Cartwright's specious pretences were unveiled, and a new phenomenon of warfare was revealed in all its sinister significance.
The range of fire of the defenders reached to an incredible distance, the foremost of the assaulting detachments were swept away, annihilated. The bravest troops of Astria hesitated and shrank to enter the zone of dust and carnage. To avert the spread of the panic, Wall ordered a stay of the assault, withdrew his forces from sight of the blood-stained plain and waited for a few hours, till great piles of wood had been collected and lit. The breeze blew towards the arsenal and, in the all-enveloping smoke, he sent party after party in open order. Into that infernal darkness, throbbing with the crash and roar of mangling ex-plosions, whence now and again some half-crazed man emerged pallid with fear, he poured his troops like water. Presently the wind shifted, but darkness came on and still when one regiment had gone, had passed to its doom, he sent another. And Ardaea rising malignant in the East looked down asking what worse destruction she could wreak than this that the doomed souls wrought on one another. At daybreak, the plain was thick with bodies right up to the fortress, fragments of scaling ladders lay against its wall, and one figure rising from the unnumbered dead rushed on waving his hands, to fall by a shot directed almost straight down.
Wall recognised the meaning of the unknown hero's action. "The moat is filled," he said to the group of officers beside him.
In the dawning light the enemy seemed to play with their attackers, with a horrible sportiveness they would let a number approach, and suddenly sweep them away. Then again with their first violence of fire they would sweep the ground far and near.
Two generals stepped forward, grey with years of honourable service.
"You have not called a council of war, sir," said one of them, "but it is time you should, it is impossible to let this carnage continue—it is not war."
Wall took the book of orders of the day from the lieutenant in charge. He wrote, "The assault will continue till I countermand it," then handing the book back, he placed himself at the head of the detachment emerging from shelter. It was in one of the lulls of fury. Far on towards the distant ramparts he walked, leading his men, till he could easily discern the defenders manning it. And all behind him the Unæan army hearing that he had gone, and knowing that these orders would never be countermanded, surged up the hill behind which they were formed and over the brow of it, precipitating themselves in the valley of death.
From the ramparts, Cartwright saw the new movement, saw the swarming numbers.
"The ammunition is running low," said his aide, "there are but a hundred bombs left; perhaps one great discharge will terrify them." Cartwright looked again—the plain was alive with men, and in front his hated foe. Wall was there!—as easy to shoot him down, as to cross his hands.
Cartwright struck his brow. "By God, the man's sincere." A strange emotion swept across his great heart. Despite all his chicanery and schemes, there burnt in him glowing love for Unæa, essentially he loved his land, 'twas only so he found the force that gave him dominance and power.
"He has beaten me," he said, "the credulous fool—he cares for Unæa, let him live." And, springing tohis full height, he waved his arms in token of truce. Wall kept on, reserving his men's fire.
"We will make terms—stop!" cried Cartwright. "I will make no terms," answered Wall.
Cartwright turned round. "It is no use," he said to his followers. "We could but kill a few more."
And so in the sullen silence of the last representatives of the light of reason, Wall entered the fortress. A great shout went up all over the plain—men threw themselves down on the mangled bodies, kissing them, calling them heroes, blessing them, for in all Unæa's wars, never had she so true children as those who had died that day.
At Wall's quarters, after the fall of the arsenal, the principal officers of the army met to discuss the affairs of the day. Despite the sense of personal bereavement, which every one felt at the loss of so many of their comrades, a feeling of profound contentment was in every heart. The piping times of peace had not destroyed the spirit of the army. Those men there stood out as worthy as any of those who had borne the destinies of Unæa in their hands. They felt for Wall the instinctive gratitude which men always feel towards one who brings out, to the bitter end, all they are capable of doing. Added to their appreciation of his inflexible rigidity, the smiting edge which his unyielding determination gave them, was a sense of something extra-ordinary in his personal ascendency. The arsenal had fallen before him. The defenders had quailed before him.
One of the oldest of the veterans, putting his hand on Wall's shoulder, said:
"It's just what your father would have done. He would have sent the last man."
"Brother soldiers," said Wall, "we have done our part faithfully. But there is a limit beyond which no instrument ought to be used by incapable hands. We have escaped the curse of one deliberative assembly, only to fall under that of another. In your name I shall demand that the plain common sense course be adopted. The affairs of the nation must be put into competent hands till this crisis is over."
"Haven't you heard," said Beam, "the assembly discussed and discussed till you took the arsenal. Then they all went as you had told them—perhaps you forget. That speech of yours had a wonderful effect."
Beam's delusion that speeches and speech-making had an influence on the course of events became at times grotesquely wearisome.
"I recognise," he said, "the hand of the Orbian. It must have cost him something, when he had attained the summit of his church's age-long ambition, to relinquish it. Fellow soldiers, I am left with his deputed power. May I use it wisely and render it up as faithfully, when this crisis is past."
Wall's assumption of power was received by his comrades as the logical sequence of events. No dissentient voice was raised; with this complete absence of formality his authority was recognised, and as if it were a mere minor event the discussion passed on to questions of detail which required immediate attention.
"There is a great deal of anxiety felt for the prisoners, general, on the part of their families," said an officer. "I have let it be known that you have put a strong guard over them to protect them from immediate violence, but the question I can't answer is, what are you going to do with them?"
"You can answer that their lives are safe," said Wall.
"Pardon me," said Beam, "but I think you could turn them from enemies into your most devoted adherents."
"How would you improve the occasion?" replied Wall.
"I would speak to them in language something of this kind," said Beam.
"I fail to find any justification for your rebellion. You have no plan for saving Astria, your object, as far as people understand it, is said to have been to keep the holes in the earth in which you want to creep your-selves, and prevent a fair distribution of those miserable refuges. It is hard to draw any distinction between you and ordinary murderers. You must have a trial. But in the present animosity against you it would be difficult to secure a fair one. The provisional government which I direct, has no wish to embarrass itself with that problem. My problem is to organize the State to meet our danger, and your trial can be left to the body into whose hands I hand over the power. What the constitution of that body will be depends largely on how you acquit yourselves in the eyes of the people. Every resource of science is necessary for our task, and the devotion of every inhabitant of Astria."
Beam glowed with enthusiasm.
"A very nice speech," said Wall, "I wish I had your talent, Beam, but what effect would it have? Can you imagine any circumstances under which Cartwright wouldn't plot against me?"
"There are others besides him," said Beam.
"Yes, a good many others, I've had some of their prisoners questioned already, and a number of very wealthy men are implicated. I am going to confiscate the property of every one concerned and let them go as soon as the excitement has died down, their talk against me will be an advertisement to others not to risk losing their money, too. Our chief problem will be to provide funds in the necessary dislocation of all ordinary business, and this source of supply will tide over the first difficulty."
Despite the press of affairs which claimed his attention, Wall found opportunity to make a hurried journey to the town to which Laura had gone. He entered her presence with none of the gladness she had expected to see on his face. How different his words were from what she expected!
"I hear, Laura, you promised to marry Forest," he said. "Is that true?" Laura found no words. What if she had promised to marry Forest? It was in his dire extremity to save him. Why should he mind that? She had no idea that he did not know all the circumstances, as the only person who could have told him she thought would be Forest. She was outraged and indignant, was this his trust and faith in her?
"Yes," she answered, looking at him proudly.
"I could not believe it, till I had heard it from your own lips," he answered. In a haze—in a miserable haze and blight, she saw him depart, a cruel hand clutching her heart making her unable to speak, returning the last look he gave her haughtily and coldly.
|Chapter XII||Contents etc.||Chapter XIV|