The Iron Star

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


The Iron Star

BY PERCEVAL GIBBON

THE farm-house in which the two young officers had established themselves for the night stood on the skirts of a village; the front of it looked across a road to an orchard of cherry-trees all afoam with blossom. It was after supper in the great, black-raftered living-room of the farm, where they had sat at table under the timid, wondering eyes of the farmer and his women-folk, that the pair of them came forth to find a slender moon hanging aloft and the night perfumed like a bride with the scents of spring.

Lieutenant von Marx paused on the doorstep to cut and light a cigar; his junior and subordinate, Lieutenant Schmidt, who was content with a cigarette, leaned against the doorpost to wait for him, gazing out at the scene. His lighted cigarette glowed like a lamp as he drew it, and its tiny illumination showed briefly his blunt young face under the peak of his cap

"Just look at that blossom!" he exclaimed. "It's wonderful. This doesn't look like the seat of a war, does it?"

Lieutenant von Marx uttered a vague sound of agreement. He was sheltering in his cupped hands the flame of a match, whose light escaped between his fingers as from the crevices of a leaky dark-lantern. He lifted it toward his face and became visible in his turn. He was perhaps twenty-six years of age, tall and thin, the right shape of man for a tunic and sword-belt. The light of the match glanced upon his rather long, serious countenance, concentrated frowningly upon the business of accurately kindling the cigar. Strong, mobile brows, thin, fastidious nose, and lips reserved and sensitive sprang into view, were colored ruddily for an instant, and were merged in the dark again as he dropped the match and raised his head. It was like seeing a personality created and annihilated in the same instant.

"We'll walk round and visit the sentries," he said, settling his belt above his hips as he moved from the door.

"Very good, sir," replied Lieutenant Schmidt, formally, falling into step at his side.

About them, as they went along the road, the orchards were festal with promise under the moon. It was as Lieutenant Schmidt had said; the great war in which their country was engaged sounded here no echo. It had flowed over the borders like a pestilence, but hither it had not come. Their sixty men and their twelve wagons of explosives, with which they were sent to feel their way toward some projected scene of action, were the first shapes of war which the village had seen. The wagons were parked and guarded in a straw-yard; the horses were stabled in a barn; the men were camped about their fires in a pasture-field. They had come in the evening, unannounced and inexplicable, and they would be gone in the morning; they were but brief visitors to these orchards exultant with blossom which made a tender rampart about the village.

"Wonderful!" Lieutenant Schmidt was exclaiming, still intent upon the blossoms which hung, like low clouds, above them on either side of the road. "It is like a scene in a theater; and any day now we may come up with the fighting-line. To-morrow, perhaps—straight from all this to the sound of the guns! Queer, isn't it?"

"Yes." Lieutenant von Marx glanced absently up at the trees. Beyond them a ruddy light shivered against the dark sky from his men's camp-fires. "Yes; we ought to be in touch with the general soon. And then—"

"Then for the real thing," said Schmidt.

Lieutenant Schmidt had fought with his regiment in the first battle of the campaign, had been cleanly shot in the leg there, and was only now returning to service. Lieutenant von Marx, on the other hand, had yet to go under fire for the first time. He had been at work at the base, converting able-bodied farmhands into infantry; it was by way of recognition for his real usefulness that he was now sent forward to bear a part in the last critical phase of the war.

"The real thing," he repeated now. He had a fashion of deliberate speech. "I suppose we're lucky. My father was a general when he died, but he'd never seen service."

"Lucky! I should think so!" Schmidt had not a doubt of it. "Why, when the war started, my battalion was under fire for eleven hours the first day. We lost over two hundred men before they let us move."

"Yes." Von Marx glanced sideways at him, an erect and boyish figure in the darkness. "And you felt you were lucky to be in it—at the time, I mean?"

"Of course I did." Schmidt did not quite understand. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It was simply maddening to get hit next day and be out of it all."

He had been shot while standing at his full height on the top of a bank, behind which his men were taking cover from a hot fire, to observe the course of the fight through his field-glasses. Afterward, being no longer able to stand, he had remained quietly sitting in the same place till his sergeant had pulled him down into safety. There had been neither bravado nor heroism in it; he belonged to that fear-callous type of natural soldier which in modern war is always necessary and never valuable. He was the last man to question the quality of the luck which took him into action, even though it abandoned him there. Von Marx, realizing this, made a sound like a sigh and walked on in silence.

A sentry challenged them at the entry to the village, stepping suddenly out of the shadow at the roadside to the pale moonlight, a stumpy, overcoated figure bristling watchfully. At their reply he became abruptly a respectful automaton, standing rigidly to attention while he recited his orders in a toneless gabble, like a child hurrying through a lesson. He was perhaps ten years older than Von Marx, with a rough, simple face and a thick, reddish mustache. While he repeated his orders his eyes, showing the whites, were fixed as though in a stupor of deference and humility on his officer's face.

P355, Harper's Magazine 1913--The Iron Star.jpg

"Keep a good lookout," Von Marx bade him, perfunctorily, as he moved on. "Curious," he remarked to Schmidt, when they had passed from the man's hearing to the single street of the village between the silent, lighted houses. "That man positively quakes at the sight of an officer, but he isn't a coward. He'll fight all right."

"Oh, he'll fight all right," agreed Schmidt, cheerfully. "That kind always does. Give him an order—fire, charge, retire, or whatever it is—and he carries it out like a sort of clumsy machine. I fancy a man's got to have a certain amount of imagination in order to be a coward."

"You've seen that, too?" asked Von Marx, quickly.

"Well—" Schmidt hesitated. "I'm not going to mention any names," he said, "but that day I was hit there was a fellow, an officer, who went all to bits during the first hour. He could hardly walk, by Jove! Then—it was a funny thing—just as we were opening out he got stung across the forearm by a bullet. Not properly hit; only the skin cut open. I saw him jump and clutch at his arm, and his color-sergeant ran forward and took hold of him. He turned and swore at him, and inside of a minute he was taking his company along as smartly as if he'd been under fire all his life. The bullet-graze seemed to work like a nip of brandy. Queer, wasn't it?"

"No," said Von Marx. "That wasn't queer at all. I can understand that. He wasn't a coward; he only needed to get his nerves—focused."

"Was that it?" said Schmidt, with no ironic intention. He had a high respect for Von Marx's intellect, and particularly for his vocabulary. "Get his nerves focused, you said? It's an idea."

They were nearing the straw-yard in which their wagons of shell and powder were parked. Von Marx slowed his pace in order to speak his thought before the challenge of the sentry on guard over them could interrupt him.

"It isn't every man," he said, "who lives in such a way that he is ready at any instant to be a hero. Some of us are like violins; we need to be tuned before we can be played on. You're like a bugle, Schmidt; you can't make music, but you can make a useful noise, and you're always ready."

Schmidt shrugged in some embarrassment, doubtful whether he was being praised or criticized. "Some buglers can play very good music," he remarked, helplessly.

From the gate of the straw-yard a harsh voice challenged them sharply.

From the wagons they passed to the field in which the men were camped, their blankets spread on the ground between the big fires, which were now great, glowing heaps of wood-ash, lighting the place with a lurid glamour and throwing red gleams on the blossom of the surrounding orchards. To Von Marx, in the mood which governed him, there was a quality in the scene that disturbed him like a presentiment. The prostrate forms of his men asleep under the blank sky, the hush of the place in which they were, the muffled figure of a sentry beyond, pacing slowly to and fro, the angry radiance of the fires that glowed like a conflagration, made up a picture of strong colors and violent suggestions that set his imagination racing. He knew he had yet many miles to go before he came up with the general to whom he was directed; that danger of surprise lay many miles farther than that; that he and his command were a minute cog in a vast operation which must bring the war to an end within the next few weeks. He knew all this; and yet the little camp had somehow so much the look of "the real thing" that he made haste to pass beyond it to bring his fancies into order. "We'll cut across here," he said, presently, to Schmidt at the gate of an orchard. "There's a sentry stationed on the road at the other side; no need to go round."

"Very good, sir," agreed Schmidt, promptly. "Gate's locked, it seems. However—"

He vaulted it neatly and Von Marx followed, and they went forward under the trees. Under their feet the ground was grassed, so that after the road their footfalls seemed noiseless. Over them the heaped and heavy blossom made a roof that shut out the moonlight; between the spaced trunks they went as through long, shadowy cloisters, with only the meager light beyond to guide them on their way. The scent of earth and leaves was like a presence in the place; a stir of wind shook the branches so that they rustled and petals of blossom rained on them, touching their faces like the ghosts of snowflakes.

"Wonderful!" ejaculated Schmidt, a few paces in the rear.

"What are you stopping for?" asked Von Marx

"Light a cigarette," was the answer. Von Marx walked on slowly. The place, the scents, the beauty of it all, relaxed the burden on his mind. It was a thing one could feel without thinking about, like love or pain. It undid for the moment the cares of his responsibility and of the ordeal toward which each day's march brought him nearer. He bent his head to clear a branch that stretched before him like a white-draped arm, and heard behind him the scrape and splutter of Schmidt's match.

The orchard, under its canopy of blossom, was like a vault, in which the little flame of the match, like a candle in a cathedral, spread a wide and vague light, complex with heavy shadows of trunks and branches. Von Marx, still strolling forward, took in absently the effect of it, unreal like a scene in a theater, yet all arresting and delicately beautiful. It reminded him of something seen or suggested in some opera; he was idly seeking in his memory for it, when one among many of the nearer shadows which swayed and jerked in the fitful light moved strangely.

He stopped in mid-stride, startled. Behind him the match went out. "Damn!" said Schmidt, and his match-box rattled again in his hands. To Von Marx, rooted to his place in the returned darkness, it seemed that near him there was a movement, a shifting of shapes unseen who trod on the soft turf with infinite precaution. The blood tingled suddenly in his face; all that in him was susceptible to the gruesome, to fear of furtive dangers wearing the mask of the night, shrank and failed him. With an awkward, slow motion he passed his right hand across to feel for the hilt of his sword, and he was frozen to immobility again by a low voice that spoke at his side.

"Keep quite quiet!" it said, very distinctly, in his own tongue, and he was aware that something hung in the air close to his face. Then Schmidt's second match crackled and flamed, and he saw what it was.

A man as tall as himself, in stained uniform, with a thin, unshaven face, was close to him, keeping Von Marx between himself and Schmidt. His right hand held a heavy revolver; the left he put forward now, so cautiously that he seemed to grope, and gripped Von Marx by the upper arm.

He could not move; a paralysis of his will held him; there was nothing in him to equal the menace of the big, black revolver and the tense, strong face of its owner. He was aware that around him there were other shapes, men in hiding behind trees, dark, rigid forms constrained in the abrupt attitudes in which the match-light had caught them. And suddenly, with an utter lucidity, the schooled soldier in the marrow of him perceived the meaning of it all. These were a party of the enemy, a forlorn hope which had whipped round the flank of the army and was aiming at the great magazine whence his twelve wagons of ammunition had been despatched. It was a frantic guess to account for frantic facts, and he knew it was true. He could not, for all he strove to do so, take his fascinated eyes away from the revolver that pointed so steadily at his face; but at the edge of his field of vision he saw the dim figures about him moving, edging and stealing forward as silently as the shadows that aided them—bent shapes of dread and danger advancing toward Schmidt.

He would have shouted. He labored to gather his breath mightily and let it forth in a warning roar, straight into the muzzle of the weapon. He had the will, even the courage to do it—everything but the mere physical force. The revolver never wavered; and behind it the hard, desperate face was as steady and pitiless as iron.

"See the light on this blossom," came the cheerful, foolish voice of Schmidt. "Wonderf—"

It broke off. He had seen. The light vanished. In the second of silence that followed, Von Marx had time, and ample time, to wonder drearily just how much he had seen and comprehended. Then there was a sound like a sob and a rasp of metal on metal, as if Schmidt had dragged out his sword.

The man who held Von Marx by the arm cried aloud suddenly. "Get him!" he shouted, and forthwith the place was alive with the voice of men moving among and against the trees. Some one fell close by and swore venomously. "Shoot, shoot!" called some one else. "Shut up!" shouted Von Marx's captor.

Schmidt, then, had not stood to fight. He had run, drawn sword and all, back through the orchard and over the locked gate and into the village.

"Now, move toward the gate," said his captor, curtly. "Go carefully, mind! And remember I've got this."

"This" was the revolver with which he pointed the way. Von Marx turned and began to walk; he found a curious numbness in his legs. Once he halted, and in the same instant the hard muzzle came up against his spine. Another instant and he could have turned and died; it wanted no more than an instant of freedom, of detachment from the tensity of the situation; but that instant was not to be had. Under the compulsion of the revolver he climbed the gate and waited in the middle of the road with his back turned while his captor climbed it after him. It was then that he heard the shots—first two or three, then a single one, then a brisk tattoo of them.

The man with the revolver was beside him.

"That accounts for your party, I'm afraid," he said. "A pity, but it had to be done. Walk straight down toward the village, please!"

It was about a hundred yards farther on that they came upon the body of a man in the road, stark in the moonlight. Von Marx, going past, saw him clearly. He lay on his back, with his arms stretched out and his hands seeming to clutch at the earth as though he clung to it for a last support and refuge. His upturned face, thin and drawn, snatched at the feelings like a cry for help; this man had died at his post. His rifle, with its bayonet fixed, lay just beyond his right hand; it had not fallen till he fell.

"Go on," commanded the man with the revolver. "Go straight on. But—what's that?"

There rose, across a cape of orchard, first a glare of fiery light, then a peak of flame itself—a soaring, extravagant uprush of fire toward the vacant sky.

"They've—damn them!" cried his captor—"they've fired a house, the fools. Get on, you! Quick now, or I'll—"

Von Marx turned on him. He made no attempt to draw his useless sword. He knew whence the fire came. It was from the straw-yard where the wagons were parked, with their freight of shells and powder. Schmidt had not run for nothing: he had saved the ammunition from capture.

"Shoot, then," he cried. "Shoot and be done with it. You've failed, you fool! You're beaten, you're beaten, you're—"

The earth and the air and the sky detonated into red chaos as the twelve wagon-loads of high explosives blew up. He felt himself spun backward like a cork in an eddy of water and knew that he had been thrown to the ground with a jar. Dimly through his failing consciousness he told himself that he was shot, wounded, dying. To all his senses came a swift bitterness. Then the darkness swooped upon him and he knew nothing more. He lay in the road, with his right arm across his body, as though in an effort to draw the sword he had never used. So he was still lying when he was found.

It was nearly two whole days later that he stirred painfully and knew again that he was alive and that the world was still about him. The first part of it which he saw was a stained ceiling directly above him. Faintly he began to remember and to wonder, without eagerness, how it was that he had died under the sky and was now resurrected beneath a roof.

"Well?"

He rolled his weak eyes slowly to look at a man who stood at the side of his bed, a spectacled and bearded army surgeon, who surveyed him with a smile.

"So you've come round at last?" said the doctor. "Good! Don't try to talk just yet, though. You'll feel more up to it presently."

His plump, deft fingers were feeling Von Marx's brow under the bandage that circled it and trying his pulse. The injured man moved his dry lips.

"Where—?" he managed to breathe.

"Hush!" urged the doctor. "You're in a farm-house; we carried you here. It was the only house in the village you left standing. You'll feel better presently."

Von Marx tried to speak again, but the doctor put a cup to his lips. Each minute that passed left his mind more supple, and there was a word the doctor had used that set his blood moving. "The only house in the village you left standing," the doctor had said. Fearfully, as one puts one's hand upon a wound, he sent his memory back to the events of that dire evening, and at once his mind was perplexed with images, vivid and shameful—Schmidt's young, careless face seen in the glow of a cigarette, the moonlight on the piled cherry-blossom of the orchards, the thin, unshaven, remorseless face of his captor, with its steel-trap mouth. To what strange shape had the face of the facts changed while he lay unconscious?

He heard the doctor's voice at the door, speaking to some one outside.

"Yes, he's doing very well," the doctor was saying. "I'd rather he didn't talk to-day, but you can talk to him. Not too long, of course."

"I'll be careful," was the answer, as the new-comer entered the room, treading cautiously on the boards in an effort to keep his spurs from jingling. Von Marx looked up slowly at the tall man, wearing the insignia of a colonel on the staff, who stood at the foot of his bed.

"Glad you're better," said the tall colonel. "The general was quite anxious to know. Not in much pain, I hope?"

"No," breathed Von Marx. The doctor hushed him at once.

"Sorry," said the colonel. "I didn't really mean to ask you a question—though of course we're all very eager to hear what you've got to tell. Not that there's much we don't know, I fancy."

He smiled. He was a large man, with florid good looks and a certain ease of gesture and phrase. He was ornamental and good-natured, a military shop-walker.

He saw that Von Marx's face stiffened at his last words, and took it for a sign of surprise.

"Oh, the situation was fairly clear," he said, with a wave of his large, white hand. "We know what time you left your quarters, and every one for a hundred miles round knows what time you blew the wagons up. The rest we could piece out by going over the ground."

Von Marx groaned. "The general knows—" he murmured.

"Don't talk," said the big colonel. "The general knows everything," he said, reassuringly. "He's delighted; simply delighted. According to him, your fireworks made all the difference between a disaster and a victory. He told us last night at dinner—we're in the farm-house where you were, you know—that a man who could do what you did—blow up half his own men without hesitating when the need arose—was a man worthy of the Iron Star. It's General Kraft, you know."

Von Marx gazed at him dumbly, unable so quickly to take the measure of the situation.

"I shouldn't wonder if he gave you the star himself," the colonel said, nodding to give emphasis to his words. "I know he's thinking about it."

It was all that was needed to complete the bizarre quality of the affair. The Iron Star is not among those decorations which kings give to kings, like the Black Eagle or the Golden Fleece; it has to be earned. Courage and prowess alone have no claim to it; the man who would wear it must have found the occasion to do more than his duty and venture more than his life. By taking it he accepts an obligation of service and high valor; he acknowledges a debt to his country of the best that is in him to give. Thereafter none may challenge him to a duel; he cannot be called on in a court of law to confirm his word by an oath; his courage and his honor are proven for all time. And of this order General Kraft was chief and senior.

The colonel babbled a while further, easily and amicably, telling how the party which had attacked Von Marx was only the advance-guard of a large body which had found its way round the flank of the army, and how it had been routed when the explosion of the wagons shouted like a trumpet across the valleys to the unwitting brigades. Von Marx hardly heard him; the little star of dull iron was suddenly a thing of more appalling menace than the revolver which had daunted him in the gloom of the orchard. But there was the difference that with the revolver he had been taken by surprise, ambushed, given no time to summon his manhood.

The colonel took his leave at last. "Till to-morrow," he cried, genially. "I expect the general will come round then. I wish I were you."

His spurs rang a tinkling accompaniment to the showy geniality of his voice; he swung out at his long-legged cavalryman's stride, going to tell the general that the hero was well enough to be made much of. Fools were made to be the scene-shifters of fate. Behind him Von Marx, who was no fool, closed his eyes and lay still. He was making the most of his time, that he might be ready for the general.

Several times during the day visitors came to the door, to be received by the doctor, bidden to silence, and suffered to take a brief look at the patient. They were officers of General Kraft's division, which was now lying upon the scarred and defaced country like a locust swarm. He heard them whispering; the idea that they were looking upon a man whose fanatic sense of duty had enabled him to blow half his own detachment to atoms had captured their imaginations; he heard, whispered adjectives of wonder, and more than once the words "Iron Star." And once, limping on a stick, with bandages about his scorched face, there came one of his own corporals, a survivor of that night of horrors. Upon him Von Marx rolled his slow, despairing eyes in scrutiny. It was plain the man knew nothing; he had not been in the straw-yard when Schmidt fired it, or he would have been dead. His honest, unintelligent eyes were frank between his bandages; as he saw Von Marx look toward him he saluted clumsily.

General Kraft, as the tall colonel had previously promised, came the following morning, stamping his way up the narrow, bare stairs with half a dozen big. clean staff-officers at his heels. The plump doctor stood beside the door saluting; as his hand flew up, Yon Marx raised himself on his pillows. The moment was at hand and he was ready for it. The general came in, a spare man, with a gray, mobile face like a clever ape, and alert, mocking eyes under heavy brows. Behind him, his big officers crowded the little, low-ceilinged bedroom, making a foil of mere largeness and physical strength to his pungent and forcible personality. He cocked a swift, searching eye at the young man on the bed; it somehow expressed, in the same glance, both indulgence and severity.

"Ah, Lieutenant!" he barked, in his shrill, grating voice. "Getting better, aren't you? Of course you are. Fine thing you did the other night. Very fine thing!"

There was malice in the manner in which he said it; if he had wished to jeer, to insult, he could not have spoken it otherwise. Von Marx glanced toward the staff-officers, wondering for a moment if he had been forestalled and the whole shameful thing discovered without his help. But they knew nothing: for them, General Kraft was speaking in his ordinary tones; he was famous for these and for the rasp of his manner.

"General," began Von Marx.

"Hey!" interrupted the general. "You oughtn't to talk, you know." He jerked his impish old face round toward the doctor. "Bad for him to talk, isn't it? Of course it is. There, you see," to Von Marx again; "the worst thing you can do is to talk. It might—oh, it might get you into all sorts of trouble."

It was unmistakable—he knew! Von Marx, gazing at him helplessly, felt a horror of his cunning and his glee. He had found it all out and was relishing it, chewing the cud of it and finding it savory.

"I must tell you—" he tried again.

"Silence!" barked the general, sharply. "My orders, Lieutenant. You are not to speak."

There was a pause; the general, with one hand resting on the rail of the bed, was fidgeting with the other among the medals and decorations upon the breast of his gray tunic. Their eyes met; both were steady.

"It has been easy," began the general, "to read the story of your deed, and what was lacking in the evidence was supplied by the accounts of the survivors and the prisoners." His gaze was a warning now; the malice had gone out of it. As clearly as though he had spoken in words, it told Von Marx that he had a part to play, a role to fulfil, by keeping silent.

Von Marx lay still, watching him, bewildered and daunted. The general gave him a slow glare and half turned toward his staff officers so as to include them in his audience. He began to speak deliberately, pausing to choose words, so that his little speech gave to the affair the air of a ceremony. The tall, uniformed men, spruce and comely, drew themselves up formally to hear him; he made of the little, plain chamber a council-room.

"Gentlemen," he said, "a man owes to his country what he has—the brave their courage, the strong their strength—and those who have most owe the largest debt. The most heavily indebted of all are those who owe to their fatherland not merely service in the field, but service, devotion, sacrifice, at all hours, while life remains in them. Such men are few; we know them first by some such deed as this which Lieutenant von Marx has accomplished; we distinguish them thereafter by—this token!"

His restless fingers came away from his breast and he held up before them, in his bony, red hand, the little five-pointed star of dull iron, dangling by its black ribbon. There was an instant of silence. Then he went about the corner of the bed.

"Take it," he said to Von Marx. "Take it. You must pin it on yourself; it is the rule. Take it, I tell you."

Lender the compulsion of his eyes and voice. Von Marx received it in his open hand. He was aghast; the thing he had intended to prevent was happening in spite of him.

"I must speak," he cried, suddenly. "I will speak. This star—I can't—"

The general interrupted him in his harshest voice. He looked across at his officers.

"Then," he said, "in that case you will wait for me below, gentlemen."

The door closed behind them, their spurred boots were noisy on the stairs, and Yon Marx was alone with the general. The Iron Star lay yet in his hand; with a shudder he dropped it on the counterpane. The general, watching him with pursed lips, nodded to himself.

"Well," he said. "You want to tell me what you were doing when the straw-yard was fired, eh? Isn't that it? By the way"—he cocked his bright and secret eye inquisitively,—"who did set the straw on fire?"

Von Marx gaped helplessly.

"Schmidt, I suppose?" went on the general. "Poor Schmidt! I saw him shot in our first action. A mere bulldog of a man; no soldier at all. However, he's been some use at last."

"Then," cried Yon Marx, "you know! You know everything?"

The general nodded. "I know everything," he said, steadily.

"Ah, but you don't—you can't," cried the younger man. He flung himself up on his elbow. "It was in an orchard that it began," he said, his words tumbling over one another in his eagerness to tell the whole miserable story and fulfil his purpose. "Schmidt had lingered behind to light a cigarette. One of the enemy—with a revolver—" He paused.

"I know, I know," said the general. "That man wasn't dead when we got here, and I spoke to him before he died. I know it all."

"But"—Von Marx touched the Iron Star where it lay on the counterpane—"but this! If you know all—" He stopped.

The general frowned thoughtfully, put his hands behind him, and walked away to the foot of the bed.

"Ah," he said, "I must make you understand—yes! The star, what is it? To be brave alone is not enough to win it; we have brave men in plenty. And to be a great soldier is not enough. It goes to those who have done more than our country can ask of its sons—men who are to heroes what apostles are to priests. To win it a man must be inhuman—and there are no such men. It never has been won; it never will be."

His eyes were empty now of mockery; he was grave, simple, almost reverent.

"It carries an obligation," he went on; "the obligation to serve whole-heartedly, with every faculty of mind and body, till you have expiated your dishonor. You will never be able to rest till you have done it; the star won't let you. Each time you receive the salute of honor you will feel it sting you like a whip. You can never be a coward again; you will not dare. Pin it on your breast, Yon Marx; that is the first step, and nobody can do it for you. Pin it on!"

"Ah!" The sound was almost a sob. Fumbling with nerveless fingers, Von Marx found the star and fastened it on his shirt over his heart. The pin, as he thrust it through, pricked him sharply.

The general came again to his bedside.

"Welcome," he said, holding out his hand. "Welcome to the order. There were thirty-two of us; you make the thirty-third. Thirty-two men will know the truth about what you have done, therefore. They will understand."

"Will they?" asked Von Marx.

The general nodded again. "Yes," he said. "For each of them gained the star in the same way. I, too—yes; I, too! There is no other way."

His hand was still outstretched, in comradeship and kindness. Von Marx took it, wondering.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1926, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.