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The sun hung in the mists of morning, swollen, blood-red, a symbol of augury, as the artillery brigade pulled out of the village where it had been billeted for the night. At the tail of its long line of slowly moving vehicles marched a compact column of brown-clad infantry. In front moved a squadron of cavalry. The lieutenant-colonel commanding the brigade trotted smartly past the batteries with his staff. Fresh from an interview with the divisional artillery commander, he tried not to look preoccupied and anxious as he met the searching eyes of his men. From an unknown distance a dull thud, irregularly repeated, vibrated through the dense atmosphere. The colonel raised his head sharply to listen. The men in the column exchanged glances full of meaning.

The dull concussions continued, but the column did not increase its pace. The long line of guns and wagons rolled onward at a steady walk, amid a jangle of chains and harness. The gunners on the limbers smoked and talked. Occasionally there was a burst of laughter. It seemed that that ominous thudding was a summons which concerned them not at all. In the fog which drifted in patches across the road its origin seemed enormously remote.

The junior subaltern of the third and last battery in the column heard the sound with less indifference. Each of those muffled shocks came to him like a knock upon his heart. He listened for them anxiously and shuddered, in spite of himself, as the air vibrated on his ears. He needed none to tell him their meaning, novel though the sound was to him. They were the first long shots of the opening battle. As he listened, blindfold as it were in that fog, his animal tissues shrunk at this menace of an untried experience, while at the same time another part of him, the dominant, grew fretfully anxious lest the battery was too far in rear, lest they should be too late. The conflict of these opposing impulses in him made him nervous and fidgety. He wanted to talk to someone, to discuss the situation, to exchange opinions upon a host of possibilities. He looked longingly at the No. 1 of the leading gun of his section as he walked his horse at the side of the leaders and chatted quietly to the driver. The sergeant appeared so calm, so strong with already acquired experience. He felt almost irresistibly impelled to enter into conversation with him—opening phrases kept coming to his tongue—but a shame at the weakness of his own nerve restrained him. He braced himself with a thought of his rank and responsibilities and remained silent. The subaltern was new to war and new to the battery. He had come straight from the "Shop" with a draft of men to replace the wastage of the last battle. He was very young and, until that morning, very proud of himself.

Unexpectedly, the column halted. Why? The subaltern chafed. It was intolerable to idle there upon the road with that urgent summons momentarily shaking the air. The concussions followed one another much more quickly now and came with a sharper sound. They seemed to run all along a wide arc stretched far to right and left in front of him. Occasionally they came in heavy salvos that swallowed the noise of isolated shots. He could see nothing. The fog lay thick upon the road, a white curtain against which danced black specks as he strained his eyes at it. The column stood still and silent. Only a jingling of chains arose as the horses nosed at each other. Presently, as the passengers in a fog-bound train hear the rumble of the other train for which they wait, a sound came to him out of the mist and explained the halt. It was the hollow rhythmic tramp of infantry. The sound increased and then maintained itself at a uniform pitch. In the distance the artillery salvos followed one another ever more quickly, peal on peal of thunder. Still the hollow beat of boots upon the road continued. The subaltern swore to himself. Were they to wait there while the entire army passed? At last the hollow sound diminished, died down, ceased. A sharply uttered order ran down the column. The line of vehicles moved on again.

Fiction & Literature
October 18
Library of Alexandria
The Library of Alexandria