Then, at last, after three months of marching and wading and six days of fighting, they faced the Russian intrenchments at that place beyond Wiju, which some call, to this day, Hamatan, but which is Yujuho. And the Imperial Guards were there. Shijiro Arisuga, if he were there, also, must have observed with joy that the Guards had the right of the line and would reach the Russian intrenchments first--perhaps off toward Kiuliencheng, where the battery of six pieces was still stubbornly firing. He would know that the Guards must give many happy ones their opportunity for the great red death. Perhaps he could, then, see far enough into the future to know that his own regiment would have the advance and be cut to pieces. It would hurl itself straight upon those stubborn guns. They would tear bloody lanes in its ranks. And Hoshiko would be in the forefront of it.
Kuroki's artillery ceased, Zassuliche's ceased, and that stillness which the soldier knows for the prelude to the assault fell. The two shots from the right was the advance. Zanzi raised his hand, and into the smoke raced Hoshiko with the colors. And she did not forget Arisuga's glory--nor his father's--nor that dream of his when the small white death was closing down upon him. She understood that he was there. And not only he.
His ancestors were looking on--the stately samurai. And hers--the humble eta. His father whom she here redeemed. The emperor with his thousand eyes. The myriads of the gods. The army. The world. The heavens!
Yet she forgot nothing which Arisuga had taught her. She went forward with two others. To her right, to her left, were other threes zigzagging onward. But always she was in their front--steadily, carefully, almost to where the battery of six pieces had fixed a point to reach her, as she passed. There her three dropped and dug. And there they rested until the battery lost them. Up then and out again till the gunners once more noted her like a moving lump of earth and corrected their elevation in her favor. And so twice more. At the last she dared to look back. Behind her stretched two lines of trenches. In the nearest a little fringe of rifle muzzles already showed. She had brought these there. Further back was a thin line of blue racing for the first trenches. She had set these going. Still further back the army in vast masses of blue was moving into position from behind the willows on the bank of the river.
And these waited also upon the little sun-flag on which Hoshiko lay. She felt for the first time the soldier's ecstasy, and she understood better and forgave more the latter years of Arisuga.
She and her two had rested, and had made of their chain of holes a shallow trench. They meant to dig this deeper for those who were to come after them. But the two vast armies they had set in motion began to move with accelerated speed toward each other, and they stopped the trench where it was.
There would be no more digging. Any one might see that. The Russian battery had again found them. One of the guns was exploding shrapnel over their heads. The rest were trying for the thin blue line further back. The willows which yet hid the army were too far away. The moment was ripe. Hoshiko threw aside the spade and everything else which might impede action, and went toward the battery.
From behind her rose the hoarse mongolian yell she had learned to love.
There was no need now for concealment. Their own guns had located the battery in her front. A wicked shell had just burst over it. She could hear the song of the fragments. And but three men stood by the gun afterward. The little figure with the sun-flag raced down upon them, firing. It was quite alone. The three gave her a weak, magnanimous cheer and retired, leaving their gun.
Her own men answered from the rear. And even amid the "Banzais" she could hear the wild song of Arisuga. One line clanged in her mad brain:--
Further up the hill a single rapid-fire gun which knew her only as an enemy came into action. It found her at once and riddled her with bullets, as, flag in hand, she leaped into the first of the Russian trenches.
That line was in her last articulate consciousness:--
Perhaps it only remained in her ears--Arisuga's song. But she fancied that she could feel her own warm blood spurting into her own face. Was it as glorious as he had thought it? Or was it only terrible? At that moment, first, she knew. Perhaps she became in that last instant all woman once more. Perhaps she saw something not for mortal eyes. Perhaps she was not as brave with death as she had taught herself to be--gentle Hoshiko! Her lips moaned, piteously, when she ought to have been dead, "Arisuga!"
So that one of the two who had gone forward with her bent hastily and said to the other, with a pleasant smile:--
"He speaks his own name!"
"Nembutsu," answered the other. "Take the flag."
The first one tried, but it held fast in her hand.
"There is no need," he said; "the battle is won. Let him keep it!"
But they covered her face. For the peace, the ecstasy, of a glorious death was not on it! What did she learn in that death-instant?
Others caught at the flag. But her hand held it fast. So that when that dense line of blue which she had started from the willows reached her, at first it parted chivalrously at the flag and passed on either side.
But at last it could not part. Some one trod upon the little color-bearer. Then many. The thick-massed line passed over her. It could not be helped. Some one took the flag from her hand and planted it on the Russian redoubt. At last she seemed but part of the earth beneath their feet, and they who trod on her did not even look down.
Afterward there was a great funeral. The hillside was a temple. The summer blue was its roof. The jagged mountains were its eaves. Evergreen trees were its walls. A torii made of firs was its gate. Blossoming trees held the gohei strips which pledged purity to the august shades which waited near. The altar was of rifles and a soldier's blanket. The offerings were the vapors of the simple grains and flowers, of the country.
Beyond it was the great pyre--not grim, as death is, but more beautiful than that on which Dido perished, adorned, perfumed, with aromatic spring firs and blossoming trees. In the temple, first, the shades of those who had fought with them were worshipped and exalted by the brocaded priests. Then fealty was sworn to those who had just died, and whose shades yet lingered by their greatest incarnation.
Last, Nisshi read the names of those who had died with glory. And first among them was that of Shijiro Arisuga. Then with others they put the blackened, riven little body they had found, upon the pyre, and, lighting it, gave Hoshiko's ashes to the earth, her spirit to oblivion, and Arisuga's name to honor.
It began the next day. Shijiro Arisuga was in the Tokyo newspapers, upon the dead walls, and in the hoarse voices of the people. It was a story like the terrible courage of their old warriors, and they loved it. His medal was hung in a temple. And to-day there is a record of his heroism, on the brass where it can never fade--though Shijiro Arisuga lies dead, unknown, in America.
And that was the fifth time that Shijiro Arisuga must have thought the happiest moment of his life had come.
And now we may speculate a little, before we forget, upon this last of the five occasions. For there may be those who think that Shijiro could not have been happy in seeing what he saw that day. But we are to remember that, then, he had knowledge of many things which he had not on earth. And among these was a more intimate knowing of the heart of Hoshiko. And in that, it seems to me, he ought to have been happiest of all. Yet--who knows?
Perhaps, too, the merciful gods permitted themselves to be deceived into thinking that the Shijiro Arisuga who died at Hamatan is, indeed, the one who died at Jokoji. For the life name is the same. Or perhaps they are only complaisant, and, in the passing years, will permit the people to think that this is so. Who knows?
At all events, Shijiro Arisuga, father and son, will take their way hand in hand from the dark Meido to the heavens.
And for these some one will reverently write a splendid death name upon a golden tablet at a beautiful shrine. And before it will burn always the lights and the incense. Perhaps this happiness will be for gentle Yone. Perhaps the spirit of her who died at Hamatan, in its boundless compassion, will also come and touch the little Yone on the arm as she wanders, lonely, by the tomb of Lord Esas, so that she, too, may have her heart's desire, and only one, she who bought her happiness with an eternity of obliteration, have nothing. For, who knows?
And one wishes it were possible for Shijiro to have defied O-Emma of the hells and to have taken Hoshiko straight from the great red death, past all the lesser heavens, to be forever lost in the bosom of the Lord Buddha in the lotus fields--if the souls of mortals ever fly straight from earth to the last white heaven. But this could not be. There was that eternal penance for over-joy to accomplish.
For Hoshiko there never can be again, in the heavens above or on the earth beneath or the hells below, a being. All her existences--all her thousands of years of life--whether of the earths or the heavens or the hells, were given for Shijiro Arisuga, whom she loved--and who once, for a little while, loved her. Shijiro Arisuga lives, and the father in the son will live on the brass forever.
The Dream-of-a-Star is forever vanished, save for the moment I write here--save for the moment you read here.