Death and the Child by Stephen Crane
The peasants who were streaming down the mountain trail had in their
sharp terror evidently lost their ability to count. The cattle and
the huge round bundles seemed to suffice to the minds of the crowd
if there were now two in each case where there had been three. This
brown stream poured on with a constant wastage of goods and beasts.
A goat fell behind to scout the dried grass and its owner, howling,
flogging his donkeys, passed far ahead. A colt, suddenly frightened,
made a stumbling charge up the hill-side. The expenditure was always
profligate and always unnamed, unnoted. It was as if fear was a river,
and this horde had simply been caught in the torrent, man tumbling
over beast, beast over man, as helpless in it as the logs that fall
and shoulder grindingly through the gorges of a lumber country. It
was a freshet that might sear the face of the tall quiet mountain; it
might draw a livid line across the land, this downpour of fear with
a thousand homes adrift in the current—men, women, babes, animals.
From it there arose a constant babble of tongues, shrill, broken, and
sometimes choking as from men drowning. Many made gestures, painting
their agonies on the air with fingers that twirled swiftly.
The blue bay with its pointed ships and the white town lay below them,
distant, flat, serene. There was upon this vista a peace that a bird
knows when high in the air it surveys the world, a great calm thing
rolling noiselessly toward the end of the mystery. Here on the height
one felt the existence of the universe scornfully defining the pain
in ten thousand minds. The sky was an arch of stolid sapphire. Even
to the mountains raising their mighty shapes from the valley, this
headlong rush of the fugitives was too minute. The sea, the sky, and
the hills combined in their grandeur to term this misery inconsequent.
Then too it sometimes happened that a face seen as it passed on the
flood reflected curiously the spirit of them all and still more. One
saw then a woman of the opinion of the vaults above the clouds. When
a child cried it cried always because of some adjacent misfortune,
some discomfort of a pack-saddle or rudeness of an encircling arm. In
the dismal melody of this flight there were often sounding chords of
apathy. Into these preoccupied countenances, one felt that needles
could be thrust without purchasing a scream. The trail wound here and
there as the sheep had willed in the making of it.
Although this throng seemed to prove that the whole of humanity was
fleeing in one direction—with every tie severed that binds us to the
soil—a young man was walking rapidly up the mountain, hastening to
a side of the path from time to time to avoid some particularly wide
rush of people and cattle. He looked at everything in agitation and
pity. Frequently he called admonitions to maniacal fugitives, and at
other moments he exchanged strange stares with the imperturbable ones.
They seemed to him to wear merely the expressions of so many boulders
rolling down the hill. He exhibited wonder and awe with his pitying
Turning once toward the rear, he saw a man in the uniform of a
lieutenant of infantry marching the same way. He waited then,
subconsciously elate at a prospect of being able to make into words
the emotion which heretofore had only been expressed in the flash of
eyes and sensitive movements of his flexible mouth. He spoke to the
officer in rapid French, waving his arms wildly, and often pointing
with a dramatic finger. "Ah, this is too cruel, too cruel, too cruel.
Is it not? I did not think it would be as bad as this. I did not
think—God's mercy—I did not think at all. And yet I am a Greek. Or at
least my father was a Greek. I did not come here to fight. I am really
a correspondent, you see? I was to write for an Italian paper. I have
been educated in Italy. I have spent nearly all my life in Italy. At
the schools and universities! I knew nothing of war! I was a student—a
student. I came here merely because my father was a Greek, and for his
sake I thought of Greece—I loved Greece. But I did not dream——"
He paused, breathing heavily. His eyes glistened from that soft
overflow which comes on occasion to the glance of a young woman.
Eager, passionate, profoundly moved, his first words, while facing
the procession of fugitives, had been an active definition of his own
dimension, his personal relation to men, geography, life. Throughout he
had preserved the fiery dignity of a tragedian.
The officer's manner at once deferred to this outburst. "Yes," he said,
polite but mournful, "these poor people! These poor people! I do not
know what is to become of these poor people."
The young man declaimed again. "I had no dream—I had no dream that it
would be like this! This is too cruel! Too cruel! Now I want to be a
soldier. Now I want to fight. Now I want to do battle for the land of
my father." He made a sweeping gesture into the north-west.
The officer was also a young man, but he was very bronzed and steady.
Above his high military collar of crimson cloth with one silver star
upon it, appeared a profile stern, quiet, and confident, respecting
fate, fearing only opinion. His clothes were covered with dust; the
only bright spot was the flame of the crimson collar. At the violent
cries of his companion he smiled as if to himself, meanwhile keeping
his eyes fixed in a glance ahead.
From a land toward which their faces were bent came a continuous
boom of artillery fire. It was sounding in regular measures like the
beating of a colossal clock, a clock that was counting the seconds in
the lives of the stars, and men had time to die between the ticks.
Solemn, oracular, inexorable, the great seconds tolled over the hills
as if God fronted this dial rimmed by the horizon. The soldier and
the correspondent found themselves silent. The latter in particular
was sunk in a great mournfulness, as if he had resolved willy-nilly
to swing to the bottom of the abyss where dwell secrets of his kind,
and had learned beforehand that all to be met there was cruelty
and hopelessness. A strap of his bright new leather leggings came
unfastened, and he bowed over it slowly, impressively, as one bending
over the grave of a child.
Then suddenly, the reverberations mingled until one could not separate
an explosion from another, and into the hubbub came the drawling sound
of a leisurely musketry fire. Instantly, for some reason of cadence,
the noise was irritating, silly, infantile. This uproar was childish.
It forced the nerves to object, to protest against this racket which
was as idle as the din of a lad with a drum.
The lieutenant lifted his finger and pointed. He spoke in vexed
tones, as if he held the other man personally responsible for the
noise. "Well, there!" he said. "If you wish for war you now have an
The correspondent raised himself upon his toes. He tapped his chest
with gloomy pride. "Yes! There is war! There is the war I wish to
enter. I fling myself in. I am a Greek, a Greek, you understand. I wish
to fight for my country. You know the way. Lead me. I offer myself."
Struck by a sudden thought he brought a case from his pocket, and
extracting a card handed it to the officer with a bow. "My name is
Peza," he said simply.
A strange smile passed over the soldier's face. There was pity and
pride—the vanity of experience—and contempt in it. "Very well," he
said, returning the bow. "If my company is in the middle of the fight
I shall be glad for the honour of your companionship. If my company is
not in the middle of the fight—I will make other arrangements for you."
Peza bowed once more, very stiffly, and correctly spoke his thanks.
On the edge of what he took to be a great venture toward death, he
discovered that he was annoyed at something in the lieutenant's tone.
Things immediately assumed new and extraordinary proportions. The
battle, the great carnival of woe, was sunk at once to an equation with
a vexation by a stranger. He wanted to ask the lieutenant what was his
meaning. He bowed again majestically; the lieutenant bowed. They flung
a shadow of manners, of capering tinsel ceremony across a land that
groaned, and it satisfied something within themselves completely.
In the meantime, the river of fleeing villagers had changed to simply
a last dropping of belated creatures, who fled past stammering and
flinging their hands high. The two men had come to the top of the great
hill. Before them was a green plain as level as an inland sea. It swept
northward, and merged finally into a length of silvery mist. Upon the
near part of this plain, and upon two grey treeless mountains at the
side of it, were little black lines from which floated slanting sheets
of smoke. It was not a battle to the nerves. One could survey it with
equanimity, as if it were a tea-table; but upon Peza's mind it struck a
loud clanging blow. It was war. Edified, aghast, triumphant, he paused
suddenly, his lips apart. He remembered the pageants of carnage that
had marched through the dreams of his childhood. Love he knew that he
had confronted, alone, isolated, wondering, an individual, an atom
taking the hand of a titanic principle. But, like the faintest breeze
on his forehead, he felt here the vibration from the hearts of forty
The lieutenant's nostrils were moving. "I must go at once," he said. "I
must go at once."
"I will go with you wherever you go," shouted Peza loudly.
A primitive track wound down the side of the mountain, and in their
rush they bounded from here to there, choosing risks which in the
ordinary caution of man would surely have seemed of remarkable danger.
The ardour of the correspondent surpassed the full energy of the
soldier. Several times he turned and shouted, "Come on! Come on!"
At the foot of the path they came to a wide road, which extended
toward the battle in a yellow and straight line. Some men were
trudging wearily to the rear. They were without rifles; their clumsy
uniforms were dirty and all awry. They turned eyes dully aglow with
fever upon the pair striding toward the battle. Others were bandaged
with the triangular kerchief upon which one could still see through
bloodstains the little explanatory pictures illustrating the ways to
bind various wounds. "Fig. 1."—"Fig. 2."—"Fig. 7." Mingled with
the pacing soldiers were peasants, indifferent, capable of smiling,
gibbering about the battle, which was to them an ulterior drama. A man
was leading a string of three donkeys to the rear, and at intervals
he was accosted by wounded or fevered soldiers, from whom he defended
his animals with ape-like cries and mad gesticulation. After much
chattering they usually subsided gloomily, and allowed him to go with
his sleek little beasts unburdened. Finally he encountered a soldier
who walked slowly with the assistance of a staff. His head was bound
with a wide bandage, grimey from blood and mud. He made application to
the peasant, and immediately they were involved in a hideous Levantine
discussion. The peasant whined and clamoured, sometimes spitting like
a kitten. The wounded soldier jawed on thunderously, his great hands
stretched in claw-like graspings over the peasant's head. Once he
raised his staff and made threat with it. Then suddenly the row was at
an end. The other sick men saw their comrade mount the leading donkey
and at once begin to drum with his heels. None attempted to gain the
backs of the remaining animals. They gazed after them dully. Finally
they saw the caravan outlined for a moment against the sky. The soldier
was still waving his arms passionately, having it out with the peasant.
Peza was alive with despair for these men who looked at him with such
doleful, quiet eyes. "Ah, my God!" he cried to the lieutenant, "these
poor souls! These poor souls!"
The officer faced about angrily. "If you are coming with me there is
no time for this." Peza obeyed instantly and with a sudden meekness. In
the moment some portion of egotism left him, and he modestly wondered
if the universe took cognizance of him to an important degree. This
theatre for slaughter, built by the inscrutable needs of the earth, was
an enormous affair, and he reflected that the accidental destruction of
an individual, Peza by name, would perhaps be nothing at all.
With the lieutenant he was soon walking along behind a series of little
crescent-shape trenches, in which were soldiers, tranquilly interested,
gossiping with the hum of a tea-party. Although these men were not at
this time under fire, he concluded that they were fabulously brave.
Else they would not be so comfortable, so at home in their sticky brown
trenches. They were certain to be heavily attacked before the day was
old. The universities had not taught him to understand this attitude.
At the passing of the young man in very nice tweed, with his new
leggings, his new white helmet, his new field-glass case, his new
revolver holster, the soiled soldiers turned with the same curiosity
which a being in strange garb meets at the corners of streets. He might
as well have been promenading a populous avenue. The soldiers volubly
discussed his identity.
To Peza there was something awful in the absolute familiarity of each
tone, expression, gesture. These men, menaced with battle, displayed
the curiosity of the café. Then, on the verge of his great encounter
toward death, he found himself extremely embarrassed, composing his
face with difficulty, wondering what to do with his hands, like a gawk
at a levée.
He felt ridiculous, and also he felt awed, aghast, at these men who
could turn their faces from the ominous front and debate his clothes,
his business. There was an element which was new born into his theory
of war. He was not averse to the brisk pace at which the lieutenant
moved along the line.
The roar of fighting was always in Peza's ears. It came from some short
hills ahead and to the left. The road curved suddenly and entered a
wood. The trees stretched their luxuriant and graceful branches over
grassy slopes. A breeze made all this verdure gently rustle and speak
in long silken sighs. Absorbed in listening to the hurricane racket
from the front, he still remembered that these trees were growing, the
grass-blades were extending according to their process. He inhaled a
deep breath of moisture and fragrance from the grove, a wet odour which
expressed all the opulent fecundity of unmoved nature, marching on with
her million plans for multiple life, multiple death.
Further on, they came to a place where the Turkish shells were landing.
There was a long hurtling sound in the air, and then one had sight of a
shell. To Peza it was of the conical missiles which friendly officers
had displayed to him on board warships. Curiously enough, too, this
first shell smacked of the foundry, of men with smudged faces, of the
blare of furnace fires. It brought machinery immediately into his mind.
He thought that if he was killed there at that time it would be as
romantic, to the old standards, as death by a bit of falling iron in a
A child was playing on a mountain and disregarding a battle that was
waging on the plain. Behind him was the little cobbled hut of his fled
parents. It was now occupied by a pearl-coloured cow that stared out
from the darkness thoughtful and tender-eyed. The child ran to and fro,
fumbling with sticks and making great machinations with pebbles. By a
striking exercise of artistic license the sticks were ponies, cows, and
dogs, and the pebbles were sheep. He was managing large agricultural
and herding affairs. He was too intent on them to pay much heed to
the fight four miles away, which at that distance resembled in sound
the beating of surf upon rocks. However, there were occasions when
some louder outbreak of that thunder stirred him from his serious
occupation, and he turned then a questioning eye upon the battle, a
small stick poised in his hand, interrupted in the act of sending his
dog after his sheep. His tranquillity in regard to the death on the
plain was as invincible as that of the mountain on which he stood.
It was evident that fear had swept the parents away from their home
in a manner that could make them forget this child, the first-born.
Nevertheless, the hut was clean bare. The cow had committed no
impropriety in billeting herself at the domicile of her masters. This
smoke-coloured and odorous interior contained nothing as large as
a humming-bird. Terror had operated on these runaway people in its
sinister fashion, elevating details to enormous heights, causing a man
to remember a button while he forgot a coat, overpowering every one
with recollections of a broken coffee-cup, deluging them with fears for
the safety of an old pipe, and causing them to forget their first-born.
Meanwhile the child played soberly with his trinkets.
He was solitary; engrossed in his own pursuits, it was seldom that he
lifted his head to inquire of the world why it made so much noise. The
stick in his hand was much larger to him than was an army corps of the
distance. It was too childish for the mind of the child. He was dealing
The battle lines writhed at times in the agony of a sea-creature on
the sands. These tentacles flung and waved in a supreme excitement of
pain, and the struggles of the great outlined body brought it nearer
and nearer to the child. Once he looked at the plain and saw some men
running wildly across a field. He had seen people chasing obdurate
beasts in such fashion, and it struck him immediately that it was
a manly thing which he would incorporate in his game. Consequently
he raced furiously at his stone sheep, flourishing a cudgel, crying
the shepherd calls. He paused frequently to get a cue of manner from
the soldiers fighting on the plain. He reproduced, to a degree, any
movements which he accounted rational to his theory of sheep-herding,
the business of men, the traditional and exalted living of his father.
It was as if Peza was a corpse walking on the bottom of the sea, and
finding there fields of grain, groves, weeds, the faces of men, voices.
War, a strange employment of the race, presented to him a scene crowded
with familiar objects which wore the livery of their commonness,
placidly, undauntedly. He was smitten with keen astonishment; a spread
of green grass lit with the flames of poppies was too old for the
company of this new ogre. If he had been devoting the full lens of his
mind to this phase, he would have known he was amazed that the trees,
the flowers, the grass, all tender and peaceful nature had not taken to
heels at once upon the outbreak of battle. He venerated the immovable
The road seemed to lead into the apex of an angle formed by the two
defensive lines of the Greeks. There was a straggle of wounded men and
of gunless and jaded men. These latter did not seem to be frightened.
They remained very cool, walking with unhurried steps and busy in
gossip. Peza tried to define them. Perhaps during the fight they
had reached the limit of their mental storage, their capacity for
excitement, for tragedy, and had then simply come away. Peza remembered
his visit to a certain place of pictures, where he had found himself
amid heavenly skies and diabolic midnights—the sunshine beating
red upon desert sands, nude bodies flung to the shore in the green
moon-glow, ghastly and starving men clawing at a wall in darkness, a
girl at her
bath with screened rays falling upon her pearly shoulders,
a dance, a funeral, a review, an execution, all the strength of
argus-eyed art: and he had whirled and whirled amid this universe with
cries of woe and joy, sin and beauty piercing his ears until he had
been obliged to simply come away. He remembered that as he had emerged
he had lit a cigarette with unction and advanced promptly to a café. A
great hollow quiet seemed to be upon the earth.
This was a different case, but in his thoughts he conceded the same
causes to many of these gunless wanderers. They too may have dreamed
at lightning speed until the capacity for it was overwhelmed. As he
watched them, he again saw himself walking toward the café, puffing
upon his cigarette. As if to reinforce his theory, a soldier stopped
him with an eager but polite inquiry for a match. He watched the
man light his little roll of tobacco and paper and begin to smoke
Peza no longer was torn with sorrow at the sight of wounded men.
Evidently he found that pity had a numerical limit, and when this was
passed the emotion became another thing. Now, as he viewed them, he
merely felt himself very lucky, and beseeched the continuance of his
superior fortune. At the passing of these slouched and stained figures
he now heard a reiteration of warning. A part of himself was appealing
through the medium of these grim shapes. It was plucking at his sleeve
and pointing, telling him to beware; and so it had come to pass that he
cared for the implacable misery of these soldiers only as he would have
cared for the harms of broken dolls. His whole vision was focussed
upon his own chance.
The lieutenant suddenly halted. "Look," he said. "I find that my duty
is in another direction. I must go another way. But if you wish to
fight you have only to go forward, and any officer of the fighting
line will give you opportunity." He raised his cap ceremoniously; Peza
raised his new white helmet. The stranger to battles uttered thanks to
his chaperon, the one who had presented him. They bowed punctiliously,
staring at each other with civil eyes.
The lieutenant moved quietly away through a field. In an instant it
flashed upon Peza's mind that this desertion was perfidious. He had
been subjected to a criminal discourtesy. The officer had fetched him
into the middle of the thing, and then left him to wander helplessly
toward death. At one time he was upon the point of shouting at the
In the vale there was an effect as if one was then beneath the battle.
It was going on above somewhere. Alone, unguided, Peza felt like a
man groping in a cellar. He reflected too that one should always see
the beginning of a fight. It was too difficult to thus approach it
when the affair was in full swing. The trees hid all movements of
troops from him, and he thought he might be walking out to the very
spot which chance had provided for the reception of a fool. He asked
eager questions of passing soldiers. Some paid no heed to him; others
shook their heads mournfully. They knew nothing save that war was hard
work. If they talked at all it was in testimony of having fought well,
did not know if the army was going to advance, hold its
ground, or retreat; they were weary.
A long pointed shell flashed through the air and struck near the base
of a tree, with a fierce upheaval, compounded of earth and flames.
Looking back, Peza could see the shattered tree quivering from head
to foot. Its whole being underwent a convulsive tremor which was an
exhibition of pain, and, furthermore, deep amazement. As he advanced
through the vale, the shells continued to hiss and hurtle in long low
flights, and the bullets purred in the air. The missiles were flying
into the breast of an astounded nature. The landscape, bewildered,
agonized, was suffering a rain of infamous shots, and Peza imagined a
million eyes gazing at him with the gaze of startled antelopes.
There was a resolute crashing of musketry from the tall hill on the
left, and from directly in front there was a mingled din of artillery
and musketry firing. Peza felt that his pride was playing a great trick
in forcing him forward in this manner under conditions of strangeness,
isolation, and ignorance. But he recalled the manner of the lieutenant,
the smile on the hill-top among the flying peasants. Peza blushed and
pulled the peak of his helmet down on his forehead. He strode onward
firmly. Nevertheless he hated the lieutenant, and he resolved that on
some future occasion he would take much trouble to arrange a stinging
social revenge upon that grinning jackanapes. It did not occur to
him until later that he was now going to battle mainly because at a
previous time a certain man had smiled.
The road curved round the base of a little hill, and on this hill a
battery of mountain guns was leisurely shelling something unseen. In
the lee of the height the mules, contented under their heavy saddles,
were quietly browsing the long grass. Peza ascended the hill by a
slanting path. He felt his heart beat swiftly; once at the top of
the hill he would be obliged to look this phenomenon in the face. He
hurried, with a mysterious idea of preventing by this strategy the
battle from making his appearance a signal for some tremendous renewal.
This vague thought seemed logical at the time. Certainly this living
thing had knowledge of his coming. He endowed it with the intelligence
of a barbaric deity. And so he hurried; he wished to surprise war, this
terrible emperor, when it was growling on its throne. The ferocious and
horrible sovereign was not to be allowed to make the arrival a pretext
for some fit of smoky rage and blood. In this half-lull, Peza had
distinctly the sense of stealing upon the battle unawares.
The soldiers watching the mules did not seem to be impressed by
anything august. Two of them sat side by side and talked comfortably;
another lay flat upon his back staring dreamily at the sky; another
cursed a mule for certain refractions. Despite their uniforms, their
bandoliers and rifles, they were dwelling in the peace of hostlers.
However, the long shells were whooping from time to time over the brow
of the hill, and swirling in almost straight lines toward the vale of
trees, flowers, and grass. Peza, hearing and seeing the shells, and
seeing the pensive guardians of the mules, felt reassured. They were
accepting the condition of war as easily as an old sailor accepts
the chair behind the counter of a tobacco-shop. Or, it was merely
that the farm-boy had gone to sea, and he had adjusted himself to the
circumstances immediately, and with only the usual first misadventures
in conduct. Peza was proud and ashamed that he was not of them, these
stupid peasants, who, throughout the world, hold potentates on their
thrones, make statesmen illustrious, provide generals with lasting
victories, all with ignorance, indifference, or half-witted hatred,
moving the world with the strength of their arms and getting their
heads knocked together in the name of God, the king, or the Stock
Exchange; immortal, dreaming, hopeless asses who surrender their reason
to the care of a shining puppet, and persuade some toy to carry their
lives in his purse. Peza mentally abased himself before them, and
wished to stir them with furious kicks.
As his eyes ranged above the rim of the plateau, he saw a group of
artillery officers talking busily. They turned at once and regarded
his ascent. A moment later a row of infantry soldiers in a trench
beyond the little guns all faced him. Peza bowed to the officers. He
understood at the time that he had made a good and cool bow, and he
wondered at it, for his breath was coming in gasps, he was stifling
from sheer excitement. He felt like a tipsy man trying to conceal his
muscular uncertainty from the people in the street. But the officers
did not display any knowledge. They bowed. Behind them Peza saw the
plain, glittering green, with three lines of black marked upon it
heavily. The front of the first of these lines was frothy with smoke.
To the left of this hill was a craggy mountain, from which came a
continual dull rattle of musketry. Its summit was ringed with the white
smoke. The black lines on the plain slowly moved. The shells that came
from there passed overhead with the sound of great birds frantically
flapping their wings. Peza thought of the first sight of the sea during
a storm. He seemed to feel against his face the wind that races over
the tops of cold and tumultuous billows.
He heard a voice afar off—"Sir, what would you?" He turned, and saw
the dapper captain of the battery standing beside him. Only a moment
had elapsed. "Pardon me, sir," said Peza, bowing again. The officer was
evidently reserving his bows; he scanned the new-comer attentively.
"Are you a correspondent?" he asked. Peza produced a card. "Yes, I came
as a correspondent," he replied, "but now, sir, I have other thoughts.
I wish to help. You see? I wish to help."
"What do you mean?" said the captain. "Are you a Greek? Do you wish to
"Yes, I am a Greek. I wish to fight." Peza's voice surprised him
by coming from his lips in even and deliberate tones. He thought
with gratification that he was behaving rather well. Another shell
travelling from some unknown point on the plain whirled close and
furiously in the air, pursuing an apparently horizontal course as if it
were never going to touch the earth. The dark shape swished across the
"Ah," cried the captain, now smiling, "I am not sure that we will be
able to accommodate you with a fierce affair here just at this time,
but——" He walked gaily to and fro behind the guns with Peza, pointing
out to him the lines of the Greeks, and describing his opinion of the
general plan of defence. He wore the air of an amiable host. Other
officers questioned Peza in regard to the politics of the war. The
king, the ministry, Germany, England, Russia, all these huge words
were continually upon their tongues. "And the people in Athens? Were
they——" Amid this vivacious babble Peza, seated upon an ammunition
box, kept his glance high, watching the appearance of shell after
shell. These officers were like men who had been lost for days in the
forest. They were thirsty for any scrap of news. Nevertheless, one of
them would occasionally dispute their informant courteously. What would
Servia have to say to that? No, no, France and Russia could never allow
it. Peza was elated. The shells killed no one; war was not so bad. He
was simply having coffee in the smoking-room of some embassy where
reverberate the names of nations.
A rumour had passed along the motley line of privates in the trench.
The new arrival with the clean white helmet was a famous English
cavalry officer come to assist the army with his counsel. They stared
at the figure of him, surrounded by officers. Peza, gaining sense of
the glances and whispers, felt that his coming was an event.
Later, he resolved that he could with temerity do something finer.
He contemplated the mountain where the Greek infantry was engaged,
and announced leisurely to the captain of the battery that he thought
presently of going in that direction and getting into the fight. He
re-affirmed the sentiments of a patriot. The captain seemed surprised.
"Oh, there will be fighting here at this knoll in a few minutes," he
said orientally. "That will be sufficient? You had better stay with us.
Besides, I have been ordered to resume fire." The officers all tried to
dissuade him from departing. It was really not worth the trouble. The
battery would begin again directly. Then it would be amusing for him.
Peza felt that he was wandering with his protestations of high
patriotism through a desert of sensible men. These officers gave no
heed to his exalted declarations. They seemed too jaded. They were
fighting the men who were fighting them. Palaver of the particular kind
had subsided before their intense pre-occupation in war as a craft.
Moreover, many men had talked in that manner and only talked.
Peza believed at first that they were treating him delicately. They
were considerate of his inexperience. War had turned out to be such a
gentle business that Peza concluded he could scorn this idea. He bade
them a heroic farewell despite their objections.
However, when he reflected upon their ways afterward, he saw dimly that
they were actuated principally by some universal childish desire for a
of their fine things. They were going into action, and they
wished to be seen at war, precise and fearless.
Climbing slowly to the high infantry position, Peza was amazed to
meet a soldier whose jaw had been half shot away, and who was being
helped down the sheep track by two tearful comrades. The man's breast
was drenched with blood, and from a cloth which he held to the wound
drops were splashing wildly upon the stones of the path. He gazed at
Peza for a moment. It was a mystic gaze, which Peza withstood with
difficulty. He was exchanging looks with a spectre; all aspect of the
man was somehow gone from this victim. As Peza went on, one of the
unwounded soldiers loudly shouted to him to return and assist in this
tragic march. But even Peza's fingers revolted; he was afraid of the
spectre; he would not have dared to touch it. He was surely craven in
the movement of refusal he made to them. He scrambled hastily on up the
path. He was running away.
At the top of the hill he came immediately upon a part of the line that
was in action. Another battery of mountain guns was here firing at the
streaks of black on the plain. There were trenches filled with men
lining parts of the crest, and near the base were other trenches, all
crashing away mightily. The plain stretched as far as the eye can see,
and from where
silver mist ended this emerald ocean of grass, a great
ridge of snow-topped mountains poised against a fleckless blue sky. Two
knolls, green and yellow with grain, sat on the prairie confronting the
dark hills of the Greek position. Between them were the lines of the
enemy. A row of trees, a village, a stretch of road, showed faintly
on this great canvas, this tremendous picture, but men, the Turkish
battalions, were emphasized startlingly upon it. The ranks of troops
between the knolls and the Greek position were as black as ink.
The first line of course was muffled in smoke, but at the rear of it
battalions crawled up and to and fro plainer than beetles on a plate.
Peza had never understood that masses of men were so declarative, so
unmistakable, as if nature makes every arrangement to give information
of the coming and the presence of destruction, the end, oblivion. The
firing was full, complete, a roar of cataracts, and this pealing of
connected volleys was adjusted to the grandeur of the far-off range of
snowy mountains. Peza, breathless, pale, felt that he had been set upon
a pillar and was surveying mankind, the world. In the meantime dust had
got in his eye. He took his handkerchief and mechanically administered
An officer with a double stripe of purple on his trousers paced in the
rear of the battery of howitzers. He waved a little cane. Sometimes
he paused in his promenade to study the field through his glasses. "A
fine scene, sir," he cried airily, upon the approach of Peza. It was
like a blow in the chest to the wide-eyed volunteer. It revealed to him
a point of view.
"Yes, sir, it is a fine scene," he answered. They
spoke in French. "I am happy to be able to entertain monsieur with a
little practice," continued the officer. "I am firing upon that mass of
troops you see there a little to the right. They are probably forming
for another attack." Peza smiled; here again appeared manners, manners
erect by the side of death.
The right-flank gun of the battery thundered; there was a belch of
fire and smoke; the shell flung swiftly and afar was known only to the
ear in which rang a broadening hooting wake of sound. The howitzer had
thrown itself backward convulsively, and lay with its wheels moving
in the air as a squad of men rushed toward it. And later, it seemed
as if each little gun had made the supreme effort of its being in
each particular shot. They roared with voices far too loud, and the
thunderous effort caused a gun to bound as in a dying convulsion. And
then occasionally one was hurled with wheels in air. These shuddering
howitzers presented an appearance of so many cowards always longing to
bolt to the rear, but being implacably held to their business by this
throng of soldiers who ran in squads to drag them up again to their
obligation. The guns were herded and cajoled and bullied interminably.
One by one, in relentless program, they were dragged forward to
contribute a profound vibration of steel and wood, a flash and a roar,
to the important happiness of man.
The adjacent infantry celebrated a good shot with smiles and an
outburst of gleeful talk.
"Look, sir," cried an officer to Peza. Thin smoke was drifting lazily
before Peza, and dodging impatiently he brought his eyes to bear upon
that part of the plain indicated by the officer's finger. The enemy's
infantry was advancing to attack. From the black lines had come forth
an inky mass which was shaped much like a human tongue. It advanced
slowly, casually, without apparent spirit, but with an insolent
confidence that was like a proclamation of the inevitable.
The impetuous part was all played by the defensive side. Officers
called, men plucked each other by the sleeve; there were shouts,
motions, all eyes were turned upon the inky mass which was flowing
toward the base of the hills, heavily, languorously, as oily and thick
as one of the streams that ooze through a swamp.
Peza was chattering a question at every one. In the way, pushed aside,
or in the way again, he continued to repeat it. "Can they take the
position? Can they take the position? Can they take the position?"
He was apparently addressing an assemblage of deaf men. Every eye
was busy watching every hand. The soldiers did not even seem to see
the interesting stranger in the white helmet who was crying out so
Finally, however, the hurried captain of the battery espied him and
heeded his question. "No, sir! no, sir! It is impossible," he shouted
angrily. His manner seemed to denote that if he had sufficient time he
would have completely insulted Peza. The latter swallowed the crumb of
news without regard to the coating of scorn, and, waving his hand in
he began to run along the crest of the hill toward the part of
the Greek line against which the attack was directed.
Peza, as he ran along the crest of the mountain, believed that his
action was receiving the wrathful attention of the hosts of the foe.
To him then it was incredible foolhardiness thus to call to himself
the stares of thousands of hateful eyes. He was like a lad induced by
playmates to commit some indiscretion in a cathedral. He was abashed;
perhaps he even blushed as he ran. It seemed to him that the whole
solemn ceremony of war had paused during this commission. So he
scrambled wildly over the rocks in his haste to end the embarrassing
ordeal. When he came among the crowning rifle-pits filled with eager
soldiers he wanted to yell with joy. None noticed him save a young
officer of infantry, who said—"Sir, what do you want?" It was obvious
that people had devoted some attention to their own affairs.
Peza asserted, in Greek, that he wished above everything to battle for
the fatherland. The officer nodded; with a smile he pointed to some
dead men covered with blankets, from which were thrust upturned dusty
"Yes, I know, I know," cried Peza. He thought the officer was
poetically alluding to the danger.
"No," said the officer at once. "I mean cartridges—a bandolier. Take
a bandolier from one of them."
Peza went cautiously toward a body. He moved a hand toward the corner
of a blanket. There he hesitated, stuck, as if his arm had turned to
plaster. Hearing a rustle behind him he spun quickly. Three soldiers of
the close rank in the trench were regarding him. The officer came again
and tapped him on the shoulder. "Have you any tobacco?" Peza looked at
him in bewilderment. His hand was still extended toward the blanket
which covered the dead soldier. "Yes," he said, "I have some tobacco."
He gave the officer his pouch. As if in compensation, the other
directed a soldier to strip the bandolier from the corpse. Peza, having
crossed the long cartridge belt on his breast, felt that the dead man
had flung his two arms around him.
A soldier with a polite nod and smile gave Peza a rifle, a relic of
another dead man. Thus, he felt, besides the clutch of a corpse about
his neck, that the rifle was as inhumanly horrible as a snake that
lives in a tomb. He heard at his ear something that was in effect like
the voices of those two dead men, their low voices speaking to him
of bloody death, mutilation. The bandolier gripped him tighter; he
wished to raise his hands to his throat like a man who is choking. The
rifle was clammy; upon his palms he felt the movement of the sluggish
currents of a serpent's life; it was crawling and frightful.
All about him were these peasants, with their interested countenances,
gibbering of the fight. From time to time a soldier cried out in
semi-humorous lamentations descriptive of his thirst. One bearded man
sat munching a great bit of hard bread. Fat, greasy, squat, he was like
an idol made of tallow. Peza felt dimly that there was a distinction
between this man and a young student who could write sonnets and play
the piano quite well. This old blockhead was coolly gnawing at the
bread, while he, Peza, was being throttled by a dead man's arms.
He looked behind him, and saw that a head by some chance had been
uncovered from its blanket. Two liquid-like eyes were staring into
his face. The head was turned a little sideways as if to get better
opportunity for the scrutiny. Peza could feel himself blanch; he was
being drawn and drawn by these dead men slowly, firmly down as to some
mystic chamber under the earth where they could walk, dreadful figures,
swollen and blood-marked. He was bidden; they had commanded him; he was
going, going, going.
When the man in the new white helmet bolted for the rear, many of the
soldiers in the trench thought that he had been struck, but those
who had been nearest to him knew better. Otherwise they would have
heard the silken sliding tender noise of the bullet and the thud
of its impact. They bawled after him curses, and also outbursts of
self-congratulation and vanity. Despite the prominence of the cowardly
part, they were enabled to see in this exhibition a fine comment upon
their own fortitude. The other soldiers thought that Peza had been
wounded somewhere in the neck, because as he ran he was tearing madly
at the bandolier, the dead man's arms. The soldier with the bread
paused in his eating and cynically remarked upon the speed of the
An officer's voice was suddenly heard calling out the calculation of
the distance to the enemy, the readjustment of the sights. There was
a stirring rattle along the line. The men turned their eyes to the
front. Other trenches beneath them to the right were already heavily in
action. The smoke was lifting toward the blue sky. The soldier with the
bread placed it carefully on a bit of paper beside him as he turned to
kneel in the trench.
In the late afternoon, the child ceased his play on the mountain with
his flocks and his dogs. Part of the battle had whirled very near to
the base of his hill, and the noise was great. Sometimes he could see
fantastic smoky shapes which resembled the curious figures in foam
which one sees on the slant of a rough sea. The plain indeed was etched
in white circles and whirligigs like the slope of a colossal wave. The
child took seat on a stone and contemplated the fight. He was beginning
to be astonished; he had never before seen cattle herded with such
uproar. Lines of flame flashed out here and there. It was mystery.
Finally, without any preliminary indication, he began to weep. If the
men struggling on the plain had had time and greater vision, they could
have seen this strange tiny figure seated on a boulder, surveying them
while the tears streamed. It was as simple as some powerful symbol.
As the magic clear light of day amid the mountains dimmed the
distances, and the plain shone as a pallid blue cloth marked by the red
threads of the firing, the child arose and moved off to the unwelcoming
door of his home. He called softly for his mother, and complained of
his hunger in the familiar formula. The pearl-coloured cow, grinding
her jaws thoughtfully, stared at him with her large eyes. The peaceful
gloom of evening was slowly draping the hills.
The child heard a rattle of loose stones on the hillside, and facing
the sound, saw a moment later a man drag himself up to the crest of the
hill and fall panting. Forgetting his mother and his hunger, filled
with calm interest, the child walked forward and stood over the heaving
form. His eyes too were now large and inscrutably wise and sad like
those of the animal in the house.
After a silence he spoke inquiringly. "Are you a man?"
Peza rolled over quickly and gazed up into the fearless cherubic
countenance. He did not attempt to reply. He breathed as if life was
about to leave his body. He was covered with dust; his face had been
cut in some way, and his cheek was ribboned with blood. All the spick
of his former appearance had vanished in a general dishevelment, in
which he resembled a creature that had been flung to and fro, up and
down, by cliffs and prairies during an earthquake. He rolled his eye
glassily at the child.
They remained thus until the child repeated his words. "Are you a man?"
Peza gasped in the manner of a fish. Palsied, windless, and abject, he
confronted the primitive courage, the sovereign child, the brother of
the mountains, the sky and the sea, and he knew that the definition of
his misery could be written on a grass-blade.