The Prussian Officer
D. H. Lawrence
THE PRUSSIAN OFFICER
They had marched more than thirty kilometres since dawn, along the
white, hot road where occasional thickets of trees threw a moment of
shade, then out into the glare again. On either hand, the valley, wide
and shallow, glittered with heat; dark green patches of rye, pale young
corn, fallow and meadow and black pine woods spread in a dull, hot
diagram under a glistening sky. But right in front the mountains ranged
across, pale blue and very still, snow gleaming gently out of the deep
atmosphere. And towards the mountains, on and on, the regiment marched
between the rye fields and the meadows, between the scraggy fruit trees
set regularly on either side the high road. The burnished, dark green
rye threw on a suffocating heat, the mountains drew gradually nearer
and more distinct. While the feet of the soldiers grew hotter, sweat ran
through their hair under their helmets, and their knapsacks could burn
no more in contact with their shoulders, but seemed instead to give off
a cold, prickly sensation.
He walked on and on in silence, staring at the mountains ahead, that
rose sheer out of the land, and stood fold behind fold, half earth, half
heaven, the heaven, the banner with slits of soft snow, in the pale,
He could now walk almost without pain. At the start, he had determined
not to limp. It had made him sick to take the first steps, and during
the first mile or so, he had compressed his breath, and the cold drops
of sweat had stood on his forehead. But he had walked it off. What were
they after all but bruises! He had looked at them, as he was getting
up: deep bruises on the backs of his thighs. And since he had made his
first step in the morning, he had been conscious of them, till now he
had a tight, hot place in his chest, with suppressing the pain, and
holding himself in. There seemed no air when he breathed. But he walked
The Captain's hand had trembled at taking his coffee at dawn: his
orderly saw it again. And he saw the fine figure of the Captain wheeling
on horseback at the farm-house ahead, a handsome figure in pale blue
uniform with facings of scarlet, and the metal gleaming on the black
helmet and the sword-scabbard, and dark streaks of sweat coming on the
silky bay horse. The orderly felt he was connected with that figure
moving so suddenly on horseback: he followed it like a shadow, mute
and inevitable and damned by it. And the officer was always aware of the
tramp of the company behind, the march of his orderly among the men.
The Captain was a tall man of about forty, grey at the temples. He had
a handsome, finely knit figure, and was one of the best horsemen in
the West. His orderly, having to rub him down, admired the amazing
riding-muscles of his loins.
For the rest, the orderly scarcely noticed the officer any more than he
noticed, himself. It was rarely he saw his master's face: he did not
look at it. The Captain had reddish-brown, stilt hair, that he wore
short upon his skull. His moustache was also cut short and bristly
over a full, brutal mouth. His face was rather rugged, the cheeks thin.
Perhaps the man was the more handsome for the deep lines in his face,
the irritable tension of his brow, which gave him the look of a man who
fights with life. His fair eyebrows stood bushy over light blue eyes
that were always flashing with cold fire.
He was a Prussian aristocrat, haughty and overbearing. But his mother
had been a Polish Countess. Having made too many gambling debts when
he was young, he had ruined his prospects in the Army, and remained an
infantry captain. He had never married: his position did not allow
of it, and no woman had ever moved him to it. His time he spent
riding--occasionally he rode one of his own horses at the races--and at
the officers club. Now and then he took himself a mistress. But after
such an event, he returned to duty with his brow still more tense, his
eyes still more hostile and irritable. With the men, however, he was
merely impersonal, though a devil when roused; so that, on the whole,
they feared him, but had no great aversion from him. They accepted him
as the inevitable.
To his orderly he was at first cold and just and indifferent: he did not
fuss over trifles. So that his servant knew practically nothing about
him, except just what orders he would give, and how he wanted them
obeyed. That was quite simple. Then the change gradually came.
The orderly was a youth of about twenty-two, of medium height, and well
built. He had strong, heavy limbs, was swarthy, with a soft, black,
young moustache. There was something altogether warm and young about
him. He had firmly marked eyebrows over dark, expressionless eyes, that
seemed never to have thought, only to have received life direct through
his senses, and acted straight from instinct.
Gradually the officer had become aware of his servant's young, vigorous,
unconscious presence about him. He could not get away from the sense of
the youth's person, while he was in attendance. It was like a warm flame
upon the older man's tense, rigid body, that had become almost unliving,
fixed. There was something so free and sen-contained about him, and
something in the young fellow s movement, that made the officer aware
of him. And this irritated the Prussian. He did not choose to be touched
into life by his servant. He might easily have changed his man, but he
did not. He now very rarely looked direct at his orderly, but kept his
face averted, as if to avoid seeing him. And yet as the young soldier
moved unthinking about the apartment, the elder watched him, and would
notice the movement of his strong young shoulders under the blue cloth,
the bend of his neck. And it irritated him. To see the soldier s young,
brown, shapely peasant's hand grasp the loaf or the wine-bottle sent a
Hash of hate or of anger through the elder man's blood. It was not that
the youth was clumsy: it was rather the blind, instinctive sureness
of movement of an unhampered young animal that irritated the officer to
such a degree.
Once, when a bottle of wine had gone over, and the red gushed out on to
the tablecloth, the officer had started up with an oath, and his eyes,
bluey like fire, had held those of the confused youth for a moment.
It was a shock for the young soldier. He felt some-thing sink deeper,
deeper into his soul, where nothing had ever gone before. It left him
rather blank and wondering. Some of his natural completeness in himself
was gone, a little uneasiness took its place. And from that time an
undiscovered feeling had held between the two men.
Henceforward the orderly was afraid of really meeting his master. His
subconsciousness remembered those steely blue eyes and the harsh brows,
and did not intend to meet them again. So he always stared past his
master, and avoided him. Also, in a little anxiety, he waited for the
three months to have gone, when his time would be up. He began to feel a
constraint in the Captain's presence, and the soldier even more than the
officer wanted to be left alone, in his neutrality as servant.
He had served the Captain for more than a year, and knew his duty. This
he performed easily, as if it were natural to him. The officer and his
commands he took for granted, as he took the sun and the rain, and he
served as a matter of course. It did not implicate him personally.
But now if he were going to be forced into a personal interchange with
his master he would be like a wild thing caught, he felt he must get
But the influence of the young soldier's being had penetrated through
the officer's stiffened discipline, and perturbed the man in him.
He, however, was a gentleman, with long, fine hands and cultivated
movements, and was not going to allow such a thing as the stirring of
his innate self. He was a man of passionate temper, who had always kept
himself suppressed. Occasionally there had been a duel, an outburst
before the soldiers. He knew himself to be always on the point of
breaking out. But he kept himself hard to the idea of the Service.
Whereas the young soldier seemed to live out his warm, full nature, to
give it off in his very movements, which had a certain zest, such as
wild animals have in free movement. And this irritated the officer more
In spite of himself, the Captain could not regain his neutrality of
feeling towards his orderly. Nor could he leave the man alone. In spite
of himself, he watched him, gave him sharp orders, tried to take up as
much of his time as possible. Sometimes he flew into a rage with the
young soldier, and bullied him. Then the orderly shut himself off, as it
were out of earshot, and waited, with sullen, flushed face, for the
end of the noise. The words never pierced to his intelligence, he made
himself, protectively, impervious to the feelings of his master.
He had a scar on his left thumb, a deep seam going across the knuckle.
The officer had long suffered from it, and wanted to do something to it.
Still it was there, ugly and brutal on the young, brown hand. At last
the Captain's reserve gave way. One day, as the orderly was smoothing
out the tablecloth, the officer pinned down his thumb with a pencil,
"How did you come by that?"
The young man winced and drew back at attention.
"A wood-axe, Herr Hauptmann," he answered.
The officer waited for further explanation. None came. The orderly went
about his duties. The elder man was sullenly angry. His servant avoided
him. And the next day he had to use all his willpower to avoid seeing
the scarred thumb. He wanted to get hold of it and---- A hot flame ran
in his blood.
He knew his servant would soon be free, and would be glad. As yet, the
soldier had held himself off from the elder man. The Captain grew madly
irritable. He could not rest when the soldier was away, and when he
was present, he glared at him with tormented eyes. He hated those fine,
black brows over trie unmeaning, dark eyes, he was infuriated by the
free movement of the handsome limbs, which no military discipline could
make stiff. And he became harsh and cruelly bullying, using contempt and
satire. The young soldier only grew more mute and expressionless.
What cattle were you bred by, that you can t keep straight eyes? Look
me in the eyes when I speak to you.
And the soldier turned his dark eyes to the other's face, but there was
no sight in them: he stared with the slightest possible cast, holding
back his sight, perceiving the blue of his master's eyes, but receiving
no look from them. And the elder man went pale, and his reddish eyebrows
twitched. He gave his order, barrenly.
Once he flung a heavy military glove into the young soldier's face. Then
he had the satisfaction of seeing the black eyes flare up into his own,
like a blaze when straw is thrown on a fire. And he had laughed with a
little tremor and a sneer.
But there were only two months more. The youth instinctively tried to
keep himself intact: he tried to serve the officer as if the latter
were an abstract authority and not a man. All his instinct was to avoid
personal contact, even definite hate. But in spite of himself the hate
grew, responsive to the officer's passion. However, he put it in the
background. When he had left the Army he could dare acknowledge it. By
nature he was active, and had many friends. He thought what amazing
good fellows they were. But, without knowing it, he was alone. Now this
solitariness was intensified. It would carry him through his term. But
the officer seemed to be going irritably insane, and the youth was
The soldier had a sweetheart, a girl from the mountains, independent and
primitive. The two walked together, rather silently. He went with
her, not to talk, but to have his arm round her, and for the physical
contact. This eased him, made it easier for him to ignore the Captain;
for he could rest with her held fast against his chest. And she, in some
unspoken fashion, was there for him. They loved each other.
The Captain perceived it, and was mad with irritation. He kept the young
man engaged all the evenings long, and took pleasure in the dark look
that came on his face. Occasionally, the eyes of the two men met, those
of the younger sullen and dark, doggedly unalterable, those of the elder
sneering with restless contempt.
The officer tried hard not to admit the passion that had got hold of
him. He would not know that his feeling for his orderly was anything
but that of a man incensed by his stupid, perverse servant. So, keeping
quite justified and conventional in his consciousness, he let the other
thing run on. His nerves, however, were suffering. At last he slung the
end of a belt in his servant's face. When he saw the youth start back,
the pain-tears in his eyes and the blood on his mouth, he had felt at
once a thrill of deep pleasure and of shame.
But this, he acknowledged to himself, was a thing he had never done
before. The fellow was too exasperating. His own nerves must be going to
pieces. He went away for some days with a woman.
It was a mockery of pleasure. He simply did not want the woman. But he
stayed on for his time. At the end of it, he came back in an agony of
irritation, torment, and misery. He rode all the evening, then came
straight in to supper. His orderly was out. The officer sat with his
long, fine hands lying on the table, perfectly still, and all his blood
seemed to be corroding.
At last his servant entered. He watched the strong, easy young figure,
the fine eyebrows, the thick black hair. In a week's time the youth
had got back his old well-being. The hands of the officer twitched and
seemed to be full of mad flame.
The young man stood at attention, unmoving, shut on.
The meal went in silence. But the orderly seemed eager. He made a
clatter with the dishes.
"Are you in a hurry?" asked the officer, watching the intent, warm face
of his servant. The other did not reply.
"Will you answer my question?" said the Cap-tam.
"Yes, sir," replied the orderly, standing with his pile of deep Army
plates. The Captain waited, looked at him, then asked again: "Are you
in a hurry?
"Yes, sir," came the answer, that sent a flash through the listener.
"For whaat?" "I was going out, sir." "I want you this evening." There
was a moment's hesitation. The officer had a curious stiffness of
"Yes, sir," replied the servant, in his throat. "I want you to-morrow
evening also--in fact, you may consider your evenings occupied, unless I
give you leave."
The mouth with the young moustache set close. "Yes, sir," answered the
orderly, loosening his lips for a moment. He again turned to the door.
"And why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?"
The orderly hesitated, then continued on his way without answering. He
set the plates in a pile outside the door, took the stump of pencil from
his ear, and put it in his pocket. He had been copying a verse for his
sweetheart's birthday card. He returned to finish clearing the table.
The officer's eyes were dancing, he had a little, eager smile.
"Why have you a piece of pencil in your ear?" he asked.
The orderly took his hands full of dishes. His master was standing
near the great green stove, a little smile on his face, his chin thrust
forward. When the young soldier saw him his heart suddenly ran hot. He
felt blind. Instead of answering, he turned dazedly to the door. As he
was crouching to set down the dishes, he was pitched forward by a kick
from behind. The pots went in a stream down the stairs, he clung to
the pillar of the banisters. And as he was rising he was kicked heavily
again, and again, so that he clung sickly to the post for some moments.
His master had gone swiftly into the room and closed the door. The
maid-servant downstairs looked up the staircase and made a mocking face
at the crockery disaster.
The officer's heart was plunging. He poured himself a glass of wine,
part of which he spilled on the floor, and gulped the remainder, leaning
against the cool, green stove. He heard his man collecting the dishes
from the stairs. Pale, as if intoxicated, he waited. The servant entered
again. The Captain's heart gave a pang, as of pleasure, seeing the young
fellow bewildered and uncertain on his feet, with pain.
"Schöner!" he said.
The soldier was a little slower in coming to attention.
"Yes, sir!" The youth stood before him, with pathetic young moustache,
and fine eyebrows very distinct on his forehead of dark marble. "I asked
you a question."
"Yes, sir." The officer's tone bit like acid. "Why had you a pencil in
Again the servant's heart ran hot, and he could not breathe. With dark,
strained eyes, he looked at the officer, as if fascinated. And he stood
there sturdily planted, unconscious. The withering smile came into trie
Captain's eyes, and he lifted his foot. "I---I forgot it--sir," panted
the soldier, his dark eyes fixed on the other man's dancing blue ones.
"What was it doing there?"
He saw the young man's breast heaving as he made an effort for words.
"I had been writing."
Again the soldier looked him up and down. The officer could hear him
panting. The smile came into the blue eyes. The soldier worked his dry
throat, but could not speak. Suddenly the smile lit like a name on the
officer's face, and a kick came heavily against the orderly's thigh. The
youth moved a pace sideways. His face went dead, with two black, staring
"Well?" said the officer.
The orderly's mouth had gone dry, and his tongue rubbed in it as on
dry brown-paper. He worked his throat. The officer raised his foot. The
servant went stiff.
"Some poetry, sir," came the crackling, unrecognizable sound of his
"Poetry, what poetry?" asked the Captain, with a sickly smile.
Again there was the working in the throat. The Captain's heart had
suddenly gone down heavily, and he stood sick and tired.
"For my girl, sir," he heard the dry, inhuman sound.
"Oh!" he said, turning away. "Clear the table."
"Click!" went the soldier's throat; then again, "click!" and then the
hail-articulate: "Yes, sir."
The young soldier was gone, looking old, and walking heavily.
The officer, left alone, held himself rigid, to prevent himself from
thinking. His instinct warned him that he must not think. Deep inside
him was the intense gratification of his passion, still working
powerfully. Then there was a counter-action, a horrible breaking down of
something inside him, a whole agony of reaction. He stood there for an
hour motionless, a chaos of sensations, but rigid with a will to keep
blank his consciousness, to prevent his mind grasping. And he held
himself so until the worst of the stress had passed, when he began to
drink, drank himself to an intoxication, till he slept obliterated. When
he woke in the morning he was shaken to the base of his nature. But he
had fought off the realization of what he had done. He had prevented his
mind from taking it in, had suppressed, it along with his instincts,
and the conscious man had nothing to do with it. He felt only as after a
bout of intoxication, weak, but the affair itself all dim and not to
be recovered. Of the drunkenness of his passion he successfully refused
remembrance. And when his orderly appeared with coffee, the officer
assumed the same self he had had the morning before. He refused the
event of the past night--denied it had ever been--and was successful
in his denial. He had not done any such thing--not he himself. Whatever
there might be lay at the door of a stupid, insubordinate servant.
The orderly had gone about in a stupor all the evening. He drank some
beer because he was parched, but not much, the alcohol made his feeling
come back, and he could not bear it. He was dulled, as if nine-tenths of
the ordinary man in him were inert. He crawled about disfigured. Still,
when he thought of the kicks, he went sick, and when he thought of the
threat of more kicking, in the room afterwards, his heart went hot and
faint, and he panted, remembering the one that had come. He had been
forced to say, "For my girl." He was much too done even to want to
cry. His mouth hung slightly open, like an idiot's. He felt vacant,
and wasted. So, he wandered at his work, painfully, and very slowly and
clumsily, fumbling blindly with the brushes, and finding it difficult,
when he sat down, to summon the energy to move again. His limbs, his
jaw, were slack and nerveless. But he was very tired. He got to bed at
last, and slept inert, relaxed, in a sleep that was rather stupor
than slumber, a dead night of stupefaction shot through with gleams of
In the morning were the manoeuvres. But he woke even before the bugle
sounded. The painful ache in his chest, the dryness of his throat, the
awful steady feeling of misery made his eyes come awake and dreary at
once. He knew, without thinking, what had happened. And he knew that the
day had come again, when he must go on with his round. The last bit of
darkness was being pushed out of the room. He would have to move his
inert body and go on. He was so young, and had known so little trouble,
that he was bewildered. He only wished it would stay night, so that
he could lie still, covered up by the darkness. And yet nothing would
prevent the day from coming, nothing would save him from having to get
up and saddle the Captain's horse, and make the Captain's coffee. It
was there, inevitable. And then, he thought, it was impossible. Yet they
would not leave him free. He must go and take the coffee to the
Captain. He was too stunned to understand it. He only knew it was
inevitable--inevitable however long he lay inert.
At last, after heaving at himself, for he seemed to be a mass of
inertia, he got up. But he had to force every one of his movements from
behind, with his will. He felt lost, and dazed, and helpless. Then
he clutched hold of the bed, the pain was so keen. And looking at his
thighs, he saw the darker bruises on his swarthy flesh and he knew that,
if he pressed one of his fingers on one of the bruises, he should faint.
But he did not want to faint---he did not want anybody to know. No one
should ever know. It was between him and the Captain. There were only
the two people in the world now--himself and the Captain.
Slowly, economically, he got dressed and forced himself to walk.
Everything was obscure, except just what he had his hands on. But he
managed to get through his work. The very pain revived his dull senses.
The worst remained yet. He took the tray and went up to the Captain's
room. The officer, pale and heavy, sat at the table. The orderly, as he
saluted, felt himself put out of existence. He stood still for a moment
submitting to his own nullification, then he gathered himself, seemed to
regain himself, and then the Captain began to grow vague, unreal, and
the younger soldier's heart beat up. He clung to this situation--that
the Captain did not exist--so that he himself might live. But when he
saw his officer's hand tremble as he took the coffee, he felt everything
falling shattered. And he went away, feeling as if he himself were
coming to pieces, disintegrated. And when the Captain was there on
horseback, giving orders, while he himself stood, with rifle and
knapsack, sick with pain, he felt as if he must shut his eyes--as if he
must shut his eyes on everything. It was only the long agony of marching
with a parched throat that filled him with one single, sleep-heavy
intention: to save himself.
He was getting used even to his parched throat. That the snowy peaks
were radiant among the sky, that the whity-green glacier-river
twisted through its pale shoals, in the valley below, seemed almost
supernatural. But he was going mad with fever and thirst. He plodded on
uncomplaining. He did not want to speak, not to anybody. There were two
gulls, like flakes of water and snow, over the river. The scent of green
rye soaked in sunshine came like a sickness. And the march continued,
monotonously, almost like a bad sleep.
At the next farm-house, which stood low and broad near the high road,
tubs of water had been put out. The soldiers clustered round to drink.
They took off their helmets, and the steam mounted from their wet hair.
Captain sat on horseback, watching. He needed to see his orderly.
His hel-met threw a dark shadow over his light, fierce eyes, but his
moustache and mouth and chin were distinct in the sunshine. The orderly
must move under the presence of the figure of the horseman. It was not
that he was afraid, or cowed. It was as if he was disembowllled,
made empty, like an empty shell. He felt himself as nothing, a shadow
creeping under the sunshine. And, thirsty as he was, he could scarcely
drink, feeling the Captain near him. He would not take off his helmet
to wipe his wet hair. He wanted to stay in shadow, not to be forced into
consciousness. Starting, he saw the light heel of the officer prick
the belly of the horse; the Captain cantered away, and he himself could
relapse into vacancy.
Nothing, however, could give him back his living place in the hot,
bright morning. He felt like a gap among it all. Whereas the Captain was
prouder, overriding. A hot flash went through the young servant's body.
The Captain was firmer and prouder with life, he himself was empty as a
shadow. Again the flash went through him, dazing him out. But his heart
ran a little firmer.
The company turned up the hill, to make a loop for the return. Below,
from among the trees, the farm-bell clanged. He saw the labourers,
mowing barefoot at the thick grass, leave off their work and go
downhill, their scythes hanging over their shoulders, like long, bright
claws curving down behind them. They seemed like dream-people, as if
they had no relation to himself. He felt as in a blackish dream: as if
all the other things were there and had form, but he himself was only a
consciousness, a gap that could think and perceive.
The soldiers were tramping silently up the glaring hillside. Gradually
his head began to revolve, slowly, rhythmically. Sometimes it was dark
before his eyes, as if he saw this world through a smoked glass, frail
shadows and unreal. It gave him a pain in his head to walk.
The air was too scented, it gave no breath. All the lush green-stuff
seemed to be issuing its sap, till the air was deathly, sickly with the
smell of greenness. There was the perfume of clover, like pure honey and
bees. Then there grew a faint acrid tang--they were near the beeches;
and then a queer clattering noise, and a suffocating, hideous smell;
they were passing a flock of sheep, a shepherd in a black smock, holding
his crook. Why should the sheep huddle together under this fierce sun.
He felt that the shepherd would not see him, though he could see the
At last there was the halt. They stacked rifles in a conical stack, put
down their kit in a scattered circle around it, and dispersed a little,
sitting on a small knoll high on the hillside. The chatter began. The
soldiers were steaming with heat, but were lively. He sat still, seeing
the blue mountains rising upon the land, twenty kilometres away. There
was a blue fold in the ranges, then out of that, at the foot, the
broad, pale bed of the river, stretches of whity-green water between
pinkish-grey shoals among the dark pine woods. There it was, spread out
a long way off. And it seemed to come downhill, the river. There was
a raft being steered, a mile away. It was a strange country. Nearer,
a red-roofed, broad farm with white base and square dots of windows
crouched beside the wall of beech foliage on the wood's edge. There were
long strips of rye and clover and pale green corn. And just at his feet,
below the knoll, was a darkish bog, where globe flowers stood breathless
still on their slim stalks. And some of the pale gold bubbles were
burst, and a broken fragment hung in the air. He thought he was going to
Suddenly something moved into this coloured mirage before his eyes. The
Captain, a small, light-blue and scarlet figure, was trotting evenly
between the strips of corn, along the level brow of the hill. And
the man making flag-signals was coming on. Proud and sure moved the
horseman's figure, the quick, bright thing, in which was concentrated
all the light of this morning, which for the rest lay a fragile, shining
shadow. Submissive, apathetic, the young soldier sat and stared. But
as the horse slowed to a walk, coming up the last steep path, the great
flash flared over the body and soul of the orderly. He sat waiting. The
back of his head felt as if it were weighted with a heavy piece of fire.
He did not want to eat. His hands trembled slightly as he moved them.
Meanwhile the officer on horseback was approaching slowly and proudly.
The tension grew in the orderly's soul. Then again, seeing the Captain
ease himself on the saddle, the flash blazed through him.
The Captain looked at the patch of light blue and scarlet, and dark
head's, scattered closely on the hillside. It pleased him. The command
pleased him. And he was feeling proud. His orderly was among them in
common subjection. The officer rose a little on his stirrups to look.
The young soldier sat with averted, dumb face. The Captain relaxed on
his seat. His slim-legged, beautiful horse, brown as a beech nut,
walked proudly uphill. The Captain passed into the zone of the company's
atmosphere: a hot smell of men, of sweat, of leather. He knew it very
well. After a word with the lieutenant, he went a few paces higher, and
sat there, a dominant figure, his sweat-marked horse swishing its tail,
while he looked down on his men, on his orderly, a nonentity among the
The young soldier's heart was like fire in his chest, and he breathed
with difficulty. The officer, looking downhill, saw three of the young
soldiers, two pails of water between them, staggering across a sunny
green field. A table had been set up under a tree, and there the slim
lieutenant stood, importantly busy. Then the Captain summoned himself to
an act of courage. He called his orderly.
The name leapt into the young soldier's throat as he heard, the command,
and he rose blindly, stifled. He saluted, standing below the officer. He
did not look up. But there was the flicker in the Captain's voice.
"Go to the inn and fetch me..." the officer gave his commands. "Quick !"
At the last word, the heart of the servant leapt with a flash, and
he felt the strength come over his body. But he turned in mechanical
obedience, and set on at a heavy run downhill, looking almost like a
bear, his trousers bagging over his military boots. And the officer
watched this blind, plunging run all the way.
But it was only the outside of the orderly's body that was obeying so
humbly and mechanically. Inside had gradually accumulated a core into
which all the energy of that young life was compact and concentrated.
He executed his commisssion, and plodded quickly back uphill. There was
a pain in his head, as he walked, that made him twist his features
unknowingly. But hard there in the centre of his chest was himself,
himself, firm, and not to be plucked to pieces.
The captain had gone up into the wood. The orderly plodded through the
hot, powerfully smelling zone of the company's atmosphere. He had a
curious mass of energy inside him now. The Captain was less real than
himself..He approached the green entrance to the wood. There, in the
half-shade, he saw the horse standing, the sunshine and the tuckering
shadow of leaves dancing over his brown body. There was a clearing where
timber had lately been felled. Here, in the gold-green shade beside the
brilliant cup of sunshine, stood two figures, blue and pink, the bits of
pink showing out plainly. The Captain was talking to his lieutenant.
The orderly stood on the edge of the bright clearing, where great
trunks of trees, stripped and glistening, lay stretched like naked,
brown-skinned bodies. Chips of wood littered the trampled floor, like
splashed light, and the bases of the felled trees stood here and there,
with their raw, level tops. Beyond was the brilliant, sunlit green of a
"Then I will ride forward," the orderly heard his Captain say. The
lieutenant saluted and strode away. He himself went forward. A hot flash
passed through his belly, as he tramped towards his officer.
The Captain watched the rather heavy figure of the young soldier stumble
forward, and his veins, too, ran hot. This was to be man to man between
them. He yielded before the solid, stumbling figure with bent head. The
orderly stooped and put the food on a level-sawn tree-base. The Captain
watched the glistening, sun-inflamed, naked hands. He wanted to speak to
the young soldier, but could not. The servant propped a bottle against
his thigh, pressed open the cork, and poured out the beer into the mug.
He kept his head bent. The Captain accepted the mug.
"Hot!" he said, as if amiably.
The flame sprang out of the orderly's heart, nearly suffocating mm.
"Yes, sir," he replied, between shut teeth.
And he heard the sound of the Captain's drinking, and he clenched his
fists, such a strong torment came into his wrists. Then came the faint
clang of the closing of the pot-lid. He looked up. The Captain was
watching him. He glanced swiftly away. Then he saw the officer stoop and
take a piece of bread from the tree-base. Again the flash of flame went
through the young soldier, seeing the stiff body stoop beneath him, and
his hands jerked. He looked away. He could feel the officer was nervous.
The bread fell as it was being broken The officer ate the other piece.
The two men stood tense and still, the master laboriously chewing his
bread, the servant staring with averted face, his fist clenched.
Then the young soldier started. The officer had pressed open the lid
of the mug again. The orderly watched the lid of the mug, and the white
hand that clenched the handle, as if he were fascinated. It was raised.
The youth followed it with his eyes. And then he saw the thin, strong
throat of the elder man moving up and down as he drank, the strong jaw
working. And the instinct which had been jerking at the young man's
wrists suddenly jerked free. He jumped, feeling as if it were rent in
two by a strong flame.
The spur of the officer caught in a tree-root, he went down backwards
with a crash, the middle of his back thudding sickeningly against
a sharp-edged tree-base, the pot flying away. And in a second the
orderly, with serious, earnest young face, and under-lip between his
teeth, had got his knee in the officer's chest and was pressing the chin
backward over the farther edge of the tree-stump, pressing, with all his
heart behind in a passion of relief, the tension of his wrists exquisite
with relief. And with the base of his palms he shoved at the chin, with
all his might. And it was pleasant, too, to have that chin, that hard
jaw already slightly rough with beard, in his hands. He did not relax
one hair's breadth, but, all the force of all his blood exulting in
his thrust, he shoved back the head of the other man, till there was a
little cluck and a crunching sensation. Then he felt as if his head went
to vapour. Heavy convulsions shook the body of the officer, frightening
and horrifying the young soldier. Yet it pleased him, too, to repress
them. It pleased him to keep his hands pressing back the chin, to feel
the chest of the other man yield in expiration to the weight of his
strong, young knees, to feel the hard twitchings of the prostrate body
jerking his own whole frame, which was pressed down on it.
But it went still. He could look into the nostrils of the other man,
the eyes he could scarcely see. How curiously the mouth was pushed out,
exaggerating the full lips, and the moustache bristling up from them.
Then, with a start, he noticed the nostrils gradually filled with blood.
The red brimmed, hesitated, ran over, and went in a thin trickle down
the face to the eyes.
It shocked and distressed him. Slowly, he got up. The body twitched and
sprawled there, inert. He stood and looked at it in silence. It was a
pity it was broken. It represented more than the thing which had kicked
and bullied him. He was afraid to look at the eyes. They were hideous
now, only the whites showing, and the blood running to them. The face of
the orderly was drawn with horror at the sight. Will, it was so. In his
heart he was satisfied. He had hated the face of the Captain. It was
extinguished now. There was a heavy relief in the orderly's soul. That
was as it should be. But he could not bear to see the long, military
body lying broken over the tree-base, the fine fingers crisped. He
wanted to hide it away.
Quickly, busily, he gathered it up and pushed it under the felled
tree-trunks, which rested their beautiful, smooth length either end on
logs. The face was horrible with blood. He covered it with the helmet.
Then he pushed the limbs straight and decent, and brushed the dead
leaves off the fine cloth of the uniform. So, it lay quite still in the
shadow under there. A little strip of sunshine ran along the breast,
from a chink between the logs. The orderly sat by it for a few moments.
Here his own life also ended.
Then, through his daze, he heard the lieutenant, in a loud voice,
explaining to the men outside the wood, that they were to suppose the
bridge on the river below was held by the enemy. Now they were to march
to the attack in such and such a manner. The lieutenant had no gift of
expression. The orderly, listening from habit, got muddled. And when the
lieutenant began it all again he ceased to hear. He knew he must go. He
stood up. It surprised him that the leaves were glittering in the sun,
and the chips of wood reflecting white from the ground. For him a change
had come over the world. But for the rest it had not--all seemed the
same. Only he had left it. And he could not go back, It was his duty to
return with the beer-pot and the bottle. He could not. He had left all
that. The lieutenant was still hoarsely explaining. He must go, or they
would, overtake him. And he could not bear contact with anyone now.
He drew his fingers over his eyes, trying to find out where he was. Then
he turned away. He saw the horse standing in the path. He went up to it
and mounted. It hurt him to sit in the saddle. The pain of keeping his
seat occupied him as they cantered through the wood. He would not have
minded anything, but he could not get away from the sense of being
divided from the others. The path led out of the trees. On the edge of
the wood he pulled up and stood watching. There in the spacious sunshine
of the valley soldiers were moving in a little swarm. Every now and then,
a man harrowing on a strip of fallow shouted to his oxen, at the turn.
The village and the white-towered church was small in the sunshine. And
he no longer belonged to it--he sat there, beyond, like a man outside
in the dark. He had gone out from everyday life into the unknown, and he
could not, he even did not want to go back.
Turning from the sun-blazing valley, he rode deep into the wood.
Tree-trunks, like people standing grey and still, took no notice as he
went. A doe, herself a moving bit of sunshine and shadow, went running
through the flecked shade. There were bright green rents in the foliage.
Then it was all pine wood, dark and cool. And he was sick with pain,
he had an intolerable great pulse in his head, and he was sick. He had
never been ill in his life, he felt lost, quite dazed with all this.
Trying to get down from the horse, he fell, astonished at the pain and
his lack of balance. The horse shifted uneasily. He jerked its bridle
and sent it cantering jerkily away. It was his last connection with the
rest of things.
But he only wanted to lie down and not be disturbed. Stumbling through
the trees, he came on a quiet place where beeches and pine trees grew
on a slope. Immediately he had lain down and closed his eyes, his
consciousness went racing on without him. A big pulse of sickness beat
in him as if it throbbed through the whole earth. He was burning with
dry heat. But he was too busy, too tearingly active in the incoherent
race of delirium to observe.
He came to with a start. His mouth was dry and hard, his heart beat
heavily, but he had not the energy to get up. His heart beat heavily.
Where was he?--the barracks--at home? There was something knocking.
And, making an effort, he looked round--trees, and litter of greenery,
and reddish, night, still pieces of sunshine on the floor. He did not
believe he was himself, he did not believe what he saw. Something was
knocking. He made a struggle towards consciousness, but relapsed.
Then he struggled again. And gradually his surroundings fell into
relationship with himself. He knew, and a great pang of fear went
through his heart. Somebody was knocking. He could see the heavy, black
rags of a fir tree overhead. Then everything went black. Yet he did not
believe he had closed his eyes. He had not. Out of the blackness sight
slowly emerged again. And someone was knocking. Quickly, he saw the
blood-disgfigured face of his Captain, which he hated. And he held
himself still with horror. Yet, deep inside him, he knew that it was so,
the Captain should be dead. But the physical delirium got hold of him.
Someone was knocking. He lay perfectly still, as if dead, with fear. And
he went unconscious.
When he opened his eyes again, he started, seeing something creeping
swiftly up a tree-trunk. It was a little bird. And the bird was
whistling overhead. Tap-tap-tap----it was the small, quick bird rapping
the tree-trunk with its beak, as if its head were a little round hammer.
He watched it curiously. It shifted sharply, in its creeping fashion.
Then, like a mouse, it slid down the bare trunk. Its swift creeping sent
a flash of revulsion through him. He raised his head. It felt a great
weight. Then, the little bird ran out of the shadow across a still patch
of sunshine, its little head bobbing swiftly, its white legs twinkling
brightly for a moment. How neat it was in its build, so compact, with
pieces of white on its wings. There were several of them. They were so
pretty--but they crept like swift, erratic mice, running here and there
among the beech-mast.
He lay down again exhausted, and his consciousness lapsed. He had a
horror of the little creeping birds. All his blood seemed to be darting
and creeping in his head. And yet he could not move.
He came to with a further ache of exhaustion. There was the pain in his
head, and the horrible sickness, and his inability to move. He had
never been ill in his life. He did not know where he was or what he
was. Probably he had got sunstroke. Or what else?--he had silenced the
Captain for ever--some time ago--oh, a long time ago. There had been
blood on his face, and his eyes had turned upwards. It was all right,
somehow. It was peace. But now he had got beyond himself. He had never
been here before. Was it life, or not life? He was by himself. They
were in a big, bright place, those others, and he was outside. The town,
all the country, a big bright place of light: and he was outside, here,
in the darkened open beyond, where each thing existed alone. But they
would all have to come out there sometime, those others. Little, and
left behind him, they all were. There had been father and mother and
sweetheart. What did they all matter? This was the open land.
He sat up. Something scuffled. It was a little, brown squirrel running
in lovely, undulating bounds over the floor, its red tail completing the
undulation of its body--and then, as it sat up, furling and unfurling.
He watched it, pleased. It ran on friskily, enjoying itself. It flew
wildly at another squirrel, and they were chasing each other, and making
little scolding, chattering noises. The soldier wanted to speak to them.
But only a hoarse sound came out of his throat. The squirrels burst
away--they flew up the trees. And then he saw the one peeping round at
him, half-way up a tree-trunk. A start of fear went through him, though,
in so far as he was conscious, he was amused. It still stayed, its
little, keen face staring at him halfway up the tree-trunk, its little
ears pricked up, its clawey little hands clinging to the bark, its white
breast reared. He started from it in panic.
Struggling to his feet, he lurched away. He went on walking, walking,
looking for something for a drink. His brain felt hot and inflamed for
want of water. He stumbled on. Then he did not know anything. He went
unconscious as he walked. Yet he stumbled on, his mouth open.
When, to his dumb wonder, he opened his eyes on the world again, he
no longer tried to remember what it was. There was thick, golden light
behind golden-green glitterings, and tall, grey-purple shafts, and
darknesses further off, surrounding him, growing deeper. He was
conscious of a sense of arrival. He was amid the reality, on the real,
dark bottom. But there was the thirst burning in his brain. He felt
lighter, not so heavy. He supposed it was newness.
The air was muttering with thunder. He thought he was walking
wonderfully swiftly and was coming straight to relief---or was it to
Suddenly he stood still with fear. There was a tremendous flare of gold,
immense--just a few dark trunks like bars between him and it. All the
young level wheat was burnished gold glaring on its silky green. A
woman, full-skirted, a black cloth on her head for head-dress, was
passing like a block of shadow through the glistening, green corn, into
the full glare. There was a farm, too, pale blue in shadow, and the
timber black. And there was a church spire, nearly fused away in the
gold. The woman moved on, away from him. He had no language with which
to speak to her. She was the bright, solid unreality. She would make a
noise of words that would confuse him, and her eyes would look at him
without seeing him. She was crossing there to the other side. He stood
against a tree.
When at last he turned, looking down the long, bare grove whose flat bed
was already filling dark, he saw the mountains in a wonder-light, not
far away, and radiant. Behind the soft, grey ridge of the nearest range
the further mountains stood golden and pale grey, the snow all radiant
like pure, soft gold. So still, gleaming in the sky, fashioned pure out
of the ore of the sky, they shone in their silence. He stood and looked
at them, his face illuminated. And like the golden, lustrous gleaming
of the snow he felt his own thirst bright in him. He stood and gazed,
leaning against a tree. And then everything slid away into space.
During the night the lightning fluttered perpetually, making the whole
sky white. He must have walked again. The world hung livid round him for
moments, fields a level sheen of grey-green light, trees in dark bulk,
and the range of clouds black across a white sky. Then the darkness
fell like a shutter, and the night was whole. A faint mutter of a
half-revealed world, that could not quite leap out of the
darkness!--Then there again stood a sweep of pallor for the land, dark
shapes looming, a range of clouds hanging overhead. The world was a
ghostly shadow, thrown for a moment upon the pure darkness, which
returned ever whole and complete.
And the mere delirium of sickness and fever went on inside him--his
brain opening and shutting like the night--then sometimes convulsions of
terror from something with great eyes that stared round a tree--then
the long agony of the march, and the sun decomposing his blood-then
the pang of hate for the Captain, followed, by a pang of tenderness and
ease. But everything was distorted born of an ache and resolving into an
In the morning he came definitely awake. Then his brain flamed with
the sole horror of thirstiness! The sun was on his face, the dew was
steaming from his wet clothes. Like one possessed, he got up. There,
straight in front of him, blue and cool and tender, the mountains ranged
across the pale edge of the morning sky. He wanted them--he wanted them
alone--he wanted to leave himself and be identified with them. They did
not move, they were still and soft, with white, gentle markings of snow.
He stood still, mad with suffering, his hands crisping and clutching.
Then he was twisting in a paroxysm on the grass.
He lay still, in a kind of dream of anguish. His thirst seemed to have
separated itself from him, and to stand apart, a single demand. Then
the pain he felt was another single self. Then there was the clog of his
body, another separate thing. He was divided among all kinds of separate
beings. There was some strange, agonized connection between them, but
they were drawing further apart. Then they would all split. The sun,
drilling down on him, was drilling through the bond. Then they would
all fall, fall through the everasting lapse of space. Then again, his
consciousness reasserted itself. He roused on to his elbow and stared
at the gleaming mountains. There they ranked, all still and wonderful
between earth and heaven. He stared till his eyes went black, and the
mountains, as they stood in their beauty, so clean and cool, seemed to
have it, that which was lost in him.
When the soldiers found him, three hours later, he was lying with his
face over his arm, his black hair giving off heat under the sun. But he
was still alive. Seeing the open, black mouth the young soldiers dropped
him in horror.
He died in the hospital at night, without having seen again.
The doctors saw the bruises on his legs, behind, and were silent.
The bodies of the two men lay together, side by side, in the mortuary,
the one white and slender, but laid rigidly at rest, the other looking
as if every moment it must rouse into life again, so young and unused,
from a slumber.