Czechoslovak Stories/Every Fifth Man

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Half of our company stood on a height near a heavy battery of cannon. I was with the other half which took its position among the furrows of a potato-field, a considerable distance from our main army, which for two hours had kept up a fusillade with the enemy infantry, thinly spread out beyond a swampy meadow, on a low green hill. In the potato-field among the yellowish, frosted stalks where we lay, chiefly as guard for observing the left flank, the smoke whitened every little while and a ball sped idly somewhere into the broad pasture land on the elevated ground, where the enemy soldiers looked like small, bluish, sparsely planted flowers in a green field.

A shot whistled past my ear and lost itself in the soft and, as yet, transparently clear air.

I was lying in a deep unraked ridge of pebbly loam, holding in my hand a loaded gun aimed straight ahead. I was not shooting. It seemed useless to me. The potato-vine was near my eyes and exhaled an odor of decaying leaves. I looked about over the country and everything that appeared before me in the broad picture pleased me. The view was unobstructed and the infrequent shooting of this section of the army suggested merely a maneuver, more than a real battle. One felt a certain pleasure and freedom in being in this low country, and it was not disagreeable to lie in the furrows. My eyes were delighted with the harmony of the lovely autumn colors which in all their shades and tints had touched everything in the level field as well as in the small distant forests.

In front of me lay the infantryman, Vaněk, a tall, bony fellow with an irregular, pale-colored full beard, but with a good-natured manner and a simple, open face. He usually remained aloof out of some sort of rural shyness, and meditated quietly on his own affairs. He was an older man, married and the father of three children, as I learned in conversation with him. The tips of his big boots with their broad soles were dug into the furrow and his trousers were soiled from the soft earth.

“We’re well off here, aren’t we, Vaněk?” I said to him.

“Well off is right, Mr. Sergeant,” he answered readily. “Very comfortable.”

“If it would only be like this every day we’d be happy, wouldn’t we?”

“Well, I should say so! Ha! Ha!”

“Oh, as for our rustic,” sounded the thin, disagreeable voice of another infantryman, Ejem, lying not far off, “he is right at home here!” (They always called Vaněk “the rustic.”)

“He smells potatoes,” Ejem continued, laughing. “If he could only pull up a few and take them to his wife!”

The others all laughed. “Sure,” calmly added Vaněk.

“Here, you’re fairly rolling in potatoes, aren’t you?” Ejem teased. “And when at home someone gives you a potato you don’t know what it is and have to go to the neighbors to ask.”

The soldiers burst out laughing anew. Vaněk growled out something, but later laughed with the rest.

Just then we caught a glimpse of Major Holay riding up to our division on his powerful horse, choosing his way along the slope of the hill so that the enemy shots could not reach him. The horse was going at a trot, his broad, smooth breast shining in the sunlight, while his lifted head tossed restlessly. From his mouth frothed white foam and his feet moved quickly through the air like black flexible metal rods. The Major’s brown coat with its gold collar, his blue trousers and high boots were distinctly outlined in the center of the open spaces with their dark, autumnal coloring. We heard the hollow sound of the hoofs and the neighing of the horse, indeed it seemed to us that we heard even the smack of the Major’s lips and the peculiar swish of his boots against the straps.

“The Major is coming!” cried Ejem, and we all felt a sudden fear.

Vaněk moved a little in trying to arrange himself to lie as he had been taught in drill and as our service orders prescribed.

“On his raven-black steed he rides,” continued Ejem in a singing and unnatural voice as he set his gun close to his face. “We must act as if we were shooting,” he added, continuing to adjust himself.

The approaching Major Holay caused considerable stir among us, for his extreme severity was not at all in favor among the younger men of the army who were unused to the rigorous military service in which Holay, in former years, had grown up.

“Why is he coming here?” I thought to myself in fear, changing to a sort of feverishness. “Is it because we are lying here so comfortably and not firing much? He’s certain to order us to lie some different way and do more shooting.”

“Now then, fire! Fire away!” in muffled tones commanded Lieutenant Schuster who until now had said nothing. “In regular fashion and—give ’em plenty! Hufský, fire! Ejem, shoot! Polák, give heed!”

The shooting from our division in the potato-field echoed in frequent succession now, and into the air were carried innumerable puffs of white, smelling smoke. The observation and firing were now more alert as if we were Heaven knows how enthusiastic about this senseless fusillade. Major Holay had such an influence over us that we feared him and the majority of the soldiers hated him. His full, double-chinned milky white, shaved face, with its moustache and small side-whiskers, its large, sharp nose, closely compressed lips and half-closed eyes in their gray, half-concealing lashes was altogether too cold, cruel and disagreeable to win affection from anyone. He never smiled and always gazed off somewhere, shouting out at intervals his brusque orders in gruffly overbearing manner.

He was about six steps distant from us. We were now shooting copiously, keeping an eye on the Major meanwhile.

Suddenly a shot whizzed in a different direction than the rest. Immediately after we saw Major Holay leaning backward and about to fall from his horse.

“He is shot!” flashed through my brain, and a strange foreboding overpowered me.

“That was one of you!” furiously shrieked Schuster and leaped into the furrows where we were lying. His legs encased in knickerbockers were dark above me. A disagreeable chill went through my body.

No one answered. The Lieutenant’s violent cry was carried through the clear autumn sunshine.

“Some one of you fellows here! Who was it?” he cried in a hoarse voice. “Who was it?” he shouted again with a kind of fierce agitation.

We looked silently at the Major as he sank from his horse. His huge body bent backwards. His cap fell off and one foot was for an instant caught in the stirrup. The horse reared up and in wild affright started running across the plain, whitened with stubble. The Major’s body remained lying beside the road.

No one of us had yet uttered a word. The Lieutenant in the greatest excitement still shouted and scrutinized one gun after another. Everyone was aimed in the direction of the enemy. We had ceased shooting and lay motionless. Deep emotion held back our breath. Schuster’s black, fiery eyes glistened in his red face and fairly snapped flames at all of the prostrate soldiers.

“Who was it?” he screamed again, turning his face in the direction where lay our army.

I arose and placed myself directly in front of him. He was frightened.

“We cannot leave the Major lying there!” I said in a very earnest voice, looking into his glittering eyes. “He may be only wounded! We must go to his aid!” I spoke rapidly, looking about in alarm and forgetting all military precepts.

He was somewhat startled, amazed that I spoke suddenly of something altogether different from what he had, in the first instant, expected, and the fire in his eyes died down. A visible embarrassment took possession of him and he only babbled something indistinct into the air. Someone laughed, and this little burst of merriment incensed him anew.

“We must carry him away!” I said with definiteness.

“Yes, yes,” he replied, absently. “We will carry him away, of course—we’ll carry him away!” And he gazed around.

Immediately, at his command, his corporal with four men departed to carry away the corpse of Holay. We did no more firing. We looked continually in the direction in which they were bearing the Major. His horse galloping with flying mane disappeared somewhere near the road among the trees.

About an hour later the enemy infantry retired and our division returned to the main army. We went without a word, agitated and with misgivings. Constantly I saw in my mind’s eye Major Holay, his severe, milky-pale face and his blinking eyes. Even a strange grief filled my being and to my mind there kept coming, along the way, affecting memories of various incidents experienced with Major Holay. At times I was convinced that Major Holay was in reality a good man and I said, finally, aloud, “He was misunderstood, misunderstood!”

Hardly had we rejoined our company when our Captain, with ruddy face, rode out on his horse. Schuster stepped forward and announced to him what had happened.

“I know,” answered the Captain severely. “The shot came from our division. The bullet found in the breast of Major Holay is our bullet.” Then he turned to us. “Who did it?” he asked, raising himself on his stout mare.

No one answered. “Let him announce himself!” he shouted. Absolute silence reigned in our ranks. “As you know, in war there is no time for investigation. If you don’t tell who did it, I’ll order you all shot down!”

Lieutenant Schuster, standing beside the Captain, affected at these words a very stern mien, twisting his black moustaches.

“In five minutes,” shouted the Captain, “you will again form ranks. I invite you to deliver up the scoundrel who killed the Major. If not, you will all be shot!” And, urging on his horse, he rode quickly away.

A great anxiety forced itself into my bosom. The Captain’s words sounded forth sharply and icily. To my mind there came recollections of “articles” in times of war where it always stated, “He will be shot.”

The soldiers now began to talk noisily.

“Not a word will they get out of us!” they vowed mutually.

“They won’t do so very much to us!” said someone, and several others repeated the same opinion with emphasis. A sort of activity and excitement was now plainly noticeable in this division. All of them laughed. Only I felt anxious and depressed.

After a while the Captain rode up perspiring. He brought with him the orders of the Colonel. Seeing him, we became silent and looked at each other in sudden fear.

His face was angrily clouded, his full beard seemed to be grayer than usual and his actions were more determined and speedier. His stout horse kept rearing all the time and refused to quiet down. Among us, all laughter had quickly vanished. A grave mood fell on all when the Captain rode out before us and cried out, “Will you deliver up the criminal?”

His voice was icy, no longer as brawling as before, but more effective. I felt a chill from my feet clear to my head, and I looked around at the other men as if I expected that one of them would speak out. A deep, oppressive silence reigned.

The Captain then rode directly up to us and said something to Lieutenant Schuster, who, for reasons unknown to me, was flushing deeply. Then he lifted his head as high as possible and gave orders for us to stand in a single row, without regard to size or rank.

“Quickly! Quickly!” he shouted, seeing that the men stepped up to their neighbors with a sort of mistrust, slowness and fear.

As I passed Schuster he whispered to me, “Every fifth man-take care!”

Something immoderately, indefinably appalling fell on my chest. My heart began to beat wildly, the blood rushed to my head, and into my eyes a great heat poured. I could not at once comprehend the words of the Lieutenant and I pressed forward into the long row extending out in either direction. I found myself in the right wing, practically near the end of that long line, winding through the white oat stubble. I was without reflection, without any sort of clear conception, and I heard only as in a dream the shouting of the Captain, whose wide trousers on his massive legs were constantly before my eyes.

“Hurry quickly! Quickly!” he cried. “Into line! Into line!”

Of a sudden, a clear beam penetrated my brain. “Every fifth man,” sounded in my ears, and I comprehended the confidential message of Lieutenant Schuster.

“Every fifth man will be shot,” I whispered to myself. Oppressed with agony, I quickly counted from the right end. I was the tenth man. A tremendous fire and fright afflicted my soul and at that moment, with a strength that was not my own, I seized the man standing at my right, pushed him to the left and quickly leaped into his place. No one observed me and the fever within was relieved. I was saved.

Now, at last, I looked at the man standing to the left whom, by my one act, I had deprived of life.

It was Vaněk.

He stood calmly, good-humoredly, suspecting nothing, and holding in his work-calloused, bruised hands a gun. He was looking straight ahead with the same frank gaze which I had always known him to have, and with the trustfulness of an honest countryman he awaited a just decision. Even a slight, though very touching, smile played on his lips and in his eyes reposed a cheerful friendliness for all things on earth.

An unspeakable sorrow gripped me of a sudden. I wished to quickly dodge back to my former place, but the Captain caught sight of me.

“Stay in your place!” he roared, and turned ruddy to his forehead. His large eyes bulged out noticeably. “Whoever moves will be shot on the spot!”

All became silent. My heart seemed to pound furiously within me, but only at intervals. I looked around at Vaněk. He was smiling as he gazed out on the plain lying before us, over which the Colonel with some officers came riding towards us. Behind them advanced a company of some infantry regiment unfamiliar to me. All this happened quickly, rigorously, silently and withal mysteriously and ominously. My eyes roved from place to place while I waited an opportune moment to draw back Vaněk to his former place. But I dared not move again. The Captain watched me constantly.

Just then Lieutenant Schuster stepped up to our line and, seeming somehow taller and more dignified, counted out in his high-pitched voice, “One, two, three, four, five!” And seizing the soldier indicated by the number “five” by the collar he pulled him out in front of the line.

“One, two, three, four, five!” Vaněk was now drawn out in front. In embarrassment he smiled and looked about him good-naturedly as if he thought that he was to be elevated in rank or to be honored in some manner. He did not yet grasp what was really happening. But deep and genuine compassion, full of grief and pain, stifled me.

Schuster’s high-pitched voice continued to sound, moving farther towards the left. In front of us stood several soldiers. They did not know what position to assume, confusedly looking about at the officers who stood dispersed over the field.

Increasing anguish held my heart and throat in a vise. All of us were pale and terror stricken. Vaněk was looking about and, like a little child, he turned and smiled at us. Whenever he felt that he was observed by one of the officers he straightened up and, according to military rule, gazed intently ahead into vacancy.

I recalled many moments spent with him and to my mind came the rending consciousness that Vaněk had three children at home.

“This is terrible,” I whispered, quivering in every nerve. But I did not have the power to undertake a deed that would save his life. A sort of weakness of which I had not been conscious before, and which was due directly to the impotence of human nature, held me back. In my eyes a slight wave of heat, then tears and powerless rage followed each other in quick succession. I was crushed, but I could look at all that was happening about me somewhat more resolutely.

Schuster had finished counting. Twenty-one men stood in the foreground. The company which had just arrived with rapid step and in unusual order sent out eight men who took from the selected men their weapons.

Vaněk became pale and his tall body from sheer weakness took on a crooked appearance.

“Dear God!” he moaned softly, and his bony, bruised hands were clasped. He looked around at me and I hung my head. A portion of some sort of prayer I remembered from childhood came to my tongue. I wanted to whisper “Forgive” to him, but even this word remained on my lips, for the order was given to fall in. Immediately Schuster, with unusual de cision and haste, constantly admonishing someone in his high voice, which sounded strangely in my ears, led us away to the front ranks behind the retreating enemy infantry.

We pressed on like animals, obediently, rapidly and in utter speechlessness. We had all succumbed to the terrible result of the unjust punishment, and all of us were doubtless thinking of those who remained behind. My whole body trembled. Through my thoughts flashed all the incidents and all the figures of the soldiers, and longest to remain in my mind’s eye was always Vaněk with his good-hearted, childlike smile. A great tenseness began gradually to overpower me, a hot wave rolled into my cheeks, and my ears in strained attention searched the varying hum for the sound of firing.

At that instant the collective discharge of many guns howled behind us. I cried out faintly. For a moment all became black before my eyes. In my breast something ached as if my heart had been torn out by force. My whole being was crushed under a weight of grief.

And I began to pray the Lord’s Prayer fervently and sincerely as I had not been able to do since my earliest childhood.

Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1943, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.