Czechoslovak Stories/Theories of Heroism
THEORIES OF HEROISM
“It’s ten years since then,” the Captain resumed, after long urging. “Our battalion was in Hercegovina. The devil was to blame for that campaign. You have no doubt read in the papers enough about all the trials, misfortunes and sufferings endured. Bah! that’s all only a shadow of the horrible reality. That was not war—it was a chase after a rabble of wild men in which the necks of the pursuers were in danger every second, and if I were to tell all that we suffered you would say, ‘It isn’t possible for a man to live through all that.’ And yet a man had to live through it. Habit— A man gets used to everything in this world.
“But to get to what I really want to tell I will leave out the description of all the skirmishes and battles which we engaged in that fall and winter. I. will pass over at once to Gacko.
“We struck Gacko in March. There our company remained in garrison. At that time I was a First Lieutenant.
"Gacko is an abominable nest. A dirty, frowning village of Christians and Turks who would gladly have killed us in perfect unanimity of mind. Whether a a youth or an old man met you—each one fairly pierced you with his eyes.
“The women there were very odd. You hear often of the beauty of Hercegovinian women, you see their pictures—I ought not to spoil your illusions. I looked at every woman that I met, and I arrived at an opposite conclusion on the beauty question. All of them were ugly, positively hideous and withered, as if they had never been young. If there happened to be one here and there that was really young she was ugly just like the rest.
“The Turkish women were just the same. We saw them often. They were veiled up to their eyes—but those eyes sufficed for the observer. They were eyes, altogether so stupid, so entirely without shine or beauty that they gave birth among us to the permanent joke that their faces were veiled out of consideration for our refined sense of beauty. And, strangely enough, too, this joke was taken up and soon spread over all Hercegovina.
“And the life there! Drill, sentinel inspection, drill and sentinel inspection! It was a dog’s life—worse than the marches and battles which we had to go through before. Our only joy, in reality, our only consolation was wine. And a man sat in the casino (it was a filthy hut, one large room with a low, smokedup ceiling) and drank and forgot. Yes, a man forgot and drank—and frequently drank down his whole future.
“The entertainment there was not startlingly varied. We played cards, talked, sang. We liked to strike up the melancholy Hercegovinian songs. Our conversations were about every possible thing on earth. Often we waded into subjects which none of us understood.
“One evening I returned with my division from a sentry inspection. We were tired to death. For ten whole hours we had climbed cliffs, crawled through ravines and waded through snow up to our knees. The wind blew first from one direction and then from the other and dashed frosty pieces of snow into our faces. The men did not even eat or undress, but crawled into their beds and slept.
“I entered the barracks and sank into a chair. Wine and cigarettes revived me to some extent.
“In the casino it was lively.
“My comrades sat or stood around a table near the stove. They were all absorbed apparently in an interesting conversation. At first I did not understand a word, for several of them were talking at once. The discussion evidently had become intensely interesting, now only one question with its respective answer at a time was to be heard, the rest listening intently.
“I shoved my chair a little closer.
“‘And I insist on my own view,’ said Lieutenant Martini, with animation, ‘and I repeat once more that a man who values his life at nothing, who has nothing to lose in life, is the bravest soldier.’
“Martini was an Italian. He was tall with sunburnt cheeks, raven hair and moustache, eyes dark as coals and a quick temper. When he talked he gesticulated with his hands and shouted as if he stood before a division of his soldiers. .
“‘And I dispute that,’ after a pause, spoke Lieutenant Šetina, a Czech from Bohemia. ‘A soldier to whom life is nothing cannot value it and will risk it for every piece of foolishness, on every trivial occasion—that’s poor principle. Such a man is not a hero in my eyes. A hero must know the value of his life. He protects it as his dearest possession as long, of course, as his defense of it squares with his military honor and conscience. He must know that with his life there disappears a sword from the ranks of the army of his country and therefore he ought to appreciate the worth of his life.’
“‘Šetina is right,’ interrupted Captain Kristovic, a native of Croatia, rocking on his chair.
“‘I still insist on my own view,’ burst out Martini. ‘One sword more or less—his Majesty always has a substitute. No one but a philistine or a coward would act as Šetina says. An Austrian officer sees no heroism in it.’
“Šetina’s cheeks filamed. He struck the table with his clenched fist and cried out, ‘And I again see in your ideal of heroism only an example of folly! It is wholly unreasonable! Just call back to mind the history of the wars of 1859 and 1866. The Austrian officers considered it dishonorable to lie down on the ground or to kneel behind their firing-lines. And the consequence? The officers were shot down at the very first charge! That is a slightly illusory heroism. I shall risk my life only on an important occasion—in matters of nonsense I shall protect it. Thus every respectable soldier feels and does—unless he is a crack-brained lunatic!
“‘Šetina is right.’
“A few other expressions of approval were heard around the room.
“Martini’s hand trembled. His dark face grew crimson. Ominous lightnings flashed from his eyes.
“‘Lieutenant,’ he said, controlling himself and forcing his voice into the tones of a formal conversation, ‘I demand that you moderate your expressions. That is the opinion I hold.’
“He laid special stress on the word ‘I.’ We understood him. Martini was known to be the best swordsman in the whole battalion. Neither did his revolver ever miss aim.
“Suddenly we began to comprehend the gravity of the situation. However, before a single appeasing word could be spoken, Šetina arose and said with forced calmness, ‘Lieutenant, I have given my private judgment of a man who would, according to your principles, lay claim to the name of a hero.’
“A smothered assent was heard around the room. We felt that Šetina was acting with dignity.
“This approbation fired Martini even more.
“‘Lieutenant, I remind you once more that behind that idea I stand,’ burst out Šetina, likewise angered.
“‘Take that back,’ roared Martini.
“‘I’m not afraid of you,’ answered Šetina, and looked icily into his eyes.
“We all arose. Šetina was the favorite of all the officers of the battalion. His complexion was as fair as a girl’s. He had blue eyes and a blond moustache. In the service he was without a flaw. As a companion he was always pleasant and ever a perfect friend. Here in Prague he had an aged mother and a sweetheart. He was only waiting for the end of the campaign, when he was to be made a first lieutenant, and then he intended to marry. He always wrote to his mother once a week and to his sweetheart every other day. This letter he always wrote regularly, even if it were only a few lines in length. Sometimes there was something impressively funny about it. I had often seen him writing on the very battle-field. He would sit in the snow warming his rigid right hand on a cigarette, and would write on a piece of paper held on his knee.
“Martini wasn’t much liked among us. He was a cynic, feared for his dexterity at fencing and for his sure aim with the revolver. He liked to mock, with special malevolence, at every sacred feeling known to man. He himself had not an atom of sentiment. Of his parents or home he never spoke a word. His soldiers he treated roughly and without a touch of feeling. He had never liked Šetina, probably because of the popularity the latter enjoyed, due to the charm of his personality.
“Šetina could not retract his words—that was certain; he could not lower his dignity to that extent. We tried to appease Martini, we explained to him in the mildest manner—in vain.
“‘Take back—take back everything,’ he raged.
“Šetina stood there pale and spoke no word. It was as if a horrible foreboding had taken possession of his soul. At intervals his fingers dug into his palms spasmodically, and his lips quivered.
“We pleaded with Martini. He only sneered maliciously.
“Here and there a few threats were heard.
“Martini tossed his head, looked around the casino and said, bitingly: ‘Gentlemen, has any one else anything against me? Just be kind enough to come forward. We’ll settle it all at once.’
“A duel was unavoidable.
“I went out with Šetina into the dark night. To the hut where he lived it was only a few hundred feet.
“The sky was overclouded. The snow cast into this darkness a sort of grayish obscurity.
“Šetina did not speak. He was whistling indistinctly some sort of march in quick tempo. We reached his house. He extended his hand to me.
“‘I’d invite you in for a glass of cognac—but forgive me this time I must write to my dear one,’ he said with a sort of forced quietness. ‘Apropos—tomorrow you’ll assist me, will you not?’ And pressing my hand he disappeared.
“Early in the morning of the next day we quickly went through the formalities of a duel. After long talking, explaining, pleading and threatening, the Lieutenant-Colonel gave his permission—that’s true but on the whole it was, after all, only an underhand sort of affair, this forced duel. There was not enough powerful argument to satisfy a higher court, and yet the affair could not be settled otherwise than by the use of the revolver. You see, Šetina could not easily manage a sword. His right hand was somewhat crippled from a ball which had struck him during our march over the Hercegovinian rocks. By the way, I recall how he often bit his lips until they bled whenever there was changeable weather. That’s how much the wound burned and stung.
“The casino was chosen as the scene of action. It couldn’t take place elsewhere the circumstance, the unsettled condition of things, and all that. I was Šetina’s second.
“Two army revolvers were brought.
“With a trembling hand I loaded them. I had an evil foreboding.
“The tables and chairs were shoved into one corner. The casino throughout its length was cleared. From wall to wall, lengthwise of the room, it was eighteen paces. We measured fifteen paces and marked the distance with chalk.
“The battle for life and death was to begin.
“I looked at Šetina. I scrutinized his features carefully for a sign of fear, anxiety or some sort of misgiving. I am to some extent superstitious, and I would have foretold a bad ending. I saw nothing. He calmly placed himself in position and smiled blissfully, as if thoughts of his bride and of his mother were occupying him. At intervals he snapped the fingers of his left hand.
“I took new hope. Šetina was also a good shot—at that moment he was calm—what then could happen Involuntarily I smiled at my former anxieties.
“At the signal ‘three’ the rivals were to fire simultaneously.
“My last attempt at a reconciliation was rejected by both—by Martini wrathfully, by Šetina with a smile.
“The order sounded. Two flashes sped across the space of the room, which immediately filled with smoke. We heard a heavy fall and the clink of breaking glass.
“With arms outstretched Šetina lay near the wall with his face to the ground. His forehead was shattered. Portions of the brain were on the wall. From his head the blood was spurting. He was dead.
“His ball struck several feet above Martini’s head into a portrait of the emperor and broke the glass.
“Heaven only knows how he aimed. I suspect that he purposely aimed high.
“That is the end of the story. I think of it very often. But what is the use of it all, now? Oftentimes those two theories of heroism float through my head, and it seems to me that that combat was a duel of theories. Šetina’s theory fell. Šetina himself gave the greatest argument in proof of Martini’s theory. He died for a piece of folly, but he died like a hero. I constantly see him before me. Oh, that life was indeed worthy of a more beautiful end.”
“And Martini?” I asked the Captain, much affected.
“Martini?” he repeated as he spat disgustedly. “Martini is today the owner of a large estate. He married a rich girl whom he did not love and withdrew from the army.
“And you poets,” he said, bitterly, after a pause, “find everywhere and depict always ‘poetic justice’! Look for it in real life! Find it—if you can! To be sure, poetry is only a pastime for wealthy people—and such must not have their nerves shaken by some harsh truth. You have everything smoothed out—everything lovely—it all fairly sparkles—scoundrels are punished and virtuous lovers secure each other—but in reality—
“But lest I forget—Šetina’s mother was stricken with paralysis on hearing of her son’s death. What became of his sweetheart I don’t know. She has probably become someone’s wife.”