My friend the artist once told me an anecdote – an illustrative story – about a captain of the emergency forces, in the days of our relative youth. He, the artist, had come to show me some proofs of a series of etchings on dreams and magic, along with some specimens of his work as a portraitist. The former did not interest me. They were not to my taste, and I had no desire to subscribe myself for a portion of the expenses involved in their printing.
I have always been frank about such things, and I did my friend the honour of being honest. His feathers remained ruffled until I expressed an interest in one particular set of the portrait sketches he had brought, studies of our country’s foremost militarists. He was happier then, and soon enough we found ourselves discussing military matters at large. Of course, it is true that such patter is as much part of an artist’s trade as painting, and I knew that the subject would eventually return to the question of my buying one or other of his pieces. But it was a pleasant enough way to pass an afternoon, and, since he has some small experience of war, it was not completely fruitless for me. So we exchanged stories for a little while, and at a certain point my friend set out on his anecdote of the captain – who had not, as it happens, found his way into the portfolio.
The tale itself is simple enough: the man was killed while trying to still a mob of peasants. This is a common enough fate, but one which in this case bears repeating. The incident occurred during one of those regular and sweeping famines that visited the south during that era, for reasons our journalists liked to dissect, and which we ourselves preferred to ignore. Some years they came because of drought, some because of war, and sure enough some of the wars came because of the famines that came from the droughts; and so forth. The causes and the effects intermingled. A famine is a famine, and we were bored of famines, above all far-off ones. Still, a residue of fellow feeling encouraged us to send soldiers to help the southerners. Or perhaps it was simply to quiet the journalists. In either case, we did it, and it was a gesture of some kindness, even if certain commentators took pleasure in pointing out (to those still inclined to read) that our soldiers were, in their way, exacerbating things.
It is true enough to say that our military policy, intended to aid and pacify, had for a short while the opposite effect: the villages became more violent with the troops than before. The troops after all, were as much in need of provision as the peasants, so they took to requisitioning what they might, slaughtering what little livestock survived, stealing stores, et cetera. And sure enough, not only did order momentarily remain unrestored, it was even seen to worsen. But this soon passed. The peasants took to refusing their protectors’ requests. Wherever they could, they put down stock with the ingenuity of rats, and pled hunger when the soldiers came. And in their turn, hungry themselves, the soldiers began to perceive the situation more clearly than before. To an infantryman some days without food, it seemed safer to burn the villages and shoot or bayonet the inhabitants as they fled than to wait for discontent to organise itself into revolution; and so it occurred.
By this simple measure, order was adequately and swiftly restored. At least, the poor no longer killed the poor over a last loaf of bread or a single egg – or even the corpse of a cat, as one story tells. The measures prevented the peasants from doing these things, and from taking to the roads as vagrants – two consequences which would have been insupportable in the country as a whole – and so, regardless of false beginnings, the army’s presence proved expedient.
If, under peaceful northern skies, or by the hearth of a well-stocked home, this seemed cruel, it was none the less recognised for its efficacy, and recognition climbed the ranks, until it came to be accepted in the circles of command that, in times such as these, cruelty was the very form of pragmatism. Is it not, after all, a better thing to meet death at the hands of a professional soldier than at those of your neighbour? And how much better still than to have your own wife and children turn upon you in the night (for this is also recorded)?
There did follow, it is true, a period of abandon that was in certain quarters considered distasteful. The infantry perceived for a time that their duty was best effected in a debauch of murder, which remains as natural to us as to God’s lesser creations. And, with the sanction of their commanders, an eagerness did enter many of the soldiers. But I defend its efficacy, and say that a professional soldier should love his trade as a tailor loves the cutting of cloth. And I submit that the proper object of distaste is a man who knows not his trade, not a man who takes to it like an old husband to a young wife.
But not all perform their tasks with the steady hand of David before the giant. All trades have their fools: the tailor who stains the cloth with the blood of a pricked fingertip; druggists who confuse the poison and the purgative; there is a finite quantity of craft in this world, and not all men are allotted equal. So too with the soldier’s trade: it has its craftsmen and its journeymen. The craftsmen are those who are able to recognise in the violence of our actions here below the pattern of the skies above; the journeymen make no such leap of conception. It might be said, sadly, that true craftsmen are the minority, that it is the incompetent who predominate. And certain it is that among our armies were a great mass of men with no sense for the placing of blade or bullet – of whom it might, in a flash of fireside humour, be said that they had no comprehension of the grace in the coup de grâce.
What should be understood, however, is that it was they, the blind to beauty, who bred the abhorrence conceived among the laity for the cruelty employed in the provinces. The citizens of the north failed, simply, to understand that the term was, and remains, more proper to the last refinement of the soldier’s skill than to the maladdress of the incompetent. The confusion is as understandable as it was regrettable, of course. At the time there were a great many incompetent soldiers; and their doings, being the most widely known among the wider population, threw a great shadow over those of the craftsmen – though those in command, having other matters to deal with, cared little for the opinions of the ignorant, even as they became more and more pernicious.
The eventual importance of such opinions is beside the point here, of course. It is not the laity and their distaste that interest me, but the army itself. I had often considered the distance between the craftsman and the journeyman, but listening to my friend recount his anecdote, I recognised that more was to be understood of the soldier’s craft. When the journeymen went about the countryside ignorant of the artistry that escaped them, not only the craftsmen looked on, but also those fastidious creatures who wished out of the trade altogether. The competent, and the more than competent, recognised in the maladroit a failure of understanding and refined their own craft, perfecting themselves to a clarity of action which has rarely been equalled. But the fastidious, shocked and uncomprehending, retreated in revulsion not only from the journeymen but from the craft those journeymen had profaned. There were desertions, and higher in the ranks there were defections, there were even protests and the necessary concomitant deaths. For though they might have found favour with the more delicate citizenry of the north, the fastidious were considered by their commanders simply to be failing in their duty.
It seemed to me that this story of the captain showed the verdict of the commanders to be shared by no lesser authority than Fate herself. At the least, it shows that she considered the methods of the fastidious impractical, and, by that measure alone, worthy of her disdain. This captain – whose name it has pleased history to forget – was one of those who had chosen to remain in the field, despite his evident delicateness, having taken it upon himself to pacify the affected villages without killing those at the root of the violence. He resolved to take only what food his troops needed for bare sustenance, to set in order each village and, as if the situation were tenable, depart again. Though no record survives, it is to be assumed that he was not popular with his men. It is a piquant detail that despite his refusal to resort to the gun in his duties, he prided himself on his marksmanship. He passed each day’s ride happily hunting the beasts and fowl of the field – such as they were in this time of scarcity. He was pleased to feed his men on rabbit, squirrel, or any manner of bird, rather than take a beef or goat for services rendered. He scorned birdshot, for, being of a delicate disposition, he was as much unwilling to pick pellets from his meat as he was to kill a starving peasant.
We can add to this the fact that our fastidious captain was guilty of the sin of pride. For his ability, with nothing more than his pistol, to fell targets at magnificent distance, he considered himself a model of military conduct and a prime example of manhood. When he achieved such a feat, he not only had his men play gun-dogs and fetch his kill, but he had them count the strides taken back to him from where the dead beast fell. It is said to have been his mania to record each distance in a pocketbook devoted to this sole purpose.
To his obsession, furthermore, he applied the mind of an engineer. He introduced certain improvements to his piece: a wider bore, with a form of rifling he had designed himself. It is obvious enough that a more sensible man would simply use a well-made musket, but not our captain; he stuck to his fowling piece. The bore allowed him to use a heavier ball, minimising the effects of wind upon its flight – although commensurate corrections of aim were necessary to compensate for the rapidity with which the ball, drawn by its weight, converged upon the ground. To this end, he designed and installed a delicate sight with correctable elevation and a nitid brass pin. The ball in question was of such a calibre that it could entirely behead a bird the size of a dove or wood-pigeon. The pistol itself is said to have had a uniquely loud report.
Matters came to a head thus. After riding into one village, the captain presented himself to the mayor. As is the case still now, the mayor of a peasant village was himself nothing more than a peasant. But the captain went through a ceremony of meeting the mayor in each village he came to. It is to be assumed that the mayor was wary of the captain, as he had right to be. They went into his house together to discuss the situation; the mayor was presumably ready to plead the poverty of his village, lie about their reserves, protest their peacefulness and loyalty. The captain in turn would have given him the reassurances he offered to everyone. Perhaps they broke bread, sipped whatever peasant wine was offered. Then they heard the angry sounds of a crowd.
Here two differing accounts emerge. The first says that the crowd had gathered around two neighbours fighting over a loaf of bread. Both women maintained that the other had stolen it. They fought. The crowd took sides, a brawl ensued. The captain’s men watched, not knowing without him at hand what action to take, and just stood aside until the noise itself fetched him from the house.
A second account says that the noise was not that of the peasants fighting, but of the village women haranguing the troops. While the men were resting in the square, the crones had discovered the courage to confront them. A corporal attempted to quiet the crowd by holding a knife to a young girl’s throat. The women, taking further exception to this, fetched their own knives. Men began to appear from the fields. One can picture quite clearly scythes and cleavers ranged against swords and bayonets.
After this the two accounts coincide again. Summoned by his men or drawn by the noise of the mob, the captain came to the square with his pistol drawn. He shouted for silence. He shouted again and was ignored. Finally, he fired his pistol into the air. The crowd parted, either around the corporal with the girl, or around the two scuffling neighbours. Everything was still for a few seconds. The captain said nothing. He started to walk toward the centre of the square and covered a full 10 yards before he fell. In the meantime no one had moved. A soldier ran to the body. In the top of the skull there was a clean, black hole, almost the size of a dove’s head, where the ball had entered. Falling from the sky, it passed directly through the brain, ending somewhere in his chest, with no other sign than this neat aperture in the cranium.
History gives examples eloquent enough for you to guess, reader, what his men might have done next.
This could have been Fate’s final word on the matter, but, sadly, it is not so simple. When I extracted the obvious moral, the artist told me of another incident, also in the south, from the same period. This time it involved a captain of particular skill, a man who took no small pleasure in his work and was, accordingly, respected by his soldiers. He and his troops fed themselves well by grace of the villages they visited, and the villagers in turn were relieved entirely of their hunger, into the hands of God or his rebel servant, as the goodness of their lives dictated.
To my mind, the good captain’s method is a study in the art of war which merits repeating in full. The troop numbered in all 12 soldiers. They set out with their horses, their arms, tents and blankets. In addition, each man was allotted the standard ration of rice, dried sausage and sundries. These rations were carried together in a small cart which went behind. Such food does not supply a body of active men for long, so the troop was to augment its store as it rode. Early in their progress into the affected areas, they came across the dwelling of an old couple. By all accounts the house was no hovel; it had a deep well and the pair had laid in sufficient reserves to last them, perhaps, to the very end of the crisis.
The captain found them lacking in hospitality. After some negotiation, he slit both of their throats. He and his men ransacked the house and appropriated all the food therein, along with a covered wagon to carry it. The bounty amounted to some small barrels of salt pork, several small sacks of dried beans, pulses, et cetera, along with potatoes, onions, some honey, several large sacks of good quality rice, some two or three again of wheat flour, as well as a few dried sausages. They also found the wife’s sourdough pot.
They spent two days at the house in preparation. With water from the well they filled a bucket and a large pan, into which they poured the honey. They divided the sourdough between the two containers and placed them by the stove, which they banked up for the night. They ate, played cards, and slept. In the morning they took the liquid in the foaming buckets and mixed it with a great mound of flour to make a dough upon the kitchen table. This they left, again resting near the stove, well banked up.
Here they were confronted with the difficulty of cooking their bread, the oven of the house not being of sufficient size to accommodate such a quantity of loaves. After a discussion, it was decided to cannibalise the flagstones of the kitchen floor. (It becomes even more evident here that the dead peasants cannot have been of too mean a state at all, or else, it strikes me, they should have had a floor of trod clay and not stone.) The troops prised the flags up with the points of their bayonets and carried them into the garden. Laying some of the stones on the ground, they used others, leant together, to form a roof over them, leaving a low, tented chamber inside. They constructed three of these makeshift ovens, each finished by sealing its joints with wet clay before being mounded with dry earth for insulation. The ovens were then filled with wood and fired. The soldiers, meanwhile, shaped the dough into rounds, to bake in all perhaps a hundred rough loaves. Slid onto the hot ashes of the dead fires, the first batch was cooked quickly enough for the men to lunch on a portion of them, fresh and hot, with dried sausage from the peasants’ stock. Well fed, they were allowed the leisure of a siesta while the remaining loaves were laid out to cool in the shadow of the house.
They were woken by the bleating of goats. A family of them had been attracted by the bread and set to eating it. Two men slaughtered and gutted them while the others finished with the last batch of loaves. Even half-starved, they roasted handsomely enough to be just reward for a day’s long labour.
The next morning, with the bread packed into sacks, the men set off. The shape of the day ahead would repeat itself perhaps a dozen times in the coming period. They follow the dusty road to the next village. Sending the youngest trooper ahead – we imagine a boy, perhaps 12, large-eyed and innocent – to arrive before them and announce relief. Twelve men coming, with bread and rice. Food enough to help you through this terrible time. Words of reassurance. They will help you in the fields, set your town to order. But first, a square meal. Where is your mayor? The men arrive an hour or so later – perhaps a bugle sounded at the first house. The captain stands aloof while loaves are thrown to the rabble. He meets the mayor; they speak; the mayor is reassured. The captain cannot promise to help without the village helping itself. The mayor is to summon a meeting tonight: the men will be organised to get the most from the land during the drought. The women will be divided into rotas. From now, there will be a soup made each evening for the whole village. Bread will be rationed. Everybody will have enough to eat. Not enough to grow fat upon, but a sufficiency nonetheless.
The meeting is called. Further reassurance is given. The soldiers are billeted in pairs, they depart with their hosts. Full of bread and soup the village sinks into a sleep more peaceful than that of many nights.
Starting with their own hosts, the soldiers move house by house silently in pairs. Each pair has a piece of chalk to mark the doors of the houses finished with. Then, finally, sleep. The next day, the bodies are piled in one house. The remaining homes are ransacked. Stores are gathered, the valuables divided, and the domestic business of baking and packing starts again. Full-bellied, they set fire to the corpse house and move on. Here and there they take the time to slaughter whatever cattle survive, eating their fill before they salt or dry the remainder. It is known that at least once the troop arrived in a village accompanied by a pair of live oxen. The captain played variations on his theme.
When events turned, there was little warning of it. The troop arrived at a village and the captain made his normal speech. Months into the crisis the gathered peasants were thin, but healthy. They had been organised by their mayor much along the lines suggested by the captain. They were glad for his help, but others had greater need. The soldiers could leave the next day. The captain too was glad. He was pleased to see a village governed with such wisdom during a time of crisis. After a night’s sleep, he and his men would take their aid where it was more sorely needed.
Looking on the assembled crowd, the captain imagined their stores and found himself anticipating the next day’s sack with particular pleasure. He predicted a haul of some size. His men retired with their allotted hosts. As was usual, the captain went with the mayor. At the mayor’s house he found his anticipation strengthened. The kitchen was hung with sausages, and with them perhaps 10 wizened hams of some dwarf breed of pig. Each a small but veritable ham. When he expressed his astonishment, the mayor explained that these were the property of the whole village. He rationed each day some meat to his people, along with grain or rice; whatever the stores could afford.
Would the captain like to taste? Perhaps some wine as well? His wife sliced some ham and brought them some bread and oil to accompany it. They sat and ate.
As the night passed, the captain found himself warming to this peasant, not just through the food and wine, but with something approaching the pride of an older brother. The peasant told him of a day when the villagers had discovered half a dozen bandits who had been stealing cattle. They ran them before the dogs like hares. The mayor spoke of the event with a satisfaction in which the captain heard his own. The bandits had run in the direction of their camp and the one who survived long enough to reach it had led the mayor’s dogs to a herd of cattle stolen from several nearby villages. The village acquired the herd for common use. A calf was slaughtered in celebration – less bloodily, the mayor noted, than the bandits themselves – and the villagers feasted that night, just as their dogs had during the day.
The captain listened with pleasure and good humour. He looked across the table at a man whose moustache echoed his own – a man of his own age and stature, of like mind, habits and tastes, and felt himself to be with a brother in arms, though an enemy. He removed his jacket and sword and relaxed in his chair.
Together they toasted the death of the six thieving hares. With each glass of wine, the captain was aware that his men were working toward them through the village. Knowing that the mayor’s time was short he offered him a little brandy from his own flask. They toasted again the hares. The captain toasted the fine ham. The mayor toasted the fine ham. They both toasted the mayor’s wife for making such fine ham. They picked its sinews from between their teeth and drank. Each sip bought the moment of the mayor’s death nearer, and the captain vowed to do it cleanly, when his men arrived, no sooner. When they shared a song, they placed their hands on each other’s shoulders and serenaded the mayor’s wife.
Soon, the wine and brandy combined with the day’s march and the captain found himself becoming drowsy. The mayor’s jovial hand upon his shoulder shifted itself. As if through thick glass the captain saw the mayor stand up before him. The hand grasped his hair and tilted his face upward. He looked up into the mayor’s eyes. Then everything began to recede. The hand let his face sink onto the table. Then, through darkness, the captain perceived that his boots were being pulled off.
When he woke, he was still at the kitchen table. The hams hung in shafts of sunlight. In his shirt and britches the captain stumbled up toward the door. In the courtyard he went to the pump: dry, of course. He hung for a moment upon it while he tried to gather himself. On the ground before him he saw a fragment of white chalk. A few yards away he saw another. He ran back to the kitchen. His jacket and boots were gone, so too his sword and pistol. He searched out a knife and went outside again.
The line of chalk led him only a little way. Soon they changed to bloodier signs. He saw in the dust fingers, severed neatly at the knuckles, pointing the way toward the edge of the village. Some had been displaced by whatever carrion feeders lived on in the drought, but the path was clear.
Under the noon sun, the fingers gave way to a broad and steady streak of near-black in the road, a rusty stain clotting thickly here and there in clumps of dirt. At its end stood an oak, in the shade of which the troops’ 12 muskets were leaned one against another, bayonets fixed, as if ready for battle. The ground before them was black with flies. One bough of the oak stretched out horizontally some 10 feet about the ground, its bark scored deeply where a rope ran over it, to a winch, for hoisting the village pigs, heads down, to have their throats slit. The rope hung empty over a squat, full barrel.
Over the bayonets the captain saw no one but himself, staring back at him, his face shaded beneath his hat, his uniform coat unbuttoned at the collar. His mirror self had men on either side, in uniform, with peasant faces insolent beneath military caps. Each held a dog, pulling on its chain.
The mayor came before the leaned muskets and stood looking at the captain. The captain watched as the mayor straightened his uniform, adjusted it. The mayor put out his arms before himself and considered the braiding on his cuffs, then he looked at the captain again.
‘Good morning, captain,’ he said.
‘Good morning, captain,’ the captain replied.
He dropped the kitchen knife and stood in silence for a few moments.
‘No need to call me captain, captain.’
‘If the cap fits.’
The mayor raised his hand and tipped his cap slightly. He smiled at the captain, ‘Thank you. It does. Your jacket is a little tight around the neck, I’m sad to say.’ He gestured to the unbuttoned collar, ‘Still.’
‘Could I trouble you for a drink?’
‘It shan’t worry you long.’
‘No,’ said the captain, ‘I suppose it won’t.’ He shook his head, ‘My men?’
‘Need you ask?’
‘Out of curiosity.’
‘We looked after them, and my wife is looking after them now. She is an excellent hostess, as you know.’
‘We are not so hungry that we need chew on fingers and toes, captain,’ said the mayor. The peasants on either side of him laughed. ‘And besides, I did not want you to lose your way just now.’
‘I should thank you for your hospitality.’
‘No, captain, thank you. We’re grateful for the supplies. And your boots, of course.’
‘Like the cap.’
‘We felt you might be faster barefooted.’
‘Hares don’t wear boots after all.’
‘You see. Good luck, captain. I should run now, if I were you.’
And with that, the mayor began counting under his breath. The captain turned to run.
The artist stopped at this. I found – still find – myself unable to extract a moral from his tale. I respect both the mayor and the captain, as I am sure they respected one another. I even respect the dogs who ate so well that day thanks to these two men. But a moral evades me. I can only add the artist’s own coda.
Sometime later, when the drought had worsened still, a captain and his men rode out of the village just as a captain and his men had ridden in. They visited the villages all around and eased their peasants out of their stricken lives and continued onward, contributing to the aid efforts, as efficient as the men whose uniforms they wore.
It is said that for conspicuous efficacy, their captain received promotion, and upon that promotion followed other promotions. When he reached the rank of general, he was welcomed at the tables of the northern gentry, and found himself at that level of society where one is expected to commission portraits. Though I have not had the privilege of seeing the finished piece, I can say that in my friend’s sketches at least, good humour shines through his cheeks like lamplight.