The Shield/The Jew
Mikail Petrovich Artzibaslief, the author of Sanine was born in the year 1878 in Southern Russia. He is widely read both in his own country and outside of its borders. In 1905 he took part in the revolutionary movement, and was indicted, but escaped punishment because of the temporary success of the popular movement at the end of that year.
By M. ARTZIBASHEF
IT so happened that the second platoon of the third squad of the Ashkadar regiment found itself completely cut off from the main body of the army, and this without the loss of a single cartridge or soldier.
How this came about, and why a group of men, fifteen or twenty strong, had suddenly become an independent fighting unit, none of them could tell.
At the outset, the entire Ashkadar regiment zealously trudged throughout the long autumn night along an interminable road, leading no one knew where, into the dark, damp, and hostile distance. To smoke or to converse was forbidden. In the dark, the black mass of the regiment, bristling with its bayonets like some huge, porcupine-like creature, crawled steadily onward, filling the air with the shuffling of innumerable feet. The men kept stumbling over each other, and swore viciously in half tones; they slipped in the mud and sank knee-deep into the wheel-tracks filled with cold water. "Some road!" they sighed quietly.
At dawn the regiment was brought to a halt and was stretched along the edge of a wide potato field, which the soldiers had never seen before. It was drizzling with sickening persistence, and the dark-blue distances, mildly sloping and mournful, were blurred in the haze of the rain. On both sides, as far as eye could reach, ranks of grey officers and soldiers were wretchedly soaking in the rain. Water was dripping from their sullen faces and it looked as though they were all weeping over their fate—the fate which had cast them upon this strange, unknown, God-forsaken field. In a few hours many of them will perhaps be lying dead amidst the half-rotted potato stems on the wet soil with their pallid faces upturned to the cold heavens, the very ones which now weep also over their dear, distant country.
Behind, a battery crew was vainly attempting to set the cannon which were sinking into the soaked plough-land. One could hear the hoarse angry voices, the cracking of whips, and the heavy, strained snorting of horses. In front of them lone officers wandered in drenched cloaks in the rain; still farther behind the curtain of rain and the thick fog there rumbled cannons and it was impossible to tell whether they belonged to the enemy or not. At times the shooting seemed to come from afar-off on the right. Then the rumble of the guns was deep and muffled like the sound of heavy iron balls rolling over the ground; at other times, the discharges were quite near and rent the air with a crash, bursting over the men's very heads, as it were.
The commander of the squad stood right in front of his men and kept lighting cigarettes shielding them with the skirts of his cloak. He did it so often that it seemed as if he had been vainly attempting to light the same cigarette for the last three hours. The soldiers were attentively looking at his back and were all morbidly anxious to help him. It was cold and damp, and they felt an incessant, nauseating gnawing in the pit of the stomach. It was not fear but an indefinite anguish, a sort of the-sooner-over-the-better feeling.
Several hours passed in this manner, but towards noon it all changed abruptly. Though the sky was still as grey as before and it drizzled continuously, it grew lighter, the clouds in one spot became white and shining and one felt that the sun was somewhere behind them. But amidst this cold white light a disquieting feeling pervaded the atmosphere and the gnawing anxiety was turning into unbearable agony. Suddenly, an aide-de-camp dashed past on a horse, covered with froth and fuzzy with dampness. Officers began to scurry back and forth; sharp commands were heard; and the bugles resounded.
"Well, comrades!" . . . said some one in the ranks in a high, false tone of voice. Every one heard this exclamation and understood it, but no one turned around to see where it came from. The grey mass of people suddenly stirred, gave a sigh, surged like the sea whipped by a gale, and, sinking at each step into the mud, the entire regiment rolled forward, over the expanse of the shoreless fields which now suddenly looked strange and dreadful. The soldiers, their faces haggard and queer, were crossing themselves as they ran. They marched in disorder, and when they were stopped on the hill-crest, they turned the regiment into a confused mob of breathless and perplexed men. Some even forgot to lower their rifles.
Before them the hazy network of rain was still hanging and the distances stretched, strange and hostile. But now the fields were astir with flickering pale flames and a ceaseless scattered cracking of guns. In the grey sky a small black dot was discernible, seemingly motionless, but changing in size. When it grew larger, a faint buzzing was heard from above and made the soldiers turn their grey, ghastly faces upward. . . . Then a mighty buzzing suddenly resounded behind the regiment, and a Russian aeroplane flew over the heads of the men like a drenched bird. As the aeroplane rose higher and higher, the soldiers watched the distance between it and the small black dot far up in the sky grow smaller and smaller.
Voices were now heard from the ranks and when the black dot was rapidly beginning to grow smaller, sinking, as it were, in the sky and approaching the horizon, those voices became loud and gay.
"He don't like it, what! See him run for his life! Well done! Fine fellows!" . . . was heard along the ranks.
The soldiers suddenly became lively and for a moment forgot about themselves and the uncertain fate that was in store for them.
"Why not put you on that aeroplane, Yermilich! . . . You'd be quite handy at it, wouldn't you!" the soldiers were poking fun at each other.
All at once a confused many-voiced cry and a disorderly crackling of rifles was heard ahead of them; then a crowd of soldiers came running from that direction, at first singly, then in groups, and finally in a mass. They belonged to another regiment of the same division. One could discern from afar their wide-open eyes, rounded mouths, and an expression of frantic terror on their pale faces.
The officers of the Ashkadar regiment, waving their swords and yelling something indistinct, were running over the washed-out field to meet the running men, but the grey crowd momentarily knocked them down, trampled upon them, completely covered them, and mingled itself with the Ashkadar men. And everything that, but a while ago, was so clear and important now became confused and meaningless.
Like the waters that wash off a dam pierced in but a single point, even so did the running soldiers confuse and sweep away the regiment. The Ashkadar men themselves were partly infected by the panic and began to run they knew not why, apparently possessed by that mysterious power which is transmitted from man to man and which pushes one from behind and compels him to run farther and farther, aimlessly and blindly.
The entire mass of men started down the slope, but having encountered the battery with a crew yelling and waving their hands, it swerved aside. Then as this mass ran into the regular line of soldiers, who were rapidly coming to meet them, their rifles carried at charge, it threw itself to one side, then to the other, then backwards and forwards and finally scattered over the fields, filling the air with mad outcries and disorderly shooting. It was at that very time that the second platoon of the third squad strayed from its regiment and its officers. Seventeen in all, instinctively keeping together, they found themselves outside of the battle-field in a narrow loamy ravine overgrown with dwarfish trees. The ravine was deep and had washed-out clay slopes. High above it stretched a muddy, uneven strip of grey sky, which poured an unceasing rain upon the soaked red clay, upon the small wet birch trees, and the group of soldiers, who had lost their way and driven by inertia were hurrying further downward.
The soldiers, all reservists, were thick-set, bearded and pock-marked peasants from the governments of Kostroma and Novgorod and among them, was a dark little Jew, Hershel Маk, who alone thought and planned for the rest of them. All these country people taken right from the plough were unable to grasp how it all happened, and were not even sure whether anything had happened at all. They could not tell whether there was a battle or not, whether it was good or bad to be left without officers in this confounded ravine, and what would come of it all. Only Hershel Маk understood that there was a battle, that the front ranks came right under the crossfire of the machine-guns, that a panic resulted and that the Ashkadar regiment was knocked off its feet by a crowd of runaways. He knew that the regiment was broken up without a shot and that now they were left to their own fate, in a place which might well be within the very centre of the enemy's position. Hershel Маk was well aware of the fact that for the present no one would or could worry about them and that they must alone disentangle themselves from this mess,—and his versatile mind began at once to work to the utmost of its ability.
The rain was rushing in murmuring streams down the slopes of the ravine and along its bottom, and the noise of the water drowned the crackling of the machine-guns and the thundering of the cannon. The ravine extended further down, and apparently into the forest, for the trees were becoming thicker, and on the ground a deep layer of half-decayed leaves was mingled with the clay. Once or twice, a heavy buzzing was heard overhead, and the soldiers involuntarily lifted their eyes, but there was no aeroplane in sight, and one could not tell whether it was the enemy or not.
Hershel Маk was walking behind the others, and was deep in thought.
"What are we going to do when we meet the enemy? When we were with the regiment, we knew what to do. . . . But we don't know the high military rules! Maybe, we shouldn't fight at all,—maybe, according to the high military rules it is necessary to retreat a bit ? . . . How is one to tell I'd like to know."
Just then on the opposite bank of the stream which in its overflowing formed shallow muddy puddles something dark began to flicker among the trees, and the enemy soldiers in light grey cloaks, and varnished helmets protected with linen covers came forward. This was an enemy detachment which had also strayed away from its regiment. A non-commissioned officer, husky and red-bearded, was in charge of it. The Germans' gait was also uncertain. They walked with rifles carried at charge, timidly looking about and were just going to stop to talk over their situation, when they noticed the reddish-grey cloaks and the bayonets.
"Halt!" yelled out a flaxen-haired Kostroma peasant.
Не did it so forcefully that two crows flew off in fright and rose high above the ravine.
Hershel Маk nearly fell into the water. The red and the grey soldiers separated by about fifty steps and a small, turbid, rain-beaten rivulet were eyeing each other with amazement rather than with terror. Thin scattered cries of terror and dismay were heard from the other side, and all at once it grew still with an ominous strained stillness.
"Listen . . . eh," . . . whispered Hershel Маk, touching the gun of the Kostroma reservist. But at this very moment, the soldiers as if in response to a command stepped back a pace or two, got down on their knees and an uneven crackling of guns rent the damp air.
The flaxen-haired Kostroma peasant and another soldier, a father of a large family, nick-named "uncle," threw up their arms and fell heavily upon the soaked clay.
The first was killed on the spot, but as to the "uncle," he clutched his abdomen, sat up and began to howl in a thin, piercing voice: "Bro-o-thers!"
And the soldiers were seized with a savage anger, immense and terrible, similar to the nervous fury with which one tramples upon a snake. Scattered bullets began flying amidst the wet trees, and wild outcries filled the air. The bullets hissed far over the forest and sank with a swish into the clay; birch leaves, quietly circling, were falling to the ground where three light-grey figures were writhing in convulsions of pain and horror.
The husky non-commissioned officer was the first among these to cease stirring. He lay there with his face stuck in the cold mud of the stream. A volley of bullets, still more uneven than the first answered it, and presently single shots, interrupted by furious outcries of pain, by groans of the wounded and rattling of the dying came from both sides.
Pale flames flickered everywhere; the bark was being ripped from the small birch trees; here and there were seen ghastly distorted faces and shivering hands hurriedly fussing with the guns. The biting odour of blood and gun-powder filled the air, and a bluish smoke rose slowly to the sky, passing through the twigs shivering, as it were, with fear, and under the birches there lay two groups of men, charging their guns, shooting, slaying one another, and strewing the wet earth with crippled, writhing, moaning bodies.
Suddenly the shooting ceased just as unexpectedly as it had begun. There was no one upon the clearing except the wounded, and the dead. The reddish soldiers hid behind the stones and the grey behind the trees.
The fire ceased. The hearts of the men beat rapidly and painfully with a vicious inhuman terror, but no one fired a single shot. An hour passed and then another. The men lay silently behind the stones and the trees, each group eyeing the enemy sharply and closely watching their slightest movements.
"Uncle" alone, his back leaning on a trunk of a tree, was moaning plaintively and softly like a fly caught in a spider's web. And on the other side a young soldier was making severe attempts to lift up his body out of the mud puddle, while the eyes of his pale youthful face were already covered with the film of death. But no one paid the slightest attention to either of them. Each one felt upon himself the keen, merciless eye of the enemy and dared not budge or even stretch out a benumbed foot. A grey soldier attempted once to change his place, whereupon three shots thundered from the other side, and the man only turned over and remained still. Later two men were killed, one on each side, and again everything grew still.
The clatter of the rain alone was heard, as though, invisible to the eye, some one wept bitterly in the forest. The hours were passing, and the nervous tension grew intolerable, assuming the intensity of agony. It was quite apparent that things could not go on in this way much longer, and every one knew that whoever would lift his head would be killed on the spot. Lord only knows the odd and horrible thoughts that were passing in these terror-stricken, muddled minds.
Hershel Маk felt very keenly that he was eager to live; that like the rest of these men, he had a father and mother and also his own little desires, remote from this place and sacred to him alone. He was also sorry for "uncle" and for that dying German, who lay in the puddle, and who had been killed, perhaps by a bullet from "uncle's" rifle.
The hours were passing and the unbearable nervous horror grew, and the inner tension, terrible and so taut that it seemed to be ready to snap every second, was beginning to turn into a sort of nightmare, which makes one shiver all over, which dims one's eyes with red mist, which banishes all fear of death and suffering and turns all that is human into an elemental, savage fury.
At the very moment, when the tension reached its highest point and the nightmare was about to pass in a ruthless engagement, Hershel Маk, unable to control his strained nerves any longer began to pray plaintively in the tongue of his forefathers. "Shma Isroel! Shma Isroel!" . . . His comrades did not understand him and glanced at him in terror, as at a madman, but from the opposite side another frightened and plaintive voice answered him in Jewish: "A Jew! . . . A Jew! . . ."
Hershel Mak's heart fell within him. The mad joy that took hold of him is indescribable. It was undefiled human joy that filled him to the brim, when from the place whence he expected only death and hatred there came familiar human words. Forgetting the deathly peril, he sprang to his knees, threw up his arms and cried out, as if responding to a voice heard in the desert.
"I! . . . I! . . ."
A shot crashed; but it was only Mak's cap, that jumped up and landed in the mud puddle. From beyond the stream and the trees a typical head with ears projecting from under the varnished helmet looked straight at him.
"Don't shoot! . . . Don't shoot!" yelled Hershel Маk in Russian, German and Jewish all at once, waving his hands frantically. And the other Jew, in a long light-grey cloak was also yelling something to his fellow-soldiers. Now not one but about ten pairs of eyes looked at Hershel Маk, with astonishment and sudden joy. A vague, faint hope was seen in these frightened human eyes, which suddenly became simple and sympathetic. Then Hershel Маk and the Jew in the light-grey cloak rushed to the clearing and, splashing in the water, trustingly ran to each other.
They met between the two ranks of still hostile gun-barrels and embraced each other in a fit of unreasoning human gladness.
"Аге you а Jew?" asked the grey soldier. They kept looking at each other like two old friends who met where they least expected to find each other.
In the twilight, after the soldiers gathered up their dead and wounded, they went each their own way along the ravine, now blue with the evening fog. Those in the rear kept looking back at the enemy, suspiciously eyeing them, and nervously clutching with their hands the cold muzzles of their guns.
Only Hershel Маk and the Jew in the light-grey cloak walked calmly. Hershel chattered like a monkey, joining now one now another of the soldiers. He was saying something about his joy, about the great mission of Judaism. But no one listened to him, and one of the soldiers said good-naturedly: "Go to the devil, you dirty Jew."