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An Episode of War

The lieutenant's rubber blanket lay on the ground, and upon it he had
poured the company's supply of coffee. Corporals and other
representatives of the grimy and hot-throated men who lined the
breastwork had come for each squad's portion.

The lieutenant was frowning and serious at this task of division. His
lips pursed as he drew with his sword various crevices in the heap until
brown squares of coffee, astoundingly equal in size, appeared on the
blanket. He was on the verge of a great triumph in mathematics, and the
corporals were thronging forward, each to reap a little square, when
suddenly the lieutenant cried out and looked quickly at a man near him
as if he suspected it was a case of personal assault. The others cried
out also when they saw blood upon the lieutenant's sleeve.

He had winced like a man stung, swayed dangerously, and then
straightened. The sound of his hoarse breathing was plainly audible. He
looked sadly, mystically, over the breastwork at the green face of a
wood, where now were many little puffs of white smoke. During this
moment the men about him gazed statue-like and silent, astonished and
awed by this catastrophe which happened when catastrophes were not
expected--when they had leisure to observe it.

As the lieutenant stared at the wood, they too swung their heads, so
that for another instant all hands, still silent, contemplated the
distant forest as if their minds were fixed upon the mystery of a
bullet's journey.

The officer had, of course, been compelled to take his sword into his
left hand. He did not hold it by the hilt. He gripped it at the middle
of the blade, awkwardly. Turning his eyes from the hostile wood, he
looked at the sword as he held it there, and seemed puzzled as to what
to do with it, where to put it. In short, this weapon had of a sudden
become a strange thing to him. He looked at it in a kind of
stupefaction, as if he had been endowed with a trident, a sceptre, or a
spade.

Finally he tried to sheath it. To sheath a sword held by the left hand,
at the middle of the blade, in a scabbard hung at the left hip, is a
feat worthy of a sawdust ring. This wounded officer engaged in a
desperate struggle with the sword and the wobbling scabbard, and during
the time of it he breathed like a wrestler.

But at this instant the men, the spectators, awoke from their stone-like
poses and crowded forward sympathetically. The orderly-sergeant took the
sword and tenderly placed it in the scabbard. At the time, he leaned
nervously backward, and did not allow even his finger to brush the body
of the lieutenant. A wound gives strange dignity to him who bears it.
Well men shy from this new and terrible majesty. It is as if the wounded
man's hand is upon the curtain which hangs before the revelations of all
existence--the meaning of ants, potentates, wars, cities, sunshine,
snow, a feather dropped from a bird's wing; and the power of it sheds
radiance upon a bloody form, and makes the other men understand
sometimes that they are little. His comrades look at him with large eyes
thoughtfully. Moreover, they fear vaguely that the weight of a finger
upon him might send him headlong, precipitate the tragedy, hurl him at
once into the dim, grey unknown. And so the orderly-sergeant, while
sheathing the sword, leaned nervously backward.

There were others who proffered assistance. One timidly presented his
shoulder and asked the lieutenant if he cared to lean upon it, but the
latter waved him away mournfully. He wore the look of one who knows he
is the victim of a terrible disease and understands his helplessness. He
again stared over the breastwork at the forest, and then turning went
slowly rearward. He held his right wrist tenderly in his left hand as if
the wounded arm was made of very brittle glass.

And the men in silence stared at the wood, then at the departing
lieutenant--then at the wood, then at the lieutenant.

As the wounded officer passed from the line of battle, he was enabled to
see many things which as a participant in the fight were unknown to him.
He saw a general on a black horse gazing over the lines of blue infantry
at the green woods which veiled his problems. An aide galloped
furiously, dragged his horse suddenly to a halt, saluted, and presented
a paper. It was, for a wonder, precisely like an historical painting.

To the rear of the general and his staff a group, composed of a bugler,
two or three orderlies, and the bearer of the corps standard, all upon
maniacal horses, were working like slaves to hold their ground,
preserve, their respectful interval, while the shells boomed in the air
about them, and caused their chargers to make furious quivering leaps.

A battery, a tumultuous and shining mass, was swirling toward the right.
The wild thud of hoofs, the cries of the riders shouting blame and
praise, menace and encouragement, and, last the roar of the wheels, the
slant of the glistening guns, brought the lieutenant to an intent pause.
The battery swept in curves that stirred the heart; it made halts as
dramatic as the crash of a wave on the rocks, and when it fled onward,
this aggregation of wheels, levers, motors, had a beautiful unity, as if
it were a missile. The sound of it was a war-chorus that reached into
the depths of man's emotion.

The lieutenant, still holding his arm as if it were of glass, stood
watching this battery until all detail of it was lost, save the figures
of the riders, which rose and fell and waved lashes over the black mass.

Later, he turned his eyes toward the battle where the shooting sometimes
crackled like bush-fires, sometimes sputtered with exasperating
irregularity, and sometimes reverberated like the thunder. He saw the
smoke rolling upward and saw crowds of men who ran and cheered, or stood
and blazed away at the inscrutable distance.

He came upon some stragglers, and they told him how to find the field
hospital. They described its exact location. In fact, these men, no
longer having part in the battle, knew more of it than others. They told
the performance of every corps, every division, the opinion of every
general. The lieutenant, carrying his wounded arm rearward, looked upon
them with wonder.

At the roadside a brigade was making coffee and buzzing with talk like a
girls' boarding-school. Several officers came out to him and inquired
concerning things of which he knew nothing. One, seeing his arm, began
to scold. "Why, man, that's no way to do. You want to fix that thing."
He appropriated the lieutenant and the lieutenant's wound. He cut the
sleeve and laid bare the arm, every nerve of which softly fluttered
under his touch. He bound his handkerchief over the wound, scolding away
in the meantime. His tone allowed one to think that he was in the habit
of being wounded every day. The lieutenant hung his head, feeling, in
this presence, that he did not know how to be correctly wounded.

The low white tents of the hospital were grouped around an old school-
house. There was here a singular commotion. In the foreground two
ambulances interlocked wheels in the deep mud. The drivers were tossing
the blame of it back and forth, gesticulating and berating, while from
the ambulances, both crammed with wounded, there came an occasional
groan. An interminable crowd of bandaged men were coming and going.
Great numbers sat under the trees nursing heads or arms or legs. There
was a dispute of some kind raging on the steps of the school-house.
Sitting with his back against a tree a man with a face as grey as a new
army blanket was serenely smoking a corn-cob pipe. The lieutenant wished
to rush forward and inform him that he was dying.

A busy surgeon was passing near the lieutenant. "Good-morning," he said,
with a friendly smile. Then he caught sight of the lieutenant's arm and
his face at once changed. "Well, let's have a look at it." He seemed
possessed suddenly of a great contempt for the lieutenant. This wound
evidently placed the latter on a very low social plane. The doctor cried
out impatiently, "What mutton-head had tied it up that way anyhow?" The
lieutenant answered, "Oh, a man."

When the wound was disclosed the doctor fingered it disdainfully.
"Humph," he said. "You come along with me and I'll 'tend to you." His
voice contained the same scorn as if he were saying, "You will have to
go to jail."

The lieutenant had been very meek, but now his face flushed, and he
looked into the doctor's eyes. "I guess I won't have it amputated," he
said.

"Nonsense, man! Nonsense! Nonsense!" cried the doctor. "Come along, now.
I won't amputate it. Come along. Don't be a baby."

"Let go of me," said the lieutenant, holding back wrathfully, his glance
fixed upon the door of the old school-house, as sinister to him as the
portals of death.

And this is the story of how the lieutenant lost his arm. When he
reached home, his sisters, his mother, his wife sobbed for a long time
at the sight of the flat sleeve. "Oh, well," he said, standing
shamefaced amid these tears, "I don't suppose it matters so much as all
that."

Stephen Crane