The Deserter

Captain Gemier was a splendid fellow, and something of a philosopher as well. On the field of battle he would stop at nothing but in private life he didn’t take offense at small things. That’s a lot, if a man doesn’t take offense at small things. He loved France with a heart-consuming love, and his hatred for the barbarians defiling its ancient soil was, therefore, unextinguishable, merciless, and as lasting as life itself.

What else can one say about Gemier? He loved his wife, he had brought up his children to be good citizens, he was a Frenchman, a patriot, a Parisian, a lover of books and of beautiful things. And now, on one bright, rosy morning in spring, it was reported to Captain Gemier that an unarmed soldier had been picked up between the French and enemy lines. His intention to desert was plain, his guilt beyond doubt, and he was brought in under guard.

“It’s you, is it, Bogie?”

“It’s me, Captain,” the soldier replied, saluting.

“You thought you would take advantage of the dawn to go out for a breath of fresh air?”

The soldier said nothing.

C’est bien, you may leave us.” The guards went out and Gemier locked the door after them. The soldier was twenty years old.

“You know what’s coming to you, don’t you? Voyons, tell me all about it.”

Bogie hid nothing. He said that he was tired of the war: “I’m very tired of the war, mon capitaine! Six nights running now I haven’t been able to sleep for the shells. . . .” The war was hateful to him. He hadn’t been going to commit treason, but to surrender.

Altogether, he was unexpectedly eloquent, this little fellow Bogie. He said he was only twenty. Mon Dieu, c’est naturel, anyone could make a mistake at that age. He had a mother, a girlfriend, des bons amis. He had his whole life ahead of him, this twenty-year-old Bogie, and he would make up for the wrong he had done his country.

“Captain, what will my mother say when she hears I’ve been shot like the worst sort of criminal?” The soldier fell on his knees.

“You won’t get my sympathy like that, Bogie!” the captain said. “You were seen by other soldiers. Five men like you, and a whole company gets infected. C’est la défaite. Cela jamais. You’re going to die, Bogie. But I’m giving you a way out just before you do. They won’t learn about your disgrace in the mairie. Your mother will be told that you died an honorable death in battle. Let’s go.”

The soldier went out after his commanding officer. When they came to the wood, the captain stopped, took out his revolver, and handed it to Bogie.

“Here’s how you can avoid a court martial. Shoot yourself, Bogie! I’ll come back in five minutes. Everything must be over by then.”

Gemier walked away. Not a single sound disturbed the silence of the wood. The captain went back. Bogie, his shoulders hunched, was waiting for him.

“I can’t, Captain,” he whispered. “I don’t have the strength. . . .” And he started off again about his mother, his girl, his friends, and about having his whole life ahead of him. . . .

“I’ll give you another five minutes, Bogie! Don’t make me waste my time just walking around for nothing.”

When he returned, the soldier was lying sobbing on the ground. His fingers were around the revolver and moved slightly.

Gemier then pulled him to his feet and, looking him in the eye, said in a gentle, kindly tone of voice, “Bogie, my friend, perhaps you don’t know how to do it?”

Without hurrying, he took the revolver out of the youth’s wet hands, walked back three paces, and shot him through the head.

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Gaston Vidal writes about this incident in his book. The soldier actually was called Bogie. Whether the name Gemier I have given the captain is the right one, I can’t really say. Vidal’s story is dedicated to a certain Gemier in token of deep respect. I think this dedication gives the game away. Of course the captain was called Gemier. And then, Vidal tells us that the captain really was a patriot, a soldier, a good father, and not a man to take offense at small things. That’s a lot, if a man doesn’t take offense at small things.

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The Quaker

It says in the Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” That’s why Stone, a Quaker, had enlisted as a driver. He was serving his country without committing the terrible sin of murder. With his education and means, he could have got a more exalted position, but, a slave of his conscience, he meekly accepted menial work and the company of people whom he found uncouth.

What was Stone? A bald dome on top of a pole. The Lord had given him a body only to lift up his thoughts above the petty cares of this world. His every movement was no less than a victory of mind over matter. At the wheel of his car, however calamitous the situation, he bore himself with the wooden stiffness of a preacher in the pulpit. Nobody ever saw him laugh.

One morning, when he was not on duty, he took it into his head to go for a walk in order that he might pay homage to the Maker in the midst of His creation. With a huge Bible under his arm, he strode with his long legs across meadows brought back to life by the spring. The sight of the clear sky, the chirping of sparrows in the grass—all this filled him with joy.

Stone sat down and opened his Bible, but at that moment he saw at the turning of a lane an untethered horse with emaciated flanks through which the ribs showed. Immediately he felt a powerful call of duty: at home he was a member of the society for the protection of animals. He went up to the animal, stroked its soft lips, and, forgetting about his walk, set off back to the stables. On the way, his Bible with its clasps still firmly held in his hands, he let the horse drink at a well.

The stableboy was a youth by the name of Baker. The ways of this young man had long been a cause of righteous indignation on the part of Stone: at every stopping place Baker left behind an unconsolable sweetheart.

“I could report you to the major,” said Stone, “but I trust that, for this once, what I am about to say to you will suffice. This poor, sick horse, which I have brought here and which you are going to look after, is deserving of a better fate than you.”

And he stalked off with measured, solemn steps, ignoring the loud guffaw behind him. The stable-boy’s square, jutting chin was convincing testimony to an obstinacy that would never be overcome.

A few days went by, but the horse still wandered around untended. This time Stone spoke to Baker in no uncertain terms, addressing him roughly as follows: “It may be, spawn of Satan, that the Almighty has granted you the right to destroy your own soul, but your sins should not be allowed to fall with all their weight on an innocent horse. Just look at it, you scoundrel. It is walking around here in a state of great distress. I am sure that you are ill-treating it, as one might expect from a blackguard like you. Let me repeat, sinner: go to your doom with whatever speed you like, but attend to this horse, or you will have me to reckon with.”

From this day onward Stone felt that providence had entrusted him with a special mission: to care for this downtrodden quadruped. He felt that people, for their sins, were scarcely worth bothering about, but he felt boundless compassion for animals. His grueling duties did not prevent him from keeping his promise to God. He often got out of his car at night—he slept in it all curled up on the seat—to go and make sure that the horse was well out of range of Baker’s studded boot. If the weather was fine he would mount his beloved animal, and the poor thing, prancing with an air of importance, would bear his long lean body at a trot across the fields now turning green. His face sallow and drained of blood, his pale lips closed tight, Stone recalled the deathless, mirth-provoking figure of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance trotting on his Rosinante amid flowers and tilled fields.

Stone’s persistence bore fruit. Feeling himself under constant observation, the groom went to great lengths not to be caught out in the act. But whenever he was alone with the horse, he visited on it all the savagery of his vile nature. For some reason he couldn’t explain, he was frightened of the silent Quaker and because of this fear he hated Stone and despised himself. The only way in which he could raise himself in his own eyes was by tormenting the horse which Stone had befriended. Such is the contemptible pride of humans. Locking himself in the stable with the horse, the groom pierced its hairy, hanging lips with red-hot needles, beat it on the back with a lash made of wire, and threw salt in its eyes. When, left alone at last, the tortured animal, blinded by stinging salt and lurching like a drunken man, timidly went to its stall, the groom lay down on his belly and laughed for all he was worth, enjoying his revenge.

After a change in the position at the front, the division to which Stone belonged was transferred to a more dangerous place. His religious beliefs did not allow him to kill, but they permitted him to get killed himself. The Germans were advancing toward the Isère. Stone was transporting the wounded. Round about him people of various nationalities were dying fast. Old generals, their faces clean and bumpy, stood on hilltops and spied out the land through field glasses. The big guns roared incessantly. The earth gave off a stench and the sun poked around in the mangled corpses.

Stone forgot about the horse, but after a week his conscience started to nag him again. Seizing the first opportunity, the Quaker went back to the place where they had been before. He found the horse in a dark shed that had been knocked together from rotting planks. The animal was so weak it could hardly stand, and its eyes were covered with a dull film. It whinnied faintly at the sight of its faithful friend and laid its head, which it could scarcely hold up, on his hands.

“It’s not my fault,” the groom said insolently. “They’re not giving us any oats.”

“Very well,” Stone replied, “I’ll get some.”

He looked at the sky shining through a hole in the roof, and went out.

I met him a few hours later and asked him whether the road wasn’t dangerous. He seemed more self-absorbed than usual. The last few bloody days had left a deep mark on him and he looked as though he was in mourning for himself.

“No trouble so far,” he said in a hollow voice, “but there may be at the end of it.” And he added, for no apparent reason: “I’ve come foraging. I have to find some oats.”

The next morning he was found dead at the wheel of his car by some soldiers who had been sent to look for him. A bullet had gone right through his skull and his car was in a ditch.

This was how the Quaker Stone died on account of his love for a horse.

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The Russian-Jewish author, Isaac Babel, who met his death in a Soviet prison camp, is widely regarded as one of the greatest short story writers in modern literature. Babel’s most celebrated works include Red Cavalry, a novel about the Russian revolution, and Tales of Odessa. The present stories, translated from the Russian by Max Hayward, are published here for the first time in English.

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