"Lieutenant! I beg pardon, Lieutenant——" Miska begged, and very, very gently stroked his master's quivering knees with his big hard palms.
But Lieutenant Kadar heard him not. Neither did he feel the heavy hand resting on his knees. For, opposite him, young Meltzar was still sitting with a flat, black, round head on his neck on which the Rakoczy March was ingraved in spirals. And all at once the officer realized that for the past six months he had done poor Meltzar a grievous injustice. How could the poor fellow help his stupidity, how could he help his silly, high-flown patriotic talk? How could he possibly have had sensible ideas with a record for a head? Poor Meltzar!
Lieutenant Kadar simply could not understand why it was that six months before, right away, when young Meltzar announced his entrance into the battery, he had not guessed what they had done to the boy in the hinterland.
They had given him a different head. They had unscrewed the handsome fair young head of a lad of eighteen and in its place put a black, scratched-up disc, which could do nothing but squeak the Rakoczy March. That had now been proved! How the boy must have suffered whenever his superior officer, his senior by twenty years, inflicted long sermons on him about humanity! With the flat, round disc that they had put on him he of course could not comprehend that the Italian soldiers being led past the battery, reeking with blood and in rags, would also much rather have stayed at home, if a bulletin on the street corner had not forced them to leave their homes immediately, just as the mobilization in Hungary had forced the Hungarian gunners to leave their homes.
Now for the first time Lieutenant Kadar comprehended the young man's unbending resistance to him. Now at last he realized why this boy, who could have been his son, had so completely ignored his wisest, kindest admonitions and explanations, and had always responded by whistling the Rakoczy March through clenched teeth and hissing the stereotyped fulmination, "The dogs ought to be shot to pieces."
So then it was not because of his being young and stupid that Meltzar had behaved as he did; not because he had come direct from the military academy to the trenches. The phonograph record was to blame, the phonograph record!
Lieutenant Kadar felt his veins swell up like ropes and his blood pound on his temples like blows on an anvil, so great was his wrath against the wrongdoers who had treacherously unscrewed poor Meltzar's lovely young head from his body.
And—this was the most gruesome—as he now thought of his subordinates and fellow-officers, he saw them all going about exactly like poor Meltzar, without heads on their bodies. He shut his eyes and tried to recall the looks of his gunners—in vain! Not a single face rose before his mind's eye. He had spent months and months among those men and had not discovered until that moment that not one of them had a head on his shoulders. Otherwise he would surely have remembered whether his gunner had a mustache or not and whether the artillery captain was light or dark. No! Nothing stuck in his mind—nothing but phonograph records, hideous, black, round plates lying on bloody blouses.
The whole region of the Isonzo suddenly lay spread out way below him like a huge map such as he had often seen in illustrated papers. The silver ribbon of the river wound in and out among hills and coppices, and Lieutenant Kadar soared high above the welter down below without motor or aeroplane, but borne along merely by his own outspread arms. And everywhere he looked, on every hill and in every hollow, he saw the horns of innumerable talking-machines growing out of the ground. Thousands upon thousands of those familiar cornucopias of bright lacquer with gilt edges pointed their open mouths up at him. And each one was the center of a swarming ant-hill of busy gunners carrying shot and shell.
And now Lieutenant Kadar saw it very distinctly: all the men had records on their necks like young Meltzar. Not a single one carried his own head. But when the shells burst with a howl from the lacquered horns and flew straight into an ant-hill, then the flat, black discs broke apart and at the very same instant changed back into real heads. From his height Lieutenant Kadar saw the brains gush out of the shattered discs and the evenly-marked surfaces turn on the second into ashen, agonized human countenances.
Everything seemed to be revealed now in one stroke to the dying lieutenant—all the secrets of the war, all the problems he had brooded over for many months past. So he had the key to the riddle. These people evidently did not get their heads back until they were about to die. Somewhere—somewhere—far back—far back of the lines, their heads had been unscrewed and replaced by records that could do nothing but play the Rakoczy March. Prepared in this fashion, they had been jammed into the trains and sent to the front, like poor Meltzar, like himself, like all of them.
In a fury of anger, the ball of cotton tossed itself up again with a jerk. Lieutenant Kadar wanted to jump out of bed and reveal the secret to his men, and urge them to insist upon having their heads back again. He wanted to whisper the secret to each individual along the entire front, from Plava all the way down to the sea. He wanted to tell it to each gunner, each soldier in the infantry and even to the Italians over there! He even wanted to tell it to the Italians. The Italians, too, had had records screwed on to their necks. And they should go back home, too, back to Verona, to Venice, to Naples, where their heads lay piled up in the store-houses for safekeeping until the war was over. Lieutenant Kadar wanted to run from one man to another, so as to help each individual to recover his head, whether friend or foe.
But all at once he noticed he could not walk. And he wasn't soaring any more either. Heavy iron weights clamped his feet down to the bed to keep him from revealing the great secret.
Well, then, he would shout it out in a roar, in a voice supernaturally loud that would sound above the bursting of the shells and the blare of trumpets on the Day of Judgment, and proclaim the truth from Plava to Trieste, even into the Tyrol. He would shout as no man had ever shouted before:
"Phonograph!—Bring the heads!—Phonograph!—"
Here his voice suddenly broke with a gurgling sound of agony right in the midst of his message of salvation. It hurt too much. He could not shout. He felt as though at each word a sharp needle went deep into his brain.
Of course! How could he have forgotten it? His head had been screwed off, too. He wore a record on his neck, too, like all the others. When he tried to say something, the needle stuck itself into his skull and ran mercilessly along all the coils of his brain.
No! He could not bear it! He'd rather keep quiet—keep the secret to himself. Only not to feel that pain—that maddening pain in his head!
But the machine ran on. Lieutenant Kadar grabbed his head with both hands and dug his nails deep into his temples. If he didn't stop that thing in time from going round and round, then his revolving head would certainly break his neck in a few seconds.
Icy drops of anguish flowed from all his pores. "Miska!" he yelled in the extreme of his distress.
But Miska did not know what to do.
The record kept on revolving and joyously thrummed the Rakoczy March. All the sinews in the Lieutenant's body grew tense. Again and again he felt his head slip from between his hands—his spine was already rising before his eyes! With a last, frantic effort he tried once more to get his hands inside the bandages and press his head forward. Then one more dreadful gnashing of his teeth and one more horrible groan and—the long ward was at length as silent as an empty church.
When the flaxen-haired assistant returned from the operating-room Miska's whining informed him from afar that another cot in the officers' division was now vacant. The impatient old Major quite needlessly beckoned him to his side and announced in a loud voice so that all the gentlemen could hear:
"The poor devil there has at last come to the end of his sufferings." Then he added in a voice vibrating with respect: "He died like a true Hungarian—singing the Rakoczy March."
At last the lake gleamed through the leaves, and the familiar grey chalk mountains emerged into view, reaching out across the railroad embankment as with threatening fingers deep down into the water. There, beyond the smoky black opening of the short tunnel, the church steeple and a corner of the castle peeped for an instant above the grove.
John Bogdan leaned way out of the train window and looked at everything with greedy eyes, like a man going over the inventory of his possessions, all tense and distrustful, for fear something may have been lost in his absence. As each group of trees for which he waited darted by, he gave a satisfied nod, measuring the correctness of the landscape by the picture of it that he carried fairly seared in his memory. Everything agreed. Every milestone on the highroad, now running parallel to the railroad tracks, stood on the right spot. There! The flash of the flaming red copper beech, at which the horses always shied and once came within an ace of upsetting the carriage.
John Bogdan drew a deep, heavy sigh, fished a small mirror out of his pocket, and gave his face a final scrutiny before leaving the train. At each station his face seemed to grow uglier. The right side was not so bad. A bit of his mustache still remained, and his right cheek was fairly smooth except for the gash at the corner of his mouth, which had not healed properly. But the left side! He had let those damned city folk tell him a whole lot of nonsense about the left side of his face. A bunch of damned scoundrels they were, bent upon making fools of poor peasants, in wartime just the same as in peacetime—all of them, the great doctor as well as the fine ladies in their dazzling white gowns and with their silly affected talk. Heaven knows it was no great trick to bamboozle a simple coachman, who had managed with only the greatest pains to learn a bit of reading and writing. They had smiled and simpered at him and were so nice and had promised him such a paradise. And now, here he was helpless, left all alone to himself, a lost man.
With a furious curse, he tore off his hat and threw it on the seat.
Was that the face of a human being? Was it permitted to do such a thing to a man? His nose looked like a patchwork of small dice of different colors. His mouth was awry, and the whole left cheek was like a piece of bloated raw meat, red and criss-crossed with deep scars. Ugh! How ugly! A fright! And besides, instead of a cheekbone, he had a long hollow, deep enough to hold a man's finger. And it was for this he had let himself be tortured so? For this he had let himself be enticed seventeen times, like a patient sheep, into that confounded room with the glass walls and the shining instruments? A shudder ran down his back at the recollection of the tortures he had gone through with clenched teeth, just to look like a human being again and be able to go back home to his bride.
And now he was home.
The train pulled out of the tunnel, the whistle blew, and the dwarf acacias in front of the station-master's hut sent a greeting through the window. Grimly John Bogdan dragged his heavy bag through the train corridor, descended the steps hesitatingly, and stood there at a loss, looking around for help as the train rolled on behind his back.
He took out his large flowered handkerchief and wiped off the heavy beads of perspiration from his forehead. What was he to do now? Why had he come here at all? Now that he had finally set foot again on the home soil for which he had yearned so ardently, a great longing came over him for the hospital, which he had left that very morning, only a few hours before, full of rejoicing. He thought of the long ward with all those men wrapped in bandages who limped and hobbled, lame, blind or disfigured. There nobody was revolted by the sight of his mutilated face, no indeed. On the contrary, most of them envied him. He was at least capable of going back to work, his arms and legs were sound, and his right eye was perfect. Many would have been ready to exchange places with him. Some had begrudged him his lot and said it was wrong for the government to have granted him a pension on account of losing his left eye. One eye and a face a little scratched up—what was that compared with a wooden leg, a crippled arm, or a perforated lung, which wheezed and rattled like a poor machine at the slightest exertion?
Among the many cripples in the hospital John Bogdan was looked upon as a lucky devil, a celebrity. Everybody knew his story. The visitors to the hospital wanted first of all to see the man who had had himself operated on seventeen times and the skin cut away in bands from his back, his chest, and his thighs. After each operation, as soon as the bandages were removed, the door to his ward never remained shut, a hundred opinions were pronounced, and every newcomer was given a detailed description of how terrible his face had been before. The few men who had shared Bogdan's room with him from the start described the former awfulness of his face with a sort of pride, as though they had taken part in the successful operations.
Thus John Bogdan had gradually become almost vain of his shocking mutilation and the progress of the beautifying process. And when he left the hospital, it was with the expectation of being admired as a sensation in his village.
Alone in the world, with no relatives to go to, with nothing but his knapsack and his little trunk, the brilliant sunlight of the Hungarian plain country flooding down on him, and the village stretching away to a distance before him, John Bogdan suddenly felt himself a prey to timidity, to a terror that he had not known amid the bursting of the shells, the most violent charges, the most ferocious hand-to-hand encounters. His inert peasant intellect, his nature crudely compounded of wilfulness and vanity, had always been a stranger to deep-going reflections. Yet an instinctive misgiving, the sense of distrust and hostility that overwhelmed him, told him plainly enough that he was about to face disillusionment and mortification such as he had not dreamed of in the hospital.
He lifted his luggage to his back dejectedly and walked toward the exit with hesitating steps. There, in the shadow of the dusty acacias that he had seen grow up and that had seen him grow up, he felt himself confronted with his former self, with the handsome John Bogdan who was known in the village as the smart coachman of the manor. A lot of good were all the operations and patchwork now. The thing now was the painful contrast between the high-spirited, forward lad, who on this spot had sung out a last hoarse farewell to his sweetheart, Marcsa, on the first day of mobilization, and the disfigured creature who was standing in front of the same railroad station with one eye gone, a shattered cheekbone, a patched-up cheek, and half a nose, embittered and cast down, as if it were only that morning that he had met with the misfortune.
At the small grille gate stood the wife of the station-guard, Kovacs— since the beginning of the war Kovacs himself had been somewhere on the Russian front—talking and holding the ticket-puncher, impatiently waiting for the last passenger to pass through. John Bogdan saw her, and his heart began to beat so violently that he involuntarily lingered at each step. Would she recognize him, or would she not? His knee joints gave way as if they had suddenly decayed, and his hand trembled as he held out the ticket.
She took the ticket and let him pass through—without a word!
Poor John Bogdan's breath stopped short.
But he pulled himself together with all his might, looked her firmly in the face with his one eye and said, with a painful effort to steady his voice:
"How do you do?"
"How do you do?" the woman rejoined. He encountered her eyes, saw them widen into a stare, saw them grope over his mangled face, and then quickly turn in another direction, as if she could not bear the sight. He wanted to stop, but he noticed her lips quiver and heard a murmured "Jesus, son of Mary," as if he were the devil incarnate. And he tottered on, deeply wounded.
"She did not recognize me!" the blood hammered in his ears. "She did not recognize me—did not recognize me!" He dragged himself to the bench opposite the station, threw his luggage to the ground and sank down on the seat.
She did not recognize him! The wife of Kovacs, the station-guard, did not recognize John Bogdan. The house of her parents stood next to the house of his parents. She and he had gone to school together, they had been confirmed together. He had held her in his arms and kissed and kissed her, heaven knows how many times, before Kovacs came to the village to woo her. And she had not recognized him! Not even by his voice, so great was the change.
He glanced over at her again involuntarily, and saw her talking eagerly with the station-master. From her gestures, he guessed she was telling of the horrible sight she had just seen, the stranger soldier so hideously disfigured. He uttered a short croaking sound, an abortive curse, and then his head fell on his chest, and he sobbed like a deserted woman.
What was he to do? Go up to the castle, open the door to the servants' quarters, and call out a saucy "Hello, Marcsa" to the astonished girl?
That was the way he had always thought of it. The devil knows how often he had painted the picture to the dot—the maids' screaming, Marcsa's cry of delight, her flinging her arms about his neck, and the thousand questions that would come pouring down on him, while he would sit there with Marcsa on his knees, and now and then throw out a casual reply to his awed, attentive listeners.
But now—how about it now? Go to Marcsa? He? With that face, the face that had made Julia, the station-guard's wife, cross herself in fright? Wasn't Marcsa famed throughout the county for her sharp tongue and haughty ways? She had snubbed the men by the score, laughed at them, made fools of them all, until she finally fell in love with him.
John Bogdan thrust his fist into his mouth and dug his teeth into the flesh, until the pain of it at length helped him subdue his sobbing. Then he buried his head in his hands and tried to think.
Never in his life had anything gone amiss with him. He had always been liked, at school, in the castle, and even in the barracks. He had gone through life whistling contentedly, a good-looking alert lad, an excellent jockey, and a coachman who drove with style and loved his horses, as his horses loved him. When he deigned to toss a kiss to the women as he dashed by, he was accustomed to see a flattered smile come to their faces. Only with Marcsa did it take a little longer. But she was famous for her beauty far and wide. Even John's master, the lord of the castle, had patted him on the shoulder almost enviously when Marcsa and he had become engaged.
"A handsome couple," the pastor had said.
John Bogdan groped again for the little mirror in his pocket and then sat with drooping body, oppressed by a profound melancholy. That thing in the glass was to be the bridegroom of the beautiful Marcsa? What did that ape's face, that piece of patchwork, that checkerboard which the damned quack, the impostor, whom they called a distinguished medical authority, a celebrated doctor, had basted together—what did it have to do with that John Bogdan whom Marcsa had promised to marry and whom she had accompanied to the station crying when he had gone off to the war? For Marcsa there was only one John Bogdan, the one that was coachman to the lord of the castle and the handsomest man in the village. Was he still coachman? The lord would take care not to disgrace his magnificent pair with such a scarecrow or drive to the county seat with such a monstrosity on the box. Haying—that's what they would put him to—cleaning out the dung from the stables. And Marcsa, the beautiful Marcsa whom all the men were vying for, would she be the wife of a miserable day laborer?
No, of this John Bogdan was certain, the man sitting on the bench there was no longer John Bogdan to Marcsa. She would not have him now—no more than the lord would have him on the coachman's box. A cripple is a cripple, and Marcsa had engaged herself to John Bogdan, not to the fright that he was bringing back home to her.
His melancholy gradually gave way to an ungovernable fury against those people in the city who had given him all that buncombe and talked him into heaven knows what. Marcsa should be proud because he had been disfigured in the service of his fatherland. Proud? Ha-ha!
He laughed scornfully, and his fingers tightened convulsively about the cursed mirror, until the glass broke into bits and cut his hand. The blood trickled slowly down his sleeves without his noticing it, so great was his rage against that bunch of aristocratic ladies in the hospital whose twaddle had deprived him of his reason. They probably thought that a man with one eye and half a nose was good enough for a peasant girl? Fatherland? Would Marcsa go to the altar with the fatherland? Could she show off the fatherland to the women when she would see them looking at her pityingly? Did the fatherland drive through the village with ribbons flying from its hat? Ridiculous! Sitting on the bench opposite the station, with the sign of the village in view, a short name, a single word, which comprised his whole life, all his memories, hopes and experiences, John Bogdan suddenly thought of one of the village characters, Peter the cripple, who had lived in the tumbledown hut behind the mill many years before, when John was still a child. John saw him quite distinctly, standing there with his noisy wooden leg and his sad, starved, emaciated face. He, too, had sacrificed a part of himself, his leg, "for the fatherland," in Bosnia during the occupation; and then he had had to live in the old hovel all alone, made fun of by the children, who imitated his walk, and grumblingly tolerated by the peasants, who resented the imposition of this burden upon the community. "In the service of the fatherland." Never had the "fatherland" been mentioned when Peter the cripple went by. They called him contemptuously the village pauper, and that was all there was to it.
John Bogdan gnashed his teeth in a rage that he had not thought of Peter the cripple in the hospital. Then he would have given those city people a piece of his mind. He would have told them what he thought of their silly, prattling humbug about the fatherland and about the great honor it was to return home to Marcsa looking like a monkey. If he had the doctor in his clutches now! The fakir had photographed him, not once, but a dozen times, from all sides, after each butchery, as though he had accomplished a miracle, had turned out a wonderful masterpiece. And here Julia, even Julia, his playmate, his neighbor, had not recognized him.
So deep was John Bogdan sunk in his misery, so engulfed in grim plans of vengeance, that he did not notice a man who had been standing in front of him for several minutes, eyeing him curiously from every angle. Suddenly a voice woke him up out of his brooding, and a hot wave surged into his face, and his heart stood still with delighted terror, as he heard some one say:
"Is that you, Bogdan?"
He raised himself, happy at having been recognized after all. But the next moment he knitted his brows in complete disappointment. It was Mihaly the humpback.
There was no other man in the whole village, even in the whole county, whose hand John Bogdan would not at that moment have grasped cordially in a surge of gratitude. But this humpback—he never had wanted to have anything to do with him, and now certainly not. The fellow might imagine he had found a comrade, and was probably glad that he was no longer the only disfigured person in the place.
"Yes, it's I. Well?"
The humpback's small, piercing eyes searched Bogdan's scarred face curiously, and he shook his head in pity.
"Well, well, the Russians certainly have done you up."
Bogdan snarled at him like a vicious cur.
"It's none of your business. What right have you to talk? If I had come into the world like you, with my belly on my back, the Russians couldn't have done anything to me."
The humpback seated himself quietly beside John without showing the least sign of being insulted.
"The war hasn't made you any politer, I can see that," he remarked drily. "You're not exactly in a happy frame of mind, which does not surprise me. Yes, that's the way it is. The poor people must give up their sound flesh and bone so that the enemy should not deprive the rich of their superfluity. You may bless your stars you came out of it as well as you did."
"I do," Bogdan growled with a glance of hatred. "The shells don't ask if you are rich or poor. Counts and barons are lying out there, rotting in the sun like dead beasts. Any man that God has not smitten in his cradle so that he's not fit to be either a man or a woman is out in the battlefield now, whether he's as poor as a church mouse or used to eating from golden plates."
The humpback cleared his throat and shrugged his shoulders.
"There are all sorts of people," he observed, and was about to add something else, but bethought himself and remained silent.
This Bogdan always had had the soul of a flunkey, proud of being allowed to serve the high and mighty and feeling solid with his oppressors because he was allowed to contribute to their pomp in gold-laced livery and silver buttons. His masters had sicked him on to face the cannons in defense of their own wealth, and now the man sat there disfigured, with only one eye, and still would not permit any criticism of his gracious employers. Against such stupidity there was nothing to be done. There was no use wasting a single word on him.
The two remained sitting for a while in silence. Bogdan filled his pipe carefully and deliberately, and Mihaly watched him with interest.
"Are you going to the castle?" the humpback asked cautiously, when the pipe was at last lit.
John Bogdan was well aware just what the hateful creature was aiming at. He knew him. A Socialist—that's what he was, one of those good-for- nothings who take the bread out of poor people's mouths by dinning a lot of nonsense into their ears, just like a mean dog who snaps at the hand that feeds him. He had made a good living as foreman in the brickyard, and as thanks he had incited all the workmen against the owner, Bogdan's master, until they demanded twice as much wages, and were ready to set fire to the castle on all four corners. Once Mihaly had tried his luck with him, too. He had wanted to make his master out a bad man. But this time he had bucked up against the right person. A box on his right ear and a box on his left ear, and then a good sound kick—that was the answer to keep him from ever again trying to make a Socialist of John Bogdan, one of those low fellows who know no God or fatherland.
Mihaly moved on the bench uneasily, every now and then scrutinizing his neighbor from the side. At last he plucked up courage and said suddenly:
"They'll probably be glad up there that you are back. Your arms are still whole, and they need people in the factory."
Bogdan turned up his nose.
"In the brickyard?" he asked disdainfully.
The humpback burst out laughing.
"Brickyard? Brickyard is good. Who needs bricks in war? The brickyard's gone long ago, man. Do you see those trucks over there? They are all loaded up with shells. Every Saturday a whole train of shells leaves here."
Bogdan listened eagerly. That was news. A change on the estate of which he had not yet heard.
"You see, there is such a nice division," Mihaly continued, smiling sarcastically. "One goes away and lets his head be blown off. The other remains comfortably at home and manufactures shells and decorates his castle with thousand-dollar bills. Well, I'm satisfied."
"What are we to do, eh, shoot with peas or with air? You can't carry on a war without shells. Shells are needed just as much as soldiers."
"Exactly. And because the rich have the choice of being soldiers or making shells, they choose to make the shells and send you off to have your head blown off. What are you getting for your eye? Twenty-five dollars a year? Or perhaps as much as fifty? And the others whom the ravens are feeding on don't get even that out of the war. But the gentleman up in the castle is making his five hundred a day and doesn't risk even his little finger doing it. I'd be a patriot on those terms myself. I am telling you the truth. At first, of course, they said he was going to war, and he did actually ride off in great state, but three weeks later he was back here again with machines and all the equipment, and now he delivers fine orations in the townhouse and sends other men off to die—and on top of it is gallant to the wives left behind. He stuffs his pockets and fools with every girl in the factory. He's the cock of the whole district."
Bogdan, his brows knit in annoyance, let the man talk on. But the last part struck him with a shock. He pricked up his ears and grew uneasy and for a while struggled heroically against asking a question that burned on his lips. But in the end he could not restrain himself and blurted out:
"Is—is Marcsa working in the factory, too?"
The humpback's eyes flashed.
"Marcsa, the beautiful Marcsa! I should say so! She's been made a forelady, though they say she's never had a shell in her hands, but, to make up, the lord's hands have—"
With a short, hoarse growl John Bogdan flew at the humpback's throat, squeezed in his Adam's apple, pressing it into his neck, and held him in a merciless clutch. The man beat about with his arms, his eyes popped from his head in fright, his throat gurgled, and his face turned livid. Then John Bogdan released his hold, and Mihaly fell to the ground and lay there gasping. Bogdan quickly gathered up his things and strode off, taking long, quick steps, as if afraid of arriving too late for something in the castle.
He gave not another look back at Mihaly the humpback, never turned around once, but quietly went his way and for a long while felt the warm throat in his hand.
What was a man who lay gasping on the road to him? One man more or less. In the rhythmic regularity of the marching column, he had passed by thousands like him, and it had never occurred to his mind, dulled by weariness, that the grey spots thickly strewn over the fields, the heaps lining the roadway like piles of dung in the spring, were human beings struck down by death. He and his comrades had waded in the dead, there at Kielce, when they made a dash across the fields, and earthy grey hands rose out of every furrow pawing the air, and trousers drenched in blood and distorted faces grew out of the ground, as if all the dead were scrambling from their graves for the Last Judgment. They had stepped and stumbled over corpses. Once the fat little officer of reserves, to the great amusement of his company, had gotten deathly sick at his stomach because he had inadvertently stepped on the chest of a half-decayed Russian, and the body had given way under him, and he had scarcely been able to withdraw his foot from the foul hole. John Bogdan smiled as he recalled the wicked jokes the men had cracked at the officer's expense, how the officer had gone all white and leaned against a tree and carried on like a man who has much more than quenched his thirst.
The road glowed in the mid-day sun. The village clock struck twelve. From the hill yonder came, like an answer, the deep bellow of the factory whistle, and a little white cloud rose over the tops of the trees. Bogdan quickened his pace, running rather than walking, heedless of the drops of sweat that ran down and tickled his neck. For almost a year he had breathed nothing but the hospital atmosphere, had smelled nothing but iodoform and lysol and seen nothing but roofs and walls. His lungs drew in the aroma of the blossoming meadows with deep satisfaction, and the soles of his boots tramped the ground sturdily, as if he were again marching in regular order.
This was the first walk he had taken since he was wounded, the first road he had seen since those wild marches on Russian soil. At moments he seemed to hear the cannons roaring. The short struggle with the humpback had set his blood coursing, and his memories of the war, for a time stifled as it were beneath a layer of dust by the dreary monotony of the hospital life, suddenly came whirling back to him.
He almost regretted having let that damned blackguard go so soon. One moment more, and he would never have opened his blasphemous mouth again. His head would have fallen back exhausted to one side, he would once again have embraced the air longingly with outspread fingers, and then in a flash would have shrunk together, exactly like the fat, messy Russian with the large blue eyes who was the first man to present himself to St. Peter with a greeting from John Bogdan. Bogdan had not let him loose until he had altogether quit squirming. He had choked him dead as a doornail. And still he was a comical fellow, not nearly so disgusting as that rascally humpback. But he was the first enemy soldier whom he had got into his grasp, his very first Russian. A magnificent array of others had followed, though the fat man was the only one Bogdan had choked to death. He had smashed scores with the butt-end of his gun and run his bayonet through scores of others. He had even squashed with his boots the wretch who had struck down his dearest comrade before his very eyes. But never again did he choke a man to death. That was why the little fat fellow stuck in his memory. He had no recollection of the others whatever. All he saw now in his mind was a tangle of greyish-green uniforms. And as he thought of his heroic deeds, the gnashing, the stamping, the gasping, and the cursing of the hand-to- hand encounters resounded in his ears. How many, he wondered, had he sent to the other world? God alone may have counted them. He himself had had enough to do trying to save his own skin. Had a man stopped to look around, he would have carried his curiosity to the next world.
And yet—there was another face that remained fixed in his memory. A great big thin fellow, as tall as a beanpole, with enormous yellow tusks, which he gnashed like a boar. Yes, he had as clear a picture of him as if it had been yesterday. He saw him half-backed up against the wall already, swinging his gun over his head. One second more, and the butt-end would have come whizzing down. But a sleepy Russian was never the man to get the better of John Bogdan. Before he had the chance to bring down his gun, Bogdan's bayonet was in between his ribs, and the Russian fell over on his own gun. The bayonet pierced him through and through, and even went into the wall behind him, and came mighty near breaking off.
But the same thing never happened to Bogdan again. It had happened that once because he had thrust too hard, with clenched teeth, gripping the rod in a tight clutch, as if it were iron that he had to cleave. The fact was, he had not yet discovered that it really isn't so difficult to mow down a human being. He had been prepared for any amount of resistance, and his bayonet had glided into the fellow's body like butter. His mouth had remained wide open in astonishment—he recalled it to the dot. A man who has never tried a bayonet thrust thinks a human being is made up all of bones, and he fetches out for a good hard stroke. Then he's in a pickle to free his weapon again before one of the messy-looking devils takes advantage of his defenselessness. The way to do was to go at it very lightly, with a short jerky thrust. Then the blade ran in of itself, like a good horse—you actually had trouble holding it back. The most important thing was, not to take your eye off your enemy. You mustn't look at your bayonet, or the spot you intend to pierce. You must always watch your enemy so as to guess his move in time. It's from your enemy's face that you must read the right moment for stepping backward. They all behaved the same way—exactly like the first tall wild fellow who gnashed his tusks. All of a sudden their faces turned absolutely smooth, as if the cold iron in their body had chilled their fury, their eyes opened wide in astonishment and looked at their enemy as if to ask in reproach, "What are you doing?" Then they usually clutched at the bayonet and needlessly cut their fingers, too, before they fell over dead. If you didn't know exactly what to do and didn't hold your weapon back in time and withdraw it quickly from the wound, just when you saw the man's eyes growing large, you would be carried along down with him or would get hit on the head by the butt-end of another enemy's gun long before you could draw your bayonet out.
These were all things that John Bogdan had often discussed with his comrades after severe frays when they criticized the men who had fallen for behaving stupidly and who had had to pay with their lives for their awkwardness.
As he strode along in haste up the familiar road to the castle, he was fairly lost in recollections. His legs moved of themselves, like horses on the homeward way. He passed through the open grille gateway and was already walking on the gravel path, his head bowed on his chest, without noticing that he had reached home.
The neighing of horses woke him up from his thoughts with a start. He stood still, deeply stirred by the sight of the stables, only a few feet away, and inside, in the twilight, the gleam of his favorite horse's flanks. He was about to turn off the path and make for the stable door when far away down below, at the other end of the large place, he saw a woman coming from the brickyard. She wore a dotted red silk kerchief on her head and carried her full figure proudly, and the challenging sway of her hips billowed her wide skirts as the wind billows a field of ripe grain.
John Bogdan stood stockstill, as if some one had struck him on the chest. It was Marcsa! There was not another girl in the whole country who walked like that. He threw his luggage to the ground and dashed off.
"Marcsa! Marcsa!" his cry thundered out over the broad courtyard.
The girl turned and waited for his approach, peering curiously through half-closed eyes. When almost face to face with her Bogdan stood still.
"Marcsa!" he repeated in a whisper, his gaze fastened upon her face anxiously. He saw her turn pale, white as chalk, saw her eyes leap to and fro uneasily, from his left cheek to his right cheek, and back again. Then horror came into her eyes. She clapped her hands to her face, and turned and ran away as fast as her legs would carry her.
In utter sadness Bogdan stared after her. That was exactly the way he had imagined their meeting again since Julia, the station-guard's wife, the woman he had grown up with, had not recognized him. But to run away! That rankled. No need for her to run away. John Bogdan was not the man to force himself on a woman. If he no longer pleased her now that he was disfigured, well, then she could look for another man, and he, too—he would find another woman. He wasn't bothered about that.
This was what he had wanted to tell Marcsa.
He bounded after her and overtook her a few feet from the machine shop.
"Why do you run away from me?" he growled, breathless, and caught her hand. "If you don't want me any more, you need only say so. What do you think—I'm going to eat you up?"
She stared at him searchingly—in uncertainty. He almost felt sorry for her, she was trembling so.
"How you look!" he heard her stammer, and he turned red with anger.
"You knew it. I had them write to you that a shell hit me. Did you think it made me better-looking? Just speak straight out if you don't want me any more. Straight wine is what I want, no mixture. Yes or no? I won't force you to marry me. Just say it right away—yes or no?"
Marcsa was silent. There was something in his face, in his one eye, that took her breath away, that dug into her vitals like cold fingers. She cast her eyes down and stammered:
"But you have no position yet. How can we marry? You must first ask the master if he—"
It was as if a red pall woven of flames dropped in front of John Bogdan's eyes. The master? What was she saying about the master? He thought of the humpback, and it came to him in a flash that the fellow had not lied. His fingers clutched her wrist like a pair of glowing tongs, so that she cried out with the pain.
"The master!" Bogdan bellowed. "What has the master got to do between you and me? Yes or no? I want an answer. The master has nothing to do with us."
Marcsa drew herself up. All of a sudden a remarkable assurance came to her. The color returned to her cheeks, and her eyes flashed proudly. She stood there with the haughty bearing so familiar to Bogdan, her head held high in defiance.
Bogdan observed the change and saw that her gaze traveled over his shoulder. He let go her hand and turned instantly. Just what he thought —the master coming out of the machine shop. His old forester, Toth, followed him.
Marcsa bounded past Bogdan like a cat and ran up to the lord and bent over and kissed his hand.
Bogdan saw the three of them draw near and lowered his head like a ram for attack. A cold, determined quiet rose in him slowly, as in the trenches when the trumpeter gave the signal for a charge. He felt the lord's hand touch his shoulder, and he took a step backward.
What was the meaning of it all? The lord was speaking of heroism and fatherland, a lot of rubbish that had nothing to do with Marcsa. He let him go on talking, let the words pour down on him like rain, without paying any attention to their meaning. His glance wandered to and fro uneasily, from the lord to Marcsa and then to the forester, until it rested curiously on something shining.
It was the nickeled hilt of the hunting-knife hanging at the old forester's side and sparkling in the sunlight.
"Like a bayonet," thought Bogdan, and an idea flashed through his mind, to whip the thing out of the scabbard and run it up to the hilt in the hussy's body. But her rounded hips, her bright billowing skirts confused him. In war he had never had to do with women. He could not exactly imagine what it would be like to make a thrust into that beskirted body there. His glance traveled back to the master, and now he noticed that his stiffnecked silence had pulled him up short.
"He is gnashing his teeth," it struck him, "just like the tall Russian." And he almost smiled at a vision that came to his mind—of the lord also getting a smooth face and astonished, reproachful eyes.
But hadn't he said something about Marcsa just then? What was Marcsa to him?
Bogdan drew himself up defiantly.
"I will arrange matters with Marcsa myself, sir. It's between her and me," he rejoined hoarsely, and looked his master straight in the face. He still had his mustache, quite even on the two sides, and curling delicately upwards at the ends. What was it the humpback had said? "One man goes away and lets his head be blown off." He wasn't so stupid after all, the humpback wasn't.
What Bogdan said infuriated the master. Bogdan let him shout and stared like a man hypnotized at the nickeled hilt of the hunting-knife. It was not until the name "Marcsa" again struck his ear that he became attentive.
"Marcsa is in my employ now," he heard the lord saying. "You know I am fond of you, Bogdan. I'll let you take care of the horses again, if you care to. But Marcsa is to be let alone. I won't have any rumpus. If she still wants to marry you, all well and good. But if she doesn't, she's to be let alone. If I hear once again that you have annoyed her, I'll chase you to the devil. Do you understand?"
Foaming with rage, Bogdan let out the stream of his wrath.
"To the devil?" he shouted. "You chase me to the devil? You had first better go there yourself. I've been to the devil already. For eight months I was in hell. Here's my face—you can tell from my face that I come from hell. To play the protector here and stuff your pockets full and send the others out to die—that's easy. A man who dawdles at home has no right to send men to the devil who have already been in hell for his sake."
So overwhelming was his indignation that he spoke like the humpback Socialist and was not ashamed of it. He stood there ready to leap, with tensely drawn muscles, like a wild animal. He saw the lord make ready to strike him, saw his distorted face, saw the riding-crop flash through the air, and even saw it descending upon him. But he did not feel the short, hard blow on his back.
With one bound he ripped the hunting-knife out of the scabbard and thrust it between the lord's ribs—not with a long sweep, so that some one could have stayed his arm before he struck. Oh, no! But quite lightly, from below, with a short jerk, exactly as he had learned by experience in battle. The hunting-knife was as good as his bayonet. It ran into the flesh like butter.
Then everything came about just as it always did. John Bogdan stood with his chin forward and saw the lord's face distorted by anger suddenly smooth out and turn as placid and even as if it had been ironed. He saw his eyes widen and look over at him in astonishment with the reproachful question, "What are you doing?" The one thing Bogdan did not see was the collapsing of the lord's body, for at that instant a blow crashed down on the back of his head, like the downpour of a waterfall dropping from an infinite height. For one second he still saw Marcsa's face framed in a fiery wheel, then, his skull split open, he fell over on top of his master, whose body already lay quivering on the ground.