RAINA (looking up at the picture with worship.) Oh, I shall never be unworthy of you any more, my hero–never, never, never.
(She replaces it reverently, and selects a novel from the little pile of books. She turns over the leaves dreamily; finds her page; turns the book inside out at it; and then, with a happy sigh, gets into bed and prepares to read herself to sleep. But before abandoning herself to fiction, she raises her eyes once more, thinking of the blessed reality and murmurs)
My hero! my hero!
(A distant shot breaks the quiet of the night outside. She starts, listening; and two more shots, much nearer, follow, startling her so that she scrambles out of bed, and hastily blows out the candle on the chest of drawers. Then, putting her fingers in her ears, she runs to the dressing-table and blows out the light there, and hurries back to bed. The room is now in darkness: nothing is visible but the glimmer of the light in the pierced ball before the image, and the starlight seen through the slits at the top of the shutters. The firing breaks out again: there is a startling fusillade quite close at hand. Whilst it is still echoing, the shutters disappear, pulled open from without, and for an instant the rectangle of snowy starlight flashes out with the figure of a man in black upon it. The shutters close immediately and the room is dark again. But the silence is now broken by the sound of panting.
Then there is a scrape; and the flame of a match is seen in the middle of the room.)
RAINA (crouching on the bed). Who’s there? (The match is out instantly.) Who’s there? Who is that?
A MAN’S VOICE (in the darkness, subduedly, but threateningly). Sh–sh! Don’t call out or you’ll be shot. Be good; and no harm will happen to you. (She is heard leaving her bed, and making
for the door.) Take care, there’s no use in trying to run away. Remember, if you raise your voice my pistol will go off. (Commandingly.) Strike a light and let me see you. Do you hear? (Another moment of silence and darkness. Then she is heard retreating to the dressing-table. She lights a candle, and the mystery is at an end. A man of about 35, in a deplorable plight, bespattered with mud and blood and snow, his belt and the strap of his revolver case keeping together the torn ruins of the blue coat of a Servian artillery officer. As far as the candlelight and his unwashed, unkempt condition make it possible to judge, he is a man of middling stature and undistinguished appearance, with strong neck and shoulders, a roundish, obstinate looking head covered with short crisp bronze curls, clear quick blue eyes and good brows and mouth, a hopelessly prosaic nose like that of a strong-minded baby, trim soldier like carriage and energetic manner, and with all his wits about him in spite of his desperate predicament–even with a sense of humor of it,
without, however, the least intention of trifling with it or throwing away a chance. He reckons up what he can guess about Raina–her age, her social position, her character, the extent to which she is frightened–at a glance, and continues, more politely but still most determinedly) Excuse my disturbing you; but you recognise my uniform–Servian. If I’m caught I shall be killed. (Determinedly.) Do you understand that?
MAN. Well, I don’t intend to get killed if I can help it. (Still more determinedly.) Do you understand that? (He locks the door with a snap.)
RAINA (disdainfully). I suppose not. (She draws herself up superbly, and looks him straight in the face, saying with emphasis) Some soldiers, I know, are afraid of death.
MAN (with grim good-humour). All of them, dear lady, all of them, believe me. It is our duty to live as long as we can, and kill as many of the enemy as we can. Now if you raise an alarm–
RAINA (cutting him short). You will shoot me. How do you know that I am afraid to die?
MAN (cunningly). Ah; but suppose I don’t shoot you, what will happen then? Why, a lot of your cavalry–the greatest blackguards in your army–will burst into this pretty room of yours and slaughter me here like a pig; for I’ll fight like a demon: they shan’t get me into the street to amuse themselves with: I know what they are. Are you prepared to receive that sort of company in your present undress? (Raina, suddenly conscious of her nightgown, instinctively shrinks and gathers it
more closely about her. He watches her, and adds, pitilessly) It’s rather scanty, eh? (She turns to the ottoman. He raises his pistol instantly, and cries) Stop! (She stops.) Where are you going?
RAINA (with dignified patience). Only to get my cloak.
MAN (darting to the ottoman and snatching the cloak). A good idea. No: I’ll keep the cloak: and you will take care that nobody comes in and sees you without it. This is a better weapon than the pistol. (He throws the pistol down on the ottoman.)
RAINA (revolted). It is not the weapon of a gentleman!
MAN. It’s good enough for a man with only you to stand between him and death. (As they look at one another for a moment, Raina hardly able to believe that even a Servian officer can be so cynically and selfishly unchivalrous, they are startled by a sharp fusillade in the street. The chill of imminent death hushes the man’s voice as he adds) Do you hear? If you are going to bring those scoundrels in on me you shall receive them as you are. (Raina meets his eye with unflinching scorn. Suddenly he starts, listening. There is a step outside. Someone tries the door, and then knocks hurriedly and urgently at it. Raina looks at the man, breathless. He throws up his head with the gesture of a man who sees that it is all over with him, and, dropping the manner which he has been assuming to intimidate her, flings the cloak to her, exclaiming, sincerely and kindly) No use: I’m done for. Quick! wrap yourself up: they’re coming!
RAINA (catching the cloak eagerly). Oh, thank you. (She wraps herself up with great relief. He draws his sabre and turns to the door, waiting.)
LOUKA (outside, knocking). My lady, my lady! Get up, quick, and open the door.
RAINA (anxiously). What will you do?
MAN (grimly). Never mind. Keep out of the way. It will not last long.
RAINA (impulsively). I’ll help you. Hide yourself, oh, hide yourself, quick, behind the curtain. (She seizes him by a torn strip of his sleeve, and pulls him towards the window.)
MAN (yielding to her). There is just half a chance, if you keep your head. Remember: nine soldiers out of ten are born fools.
MAN. A narrow shave; but a miss is as good as a mile. Dear young lady, your servant until death. I wish for your sake I had joined the Bulgarian army instead of the Servian. I am not a native Servian.
RAINA (haughtily). No, you are one of the Austrians who set the Servians on to rob us of our national liberty, and who officer their army for them. We hate them!
MAN. Austrian! not I. Don’t hate me, dear young lady. I am only a Swiss, fighting merely as a professional soldier. I joined Servia because it was nearest to me. Be generous: you’ve beaten us hollow.
RAINA. Have I not been generous?
MAN. Noble!–heroic! But I’m not saved yet. This particular rush will soon pass through; but the pursuit will go on all night by fits and starts. I must take my chance to get off during a quiet interval. You don’t mind my waiting just a minute or two, do you?
RAINA. Oh, no: I am sorry you will have to go into danger again. (Motioning towards ottoman.) Won’t you sit–(She breaks off with an irrepressible cry of alarm as she catches sight of the pistol. The man, all nerves, shies like a frightened horse.)
MAN (irritably). Don’t frighten me like that. What is it?
RAINA. Your pistol! It was staring that officer in the face all the time. What an escape!
MAN (vexed at being unnecessarily terrified). Oh, is that all?
RAINA (staring at him rather superciliously, conceiving a poorer and poorer opinion of him, and feeling proportionately more and more at her ease with him). I am sorry I frightened you. (She takes up the pistol and hands it to him.) Pray take it to protect yourself against me.
MAN (grinning wearily at the sarcasm as he takes the pistol). No use, dear young lady: there’s nothing in it. It’s not loaded. (He makes a grimace at it, and drops it disparagingly into his revolver case.)
RAINA. Load it by all means.
MAN. I’ve no ammunition. What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead; and I finished the last cake of that yesterday.
RAINA (outraged in her most cherished ideals of manhood). Chocolate! Do you stuff your pockets with sweets–like a schoolboy–even in the field?
MAN. Yes. Isn’t it contemptible?
(Raina stares at him, unable to utter her feelings. Then she sails away scornfully to the chest of drawers, and returns with the box of confectionery in her hand.)
RAINA. Allow me. I am sorry I have eaten them all except these. (She offers him the box.)
MAN (ravenously). You’re an angel! (He gobbles the comfits.) Creams! Delicious! (He looks anxiously to see whether there are any more. There are none. He accepts the inevitable with pathetic goodhumor, and says, with grateful emotion) Bless you, dear lady. You can always tell an old soldier by the inside of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols and cartridges; the old ones, grub. Thank you. (He hands back the box. She snatches it contemptuously from him and throws it away. This impatient action is so sudden that he shies again.) Ugh! Don’t do things so suddenly, gracious lady. Don’t revenge yourself because I frightened you just now.
RAINA (superbly). Frighten me! Do you know, sir, that though I am only a woman, I think I am at heart as brave as you.
MAN. I should think so. You haven’t been under fire for three days as I have. I can stand two days without shewing it much; but no man can stand three days: I’m as nervous as a mouse. (He sits down on the ottoman, and takes his head in his hands.) Would you like to see me cry?
RAINA (quickly). No.
MAN. If you would, all you have to do is to scold me just as if I were a little boy and you my nurse. If I were in camp now they’d play all sorts of tricks on me.
RAINA (a little moved). I’m sorry. I won’t scold you. (Touched by the sympathy in her tone, he raises his head and looks gratefully at her: she immediately draws hack and says stiffly) You must excuse me: our soldiers are not like that. (She moves away from the ottoman.)
MAN. Oh, yes, they are. There are only two sorts of soldiers: old ones and young ones. I’ve served fourteen years: half of your fellows never smelt powder before. Why, how is it that you’ve just beaten us? Sheer ignorance of the art of war, nothing else. (Indignantly.) I never saw anything so unprofessional.
RAINA (ironically). Oh, was it unprofessional to beat you?
MAN. Well, come, is it professional to throw a regiment of cavalry on a battery of machine guns, with the dead certainty that if the guns go off not a horse or man will ever get within fifty yards of the fire? I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it.
RAINA (eagerly turning to him, as all her enthusiasm and her dream of glory rush back on her). Did you see the great cavalry charge? Oh, tell me about it. Describe it to me.
MAN. You never saw a cavalry charge, did you?
RAINA. How could I?
MAN. Ah, perhaps not–of course. Well, it’s a funny sight. It’s like slinging a handful of peas against a window pane: first one comes; then two or three close behind him; and then all the rest in a lump.
RAINA (her eyes dilating as she raises her clasped hands ecstatically). Yes, first One!–the bravest of the brave!
MAN (prosaically). Hm! you should see the poor devil pulling at his horse.
RAINA. Why should he pull at his horse?
MAN (impatient of so stupid a question). It’s running away with
him, of course: do you suppose the fellow wants to get there before the others and be killed? Then they all come. You can tell the young ones by their wildness and their slashing. The old ones come bunched up under the number one guard: they know that they are mere projectiles, and that it’s no use trying to fight. The wounds are mostly broken knees, from the horses cannoning together.
RAINA. Ugh! But I don’t believe the first man is a coward. I believe he is a hero!
MAN (goodhumoredly). That’s what you’d have said if you’d seen the first man in the charge to-day.
RAINA (breathless). Ah, I knew it! Tell me–tell me about him.
MAN. He did it like an operatic tenor–a regular handsome fellow, with flashing eyes and lovely moustache, shouting a war-cry and charging like Don Quixote at the windmills. We nearly burst with laughter at him; but when the sergeant ran up as white as a sheet, and told us they’d sent us the wrong cartridges, and that we couldn’t fire a shot for the next ten minutes, we laughed at the other side of our mouths. I never felt so sick in my life, though I’ve been in one or two very tight places. And I hadn’t even a revolver cartridge—nothing but chocolate. We’d no bayonets–nothing. Of course, they just cut us to bits. And there was Don Quixote flourishing like a drum major, thinking he’d done the cleverest thing ever known, whereas he ought to be courtmartialled for it. Of all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle, that man must be the very maddest. He and his regiment simply committed suicide–only the pistol missed fire, that’s all.
RAINA (deeply wounded, but steadfastly loyal to her ideals). Indeed! Would you know him again if you saw him?
MAN. Shall I ever forget him. (She again goes to the chest of drawers. He watches her with a vague hope that she may have something else for him to eat. She takes the portrait from its stand and brings it to him.)
RAINA. That is a photograph of the gentleman–the patriot and hero–to whom I am betrothed.
MAN (looking at it). I’m really very sorry. (Looking at her.) Was it fair to lead me on? (He looks at the portrait again.) Yes: that’s him: not a doubt of it. (He stifles a laugh.)
RAINA (quickly). Why do you laugh?
MAN (shamefacedly, but still greatly tickled). I didn’t laugh, I assure you. At least I didn’t mean to. But when I think of him charging the windmills and thinking he was doing the finest thing–(chokes with suppressed laughter).
RAINA (sternly). Give me back the portrait, sir.
MAN (with sincere remorse). Of course. Certainly. I’m really very sorry. (She deliberately kisses it, and looks him straight in the face, before returning to the chest of drawers to replace it. He follows her, apologizing.) Perhaps I’m quite wrong, you know: no doubt I am. Most likely he had got wind of the cartridge business somehow, and knew it was a safe job.
RAINA. That is to say, he was a pretender and a coward! You did not dare say that before.
MAN (with a comic gesture of despair). It’s no use, dear lady: I can’t make you see it from the professional point of view. (As he turns away to get back to the ottoman, the firing begins again in the distance.)