The Veteran by Stephen Crane
Out of the low window could be seen three hickory trees placed
irregularly in a meadow that was resplendent in springtime green.
Farther away, the old, dismal belfry of the village church loomed over
the pines. A horse meditating in the shade of one of the hickories
lazily swished his tail. The warm sunshine made an oblong of vivid
yellow on the floor of the grocery.
Could you see the whites of their eyes? said the man who was
seated on a soap box.
Nothing of the kind, replied old Henry warmly. Just a lot of
flitting figures, and I let go at where they 'peared to be the
Mr. Fleming, said the grocerhis deferential voice expressed
somehow the old man's exact social weightMr. Fleming, you never was
frightened much in them battles, was you?
The veteran looked down and grinned. Observing his manner, the
entire group tittered. Well, I guess I was, he answered finally.
Pretty well scared, sometimes. Why, in my first battle I thought the
sky was falling down. I thought the world was coming to an end. You bet
I was scared.
Every one laughed. Perhaps it seemed strange and rather wonderful to
them that a man should admit the thing, and in the tone of their
laughter there was probably more admiration than if old Fleming had
declared that he had always been a lion. Moreover, they knew that he
had ranked as an orderly sergeant, and so their opinion of his heroism
was fixed. None, to be sure, knew how an orderly sergeant ranked, but
then it was understood to be somewhere just shy of a major general's
stars. So, when old Henry admitted that he had been frightened, there
was a laugh.
The trouble was, said the old man, I thought they were all
shooting at me. Yes, sir, I thought every man in the other army was
aiming at me in particular, and only me. And it seemed so darned
unreasonable, you know. I wanted to explain to 'em what an almighty
good fellow I was, because I thought then they might quit all trying to
hit me. But I couldn't explain, and they kept on being
unreasonableblim!blam!bang! So I run!
Two little triangles of wrinkles appeared at the corners of his
eyes. Evidently he appreciated some comedy in this recital. Down near
his feet, however, little Jim, his grandson, was visibly
horror-stricken. His hands were clasped nervously, and his eyes were
wide with astonishment at this terrible scandal, his most magnificent
grandfather telling such a thing.
That was at Chancellorsville. Of course, afterward I got kind of
used to it. A man does. Lots of men, though, seem to feel all right
from the start. I did, as soon as I 'got on to it,' as they say now;
but at first I was pretty well flustered. Now, there was young Jim
Conklin, old Si Conklin's sonthat used to keep the tanneryyou none
of you recollect himwell, he went into it from the start just as if
he was born to it. But with me it was different. I had to get used to
When little Jim walked with his grandfather he was in the habit of
skipping along on the stone pavement in front of the three stores and
the hotel of the town and betting that he could avoid the cracks. But
upon this day he walked soberly, with his hand gripping two of his
grandfather's fingers. Sometimes he kicked abstractedly at dandelions
that curved over the walk. Any one could see that he was much troubled.
There's Sickles's colt over in the medder, Jimmie, said the old
man. Don't you wish you owned one like him?
Um, said the boy, with a strange lack of interest. He continued
his reflections. Then finally he ventured, Grandpanowwas that true
what you was telling those men?
What? asked the grandfather. What was I telling them?
Oh, about your running.
Why, yes, that was true enough, Jimmie. It was my first fight, and
there was an awful lot of noise, you know.
Jimmie seemed dazed that this idol, of its own will, should so
totter. His stout boyish idealism was injured.
Presently the grandfather said: Sickles's colt is going for a
drink. Don't you wish you owned Sickles's colt, Jimmie?
The boy merely answered, He ain't as nice as our'n. He lapsed then
into another moody silence.
* * * * *
One of the hired men, a Swede, desired to drive to the county seat
for purposes of his own. The old man loaned a horse and an unwashed
buggy. It appeared later that one of the purposes of the Swede was to
After quelling some boisterous frolic of the farm hands and boys in
the garret, the old man had that night gone peacefully to sleep, when
he was aroused by clamouring at the kitchen door. He grabbed his
trousers, and they waved out behind as he dashed forward. He could hear
the voice of the Swede, screaming and blubbering. He pushed the wooden
button, and, as the door flew open, the Swede, a maniac, stumbled
inward, chattering, weeping, still screaming: De barn fire! Fire!
Fire! De barn fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!
There was a swift and indescribable change in the old man. His face
ceased instantly to be a face; it became a mask, a gray thing, with
horror written about the mouth and eyes. He hoarsely shouted at the
foot of the little rickety stairs, and immediately, it seemed, there
came down an avalanche of men. No one knew that during this time the
old lady had been standing in her night clothes at the bedroom door,
yelling: What's th' matter? What's th' matter? What's th' matter?
When they dashed toward the barn it presented to their eyes its
usual appearance, solemn, rather mystic in the black night. The Swede's
lantern was overturned at a point some yards in front of the barn
doors. It contained a wild little conflagration of its own, and even in
their excitement some of those who ran felt a gentle secondary
vibration of the thrifty part of their minds at sight of this
overturned lantern. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been a
But the cattle in the barn were trampling, trampling, trampling, and
above this noise could be heard a humming like the song of innumerable
bees. The old man hurled aside the great doors, and a yellow flame
leaped out at one corner and sped and wavered frantically up the old
gray wall. It was glad, terrible, this single flame, like the wild
banner of deadly and triumphant foes.
The motley crowd from the garret had come with all the pails of the
farm. They flung themselves upon the well. It was a leisurely old
machine, long dwelling in indolence. It was in the habit of giving out
water with a sort of reluctance. The men stormed at it, cursed it; but
it continued to allow the buckets to be filled only after the wheezy
windlass had howled many protests at the mad-handed men.
With his opened knife in his hand old Fleming himself had gone
headlong into the barn, where the stifling smoke swirled with the air
currents, and where could be heard in its fulness the terrible chorus
of the flames, laden with tones of hate and death, a hymn of wonderful
He flung a blanket over an old mare's head, cut the halter close to
the manger, led the mare to the door, and fairly kicked her out to
safety. He returned with the same blanket, and rescued one of the work
horses. He took five horses out, and then came out himself, with his
clothes bravely on fire. He had no whiskers, and very little hair on
his head. They soused five pailfuls of water on him. His eldest son
made a clean miss with the sixth pailful, because the old man had
turned and was running down the decline and around to the basement of
the barn, where were the stanchions of the cows. Some one noticed at
the time that he ran very lamely, as if one of the frenzied horses had
smashed his hip.
The cows, with their heads held in the heavy stanchions, had thrown
themselves, strangled themselves, tangled themselves: done everything
which the ingenuity of their exuberant fear could suggest to them.
Here, as at the well, the same thing happened to every man save one.
Their hands went mad. They became incapable of everything save the
power to rush into dangerous situations.
The old man released the cow nearest the door, and she, blind drunk
with terror, crashed into the Swede. The Swede had been running to and
fro babbling. He carried an empty milk pail, to which he clung with an
unconscious, fierce enthusiasm. He shrieked like one lost as he went
under the cow's hoofs, and the milk pail, rolling across the floor,
made a flash of silver in the gloom.
Old Fleming took a fork, beat off the cow, and dragged the paralyzed
Swede to the open air. When they had rescued all the cows save one,
which had so fastened herself that she could not be moved an inch, they
returned to the front of the barn and stood sadly, breathing like men
who had reached the final point of human effort.
Many people had come running. Some one had even gone to the church,
and now, from the distance, rang the tocsin note of the old bell. There
was a long flare of crimson on the sky, which made remote people
speculate as to the whereabouts of the fire.
The long flames sang their drumming chorus in voices of the heaviest
bass. The wind whirled clouds of smoke and cinders into the faces of
the spectators. The form of the old barn was outlined in black amid
these masses of orange-hued flames.
And then came this Swede again, crying as one who is the weapon of
the sinister fates. De colts! De colts! You have forgot de colts!
Old Fleming staggered. It was true; they had forgotten the two colts
in the box stalls at the back of the barn. Boys, he said, I must try
to get 'em out. They clamoured about him then, afraid for him, afraid
of what they should see. Then they talked wildly each to each. Why,
it's sure death! He would never get out! Why, it's suicide for a
man to go in there! Old Fleming stared absent-mindedly at the open
doors. The poor little things! he said. He rushed into the barn.
When the roof fell in, a great funnel of smoke swarmed toward the
sky, as if the old man's mighty spirit, released from its bodya
little bottlehad swelled like the genie of fable. The smoke was
tinted rose-hue from the flames, and perhaps the unutterable midnights
of the universe will have no power to daunt the colour of this soul.