Gabriel Andersen, the teacher, walked to the edge of the school
garden, where he paused, undecided what to do. Off in the distance,
two miles away, the woods hung like bluish lace over a field of pure
snow. It was a brilliant day. A hundred tints glistened on the white
ground and the iron bars of the garden railing. There was a lightness
and transparency in the air that only the days of early spring
possess. Gabriel Andersen turned his steps toward the fringe of blue
lace for a tramp in the woods.
"Another spring in my life," he said, breathing deep and peering up at
the heavens through his spectacles. Andersen was rather given to
sentimental poetising. He walked with his hands folded behind him,
dangling his cane.
He had gone but a few paces when he noticed a group of soldiers and
horses on the road beyond the garden rail. Their drab uniforms stood
out dully against the white of the snow, but their swords and horses'
coats tossed back the light. Their bowed cavalry legs moved awkwardly
on the snow. Andersen wondered what they were doing there Suddenly the
nature of their business flashed upon him. It was an ugly errand they
were upon, an instinct rather that his reason told him. Something
unusual and terrible was to happen. And the same instinct told him he
must conceal himself from the soldiers. He turned to the left quickly,
dropped on his knees, and crawled on the soft, thawing, crackling snow
to a low haystack, from behind which, by craning his neck, he could
watch what the soldiers were doing.
There were twelve of them, one a stocky young officer in a grey cloak
caught in prettily at the waist by a silver belt. His face was so red
that even at that distance Andersen caught the odd, whitish gleam of
his light protruding moustache and eyebrows against the vivid colour
of his skin. The broken tones of his raucous voice reached distinctly
to where the teacher, listening intently, lay hidden.
"I know what I am about. I don't need anybody's advice," the officer
cried. He clapped his arms akimbo and looked down at some one among
the group of bustling soldiers. "I'll show you how to be a rebel, you
Andersen's heart beat fast. "Good heavens!" he thought. "Is it
possible?" His head grew chill as if struck by a cold wave.
"Officer," a quiet, restrained, yet distinct voice came from among the
soldiers, "you have no right—It's for the court to decide—you aren't
a judge—it's plain murder, not—" "Silence!" thundered the officer,
his voice choking with rage. "I'll give you a court. Ivanov, go
He put the spurs to his horse and rode away. Gabriel Andersen
mechanically observed how carefully the horse picked its way, placing
its feet daintily as if for the steps of a minuet. Its ears were
pricked to catch every sound. There was momentary bustle and
excitement among the soldiers. Then they dispersed in different
directions, leaving three persons in black behind, two tall men and
one very short and frail. Andersen could see the hair of the short
one's head. It was very light. And he saw his rosy ears sticking out
on each side.
Now he fully understood what was to happen. But it was a thing so out
of the ordinary, so horrible, that he fancied he was dreaming.
"It's so bright, so beautiful—the snow, the field, the woods, the
sky. The breath of spring is upon everything. Yet people are going to
be killed. How can it be? Impossible!" So his thoughts ran in
confusion. He had the sensation of a man suddenly gone insane, who
finds he sees, hears and feels what he is not accustomed to, and ought
not hear, see and feel.
The three men in black stood next to one another hard by the railing,
two quite close together, the short one some distance away.
"Officer!" one of them cried in a desperate voice—Andersen could not
see which it was—"God sees us! Officer!"
Eight soldiers dismounted quickly, their spurs and sabres catching
awkwardly. Evidently they were in a hurry, as if doing a thief's job.
Several seconds passed in silence until the soldiers placed themselves
in a row a few feet from the black figures and levelled their guns. In
doing so one soldier knocked his cap from his head. He picked it up
and put it on again without brushing off the wet snow.
The officer's mount still kept dancing on one spot with his ears
pricked, while the other horses, also with sharp ears erect to catch
every sound, stood motionless looking at the men in black, their long
wise heads inclined to one side.
"Spare the boy at least!" another voice suddenly pierced the air. "Why
kill a child, damn you! What has the child done?"
"Ivanov, do what I told you to do," thundered the officer, drowning
the other voice. His face turned as scarlet as a piece of red flannel.
There followed a scene savage and repulsive in its gruesomeness. The
short figure in black, with the light hair and the rosy ears, uttered
a wild shriek in a shrill child's tones and reeled to one side.
Instantly it was caught up by two or three soldiers. But the boy began
to struggle, and two more soldiers ran up.
"Ow-ow-ow-ow!" the boy cried. "Let me go, let me go! Ow-ow!"
His shrill voice cut the air like the yell of a stuck porkling not
quite done to death. Suddenly he grew quiet. Some one must have struck
him. An unexpected, oppressive silence ensued. The boy was being
pushed forward. Then there came a deafening report. Andersen started
back all in a tremble. He saw distinctly, yet vaguely as in a dream,
the dropping of two dark bodies, the flash of pale sparks, and a light
smoke rising in the clean, bright atmosphere. He saw the soldiers
hastily mounting their horses without even glancing at the bodies. He
saw them galloping along the muddy road, their arms clanking, their
horses' hoofs clattering.
He saw all this, himself now standing in the middle of the road, not
knowing when and why he had jumped from behind the haystack. He was
deathly pale. His face was covered with dank sweat, his body was
aquiver. A physical sadness smote and tortured him. He could not make
out the nature of the feeling. It was akin to extreme sickness, though
far more nauseating and terrible.
After the soldiers had disappeared beyond the bend toward the woods,
people came hurrying to the spot of the shooting, though till then not
a soul had been in sight.
The bodies lay at the roadside on the other side of the railing, where
the snow was clean, brittle and untrampled and glistened cheerfully in
the bright atmosphere. There were three dead bodies, two men and a
boy. The boy lay with his long soft neck stretched on the snow. The
face of the man next to the boy was invisible. He had fallen face
downward in a pool of blood. The third was a big man with a black
beard and huge, muscular arms. He lay stretched out to the full length
of his big body, his arms extended over a large area of blood-stained
The three men who had been shot lay black against the white snow,
motionless. From afar no one could have told the terror that was in
their immobility as they lay there at the edge of the narrow road
crowded with people.
That night Gabriel Andersen in his little room in the schoolhouse did
not write poems as usual. He stood at the window and looked at the
distant pale disk of the moon in the misty blue sky, and thought. And
his thoughts were confused, gloomy, and heavy as if a cloud had
descended upon his brain.
Indistinctly outlined in the dull moonlight he saw the dark railing,
the trees, the empty garden. It seemed to him that he beheld them—the
three men who had been shot, two grown up, one a child. They were
lying there now at the roadside, in the empty, silent field, looking
at the far-off cold moon with their dead, white eyes as he with his
"The time will come some day," he thought, "when the killing of people
by others will be an utter impossibility The time will come when even
the soldiers and officers who killed these three men will realise what
they have done and will understand that what they killed them for is
just as necessary, important, and dear to them—to the officers and
soldiers—as to those whom they killed.
"Yes," he said aloud and solemnly, his eyes moistening, "that time
will come. They will understand." And the pale disk of the moon was
blotted out by the moisture in his eyes.
A large pity pierced his heart for the three victims whose eyes looked
at the moon, sad and unseeing. A feeling of rage cut him as with a
sharp knife and took possession of him.
But Gabriel Andersen quieted his heart, whispering softly, "They know
not what they do." And this old and ready phrase gave him the strength
to stifle his rage and indignation.
The day was as bright and white, but the spring was already advanced.
The wet soil smelt of spring. Clear cold water ran everywhere from
under the loose, thawing snow. The branches of the trees were springy
and elastic. For miles and miles around, the country opened up in
clear azure stretches.
Yet the clearness and the joy of the spring day were not in the
village. They were somewhere outside the village, where there were no
people—in the fields, the woods and the mountains. In the village the
air was stifling, heavy and terrible as in a nightmare.
Gabriel Andersen stood in the road near a crowd of dark, sad,
absent-minded people and craned his neck to see the preparations for
the flogging of seven peasants.
They stood in the thawing snow, and Gabriel Andersen could not
persuade himself that they were people whom he had long known and
understood. By that which was about to happen to them, the shameful,
terrible, ineradicable thing that was to happen to them, they were
separated from all the rest of the world, and so were unable to feel
what he, Gabriel Andersen, felt, just as he was unable to feel what
they felt. Round them were the soldiers, confidently and beautifully
mounted on high upon their large steeds, who tossed their wise heads
and turned their dappled wooden faces slowly from side to side,
looking contemptuously at him, Gabriel Andersen, who was soon to
behold this horror, this disgrace, and would do nothing, would not
dare to do anything. So it seemed to Gabriel Andersen; and a sense of
cold, intolerable shame gripped him as between two clamps of ice
through which he could see everything without being able to move, cry
out or utter a groan.
They took the first peasant. Gabriel Andersen saw his strange,
imploring, hopeless look. His lips moved, but no sound was heard, and
his eyes wandered. There was a bright gleam in them as in the eyes of
a madman. His mind, it was evident, was no longer able to comprehend
what was happening.
And so terrible was that face, at once full of reason and of madness,
that Andersen felt relieved when they put him face downward on the
snow and, instead of the fiery eyes, he saw his bare back
glistening—a senseless, shameful, horrible sight.
The large, red-faced soldier in a red cap pushed toward him, looked
down at his body with seeming delight, and then cried in a clear
"Well, let her go, with God's blessing!"
Andersen seemed not to see the soldiers, the sky, the horses or the
crowd. He did not feel the cold, the terror or the shame. He did not
hear the swish of the knout in the air or the savage howl of pain and
despair. He only saw the bare back of a man's body swelling up and
covered over evenly with white and purple stripes. Gradually the bare
back lost the semblance of human flesh. The blood oozed and squirted,
forming patches, drops and rivulets, which ran down on the white,
Terror gripped the soul of Gabriel Andersen as he thought of the
moment when the man would rise and face all the people who had seen
his body bared out in the open and reduced to a bloody pulp. He closed
his eyes. When he opened them, he saw four soldiers in uniform and red
hats forcing another man down on the snow, his back bared just as
shamefully, terribly and absurdly—a ludicrously tragic sight.
Then came the third, the fourth, and so on, to the end.
And Gabriel Andersen stood on the wet, thawing snow, craning his neck,
trembling and stuttering, though he did not say a word. Dank sweat
poured from his body. A sense of shame permeated his whole being. It
was a humiliating feeling, having to escape being noticed so that they
should not catch him and lay him there on the snow and strip him
bare—him, Gabriel Andersen.
The soldiers pressed and crowded, the horses tossed their heads, the
knout swished in the air, and the bare, shamed human flesh swelled up,
tore, ran over with blood, and curled like a snake. Oaths, wild
shrieks rained upon the village through the clean white air of that
Andersen now saw five men's faces at the steps of the town hall, the
faces of those men who had already undergone their shame. He quickly
turned his eyes away. After seeing this a man must die, he thought.
There were seventeen of them, fifteen soldiers, a subaltern and a
young beardless officer. The officer lay in front of the fire looking
intently into the flames. The soldiers were tinkering with the
firearms in the wagon.
Their grey figures moved about quietly on the black thawing ground,
and occasionally stumbled across the logs sticking out from the
Gabriel Andersen, wearing an overcoat and carrying his cane behind his
back, approached them. The subaltern, a stout fellow with a moustache,
jumped up, turned from the fire, and looked at him.
"Who are you? What do you want?" he asked excitedly. From his tone it
was evident that the soldiers feared everybody in that district,
through which they went scattering death, destruction and torture.
"Officer," he said, "there is a man here I don't know."
The officer looked at Andersen without speaking.
"Officer," said Andersen in a thin, strained voice, "my name is
Michelson. I am a business man here, and I am going to the village on
business. I was afraid I might be mistaken for some one else—you
"Then what are you nosing about here for?" the officer said angrily,
and turned away.
"A business man," sneered a soldier. "He ought to be searched, this
business man ought, so as not to be knocking about at night. A good
one in the jaw is what he needs."
"He's a suspicious character, officer," said the subaltern. "Don't you
think we'd better arrest him, what?"
"Don't," answered the officer lazily. "I'm sick of them, damn 'em."
Gabriel Andersen stood there without saying anything. His eyes flashed
strangely in the dark by the firelight. And it was strange to see his
short, substantial, clean, neat figure in the field at night among the
soldiers, with his overcoat and cane and glasses glistening in the
The soldiers left him and walked away. Gabriel Andersen remained
standing for a while. Then he turned and left, rapidly disappearing in
The night was drawing to a close. The air turned chilly, and the tops
of the bushes defined themselves more clearly in the dark. Gabriel
Andersen went again to the military post. But this time he hid,
crouching low as he made his way under the cover of the bushes. Behind
him people moved about quietly and carefully, bending the bushes,
silent as shadows. Next to Gabriel, on his right, walked a tall man
with a revolver in his hand.
The figure of a soldier on the hill outlined itself strangely,
unexpectedly, not where they had been looking for it. It was faintly
illumined by the gleam from the dying fire. Gabriel Andersen
recognised the soldier. It was the one who had proposed that he should
be searched. Nothing stirred in Andersen's heart. His face was cold
and motionless, as of a man who is asleep. Round the fire the soldiers
lay stretched out sleeping, all except the subaltern, who sat with his
head drooping over his knees.
The tall thin man on Andersen's right raised the revolver and pulled
the trigger. A momentary blinding flash, a deafening report.
Andersen saw the guard lift his hands and then sit down on the ground
clasping his bosom. From all directions short, crackling sparks
flashed up which combined into one riving roar. The subaltern jumped
up and dropped straight into the fire. Grey soldiers' figures moved
about in all directions like apparitions, throwing up their hands and
falling and writhing on the black earth. The young officer ran past
Andersen, fluttering his hands like some strange, frightened bird.
Andersen, as if he were thinking of something else, raised his cane.
With all his strength he hit the officer on the head, each blow
descending with a dull, ugly thud. The officer reeled in a circle,
struck a bush, and sat down after the second blow, covering his head
with both hands, as children do. Some one ran up and discharged a
revolver as if from Andersen's own hand. The officer sank together in
a heap and lunged with great force head foremost on the ground. His
legs twitched for a while, then he curled up quietly.
The shots ceased. Black men with white faces, ghostly grey in the
dark, moved about the dead bodies of the soldiers, taking away their
arms and ammunition.
Andersen watched all this with a cold, attentive stare. When all was
over, he went up, took hold of the burned subaltern's legs, and tried
to remove the body from the fire. But it was too heavy for him, and he
let it go.
Andersen sat motionless on the steps of the town hall, and thought. He
thought of how he, Gabriel Andersen, with his spectacles, cane,
overcoat and poems, had lied and betrayed fifteen men. He thought it
was terrible, yet there was neither pity, shame nor regret in his
heart. Were he to be set free, he knew that he, Gabriel Andersen, with
the spectacles and poems, would go straightway and do it again. He
tried to examine himself, to see what was going on inside his soul.
But his thoughts were heavy and confused. For some reason it was more
painful for him to think of the three men lying on the snow, looking
at the pale disk of the far-off moon with their dead, unseeing eyes,
than of the murdered officer whom he had struck two dry, ugly blows on
the head. Of his own death he did not think. It seemed to him that he
had done with everything long, long ago. Something had died, had gone
out and left him empty, and he must not think about it.
And when they grabbed him by the shoulder and he rose, and they
quickly led him through the garden where the cabbages raised their dry
heads, he could not formulate a single thought.
He was conducted to the road and placed at the railing with his back
to one of the iron bars. He fixed his spectacles, put his hands behind
him, and stood there with his neat, stocky body, his head slightly
inclined to one side.
At the last moment he looked in front of him and saw rifle barrels
pointing at his head, chest and stomach, and pale faces with trembling
lips. He distinctly saw how one barrel levelled at his forehead
Something strange and incomprehensible, as if no longer of this world,
no longer earthly, passed through Andersen's mind. He straightened
himself to the full height of his short body and threw back his head
in simple pride. A strange indistinct sense of cleanness, strength and
pride filled his soul, and everything—the sun and the sky and the
people and the field and death—seemed to him insignificant, remote
The bullets hit him in the chest, in the left eye, in the stomach,
went through his clean coat buttoned all the way up. His glasses
shivered into bits. He uttered a shriek, circled round, and fell with
his face against one of the iron bars, his one remaining eye wide
open. He clawed the ground with his outstretched hands as if trying to
The officer, who had turned green, rushed toward him, and senselessly
thrust the revolver against his neck, and fired twice. Andersen
stretched out on the ground.
The soldiers left quickly. But Andersen remained pressed flat to the
ground. The index finger of his left hand continued to quiver for
about ten seconds.