The Moon is Down
John Steinbeck, 1942
"Defeat is a momentary thing. A defeat doesn't
last. We were defeated and now we attack. Defeat means
nothing. Can't you understand that? Do you know what they are
whispering behind doors?"
Lanser stood up slowly and spoke as though to himself. "So it starts again. We will shoot this man and make twenty new enemies. It's the only thing we know, the only thing we know."
The Moon is Down
John Steinbeck, 1942
Upstairs in the little palace of the Mayor the staff of Colonel Lanser made its headquarters. There were five of them besides the colonel. There was Major Hunter, a haunted little man of figures, a little man, who being a dependable unit, considered all other men as either as dependable units or as unfit to live. Major Hunter was an engineer, and except in case of war no one would have thought of giving him command of men. For Major Hunter set his men in rows like figures and he added and subtracted and multiplied them. He was an arithmetician rather than a mathematician. None of the humor, the music, or the mysticism of higher mathematics ever entered his head. Men might vary in height or weight or color, just as 6 is different from 8, but there was little other difference. He had been married several times and he did not know why his wives became very nervous before they left him.
Captain Bentick was a family man, a lover of dogs and pink children and Christmas. He was too old to be a captain, but a curious lack of ambition had kept him in that rank. Before the war he had admired the British country gentleman very much, wore English clothes, kept English dogs, smoked in an English pipe a special pipe mixture sent him from
If Captain Bentick was too old to be a captain, Captain Loft was too young. Captain Loft was as much a captain as one can imagine. He lived and breathed his captaincy. He had no unmilitary moments. A driving ambition forced him up through the grades. He rose like cream to the top of milk. He clicked his heels as perfectly as a dancer does. He knew every kind of military courtesy and insisted on using it all. Generals were afraid of him because he knew more about the deportment of a soldier than they did. Captain Loft thought and believed that a soldier was the highest development of animal life. If he considered God at all, he thought of Him as an old and honored general, retired and gray, living among remembered battles and putting wreaths on the graves of his lieutenants several times a year. Captain Loft believed that all women fall in love with a uniform and he did not see how it could be otherwise. In the normal course of events he would be a brigadier general at forty-five and have his picture in the illustrated papers, flanked by tall, pale, masculine women wearing lacy picture hats.
Lieutenants Tonder and Prackle were snot-noses, undergraduates, lieutenants, trained in the politics of the day, believing the great new system invented by a genius so great that they never bothered to evaluate its results. They were sentimental young men, given to tears and to furies. Lieutenant Prackle carried a lock of hair in the back of his watch, wrapped in a bit of blue satin, and the hair was constantly getting loose and clogging the balance wheel, so that he wore a wrist watch for telling time. Prackle was a dancing partner, a gay young man who nevertheless could scowl like the leader, could brood like the Leader. He hated degenerate art and had destroyed several canvases with his own hands. In cabarets he sometimes made pencil sketches of his companions which were so good that he had often been told he should have been an artist. Prackle had several blond sisters of whom he was so proud that he had on occasion caused a commotion when he thought they had been insulted. The sisters were a little disturbed about it because they were afraid someone might set out to prove the insults, which would not have been hard to do. Lieutenant Prackle spent nearly all his time off duty daydreaming of seducing Lieutenant Tonder's blond sister, a buxom girl who loved to be seduced by older men who did not muss her hair as Lieutenant Prackle did.
Lieutenant Tonder was a poet, a bitter poet who dreamed of perfect, ideal love of elevated young men for poor girls. Tonder was a dark romantic with a vision as wide as his experience. He sometimes spoke blank verse under his breath to imaginary dark women. He longed for death on the battlefield, with weeping parents in the background, and the Leader, brave but sad in the presence of the dying youth. He imagined his death very often, lighted by a fair setting sun which glinted on broken military equipment, his men standing silently around him, with heads hung low, as over a fat cloud galloped the Valkyries, big-breasted, mothers and mistresses in one, while Wagnerian thunder crashed in the background. And he even had his dying words ready.
These were the men of the staff, each one playing war as children play, "Run, Sheep, Run." Major Hunter thought of war as an arithmetical job to be done so he could get back to his fireplace; Captain Loft as the proper career of a properly brought up young man; and Lieutenants Prackle and Tonder as a dreamlike thing in which nothing was very real. And their war so far had been play - fine weapons and fine planning against unarmed, planless enemies. They had lost no fights and suffered little hurt. They were, under pressure, capable of cowardice or courage, as everyone is. Of them all, only Colonel Lanser knew what war really is in the long run.
Lanser had been in Belgium and France twenty years before and he tried not to think of what he knew - that war is treachery and hatred, the muddling of incompetent generals, the torture and killing and sickness and tiredness, until at last it is over and nothing has changed except for new weariness and new hatreds. Lanser told himself he was a soldier, given orders to carry out. He was not expected to question or to think, but only to carry out orders; and he tried to put aside the sick memories of the other war and the certainty that this would be the same. This one will be different, he said to himself fifty times a day; this one will be very different.
In marching, in mobs, in football games, and in war, outlines become vague; real things become unreal and a fog creeps over the mind. Tension and excitement, weariness, movement - all merge in one great gray dream, so that when it is over, it is hard to remember how it was when you killed men or ordered them to be killed. Then other people who were not there tell you how it was and you say vaguely, "Yes, I guess that's how it was."
This floor had taken three rooms on the upper floor of the Mayor's palace. In the bedrooms they had put their cots and blankets and equipment, and in the room next to them and directly over the little drawing room on the ground floor they had made a kind of club, rather an uncomfortable club. There were a few chairs and a table. Here they read letters and wrote letters. They talked and ordered coffee and planned and rested. On the walls between the windows there were pictures of cows and lakes and little farmhouses, and from the windows they could look down over the town to the waterfront, to the docks where the shipping was tied up, to the docks where the coal barges pulled up and took their loads and went out to sea. They could look down over the little town that twisted past the square to the waterfront, and they could see the fishing boats lying at anchor in the bay, the sails furled, and they could smell the drying fish on the beach, right through the window.
There was a large table in the center of the room and Major Hunter sat beside it. He had his drawing board in his lap and resting on the table, and with a T-square and triangle he worked at a design for a new railroad siding. The drawing board was unsteady and the major was growing angry with its unsteadiness. He called over his shoulder, "Prackle!" And then, "Lieutenant Prackle!"
The bedroom door opened and the lieutenant came out, half his face covered with shaving cream. He held the brush in his hand. "Yes?" he said.
Major Hunter jiggled his drawing board. "Hasn't that tripod for my board turned up in the baggage?"
"I don't know, sir," said Prackle. "I didn't look."
"Well, look now, will you? It's bad enough to have to work in this light. I'll have to draw this again before I ink it."
Prackle said, "Just as soon as I finish shaving, I'll look."
Hunter said irritably, "This siding is more important than your looks. See if there is a canvas case like a golf bag under that pile in there."
Prackle disappeared into the bedroom. The door to the right opened and Captain Loft came in. He wore his helmet, a pair of field glasses, sidearm, and various little leather cases strung out all over him. He began to remove his equipment as soon as he entered.
"You know, that Bentick's crazy," he said. "He was going out on duty in a fatigue cap, right down the street."
Loft put his field glasses on the table and took off his helmet, then his gas mask bag. A little pile of equipment began to heap up on the table.
Hunter said, ""Don't leave that stuff there. I have to work here. Why shouldn't he wear a cap? There hasn't been any trouble. I get sick of these tin things. They're heavy and you can't see."
Loft said primly, "It's bad practice to leave it off. It's bad for the people here. We must maintain a military standard, an alertness, and never vary it. We'll just invite trouble if we don't."
"What makes you think so?" Hunter asked.
Loft drew himself up a little. His mouth thinned with certainty. Sooner or later everyone wanted to punch Loft in the nose for his sureness about things. He said, "I don't think it. I was paraphrasing Manual X-12 on deportment in occupied countries. It is very carefully worked out." He began to say, "You-" and then changed it to, "Everybody should read X-12 very closely."
Hunter said, "I wonder if the man who wrote it was ever in occupied country. These people are harmless enough. They seem to be good obedient people."
Prackle came through the door, his face still half-covered with shaving soap. He carried a brown canvas tube, and behind him came Lieutenant Tonder. "Is this it?" Prackle asked.
"Yes. Unpack it, will you, and set it up."
Prackle and Tonder went to work on the folding tripod and tested it and put it near Hunter. The major screwed his board to it, tilted it right and left, and finally settled gruntingly behind it.
Captain Loft said, "Do you know you have soap on your face, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir," Prackle said. "I was shaving when the major asked me to get the tripod."
"Well, you had better get it off," Loft said. "The colonel might see you."
"Oh, he wouldn't mind. He doesn't care about things like that."
Tonder was looking over Hunter's shoulder as he worked.
Loft said, "Well, he may not, but it doesn't look right."
Prackle took a handkerchief and rubbed the soap from his cheek.
Tonder pointed to a little drawing on the corner of the major's board. "That's a nice-looking bridge, Major. But where in the world are we going to build a bridge?"
Hunter looked down at the drawing and then over his shoulder at Tonder. "Huh? Oh, that isn't any bridge we're going to build. Up here is the work drawing."
"What are you doing with a bridge, then."
Hunter seemed a little embarrassed. "Well, you know, in my back yard at home I've got a model railroad line. I was going to bridge a little creek for it. Brought the line right down to the creek, but I never did get the bridge built. I thought I'd kind of work it out while I was away."
Lieutenant Prackle took from his pocket a folding rotogravure page and he unfolded it and held it up and looked at it. It was a picture of a girl, all legs and dress and eyelashes, a well-developed blonde in black openwork stockings and a low bodice, and this particular blonde peeped over a black lace fan. Lieutenant Prackle held her up and he said, "Isn't she something?" Lieutenant Tonder looked critically at the picture and said, "I don't like her."
"What don't you like about her?"
"I just don't like her," said Tonder. "What do you want her picture for?"
Prackle said, "Because I do like her, and I bet you do too."
"I do not," said Tonder.
"You mean to say you wouldn't take a date with her if you could?" Prackle asked.
Tonder said, "No."
"Well, you're just crazy," and Prackle went to one of the curtains. He said, "I'm just going to stick her up here and let you brood about her for a while." He pinned the picture to the curtain.
Captain Loft was gathering his equipment into his arms now, and he said, "I don't think it looks very well out here, Lieutenant. You'd better take it down. It wouldn't make a good impression on the local people."
Hunter looked up from his board. "What wouldn't?" He followed their eyes to the picture. "Who's that?" he asked.
"She's an actress," said Prackle.
Hunter looked at her carefully. "Oh, do you know her?"
Tonder said, "She's a tramp.”
"Oh, then you know her?"
Prackle was looking steadily at Tonder. "Say, how do you know she's a tramp?"
"She looks like a tramp," said Tonder.
Do you know her?"
"No, and I don't want to."
"Prackle began to say, "Then how do you know?" when Loft broke in. He said, "You'd better take the picture down. Put it up over your bed if you want to. This room's kind of official here."
Prackle looked at him mutinously and was about to speak when Captain Loft said, "That's an order, Lieutenant," and poor Prackle folded his paper and put it into his pocket again. He tried cheerily to change the subject. "There are some pretty girls in this town, all right," he said. As soon as we get settled down and everything going smoothly, I'm going to get acquainted with a few."
Loft said, "You'd better read X-12. There's a section dealing with sexual matters." And he went out, carrying his glasses, duffel, and equipment. Lieutenant Tonder, still looking over Hunter's shoulder, said, "That's clever - the coal cars come right through the mine to the ship."
Hunter came slowly out of his work and he said, "We have to speed it up; we've got to get that coal moving. It's a big job. I'm awful thankful that the people here are calm and sensible."
Loft came back into the room without his equipment. He stood by the window, looking out toward the harbor, toward the coal mine, and he said, "They are calm and sensible because we are calm and sensible. I think we can take credit for that. That's why I keep harping on procedure. It is very carefully worked out."
The door opened and Colonel Lanser came in, removing his coat as he entered. His staff gave him military courtesy - not very rigid, but enough. Lanser said, "Captain Loft, will you go down and relieve Bentick? He isn't feeling well, says he's dizzy."
"Yes, sir," said Loft. "May I mention that I only recently came off duty."
Lanser inspected him closely. "I hope you don't mind going, Captain."
"Not at all sir; I just mention it for the record."
Lanser relaxed and chuckled. "You like to be mentioned in the reports, don't you?"
"It does no harm, sir."
"And when you have enough mentions," Lanser went on, "there will be a little dangler on your chest."
"They are the milestones in a military career, sir."
Lanser sighed. "Yes, I guess they are. But they won't be the ones you'll remember, Captain."
"Sir?" Loft asked.
"You'll know what I mean later - perhaps."
Captain Loft put his equipment on rapidly. "Yes, sir," he said, and went out and his footsteps clattered down the wooden stairs, and Lanser watched him go with a little amusement. He said quietly, "There goes a born soldier." And Hunter looked up and poised his pencil and he said, "A born ass."
"No," said Lanser, "he's being a soldier the way a lot of men would be politicians. He'll be on the General Staff before long. He'll look down on war from above and so he'll always love it."
Lieutenant Prackle said, "When do you think the war will be over, sir?"
"Over? Over? What do you mean?"
Lieutenant Prackle continued, "How soon will we win?"
Lanser shook his head. "Oh, I don't know. The enemy is still in the world."
"But we will lick them," said Prackle.
Lanser said, "Yes?"
"Yes, yes; we always do."
Prackle said excitedly, "Well, if it's quiet around Christmas, do you think there will be some furloughs granted?"
"I don't know," said Lanser. "Such orders will have to come from home. Do you want to get home for Christmas?"
"Well, I'd kind of like to."
"Maybe you will," said Lanser, "maybe you will."
Lieutenant Tonder said, "We won't drop out of this occupation, will we, sir, after the war is over?"
"I don't know," said the colonel. "Why?"
"Well," said Tonder, "it's a nice country, nice people. Our men - some of them - might even settle here."
Lanser said jokingly, "You've seen some place you like, perhaps?"
"Well," said Tonder, "there are some beautiful farms here. If four or five of them were thrown together, it would be a nice place to settle, I think."
"You have no family land, then?" Lanser asked.
"No, sir, not any more. Inflation took it away."
Lanser was tired now of talking to children. He said, "Ah well, we still have a war to fight. We still have coal to take out. Do you suppose we can wait until it is over to build up these estates? Such orders will come from above. Captain Loft can tell you that." His manner changed. He said, "Hunter, your steel will be in tomorrow. You can get your tracks started this week."
There was a knock at the door and a sentry put his head in. He said, "Mr. Corell wishes to see you, sir."
"Send him in," said the colonel. And he said to the others, "This is the man who did the preliminary work here. We might have some trouble with him."
"Did he do a good job?" Tonder asked.
"Yes, he did, and he won't be popular with the people here. I wonder whether he will be popular with us."
"He deserves credit, certainly," Tonder said.
"Yes," Lanser said, "and don't think he won't claim it."
Corell came in, rubbing his hands. He radiated good-will and good-fellowship. He was dressed still in his black business suit, but on his head there was a patch of white bandage, stuck to his hair with a cross of adhesive tape. He advanced to the center of the room and said, "Good morning, colonel. I should have called yesterday after the trouble downstairs, but I knew how busy you would be."
The colonel said, "Good morning." Then with a circular gesture of his hand, "This is my staff, Mr. Corell."
"Fine boys," said Corell. "They did a good job. Well, I tried to prepare for them well."
Hunter looked down at his board and he took out an inking pen and dipped it and began to ink in his drawing.
Lanser said, "You did very well. I wish you hadn't killed those six men, though. I wish their soldiers hadn't come back."
Corell spread his hands and said comfortably, "Six men is a small loss for a town of this size, with a coal mine, too."
Lanser said sternly, "I am not averse to killing people if it that finishes it. But sometimes it is better not to."
Corell had been studying the officers. He looked sideways at the lieutenants, and he said, "Could we - perhaps - talk alone, Colonel?"
"Yes if you wish. Lieutenant Prackle and Tonder, will you go to your room, please?" And the colonel said to Corell, "Major Hunter is working. He doesn't hear anything when he's working." Hunter looked up from his board and smiled quietly and looked down again. The young lieutenants left the room, and when they were gone Lanser said, "Well, here we are. Won't you sit down?"
"Thank you, sir," and Corell sat down behind the table.
Lanser looked at the bandage on Corell's head. He said bluntly, "Have they tried to kill you already?"
Corell felt the bandage with his fingers. "This? Oh, this was a stone that fell from a cliff in the hills this morning."
"You're sure it wasn't thrown?"
"What do you mean?" Corell asked. "These aren't fierce people. They haven't had a war for a hundred years. They've forgotten about fighting."
"Well, you've lived among them, said the colonel. "You ought to know." He stepped close to Corell. "But if you are safe, these people are different from any in the world. I've helped to occupy countries before. I was in
"Thank you, sir," said Corell, "I did my best."
Lanser said a little wearily, "Well, sir, now what shall we do? Would you like to go back to the capital? We can put you on a coal barge if you're in a hurry, or on a destroyer if you want to wait."
Corell said, "But I don't want to go back. I'll stay here."
Lanser studied this for a moment and he said, "You know, I haven't a great many men. I can't give you a very adequate bodyguard."
"But I don't need a bodyguard. I tell you, these aren't violent people."
Lanser looked at the bandage for a moment. Hunter glanced up from his board and remarked, "You'd better start wearing a helmet." He looked down at his work again.
Now Corell moved forward in his chair. "I wanted particularly to talk to you Colonel. I thought I might help with the civil administration."
Lanser turned on his heel and walked to the window and looked out, and then he swung around and said quietly, "What have you in mind?"
"Well, you must have a civil authority you can trust. I thought perhaps that Mayor Orden might step down now and - well, if I were to take over his office, it and the military would work very nicely together."
Lanser's eyes seemed to grow large and bright. He came close to Corell and he spoke sharply. "Have you mentioned this in your report?"
Corell said, "Well, yes, naturally - in my analysis."
Lanser interrupted. Have you talked to any of the town people since we arrived - outside of the Mayor, that is?"
"Well, no. You see, they are still a bit startled. They didn't expect it." He chuckled. "No, sir, they certainly didn't expect it."
But Lanser pressed his point. "So you don't really know what's going on in their minds?"
"Why, they're startled," said Corell. "They're - well, they're almost dreaming."
"You don't know what they think of you?" Lanser asked.
"I have many friends here. I know everyone."
"Did anyone buy anything in your store this morning?"
"Well, of course, business is at a standstill," Corell answered. "No one's buying anything."
Lanser relaxed suddenly. He went to a chair and sat down and crossed his legs. "Yours is a difficult and brave branch of the service. It should be greatly rewarded."
"Thank you, sir."
"You will have their hatred in time," said the colonel.
"I can stand that, sir. They are the enemy."
Now lanser hesitated a long moment before he spoke, and then he said softly, "You will not even have our respect."
Corell jumped to his feet excitedly. "This is contrary to the Leader's words!" he said. "The Leader has said that all branches are equally honorable."
Lanser went on very quietly, "I hope the Leader knows. I hope he can read the minds of soldiers." And then almost compassionately he said, "You should be greatly rewarded." For a moment he sat quietly and then he pulled himself together and said, "Now we must come to exactness. I am in charge here. My job is to get the coal out. To do that I must maintain order and discipline, and to do that I must know what is in the minds of these people. I must anticipate revolt. Do you understand that?"
"Well, I can find out what you wish to know, sir. As Mayor here, I will be very effective," said Corell.
Lanser shook his head. "I have no orders about this. I must use my own judgment. I think you will never again know what is going on here. I think no one will speak to you; no one will be near to you except those who will live on money, who can live on money. I think without a guard that you will be in great danger. It will please me if you back to the capital, there to be rewarded for your fine work."
"But my place is here, sir," said Corell. "I have made my place. It is all in my report."
Lanser went on as though he had not heard. "Mayor Orden is more than a mayor," he said. "He is his people. He knows what they are doing, thinking, without asking, because he will think what they think. By watching him I will know them. He must stay. That is my judgment."
Corell said, "My work, sir, merits better treatment than to be sent away."
"Yes, it does," Lanser said slowly. But to the larger work I think you are only a detriment now. If you are not hated yet, you will be. In any little revolt you will be the first to be killed. I think I will suggest that you go back."
Corell said stiffly, "You will, of course, permit me to wait for a reply to my report to the capital?"
""Yes, of course. But I shall recommend that you go back for your own safety. Frankly, Mr. Corell, you have no value here. But - well, there must be other plans and other countries. Perhaps you will go now to some new town in some new country. You will win new confidence in a new field. You may be given a larger town, even a city, a greater responsibility. I think I will recommend you highly for your work here."
Corell's eyes were shining with gratification. "Thank you, sir," he said. "I've worked hard. Perhaps you are right. But you must permit me to wait for the reply from the capital."
Lanser's voice was tight. His eyes were slitted. He said harshly, "Wear a helmet, keep indoors, do not go out at night, and, above all, do not drink. Trust no woman nor any man. Do you understand that?"
Corell looked pityingly at the colonel. I don't think you understand. I have a little house. A pleasant country girl waits on me. I even think she's a little fond of me. These are simple, peaceful people. I know them."
Lanser said, "There are no peaceful people. When will you learn it? There are no friendly people. Can't you understand that? We have invaded this country - you, by what they call treachery, prepared for us." His face grew red and his voice rose. "Can't you understand that we are at war with these people?"
Corell said, a little smugly, "We have defeated them."
The colonel stood up and swung his arms helplessly, and Hunter looked up from his board and put out his hand to protect his board from being jiggled. Hunter said, "CAreful now, sir. I'm inking in. I wouldn't want to do it all over again."
Lanser looked down at him and said, "Sorry," and went on as if he was instructing a class. He said, "Defeat is a momentary thing. A defeat doesn't last. We were defeated and now we attack. Defeat means nothing. Can't you understand that? Do you know what they are whispering behind doors?"
Corell asked, "Do you?"
"No, but I suspect."
Then Corell said insinuatingly, "Are you afraid, colonel? Should the commander of this occupation be afraid?"
Lanser sat down heavily and said, "Maybe that's it." And he said disgustedly, "I'm tired of people who have not been at war who know all about it." He held his chin in his hand and said, "I remember a little old woman in
Corell said, "But you shot her?"
"Of course we shot her."
"And the murders stopped?" asked Corell.
"No, the murders did not stop. And when we finally retreated, the people cut off stragglers and they burned some and they gouged out the eyes from some, and some they even crucified."
Corell said loudly, "These are not good things to say Colonel."
"They are not good things to remember," said Lanser.
Corell said, "You should not be in command if you are afraid."
And Lanser answered softly, "I know how to fight, you see. If you know, at least you do not make silly errors."
"Do you talk this way to the young officers?"
Lanser shook his head. "No, they wouldn't believe me."
"Why do you tell me, then?"
"Because, Mr. Corell, your work is done. I remember one time -" and as he spoke there was a tumble of feet on the stairs and the door burst open. A sentry looked in and Captain Loft brushed past him. Loft was rigid and cold and military; he said, "There's trouble, sir."
"I have to report, sir, that Captain Bentick has been killed."
Lanser said, "Oh - yes - Bentick."
There was the sound of a number of footsteps on the stairs and two stretcher bearers came in, carrying a figure covered with blankets.
Lanser said, "Are you sure he's dead?"
"Quite sure," Loft said stiffly.
The lieutenants came in from the bedroom, their mouths a little open, and they looked frightened. Lanser said, "Put him down there," and he pointed to the wall beside the windows. When the bearers had gone, Lanser knelt and lifted a corner of the blanket and then quickly put it down again. And still kneeling, he looked at Loft and said, "Who did this?"
"A miner," said Loft.
"I was there, sir."
"Well, make your report, then! Make your report, damn it, man!"
Loft drew himself up and said formally, "I had just relieved Captain Bentick, as the colonel ordered. Captain Bentick was about to leave to come here when I had some trouble about a recalcitrant miner who wanted to quit work. He shouted something about being a free man. When he ordered him to work, he rushed at me with his pick. Captain Bentick tried to interfere." He gestured toward the body.
Lanser, still kneeling, nodded slowly. "Bentick was a curious man," he said. "He loved the English. He loved everything about them. I don't think he liked to fight very much . . . You captured the man?"
"Yes, sir," Loft said.
Lanser stood up slowly and spoke as though to himself. "So it starts again. We will shoot this man and make twenty new enemies. It's the only thing we know, the only thing we know."
Prackle said, "What do you say, sir?"
Lanser said, "Nothing, nothing at all. I was just thinking." He turned to Loft and said, "Please give my compliments to Mayor Orden and my request that he see me immediately. It is very important."
Major Hunter looked up, dried his inking pen carefully, and put it away in a velvet-lined box.