The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942

"Mayor Orden, you know our orders are inexorable.  We must get the coal.  If your people are not orderly, we will have to restore that order by force."  His voice grew stern.  "We must shoot people if it is necessary.  If you wish to save your people from hurt, you must help us to keep order.  Now, it is considered wise by my government that punishment emanate from the local authority.  It makes for a more orderly situation."

The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942


In the town the people moved sullenly through the streets.  Some of the light of astonishment was gone from their eyes, but still a light of anger had not taken its place.  In the coal shaft the workingmen pushed the coal cars sullenly.  The small tradesmen stood behind their counters and served the people, but no one communicated with them.  The people spoke to one another in monosyllables, and everyone was thinking of the war, thinking of himself, thinking of the past and how it had suddenly been changed.

In the drawing room of the palace of Mayor Orden a small fire burned and the lights were on, for it was a gray day outside and frost was in the air.  The room itself was undergoing a change.  The tapestry-covered chairs were pushed back ,the little tables out of the way, and through the doorway to the right Joseph and Annie were struggling to bring in a large, square dining table.  They had it on its side.  Joseph was in the drawing room and Annie's red face showed through the door.  Joseph maneuvered the legs around sideways, and he cried, "Don't push, Annie!  Now!"

I am 'now-ing,'" said Annie the red-nosed, the red-eyed, the angry.  Annie was always a little angry and these soldiers, this occupation, did not improve her temper.  Indeed, for what for years been considered simply a bad disposition was suddenly become a patriotic emotion.  Annie had gained some little reputation as an exponent of liberty by throwing hot water on the soldiers.  She would have thrown it on anyone who cluttered up her porch, but it just happened that she had become a heroine; and since anger had been the beginning of her success, Annie went on to new successes by whipping herself into increased and constant anger.

"Don't scuff the bottom," Joseph said.  The table wedged in the doorway.  "Steady!" Joseph warned.

"I am steady," said Annie.

Joseph stood off and studied the table, and Annie crossed her arms and glared at him.  He tested a leg.  "Don't push," he said.  "Don't push so hard."  And by himself he got the table through while Annie followed with crossed arms.  "Now, up she goes," said Joseph, and at last Annie helped him settle it on four legs and move it to the center of the room.  "There," Annie said.  "If His Excellency hadn't told me to, I wouldn't have done it.  What right have they got moving tables around?"

"What right coming in at all," said Joseph.

"None," said Annie.

"None," repeated Joseph.  "I see it like they have no right at all, but they do it, with their guns and their parachutes; they do it, Annie."

"They got no right," said Annie.  "What do they want with a table in here, anyway.  This isn't a dining room."

Joseph moved a chair up to the table and he set it carefully at the right distance from the table, and he adjusted it.  "They're going to hold a trial," he said.  "They're going to try Alexander Morden."

"Molly Morden's husband?"

 "Molly Morden's husband."

"For bashing that fellow with a pick?"

That's right," said Joseph.

"But he's a nice man," Annie said.  "They've got no right to try him.  He gave Molly a big red dress for her birthday.  What right have they got to try Alex?"

"Well,"  Joseph explained, "he killed this fellow."

"Suppose he did; the fellow ordered Alex around.  I heard about it.  Alex doesn't like to be ordered.  Alex's been an alderman in his time, and his father, too.  And Molly Morden makes a nice cake," Annie said charitably.  "But her frosting gets too hard.  What'll they do with Alex?"

"Shoot him," said Joseph gloomily.

"They can't do that."

"Bring up the chairs, Annie.  Yes, they can.  They'll just do it."

Annie shook a very rigid finger in his face.  "You remember my words," she said angrily.  "People aren't going to like it if they hurt Alex.  People like Alex.  Did he ever hurt anybody before?  Answer me that!"

"No," said Joseph.

"Well, there, you see!  If they hurt Alex, people are going to be mad and I'm going to be mad.  I won't stand for it!"

"What will you do?" Joseph asked her.

"Why, I'll kill some of them myself," said Annie.

"And then they'll shoot you," said Joseph.

"Let them!  I tell you, Joseph, things can go too far - tramping in and out all hours of the night, shooting people."

Joseph adjusted a chair at the head of the table, and he became in some curious way a conspirator.  He said softly, "Annie."

She paused and, sensing his tone, walked nearer to him.  He said, "Can you keep a secret?"

She looked at him with a little admiration, for he had never had a secret before.  "Yes.  What is it?"

"Well, William Deal and Walter Doggel got away last night."

Got away?  Where?"


"They got away to England, in a boat."

Annie sighed with pleasure and anticipation.  "Does everybody know it?"

"Well, not everybody," said Joseph.  "Everybody but -" and he pointed a quick thumb toward the ceiling.

"When did they go?  Why didn't I hear about it?"

"You were busy."  Joseph's voice and face were cold.  "You know that Corell?"


Joseph came close to her.  "I don't think he's going to live long."

"What do you mean?" Annie asked.

"Well, people are talking."

Annie sighed with tension.  "Ah-h-h!!"

Joseph at last had opinions.  "People are getting together," he said.  "They don't like to be conquered.  Things are going to happen.  You keep your eyes peeled, Annie.  There's going to be things for you to do."

Annie asked, "How about His Excellency?  What's he going to do?  How does His Excellency stand?"

"Nobody knows," said Joseph.  "He doesn't say anything."

"He wouldn't be against us," Annie said.

"He doesn't say," said Joseph.

The knob turned on the left-hand door, and Mayor Orden came in slowly.  He looked tired and old. Behind him Doctor Winter walked.  Orden said, "That's good, Joseph.  Thank you, Annie.  It looks very well."

They went out and Joseph looked back through the door for a moment before he closed it.

Mayor Orden walked to the fire and turned to warm his back.  Doctor Winter pulled out the chair at the head of the table and sat down.  "I wonder how much longer I can hold this position?" Orden said.  "The people don't quite trust me and neither does the enemy.  I wonder whether this is a good thing."

"I don't know," said Winter.  "You trust yourself, don't you?  There's no doubt in your own mind?"

"Doubt?  No.  I am the Mayor.  I don't understand many things."  He pointed to the table.  "I don't know why they have to hold this trial in here.  They're going to try Alex here for murder.  You remember Alex?  He has that pretty little wife, Molly."

"I remember," said Winter.  "She used to teach in the grammar school.  Yes, I remember.  She's so pretty, she hated to get glasses when she needed them.  Well, I guess Alex killed an officer, all right.  Nobody's questioned that."

Mayor Orden said bitterly, "Nobody questions it.  But why do they try him?  Why don't they shoot him?  This is not a matter of doubt or certainty, justice or injustice.  There's none of that here.  Why must they try him - and in my house?"

Winter said, "I would guess it is for the show.  There's an idea about it: if you go through the form of a thing you have it, and sometimes people are satisfied with the form of a thing.  We had an army - soldiers with guns - but it wasn't an army, you see.  The invaders will have a trial and hope to convince that there is justice involved.  Alex did kill the captain, you know."

"Yes, I see that," Orden said.

And Winter went on, "If it comes from your house, where the people expect justice -"

He was interrupted by the opening of the door to the right.  A young woman entered.  She was about thirty and quite pretty.  She carried her glasses in her hand.  She was dressed simply and neatly and she was very excited.  She said quickly, "Annie told me to come right in, sir."

"Why, of course," said the Mayor.  "You're Molly Morden."

"Yes, sir, I am.  They say Alex is to be tried and shot."

Orden looked down at the floor for a moment, and Molly went on, "They say you will sentence him.  It will be your words that send him out."

Orden looked up, startled.  "What's this?  Who says this?"

"The people in the town."  She held herself very straight and she asked, half pleadingly, half demandingly, "You wouldn't do that, would you, sir?"

"How could the people know what I don't know?" he said.

"That is a great mystery," said Doctor Winter.  "That is a mystery that has disturbed rulers all over the world - how the people know.  It disturbs the invaders now, I am told, how news runs through censorships, how the truth of things fights free of control.  It is a great mystery."

The girl looked up, for the room had suddenly darkened, and she seemed to be afraid.  "It's a cloud," she said.  "There's word snow is on the way, and it's early, too."  Doctor Winter went to the window and squinted up at the sky, and he said, "Yes, it's a big cloud; maybe it will pass over."

Mayor Orden switched on a lamp that made only a little circle of light.  He switched it off again and said, "A light in the daytime is a lonely thing."

Now Molly came near to him again.  "Alex is not a murdering man," she said.  He's a quick-tempered man, but he's never broken a law.  He's a respected man."

Orden rested her hand on her shoulder and he said, "I have known Alex since he was a little boy.  I knew his father and his grandfather.  His grandfather was a bear-hunter in the old days.  Did you know that?"

Molly ignored him.  "You wouldn't sentence Alex?"

"No," he said.  "How could I sentence him?"

"The people said you would, for the sake of order."

"Do the people want order, Molly?"

"I don't know, she said.  "They want to be free."

"Well, do they know how to go about it?  Do they know what method to use against an armed enemy?"

"No," Molly said, "I don't think so."

"You are a bright girl, Molly; do you know?"

"No, sir, but I think the people feel that they are beaten if they are docile.  They want to show these soldiers they are unbeaten."

"They've had no chance to fight.  It's no fight to go against machine guns," Doctor Winter said.

Orden said, "When you know what they want to do, will you tell me, Molly?"

She looked at him suspiciously.  "Yes- " she said.

"You mean 'no.'  You don't trust me."

"But how about Alex?" she questioned.

"I'll not sentence him.  He has committed no crime against our people," said the Mayor.

Molly was hesitant now.  She said, "Will they - will they kill Alex?"

Orden stared at her and he said, "Dear child, my dear child."

She held herself rigid.  "Thank you."

Orden came close to her and she said weakly, "Don't touch me.  Please don't touch me.  Please don't touch me."  And his hand dropped.  For a moment she stood still, then she turned stiffly and went out of the door.

She had just closed the door when Joseph entered.  "Excuse me, sir, the colonel wants to see you.  I said you were busy.  I knew she was here.  And Madame wants to see you, too."

Orden said, "Ask Madame to come in."

Joseph went out and Madame came in immediately.

"I don't know how I can run a house," she began; "it's more people than the house can stand.  Annie's angry all the time."

"Hush!"  Orden said.

Madame looked at him in amazement.  "I don't know what -"

"Hush!" he said.  "Sarah, I want you to go to Alex Morden's house.  Do you understand?  I want you to stay with Molly Morden while she needs you.  Don't talk, just stay with her."

Madame said, "I've a hundred things -"

"Sarah, I want you to stay with Molly Morden.  Don't leave her alone.  Go now."

She comprehended slowly.  "Yes," she said.  "Yes, I will.  When will it be over?"

"I don't know," he said.  "I'll send Annie when it's time."

She kissed him lightly on the cheek and went out.  Orden walked to the door and called, "Joseph, I'll see the colonel now."

Lanser came in.  He had on a new pressed uniform with  a little ornamental dagger at the belt.  He said, "Good morning, Your Excellency.  I wish to speak to you  informally."  He glanced at Doctor Winter.  "I should like to speak to you alone."

Winter went slowly to the door and as he reached it, Orden said, "Doctor!"

Winter turned.  "Yes?"

"Will you come back this evening?"

"You will have work for me?" the doctor asked.

"No -no.  I just won't like to be alone."

"I will be here," said the doctor.

"And, Doctor, do you think Molly looked all right?"

"Oh, I think so.  Close to hysteria, I guess.  But she's good stock.  She's good, strong stock.  She's a Kenderly, you know."

"I'd forgotten," Orden said.  "Yes, she is a Kenderly, isn't she?"

Doctor Winter went out and shut the door behind him.

Lanser had waited courteously.  He watched the door close.  He looked at the table and the hairs about it.  "I will not tell you, sir, how sorry I am about this.  I wish it had not happened."
 Mayor Orden bowed, and Lanser went on, "I like you, sir, and I respect you, but I have a job to do.  You surely recognize that."

Orden did not answer.  He looked straight into Lanser's eyes.

"We do not act alone or on our own judgment."

Between sentences Lanser waited for an answer but he received none.

"There are rules laid down for us, rules laid down in the capital.  This man has killed an officer."

At last Orden answered, "Why didn't you shoot him, then.  That was the time to do it."

Lanser shook his head.  "If I agreed with you, it would make no difference.  You know as well as I that punishment is largely for the purpose of deterring the potential criminal.  Thus, since punishment is for others than the punished, it must be publicized.  It must even be dramatized."  He thrust a finger  in back of his belt and flipped his little dagger.

Orden turned away and looked out of the window at the dark sky.  "It will snow tonight," he said.

"Mayor Orden, you know our orders are inexorable.  We must get the coal.  If your people are not orderly, we will have to restore that  order by force."  His voice grew stern.  "We must shoot people if it is necessary.  If you wish to save your people from hurt, you must help us to keep order.  Now, it is considered wise by my government that punishment emanate from the local authority.  It makes for a more orderly situation."

Orden said softly, "So the people did know.  That is a mystery."  And louder he said, "You wish me to pass sentence of death on Alexander Morden after a trial here?"

"Yes, and you will prevent much bloodshed later if you will do it."

Orden went to the table and pulled out the big chair at its head and sat down.  And suddenly he seemed to be the judge, with Lanser the culprit.  He drummed with his fingers on the table.  He said, "You and your government do not understand.  In all the world yours is the only government and people with a record of defeat after defeat for centuries and every time because you did not understand people."  He paused.  "This principle does not work.  First, I am the Mayor.  I have no right to pass sentence of death.  There is no one in this community with that right.  If I should do it, I would be breaking the law as much as you."

"Breaking the law?"

"You killed six men when you came in.  Under our law you are guilty of murder, all of you.  Why do you go into this nonsense of law, Colonel?  There is no law between you and us.  This is war.  Don't you know you will have to kill all of us or in time we will kill all of you?  You destroyed the law when you came in, and a new law took its place.  Don't you know that?"

Lanser said, "May I sit down?"

"Why do you ask?  That is another lie.  You could make me stand if you wished."

Lanser said, "No; it is true whether you believe it or not: personally, I have respect for you and your office, and" - he put his forehead in his hand for a moment - "you see, what I think, sir, I, a man of a certain age and certain memories, is of no importance.  I might agree with you, but that would change nothing.  The military, the political pattern I work in has certain tendencies and practices that are invariable."

Orden said, "And these tendencies and practices have proven wrong in every single case since the beginning of the world."

Lanser laughed bitterly.  "I, an individual man with certain memories, might agree with you, might even add that one of the tendencies of the military mind and pattern is an inability to learn, an inability to see beyond the killing which its job.  But I am not a man subject to memories.  The coal miner must be shot publicly, because the theory is that others will then restrain themselves from killing our men."

Orden said, "We need not talk any more, then."

"Yes, we must talk.  We want you to help."

Orden sat quietly for a while and then he said, ""I'll tell you what i will do.  How many men were on the machine guns which killed our soldiers?"

"Oh, not more than twenty, I guess," said Lanser.

"Very well.  If you will shoot them, I will condemn Morden."

"You're not serious!" said the colonel.

"But I am serious."

"This can't be done.  You know it."

"I know it," said Orden.  And what you ask cannot be done."

Lanser said, "I suppose I knew.  Corell will have to be Mayor after all."  He looked up quickly.  "You will stay for the trial?"

"Yes, I'll stay.  Then Alex won't be so lonely."

Lanser looked at him and smiled a little sadly.  "We have taken on a job, haven't we?"

"Yes," said the Mayor, "the one impossible job in the world, the one thing that cannot be done."

"And that is?"

"To break man's spirit permanently?"

Orden's head sank a little toward the table, and he said, without looking up, "It's started to snow.  It didn't wait for night.  I like the sweet, cool smell of the snow."