The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942

"Alex, these men are invaders.  They have taken our country by surprise and treachery and force."

The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942


By eleven o'clock
the snow was falling heavily in big, soft puffs and the sky was not visible at all.  People were scurrying through the falling snow, and snow piled up in the doorways and it piled up on the statue in the public square and on the rails from the mine to the harbor.  Snow piled up and the little cartwheels skidded as they were pushed along.  And over the town there hung a blackness that was deeper than the cloud, and over the town there hung a sullenness and a dry, growing hatred.  The people did not stand in the streets long, but they entered the doors and the doors closed and there seemed to be eyes looking from behind the curtains, and when the military went through the street or when the patrol walked won the main street, the eyes were on the patrol, cold and sullen.  And in the shops people came to buy little things for lunch and they asked for the goods and got it and paid for it and exchanged no good day with the seller.

In the little palace drawing room the lights were on and the lights shone on the falling snow outside the window.  The court was in session.  Lanser sat at the head of the table with Hunter on his right, then Tonder, and, at the lower end, Captain Loft with a little pile of papers in front of him.  On the opposite side, Mayor Orden sat on the colonel's left and Prackle was next to him - Prackle, who scribbled on his pad of paper.  Beside the table two guards stood with bayonets fixed, with helmets on their heads, and they were little wooden images.  Between them was Alex Morden, a big young man with a wide, low forehead, with deep-set eyes and a long, sharp nose.  His chin was firm and his mouth sensual and wide.  He was wide of shoulder, narrow of hip, and in front of him his manacled hands clasped and unclasped.  He was dressed in black trousers, a blue shirt open at the neck, and a dark coat shiny from wear.

Captain Loft read from the paper in front of him, "'When ordered back to work, he refused to go, and when the order was repeated, the prisoner attacked Captain Loft with the pick-ax he carried.  Captain Bentick interposed his body-'"

Mayor Orden coughed and, when Loft stopped reading, said, "Sit down, Alex.  One of you guards get him a chair."  The guard turned and pulled up a chair unquestioningly.

Loft said, "It is customary for the prisoner to stand."

"Let him sit down," Orden said.  "Only we will know.  You can report that he stood."

"It is not customary to falsify reports," said Loft.

"Sit down, Alex," Orden repeated.

And the big young man sat down and his manacled hands were restless in his lap.

Loft began, "This is contrary to all -"

The colonel said, "Let him be seated."

Captain Loft cleared his throat.  "'Captain Bentick interposed his body and received a blow on the head which crushed his skull.'  A medical report is appended.  Do you wish me to read it?"

"No need," said Lanser.  "Make it as quick as you can."

"'These facts have been witnessed by several of our soldiers, whose statements are attached.  This military court finds that the prisoner is guilty of murder and recommends a death sentence.'  Do you wish me to read the statements of the soldiers?"

Lanser sighed.  "No."  He turned to Alex.  "You don't deny that you killed the captain, do you?"

Alex smiled sadly.  "I hit him," he said.  "I don't know that I killed him."

Orden said, "Good work, Alex!"  And the two looked at each other as friends.

Loft said, "Do you mean to imply that he was killed by someone else?"

"I don't know," said Alex.  "I only hit him, and then somebody hit me."

Colonel Lanser said, "Do you want to offer an explanation?  I can't think of anything that will change the sentence, but we will listen."

Loft said, "I respectfully submit that the colonel should not have said that.  It indicates that the court is not impartial."

Orden laughed dryly.  The colonel looked at him and smiled a little.  "Have you any explanation?" he repeated.

Alex lifted a hand to gesture and the other came with it.  He looked embarrassed and put them in his lap again.  "I was mad," he said.  "I have a pretty bad temper.  He said I must work.  I am a free man.  I got mad and I hit him.  I guess I hit him hard.  It was the wrong man."  He pointed at Loft.  "That's the man I wanted to hit, that one."

Lanser said, "It doesn't matter whom you wanted to hit.  Anybody would have been the same.  Are you sorry you did it?"  He said aside to the table, "It would look well in the record if he were sorry."

"Sorry?" Alex asked.  "I'm not sorry.  He told me to go to work - me a free man!  I used to be alderman.  He said I had to work."

"But if the sentence is death, won't you be sorry then?"

Alex sank his head and really tried to think honestly.  "No," he said.  "You mean, would I do it again?"

"That's what I mean."

Lanser said, "Put in the record that the prisoner was overcome with remorse.  Sentence is automatic.  Do you understand?" he said to Alex.  "The court has no leeway.  The court finds you guilty and sentences you to be shot immediately.  I do not see any reason to torture you with this any more.  Captain Loft, is there anything I have forgotten?"

"You've forgotten me," said Orden.  He stood up and pushed back his chair and stepped over to Alex.  And Alex, from long habit, stood up respectfully.  "Alexander, I am the elected Mayor."

"I know it, sir."

"Alex, these men are invaders.  They have taken our country by surprise and treachery and force."

Captain Loft said, "Sir, this should not be permitted."

Lanser said, "Hush!  Is it better to hear it, or would you rather it were whispered?"

Orden went on as though he had not been interrupted.  "When they came, the people were confused and I was confused.  We did not know what to do or think.  Yours was the first clear act.  Your private anger was the beginning of a public anger.  I know it is said in town that I am acting with these men.  I can show the town, but you - you are going to die.  I want you to know."

Alex raised his head and then dropped it.  "I know, sir."

Lanser said, "Is the squad ready?"

"Outside, sir."


“Who is commanding?"

"Lieutenant Tonder, sir."

Tonder raised his head and his chin was hard and he held his breath,

Orden said softly, "Are you afraid, Alex?"

And Alex said, "Yes, sir."

"I can't tell you not to be.  I would be, too, and so would these young - gods of war."

Lanser said, "Call your squad."

Tonder got up quickly and went to the door.  "They're here, sir."  He opened the door wide and the helmeted men could be seen.

Orden said, "Alex, go, knowing that these men will have no rest, no rest at all until they are gone, or dead.  You will make the people one.  It's a sad knowledge and little enough gift to you, but it is so.  No rest at all."

Alex shut his eyes tightly.  Mayor Orden leaned close and kissed him on the cheek.  "Good-bye Alex," he said.

The guard took Alex by the arm and the young man kept his eyes tightly closed, and they guided him through the door.  The squad faced about, and their feet marched away down out of the house and into the snow, and the snow muffled their footsteps.

The men about the table were silent.  Orden looked toward the window and saw a little round spot being rubbed clear of snow by a quick hand.  He stared at it, fascinated, and then he looked quickly away.  He said to the colonel, "I hope you know what you are doing."

Captain Loft gathered his papers and  Lanser asked, "In the square, Captain?"

"Yes, in the square.  It must be public," Loft said.

And Orden said, I hope you know."

"Man," said the colonel, "whether we know or not, it is what must be done."

Silence fell on the room and each man listened.  And it was not long.  From the distance there came a crash of firing.  Lanser sighed deeply.  Orden put his hand to his forehead and filled his lungs deeply.  Then there was a shout  outside.  The glass of the window crashed inward and Lieutenant Prackle wheeled about.  He brought his hand up to his shoulder and stared at it.

Lanser leaped up, crying, "So it starts!  Are you badly hurt, Lieutenant?"

"My shoulder," said  Prackle.

Lanser took command.  "Captain Loft, there will be tracks in the snow.  Now, I want every house searched for firearms.  I want every man who has one taken hostage.  You. sir," he said to the Mayor, "are placed in protective custody.  And understand this please: we will shoot, five, ten, a hundred for one."

Orden said quietly, "A man of certain memories."

Lanser stopped in the middle of an order.  He looked over slowly at the Mayor and for a moment they understood each other.  And then Lanser straightened his shoulders.  "A man of no memories!" he said sharply.  And then, "I want every weapon in town gathered.  Bring in everyone who resists.  Hurry, before their tracks are filled."

The staff found their helmets and loosed their pistols and started out.  And Orden went to the broken window.  He said sadly, "The sweet, cool smell of the snow."