The Moon is Down

John Steinbeck, 1942

"Do you remember in school, in the Apology?  Do you remember Socrates says, 'Someone will say, "And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life that is likely to bring you to an untimely end?"  To him I may fairly answer, "There you are mistaken; a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong."'"

The Moon is Down
John Steinbeck, 1942


In the little town the news ran quickly.  It was communicated by whispers in doorways, by quick, meaningful looks - "The Mayor's been arrested" - and through the town a little quiet jubilance ran, a fierce little jubilance, and people talked quietly together and went apart, and people going in to buy food leaned close to the clerks for a moment and a word passed between them.

The people went into the country, into the woods, searching for dynamite, and by now even the children had their instructions.  They opened the packages and ate the chocolate, and then they buried the dynamite in the snow and told their parents where it was.

Far out in the country a man picked up a tube and read the instructions, and he said to himself, "I wonder if this works."  He stood the tube up in the snow and lighted the fuse, and he ran back from it and counted, but his count was fast.  It was sixty-eight before the dynamite exploded.  He said, "It does work," and he went hurriedly about looking for more tubes.

Almost as though at a signal the people went into their houses and the doors were closed, the streets were quiet.  At the mine the soldiers carefully searched every miner who went into the shaft, searched and researched, and the soldiers were nervous and rough and they spoke harshly to the miners.  The miners looked coldly at them, and behind their eyes was a little fierce jubilance.

In the drawing room of the palace of the Mayor the table had been cleaned up, and a soldier stood guard at Mayor Orden's bedroom door.  Annie was on her knees in front of the coal grate, putting little pieces of coal on the fire.  She looked up at the sentry standing in front of Mayor Orden's door and she said truculently, "Well, what are you going to do to him?"  The soldier did not answer.

The outside door opened and another soldier came in, holding Doctor Winter by the arm.  He closed the door behind Doctor Winter and stood against the door inside the room.  Doctor Winter said, "Hello, Annie, how's His Excellency?"

And Annie pointed at the bedroom and said, "He's in there."

"He isn't ill?" Doctor Winter said.

"No, he didn't seem to be," said Annie.  "I'll see if I can tell him you're here."  She went to the sentry and spoke imperiously.  "Tell His Excellency that Doctor Winter is here, do you hear me?"

The sentry did not answer and did not move, but behind him the door opened and Mayor Orden stood in the doorway.  He ignored the sentry and brushed pat him and stepped into the room.  For a moment the sentry considered taking him back, and then he returned to his place beside the door.  Orden said, "Thank you, Annie.  Don't go too far away, will you?  I might need you."

Annie said, "No, sir, I won't.  Is Madame all right?"

"She's doing her hair.  Do you want to see her, Annie?"

"Yes, sir," said Annie, and she brushed past the sentry, too, and went into the bedroom and shut the door.

Orden said, "Is there something you want, Doctor?"

Winter grinned sardonically and pointed over his shoulder to the guard.  "Well, I guess I'm under arrest.  My friend here brought me."

Orden said, "I suppose it was bound to come.  What will they do now, I wonder?"  And the two men looked at one another for a long time and each one knew what the other was thinking.

And then Orden continued as though he had been talking.  "You know, I couldn't stop it if I wanted to."

"I know," said Winter, "but they don't know."  And he went on with a thought he had been having.  "A time-minded people," he said, "and the time is nearly up.  They think that just because they have only one leader and one head, we are all like that.  They know that ten heads lopped off will destroy them, but we are a free people; we have as many heads as we have people, and in a time of need leaders pop up among us like mushrooms."

Orden put his hand on Winter's shoulder and he said, "Thank you.  I knew it, but it's good to hear you say it.  The little people won't go under, will they?"  He searched Winter's face anxiously.

And the Doctor reassured him, "Why, no, the won't.  As a matter of fact, they will grow stronger with outside help."

The room was silent for a moment.  The sentry shifted position a little and his rifle clinked on a button.

Orden said, "I can talk to you, Doctor, and I probably won't be able to talk again.  There are little shameful things in my mind."  He coughed and glanced at the rigid soldier, but the soldier gave no sign of having heard.  "I have been thinking of my own death.  If they follow the usual course, they must kill me, and then they must kill you."  And when Winter was silent, he said, "Mustn't they?"

"Yes, I guess so."  Winter walked to one of the gilt chairs, and he was about to sit down he noticed that its tapestry was torn, and he petted the seat with his fingers as though that would mend it.  And he sat down gently because it was torn.

And Orden went on, "You know, I'm afraid, I have been thinking of ways to escape, to get out of it.  I have been thinking of running away.  I have been thinking of pleading for my life, and it makes me ashamed."

And Winter, looking up, said, "But you haven't done it."

"No, I haven't."

"And you won't do it."

Orden hesitated.  "No, I won't.  But I have thought of it."

And Winter said, gently, "How do you know everyone doesn't think of it?  How do you know I haven't thought of it?"

"I wonder why they arrested you, too," Orden said.  "I guess they will have to kill you, too."

"I guess so," said Winter.  He rolled his thumbs and watched them tumble over and over.

"You know so."  Orden was silent for a moment and then he said, "You know, Doctor, I am a little man and this is a little town, but there must be a spark in little men that can burst into flame.  I am afraid, I am terribly afraid, and I have thought of all the things I might do to save my own life, and then that went away, and sometimes now I feel a kind of exultation, as though I were bigger and better than I am, and do you know what I have been thinking, Doctor?"  He smiled, remembering.  "Do you remember in school, in the Apology?  Do you remember Socrates says, 'Someone will say, "And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life that is likely to bring you to an untimely end?"  To him I may fairly answer, "There you are mistaken; a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong."'"  Orden paused, trying to remember.

Doctor Winter sat tensely forward now, and he went on with it.  "'Acting the part of a good man or of a bad.'  I don't think you have it quite right.  You never were a good scholar.  You were wrong in the denunciation, too."

Orden chuckled.  "Do you remember that?"

"Yes," said Winter eagerly, "I remember it well.  You forgot a line or a word.  It was graduation, and you were so excited you forgot to tuck in your shirt-tail and your shirt-tail was out.  You wondered why they laughed."

Orden smiled to himself, and his hand went behind him and patrolled for a loose shirt-tail.  "I was Socrates," he said, "and I denounced the School Board.  How I denounced them!  I bellowed it, and I could see them grow red."

Winter said, "They were holding their breaths to keep from laughing.  Your shirt-tail was out."

Mayor Orden laughed.  "How long ago?  Forty years."


The sentry by the bedroom door moved quietly over to the sentry by the outside door.  They spoke softly out of the corners of their mouths like children whispering in school.  "How long have you been on duty?"

"All night.  Can't hardly keep my eyes open."

"Me too.  Hear from your wife on the boat yesterday?"

"Yes!  She said say hello to you.  Said she heard you was wounded.  She don't write much."

"Tell her I'm all right."

"Sure, when I write."

The Mayor raised his head and looked at the ceiling and he muttered, "Um - um - um.  I wonder if I can remember - how does it go?"

And Winter prompted him, "'And now, O men -'"

And Orden said softly, "'And now, O men who have condemned me -'"

Colonel Lanser came quietly into the room; the sentries stiffened.   Hearing the words, the colonel stopped and listened.

Orden looked at the ceiling, lost in trying to remember the old words.  "'And now, O men who have condemned me,'" he said, "'I would fain prophesy to you - for I am about to die -  and - in the hour of death - men are gifted with prophetic power.  And I - prophesy to you who are my murderers - that immediately after my - my death '"

And Winter stood up, saying, "'Departure'"

Orden looked at him.  "What?"

And Winter said, "The word is 'departure,' not 'death.'  You made the same mistake before.  You made that mistake forty-six years ago."

"No it is death.  It is death."  Orden looked around and saw Colonel Lanser watching him.  He asked, "Isn't it 'death'?"

Colonel Lanser said, "'Departure.'  It is immediately after my departure.'"

Doctor Winter insisted, "You see, that's two against one.  'Departure' is the word.  It is the same mistake you made before."

Then Orden looked straight ahead and his eyes were in his memory, seeing nothing outward.  And he went on, "'I prophesy to you who are my murderers that immediately after my - departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you.'"

Winter nodded encouragingly, and Colonel Lanser nodded, and they seemed to be trying to help him to remember.  And Orden went on, "'Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives -!"

Lieutenant Prackle entered excitedly, crying, "Colonel Lanser!"

Colonel Lanser said, "Shh-" and he held out his hand to restrain him.

And Orden went on softly, "'But that will not be as you suppose; far otherwise.'"  His voice grew stronger.  "'For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now'" - he made a little gesture with his hand, a speech-making gesture - "'accusers whom hitherto I have restrained; and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them.'"  He frowned, trying to remember.

And Lieutenant Prackle said, "Colonel Lanser, we have found some men with dynamite."

And Lanser said, "Hush."

Orden continued.  "'If you think that by killing men you can prevent someone from censuring your evil lives, you are mistaken.'"  He frowned and thought and he looked at the ceiling, and he smiled embarrassedly and he said, "That's all I can remember.  It is gone away from me."

And Doctor Winter said, "It's very good after forty-six years, and you weren't very good at it forty-six years ago."

Lieutenant Prackle broke in, "The men have dynamite, Colonel Lanser."

"Did you arrest them?"

"Yes, sir.  Captain Loft and -"

Lanser said, "Tell Captain Loft to guard them."  He recaptured himself and he advanced into the room and he said, "Orden, these things must stop."

And the Mayor smiled helplessly at him.  "They cannot stop, sir."

Colonel Lanser said harshly, "I arrested you as a hostage for the good behavior of your people.  Those are my orders."

"But that won't stop it," Orden said simply.  "You don't understand.  When I have become a hindrance to the people, they will do without me."

Lanser said, "Tell me truly what you think.  If the people know you will be shot if you light another fuse, what will they do?"

The Mayor looked helplessly at Doctor Winter.  And then the bedroom door opened and Madame came out, carrying the Mayor's chain of office in her hand.  She said, "You forgot this."

Orden said, "What? Oh, yes," and he stooped his head and Madame slipped the chain over his head, and he said, "Thank you, dear."

Madame complained, "You always forget it.  You forget it all the time."

The Mayor looked at the end of the chain he held in his hand - the gold medallion with the insignia of his office carved on it.  Lanser pressed him.  "What will they do?"

"I don't know," said the Mayor.  "I think they will light the fuse."

"Suppose you ask them not to?"

"Winter said, "Colonel, this morning I saw a little boy building a snowman, while three grown soldiers watched to see that he did not caricature your leader.  He made a pretty good likeness, too, before they destroyed it."

Lanser ignored the doctor.  "Suppose you ask them not to?" he repeated.

Orden seemed half asleep; his eyes were drooped, and he tried to think.  He said, "I am not a very brave man, sir.  I think they will light it, anyway."  He struggled with his speech.  "I hope they will, but if I ask them not to, they will be sorry."

Madame said, "What is this all about?"

"Be quiet a moment, dear," the Mayor said.

"But you think they will light it?" Lanser insisted.

The Mayor spoke proudly.  "Yes, they will light it.  I have no choice of living or dying, you see, sir, but - I do have a choice of how I do it.  If I tell them not to fight, they will be sorry, but they will fight.  If I tell them to fight, they will be glad, and I who am not a very brave man will have made them a little braver."  He smiled apologetically.  "You see, it is an easy thing for me to do, since the end for me is the same."

Lanser said, "If you say yes, we can tell them you said no.  We can tell them you begged for your life."

Doctor Winter broke in angrily, "They would know.  You do not keep secrets.  One of your men got out of hand one night and he said the flies had conquered the flypaper, and now the whole nation knows his words.  They have made a song of it.  The flies have conquered the flypaper.  You do not keep secrets, Colonel."

From the direction of the mine a whistle tooted shrilly.  And a quick gust of wind sifted dry snow against the windows.

Orden fingered his gold medallion.  He said quietly, "You see, sir, nothing can change it.  You will be destroyed and driven out."  His voice was very soft.  "The people don't like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be.  Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat.  Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.  You will find that is so, sir."

Lanser was erect and stiff.  "My orders are clear.  Eleven o'clock was the deadline.  I have taken hostages.  If there is violence, the hostages will be executed."

And Doctor Winter said to the colonel, "Will you carry out the orders, knowing they will fail?"

Lanser's face was tight.  "I will carry out my orders no matter what they are, but I do think, sir, a proclamation from you might save many lives."

Madame broke in plaintively, "I wish you would tell me what all this nonsense is."

"It is nonsense, dear."

"But they can't arrest the Mayor," she explained to him.

Orden smiled at her.  "No," he said, "they can't arrest the Mayor.  The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men.  It will escape arrest."

From the distance there was a sound of an explosion.  And the echo of it rolled to the hills and back again.  The whistle at the coal mine tooted a shrill, sharp warning.  Orden stood very tensely for a moment and then he smiled.  A second explosion roared - nearer this time and heavier - and its echo rolled back from the mountains.  Orden looked at his watch and then he took his watch and chain and put them in Doctor Winter's hand.  "How did it go about the flies?" he asked.

"The flies have conquered the flypaper," Winter said.

Orden called, "Annie!"  The bedroom door opened instantly, and the Mayor said, "Were you listening?"

"Yes, sir."  Annie was embarrassed.

And now an explosion roared nearby and there was a sound of splintering wood and breaking glass, and the door behind the sentries puffed open.  And Orden said, "Annie, I want you to stay with Madame as long as she needs you.  Don't leave her alone."  He put his arm around Madame and he kissed her on the forehead and then he moved slowly toward the door where Lieutenant Prackle stood.  In the doorway he turned back to Doctor Winter.  "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius," he said tenderly.  "Will you remember to pay the debt?"

Orden chuckled then.  He put his hand on Prackle's arm, and the lieutenant flinched away from him.

And Winter nodded slowly.  "Yes, you remembered.  The debt shall be paid."