HE became aware that the furnace roar of the
battle was growing louder. Great brown clouds
had floated to the still heights of air before him.
The noise, too, was approaching. The woods
filtered men and the fields became dotted.
As he rounded a hillock, he perceived that the
roadway was now a crying mass of wagons,
teams, and men. From the heaving tangle issued
exhortations, commands, imprecations. Fear was
sweeping it all along. The cracking whips bit
and horses plunged and tugged. The white-
topped wagons strained and stumbled in their
exertions like fat sheep.
The youth felt comforted in a measure by this
sight. They were all retreating. Perhaps, then,
he was not so bad after all. He seated himself
and watched the terror-stricken wagons. They
fled like soft, ungainly animals. All the roarers
and lashers served to help him to magnify the
dangers and horrors of the engagement that he
might try to prove to himself that the thing with
which men could charge him was in truth a
symmetrical act. There was an amount of pleasure
to him in watching the wild march of this vindication.
Presently the calm head of a forward-going
column of infantry appeared in the road. It
came swiftly on. Avoiding the obstructions gave
it the sinuous movement of a serpent. The men
at the head butted mules with their musket
stocks. They prodded teamsters indifferent to
all howls. The men forced their way through
parts of the dense mass by strength. The blunt
head of the column pushed. The raving team-
sters swore many strange oaths.
The commands to make way had the ring of a
great importance in them. The men were going
forward to the heart of the din. They were to
confront the eager rush of the enemy. They felt
the pride of their onward movement when the
remainder of the army seemed trying to dribble
down this road. They tumbled teams about
with a fine feeling that it was no matter so long
as their column got to the front in time. This
importance made their faces grave and stern.
And the backs of the officers were very rigid.
As the youth looked at them the black weight
of his woe returned to him. He felt that he was
regarding a procession of chosen beings. The
separation was as great to him as if they had
marched with weapons of flame and banners of
sunlight. He could never be like them. He
could have wept in his longings.
He searched about in his mind for an ade-
quate malediction for the indefinite cause, the
thing upon which men turn the words of final
blame. It--whatever it was--was responsible for
him, he said. There lay the fault.
The haste of the column to reach the battle
seemed to the forlorn young man to be some-
thing much finer than stout fighting. Heroes, he
thought, could find excuses in that long seething
lane. They could retire with perfect self-respect
and make excuses to the stars.
He wondered what those men had eaten that
they could be in such haste to force their way to
grim chances of death. As he watched his envy
grew until he thought that he wished to change
lives with one of them. He would have liked to
have used a tremendous force, he said, throw off
himself and become a better. Swift pictures of
himself, apart, yet in himself, came to him--a
blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with
one knee forward and a broken blade high--a
blue, determined figure standing before a crimson
and steel assault, getting calmly killed on a high
place before the eyes of all. He thought of the
magnificent pathos of his dead body.
These thoughts uplifted him. He felt the
quiver of war desire. In his ears, he heard the
ring of victory. He knew the frenzy of a rapid
successful charge. The music of the trampling
feet, the sharp voices, the clanking arms of the
column near him made him soar on the red wings
of war. For a few moments he was sublime.
He thought that he was about to start for the
front. Indeed, he saw a picture of himself, dust-
stained, haggard, panting, flying to the front at
the proper moment to seize and throttle the dark,
leering witch of calamity.
Then the difficulties of the thing began to
drag at him. He hesitated, balancing awkwardly
on one foot.
He had no rifle; he could not fight with his
hands, said he resentfully to his plan. Well,
rifles could be had for the picking. They were
Also, he continued, it would be a miracle if he
found his regiment. Well, he could fight with
He started forward slowly. He stepped as if
he expected to tread upon some explosive thing.
Doubts and he were struggling.
He would truly be a worm if any of his com-
rades should see him returning thus, the marks of
his flight upon him. There was a reply that the
intent fighters did not care for what happened
rearward saving that no hostile bayonets ap-
peared there. In the battle-blur his face would,
in a way be hidden, like the face of a cowled man.
But then he said that his tireless fate would
bring forth, when the strife lulled for a moment,
a man to ask of him an explanation. In imagina-
tion he felt the scrutiny of his companions as he
painfully labored through some lies.
Eventually, his courage expended itself upon
these objections. The debates drained him of his fire.
He was not cast down by this defeat of his
plan, for, upon studying the affair carefully, he
could not but admit that the objections were very
Furthermore, various ailments had begun to
cry out. In their presence he could not persist
in flying high with the wings of war; they
rendered it almost impossible for him to see him-
self in a heroic light. He tumbled headlong.
He discovered that he had a scorching thirst.
His face was so dry and grimy that he thought
he could feel his skin crackle. Each bone of his
body had an ache in it, and seemingly threatened
to break with each movement. His feet were
like two sores. Also, his body was calling for
food. It was more powerful than a direct hunger.
There was a dull, weight like feeling in his stom-
ach, and, when he tried to walk, his head swayed
and he tottered. He could not see with distinctness.
Small patches of green mist floated before his vision.
While he had been tossed by many emotions,
he had not been aware of ailments. Now they
beset him and made clamor. As he was at last
compelled to pay attention to them, his capacity
for self-hate was multiplied. In despair, he
declared that he was not like those others. He
now conceded it to be impossible that he should
ever become a hero. He was a craven loon.
Those pictures of glory were piteous things. He
groaned from his heart and went staggering off.
A certain mothlike quality within him kept
him in the vicinity of the battle. He had a great
desire to see, and to get news. He wished to
know who was winning.
He told himself that, despite his unprecedented
suffering, he had never lost his greed for a victory,
yet, he said, in a half-apologetic manner to his
conscience, he could not but know that a defeat
for the army this time might mean many favor-
able things for him. The blows of the enemy
would splinter regiments into fragments. Thus,
many men of courage, he considered, would be
obliged to desert the colors and scurry like
chickens. He would appear as one of them.
They would be sullen brothers in distress, and he
could then easily believe he had not run any
farther or faster than they. And if he himself
could believe in his virtuous perfection, he con-
ceived that there would be small trouble in con-
vincing all others.
He said, as if in excuse for this hope, that
previously the army had encountered great
defeats and in a few months had shaken off all
blood and tradition of them, emerging as bright
and valiant as a new one; thrusting out of sight
the memory of disaster, and appearing with the
valor and confidence of unconquered legions.
The shrilling voices of the people at home would
pipe dismally for a time, but various generals
were usually compelled to listen to these ditties.
He of course felt no compunctions for proposing
a general as a sacrifice. He could not tell who
the chosen for the barbs might be, so he could
center no direct sympathy upon him. The
people were afar and he did not conceive public
opinion to be accurate at long range. It was
quite probable they would hit the wrong man
who, after he had recovered from his amazement
would perhaps spend the rest of his days in writ-
ing replies to the songs of his alleged failure. It
would be very unfortunate, no doubt, but in this
case a general was of no consequence to the youth.
In a defeat there would be a roundabout
vindication of himself. He thought it would
prove, in a manner, that he had fled early because
of his superior powers of perception. A serious
prophet upon predicting a flood should be the
first man to climb a tree. This would demon-
strate that he was indeed a seer.
A moral vindication was regarded by the
youth as a very important thing. Without salve,
he could not, he thought, wear the sore badge of
his dishonor through life. With his heart con-
tinually assuring him that he was despicable, he
could not exist without making it, through his
actions, apparent to all men.
If the army had gone gloriously on he would
be lost. If the din meant that now his army's
flags were tilted forward he was a condemned
wretch. He would be compelled to doom
himself to isolation. If the men were advancing,
their indifferent feet were trampling upon his
chances for a successful life.
As these thoughts went rapidly through his
mind, he turned upon them and tried to thrust
them away. He denounced himself as a villain.
He said that he was the most unutterably selfish
man in existence. His mind pictured the soldiers
who would place their defiant bodies before the
spear of the yelling battle fiend, and as he saw
their dripping corpses on an imagined field, he
said that he was their murderer.
Again he thought that he wished he was dead.
He believed that he envied a corpse. Thinking
of the slain, he achieved a great contempt for
some of them, as if they were guilty for thus
becoming lifeless. They might have been killed
by lucky chances, he said, before they had had
opportunities to flee or before they had been
really tested. Yet they would receive laurels
from tradition. He cried out bitterly that their
crowns were stolen and their robes of glori-
ous memories were shams. However, he still
said that it was a great pity he was not as they.
A defeat of the army had suggested itself to
him as a means of escape from the consequences
of his fall. He considered, now, however, that it
was useless to think of such a possibility. His
education had been that success for that mighty
blue machine was certain; that it would make
victories as a contrivance turns out buttons. He
presently discarded all his speculations in the
other direction. He returned to the creed of soldiers.
When he perceived again that it was not
possible for the army to be defeated, he tried
to bethink him of a fine tale which he could take
back to his regiment, and with it turn the expected
shafts of derision.
But, as he mortally feared these shafts, it
became impossible for him to invent a tale he felt
he could trust. He experimented with many
schemes, but threw them aside one by one as
flimsy. He was quick to see vulnerable places in them all.
Furthermore, he was much afraid that some
arrow of scorn might lay him mentally low before
he could raise his protecting tale.
He imagined the whole regiment saying:
"Where's Henry Fleming? He run, didn't 'e?
Oh, my!" He recalled various persons who
would be quite sure to leave him no peace
about it. They would doubtless question him
with sneers, and laugh at his stammering hesi-
tation. In the next engagement they would
try to keep watch of him to discover when he would run.
Wherever he went in camp, he would en-
counter insolent and lingeringly cruel stares. As
he imagined himself passing near a crowd of
comrades, he could hear some one say, "There he goes!"
Then, as if the heads were moved by one
muscle, all the faces were turned toward him
with wide, derisive grins. He seemed to hear
some one make a humorous remark in a low tone.
At it the others all crowed and cackled. He was a slang phrase.
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Room | The
Red Badge of Courage