The schoolhouse stood directly in the center of the road, which shone whitely in the silent and deserted sunlight.
The little building, which at the most held not more than twenty-five pupils and their teacher, held no pupils today within its thick graystone walls. There was the motionless and empty silence of the Sabbath about it. Its windows were shuttered, its short sturdy door, which faced the east, locked and barred. It was a square building, rather low and squat, yet full of strength. The thickness and roughness of its walls gave it a pudgy effect, somewhat grim and unmovable, and its slightly peaked roof seemed pulled down resolutely upon its head.
The long white road stretched away smilingly, rising and falling gently, towards the near mountains. The mountains, so clear and translucent, seemed carved with an axe of light from the intensely blue skies. Those to the west were almost incandescent, so that their chaotic outlines were barely perceptible against the brilliant heavens. Those to the northeast, however, were of such purity, such delicate blueness, that they appeared formed of hollow glass and ice, through which light poured. But between the mountains and the little solid schoolhouse there was the greenly-breathing rise and fall of a sweet and peaceful valley, empty and calm.
Not a thing stirred or moved. There was no sound, not even the faintest, not the shadow of a whisper, in all that pellucid world. And yet within that schoolhouse were eight men, ready for death, prepared for death, waiting for death.
The interior of the schoolhouse was so dim, from the closed door and the shuttered windows, that objects could scarcely be seen. But after a few minutes it was possible to discover that the little innocent wooden desks and benches had been pushed abruptly to the walls in disordered and hasty heaps as though they were irrelevant articles. It was possible to discern the men there, the eight men, in their bulky coarse uniforms, their packs on their backs, their long guns, pointed with bayonets, gripped in their hands. Upon their faces were gas-masks, making them look like monsters from some evil nightmare. They had arrived only a few minutes ago, and in deep dusty silence were trying on their masks, testing the readiness of their guns. There was about them an air of resolution and despair, the air of men who had decided to die.
The light was very dim, yet little pencils of sunlight kept darting through the chinks in the shutters, and these little pencils would flash suddenly upon the bayonets, making them slender and dazzling mirrors, sending luminous shadows of them upon a hand, a gun, the bulk of a shoulder. And the small neat blackboards, covered with spectral and childish scrawls, lined the walls, and a globe stood upon the teacher’s small square desk. Books with gay pictures had been tossed in a heap in one corner; the pages stood open, pathetically. A child had brought a cloth doll the day before; in its gaudy peasant costume, it lay sprawled in a corner, smiling a fixed worsted smile and staring at the restless soldiers with bland blackwool eyes.
The soldiers murmured in low husky voices. They began to remove their masks, to take off their packs. The slender mirrors of the bayonets flashed on their young grim faces, their set mouths, their weary and bitter eyes, full of hatred and disillusion. No one laughed, or passed an inconsequential remark. Several sat down on their packs, and regarded the clean wooden floor broodingly, their arms dropped between their spread knees. One of them, a father himself, saw the doll. A muscle twitched about this mouth. Suddenly he put up his hand and half-covered his face. The oldest man, the sergeant, stood at the shutter that faced the long wide road. The pencils of light striped his broad peasant face with its thick black mustache. They threw a bright shadow on the broad brown planes of his rigid cheek and chin and low strong forehead. He stood like that for a long time, staring, thinking in his peasant simplicity. Whatever his thoughts, they were hard and desperate, yet unafraid.
He turned slowly and surveyed the room. He saw the dusky blackboard with their scrawls; he sat the motionless globe on the desk. He saw the books, the benches and the doll. He saw the soldiers, some sitting on their packs, some leaning against the walls, one or two, like himself, standing at the shutters, watching the road. He saw the glinting bayonets.
For a long time he gazed at them all. And then he said, in his slow reluctant countryman’s voice:
“There is still time. If there is anyone here who wants to go, let him go at once. We will not blame him. Perhaps he has a wife, children.” His rusty voice broke on a hard breath. “I have four children,” he went on, simply.
No one answered Now his eyes became fierce, a little wild, almost pleading. “There is yet time. If a man wants to go, we will say: ‘God be with you.’ We will not think him a coward. We will think of his children.”
No one answered. But each man looked at him and did not move.
He sighed. He regarded them as a father, or as an older brother, would regard them. He had been a relentless disciplinarian, never fraternizing with them even for an instant, always stubborn and suspicious with the stubbornness and suspiciousness of the peasant. They had called him “Old Hardheel,” and the name had been deserved. None of them had liked him; some of them had hated him. But all had respected him. And now he sighed, and looked at them long and steadfastly, with a curious tremor about his mouth.
“God bless you,” he said in his simplicity, and again his voice broke, and he turned abruptly and resumed his staring at the road.
Two of the soldiers were very young men, barely twenty-one. One of them was a Jew, a slender pale little Jew with a thin Talmudic face and deep dark tragic eyes. He had hands like those of a tubercular woman’s, all veins and delicacy, incongruous hands on the muzzle of a gun. His uniform seemed too large for him; his leggings bound legs as frail as a child’s, and his rough boots were of the smallest specifications. There was a dancer’s air about him, and in fact, he had only recently broken a very good engagement at the Grand Theatre in Prague, the first engagement in many lean and anxious months. His gay little dancing partner, his wife Gitel, was now trying frantically to replace him in their engaging repertoire. Her last moments with him had been a tearful confusion of grief and dread and frenzied instructions thrown over the shoulder to a seriously-practicing and sweating young substitute. She had flung her thin little arms about her husband’s neck; she had pressed her tiny triangular face to his, wetting his cheek with her tears. Her dazed wet eyes had gazed at him wildly. And all the time she had shrieked, glancing over her shoulder: “No, no, Anton! Not like that! Three to the right, a bend in the middle, with a comical expression, five to the left, a stumble!” Her brief little dancing skirt, all pink tulle and bright little stars, stuck out backwards from her body as she pressed her legs and torso against her husband; her dark tumbled curls curled moistly on her damp forehead and tear-streaked cheeks.
And then at the last moment, she had wept in agony, crying over and over: “Aaron! Aaron! God keep you! God bring you back to me! O God, what a fool is that Anton!”
Aaron Schachner carefully examined the muzzle of his gun, but he did not see the gun. He saw Gitel’s face. He sighed.