It was bitterly cold in the neighbourhood of the Pripet Marshes. A nipping wind slanted rain and sleet across the openings in the woods, and the ragged man who pushed out from under the trees laid down his gun, and flapped his arms to keep himself warm. He was a dejected figure, limping and dishevelled, wan and dirty. His uniform, rent and besmirched, fluttered its torn ends about his shrunken body and let in the cold air upon his feverish skin. For a year now he had been in the forest, fighting an enemy he had rarely seen. Now this way, and now that, his regiment had crept through the trees, and man after man had fallen, struck by bullets which seemed to come from the ground itself. It was wearisome work, and, footsore, he had fallen out during the past two days. Where he was he did not know, for he had lost all sight of his comrades, and had seen nothing of the enemy. The thought uppermost was the desire to warm himself by a fire; so long as he came to a fire he little cared where his wanderings took him. On and on he trudged for miles, and he now despaired of getting anywhere. He looked, through the sleet and the rain, across the opening into which he had come, and half made up his mind to go back into the trees and there lie down and die, when he saw a soldier, ragged as himself, approaching towards him. The other man was one of the enemy, and yet the first man did not take up his gun, but calmly waited the other’s coming. He held up his hand, and, when the enemy had come within speaking distance, shouted, ‘All right, I’m your prisoner.’
He sat down on the wet grass, and abandoned all responsibility. He had surrendered, and, so far as he was concerned, the war was over. No more would he have to tramp, tramp, on his burning blistered feet through the bitter cold; he would be taken away to warmth and food. Happily and childishly he hummed softly a little air to himself.
The enemy came and stood over him.
‘Confound you,’ he said, ‘Why the devil were you so quick? I was about to surrender to you.’
The first man looked up with a smile.
‘Sorry, old man,’ he said pleasantly, ‘but I stole a march on you. I surrendered first.’
‘That may be, but consider myself your prisoner.’
‘You are very good, but I have no intention of availing myself of your surrender.’
The enemy sighed. ‘But I’ve had enough of this. I’m starving and I want some food. I’ve got a wound in my leg, and I can hardly walk. Please take me prisoner,’ he begged.
‘I’ve a fever and sore feet. I’m your prisoner.’
The enemy sat down by the other’s side.
‘This isn’t fair,’ he grumbled.
‘Oh yes it is,’ said the other. ‘I had put down my rifle and had not time to pick it up before you were upon me. It’s quite fair.’
A wistful look came into the enemy’s face.
‘Curse your luck!’ he said. ‘If you’re my prisoner you’ll be sent back to safety, and there you’ll live like a fighting cock. You’ll have food and fire, and games to amuse you. And you’ll be able to hold your head up without any fear that a shot’ll take it off. And they’ll tie up your feet in clean lines, and put them in slippers. Oh, the devil! You’ll have a jolly time of it and I shall go on dodging bullets in this cruel cold. Perhaps I shan’t dodge every bullet; one, perhaps, will make a mess of me. No, it isn’t fair. I’m hanged if I’m going to take you prisoner and send you back to luxury, when I shall have to go on fighting and risking my life.’
The other had taken off his boot, and held his foot up for the enemy to see.
‘I’ve lost my regiment, and I can’t go fast enough on a foot like that to find it. You must take me prisoner.’
The enemy drew up his trouser, and displayed an ugly wound in his leg.
‘How the devil can I take you prisoner when I’ve got a wound like this in my leg! I’m a helpless man. If you had a logical mind you’d see that I’m your prisoner.’
‘Look here, I’ve no more desire to send you back to luxury than you have to send me. I’ve had a year of this and enough. I want to get out of it.’
‘I want to too. I’ve had eighteen months of it.’
‘Sorry, but you can’t surrender to me after I’ve surrendered to you.’
‘Well, I set you free, and now you can take me prisoner.’
‘That would be ingratitude, and I’m hanged if I do it.’
‘I’ve got a wife and two children at home. I don’t want to be killed; I want to get back to them.’
‘I’ve got a sweetheart and I want to see her. And I may point out to you, seeing that I have lost my comrades, it is quite useless for me to take you prisoner. If you want a rest, go into hospital. You could with that wound. I couldn’t with merely a sore foot.’
The enemy shook his head.
‘They just discharged me as cured,’ he said.
‘And directly you are discharged you cover yourself with glory by taking a prisoner. They’ll make you a corporal.’
‘No thank you; that would increase the time I must stay in the army. One war is quite enough for any man. It knocks the martial spirit out of him. It makes him begin to think that arbitration is not quite so stupid as men say it is.’
The other man began to flap his arms again.
‘We’re wasting time,’ he said. ‘March me to your camp.’
‘My leg’s too bad.’
‘Then I could never take you to our camp. It’s miles away. I’ve lost it. I don’t know where it is.’ He hummed gaily and put his boot on again. ‘Come, I’m ready. March in your dejected prisoner.’
‘With your foot so bad as that I ought to carry you,’ said the enemy. ‘But I’m too weak to carry you, so I can’t take you prisoner.’
‘Oh,’ said the other cheerfully, ‘I’ll hobble ten miles to see a fire.’
‘I could walk twenty if you would make me prisoner.’
‘I surrendered first.’
They thought it over a bit.
‘We’ll toss to see who’s whose prisoner,’ the enemy said.
The other demurred. ‘That’s not altogether regular, is it?’ he asked.
‘Regular be blowed. It’s only fair.’
The enemy drew a coin from his pocket. He tossed and lost.
‘Damn!’ he said, and then cried, ‘Threes.’
‘You might give a fellow a chance – a fellow with a hole in his leg, and a good wife and two children at home.’
‘Very well,’ said the other.
The enemy tossed again and won. He tossed a third time and lost. He cursed loudly and rose to his feet. ‘Here, give me your gun,’ he said irritably. The other handed over his rifle. ‘Come along, prisoner.’
The other got upon his sore feet. He winced with pain as he stepped on, but he answered, ‘with pleasure.’
‘I’m sorry, old fellow, he said, as they limped away together, ‘but really I was the first to surrender.’
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