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Verner von Heidenstam: The cloth versus khaki


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Scandinavian writers on peace and war

Nobel prize in literature recipients on peace and war


Verner von Heidenstam
From The Charles Men
Translated by Charles Wharton Stork

“Johannes,” said Kerstin Bure to her sixteen-year-old foster-son, with a hardness in her voice that he had never heard before, “you are meant to keep devoutly to your books and some day wear a pastor’s surplice as my sainted father did, but not to lose your blood in worldly feuds. Stick your tinder-box and clasp-knife in your jacket and tie your leather coat at your belt! Go then out into the woods and keep yourself well hid there until we have peace in the land! Before that I do not wish to see you again. Remember that! You hear now how the men shout in the church square, but mayhap their mouths will soon be stopped with black earth.”


The king said: “Assuredly you are a wise man. Should you also have courage to stand where bullets are whistling?”

Num Eddaula lowered his turban, and reflectively stroked the white beard which reached to his
waist. “I belong to the Truth-tellers’ Brotherhood and may not attribute to myself any virtue. But do you that are a hero answer me this: If your first teacher said to you, ‘Do not kill, do not kill even on a heap of embers the ugliest and fiercest of animals’ – if the noble pashas around you and all men should say every morning, ‘Do not kill, for that is a sin. Stay at home in your kingdom and watch over the harvests, although you win no fame therewith’ – should you have courage for that? Have you courage in misfortune to humble yourself and admit yourself conquered and to forgive your enemies and tormentors?”

The king knitted his brows: “Should not a good soldier rather show himself staunch?”

“You that hate lying and never wished that others should pretend you to be more perfect than
you are, high is your forehead and noble, large are your eyes, but you have an evil line at your tightly pressed mouth. People think that it smiles, but it does not smile. It is something quite other that the lips indicate. They tempt God. They say that your will is His. You gathered your people, and they were smitten. When God has smitten a people. He rolls a heavy boulder upon the grave and ordains quietness. He desires to see once more yellow fields and playing children. But you continue the strife, and against Him. The testifiers of truth – all the steadfast ones who in prosperity are humble, in misfortune are proud – these have roused themselves from their thoughts to see you; and now they turn away. It may be that your land has brought forth many great men and kings, but could any of them from the beginning stand forth better fitted for a warrior of light than you? You feared oblivion. A star was to have been kindled on your grave to burn for thousands of years. But fate was against you, because God willed to smite you and your people. Fulfill, then, your hero’s task! Put away vain reputation, as you have despised the wine-cup and women. Do it humbly or do it proudly, whichever you can. Go forth and set yourself in the place of the conquered and the destitute. Go forth and set yourself, like Job, upon a heap of ashes. You can control your countenance; control yourself likewise. You are capable of more than you perform. That is what God never forgives in a hero. Never did He raise on His right hand a more transparent pure jewel than you, and never did He in His wrath fling His own handiwork so deep in the darkness – and therefore I love you, because you are human. Of all the men I have met, none have I loved as you, no one. Beware, beware! for there are others, too, that love you and are far more dangerous than your worst enemies and traducers.”


Early next morning Num Eddaula was executed before the tent of the sultan. The confident certainty of oblivion spread its tranquillity over his last hour. The servant buried his body apart between two cypresses. When the grave was shovelled in again, he strewed over it grains of maize for the doves, which gathered in hundreds from grove and tree. Soon bushes with white flowers sprang up from the earth. Tired soldiers and herdsmen found there a shady spot and often lay down to rest awhile on the grass. It was a sacred place. There slept a forgotten man.

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