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Alexander Grin: How a little girl stopped a world war

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

Russian writers on war

Alexander Grin: A hellish nightmare, or rather a horrible reality

Alexander Grin: How two leaders ended war

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Alexander Grin
An Army Order
Translated by Nicholas Luker

The great European War of 1914-1917 was stopped between Fittibrune and Wissenburg by a female resident of the latter, the girl Jeanne Carol, aged nine years and three months. True, the war was not stopped completely, for no more than an hour perhaps and only in one place, – but what does that matter? What matters is the event itself.

At about five o’clock in the afternoon on the dusty road which skirts a forest showing in places signs of extensive tree-felling, two creatures appeared. One of them, slightly the larger, protested and howled loudly, wiping his tear-swollen eyes with blood-stained hands, whilst the other, slightly the smaller, persistently led the first in the direction of a village whose roofs showed in the distance. Keeping a grip on her brother’s shirt, the little girl tugged it sharply each time the boy, remembering his masculine independence, struggled to break loose, shouting:

“Go to hell, Jeanne! It’s none of your business. I won’t go!”

But nevertheless, go he did, and quite quickly too, resisting more out of habit than seriously. He was eleven. His masculine dignity, the source of his contempt for “girls,” had been upset and destroyed by a blow of a fist to his nose. He had started a fight and withdrawn in ignominy. Jeanne was cross, but she felt sorry for him too; the whole episode had taken place before her very eyes.

“Please don’t howl,” she said, “we must hurry; they’re probably already worried about us at home, and it’s all thanks to you. What a good job I was there. They’d have torn you to shreds.”

“Boo-hoo…” howled Jean, “I’ll tear them to shreds myself; just wait till I see them again, I’ll show them. Boo-hoo. Anybody can win when there’s two of you. No, just you try one against one, you’ll soon see. I’ll rub them in the dirt.”

“But you shouldn’t have teased them.”

“I didn’t tease them.”

“You’re lying. You threw stones at them and shouted ‘The Fittibrune goblin goes head first into the porridge! Chew his head, lick the floor, and don’t ask for anymore.’ Don’t you know the people of Fittibrune get mad when you say that?”

“Oh what a fool you are, what a fool!” cried Jean. “Anyway, what do you know about our affairs? You’re just a girl. And what about them? Don’t they sing: ‘In Wissenburg in pine trees mice are dreaming of some cheese…’?”

“Well, they do sing that, but they weren’t singing it just now; it was you that was teasing them.”

“It makes no difference; they’re all cheats.”

This decisive argument cheered Jean up and silenced the girl for a moment. As they argued, both had grown heated and come to a halt.

Behind them stood the forest; in front of them, a little below the road, lay a spacious clearing dotted with bushes and tree-stumps amongst the stacks of timber which covered much of the open space. Piled in dense lines of square stacks, this timber made it impossible to see anything further than twenty paces away.

For three days now there had been fighting in the neighbourhood; sometimes smoke on the horizon indicated a distant village on fire. From beyond the horizon came the continuous sound of heavy gunfire; and then it seemed as if a barely audible jolt came rolling up to one’s feet and stopped.

“One of these days you’ll catch it hot with that tongue of yours,” said the girl.” “What’s the matter? Is your nose running? Not with cream, of course.”

“It’s blood,” said Jean, examining his stained fingers. “It’s nothing. We men must get used to fighting. And you’ll sit sewing and weeping.”

“Anyone can see you’ve been fighting. Your eye’s got all swollen.”

“I don’t care a bit. You’ve got to put up with everything. And when I grow up and become a soldier, they’ll say: ‘Sure thing, Jean Carroll will be a general!'”

“They’ll say that about you?

“And why not? See how much wood there is over there? There’s just as many soldiers in the world and more besides. They can all be generals and win an enemy standard. But you don’t belong with us.”

Jeanne was lost in thought. Mechanically holding the boy by the sleeve, she was looking at the stacks of wood spread out over the clearing and imagining they were all barefoot Jeans with bloody noses. In her little soul there lived the courage of her illustrious namesake, but it was a courage directed towards instruction and conciliation. Her eyes flashed.

“And I’d face up to you!” she cried. “I’d tick you off all right! Look here, Jean, if all these logs became soldiers and shouted at me, I’d say to them: ‘Go home, soldiers. I issue an order to all the army: fighting is bad. They’ve killed a chicken at our house today, and that’s how they’ll kill all of you too. And they’ll shoot you. Oh, oh! Be off with you, be off. Disperse. They’ll be a lot of crying when they’ve beaten you. We’ll be going away soon too; all the fathers in the village are saying it’s impossible to live here any longer. Why don’t you stay at home? What have you come for? Just change your minds about fighting. Let me never so much as set eyes on you again. Or you’ll be tired and late for dinner.”

She uttered this tirade in an inspired, angry, ringing voice, but the next moment leapt down from the tree-stump on which she had stood for the sake of impressiveness and hid behind Jean who managed only to cry “Oh!” Above the piles of logs there suddenly appeared hundreds of peaked caps, and a whole detachment of French soldiers emerged from their hiding-place where they had been lying in ambush waiting for a German squadron out on patrol. Laughing, the men flocked toward the little girl.

Destiny was pleased to provide a second act to this episode. Jeanne was still sitting on the shoulder of a strapping infantryman who, spinning around like a top, was calling everyone to come and look at this “fiend of anti-militarism, as dangerous as a snake,” – when a troop of cavalry came tearing through the forest and wheeled into the clearing.

Their surprise, crowned by the sight of the little girl held aloft like a banner, produced the instantaneous effect of a blank cartridge being fired. The situation was bizarre and ludicrous. The dragoons’ rifle-bolts clicked but the muzzles were lowered; a Frenchman began to wave a handkerchief above his head.

“On your way, on your way, boches!” cried the French ambush. “We’re having a lunch break and reading the Berliner Tagesblatt.”

And little by little they struck up conversation. The affair ended happily, as such instances of unforeseen confusion usually do, and there was no skirmish. The children were led out on to the road and told to go home. Jean was angry.

“You fool, you messed it all up,” he said. “Those dragoons would have got it hot.”

“Oh go on, go on,” said the girl gloomily.

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