THE COUP DE GRACE
by Ambrose Bierce
The fighting had been hard and continuous; that
was attested by all the senses. The very taste
of battle was in the air. All was now over; it
remained only to succor the wounded and bury the
dead--to "tidy up a bit," as the humorist of a
burial squad put it. A good deal of "tidying up"
was required. As far as one could see through
the forests, among the splintered trees, lay
wrecks of men and horses. Among them moved the
stretcher-bearers, gathering and carrying away
the few who showed signs of life. Most of the
wounded had died of neglect while the right to
minister to their wants was in dispute. It is
an army regulation that the wounded must wait;
the best way to care for them is to win the
battle. It must be confessed that victory is a
distinct advantage to a man requiring attention,
but many do not live to avail themselves of it.
The dead were collected in groups of a dozen
or a score and laid side by side in rows while
the trenches were dug to receive them. Some,
found at too great a distance from these rallying
points, were buried where they lay. There was
little attempt at identification, though in
most cases, the burial parties being detailed
to glean the same ground which they had assisted
to reap, the names of the victorious dead were
known and listed. The enemy's fallen had to be
content with counting. But of that they got
enough: many of them were counted several times,
and the total, as given afterward in the official
report of the victorious commander, denoted
rather a hope than a result.
At some little distance from the spot where
one of the burial parties had established its
"bivouac of the dead," a man in the uniform
of a Federal officer stood leaning against a
tree. From his feet upward to his neck his
attitude was that of weariness reposing; but
he turned his head uneasily from side to side;
his mind was apparently not at rest. He was
perhaps uncertain in which direction to go;
he was not likely to remain long where he was,
for already the level rays of the setting sun
straggled redly through the open spaces of
the wood and the weary soldiers were quitting
their task for the day. He would hardly make
a night of it alone there among the dead.
Nine men in ten whom you meet after a battle
inquire the way to some fraction of the
army--as if any one could know. Doubtless
this officer was lost. After resting himself
a moment he would presumably follow one of the
retiring burial squads.
When all were gone he walked straight away into
the forest toward the red west, its light
staining his face like blood. The air of
confidence with which he now strode along
showed that he was on familiar ground; he had
recovered his bearings. The dead on his right
and on his left were unregarded as he passed.
An occasional low moan from some sorely-stricken
wretch whom the relief-parties had not reached,
and who would have to pass a comfortless night
beneath the stars with his thirst to keep him
company, was equally unheeded. What, indeed,
could the officer have done, being no surgeon
and having no water?
At the head of a shallow ravine, a mere
depression of the ground, lay a small group
of bodies. He saw, and swerving suddenly from
his course walked rapidly toward them. Scanning
each one sharply as he passed, he stopped at
last above one which lay at a slight remove
from the others, near a clump of small trees.
He looked at it narrowly. It seemed to stir.
He stooped and laid his hand upon its face.
The officer was Captain Downing Madwell, of
a Massachusetts regiment of infantry, a daring
and intelligent soldier, an honorable man.
In the regiment were two brothers named
Halcrow--Caffal and Creede Halcrow. Caffal
Halcrow was a sergeant in Captain Madwell's
company, and these two men, the sergeant and
the captain, were devoted friends. In so far
as disparity of rank, difference in duties
and considerations of military discipline
would permit they were commonly together.
They had, indeed, grown up together from
childhood. A habit of the heart is not easily
broken off. Caffal Halcrow had nothing military
in his taste nor disposition, but the thought
of separation from his friend was disagreeable;
he enlisted in the company in which Madwell
was second-lieutenant. Each had taken two
steps upward in rank, but between the highest
non-commissioned and the lowest commissioned
officer the gulf is deep and wide and the
old relation was maintained with difficulty
and a difference.
Creede Halcrow, the brother of Caffal, was
the major of the regiment--a cynical, saturnine
man, between whom and Captain Madwell there
was a natural antipathy which circumstances
had nourished and strengthened to an active
animosity. But for the restraining influence
of their mutual relation to Caffal these two
patriots would doubtless have endeavored to
deprive their country of each other's services.
At the opening of the battle that morning
the regiment was performing outpost duty a
mile away from the main army. It was attacked
and nearly surrounded in the forest, but
stubbornly held its ground. During a lull in
the fighting, Major Halcrow came to Captain
Madwell. The two exchanged formal salutes,
and the major said: "Captain, the colonel
directs that you push your company to the
head of this ravine and hold your place there
until recalled. I need hardly apprise you
of the dangerous character of the movement,
but if you wish, you can, I suppose, turn
over the command to your first-lieutenant.
I was not, however, directed to authorize
the substitution; it is merely a suggestion
of my own, unofficially made."
To this deadly insult Captain Madwell coolly
"Sir, I invite you to accompany the movement.
A mounted officer would be a conspicuous mark,
and I have long held the opinion that it would
be better if you were dead."
The art of repartee was cultivated in military
circles as early as 1862.
A half-hour later Captain Madwell's company
was driven from its position at the head of
the ravine, with a loss of one-third its
number. Among the fallen was Sergeant Halcrow.
The regiment was soon afterward forced back
to the main line, and at the close of the
battle was miles away. The captain was now
standing at the side of the subordinate and
Sergeant Halcrow was mortally hurt. His
clothing was deranged; it seemed to have
been violently torn apart, exposing the
abdomen. Some of the buttons of his jacket
had been pulled off and lay on the ground
beside him and fragments of his other
garments were strewn about. His leather
belt was parted and had apparently been
dragged from beneath him as he lay. There
had been no great effusion of blood. The
only visible wound was a wide, ragged
opening in the abdomen. It was defiled
with earth and dead leaves. Protruding
from it was a loop of small intestine.
In all his experience Captain Madwell
had not seen a wound like this. He could
neither conjecture how it was made nor
explain the attendant circumstances--the
strangely torn clothing, the parted belt,
the besmirching of the white skin. He knelt
and made a closer examination. When he rose
to his feet, he turned his eyes in different
directions as if looking for an enemy.
Fifty yards away, on the crest of a low,
thinly wooded hill, he saw several dark
objects moving about among the fallen
men--a herd of swine. One stood with its
back to him, its shoulders sharply elevated.
Its forefeet were upon a human body, its
head was depressed and invisible. The
bristly ridge of its chine showed black
against the red west. Captain Madwell
drew away his eyes and fixed them again
upon the thing which had been his friend.
The man who had suffered these monstrous
mutilations was alive. At intervals he
moved his limbs; he moaned at every breath.
He stared blankly into the face of his
friend and if touched screamed. In his giant
agony he had torn up the ground on which he
lay; his clenched hands were full of leaves
and twigs and earth. Articulate speech was
beyond his power; it was impossible to know
if he were sensible to anything but pain.
The expression of his face was an appeal;
his eyes were full of prayer. For what?
There was no misreading that look; the
captain had too frequently seen it in eyes
of those whose lips had still the power to
formulate it by an entreaty for death.
Consciously or unconsciously, this writhing
fragment of humanity, this type and example
of acute sensation, this handiwork of man
and beast, this humble, unheroic Prometheus,
was imploring everything, all, the whole
non-ego, for the boon of oblivion. To the
earth and the sky alike, to the trees, to
the man, to whatever took form in sense or
consciousness, this incarnate suffering
addressed that silent plea.
For what, indeed? For that which we accord
to even the meanest creature without sense
to demand it, denying it only to the wretched
of our own race: for the blessed release,
the rite of uttermost compassion, the
coup de grace.
Captain Madwell spoke the name of his friend.
He repeated it over and over without effect
until emotion choked his utterance. His tears
splashed upon the livid face beneath his own
and blinded himself. He saw nothing but a
blurred and moving object, but the moans
were more distinct than ever, interrupted
at briefer intervals by sharper shrieks. He
turned away, struck his hand upon his forehead,
and strode from the spot. The swine, catching
sight of him, threw up their crimson muzzles,
regarding him suspiciously a second, and then
with a gruff, concerted grunt, raced away out
of sight. A horse, its foreleg splintered by
a cannon-shot, lifted its head sidewise from
the ground and neighed piteously. Madwell
stepped forward, drew his revolver and shot
the poor beast between the eyes, narrowly
observing its death-struggle, which, contrary
to his expectation, was violent and long;
but at last it lay still. The tense muscles
of its lips, which had uncovered the teeth
in a horrible grin, relaxed; the sharp,
clean-cut profile took on a look of profound
peace and rest.
Along the distant, thinly wooded crest to
westward the fringe of sunset fire had now
nearly burned itself out. The light upon the
trunks of the trees had faded to a tender
gray; shadows were in their tops, like great
dark birds aperch. Night was coming and there
were miles of haunted forest between Captain
Madwell and camp. Yet he stood there at the
side of the dead animal, apparently lost to
all sense of his surroundings. His eyes were
bent upon the earth at his feet; his left
hand hung loosely at his side, his right
still held the pistol. Presently he lifted
his face, turned it toward his dying friend
and walked rapidly back to his side. He knelt
upon one knee, cocked the weapon, placed the
muzzle against the man's forehead, and turning
away his eyes pulled the trigger. There was
no report. He had used his last cartridge for
The sufferer moaned and his lips moved
convulsively. The froth that ran from them
had a tinge of blood.
Captain Madwell rose to his feet and drew
his sword from the scabbard. He passed the
fingers of his left hand along the edge from
hilt to point. He held it out straight before
him, as if to test his nerves. There was no
visible tremor of the blade; the ray of bleak
skylight that it reflected was steady and
true. He stooped and with his left hand tore
away the dying man's shirt, rose and placed
the point of the sword just over the heart.
This time he did not withdraw his eyes.
Grasping the hilt with both hands, he thrust
downward with all his strength and weight.
The blade sank into the man's body--through
his body into the earth; Captain Madwell
came near falling forward, upon his work. The
dying man drew up his knees and at the same
time threw his right arm across his breast
and grasped the steel so tightly that the
knuckles of the hand visibly whitened. By
a violent but vain effort to withdraw the
blade the wound was enlarged; a rill of
blood escaped, running sinuously down into
the deranged clothing. At that moment three
men stepped silently forward from behind
the clump of young trees which had concealed
their approach. Two were hospital attendants
and carried a stretcher.
The third was Major Creede Halcrow.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~