The Moment of Victory by O. Henry

Ben Granger is a war veteran aged twenty-nine—which should enable you to guess the war. He is also principal merchant and postmaster of Cadiz, a little town over which the breezes from the Gulf of Mexico perpetually blow.

Ben helped to hurl the Don from his stronghold in the Greater Antilles; and then, hiking across half the world, he marched as a corporal-usher up and down the blazing tropic aisles of the open-air college in which the Filipino was schooled. Now, with his bayonet beaten into a cheese-slicer, he rallies his corporal’s guard of cronies in the shade of his well-whittled porch, instead of in the matted jungles of Mindanao. Always have his interest and choice been for deeds rather than for words; but the consideration and digestion of motives is not beyond him, as this story, which is his, will attest.

“What is it,” he asked me one moonlit eve, as we sat among his boxes and barrels, “that generally makes men go through dangers, and fire, and trouble, and starvation, and battle, and such recourses? What does a man do it for? Why does he try to outdo his fellow-humans, and be braver and stronger and more daring and showy than even his best friends are? What’s his game? What does he expect to get out of it? He don’t do it just for the fresh air and exercise. What would you say, now, Bill, that an ordinary man expects, generally speaking, for his efforts along the line of ambition and extraordinary hustling in the marketplaces, forums, shooting-galleries, lyceums, battle-fields, links, cinder-paths, and arenas of the civilized and vice versa places of the world?”

“Well, Ben,” said I, with judicial seriousness, “I think we might safely limit the number of motives of a man who seeks fame to three—to ambition, which is a desire for popular applause; to avarice, which looks to the material side of success; and to love of some woman whom he either possesses or desires to possess.”

Ben pondered over my words while a mocking-bird on the top of a mesquite by the porch trilled a dozen bars.

“I reckon,” said he, “that your diagnosis about covers the case according to the rules laid down in the copy-books and historical readers. But what I had in my mind was the case of Willie Robbins, a person I used to know. I’ll tell you about him before I close up the store, if you don’t mind listening.

“Willie was one of our social set up in San Augustine. I was clerking there then for Brady & Murchison, wholesale dry-goods and ranch supplies. Willie and I belonged to the same german club and athletic association and military company. He played the triangle in our serenading and quartet crowd that used to ring the welkin three nights a week somewhere in town.

“Willie jibed with his name considerable. He weighed about as much as a hundred pounds of veal in his summer suitings, and he had a ‘Where-is-Mary?’ expression on his features so plain that you could almost see the wool growing on him.

“And yet you couldn’t fence him away from the girls with barbed wire. You know that kind of young fellows—a kind of a mixture of fools and angels—they rush in and fear to tread at the same time; but they never fail to tread when they get the chance. He was always on hand when ‘a joyful occasion was had,’ as the morning paper would say, looking as happy as a king full, and at the same time as uncomfortable as a raw oyster served with sweet pickles. He danced like he had hind hobbles on; and he had a vocabulary of about three hundred and fifty words that he made stretch over four germans a week, and plagiarized from to get him through two ice-cream suppers and a Sunday-night call. He seemed to me to be a sort of a mixture of Maltese kitten, sensitive plant, and a member of a stranded ‘Two Orphans’ company.

“I’ll give you an estimate of his physiological and pictorial make-up, and then I’ll stick spurs into the sides of my narrative.

“Willie inclined to the Caucasian in his coloring and manner of style. His hair was opalescent and his conversation fragmentary. His eyes were the same blue shade as the china dog’s on the right-hand corner of your Aunt Ellen’s mantelpiece. He took things as they came, and I never felt any hostility against him. I let him live, and so did others.

“But what does this Willie do but coax his heart out of his boots and lose it to Myra Allison, the liveliest, brightest, keenest, smartest, and prettiest girl in San Augustine. I tell you, she had the blackest eyes, the shiniest curls, and the most tantalizing—Oh, no, you’re off—I wasn’t a victim. I might have been, but I knew better. I kept out. Joe Granberry was It from the start. He had everybody else beat a couple of leagues and thence east to a stake and mound. But, anyhow, Myra was a nine-pound, full-merino, fall-clip fleece, sacked and loaded on a four-horse team for San Antone.

“One night there was an ice-cream sociable at Mrs. Colonel Spraggins’, in San Augustine. We fellows had a big room up-stairs opened up for us to put our hats and things in, and to comb our hair and put on the clean collars we brought along inside the sweat-bands of our hats—in short, a room to fix up in just like they have everywhere at high-toned doings. A little farther down the hall was the girls’ room, which they used to powder up in, and so forth. Downstairs we—that is, the San Augustine Social Cotillion and Merrymakers’ Club—had a stretcher put down in the parlor where our dance was going on.

“Willie Robbins and me happened to be up in our—cloak-room, I believe we called it—when Myra Allison skipped through the hall on her way down-stairs from the girls’ room. Willie was standing before the mirror, deeply interested in smoothing down the blond grass-plot on his head, which seemed to give him lots of trouble. Myra was always full of life and devilment. She stopped and stuck her head in our door. She certainly was good-looking. But I knew how Joe Granberry stood with her. So did Willie; but he kept on ba-a-a-ing after her and following her around. He had a system of persistence that didn’t coincide with pale hair and light eyes.

“‘Hello, Willie!’ says Myra. ‘What are you doing to yourself in the glass?’

“‘I’m trying to look fly,’ says Willie.

“‘Well, you never could be fly,’ says Myra, with her special laugh, which was the provokingest sound I ever heard except the rattle of an empty canteen against my saddle-horn.

“I looked around at Willie after Myra had gone. He had a kind of a lily-white look on him which seemed to show that her remark had, as you might say, disrupted his soul. I never noticed anything in what she said that sounded particularly destructive to a man’s ideas of self-consciousness; but he was set back to an extent you could scarcely imagine.

“After we went down-stairs with our clean collars on, Willie never went near Myra again that night. After all, he seemed to be a diluted kind of a skim-milk sort of a chap, and I never wondered that Joe Granberry beat him out.

“The next day the battleship Maine was blown up, and then pretty soon somebody—I reckon it was Joe Bailey, or Ben Tillman, or maybe the Government—declared war against Spain.

“Well, everybody south of Mason & Hamlin’s line knew that the North by itself couldn’t whip a whole country the size of Spain. So the Yankees commenced to holler for help, and the Johnny Rebs answered the call. ‘We’re coming, Father William, a hundred thousand strong—and then some,’ was the way they sang it. And the old party lines drawn by Sherman’s march and the Kuklux and nine-cent cotton and the Jim Crow street-car ordinances faded away. We became one undivided. country, with no North, very little East, a good-sized chunk of West, and a South that loomed up as big as the first foreign label on a new eight-dollar suit-case.

“Of course the dogs of war weren’t a complete pack without a yelp from the San Augustine Rifles, Company D, of the Fourteenth Texas Regiment. Our company was among the first to land in Cuba and strike terror into the hearts of the foe. I’m not going to give you a history of the war, I’m just dragging it in to fill out my story about Willie Robbins, just as the Republican party dragged it in to help out the election in 1898.

“If anybody ever had heroitis, it was that Willie Robbins. From the minute he set foot on the soil of the tyrants of Castile he seemed to engulf danger as a cat laps up cream. He certainly astonished every man in our company, from the captain up. You’d have expected him to gravitate naturally to the job of an orderly to the colonel, or typewriter in the commissary—but not any. He created the part of the flaxen-haired boy hero who lives and gets back home with the goods, instead of dying with an important despatch in his hands at his colonel’s feet.

“Our company got into a section of Cuban scenery where one of the messiest and most unsung portions of the campaign occurred. We were out every day capering around in the bushes, and having little skirmishes with the Spanish troops that looked more like kind of tired-out feuds than anything else. The war was a joke to us, and of no interest to them. We never could see it any other way than as a howling farce-comedy that the San Augustine Rifles were actually fighting to uphold the Stars and Stripes. And the blamed little señors didn’t get enough pay to make them care whether they were patriots or traitors. Now and then somebody would get killed. It seemed like a waste of life to me. I was at Coney Island when I went to New York once, and one of them down-hill skidding apparatuses they call ‘roller-coasters’ flew the track and killed a man in a brown sack-suit. Whenever the Spaniards shot one of our men, it struck me as just about as unnecessary and regrettable as that was.

“But I’m dropping Willie Robbins out of the conversation.

“He was out for bloodshed, laurels, ambition, medals, recommendations, and all other forms of military glory. And he didn’t seem to be afraid of any of the recognized forms of military danger, such as Spaniards, cannon-balls, canned beef, gunpowder, or nepotism. He went forth with his pallid hair and china-blue eyes and ate up Spaniards like you would sardines à la canopy. Wars and rumbles of wars never flustered him. He would stand guard-duty, mosquitoes, hardtack, treat, and fire with equally perfect unanimity. No blondes in history ever come in comparison distance of him except the Jack of Diamonds and Queen Catherine of Russia.

“I remember, one time, a little caballard of Spanish men sauntered out from behind a patch of sugar-cane and shot Bob Turner, the first sergeant of our company, while we were eating dinner. As required by the army regulations, we fellows went through the usual tactics of falling into line, saluting the enemy, and loading and firing, kneeling.

“That wasn’t the Texas way of scrapping; but, being a very important addendum and annex to the regular army, the San Augustine Rifles had to conform to the red-tape system of getting even.

“By the time we had got out our ‘Upton’s Tactics,’ turned to page fifty-seven, said ‘one—two—three—one—two—three’ a couple of times, and got blank cartridges into our Springfields, the Spanish outfit had smiled repeatedly, rolled and lit cigarettes by squads, and walked away contemptuously.

“I went straight to Captain Floyd, and says to him: ‘Sam, I don’t think this war is a straight game. You know as well as I do that Bob Turner was one of the whitest fellows that ever threw a leg over a saddle, and now these wirepullers in Washington have fixed his clock. He’s politically and ostensibly dead. It ain’t fair. Why should they keep this thing up? If they want Spain licked, why don’t they turn the San Augustine Rifles and Joe Seely’s ranger company and a car-load of West Texas deputy-sheriffs onto these Spaniards, and let us exonerate them from the face of the earth? I never did,’ says I, ‘care much about fighting by the Lord Chesterfield ring rules. I’m going to hand in my resignation and go home if anybody else I am personally acquainted with gets hurt in this war. If you can get somebody in my place, Sam,’ says I, ‘I’ll quit the first of next week. I don’t want to work in an army that don’t give its help a chance. Never mind my wages,’ says I; ‘let the Secretary of the Treasury keep ’em.’

“‘Well, Ben,’ says the captain to me, ‘your allegations and estimations of the tactics of war, government, patriotism, guard-mounting, and democracy are all right. But I’ve looked into the system of international arbitration and the ethics of justifiable slaughter a little closer, maybe, than you have. Now, you can hand in your resignation the first of next week if you are so minded. But if you do,’ says Sam, ‘I’ll order a corporal’s guard to take you over by that limestone bluff on the creek and shoot enough lead into you to ballast a submarine air-ship. I’m captain of this company, and I’ve swore allegiance to the Amalgamated States regardless of sectional, secessional, and Congressional differences. Have you got any smoking-tobacco?’ winds up Sam. ‘Mine got wet when I swum the creek this morning.’

“The reason I drag all this non ex parte evidence in is because Willie Robbins was standing there listening to us. I was a second sergeant and he was a private then, but among us Texans and Westerners there never was as much tactics and subordination as there was in the regular army. We never called our captain anything but ‘Sam’ except when there was a lot of major-generals and admirals around, so as to preserve the discipline.

“And says Willie Robbins to me, in a sharp construction of voice much unbecoming to his light hair and previous record:

“‘You ought to be shot, Ben, for emitting any such sentiments. A man that won’t fight for his country is worse than a horse-thief. If I was the cap, I’d put you in the guard-house for thirty days on round steak and tamales. War,’ says Willie, ‘is great and glorious. I didn’t know you were a coward.’

“‘I’m not,’ says I. ‘If I was, I’d knock some of the pallidness off of your marble brow. I’m lenient with you,’ I says, ‘just as I am with the Spaniards, because you have always reminded me of something with mushrooms on the side. Why, you little Lady of Shalott,’ says I, ‘you underdone leader of cotillions, you glassy fashion and moulded form, you white-pine soldier made in the Cisalpine Alps in Germany for the late New-Year trade, do you know of whom you are talking to? We’ve been in the same social circle,’ says I, ‘and I’ve put up with you because you seemed so meek and self-un-satisfying. I don’t understand why you have so sudden taken a personal interest in chivalrousness and murder. Your nature’s undergone a complete revelation. Now, how is it?’

“‘Well, you wouldn’t understand, Ben,’ says Willie, giving one of his refined smiles and turning away.

“‘Come back here!’ says I, catching him by the tail of his khaki coat. ‘You’ve made me kind of mad, in spite of the aloofness in which I have heretofore held you. You are out for making a success in this hero business, and I believe I know what for. You are doing it either because you are crazy or because you expect to catch some girl by it. Now, if it’s a girl, I’ve got something here to show you.’

“I wouldn’t have done it, but I was plumb mad. I pulled a San Augustine paper out of my hip-pocket, and showed him an item. It was a half a column about the marriage of Myra Allison and Joe Granberry.

“Willie laughed, and I saw I hadn’t touched him.

“‘Oh,’ says he, ‘everybody knew that was going to happen. I heard about that a week ago.’ And then he gave me the laugh again.

“‘All right,’ says I. ‘Then why do you so recklessly chase the bright rainbow of fame? Do you expect to be elected President, or do you belong to a suicide club?’

“And then Captain Sam interferes.

“‘You gentlemen quit jawing and go back to your quarters,’ says he, ‘or I’ll have you escorted to the guard-house. Now, scat, both of you! Before you go, which one of you has got any chewing-tobacco?’

“‘We’re off, Sam,’ says I. ‘It’s supper-time, anyhow. But what do you think of what we was talking about? I’ve noticed you throwing out a good many grappling-hooks for this here balloon called fame—What’s ambition, anyhow? What does a man risk his life day after day for? Do you know of anything he gets in the end that can pay him for the trouble? I want to go back home,’ says I. ‘I don’t care whether Cuba sinks or swims, and I don’t give a pipeful of rabbit tobacco whether Queen Sophia Christina or Charlie Culberson rules these fairy isles; and I don’t want my name on any list except the list of survivors. But I’ve noticed you, Sam,’ says I, ‘seeking the bubble notoriety in the cannon’s larynx a number of times. Now, what do you do it for? Is it ambition, business, or some freckle-faced Phœbe at home that you are heroing for?’

“‘Well, Ben,’ says Sam, kind of hefting his sword out from between his knees, ‘as your superior officer I could court-martial you for attempted cowardice and desertion. But I won’t. And I’ll tell you why I’m trying for promotion and the usual honors of war and conquest. A major gets more pay than a captain, and I need the money.’

“‘Correct for you!’ says I. ‘I can understand that. Your system of fame-seeking is rooted in the deepest soil of patriotism. But I can’t comprehend,’ says I, ‘why Willie Robbins, whose folks at home are well off, and who used to be as meek and undesirous of notice as a cat with cream on his whiskers, should all at once develop into a warrior bold with the most fire-eating kind of proclivities. And the girl in his case seems to have been eliminated by marriage to another fellow. I reckon,’ says I, ‘it’s a plain case of just common ambition. He wants his name, maybe, to go thundering down the coroners of time. It must be that.’

“Well, without itemizing his deeds, Willie sure made good as a hero. He simply spent most of his time on his knees begging our captain to send him on forlorn hopes and dangerous scouting expeditions. In every fight he was the first man to mix it at close quarters with the Don Alfonsos. He got three or four bullets planted in various parts of his autonomy. Once he went off with a detail of eight men and captured a whole company of Spanish. He kept Captain Floyd busy writing out recommendations of his bravery to send in to headquarters; and he began to accumulate medals for all kinds of things—heroism and target-shooting and valor and tactics and uninsubordination, and all the little accomplishments that look good to the third assistant secretaries of the War Department.

“Finally, Cap Floyd got promoted to be a major-general, or a knight commander of the main herd, or something like that. He pounded around on a white horse, all desecrated up with gold-leaf and hen-feathers and a Good Templar’s hat, and wasn’t allowed by the regulations to speak to us. And Willie Robbins was made captain of our company.

“And maybe he didn’t go after the wreath of fame then! As far as I could see it was him that ended the war. He got eighteen of us boys—friends of his, too—killed in battles that he stirred up himself, and that didn’t seem to me necessary at all. One night he took twelve of us and waded through a little rill about a hundred and ninety yards wide, and climbed a couple of mountains, and sneaked through a mile of neglected shrubbery and a couple of rock-quarries and into a rye-straw village, and captured a Spanish general named, as they said, Benny Veedus. Benny seemed to me hardly worth the trouble, being a blackish man without shoes or cuffs, and anxious to surrender and throw himself on the commissary of his foe.

“But that job gave Willie the big boost he wanted. The San Augustine News and the Galveston, St. Louis, New York, and Kansas City papers printed his picture and columns of stuff about him. Old San Augustine simply went crazy over its ‘gallant son.’ The News had an editorial tearfully begging the Government to call off the regular army and the national guard, and let Willie carry on the rest of the war single-handed. It said that a refusal to do so would be regarded as a proof that the Northern jealousy of the South was still as rampant as ever.

“If the war hadn’t ended pretty soon, I don’t know to what heights of gold braid and encomiums Willie would have climbed; but it did. There was a secession of hostilities just three days after he was appointed a colonel, and got in three more medals by registered mail, and shot two Spaniards while they were drinking lemonade in an ambuscade.

“Our company went back to San Augustine when the war was over. There wasn’t anywhere else for it to go. And what do you think? The old town notified us in print, by wire cable, special delivery, and a nigger named Saul sent on a gray mule to San Antone, that they was going to give us the biggest blow-out, complimentary, alimentary, and elementary, that ever disturbed the kildees on the sand-flats outside of the immediate contiguity of the city.

“I say ‘we,’ but it was all meant for ex-Private, Captain de facto, and Colonel-elect Willie Robbins. The town was crazy about him. They notified us that the reception they were going to put up would make the Mardi Gras in New Orleans look like an afternoon tea in Bury St. Edmunds with a curate’s aunt.

“Well, the San Augustine Rifles got back home on schedule time. Everybody was at the depot giving forth Roosevelt-Democrat—they used to be called Rebel—yells. There was two brass-bands, and the mayor, and schoolgirls in white frightening the street-car horses by throwing Cherokee roses in the streets, and—well, maybe you’ve seen a celebration by a town that was inland and out of water.

“They wanted Brevet-Colonel Willie to get into a carriage and be drawn by prominent citizens and some of the city aldermen to the armory, but he stuck to his company and marched at the head of it up Sam Houston Avenue. The buildings on both sides was covered with flags and audiences, and everybody hollered ‘Robbins!’ or ‘Hello, Willie!’ as we marched up in files of fours. I never saw a illustriouser-looking human in my life than Willie was. He had at least seven or eight medals and diplomas and decorations on the breast of his khaki coat; he was sunburnt the color of a saddle, and he certainly done himself proud.

“They told us at the depot that the courthouse was to be illuminated at half-past seven, and there would be speeches and chili-con-carne at the Palace Hotel. Miss Delphine Thompson was to read an original poem by James Whitcomb Ryan, and Constable Hooker had promised us a salute of nine guns from Chicago that he had arrested that day.

“After we had disbanded in the armory, Willie says to me:

“‘Want to walk out a piece with me?’

“‘Why, yes,’ says I, ‘if it ain’t so far that we can’t hear the tumult and the shouting die away. I’m hungry myself,’ says I, ‘and I’m pining for some home grub, but I’ll go with you.’

“Willie steered me down some side streets till we came to a little white cottage in a new lot with a twenty-by-thirty-foot lawn decorated with brickbats and old barrel-staves.

“‘Halt and give the countersign,’ says I to Willie. ‘Don’t you know this dugout? It’s the bird’s-nest that Joe Granberry built before he married Myra Allison. What you going there for?’

“But Willie already had the gate open. He walked up the brick walk to the steps, and I went with him. Myra was sitting in a rocking-chair on the porch, sewing. Her hair was smoothed back kind of hasty and tied in a knot. I never noticed till then that she had freckles. Joe was at one side of the porch, in his shirt-sleeves, with no collar on, and no signs of a shave, trying to scrape out a hole among the brickbats and tin cans to plant a little fruit-tree in. He looked up but never said a word, and neither did Myra.

“Willie was sure dandy-looking in his uniform, with medals strung on his breast and his new gold-handled sword. You’d never have taken him for the little white-headed snipe that the girls used to order about and make fun of. He just stood there for a minute, looking at Myra with a peculiar little smile on his face; and then he says to her, slow, and kind of holding on to his words with his teeth:

“‘Oh, I don’t know! Maybe I could if I tried!

“That was all that was said. Willie raised his hat, and we walked away.

“And, somehow, when he said that, I remembered, all of a sudden, the night of that dance and Willie brushing his hair before the looking-glass, and Myra sticking her head in the door to guy him.

“When we got back to Sam Houston Avenue, Willie says:

“‘Well, so long, Ben. I’m going down home and get off my shoes and take a rest.’

“‘You?’ says I. ‘What’s the matter with you? Ain’t the court-house jammed with everybody in town waiting to honor the hero? And two brass-bands, and recitations and flags and jags and grub to follow waiting for you?’

“Willie sighs.

“‘All right, Ben,’ says he. ‘Darned if I didn’t forget all about that.’

“And that’s why I say,” concluded Ben Granger, “that you can’t tell where ambition begins any more than you can where it is going to wind up.”

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