The 24th Military Hospital was a cluster of shacks on the edge of the city. It would have taken an able-bodied man a good half hour's walk to reach it from the end of the tramline. The tram went into the world, the big city and life. But to the inmates of the 24th Military Hospital the tram was out of reach.
They were blind or halt. They limped. They had shattered spines. They were waiting to have limbs amputated, or had recently had them amputated. The War was in the dim and distant past. They had forgotten about squad drill, about the Sergeant Major, the Captain, the Company, the Chaplain, the Emperor's birthday, the parade, the trenches, going over the top. They had made their own individual peace with the enemy. Now they were readying themselves for the next war: against pain, against artificial limbs, against crippledom, against hunchbacks, against sleepless nights, and against the healthy and the hale.
Only Andreas Pum was content with things as they were. He had lost a leg and been given a medal. There were many who had no medal, even though they had lost more than merely a leg. They had lost both arms or both legs. Or they would be bedridden for the rest of their lives, because there was something the matter with their spinal fluid. Andreas Pum rejoiced when he saw the sufferings of the others.
He believed in a just god. One who handed out shrapnel, amputations, and medals to the deserving. Viewed in the correct light, the loss of a leg wasn't so very bad, and the joy of receiving a medal was considerable. An invalid might enjoy the respect ofthe world. An invalid with a medal could depend on that of the government.
The government is something that overlies man like the sky overlies the earth. What comes from it may be good or ill, but it cannot be other than great and all-powerful, unknowable and mysterious, even though on occasion it may be understood by an ordinary person.
Some of his comrades curse at the government. According to them, they have been treated unjustly. As if the War hadn't been a necessity! As if its consequences were not inevitably pain, amputations, hunger, and sickness! What were they grumbling about? They had no God, no Emperor, no Fatherland. They were no better than heathens. "Heathens" is the best term for someone who opposes the determinations of a government.
It was a warm Sunday morning in April, and Andreas Pum was sitting on one of the crude white wooden benches that had been put out on the lawn in front of the hospital shacks. Almost all of the other benches were occupied by two or three convalescents, sitting together and talking. Only Andreas was on his own, rejoicing in the designation he had come up with for his comrades.
They were heathens, no less than people who were sent to prison for perjury, theft, assault, or murder. What possessed people to kill, steal, swindle, and desert? The fact that they were heathens.
If someone had happened to ask Andreas just then what heathens are, he would have replied: criminals who are in prison, or perhaps still at large. Andreas Pum was highly delighted with his notion of "heathens." The word satisfied him; it answered his swirling questions and solved many riddles. It absolved him of the necessity of continuing to reflect and to think about the others. Andreas was happy with his word. At the same time, it gave him a feeling of superiority to his comrades chattering away on the other benches. Some of them were more badly hurt and had no medals. Was that unjust? Why were they cursing? Why were they complaining? Were they worried about their future? If they continued to be so obdurate, they really would have every reason to worry. They were digging their own graves! Why should the government look out for its enemies? Himself, though, Andreas Pum, it surely would look out for.
Andwhile the sun moved briskly and confidently toward its zenith in the cloudless sky, becoming ever more radiant and even a little summeryAndreas Pum contemplated the years ahead. The government will have found him a little postage stamp concession or a place as an attendant in a shady park or a cool museum. So there he sits, with his cross on his chest; soldiers salute him, a passing general gives him a pat on the back, and little children are terrified of him. Not that he does them any harm, he just makes sure they don't go running around on the grass. Or visitors to the museum buy their catalogs and postcards from him, though to them he is not an ordinary tradesman, but more like a kind of state official. It's not beyond possibility that a widow may present herself, childless or maybe with a child, or a spinster. A well-situated invalid with a pension is not a bad match, and after a war men are in short supply.
The jangle of a bell skipped across the lawn in front of the shacks, announcing lunch. The invalids got up with difficulty and staggered, propped up on one another, toward the long wooden refectory building. Andreas swiftly bent down to pick up his crutches, and hobbled away in pursuit of his comrades. He wasn't quite convinced by their pain. He, too, had to suffer. But see how quickly he can move when the lunch bell summons!
Naturally, he overtakes all the halt and the blind, and those men whose shattered spines are so crooked that their backs are parallel to the ground they walk on. They call out after Andreas Pum, but he has no intention of waiting for them.
There was gruel, as there always was on Sundays. The invalids intoned their regular Sunday complaint: gruel is boring. But Andreas didn't find it at all boring. He raised the bowl to his lips and drank it down, having vainly trawled through it with his spoon a couple of times. The others looked on, and hesitantly followed his example. He kept the bowl at his lips a long time, and peered over the edge of it at his comrades. He saw that they liked the gruel, too, and their complaining had been all for show. They're heathens! crowed Andreas to himself, and he put his bowl down.
The dried vegetables, which the others called "barbed wire," were less to his liking. Nevertheless, he finished his plate. It gave him the satisfying feeling of having done his duty, as though he had polished up his rusty rifle. He regretted that there was no NCO on hand to inspect the plates. His plate was as clean as his conscience. A sunbeam struck the china, and it gleamed. It looked like a check mark from Heaven.
That afternoon brought the long-awaited visit of Princess Mathilde in a nurse's uniform. Andreas, who was in charge of the ward on his wing, stood at attention in the doorway. The princess shook his hand, and he bowed in spite of himself, for he had resolved to stay at attention. His crutches fell to the ground, and Princess Mathilde's lady-in-waiting stooped to pick them up.
The princess left, followed by the head sister, the head doctor, and the priest. "Old harlot!" shouted a man from the second row of beds. "Shut your face!" cried Andreas. The others laughed. Andreas lost his temper. "Make your beds!" he ordered, even though the blankets were all double-folded, as they had to be. No one moved. One or two even started filling their pipes.
Then Engineer Lang, a private first class, who had lost his right arm and whom Andreas respected, said: "Don't get all het up, Andreas, we're all poor buggers here!"
The barracks became very quiet; everyone looked at the engineer, as Lang stood in front of Andreas and spoke.
It wasn't clear whether he was addressing Andreas, or all of them, or just talking to himself. He looked out the window and said:
"Princess Mathilde will be very pleased just now. She, too, will have had a hard day. Every Sunday she goes and visits four hospitals. For, as you must know, there are more hospitals than there are princesses, and more sick people than healthy. People who think they're healthy are sick, too, though many of them aren't aware of it. Maybe they'll make peace before long."
A few cleared their throats. The man from the second row of bunks who had earlier shouted "Old harlot!" now coughed loudly. Andreas hobbled over to his cot, took a pack of cigarettes off the shelf and called to the engineer. "A cigarette, Doctor?" He always addressed the engineer as "Doctor."
Lang talked like a heathen, but also like a priest. Maybe it was because he was educated. He was always right about everything. You felt like arguing with him, but you couldn't find any grounds for doing so. He had to be right if you couldn't argue with him.
That evening, the engineer lay on his bed fully clothed and said: "Once the borders are open again, I'll be out of here. There's nothing left for me in Europe."
"There will be if we win the war," said Andreas.
"Everyone will lose it," replied the engineer. Andreas Pum didn't understand what he meant, but he nodded respectfully anyway, as though forced to agree.
He for his part decided to stay in the country and sell picture postcards in a museum. He could see that that might not be a prospect for an educated man. Or was the engineer supposed to become a park attendant as well?
Andreas had no family. When the others had visitors, he went out and read a book from the hospital library. He had at various times thought of marriage. But the fear that he didn't earn enough to feed a family had kept him from asking for the hand of Annie the cook, Amalie the seamstress, or Poldi the governess.
He had only gone out with the three of them. His job didn't suit a young wife either. Andreas worked as a night watchman in a lumberyard outside the city, and only had one night off each week. His jealous nature would have robbed him of his satisfaction in the conscientious performance of his duty, or even made it completely impossible.
A few of the men were asleep and snoring. Engineer Lang was reading. "Shall I turn the light out?" asked Andreas.
"Yes," said the engineer, putting his book down.
"Good night, Doctor," said Andreas. He switched off the light. He got undressed in the dark. He leaned his crutch against the wall to the right of the bed.
Before going to sleep, Andreas thinks of the prosthesis the head doctor has promised him. It will be a perfect prosthesis, as good as Captain Hainigl's. With him, you wouldn't even know he'd lost a leg. The Captain walks through the room quite unaided, it just looks as though he has one leg longer than the other. Artificial limbs are an enlightened invention, an example of the trouble the government will go to. There's no denying that.