The Sergeant's Private Madhouse

Stephen Crane

The moonlight was almost steady blue flame, and all this radiance was

lavished out upon a still, lifeless wilderness of stunted trees and cactus

plants. The shadows lay upon the ground, pools of black and sharply

outlined, resembling substances, fabrics, and not shadows at all. From afar

came the sound of the sea coughing among the hollows in the coral rocks.

The land was very empty; one could easily imagine that Cuba was a simple,

vast solitude; one could wonder at the moon taking all the trouble of this

splendid illumination. There was no wind; nothing seemed to live.

But in a particular, large group of shadows lay an outpost of some forty

United States marines. If it had been possible to approach them from any

direction without encountering one of their sentries, one could have gone

stumbling among sleeping men, and men who sat waiting, their blankets tented

over their heads; one would have been in among them before one's mind could

have decided whether they were men or devils. If a marine moved, he took the

care and the time of one who walks across a death-chamber. The Lieutenant in

command reached for his watch, and the nickel chain gave forth the slightest

tinkling sound. He could see the glisten in five or six pairs of eyes that

turned to regard him. His Sergeant lay near him, and he bent his face down

to whisper: "Who's on post behind the big cactus bush?"

"Dryden," rejoined the Sergeant just over his breath.

After a pause the lieutenant murmured: "He's got too many nerves. I

shouldn't have put him there." The Sergeant asked if he should crawl down

and look into affairs at Dryden's post. The young officer nodded assent, and

the Sergeant, softly cocking his rifle, went away on his hands and knees.

The Lieutenant, with his back to a dwarf tree, sat watching the Sergeant's

progress for the few moments that he could see him moving from one shadow to

another. Afterward the officer waited to hear Dryden's quick but low-voiced

challenge; but time passed, and no sound came from the direction of the post

behind the cactus bush.

The Sergeant, as he came nearer and nearer to this cactus bush -- a

number of peculiarly dignified columns throwing shadows of inky darkness --

had slowed his pace, for he did not wish to trifle with the feelings of the

sentry. He was expecting his stern hail, and was ready with the immediate

answer which turns away wrath. He was not made anxious by the fact that he

could not as yet see Dryden, for he knew that the man would be hidden in a

way practiced by sentry marines since the time when two men had been killed

by a disease of excessive confidence on picket. Indeed, as the Sergeant went

still nearer he became more and more angry. Dryden was evidently a most

proper sentry.

Finally he arrived at a point where he could see him seated in the

shadow, staring into the bushes ahead of him, his rifle ready on his knee.

The Sergeant in his rage longed for the peaceful precincts of the Washington

Marine Barracks, where there would have been no situation to prevent the

most complete non-commissioned oratory. He felt indecent in his capacity of

a man able to creep up to the back of a G Company member on guard duty.

Never mind; in the morning, back at camp --

But suddenly he felt afraid. There was something wrong with Dryden. He

remembered old tales of comrades creeping out to find a picket seated

against a tree, perhaps upright enough, but stone dead. The Sergeant paused

and gave the inscrutable back of the sentry a long stare. Dubious, he again

moved forward. At three paces he hissed like a little snake. Dryden did not

show a sign of hearing. At last the Sergeant was in a position from which he

was able to reach out and touch Dryden on the arm. Whereupon was turned to

him the face of a man livid with mad fright. The Sergeant grabbed him by the

wrist and with discreet fury shook him. "Here! Pull yourself together!"

Dryden paid no heed, but turned his wild face from the newcomer to the

ground in front. "Don't you see 'em, Sergeant? Don't you see 'em?"

"Where?" whispered the Sergeant.

"Ahead and a little on the right flank. A reg'lar skirmish line. Don't

you see 'em?"

"Naw," whispered the Sergeant.

Dryden began to shake. He began moving one hand from his head to his

knee, and from his knee to his head rapidly, in a way that is without

explanation. "I don't dare fire," he wept. "If I do they'll see me, and oh,

how they'll pepper me!"

The Sergeant, lying on his belly, understood one thing. Dryden had gone

mad. Dryden was the March Hare. The old man gulped down his uproarious

emotions as well as he was able, and used the most simple device. "Go," he

said, "and tell the Lieutenant, while I cover your post for you."

"No! They'd see me! And they'd pepper me! Oh, how they'd pepper me!"

The Sergeant was face to face with the biggest situation of his life. In

the first place, he knew that at night a large or a small force of Spanish

guerrillas was never more than easy rifle-range from any marine outpost,

both sides maintaining a secrecy as absolute as possible in regard to their

real position and strength. Everything was on a watch-spring foundation. A

loud word might be paid for by a night attack which would involve five

hundred men who needed their sleep, not to speak of some of them who would

need their lives. The slip of a foot and the rolling of a pint of gravel

might go from consequence to consequence until various crews went to general

quarters on their ships in the harbor, their batteries booming as the swift

searchlight flashed through the foliage. Men would get killed -- notably the

Sergeant and Dryden -- and the outposts would be cut off, and the whole

night would be one pitiless turmoil. And so Sergeant George H. Peasley began

to run his private madhouse behind the cactus bush.

"Dryden," said the Sergeant, "you do as I told you, and go tell the


"I don't dare move," shivered the man. "They'll see me if I move; they'll

see me. They're almost up now. Let's hide -- " "Well, then you stay here a

moment and I'll go and -- "

Dryden turned upon him a look so tigerish that the old man felt his hair

move. "Don't you stir!" he hissed. "You want to give me away? You want them

to see me? Don't you stir!" The Sergeant decided not to stir.

He became aware of the slow wheeling of eternity, its majestic

incomprehensibility of movement. Seconds, moments, were quaint little

things, tangible as toys, and there were billions of them, all alike.

"Dryden," he whispered at the end of a century, in which, curiously, he

had never joined the marine corps at all, but had taken to another walk of

life and prospered greatly in it -- "Dryden, this is all foolishness!"

He thought of the expedient of smashing the man over the head with his

rifle, but Dryden was so supernaturally alert that there surely would issue

some small scuffle, and there could be not even the fraction of a scuffle.

The Sergeant relapsed into the contemplation of another century. His patient

had one fine virtue. He was in such terror of the phantom skirmish line that

his voice never went above a whisper, whereas his delusion might have

expressed itself in coyote yells and shots from his rifle. The Sergeant,

shuddering, had visions of how it might have been -- the mad private leaping

into the air and howling and shooting at his friends, and making them the

centre of the enemy's eager attention. This, to his mind, would have been

conventional conduct for a maniac. The trembling victim of an idea was

somewhat puzzling. The Sergeant decided that from time to time he would

reason with his patient. "Look here, Dryden, you don't see any real

Spaniards. You've been drinking or -- something. Now -- "

But Dryden only glared him into silence. Dryden was inspired with such a

profound contempt of him that it had become hatred. "Don't you stir!" And it

was clear that if the Sergeant did stir the mad private would introduce

calamity. "Now," said Peasley to himself, "If those guerrillas should take a

crack at us to-night, they'd find a lunatic asylum in front, and it would be


The silence of the night was broken by the quick, low voice of a sentry

to the left some distance. The breathless stillness brought an effect to the

words as if they had been spoken in one's ear.

"Halt! Who's there? Halt, or I'll fire!" Bang!

At the moment of sudden attack, particularly at night, it is improbable

that a man registers much detail of either thought or action. He may

afterward say: "I was here." He may say: "I was there"; "I did this"; "I did

that." But there remains a great incoherency because of the tumultuous

thought which seethes through the head.

"Is this defeat?" At night in a wilderness, and against skillful foes

half seen, one does not trouble to ask if it is also death. Defeat is death,

then, save for the miraculous ones. But the exaggerating, magnifying first

thought subsides in the ordered mind of the soldier, and he knows, soon,

what he is doing, and how much of it. The Sergeant's immediate impulse had

been to squeeze close to the ground and listen -- listen; above all else,

listen. But the next moment he grabbed his private asylum by the scruff of

its neck, jerked it to its feet, and started to retreat upon the main


To the left, rifle-flashes were bursting from the shadows. To the rear,

the Lieutenant was giving some hoarse order or caution. Through the air

swept some Spanish bullets, very high, as if they had been fired at a man in

a tree. The private asylum came on so hastily that the Sergeant found he

could remove his grip, and soon they were in the midst of the men of the

outpost. Here there was no occasion for enlightening the Lieutenant. In the

first place, such surprises require statement, question and answer. It is

impossible to get a grossly original and fantastic idea through a man's head

in less than one minute of rapid talk, and the Sergeant knew that the

Lieutenant could not spare the minute. He himself had no minute to devote to

anything but the business of the outpost. And the madman disappeared from

his ken, and he forgot about him.

It was a long night, and the little fight was as long as the night. It

was heartbreaking work. The forty marines lay in an irregular oval. From all

sides the Mauser bullets sang low and swift. The occupation of the Americans

was to prevent a rush, and to this end they potted carefully at the flash of

a Mauser -- save when they got excited for a moment, in which case their

magazines rattled like a great Waterbury watch. Then they settled again to a

systematic potting.

The enemy were not of the regular Spanish forces, but of a corps of

guerrillas, native-born Cubans, who preferred the flag of Spain. They were

all men who knew the craft of the woods and were all recruited from the

district. They fought more like red Indians than any people but the red

Indians themselves. Each seemed to possess an individuality, a fighting

individuality, which is only found in the highest order of irregular

soldier. Personally, they were as distinct as possible, but through equality

of knowledge and experience they arrived at concert of action. So long as

they operated in the wilderness they were formidable troops. It mattered

little whether it was daylight or dark, they were mainly invisible. They had

schooled from the Cubans insurgent to Spain. As the Cubans fought the

Spanish troops, so would these particular Spanish troops fight the

Americans. It was wisdom.

The marines thoroughly understood the game. They must lie close and fight

until daylight, when the guerrillas would promptly go away. They had

withstood other nights of this kind, and now their principal emotion was a

sort of frantic annoyance.

Back at the main camp, whenever the roaring volleys lulled, the men in

the trenches could hear their comrades of the outpost and the guerrillas

pattering away interminably. The moonlight faded and left an equal darkness

upon the wilderness. A man could barely see the comrade at his side.

Sometimes guerrillas crept so close that the flame from their rifles seemed

to scorch the faces of the marines, and the reports sounded as if within two

or three inches of their very noses. If a pause came, one could hear the

guerrillas gabbling to each other in a kind of delirium. The Lieutenant was

praying that the ammunition would last. Everybody was praying for daylight.

A black hour came finally when the men were not fit to have their

troubles increase. The enemy made a wild attack on one portion of the oval

which was held by about fifteen men. The remainder of the force was busy

enough, and the fifteen were naturally left to their devices. Amid the whirl

of it, a loud voice suddenly broke out in song:

"The minstrel boy to the war has gone,

In the ranks of death you'll find him;

His father's sword he has girded on,

And his wild harp slung behind him."

"Who the deuce is that?" demanded the Lieutenant from a throat full of

smoke. There was almost a full stop of the firing. The Americans were

puzzled. Practical ones muttered that the fool should have a bayonet-hilt

shoved down his throat. Others felt a thrill at the strangeness of the

thing. Perhaps it was a sign!

"While shepherds watched their flocks by night,

All seated on the ground,

The angel of the Lord came down,

And glory shone around."

This croak was as lugubrious as a coffin. "Who is it? Who is it?" snapped

the Lieutenant. "Stop him, somebody!"

"It's Dryden, sir," said old Sergeant Peasley as he felt around in the

darkness for his madhouse. "I can't find him -- yet."

"Please, oh, please -- oh, do not let me fall!

You're -- gurgh -- ugh -- "

The Sergeant had pounced upon him.

The singing had had an effect upon the Spaniards. At first they had fired

frenziedly at the voice, but they soon ceased, perhaps from sheer amazement. Both sides took a spell of meditation.

The Sergeant was having some difficulty with his charge. "Here, you, grab

'im! Take 'im by the throat! Be quiet, you idiot!"

One of the fifteen men who had been hard pressed called out, "We've only

got about one clip apiece, Lieutenant. If they come again -- "

The Lieutenant crawled to and fro among his men, taking clips of

cartridges from those who had many. He came upon the Sergeant and his

madhouse. He felt Dryden's belt and found it simply stuffed with ammunition.

He examined Dryden's rifle and found in it a full clip. The madhouse had not

fired a shot. The Lieutenant distributed these valuable prizes among the

fifteen men. As they gratefully took them, one said, "If they had come again

hard enough they would have had us, sir -- maybe."

But the Spaniards did not come again. At the first indication of daybreak

they fired their customary good-by volley. The marines lay tight while the

slow dawn crept over the land. Finally the Lieutenant arose among them, and

he was a bewildered man, but very angry. "Now, where is that idiot,


"Here he is, sir," said the old man cheerfully. He was seated on the

ground beside the recumbent Dryden, who, with an innocent smile on his face,

was sound asleep.

"Wake him up," said the Lieutenant briefly.

The Sergeant shook the sleeper. "Here, Minstrel Boy, turn out. The

Lieutenant wants you."

Dryden climbed to his feet and saluted the officer with a dazed and

childish air. "Yes, sir."

The Lieutenant was obviously having difficulty in governing his feelings,

but he managed to say with calmness: "You seem to be fond of singing,

Dryden? Sergeant, see if he has any whiskey on him."

"Sir?" said the madhouse, stupefied. "Singing -- fond of singing?"

Here the Sergeant interposed gently, and he and the Lieutenant held

palaver apart from the others. The marines, hitching more comfortably their

almost empty belts, spoke with grins of the madhouse. "Well, the Minstrel

Boy made 'em clear out. They couldn't stand it. But -- I wouldn't want to be

in his boots. He'll see fireworks when the old man interviews him on the

uses of grand opera in modern warfare. How do you think he managed to

smuggle a bottle along without us finding it out?"

When the weary outpost was relieved and marched back to camp, the men

could not rest until they had told a tale of the voice in the wilderness. In

the meantime the Sergeant took Dryden aboard a ship, and to those who

assumed charge of the man he defined him as "the most useful crazy man in

the service of the United States."