A Career

Captain Drăgoi used to enjoy much consideration among officers. He had gone through the whole set of hard tests. From a non-commissioned officer he had been promoted second-lieutenant in the regiment of a colonel with many daughters who had been withering, a prey to hidden yearnings. The son of a peasant, Drăgoi smelt poverty and so he failed to ask the hand of any of them. Most surprisingly, on the other hand he suffered nothing because of that lack of politeness. It is true that he did have some experience. He had been left with the simple philosophy of the recruit who keeps smiling idiotically at the repeated interference of his superiors in the births occurring in his family. And then he was a good administrator: however many daughters a colonel had, he would not resist this quality when he was filled with ambition and aspired to become a brigadier general. Drăgoi's commander was very ambitious. Therefore, in order to be promoted again, he resigned himself to take advantage of Drăgoi only as an underling, waiting to marry away his demoiselles only to senior officers.His deputy, an ambitious man himself, always agreed with his superior and was an early riser. Nevertheless he had never managed to arrive at the barracks before Drăgoi, whom he caught at dawn watering the onion in the regiment's courtyard with his own hands. Moreover, it had happened more than once to the colonel - on going to see his mare - to find Drăgoi metalling roads or repairing the stable, axe in hand. "A fine officer!" the colonel decided."Fine indeed!" his deputy confirmed."A good administrator…" "Very good indeed…" Following that dialogue, Drăgoi's future looked very bright. Having been promoted a lieutenant for exceptional reasons, he was appointed in charge of supplies, the most creditable task in the corps, the touchstone of the future military geniuses. It was in that quality that he had shown the full measure of his ability. I remember that during the next winter he had managed to pickle the finest kind of cabbage!… What hadn't he put in? Oak-leaves for fear of the cabbages becoming flabby; horse-reddish for them to be pungent; maize to make them yellow; embers to clear the brine... And do you know how much it had cost ? A mere trifle: taken all in all just a few small coins, as it had been carried by some of the soldiers in that very regiment in their own wagons, in exchange for a few days' furlough. After all, weren't they idling about in the barracks?… "Now look here, monsieur Drăgoi, mind you don't leave me without pickled cabbage for the winter, or else I'll smother you!" some lady told him making sheep's eyes at him. Well, that was precisely what he took great care to avoid. And as rather many ladies were ready to smother him - for at the time thieves were not hated - he looked after them properly, reckoning them all as part and parcel of the regiment's effectives.Out of the married officers, none pickled cabbage that year. Moreover, it was not a rare occurrence to see a maid servant of Mr. so and so appearing at the barracks's gate, with a large pot under her apron and waiting stupidly for Drăgoi, her eyes downcast, teasing some dry leaf with her barefoot, blushing whenever a soldier passed, pretending to be ashamed, as required by the etiquette of the lower classes. The colonel had made a habit of walking slowly to the barrack with two mantles on his back, first entering the stables, then making a tour of the courtyard, always giving the same orders or making the same comments and then, with a clear consciousness, followed by his deputy the officer on duty and by the regiment aide de camp - he made for the cave where he was welcomed by lieutenant Drăgoi. Well, in that place nobody could say anything else than: "Wonderful husbandry!" There were rows of carrots buried in sand; sheaves of leak, with their ends cut; yellow clay always freshly spread; moreover, - ranged perfectly as if for some fire or other emergency - there stood sixteen large barrels of pickled cabbage, so tall that you had to climb on a stool in order to look inside."Well, Drăgoi, do give us a glass of your champagne, just to see how it keeps !"It was not cold inside the cave. It was here that one took the decisions meant to give an orientation to the regiment, programmes were outlined, decisions were taken after long debates for turning old wintercoats into new trousers for the recruits. "Next week we may tackle another barrel," Drăgoi said with a sigh, as if the matter cost him very much. And, bowing correctly, he offered the colonel a glass of brine, the colour of porphyry, over which seethed the bubbles, exactly as if it were champagne, "You've run out of it rather quickly; you must have gone rather fast," the colonel said with grave concern in his voice. "Certainly Sir, that can't be!" the deputy put in. "Well, we tackled this barrel ... let's see... when did we start on this barrel?…""On Tuesday... No... on Monday..." "No it was Saturday, on St. Nicholas day," the aide de camp said."Yes, yes... that was precisely what I meant to say!" the deputy hurried to say, hemming unnecessarily. "How many cabbages used to be in this barrel?""This is barrel A," Drăgoi said and producing a notebook read out the accurate figures, under the colonel's approving glance : "Barrel A: one hundred and eighty six big cabbages, thirty two red cabbages and five kilograms of salt..." "Sir," the deputy suggested, "I believe we ought to count the cabbages, draw up a table and issue an order of the day establishing days when cabbage is to be eaten, as well as the number of pieces to be used, so that we might establish some kind of control." "All right… but how can we count so many cabbages?" "Well, we've only got to count what has been left in barrel A; the other barrels are yet untapped and the officer knows what they contain." "All right, but the problem is where to lay it out ... My opinion is to lay it on those sacks, after we've shaken them properly.""That won't do, for they used to hold lime; moreover they get wet; we'd better empty it into tube," the aide de camp said, with the authority of the servant who knows himself to be irreplaceable."That was precisely what I meant to say," the major said, coughing again.A tub was brought in and the operation began. Stranding on whatever they could find around the barrel, they all plunged their hands into it, full of zeal in front of the colonel who was now leisurely tasting his second glass of champagne. "Just look at that Sir! What fine cabbage!" the deputy said proudly, showing it to the colonel who, standing in better light, was ready to faint because between the major's fingers he noticed a tanned rat.They all ran off, as if poisoned.Lieutenant Drăgoi himself admitted that such a shame had not happened to him throughout his career of a trustworthy man in the regiment.The colonel was fully convinced that the man had not done it on purpose. Had it been for another officer... well... He only told the man the following words, on reading out the praises on whose basis he was proposing Drăgoi for exceptional promotion: "You ought to have checked more thoroughly!" "Now Drăgoi, you are a bit guilty," the deputy confirmed. "For a month since our colonel had started his cure–""Come on, stop that, don't remind me of it again," the colonel begged, shivering. Next spring, lieutenant Drăgoi was promoted a captain and within two months, he was appointed chief cashier of the regiment.In the small white room, divided into two by a wooden railing painted grey, Drăgoi presided over the destinies of the regiment. For three years he had been acting in this capacity: he knew everything, he was aware of everything, he could be surprised by nothing. The answers he gave whenever the division authorities asked for a report - sometimes such requests came even from the army corps or directly from the ministry - were genuine master-pieces of pleas or of lawyers' statements. There was always an outlet left open for their escape. In more delicate cases, he used to complicate the correspondence referring to injunction no... and to instruction no.... of ... and from... and so it had seldom happened for anybody to find the courage to carry things to the bitter end. In the meantime, matters would be redressed as a matter or course or through the agency of friends.Of course it was pure coincidence that he had a friend with every authority - as if planted there miraculously - where usually the demands and the reports of regiments are drowned. On the other hand and there is no denying it, he was full of delicate attentions for them: for instance, to the chaps at the ministry he sent iced fish and caviar; for generals he decorated their dinner table with all sorts of mountain, forest, field and swamp game, for you must know that Drăgoi was a matchless shot.For the smaller fry - much less frequently, because of his official duties - but even when he caught them accidentally having some appetisers at a pub, he would find the means to turn their heads completely. Colonels had blind confidence in him. When they moved from the regiment - whenever promotions or changes were made in the army - they used to give him in charge, very carefully, like some family keepsake - a piece or furniture, a jewel or a family portrait. He lived on very good terms with his comrades, most particularly he had a sort of marked weakness for disorderly officers, in whose pockets money burnt holes; he managed them as if they had been irresponsible miners, keeping very complicated accounts for them. He used to pay their instalments for them, renewed their subscriptions, paid their debts and even for the most entangled of them who had no more money to receive on pay-day, he would still find some consolation piece. The boys were crazy about him. At the coffee-hour they vied with each other to stand treat to him. At the ale-house there was fried fish and beer for him at whatever table he would choose to sit. And he received everything with such resignation, with such abnegation that even a heart of stone would have felt obliged for the future. Tokens of love kept pouring from every side. Sometimes he would laugh in sleeve: on his name day or at the New Year he would be surprised to receive six cigarette holders of pure amber, all of them bearing his monogram. "It happened to a cousin of mine," he told us laughing with much relish. "When she got married she received as a wedding present from her relatives and friends no less than twelve dozen tea-cups… Since then," he added, "I have prepared to ask the people whom I offer presents… There is no shame to be felt... after all, it's the same money I spend, then shouldn't I give the man perfect pleasure, you see?" There was only one thing that gave him perfect pleasure, in whatever quantity: luxury tobacco in large boxes. And there was hardly an officer but took the cashier's weakness into account whenever he was given some advance on his pay… but from the cashier himself, for there was no money in the strongbox. "Captain, Sir, I've got an I.O.U. for forty lei." "Give it me! but I haven't got much change ... Let me see... " And he started looking among his papers, he gathered coins from the drawers of the strongbox, searched his pockets and managed to gather 75 lei: I've only got 35 lei. Now run along and come again tomorrow…" "Oh, captain, sir... I do beg you... Please give me as much as you have..." "Here you are boy, but you must know you took me all the change I had; I won't be able to make any more payments... But as you are involved... ""Long may you live, sir," And so kind was our man that he was almost invariably left without change. In his relations to purveyors he was indeed worthy of admiration. He offered them a seat with such authoritative friendliness that they all remained standing by the door. It was only the butcher - wearing a heavy solid gold chain and heavy ear rings that sat down, laying his raw, greasy red handles on his knees, waiting with angelic patience near the window, at a correct distance from the cashier, for his bills to be covered.Two empty cups - one on the corner of the desk, another on the edge of the window, both of them with less dregs and cigarette butts - were the only witnesses of the grounds for a favour that raised the butcher in the esteem of the other purveyors. The captain took a tally on any account, anticipating the money retained for balls, lotteries, subscriptions for monuments, etc. Although matters were extremely simple, they might occasionally go wrong, for instance it sometimes happened for one man to pay twice; but that was beside the point… And then, there were so many affairs that this man had to see to... even if he had been a man of iron and still... Given his orderliness and patience, captain Drăgoi gradually saved a rather handsome reserve fund, which he deposited with the local bank, "…and therefore he fully deserves to be promoted to the rank of a major..." ended all the encomiastic notes included in his file. Such appreciations so often repeated eventually convinced captain Drăgoi that he ought not to tarry one moment longs before he placed himself at His Majesty's disposal for commanding a military unit. From spring to autumn he prepared himself thoroughly. He took part in two marches with the regiment and during the great manoeuvres he even commanded a battalion ones. Therefore, feeling he was strong enough in practice, Drăgoi plunged with equal enthusiasm into military theory. He was in the habit of coming to the chancellery with Tactical Themes by Colonel Arghirescu under his arm, and filled with praiseworthy resolutions, he laid the book close at hand on the strongbox, undressed methodically, rubbed his hands, leisurely rolled a cigarette and then was ready to begin any moment now. Yet, there must have been some ill-luck about it; it was precisely at such times that he remembered some urgent order of the army corps, or the money orders that were to be mailed and so, by dint of habit, he went to his desk and "opened the shop" as he used to say, taking out the inkpots, the red and blue pencil, the register, his ash-tray and matches and, forgetting everything else because of his devotion to his duties he shouted: "Calomfirescu, bring up the correspondence!" As you see, he was not to blame. During the six months since he had started carrying along Tactical Themes volume I by Colonel Arghirescu the man had never indulged to open it at least once. When he left the chancellery at one o'clock, he again started with the book under his arm, promising himself even more energetically to read in the quiet at home, at his dealboard desk with two drawers, made at the regiment. But his head was so dizzy with all sorts of papers he had solved, with all sorts of accounts he had disentangled, that - as he went to the pub to have a glass of brandy before lunch - what man would do otherwise? it had happened to him more than once to forget it at the bar, or in a shop, on a box of Pearson & Co. biscuits. "You keep reading, you're always at it ... What can you do? It's no go without that," the shopkeeper or publican told him the next day handing him the book. "Or should I send it home to you. Perhaps you do some more shopping and then I send it on, together with that?""No, no!… Give it to me… I've been looking for it quite long… As soon as I reach home I must start reading. Frankly speaking, had I known there was so much trouble to take, I wouldn't have thought of it.""That's a fine thing to say! That can't be! ... You'll get your rank most certainly... If you don't succeed, who would? I've seen a lot of officers in my lifetime who would hardly hold a candle to you... and now they are colonels. There was that chap, what d'you call him? ... Dăscălescu… the priest's son-in-law... That man sir, excuse me, owed money even to the dogs... And yet he succeeded... Indeed, he was well related, that's true. And, frankly speaking, it's not much catch, come to think of it. A small addition to your pay. What will the increase be?""About one hundred lei." "You don't say so! ... Well, that's something, after all. I thought it would be less. The truth is, that's not a large sum. Can you believe me? There are times when I cash a hundred lei in a single day, without moving about; just sitting on this chair. On the other hand, ambition is a great thing. After all, if a man has no ambition, that's the end of him… Shall I pour another for you ?" "Do, please... You see, uncle Nick, that's what I myself thought: to have all these snivellers get the better of you… it's too much to put up with... And taken all in all, what can happen, if the worst comes to the worst? I might fail and that's that-" "No, that's out of the question ... Now, have a bite at this tender loin…"And indeed, it was out of the question, as you shall see. Towards the end of a rainy autumn, in a heath of the plain around Turnu Severin, captain Drăgoi, in command of a mixed detachment seemed to be the most fulfilled man in the world.In front of him, ready to die, stood like a row of wooden statues, the commanders of the cavalry, artillery and infantry. Sidewise, a commission of sulky generals, anxious to see the combat dispositions worked out by the candidate. Behind him troops, in front of him the horizon and above him the boundless sky. No sign, no hope. Captain Drăgoi would rather have tendered his resignation than caused his assault troops to advance. In his own mind he kept swearing at the representatives of the sister armies and at the board of examiners who, watch in hand, were waiting for the lapse of the ten minutes' meditation required by the great strategists of the world."Come on, captain Drăgoi... Hurry up! If you thought as long during a war… The enemy advances, does not wait for you to issue your orders…""Definitely," confirmed the most recently promoted general, with much emphasis. Drăgoi badly needed scratching his head and felt his hair standing on end on the nape of his neck. A drop of sweat streamed down his spine."Come on, captain, we'll be overtaken by night…" Drăgoi said to himself: "I've got what to live on… Let them go to hell, majorship and all... Why the hell did I need all this madhouse?… And, while he had decided to confess he did not know what to do, he heard himself stammering, with clenched jaws and in a choice that he could hardly recognise: "The cavalry shall move forward... The artillery shall take positions on the hill oh the right hand side, by the sheep... The infantry shall fall back."There was general relief. Emphatic orders sounded, together with the gallop of muddy horses. The generals started taking themselves away rather slowly, shivering with cold and staring emptily, without exchanging a word.Being left alone, Drăgoi picked up a little courage, even risked a few remarks in a loud voice, behind the generals:"Seize the crest... Occupy the ridge…" The truth is that he indulged in no illusion as to his success. He had even solaced himself by lighting a cigarette, thinking that others had failed before him. He had been left by himself. The troops were scattering, moved aimlessly. On the other hand, from the positions of the artillery, the flock of grey sheep had climbed downhill, rolling slowly, undulating like sea-waves. Drăgoi started up when the shepherd, moving his head to adjust his furcap told him, while propping his chin on his staff, after having spat between his teeth:"Move the artillery to the other hill, eastwards... Take my word for it… I have aged hereabouts and all those who seat the artillery where you did never got the rank of a major… I've seen even general Crăinicean and Averescu at work.""A horseman!" Drăgoi shouted and whistled in despair, enlightened by this happy inspiration, which he considered the work of providence. All in a thrill, he sent orders to the artillery to move to the hill on the left. "First," he later narrated the events to the officers at the regiment, "I sent the artillery to the right. I thought it would better cover the valley. Yet, on unfolding the disposition, I realised my error at a glance and I immediately moved it to the left.""And what did the general say ?" "That it was a desperate attempt at restoring the balance under the enemy fire. And he congratulated me on it... Now as you are young and you too are going to take the same examination sooner or later, take it from me: the artillery is the clue. If you know how to manage the artillery..." In April, after a copious dinner party, drowned in tears and champagne, major Drăgoi moved by promotion to another regiment, took along the sympathetic present made by his comrades: Napoleon's bust, as tall as a child.

by Gheorghe Brăescu (1871-1949)