A Quiet Man
by Howard Fast
HE was a very lonely man, and he learned early in life that it would not be easy for him; as a boy, he was too big, as a young man, he had already taken to the habit of silence. He grew quickly and inconsiderately, and when he was sixteen he already stooped to hide his very considerable size. There was nothing he could do to hide his huge hands and feet.
He took to the habit of silence, because it seemed to him that nothing he said was particularly clever, and when he fell in love with a girl, his conviction that she did not love him kept him from pushing the matter any further. The girl he loved married his best friend, and he was not the sort of person who could easily switch his affections from one woman to another. So he went on, year after year, loving a woman who was the wife of a man he respected a great deal. The woman, who knew of his love, wondered all her life why he had kept it so deep inside of him.
Actually, he was a person of little importance, but in his own mind he was a man of no importance whatsoever. As he grew older, both through industry and marriage, he accumulated a good deal of wealth, and this made a curious combination with his humility. Not understanding that humility, that shyness, his acquaintances considered him dull - and in time he began to believe that perhaps they were right, perhaps he was quite dull. It was difficult for him to assert himself, for more than anything else he wanted to be liked and respected by others, and he was never sure but that he would say something or do something that would give offence.
In a sense, people dismissed him, and it hurt to be arbitrarily dismissed in that fashion - and as a result he wanted to do one thing dramatic, glamorous and wonderful; he was still young enough to think of glory as the solution to all problems. So when there was a small war, he went off to it, took a fever, became involved in a horrible defeat, and remembered the whole thing afterwards as a confused and unpleasant incident.
It put an end to his dreams of glory. and it was the beginning of a feeling which he was to have more and more often as time went on - a feeling that whatsoever he turned his hand to would be marred by failure.
FORCING himself to contentment with his own small world, he made up his mind to live in it. He adopted the philosophy that in a very small world a man might live a life both happily and successfully, and that he had neither the wit nor the ability for the larger world which overhung him. He decided to surround himself with a large and comfortable family, and to bask at least in that personal, close love which could not be denied him.
And then he discovered that even the simple matter of a family could not be his, that his wife could not bear him children, that he would have to pretend the two children she had from her previous marriage were his own. Not that he didn't love them; his love for them was, if anything, pathetically eager - but to pretend, to go on pretending he had something that was not his!
His health failed him. He was such a big man, such a large, seemingly self-sufficient person, that he felt a compelling need to keep his sickness a secret from others. He pretended to health, and all the while something was dying inside of him. He lied about his health, deceived people about it, and again and again felt himself on the brink of death.
He lived because he found inside of himself a strong and purposeful will. He gained an almost sullen conviction that if he desired to do a thing and the desire was strong enough, he could do it.
And then even that conviction was broken, for his desires came to nothing. Small, simple things that were granted so freely to others eluded him. Loving Bach's music, he made up his mind that he would play it well, and he sat for hours trying to learn simple themes that others could pick up in a minute or two. Since the flute was a more or less simple instrument that did not require too much skill, he decided that would be his method, but the picture of the huge, loose-limbed man he was, crouching over a tiny pipe, was too much for him, and he hid his playing behind locked doors. There he would hunt a melody over and over and over with grim, forbearing patience, knowing the beauty that lay in the composition and knowing too that the beauty would always be just a little beyond him.
Behind his back, they laughed at his desire for accomplishment. Bach, they pointed out, was a nobody, and only this large, uncultured, untutored hulk of a man would pursue him so tenaciously.
IN other things too, he was not adept. He liked to think he could strike a sharp bargain in business, but when it was over the other party usually got the best of him. It contributed to building a shell of hard, outward reserve, and people leaped to the conclusion that he was quite stupid - or utterly without any of the more sensitive feelings. His wife knew different; to her, he was always the boy who wanted so much to be liked but could never quite arrive at the point where others would grant him their complete affection.
She had seen him, when her daughter died - hers, not his - kneel down beside the bed and weep like a baby. Well, you had to be a man's wife to see him that way, so naked, just crying and crying, until finally he got up and went away.
His wife was glad when he turned to politics, not because he was in any way or by any stretch of the imagination an astute politician, but because politics would divert him. He was becoming moody, losing all faith in himself, and she knew that politics could give a man nearing middle age a new reason to exist. And it would take him away from his own small community to a larger place, a more metropolitan place where many important things were making.
For himself, the political adventure was as at once exciting and disappointing. He was now in contact with the great minds of the country - at a time when the country itself was in the midst of a crisis. He admired their wit, their cleverness, the bold, certain manner with which they attacked problem after problem, the few doubts they had. So many times he had imagined himself doing just that, being clever and resolute and coming to important decisions instantly, he had such a respect for learning, for the ability to think. He had imagined himself standing in a legislative assembly and engaging in quick, energetic debate. He had imagined the house rocking with applause for him.
Well, here he was, and somehow he had nothing to say. True, he was only an obscure delegate from an obscure part of the state, but nevertheless he should have had something to say that mattered, In his own mind, he could engage in debate, promote resolutions, but the thought of putting them forward from the floor of the house overwhelmed him.
When he came home, he was more convinced than ever of his own unworthiness. Another was added to the list of many failures, and it was now plainly evident that he was a man with no talent for anything. For over forty years he had lived in obscurity, and it's quite certain that a man who does nothing whatsoever in his first forty years won't do a great deal in his next forty.
His wife tried to console him with her belief in him; in common with several million other wives, she thought her husband had more in him than was apparent on the surface.
Then the crisis that was bubbling in the country came to a head. It looked like the people would have to fight to preserve all the good simple things they owned, and had taken for granted so long, their houses, their families, their farms. A long time ago, the big man had learned to hate and fear war and he had also learned that he was no more adept at the business of fighting than he was at many other things he had attempted so unsuccessfully.
He was not much of a soldier, and he had long since lost contact with the army, but he had a sort of gratuitous commission in the reserve, and now he thought he would put on his uniform and see if he could be of some service. As a politician, he had been a failure; but a man did not have to say much to take a gun in his hands and fight.
He wore a uniform well, and at the capital he wore a discreet silence that impressed people who were not from his part of the country and did not know how completely without talent he was. Also he was not a politician. There was a high command at stake, and all the politicians were squabbling for it. He was cast, unintentionally, in the role of a dark horse; politics does curious things - and one day, as he sat listening to the debate, he found his name proposed for the post of commander. The motion was carried, and in stunned silence he tried to realize what had happened.
Were they fools? Had anything he ever touched come out right or successfully? Was this all a huge joke? Should he refuse?
He didn't refuse; failure he might have been, but he had his own notions of honor, sincerity and loyalty to the country that had given him all he owned. His wife was very proud, but he was troubled and uncertain. However, he made up his mind to one thing - this was big, this was not a matter for himself and his own pride, it concerned too many others, and come what might he must assume a face of confidence and knowingness.
It was one thing for him to decide that, another for him to carry it out. The country was unprepared for war, and the army was not trained. The general staff was without experience, and they were facing a brave, an able, and a powerful enemy.
He learned that soon enough. His first battle was a defeat - in which he almost lost. his entire army. His second battle was a defeat. His third battle was a rout, and his fourth battle was as merciless a defeat as any that had come before. He retreated, fought and was defeated, and then retreated again. He, who had been a failure in almost everything else, was more than ever a failure in this - the most terrible and difficult of all arts, the science of war. He had suffered before, but nothing could compare with his suffering now. All this was his fault; all this he had done when he took a command for which he was in no way fitted; all this was due to his incredible vanity.
And now he was in a situation from which he could not extricate himself, for so much of his army had been destroyed and so much of the country's faith shattered, that if he resigned his commission the whole fabric would crumple like a pricked balloon.
He had to go on. All alone, for he had no one to turn to, he had to fight his way out of this foggy, desperate situation. When his old sickness attacked him again, he had to pretend that he was well; when he lay awake night after night with his fears, he had to pretend that he was unafraid; and when there were a thousand men left in his army he had to pretend that they were ten thousand.
He was defeated again.
He scraped an army together and was defeated again.
A year went by, and he was defeated three times in three months.
Another defeat, and another, and another.
For himself, the record was never anything but black, nor did he realize the strange new purpose, the feeling of comradeship with the men he led, the evolution within him growing out of suffering and despair. He went on because he had adopted a frame of mind which did not permit of giving up; he went on because within him were always the seeds of a will so strong it could match itself against the worst fate might deal out. And in that way, without knowing it, a silent, seemingly cold, seemingly hard man, he gained the love and strength of the few who remained with him.
Others plotted against him, lied against him, did everything to undermine him - and to all this, he was quietly strong and amazingly humble. He blamed no one who lost faith in him; he could never quite understand why he himself did not lose faith in his own fumbling efforts.
The defeats went on. The battering went on. Again and again the country was on the point of giving up; yet he never entertained the thought of surrender. Years went by, and more years - and there were battles and more battles, and each was a defeat. They called him a man of stone, a man without a heart - they called him a fool and a devil, for what else could have continued when there was no reason and no hope? And the few men who remained with him became as hard and purposeful as he.
And then, after long last, the tide turned. Stolidly, stubbornly, slowly, he had learned the business of being a general. He made a campaign that was both clever and bold - and he won a great victory at Yorktown.
And after that, it was different; after that, men forgot the pain and suffering that George Washington had endured, and remembered only that he was a cold and hard and curiously unreal man who was, glibly, the father of a nation called America.