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The Catapult

GunsbachIt happened a little before Easter. The soft snow had melted from the surrounding fields, and now lay only on the high slopes distantly visible at the head of the valley. Where it had lain hard packed in the streets, it had been chipped up to bare the buried cobbles. The naked branches were beginning to mist a little with leaf buds. What better time, thought Albert's friend Henry, to take one's new catapult up the warm hillside and kill a few birds? Henry proposed the expedition to Albert, who found himself in his familiar dilemma. He prayed for the safety of birds – why should he shoot them? On the other hand refusal might mean further mockery from his fellows.

The story has often been told, and justly. A vital thread of his life runs unbroken through this experience, the greatest of his childhood, through greatest experience of his manhood thirty-two years later, and straight on to the end of his life. For a moment as important as this there are no better words than his own.

“We got close to a tree which was still without any leaves, and on which the birds were singing beautifully to greet the morning, without showing the least fear of us. Then stooping like a Red Indian hunter, my companion put a bullet in the leather of his catapult and took aim. In obedience to his nod of command, I did the same, though with terrible twinges of conscience, vowing to myself that I would shoot directly he did. At that very moment the church bells began to ring, mingling their music with the songs of the birds and the sunshine. It was the Warning-bell which began half an hour before the regular peal-ringing, and for me it was a voice from heaven. I shooed the birds away, so that they flew where they were safe from my companion's catapult, and then I fled home. And ever since then, when the Passion-tide bells ring out to the leafless trees and the sunshine, I reflect with a rush of grateful emotion, how on that day their music drove deep into my heart the commandment; Thou shall not kill.

“From that day onward I took courage to emancipate myself from the fear of men, and whenever my inner convictions were at stake I let other people's opinions weigh less with me than they had done previously. I tried also to unlearn my former dread of being laughed at by my school-fellows.”

The dilemma was resolved. The life of "things that have breath" was more important than the fear of being laughed at. The terror of being different from the others was at last overcome; not in a moment, naturally, for the conflict continued, never entirely to be resolved, between the need to stand out alone and the need to be one of the company. But the priorities were now clear and were never again to be in doubt. When at the age of nine and a half he went on to the Realschule in Münster, roughly two miles away, he would walk by himself over the hills, which is not the direct route, rather than go with the other boys along the road.

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