This short story, written by Chaplin, first appeared in Rob Wagner’s Script magazine in January, 1938:
Rhythm : A Story Of Men In Macabre Movement
by Charles Chaplin
Only the dawn moved in the stillness of that small prison yard–the dawn ushering in death, as the young Loyalist stood facing the firing squad. The preliminaries were over. The small group of officials had stepped to one side to witness the end and now the scene had tightened into ominous silence.
Up to the last, the Rebels had hoped that a reprieve would come from Headquarters, for although the condemned man was an enemy to their cause, in the past he had been a popular figure in Spain, a brilliant writer of humour, who had contributed much to the enjoyment of his fellow countrymen.
The officer in charge of the firing squad knew him personally. Before the civil war they had been friends. Together they had been graduated from the university in Madrid. Together they had worked for the overthrow of the monarchy and the power of the Church. And together, they had caroused, had sat at nights around cafe tables, had laughed and joked, had enjoyed evenings of metaphysical discussion. At times they had argued on the dialectics of government. Their technical differences were friendly then, but now those differences had wrought misery and upheaval all over Spain, and had brought his friend to die by the firing squad.
But why think of the past? Why reason? Since the civil war, what good was reason? In the silence of the prison yard these interrogative thoughts ran feverishly through the officer’s mind.
No. He must shut out the past. Only the future mattered. A world in which he would be deprived of many old friends.
That morning was the first time they had met since the war. But no word was spoken. Only a faint smile of recognition passed between them as they prepared for the march into the prison yard.
From the sombre dawn streaks of silver and red peered over the prison wall, and breathed a quiet requiem in rhythm with the stillness in the yard, a rhythm pulsating in silence like the throbbing of a heart. Out of that silence the voice of the commanding officer resounded against the prison walls. “Attention!”
At this command, six subordinates snapped their rifles to their sides and stiffened. The unity of their action was followed by a pause in which the next command was to be given.
But in that pause something happened, something that broke the line of rhythm. The condemned man coughed and cleared his throat. This interruption broke the concatenation of procedure.
The officer turned, expecting the prisoner to speak, but no words came. Turning to his men again, he was about to proceed with the next command, but a sudden revolt took possession of his brain, a psychic amnesia that left his mind a blank. He stood bewildered before his men. What was the matter? The scene in the prison yard had no meaning. He saw only objectively — a man with his back to the wall facing six others. And the group there on the side, how foolish they looked, like rows of clocks that had suddenly stopped ticking. No one moved. Nothing made sense. Something was wrong. It must be a dream, and he must snap out of it.
Dimly his memory began to return. How long had he been standing there? What had happened? Ah, yes! He had issued an order. But what order came next?
Following “Attention!” was the command “present arms,” and after that, “to aim,” and then “fire!” A faint concept of this was in the back of his mind. But words to utter it seemed far off–vague and outside of himself.
In this dilemma he shouted incoherently, jumbled words that had no meaning. But to his relief the men presented arms. The rhythm of their action set his brain in rhythm, and again he shouted. Now the men took aim.
But in the pause that followed, there came into the prison yard hurrying footsteps, the nature of which the officer knew meant a reprieve. Instantly, his mind cleared. “Stop!” he screamed frantically at the firing squad.
Six men stood poised with rifles. Six men were caught in rhythm. Six men when they heard the scream to stop–fired.