It was a moment of indecision, a single instant, but even after four years, the consequences to my hesitation are still being paid out. Could I have guessed at the time, though? Surely not. Surely not. Especially on such a bright, sunshine-filled day.
A Moment of IndecisionM. Stanley Bubien
The crowd had thinned by the time I approached the shop, hoping to procure a small meal and a curbside seat from which to view the procession. A slightly haggard young man came out bearing a sandwich and brushed past me.
"Gavrilo?" I said, spinning after him.
"Gavrilo?" I repeated.
He glanced back at me, squinting sallowly as though he were evaluating a rival from the street corner. But, recognizing me, my old roommate's demeanor relaxed and we clasped hands. His grip had weakened in the intervening years though he was a youth of barely twenty.
"What are you doing here?" I asked. "I thought you opposed the Empire. 'Filled with imperialist dogs' you used to say, yes?" I laughed while Gavrilo answered with darting eyes---always the understated one.
"How have you been, then?" I asked.
Gazing about, he replied, "Getting along," his voice sounding as though it lacked oxygen. "You look quite fair yourself," he continued. "Married yet? I seem to recall a courtly maiden striking your fancy."
Never a healthy man, but always a barbed wit! We both laughed, for he referred to a woman he himself had introduced me to---the daughter of a politician. Yes, she had struck my fancy, but her father---he had struck my jaw! I touched my mouth and Gavrilo laughed harder.
"You rascal," I told him. "You knew her father wanted her married to the Mayor's son."
"Is that right?" he feigned ignorance.
"I still marvel that you shared acquaintances with such an influential family. Quite well-connected for such a young radical."
He nodded, "I have a tendency to know people."
"Often to your own foul purpose," I joked, but a dark cloud passed over Gavrilo's demeanor. From down the lane, a clacking reached us, but neither Gavrilo or myself gave it attention. I decided to change subjects, "And you, Gavrilo, are you betrothed?"
Unfortunately, I made poor choice of subjects. Gavrilo's head drooped as though he were examining his shoes. "Almost," he replied in near whisper. The noise from down the street resolved into a rumble and the crowd began thickening about us. Still staring at his feet, Gavrilo coughed once and said, "I have not the time for love these days, having returned to Sarajevo on a matter of some urgency."
His sandwich crinkled while, as if choreographed to the crush of paper, the noise of engines filled our block. Afraid to say more to Gavrilo, I reached out to grasp his shoulder as I had oft in times past.
"This is the wrong way!" a voice cried from the street. "Go back to Apple Quay!"
Gavrilo looked up, and before I gripped his shoulder, he dropped his sandwich and took a single step to brush past me. From his jacket he pulled a revolver, pointing it at the nearest of the vehicles pausing before us. Within the automobile, I realized, sat the man everyone had come to see, the Heir Apparent, Archduke Ferdinand.
My arm remained outstretched, and though Gavrilo was moving forward, he hovered scant centimeters from my grasp. As I realized my predicament, all motion slowed---Gavrilo's waving gun, the converging crowd, the braking autos---as if time itself was attempting to avert coming disaster.
In these frozen seconds, events resolved within my mind. Three days prior, I had heard rumor of a Black Hand plot to retaliate against the Empire's annexation of our Bosnia-Herzegovina---an illegal maneuver on behalf of the Archduke's uncle that most Serbians opposed. Gavrilo's presence here made a sudden sense.
My hand approached Gavrilo---so frail, I would easily be able to wrest him backward. He took aim. I reached further. His finger slid against the trigger in an agonizingly slow progression. Palm outstretched, I sought to grab his coat.
And I hesitated---just for a moment---for I understood what Gavrilo set out to accomplish. Austria-Hungary's ruler, Franz Josef, a powerful, arrogant man, stole the land of our fathers believing he would force us to his will. So self-absorbed, he sent his nephew to review his troops on our own soil, further humiliating us upon the anniversary of our great defeat by the Turks. It was outrageous! He would pay---yes!---for underestimating the dangers of meddling in Serbian affairs...
In that instant, time returned to normal.
"Wait!" I screamed.
Before my hand fell upon Gavrilo, he stepped away from me and fired. The echo of two gunshots drove all other sound away, and from my vantage, I viewed the blood spreading from both Archduke and wife. I also heard the Archduke speak his last words.
"Sophie. Sophie. Don't die," he said in German. "Stay alive for our children."
As if this were a cue, the mob attacked.
"Gavrilo!" I cried, trying to reach him through the gauntlet of bodies, "Gavrilo!" They knocked him to the ground and kicked him mercilessly.
The bloody vision, the cracking gunfire, and my own hesitation all resounded within my head.
Madly, I forced my way into the mob, renting away those weaker than myself. In my furor, I reached the center, and there upon the ground lay Gavrilo, receiving blows like a dead man.
"No!" I cried, bending my foot back, but a police whistle wailed and I was thrust aside. Officers surrounded assassin, lifted him to his feet---for he yet lived---and bore him away.
"No!" I cried again, rushing forward to strike at my old friend, but I received a blow myself and collapsed upon the street.
"No," I sobbed. "No, no, no..." I repeated, for, with all my being, I wanted to kill Gavrilo. He forced the responsibility of two lives upon me, and, in a moment of indecision, I failed them. And could I have looked ahead four years, I would have sobbed all the more. For the millions---oh!---the millions! I failed them all.
Based on a true story.
Copyright ©1997 M. Stanley Bubien. All Rights Reserved.
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