The curtain opens on a bedroom, in a small town in Bulgaria in 1885. The room is “half rich Bulgarian, half cheap Viennese.” Paltry furniture is intermixed with lavish Turkish decorations. There hangs a large photograph of an extremely handsome man in an officer’s uniform who has a “lofty bearing” and “magnetic glance.”
The setting alone suggests a conflict of identity and class division—the room is split between sensible and lavish, paltry and rich, Bulgarian and Viennese. Appropriately, the portrait (which we will find out later is of Sergius, an “ideal” romantic hero) literally presides over the identity struggle embodied by the décor.
On the balcony there is a beautiful lady (Raina), who looks out into the sky as though she is appreciating its beauty, and as though she knows her own youth and beauty contribute to the magical quality of the night. She is decorated in expensive furs, which are worth approximately three times what the furniture in the room is worth. Her reverie is interrupted by her mother Catherine Petkoff, who is “determined to be a Viennese lady” and therefore wears a fashionable tea gown everywhere.
Raina’s first appearance is appropriately romantic, almost to the point of cliché: She stands, young and beautiful, on a balcony, gazing at the stars. The expensive furs she is draped in continue to highlight the fact that this is a household that is not only wealthy, but strives to be perceived as wealthy—perhaps these characters want to seem even wealthier than they are. Catherine certainly seems to care about appearing high-class, dressing in Viennese fashions though she is Bulgarian.
Catherine chastises Raina for being up and out of bed so late, and Raina tells her she couldn’t help but look at the stars, which are so beautiful tonight. Catherine tells Raina there has been a battle, and Raina is visibly excited. When Catherine says the battle has been won by Sergius, Raina is ecstatic. Catherine says that Raina’s father has sent news that Sergius, against orders from Bulgarian commanders, led a great cavalry charge against the Russians and their Servian allies, which resulted in a pronounced victory for the Bulgarian side.
Raina’s response to the news of a battle is unusual—where we might expect her to respond with fear, dread, or at least a somber kind of attention, she instead becomes increasingly excited. We discover that she is elated by the prospect of Sergius winning a battle. Already we can see that she is in the habit of reducing herself and others to their accomplishments, their ability to appear a certain way.
Raina is rapturously happy to hear of Sergius’s success. She remarks that it “proves our ideas were real after all.” Her mother indignantly asks her to explain this remark, and Raina admits that she sometimes doubts whether their belief in patriotism and heroism is grounded in something real. She begs her mother not to tell Sergius that she ever doubted him, but her mother refuses to make such a promise. Raina explains again that she simply worried their ideas were born of their love for the writings of Byron and Pushkin, and whether these ideas could hold up in real life. But, she assured her mother, she is convinced now.
This section of the play outlines the underpinnings of Raina’s entire romantic belief system. She knows she is idealistic and romantic, even acknowledging that her view of the world is based on the romantic writing of Byron and Pushkin. This may perhaps seem wise and mature of her, but her youth is revealed by her assumption that Sergius’s single victory is sufficient to “prove” that her Romanticism—a way of looking at the world that prioritized emotion, individual experience, and heroism—and idealism is grounded in reality—this kind of near-sightedness is markedly immature.
Raina dismisses her worries as the result of cowardice, and affirms that Sergius is as splendid and noble as he looks. She happily muses that “the world really is a glorious world for women that can see its glory and men that can act its romance!”
Louka interrupts them, a young and pretty servant girl who is clearly defiant, and whose demeanor seems almost insolent. She also looks excited, but not in the rapturous way of Catherine and Raina, and she is clearly contemptuous of their romantic demeanors. She tells them that there will soon be gunfire in the streets, as the Servian army is retreating. She advises that all of the doors and windows of the house should be locked.
Louka’s youth, unlike Raina’s, manifests in her insistent defiance. Though she is a servant, she clearly disdains servant work, and her lack of reverence for upper class citizens is obvious from the start. Her entrance also marks the beginning of the play’s conflict. The War that Raina has been distantly romanticizing will soon be in her backyard.
Raina expresses her sadness that the Bulgarians, her people, are cruelly slaughtering fugitives, and wonders what the point of such an exercise might be. Catherine ignores her and in a businesslike manner goes to make everything safe downstairs, insisting that Raina keep her shutters locked. Raina expresses her desire to leave the shutters open, and Louka points out that a bolt is missing so that the windows actually can’t be locked and can simply be pushed open if she likes. Raina chides her for breaking Catherine’s rule and Louka leaves defiantly.
We catch a glimpse of Raina’s romantic façade breaking down—once she is confronted with some of the reality of war, her patriotic fervor breaks down a little—she questions the Bulgarians. The interaction with Louka is also revealing: Raina believes it is fine if she contemplates disregarding her mothers wish and leaving the windows unlocked, but chides Louka for the exact same line of thinking. Louka perceives this inequality and leaves.
Raina speaks to the portrait of Sergius, telling him she shall never be unworthy of him anymore, and calling him her “soul’s hero.” She selects a novel from a pile of books by her bed and opens it, preparing to read herself to sleep. But instead she turns back to the portrait, calling, “my hero! My hero!” suddenly shots ring out and Raina plugs her ears, turns off the lights, and hides in her pillow.
Raina reverts to her typically romantic self, speaking to Sergius’s portrait and using highly idealistic language. She settles down to read a novel, but doesn’t actually; her inattention to the book shows she is only superficially interested in it—it suits her romantic image. But reality intrudes once again, in the form of gunshots.
There is the sound of the shutters opening and closing, and a figure enters Raina’s room. The man lights a match and Raina demands to know who is there. He threateningly warns her not to call out if she wants to remain unharmed. Raina lights a candle and sees that the man is in a horrible state, ragged, thin and unkempt. Yet he appears to still have all his wits about him. He points out his Servian uniform and tells Raina that if he is caught he will be killed. He asks her if she understands the gravity of his situation and she dismissively says she doesn’t—but she has heard that some soldiers are afraid of death.
The reality of the war literally climbs through Raina’s window, This soldier is not at all the heroic image she might expect: he is ragged, thin, and dirty. When he tries to impress upon her that he is Servian, and that his life is at stake, she clearly begrudges him his desire to live, as though a true soldier would not fear death. This extreme idealism when put up against the un-heroic realism of the soldier has a comedic effect onstage (because Raina seems ridiculous) and this kind of humor will persist throughout the play.
The man grimly but in a good-natured way tells her that all soldiers are afraid of death. He warns her against raising an alarm, but she indignantly asks him why he imagines she is afraid of death. He grants her that she might not fear death, but that she would certainly fear being seen by a bunch of cavalry men in her nightgown, and snatches her cloak from the nearby ottoman, exclaiming that her cloak is a better bargaining tool than his rifle.
This man sizes Raina up immediately—he correctly assumes that she is the kind of person who would fear social disgrace more than death. The action—this bizarre kind of hostage situation—becomes almost farcical, underscoring how detached Raina’s romantic ideas about soldiers and war are from reality.
Raina scornfully tells him he is not behaving like a gentlemen. There are footsteps outside Raina’s bedroom door and a knock. Giving up, the man kindly throws Raina her cloak, and his intimidating manner gives way to a weakened and fearful one. He tells Raina he is done for and that she should look away, for it will not take long. Raina, touched by his compassion, hides him in the curtains. The man tells her that if she keeps her head he might have a chance, because nine soldiers out of ten are born fools.
Raina voices her disgust—she expects “heroic” soldiers to act like “gentlemen,” and this man is acting disrespectfully. When a knock arrives, he relents, but in so doing acts even more unlike a soldier—he shies away in fear, and seems weak and vulnerable. We would expect that Raina would be even more offended at this violation, but instead she feels compassion for him, and helps him—her character is more complex than it seems, though there is a sense also that she wishes to be heroic.
Louka enters to say that neighbors have seen a man crawling up the water pipe into Raina’s rooms. Raina insists she heard nothing. Catherine calls a Russian officer into the room, and Raina stands in front of the curtain as he searches the balcony. Upon seeing nothing he begs Raina’s pardon and exits with Catherine. Louka remains. Raina tells Louka to keep her mother company. Louka looks at the ottoman, then the curtain, then exits, laughing to herself. Raina, offended, slams the door after her in a huff.
Though Catherine and the soldier notice nothing, it is clear Louka is clever enough to realize what’s going on. She sees through Raina’s trick just as she sees through the egotistic posturing of the upper class. Raina can hardly believe Louka has the gall not to believe in her trick—but to Louka, the Petkoff’s entire way of life is a kind of elaborate trick, and she is always seeing through it.
The man emerges from his hiding place, expresses his undying gratitude to Raina and explains that he is Swiss, a professional soldier, and that he bears no allegiance to the Servians. He begs Raina to let him sit a minute longer before he must go back out into danger. She gasps, points to the ottoman and notices his revolver has been lying out in the open this whole time. Her gasp scared him, and she sarcastically suggests he take his revolver to protect himself from her. He explains the gun is not loaded—he carries sweets instead of ammunition. Raina is outraged at this.
The man further breaks down idealistic conceptions of war by revealing he has no allegiance to either side. As a “professional soldier” he fights not for glory or honor, but for a much more banal purpose: to make a living. What’s more, he doesn’t even carry a loaded gun, preferring to carry sweets instead. This is selfish, indulgent, and weak (and also kind of practical in that he carries what actually brings him pleasure)—a kind of trifecta of anti-heroic traits, and the idealistic Raina is predictably outraged.
The man wishes he had some chocolates now, and Raina goes to her drawers and scornfully thrusts a box of chocolate creams his way. He is exorbitantly grateful, and explains that all old soldiers carry food while the young ones carry ammunition. Raina contemptuously says that even though she is a woman she is probably braver than him, and the man says this is true, but only because Raina has not been under fire for three days. He then tells Raina that if she should scold him too much, he will start to cry.
Though he has just violated her ideal of manhood, Raina gives the man chocolate creams. Though her disposition suggests a kind of huffy outrage, her actions betray her complexities, her compassion, and her willingness to accept this man despite his eccentricities and flaws.
Raina is moved by this vulnerability, and apologizes. She then draws herself up and says that Bulgarian soldiers are not like him. But he argues that there are only two different types of soldier, young and old, and that no matter where they’re from they are the same. He then remarks that is ludicrous that Bulgarians have managed to beat them, but notes that their victory was basically accidental.
Raina collects herself and, in a more typical, patriotic fashion, asserts that no Bulgarian soldiers are like this man (for they must be more heroic). The man undercuts her, and says that a soldier’s country makes no difference, only his age. This brings direct attention to the difference between youth and maturity, which has already been implicitly highlighted earlier.
Raina skeptically demands that he explain himself, and he describes a cavalry charge, led by a handsome young man who was immensely brave. His bravery caused the other side to break out in laughter, for they could see that the charge was stupid and foolish. But then they realized they didn’t have the correct ammunition, and the charge resulted in devastating losses for the Russian and Servian side (though it shouldn’t have). The man sums up the cavalry charge by saying that the leader and his regiment “committed suicide—only the pistol missed fire: that is all.”
Here it is revealed that Sergius’s victory—which, the reader should recall, previously “proved” that Raina’s Romantic ideals were grounded in reality—was not heroic, and was instead rather stupid, and very lucky. This is perhaps the most unpleasant example (for Raina) of reality intruding on her romantic fantasy. Her naïve belief in Sergius’s glory and heroics is shattered.
Raina is disheartened by this, but remains steadfastly loyal to Sergius. She points out his portrait to the man, who recognizes him as the leader of the charge. He can barely keep from laughing, for the image of Sergius leading the charge as though it were the noblest and bravest thing a soldier has ever done is deeply funny to the man. Raina angrily tells him that she is betrothed to Sergius, and he apologizes. She tells him he must leave after saying such horrible things, but the idea of going back down the balcony and facing his own death reduces him almost to tears.
But Raina must remain loyal (or at least appear to remain loyal) and she defends her betrothed from this man’s cruel remarks. Though he can hardly keep from laughing, the man does apologize when he realizes he has criticized Raina’s future husband, showing that he is at core polite and has affection for her, though he undoubtedly thinks her silly. A picture begins to emerge of two people who are more than they appear to be.
Raina is “disarmed by pity” and comforts him, calling him a “chocolate cream soldier” and tells him to cheer up. He says he is exhausted, and wishes only for sleep—he has not had an undisturbed sleep since he joined the fight. But he realizes he must go, and tells Raina that if he should die that will give him all the rest he needs. Raina anxiously begs him not to go; she wants to save him.
She tells him she is a Petkoff, and that her name carries much weight in Bulgaria—as their guest he can come to no harm. Their home has a staircase, and even a library. The man pretends to be deeply impressed, though it is clear he finds Raina’s speech silly. Raina promises that she will answer for his safety, and offers her hand to him. He says that he better not take her hand, for his is so dirty. She praises him for being gentlemanly, and insists he take her hand anyway.
Raina launches into a speech about how noble, wealthy, and respected her family is. She equates being upper class with being respectable and genteel. Her speech sounds absurd to the man (and likely to the audience)—her immaturity is shining through during this speech. However, though she speaks with great reverence for the upper class, she allows him to take her hand though he is poor and dirty—she does not believe in the class system as much as she professes to.
The man tells Raina she better inform her mother, for he does not wish to be a secret guest for too long. Raina agrees, and tells him he must stay awake while she goes to fetch her mother. He tries his best, but falls asleep on her bed as soon as she exits. Catherine comes back and sees him asleep on the bed and calls him a brute—Raina begs her mother not to wake him, saying “the poor dear is worn out.” Raina’s mother cannot believe that her daughter has called this man “dear” but allows him to remain asleep.
Raina even forgives this man—filthy, tattered—for falling asleep in her bed, an act that not only would be considered improper (for Raina has let a stranger in her bed) but also offensive to upper class sensibilities. Raina’s mother has a more predictable reaction: she calls this man a “brute.” But Raina calls him a “dear”—she can see through his exterior and finds herself caring for him.