When Claude presented the piece of blue paper to Doctor Trueman, he smiled contemptuously. "I see; this has been filled by a London chemist. No, we have nothing of this sort." He handed it back. "Those things are only palliatives. If your friend wants that, he needs treatment,—and he knows where he can get it."
Claude returned the slip of paper to Victor as they left the dining-room after supper, telling him he hadn't been able to get any.
"Sorry," said Victor, flushing haughtily. "Thank you so much!"
Tod Fanning held out better than many of the stronger men; his vitality surprised the doctor. The death list was steadily growing; and the worst of it was that patients died who were not very sick. Vigorous, clean-blooded young fellows of nineteen and twenty turned over and died because they had lost their courage, because other people were dying,—because death was in the air. The corridors of the vessel had the smell of death about them. Doctor Trueman said it was always so in an epidemic; patients died who, had they been isolated cases, would have recovered.
"Do you know, Wheeler," the doctor remarked one day when they came up from the hospital together to get a breath of air, "I sometimes wonder whether all these inoculations they've been having, against typhoid and smallpox and whatnot, haven't lowered their vitality. I'll go off my head if I keep losing men! What would you give to be out of it all, and safe back on the farm?" Hearing no reply, he turned his head, peered over his raincoat collar, and saw a startled, resisting look in the young man's blue eyes, followed by a quick flush.
"You don't want to be back on the farm, do you! Not a little bit! Well, well; that's what it is to be young!" He shook his head with a smile which might have been commiseration, might have been envy, and went back to his duties.
Claude stayed where he was, drawing the wet grey air into his lungs and feeling vexed and reprimanded. It was quite true, he realized; the doctor had caught him. He was enjoying himself all the while and didn't want to be safe anywhere. He was sorry about Tannhauser and the others, but he was not sorry for himself. The discomforts and misfortunes of this voyage had not spoiled it for him. He grumbled, of course, because others did. But life had never seemed so tempting as it did here and now. He could come up from heavy work in the hospital, or from poor Fanning and his everlasting eggs, and forget all that in ten minutes. Something inside him, as elastic as the grey ridges over which they were tipping, kept bounding up and saying: "I am all here. I've left everything behind me. I am going over."
Only on that one day, the cold day of the Virginian's funeral, when he was seasick, had he been really miserable. He must be heartless, certainly, not to be overwhelmed by the sufferings of his own men, his own friends—but he wasn't. He had them on his mind and did all he could for them, but it seemed to him just now that he took a sort of satisfaction in that, too, and was somewhat vain of his usefulness to Doctor Trueman. A nice attitude! He awoke every morning with that sense of freedom and going forward, as if the world were growing bigger each day and he were growing with it. Other fellows were sick and dying, and that was terrible,—but he and the boat went on, and always on.
Something was released that had been struggling for a long while, he told himself. He had been due in France since the first battle of the Marne; he had followed false leads and lost precious time and seen misery enough, but he was on the right road at last, and nothing could stop him. If he hadn't been so green, so bashful, so afraid of showing what he felt, and so stupid at finding his way about, he would have enlisted in Canada, like Victor, or run away to France and joined the Foreign Legion. All that seemed perfectly possible now. Why hadn't he?
Well, that was not "the Wheelers' way." The Wheelers were terribly afraid of poking themselves in where they weren't wanted, of pushing their way into a crowd where they didn't belong. And they were even more afraid of doing anything that might look affected or "romantic." They couldn't let themselves adopt a conspicuous, much less a picturesque course of action, unless it was all in the day's work. Well, History had condescended to such as he; this whole brilliant adventure had become the day's work. He had got into it after all, along with Victor and the Marine and other fellows who had more imagination and self-confidence in the first place. Three years ago he used to sit moping by the windmill because he didn't see how a Nebraska farmer boy had any "call," or, indeed, any way, to throw himself into the struggle in France. He used enviously to read about Alan Seeger and those fortunate American boys who had a right to fight for a civilization they knew.
But the miracle had happened; a miracle so wide in its amplitude that the Wheelers,—all the Wheelers and the roughnecks and the low-brows were caught up in it. Yes, it was the rough-necks' own miracle, all this; it was their golden chance. He was in on it, and nothing could hinder or discourage him unless he were put over the side himself—which was only a way of joking, for that was a possibility he never seriously considered. The feeling of purpose, of fateful purpose, was strong in his breast.
"Look at this, Doctor!" Claude caught Dr. Trueman on his way from breakfast and handed him a written notice, signed D. T. Micks, Chief Steward. It stated that no more eggs or oranges could be furnished to patients, as the supply was exhausted.
The doctor squinted at the paper. "I'm afraid that's your patient's death warrant. You'll never be able to keep him going on anything else. Why don't you go and talk it over with Chessup? He's a resourceful fellow. I'll join you there in a few minutes."
Claude had often been to Dr. Chessup's cabin since the epidemic broke out,-rather liked to wait there when he went for medicines or advice. It was a comfortable, personal sort of place with cheerful chintz hangings. The walls were lined with books, held in place by sliding wooden slats, padlocked at the ends. There were a great many scientific works in German and English; the rest were French novels in paper covers. This morning he found Chessup weighing out white powders at his desk. In the rack over his bunk was the book with which he had read himself to sleep last night; the title, "Un Crime d'Amour," lettered in black on yellow, caught Claude's eye. The doctor put on his coat and pointed his visitor to the jointed chair in which patients were sometimes examined. Claude explained his predicament.
The ship's doctor was a strange fellow to come from Canada, the land of big men and rough. He looked like a schoolboy, with small hands and feet and a pink complexion. On his left cheekbone was a large brown mole, covered with silky hair, and for some reason that seemed to make his face effeminate. It was easy to see why he had not been successful in private practice. He was like somebody trying to protect a raw surface from heat and cold; so cursed with diffidence, and so sensitive about his boyish appearance that he chose to shut himself up in an oscillating wooden coop on the sea. The long run to Australia had exactly suited him. A rough life and the pounding of bad weather had fewer terrors for him than an office in town, with constant exposure to human personalities.
"Have you tried him on malted milk?" he asked, when Claude had told him how Farming's nourishment was threatened.
"Dr. Trueman hasn't a bottle left. How long do you figure we'll be at sea?"
"Four days; possibly five."
"Then Lieutenant Wheeler will lose his pal," said Dr. Trueman, who had just come in.
Chessup stood for a moment frowning and pulling nervously at the brass buttons on his coat. He slid the bolt on his door and turning to his colleague said resolutely: "I can give you some information, if you won't implicate me. You can do as you like, but keep my name out of it. For several hours last night cases of eggs and boxes of oranges were being carried into the Chief Steward's cabin by a flunky of his from the galley. Whatever port we make, he can get a shilling each for the fresh eggs, and perhaps sixpence for the oranges. They are your property, of course, furnished by your government; but this is his customary perquisite. I've been on this boat six years, and it's always been so. About a week before we make port, the choicest of the remaining stores are taken to his cabin, and he disposes of them after we dock. I can't say just how he manages it, but he does. The skipper may know of this custom, and there may be some reason why he permits it. It's not my business to see anything. The Chief Steward is a powerful man on an English vessel. If he has anything against me, sooner or later he can lose my berth for me. There you have the facts."
"Have I your permission to go to the Chief Steward?" Dr. Trueman asked.
"Certainly not. But you can go without my knowledge. He's an ugly man to cross, and he can make it uncomfortable for you and your patients."
"Well, we'll say no more about it. I appreciate your telling me, and I will see that you don't get mixed up in this. Will you go down with me to look at that new meningitis case?"
Claude waited impatiently in his stateroom for the doctor's return. He didn't see why the Chief Steward shouldn't be exposed and dealt with like any other grafter. He had hated the man ever since he heard him berating the old bath steward one morning. Hawkins had made no attempt to defend himself, but stood like a dog that has been terribly beaten, trembling all over, saying "Yes, sir. Yes, sir," while his chief gave him a cold cursing in a low, snarling voice. Claude had never heard a man or even an animal addressed with such contempt. The Steward had a cruel face,—white as cheese, with limp, moist hair combed back from a high forehead,—the peculiarly oily hair that seems to grow only on the heads of stewards and waiters. His eyes were exactly the shape of almonds, but the lids were so swollen that the dull pupil was visible only through a narrow slit. A long, pale moustache hung like a fringe over his loose lips.
When Dr. Trueman came back from the hospital, he declared he was now ready to call on Mr. Micks. "He's a nasty looking customer, but he can't do anything to me."
They went to the Chief Steward's cabin and knocked.
"What's wanted?" called a threatening voice.
The doctor made a grimace to his companion and walked in. The Steward was sitting at a big desk, covered with account books. He turned in his chair. "I beg your pardon," he said coldly, "I do not see any one here. I will be—"
The doctor held up his hand quickly. "That's all right, Steward. I'm sorry to intrude, but I've something I must say to you in private. I'll not detain you long." If he had hesitated for a moment, Claude believed the Steward would have thrown him out, but he went on rapidly. "This is Lieutenant Wheeler, Mr. Micks. His fellow officer lies very ill with pneumonia in stateroom 96. Lieutenant Wheeler has kept him alive by special nursing. He is not able to retain anything in his stomach but eggs and orange juice. If he has these, we may be able to keep up his strength till the fever breaks, and carry him to a hospital in France. If we can't get them for him, he will be dead within twenty-four hours. That's the situation."
The steward rose and turned out the drop-light on his desk. "Have you received notice that there are no more eggs and oranges on board? Then I am afraid there is nothing I can do for you. I did not provision this ship."
"No. I understand that. I believe the United States Government provided the fruit and eggs and meat. And I positively know that the articles I need for my patient are not exhausted. Without going into the matter further, I warn you that I'm not going to let a United States officer die when the means of saving him are procurable. I'll go to the skipper, I'll call a meeting of the army officers on board. I'll go any length to save this man."
"That is your own affair, but you will not interfere with me in the discharge of my duties. Will you leave my cabin?"
"In a moment, Steward. I know that last night a number of cases of eggs and oranges were carried into this room. They are here now, and they belong to the A.E.F. If you will agree to provision my man, what I know won't go any further. But if you refuse, I'll get this matter investigated. I won't stop till I do."
The Steward sat down, and took up a pen. His large, soft hand looked cheesy, like his face. "What is the number of the cabin?" he asked indifferently.
"Exactly what do you require?"
"One dozen eggs and one dozen oranges every twenty-four hours, to be delivered at any time convenient to you."
"I will see what I can do."
The Steward did not look up from his writing pad, and his visitors left as abruptly as they had come.
At about four o'clock every morning, before even the bath stewards were on duty, there was a scratching at Claude's door, and a covered basket was left there by a messenger who was unwashed, half-naked, with a sacking apron tied round his middle and his hairy chest splashed with flour. He never spoke, had only one eye and an inflamed socket. Claude learned that he was a half-witted brother of the Chief Steward, a potato peeler and dish-washer in the galley.
Four day after their interview with Mr. Micks, when they were at last nearing the end of the voyage, Doctor Trueman detained Claude after medical inspection to tell him that the Chief Steward had come down with the epidemic. "He sent for me last night and asked me to take his case,—won't have anything to do with Chessup. I had to get Chessup's permission. He seemed very glad to hand the case over to me."
"Is he very bad?"
"He hasn't a look-in, and he knows it. Complications; chronic Bright's disease. It seems he has nine children. I'll try to get him into a hospital when we make port, but he'll only live a few days at most. I wonder who'll get the shillings for all the eggs and oranges he hoarded away. Claude, my boy," the doctor spoke with sudden energy, "if I ever set foot on land again, I'm going to forget this voyage like a bad dream. When I'm in normal health, I'm a Presbyterian, but just now I feel that even the wicked get worse than they deserve."
A day came at last when Claude was wakened from sleep by a sense of stillness. He sprang up with a dazed fear that some one had died; but Fanning lay in his berth, breathing quietly.
Something caught his eye through the porthole,—a great grey shoulder of land standing up in the pink light of dawn, powerful and strangely still after the distressing instability of the sea. Pale trees and long, low fortifications... close grey buildings with red roofs... little sailboats bounding seaward... up on the cliff a gloomy fortress.
He had always thought of his destination as a country shattered and desolated,—"bleeding France"; but he had never seen anything that looked so strong, so self-sufficient, so fixed from the first foundation, as the coast that rose before him. It was like a pillar of eternity. The ocean lay submissive at its feet, and over it was the great meekness of early morning.
This grey wall, unshaken, mighty, was the end of the long preparation, as it was the end of the sea. It was the reason for everything that had happened in his life for the last fifteen months. It was the reason why Tannhauser and the gentle Virginian, and so many others who had set out with him, were never to have any life at all, or even a soldier's death. They were merely waste in a great enterprise, thrown overboard like rotten ropes. For them this kind release,—trees and a still shore and quiet water,—was never, never to be. How long would their bodies toss, he wondered, in that inhuman kingdom of darkness and unrest?
He was startled by a weak voice from behind.
"Claude, are we over?"
"Yes, Fanning. We're over."
Book Five: "Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On"
At noon that day Claude found himself in a street of little shops, hot and perspiring, utterly confused and turned about. Truck drivers and boys on bell less bicycles shouted at him indignantly, furiously. He got under the shade of a young plane tree and stood close to the trunk, as if it might protect him. His greatest care, at any rate, was off his hands. With the help of Victor Morse he had hired a taxi for forty francs, taken Fanning to the base hospital, and seen him into the arms of a big orderly from Texas. He came away from the hospital with no idea where he was going—except that he wanted to get to the heart of the city. It seemed, however, to have no heart; only long, stony arteries, full of heat and noise. He was still standing there, under his plane tree, when a group of uncertain, lost-looking brown figures, headed by Sergeant Hicks, came weaving up the street; nine men in nine different attitudes of dejection, each with a long loaf of bread under his arm. They hailed Claude with joy, straightened up, and looked as if now they had found their way! He saw that he must be a plane tree for somebody else.
Sergeant Hicks explained that they had been trudging about the town, looking for cheese. After sixteen days of heavy, tasteless food, cheese was what they all wanted. There was a grocery store up the street, where there seemed to be everything else. He had tried to make the old woman understand by signs.
"Don't these French people eat cheese, anyhow? What's their word for it, Lieutenant? I'm damned if I know, and I've lost my phrase book. Suppose you could make her understand?"
"Well, I'll try. Come along, boys."
Crowding close together, the ten men entered the shop. The proprietress ran forward with an exclamation of despair. Evidently she had thought she was done with them, and was not pleased to see them coming back. When she paused to take breath, Claude took off his hat respectfully, and performed the bravest act of his life; uttered the first phrase-book sentence he had ever spoken to a French person. His men were at his back; he had to say something or run, there was no other course. Looking the old woman in the eye, he steadily articulated:
"Avez-vous du fromage, Madame?" It was almost inspiration to add the last word, he thought; and when it worked, he was as much startled as if his revolver had gone off in his belt.
"Du fromage?" the shop woman screamed. Calling something to her daughter, who was at the desk, she caught Claude by the sleeve, pulled him out of the shop, and ran down the street with him. She dragged him into a doorway darkened by a long curtain, greeted the proprietress, and then pushed the men after their officer, as if they were stubborn burros.
They stood blinking in the gloom, inhaling a sour, damp, buttery, smear-kase smell, until their eyes penetrated the shadows and they saw that there was nothing but cheese and butter in the place. The shopkeeper was a fat woman, with black eyebrows that met above her nose; her sleeves were rolled up, her cotton dress was open over her white throat and bosom. She began at once to tell them that there was a restriction on milk products; every one must have cards; she could not sell them so much. But soon there was nothing left to dispute about. The boys fell upon her stock like wolves. The little white cheeses that lay on green leaves disappeared into big mouths. Before she could save it, Hicks had split a big round cheese through the middle and was carving it up like a melon. She told them they were dirty pigs and worse than the Boches, but she could not stop them.
"What's the matter with Mother, Lieutenant? What's she fussing about? Ain't she here to sell goods?"
Claude tried to look wiser than he was. "From what I can make out, there's some sort of restriction; you aren't allowed to buy all you want. We ought to have thought about that; this is a war country. I guess we've about cleaned her out."
"Oh, that's all right," said Hicks wiping his clasp-knife. "We'll bring her some sugar tomorrow. One of the fellows who helped us unload at the docks told me you can always quiet 'em if you give 'em sugar."
They surrounded her and held out their money for her to take her pay. "Come on, ma'm, don't be bashful. What's the matter, ain't this good money?"
She was distracted by the noise they made, by their bronzed faces with white teeth and pale eyes, crowding so close to her. Ten large, well-shaped hands with straight fingers, the open palms full of crumpled notes.... Holding the men off under the pretence of looking for a pencil, she made rapid calculations. The money that lay in their palms had no relation to these big, coaxing, boisterous fellows; it was a joke to them; they didn't know what it meant in the world. Behind them were shiploads of money, and behind the ships....
The situation was unfair. Whether she took much or little out of their hands, couldn't possibly matter to the Americans, couldn't even dash their good humour. But there was a strain on the cheesewoman, and the standards of a lifetime were in jeopardy. Her mind mechanically fixed upon two-and-a-half; she would charge them two-and-a-half times the market price of the cheese. With this moral plank to cling to, she made change with conscientious accuracy and did not keep a penny too much from anybody. Telling them what big stupids they were, and that it was necessary to learn to count in this world, she urged them out of her shop. She liked them well enough, but she did not like to do business with them. If she didn't take their money, the next one would. All the same, fictitious values were distasteful to her, and made everything seem flimsy and unsafe.
Standing in her doorway, she watched the brown band go ambling down the street; as they passed in front of the old church of St. Jacques, the two foremost stumbled on a sunken step that was scarcely above the level of the pavement. She laughed aloud. They looked back and waved to her. She replied with a smile that was both friendly and angry. She liked them, but not the legend of waste and prodigality that ran before them—and followed after. It was superfluous and disintegrating in a world of hard facts. An army in which the men had meat for breakfast, and ate more every day than the French soldiers at the front got in a week! Their moving kitchens and supply trains were the wonder of France. Down below Arles, where her husband's sister had married, on the desolate plain of the Crau, their tinned provisions were piled like mountain ranges, under sheds and canvas. Nobody had ever seen so much food before; coffee, milk, sugar, bacon, hams; everything the world was famished for. They brought shiploads of useless things, too. And useless people. Shiploads of women who were not nurses; some said they came to dance with the officers, so they would not be ennuyes.
All this was not war,—any more than having money thrust at you by grown men who could not count, was business. It was an invasion, like the other. The first destroyed material possessions, and this threatened everybody's integrity. Distaste of such methods, deep, recoiling distrust of them, clouded the cheesewoman's brow as she threw her money into the drawer and turned the key on it.
As for the doughboys, having once stubbed their toes on the sunken step, they examined it with interest, and went in to explore the church. It was in their minds that they must not let a church escape, any more than they would let a Boche escape. Within they came upon a bunch of their shipmates, including the Kansas band, to whom they boasted that their Lieutenant could "speak French like a native."
The Lieutenant himself thought he was getting on pretty well, but a few hours later his pride was humbled. He was sitting alone in a little triangular park beside another church, admiring the cropped locust trees and watching some old women who were doing their mending in the shade. A little boy in a black apron, with a close-shaved, bare head, came along, skipping rope. He hopped lightly up to Claude and said in a most persuasive and confiding voice,
"Voulez-vous me dire l'heure, s'il vous plait, M'sieu' l' soldat?"
Claude looked down into his admiring eyes with a feeling of panic. He wouldn't mind being dumb to a man, or even to a pretty girl, but this was terrible. His tongue went dry, and his face grew scarlet. The child's expectant gaze changed to a look of doubt, and then of fear. He had spoken before to Americans who didn't understand, but they had not turned red and looked angry like this one; this soldier must be ill, or wrong in his head. The boy turned and ran away.
Many a serious mishap had distressed Claude less. He was disappointed, too. There was something friendly in the boy's face that he wanted... that he needed. As he rose he ground his heel into the gravel. "Unless I can learn to talk to the CHILDREN of this country," he muttered, "I'll go home!"
Claude set off to find the Grand Hotel, where he had promised to dine with Victor Morse. The porter there spoke English. He called a red-headed boy in a dirty uniform and told him to take the American to vingt-quatre. The boy also spoke English. "Plenty money in New York, I guess! In France, no money." He made their way, through musty corridors and up slippery staircases, as long as possible, shrewdly eyeing the visitor and rubbing his thumb nervously against his fingers all the while.
"Vingt-quatre, twen'y-four," he announced, rapping at a door with one hand and suggestively opening the other. Claude put something into it—anything to be rid of him.
Victor was standing before the fireplace. "Hello, Wheeler, come in. Our dinner will be served up here. It's big enough, isn't it? I could get nothing between a coop, and this at fifteen dollars a day."
The room was spacious enough for a banquet; with two huge beds, and great windows that swung in on hinges, like doors, and that had certainly not been washed since before the war. The heavy red cotton-brocade hangings and lace curtains were stiff with dust, the thick carpet was strewn with cigarette-ends and matches. Razor blades and "Khaki Comfort" boxes lay about on the dresser, and former occupants had left their autographs in the dust on the table. Officers slept there, and went away, and other officers arrived,—and the room remained the same, like a wood in which travellers camp for the night. The valet de chambre carried away only what he could use; discarded shirts and socks and old shoes. It seemed a rather dismal place to have a party.
When the waiter came, he dusted off the table with his apron and put on a clean cloth, napkins, and glasses. Victor and his guest sat down under an electric light bulb with a broken shade, around which a silent halo of flies moved unceasingly. They did not buzz, or dart aloft, or descend to try the soup, but hung there in the center of the room as if they were a part of the lighting system. The constant attendance of the waiter embarrassed Claude; he felt as if he were being watched.
"By the way," said Victor while the soup plates were being removed, "what do you think of this wine? It cost me thirty francs the bottle."
"It tastes very good to me," Claude replied. "But then, it's the first champagne I've ever drunk."
"Really?" Victor drank off another glass and sighed. "I envy you. I wish I had it all to do over. Life's too short, you know."
"I should say you had made a good beginning. We're a long way from Crystal Lake."
"Not far enough." His host reached across the table and filled Claude's empty glass. "I sometimes waken up with the feeling I'm back there. Or I have bad dreams, and find myself sitting on that damned stool in the glass cage and can't make my books balance; I hear the old man coughing in his private room, the way he coughs when he's going to refuse a loan to some poor devil who needs it. I've had a narrow escape, Wheeler; 'as a brand from the burning'. That's all the Scripture I remember."
The bright red spots on Victor's cheeks, his pale forehead and brilliant eyes and saucy little moustaches seemed to give his quotation a peculiar vividness. Claude envied him. It must be great fun to take up a part and play it to a finish; to believe you were making yourself over, and to admire the kind of fellow you made. He, too, in a way, admired Victor,—though he couldn't altogether believe in him.
"You'll never go back," he said, "I wouldn't worry about that."
"Take it from me, there are thousands who will never go back! I'm not speaking of the casualties. Some of you Americans are likely to discover the world this trip... and it'll make the hell of a lot of difference! You boys never had a fair chance. There's a conspiracy of Church and State to keep you down. I'm going off to play with some girls tonight, will you come along?"
Claude laughed. "I guess not."
"Why not? You won't be caught, I guarantee."
"I guess not." Claude spoke apologetically. "I'm going out to see Fanning after dinner."
Victor shrugged. "That ass!" He beckoned the waiter to open another bottle and bring the coffee. "Well, it's your last chance to go nutting with me." He looked intently at Claude and lifted his glass. "To the future, and our next meeting!" When he put down his empty goblet he remarked, "I got a wire through today; I'm leaving tomorrow."
Claude took a quick breath. Verdun... the very sound of the name was grim, like the hollow roll of drums. Victor was going there tomorrow. Here one could take a train for Verdun, or thereabouts, as at home one took a train for Omaha. He felt more "over" than he had done before, and a little crackle of excitement went all through him. He tried to be careless:
"Then you won't get to London soon?"
"God knows," Victor answered gloomily. He looked up at the ceiling and began to whistle softly an engaging air. "Do you know that? It's something Maisie often plays; 'Roses of Picardy.' You won't know what a woman can be till you meet her, Wheeler."
"I hope I'll have that pleasure. I was wondering if you'd forgotten her for the moment. She doesn't object to these diversions?"
Victor lifted his eyebrows in the old haughty way. "Women don't require that sort of fidelity of the air service. Our engagements are too uncertain."
Half an hour later Victor had gone in quest of amorous adventure, and Claude was wandering alone in a brightly lighted street full of soldiers and sailors of all nations. There were black Senegalese, and Highlanders in kilts, and little lorry-drivers from Siam,—all moving slowly along between rows of cabarets and cinema theatres. The wide-spreading branches of the plane trees met overhead, shutting out the sky and roofing in the orange glare. The sidewalks were crowded with chairs and little tables, at which marines and soldiers sat drinking schnapps and cognac and coffee. From every doorway music-machines poured out jazz tunes and strident Sousa marches. The noise was stupefying. Out in the middle of the street a band of bareheaded girls, hardy and tough looking; were following a string of awkward Americans, running into them, elbowing them, asking for treats, crying, "You dance me Fausse-trot, Sammie?"
Claude stationed himself before a movie theatre, where the sign in electric lights read, "Amour, quand tu nous tiens!" and stood watching the people. In the stream that passed him, his eye lit upon two walking arm-in-arm, their hands clasped, talking eagerly and unconscious of the crowd,—different, he saw at once, from all the other strolling, affectionate couples.
The man wore the American uniform; his left arm had been amputated at the elbow, and he carried his head awry, as if he had a stiff neck. His dark, lean face wore an expression of intense anxiety, his eyebrows twitched as if he were in constant pain. The girl, too, looked troubled. As they passed him, under the red light of the Amour sign, Claude could see that her eyes were full of tears. They were wide, blue eyes, innocent looking, and she had the prettiest face he had seen since he landed. From her silk shawl, and little bonnet with blue strings and a white frill, he thought she must be a country girl. As she listened to the soldier, with her mouth half-open, he saw a space between her two front teeth, as with children whose second teeth have just come. While they pushed along in the crowd she looked up intently at the man beside her, or off into the blur of light, where she evidently saw nothing. Her face, young and soft, seemed new to emotion, and her bewildered look made one feel that she did not know where to turn.
Without realizing what he did, Claude followed them out of the crowd into a quiet street, and on into another, even more deserted, where the houses looked as if they had been asleep a long while. Here there were no street lamps, not even a light in the windows, but natural darkness; with the moon high overhead throwing sharp shadows across the white cobble paving. The narrow street made a bend, and he came out upon the church he and his comrades had entered that afternoon. It looked larger by night, and but for the sunken step, he might not have been sure it was the same. The dark neighbouring houses seemed to lean toward it, the moonlight shone silver-grey upon its battered front.
The two walking before him ascended the steps and withdrew into the deep doorway, where they clung together in an embrace so long and still that it was like death. At last they drew shuddering apart. The girl sat down on the stone bench beside the door. The soldier threw himself upon the pavement at her feet, and rested his head on her knee, his one arm lying across her lap.
In the shadow of the houses opposite, Claude kept watch like a sentinel, ready to take their part if any alarm should startle them. The girl bent over her soldier, stroking his head so softly that she might have been putting him to sleep; took his one hand and held it against her bosom as if to stop the pain there. Just behind her, on the sculptured portal, some old bishop, with a pointed cap and a broken crozier, stood, holding up two fingers.
The next morning when Claude arrived at the hospital to see Fanning, he found every one too busy to take account of him. The courtyard was full of ambulances, and a long line of camions waited outside the gate. A train-load of wounded Americans had come in, sent back from evacuation hospitals to await transportation home.
As the men were carried past him, he thought they looked as if they had been sick a long while—looked, indeed, as if they could never get well. The boys who died on board the Anchises had never seemed as sick as these did. Their skin was yellow or purple, their eyes were sunken, their lips sore. Everything that belonged to health had left them, every attribute of youth was gone. One poor fellow, whose face and trunk were wrapped in cotton, never stopped moaning, and as he was carried up the corridor he smelled horribly. The Texas orderly remarked to Claude, "In the beginning that one only had a finger blown off; would you believe it?"
These were the first wounded men Claude had seen. To shed bright blood, to wear the red badge of courage,—that was one thing; but to be reduced to this was quite another. Surely, the sooner these boys died, the better.
The Texan, passing with his next load, asked Claude why he didn't go into the office and wait until the rush was over. Looking in through the glass door, Claude noticed a young man writing at a desk enclosed by a railing. Something about his figure, about the way he held his head, was familiar. When he lifted his left arm to prop open the page of his ledger, it was a stump below the elbow. Yes, there could be no doubt about it; the pale, sharp face, the beak nose, the frowning, uneasy brow. Presently, as if he felt a curious eye upon him, the young man paused in his rapid writing, wriggled his shoulders, put an iron paperweight on the page of his book, took a case from his pocket and shook a cigarette out on the table. Going up to the railing, Claude offered him a cigar. "No, thank you. I don't use them any more. They seem too heavy for me." He struck a match, moved his shoulders again as if they were cramped, and sat down on the edge of his desk.
"Where do these wounded men come from?" Claude asked. "I just got in on the Anchises yesterday."
"They come from various evacuation hospitals. I believe most of them are the Belleau Wood lot."
"Where did you lose your arm?"
"Cantigny. I was in the First Division. I'd been over since last September, waiting for something to happen, and then got fixed in my first engagement."
"Can't you go home?"
"Yes, I could. But I don't want to. I've got used to things over here. I was attached to Headquarters in Paris for awhile."
Claude leaned across the rail. "We read about Cantigny at home, of course. We were a good deal excited; I suppose you were?"
"Yes, we were nervous. We hadn't been under fire, and we'd been fed up on all that stuff about it's taking fifty years to build a fighting machine. The Hun had a strong position; we looked up that long hill and wondered how we were going to behave." As he talked the boy's eyes seemed to be moving all the time, probably because he could not move his head at all. After blowing out deep clouds of smoke until his cigarette was gone, he sat down to his ledger and frowned at the page in a way which said he was too busy to talk.
Claude saw Dr. Trueman standing in the doorway, waiting for him. They made their morning call on Fanning, and left the hospital together. The Doctor turned to him as if he had something on his mind.
"I saw you talking to that wry-necked boy. How did he seem, all right?"
"Not exactly. That is, he seems very nervous. Do you know anything about him?"
"Oh, yes! He's a star patient here, a psychopathic case. I had just been talking to one of the doctors about him, when I came out and saw you with him. He was shot in the neck at Cantigny, where he lost his arm. The wound healed, but his memory is affected; some nerve cut, I suppose, that connects with that part of his brain. This psychopath, Phillips, takes a great interest in him and keeps him here to observe him. He's writing a book about him. He says the fellow has forgotten almost everything about his life before he came to France. The queer thing is, it's his recollection of women that is most affected. He can remember his father, but not his mother; doesn't know if he has sisters or not,—can remember seeing girls about the house, but thinks they may have been cousins. His photographs and belongings were lost when he was hurt, all except a bunch of letters he had in his pocket. They are from a girl he's engaged to, and he declares he can't remember her at all; doesn't know what she looks like or anything about her, and can't remember getting engaged. The doctor has the letters. They seem to be from a nice girl in his own town who is very ambitious for him to make the most of himself. He deserted soon after he was sent to this hospital, ran away. He was found on a farm out in the country here, where the sons had been killed and the people had sort of adopted him. He'd quit his uniform and was wearing the clothes of one of the dead sons. He'd probably have got away with it, if he hadn't had that wry neck. Some one saw him in the fields and recognized him and reported him. I guess nobody cared much but this psychopathic doctor; he wanted to get his pet patient back. They call him 'the lost American' here."
"He seems to be doing some sort of clerical work," Claude observed discreetly.
"Yes, they say he's very well educated. He remembers the books he has read better than his own life. He can't recall what his home town looks like, or his home. And the women are clear wiped out, even the girl he was going to marry."
Claude smiled. "Maybe he's fortunate in that."
The Doctor turned to him affectionately, "Now Claude, don't begin to talk like that the minute you land in this country."
Claude walked on past the church of St. Jacques. Last night already seemed like a dream, but it haunted him. He wished he could do something to help that boy; help him get away from the doctor who was writing a book about him, and the girl who wanted him to make the most of himself; get away and be lost altogether in what he had been lucky enough to find. All day, as Claude came and went, he looked among the crowds for that young face, so compassionate and tender.
Deeper and deeper into flowery France! That was the sentence Claude kept saying over to himself to the jolt of the wheels, as the long troop train went southward, on the second day after he and his company had left the port of debarkation. Fields of wheat, fields of oats, fields of rye; all the low hills and rolling uplands clad with harvest. And everywhere, in the grass, in the yellowing grain, along the road-bed, the poppies spilling and streaming. On the second day the boys were still calling to each other about the poppies; nothing else had so entirely surpassed their expectations. They had supposed that poppies grew only on battle fields, or in the brains of war correspondents. Nobody knew what the cornflowers were, except Willy Katz, an Austrian boy from the Omaha packing-houses, and he knew only an objectionable name for them, so he offered no information. For a long time they thought the red clover blossoms were wild flowers,—they were as big as wild roses. When they passed the first alfalfa field, the whole train rang with laughter; alfalfa was one thing, they believed, that had never been heard of outside their own prairie states.
All the way down, Company B had been finding the old things instead of the new,—or, to their way of thinking, the new things instead of the old. The thatched roofs they had so counted upon seeing were few and far between. But American binders, of well-known makes, stood where the fields were beginning to ripen,—and they were being oiled and put in order, not by "peasants," but by wise-looking old farmers who seemed to know their business. Pear trees, trained like vines against the wall, did not astonish them half so much as the sight of the familiar cottonwood, growing everywhere. Claude thought he had never before realized how beautiful this tree could be. In verdant little valleys, along the clear rivers, the cottonwoods waved and rustled; and on the little islands, of which there were so many in these rivers, they stood in pointed masses, seemed to grip deep into the soil and to rest easy, as if they had been there for ever and would be there for ever more. At home, all about Frankfort, the farmers were cutting down their cottonwoods because they were "common," planting maples and ash trees to struggle along in their stead. Never mind; the cottonwoods were good enough for France, and they were good enough for him! He felt they were a real bond between him and this people.
When B Company had first got their orders to go into a training camp in north central France, all the men were disappointed. Troops much rawer than they were being rushed to the front, so why fool around any longer? But now they were reconciled to the delay. There seemed to be a good deal of France that wasn't the war, and they wouldn't mind travelling about a little in a country like this. Was the harvest always a month later than at home, as it seemed to be this year? Why did the farmers have rows of trees growing along the edges of every field—didn't they take the strength out of the soil? What did the farmers mean by raising patches of mustard right along beside other crops? Didn't they know that mustard got into wheat fields and strangled the grain?
The second night the boys were to spend in Rouen, and they would have the following day to look about. Everybody knew what had happened at Rouen—if any one didn't, his neighbours were only too eager to inform him! It had happened in the market-place, and the market-place was what they were going to find.
Tomorrow, when it came, proved to be black and cold, a day of pouring rain. As they filed through the narrow, crowded streets, that harsh Norman city presented no very cheering aspect. They were glad, at last, to find the waterside, to go out on the bridge and breathe the air in the great open space over the river, away from the clatter of cart-wheels and the hard voices and crafty faces of these townspeople, who seemed rough and unfriendly. From the bridge they looked up at the white chalk hills, the tops a blur of intense green under the low, lead-coloured sky. They watched the fleets of broad, deep-set river barges, coming and going under their feet, with tilted smokestacks. Only a little way up that river was Paris, the place where every doughboy meant to go; and as they leaned on the rail and looked down at the slow-flowing water, each one had in his mind a confused picture of what it would be like. The Seine, they felt sure, must be very much wider there, and it was spanned by many bridges, all longer than the bridge over the Missouri at Omaha. There would be spires and golden domes past counting, all the buildings higher than anything in Chicago, and brilliant—dazzlingly brilliant, nothing grey and shabby about it like this old Rouen. They attributed to the city of their desire incalculable immensity, bewildering vastness, Babylonian hugeness and heaviness—the only attributes they had been taught to admire.
Late in the morning Claude found himself alone before the Church of St. Ouen. He was hunting for the Cathedral, and this looked as if it might be the right place. He shook the water from his raincoat and entered, removing his hat at the door. The day, so dark without, was darker still within;... far away, a few scattered candles, still little points of light... just before him, in the grey twilight, slender white columns in long rows, like the stems of silver poplars.
The entrance to the nave was closed by a cord, so he walked up the aisle on the right, treading softly, passing chapels where solitary women knelt in the light of a few tapers. Except for them, the church was empty... empty. His own breathing was audible in this silence. He moved with caution lest he should wake an echo.
When he reached the choir he turned, and saw, far behind him, the rose window, with its purple heart. As he stood staring, hat in hand, as still as the stone figures in the chapels, a great bell, up aloft, began to strike the hour in its deep, melodious throat; eleven beats, measured and far apart, as rich as the colours in the window, then silence... only in his memory the throbbing of an undreamed-of quality of sound. The revelations of the glass and the bell had come almost simultaneously, as if one produced the other; and both were superlatives toward which his mind had always been groping,—or so it seemed to him then.
In front of the choir the nave was open, with no rope to shut it off. Several straw chairs were huddled on a flag of the stone floor. After some hesitation he took one, turned it round, and sat down facing the window. If some one should come up to him and say anything, anything at all, he would rise and say, "Pardon, Monsieur; je ne sais pas c'est defendu." He repeated this to himself to be quite sure he had it ready.
On the train, coming down, he had talked to the boys about the bad reputation Americans had acquired for slouching all over the place and butting in on things, and had urged them to tread lightly, "But Lieutenant," the kid from Pleasantville had piped up, "isn't this whole Expedition a butt-in? After all, it ain't our war." Claude laughed, but he told him he meant to make an example of the fellow who went to rough-housing.
He was well satisfied that he hadn't his restless companions on his mind now. He could sit here quietly until noon, and hear the bell strike again. In the meantime, he must try to think: This was, of course, Gothic architecture; he had read more or less about that, and ought to be able to remember something. Gothic... that was a mere word; to him it suggested something very peaked and pointed,—sharp arches, steep roofs. It had nothing to do with these slim white columns that rose so straight and far,—or with the window, burning up there in its vault of gloom....
While he was vainly trying to think about architecture, some recollection of old astronomy lessons brushed across his brain,—something about stars whose light travels through space for hundreds of years before it reaches the earth and the human eye. The purple and crimson and peacock-green of this window had been shining quite as long as that before it got to him.... He felt distinctly that it went through him and farther still... as if his mother were looking over his shoulder. He sat solemnly through the hour until twelve, his elbows on his knees, his conical hat swinging between them in his hand, looking up through the twilight with candid, thoughtful eyes.
When Claude joined his company at the station, they had the laugh on him. They had found the Cathedral,—and a statue of Richard the Lion-hearted, over the spot where the lion-heart itself was buried; "the identical organ," fat Sergeant Hicks assured him. But they were all glad to leave Rouen.
B Company reached the training camp at S— thirty-six men short: twenty-five they had buried on the voyage over, and eleven sick were left at the base hospital. The company was to be attached to a battalion which had already seen service, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Scott. Arriving early in the morning, the officers reported at once to Headquarters. Captain Maxey must have suffered a shock when the Colonel rose from his desk to acknowledge his salute, then shook hands with them all around and asked them about their journey. The Colonel was not a very martial figure; short, fat, with slouching shoulders, and a lumpy back like a sack of potatoes. Though he wasn't much over forty, he was bald, and his collar would easily slip over his head without being unbuttoned. His little twinkling eyes and good-humoured face were without a particle of arrogance or official dignity.
Years ago, when General Pershing, then a handsome young Lieutenant with a slender waist and yellow moustaches, was stationed as Commandant at the University of Nebraska, Walter Scott was an officer in a company of cadets the Lieutenant took about to military tournaments. The Pershing Rifles, they were called, and they won prizes wherever they went. After his graduation, Scott settled down to running a hardware business in a thriving Nebraska town, and sold gas ranges and garden hose for twenty years. About the time Pershing was sent to the Mexican border, Scott began to think there might eventually be something in the wind, and that he would better get into training. He went down to Texas with the National Guard. He had come to France with the First Division, and had won his promotions by solid, soldierly qualities.
"I see you're an officer short, Captain Maxey," the Colonel remarked at their conference. "I think I've got a man here to take his place. Lieutenant Gerhardt is a New York man, came over in the band and got transferred to infantry. He has lately been given a commission for good service. He's had some experience and is a capable fellow." The Colonel sent his orderly out to bring in a young man whom he introduced to the officers as Lieutenant David Gerhardt.
Claude had been ashamed of Tod Fanning, who was always showing himself a sap-head, and who would never have got a commission if his uncle hadn't been a Congressman. But the moment he met Lieutenant Gerhardt's eye, something like jealousy flamed up in him. He felt in a flash that he suffered by comparison with the new officer; that he must be on his guard and must not let himself be patronized.
As they were leaving the Colonel's office together, Gerhardt asked him whether he had got his billet. Claude replied that after the men were in their quarters, he would look out for something for himself.
The young man smiled. "I'm afraid you may have difficulty. The people about here have been overworked, keeping soldiers, and they are not willing as they once were. I'm with a nice old couple over in the village. I'm almost sure I can get you in there. If you'll come along, we'll speak to them, before some one else is put off on them."
Claude didn't want to go, didn't want to accept favours,—nevertheless he went. They walked together along a dusty road that ran between half-ripe wheat fields, bordered with poplar trees. The wild morning-glories and Queen Anne's lace that grew by the road-side were still shining with dew. A fresh breeze stirred the bearded grain, parting it in furrows and fanning out streaks of crimson poppies. The new officer was not intrusive, certainly. He walked along, whistling softly to himself, seeming quite lost in the freshness of the morning, or in his own thoughts. There had been nothing patronizing in his manner so far, and Claude began to wonder why he felt ill at ease with him. Perhaps it was because he did not look like the rest of them. Though he was young, he did not look boyish. He seemed experienced; a finished product, rather than something on the way. He was handsome, and his face, like his manner and his walk, had something distinguished about it. A broad white forehead under reddish brown hair, hazel eyes with no uncertainty in their look, an aquiline nose, finely cut,—a sensitive, scornful mouth, which somehow did not detract from the kindly, though slightly reserved, expression of his face.
Lieutenant Gerhardt must have been in this neighbourhood for some time; he seemed to know the people. On the road they passed several villagers; a rough looking girl taking a cow out to graze, an old man with a basket on his arm, the postman on his bicycle; they all spoke to Claude's companion as if they knew him well.
"What are these blue flowers that grow about everywhere?" Claude asked suddenly, pointing to a clump with his foot.
"Cornflowers," said the other. "The Germans call them Kaiser-blumen."
They were approaching the village, which lay on the edge of a wood,—a wood so large one could not see the end of it; it met the horizon with a ridge of pines. The village was but a single street. On either side ran clay-coloured walls, with painted wooden doors here and there, and green shutters. Claude's guide opened one of these gates, and they walked into a little sanded garden; the house was built round it on three sides. Under a cherry tree sat a woman in a black dress, sewing, a work table beside her.
She was fifty, perhaps, but though her hair was grey she had a look of youthfulness; thin cheeks, delicately flushed with pink, and quiet, smiling, intelligent eyes. Claude thought she looked like a New England woman,—like the photographs of his mother's cousins and schoolmates. Lieutenant Gerhardt introduced him to Madame Joubert. He was quite disheartened by the colloquy that followed. Clearly his new fellow officer spoke Madame Joubert's perplexing language as readily as she herself did, and he felt irritated and grudging as he listened. He had been hoping that, wherever he stayed, he could learn to talk to the people a little; but with this accomplished young man about, he would never have the courage to try. He could see that Mme. Joubert liked Gerhardt, liked him very much; and all this, for some reason, discouraged him.
Gerhardt turned to Claude, speaking in a way which included Madame Joubert in the conversation, though she could not understand it: "Madame Joubert will let you come, although she has done her part and really doesn't have to take any one else in. But you will be so well off here that I'm glad she consents. You will have to share my room, but there are two beds. She will show you."
Gerhardt went out of the gate and left him alone with his hostess. Her mind seemed to read his thoughts. When he uttered a word, or any sound that resembled one, she quickly and smoothly made a sentence of it, as if she were quite accustomed to talking in this way and expected only monosyllables from strangers. She was kind, even a little playful with him; but he felt it was all good manners, and that underneath she was not thinking of him at all. When he was alone in the tile-floored sleeping room upstairs, unrolling his blankets and arranging his shaving things, he looked out of the window and watched her where she sat sewing under the cherry tree. She had a very sad face, he thought; it wasn't grief, nothing sharp and definite like sorrow. It was an old, quiet, impersonal sadness,—sweet in its expression, like the sadness of music.
As he came out of the house to start back to the barracks, he bowed to her and tried to say, "Au revoir, Madame. Jusq' au ce soir." He stopped near the kitchen door to look at a many-branched rose vine that ran all over the wall, full of cream-coloured, pink-tipped roses, just a shade stronger in colour than the clay wall behind them. Madame Joubert came over and stood beside him, looking at him and at the rosier, "Oui, c'est joli, n'est-ce pas?" She took the scissors that hung by a ribbon from her belt, cut one of the flowers and stuck it in his buttonhole. "Voila." She made a little flourish with her thin hand.
Stepping into the street, he turned to shut the wooden door after him, and heard a soft stir in the dark tool-house at his elbow. From among the rakes and spades a child's frightened face was staring out at him. She was sitting on the ground with her lap full of baby kittens. He caught but a glimpse of her dull, pale face.
The next morning Claude awoke with such a sense of physical well-being as he had not had for a long time. The sun was shining brightly on the white plaster walls and on the red tiles of the floor. Green jalousies, half-drawn, shaded the upper part of the two windows. Through their slats, he could see the forking branches of an old locust tree that grew by the gate. A flock of pigeons flew over it, dipping and mounting with a sharp twinkle of silver wings. It was good to lie again in a house that was cared for by women. He must have felt that even in his sleep, for when he opened his eyes he was thinking about Mahailey and breakfast and summer mornings on the farm. The early stillness was sweet, and the feeling of dry, clean linen against his body. There was a smell of lavender about his warm pillow. He lay still for fear of waking Lieutenant Gerhardt. This was the sort of peace one wanted to enjoy alone. When he rose cautiously on his elbow and looked at the other bed, it was empty. His companion must have dressed and slipped out when day first broke. Somebody else who liked to enjoy things alone; that looked hopeful. But now that he had the place to himself, he decided to get up. While he was dressing he could see old M. Joubert down in the garden, watering the plants and vines, raking the sand fresh and smooth, clipping off dead leaves and withered flowers and throwing them into a wheelbarrow. These people had lost both their sons in the war, he had been told, and now they were taking care of the property for their grandchildren,—two daughters of the elder son. Claude saw Gerhardt come into the garden, and sit down at the table under the trees, where they had their dinner last night. He hurried down to join him. Gerhardt made room for him on the bench.
"Do you always sleep like that? It's an accomplishment. I made enough noise when I dressed,—kept dropping things, but it never reached you."
Madame Joubert came out of the kitchen in a purple flowered morning gown, her hair in curl-papers under a lace cap. She brought the coffee herself, and they sat down at the unpainted table without a cloth, and drank it out of big crockery bowls. They had fresh milk with it,—the first Claude had tasted in a long while, and sugar which Gerhardt produced from his pocket. The old cook had her coffee sitting in the kitchen door, and on the step, at her feet, sat the strange, pale little girl.
Madame Joubert amiably addressed herself to Claude; she knew that Americans were accustomed to a different sort of morning repast, and if he wished to bring bacon from the camp, she would gladly cook it for him. She had even made pancakes for officers who stayed there before. She seemed pleased, however, to learn that Claude had had enough of these things for awhile. She called David by his first name, pronouncing it the French way, and when Claude said he hoped she would do as much for him, she said, Oh, yes, that his was a very good French name, "mais un peu, un peu... romanesque," at which he blushed, not quite knowing whether she were making fun of him or not.
"It is rather so in English, isn't it?" David asked.
"Well, it's a sissy name, if you mean that."
"Yes, it is, a little," David admitted candidly. The day's work on the parade ground was hard, and Captain Maxey's men were soft, felt the heat,—didn't size up well with the Kansas boys who had been hardened by service. The Colonel wasn't pleased with B Company and detailed them to build new barracks and extend the sanitation system. Claude got out and worked with the men. Gerhardt followed his example, but it was easy to see that he had never handled lumber or tin-roofing before. A kind of rivalry seemed to have sprung up between him and Claude, neither of them knew why.
Claude could see that the sergeants and corporals were a little uncertain about Gerhardt. His laconic speech, never embroidered by the picturesque slang they relished, his gravity, and his rare, incredulous smile, alike puzzled them. Was the new officer a dude? Sergeant Hicks asked of his chum, Dell Able. No, he wasn't a dude. Was he a swellhead? No, not at all; but he wasn't a good mixer. He was "an Easterner"; what more he was would develop later. Claude sensed something unusual about him. He suspected that Gerhardt knew a good many things as well as he knew French, and that he tried to conceal it, as people sometimes do when they feel they are not among their equals; this idea nettled him. It was Claude who seized the opportunity to be patronizing, when Gerhardt betrayed that he was utterly unable to select lumber by given measurements.
The next afternoon, work on the new barracks was called off because of rain. Sergeant Hicks set about getting up a boxing match, but when he went to invite the lieutenants, they had both disappeared. Claude was tramping toward the village, determined to get into the big wood that had tempted him ever since his arrival.
The highroad became the village street, and then, at the edge of the wood, became a country road again. A little farther on, where the shade grew denser, it split up into three wagon trails, two of them faint and little used. One of these Claude followed. The rain had dwindled to a steady patter, but the tall brakes growing up in the path splashed him to the middle, and his feet sank in spongy, mossy earth. The light about him, the very air, was green. The trunks of the trees were overgrown with a soft green moss, like mould. He was wondering whether this forest was not always a damp, gloomy place, when suddenly the sun broke through and shattered the whole wood with gold. He had never seen anything like the quivering emerald of the moss, the silky green of the dripping beech tops. Everything woke up; rabbits ran across the path, birds began to sing, and all at once the brakes were full of whirring insects.
The winding path turned again, and came out abruptly on a hillside, above an open glade piled with grey boulders. On the opposite rise of ground stood a grove of pines, with bare, red stems. The light, around and under them, was red like a rosy sunset. Nearly all the stems divided about half-way up into two great arms, which came together again at the top, like the pictures of old Grecian lyres.
Down in the grassy glade, among the piles of flint boulders, little white birches shook out their shining leaves in the lightly moving air. All about the rocks were patches of purple heath; it ran up into the crevices between them like fire. On one of these bald rocks sat Lieutenant Gerhardt, hatless, in an attitude of fatigue or of deep dejection, his hands clasped about his knees, his bronze hair ruddy in the sun. After watching him for a few minutes, Claude descended the slope, swishing the tall ferns.
"Will I be in the way?" he asked as he stopped at the foot of the rocks.
"Oh, no!" said the other, moving a little and unclasping his hand.
Claude sat down on a boulder. "Is this heather?" he asked. "I thought I recognized it, from 'Kidnapped.' This part of the world is not as new to you as it is to me."
"No. I lived in Paris for several years when I was a student."
"What were you studying?"
"You are a musician?" Claude looked at him wonderingly.
"I was," replied the other with a disdainful smile, languidly stretching out his legs in the heather.
"That seems too bad," Claude remarked gravely.
"Why, to take fellows with a special talent. There are enough of us who haven't any."
Gerhardt rolled over on his back and put his hands under his head. "Oh, this affair is too big for exceptions; it's universal. If you happened to be born twenty-six years ago, you couldn't escape. If this war didn't kill you in one way, it would in another." He told Claude he had trained at Camp Dix, and had come over eight months ago in a regimental band, but he hated the work he had to do and got transferred to the infantry.
When they retraced their steps, the wood was full of green twilight. Their relations had changed somewhat during the last half hour, and they strolled in confidential silence up the home-like street to the door of their own garden.
Since the rain was over, Madame Joubert had laid the cloth on the plank table under the cherry tree, as on the previous evenings. Monsieur was bringing the chairs, and the little girl was carrying out a pile of heavy plates. She rested them against her stomach and leaned back as she walked, to balance them. She wore shoes, but no stockings, and her faded cotton dress switched about her brown legs. She was a little Belgian refugee who had been sent there with her mother. The mother was dead now, and the child would not even go to visit her grave. She could not be coaxed from the court-yard into the quiet street. If the neighbour children came into the garden on an errand, she hid herself. She would have no playmates but the cat; and now she had the kittens in the tool house.
Dinner was very cheerful that evening. M. Joubert was pleased that the storm had not lasted long enough to hurt the wheat. The garden was fresh and bright after the rain. The cherry tree shook down bright drops on the tablecloth when the breeze stirred. The mother cat dozed on the red cushion in Madame Joubert's sewing chair, and the pigeons fluttered down to snap up earthworms that wriggled in the wet sand. The shadow of the house fell over the dinner-table, but the tree-tops stood up in full sunlight, and the yellow sun poured on the earth wall and the cream-coloured roses. Their petals, ruffled by the rain, gave out a wet, spicy smell.
M. Joubert must have been ten years older than his wife. There was a great contentment in his manner and a pleasant sparkle in his eye. He liked the young officers. Gerhardt had been there more than two weeks, and somewhat relieved the stillness that had settled over the house since the second son died in hospital. The Jouberts had dropped out of things. They had done all they could do, given all they had, and now they had nothing to look forward to,—except the event to which all France looked forward. The father was talking to Gerhardt about the great sea-port the Americans were making of Bordeaux; he said he meant to go there after the war, to see it all for himself.
Madame Joubert was pleased to hear that they had been walking in the wood. And was the heather in bloom? She wished they had brought her some. Next time they went, perhaps. She used to walk there often. Her eyes seemed to come nearer to them, Claude thought, when she spoke of it, and she evidently cared a great deal more about what was blooming in the wood than about what the Americans were doing on the Garonne. He wished he could talk to her as Gerhardt did. He admired the way she roused herself and tried to interest them, speaking her difficult language with such spirit and precision. It was a language that couldn't be mumbled; that had to be spoken with energy and fire, or not spoken at all. Merely speaking that exacting tongue would help to rally a broken spirit, he thought.
The little maid who served them moved about noiselessly. Her dull eyes never seemed to look; yet she saw when it was time to bring the heavy soup tureen, and when it was time to take it away. Madame Joubert had found that Claude liked his potatoes with his meat—when there was meat—and not in a course by themselves. She had each time to tell the little girl to go and fetch them. This the child did with manifest reluctance,—sullenly, as if she were being forced to do something wrong. She was a very strange little creature, altogether. As the two soldiers left the table and started for the camp, Claude reached down into the tool house and took up one of the kittens, holding it out in the light to see it blink its eyes. The little girl, just coming out of the kitchen, uttered a shrill scream, a really terrible scream, and squatted down, covering her face with her hands. Madame Joubert came out to chide her.
"What is the matter with that child?" Claude asked as they hurried out of the gate. "Do you suppose she was hurt, or abused in some way?"
"Terrorized. She often screams like that at night. Haven't you heard her? They have to go and wake her, to stop it. She doesn't speak any French; only Walloon. And she can't or won't learn, so they can't tell what goes on in her poor little head."
In the two weeks of intensive training that followed, Claude marvelled at Gerhardt's spirit and endurance. The muscular strain of mimic trench operations was more of a tax on him than on any of the other officers. He was as tall as Claude, but he weighed only a hundred and forty-six pounds, and he had not been roughly bred like most of the others. When his fellow officers learned that he was a violinist by profession, that he could have had a soft job as interpreter or as an organizer of camp entertainments, they no longer resented his reserve or his occasional superciliousness. They respected a man who could have wriggled out and didn't.
On the march at last; through a brilliant August day Colonel Scott's battalion was streaming along one of the dusty, well-worn roads east of the Somme, their railway base well behind them. The way led through rolling country; fields, hills, woods, little villages shattered but still habitable, where the people came out to watch the soldiers go by.
The Americans went through every village in march step, colours flying, the band playing, "to show that the morale was high," as the officers said. Claude trudged on the outside of the column,—now at the front of his company, now at the rear,—wearing a stoical countenance, afraid of betraying his satisfaction in the men, the weather, the country.
They were bound for the big show, and on every hand were reassuring signs: long lines of gaunt, dead trees, charred and torn; big holes gashed out in fields and hillsides, already half concealed by new undergrowth; winding depressions in the earth, bodies of wrecked motor-trucks and automobiles lying along the road, and everywhere endless straggling lines of rusty barbed-wire, that seemed to have been put there by chance,—with no purpose at all.
"Begins to look like we're getting in, Lieutenant," said Sergeant Hicks, smiling behind his salute.
Claude nodded and passed forward.
"Well, we can't arrive any too soon for us, boys?" The Sergeant looked over his shoulder, and they grinned, their teeth flashing white in their red, perspiring faces. Claude didn't wonder that everybody along the route, even the babies, came out to see them; he thought they were the finest sight in the world. This was the first day they had worn their tin hats; Gerhardt had shown them how to stuff grass and leaves inside to keep their heads cool. When they fell into fours, and the band struck up as they approached a town, Bert Fuller, the boy from Pleasantville on the Platte, who had blubbered on the voyage over, was guide right, and whenever Claude passed him his face seemed to say, "You won't get anything on me in a hurry, Lieutenant!"
They made camp early in the afternoon, on a hill covered with half-burned pines. Claude took Bert and Dell Able and Oscar the Swede, and set off to make a survey and report the terrain.
Behind the hill, under the burned edge of the wood, they found an abandoned farmhouse and what seemed to be a clean well.
It had a solid stone curb about it, and a wooden bucket hanging by a rusty wire. When the boys splashed the bucket about, the water sent up a pure, cool breath. But they were wise boys, and knew where dead Prussians most loved to hide. Even the straw in the stable they regarded with suspicion, and thought it would be just as well not to bed anybody there.
Swinging on to the right to make their circuit, they got into mud; a low field where the drain ditches had been neglected and had overflowed. There they came upon a pitiful group of humanity, bemired. A woman, ill and wretched looking, sat on a fallen log at the end of the marsh, a baby in her lap and three children hanging about her. She was far gone in consumption; one had only to listen to her breathing and to look at her white, perspiring face to feel how weak she was. Draggled, mud to the knees, she was trying to nurse her baby, half hidden under an old black shawl. She didn't look like a tramp woman, but like one who had once been able to take proper care of herself, and she was still young. The children were tired and discouraged. One little boy wore a clumsy blue jacket, made from a French army coat. The other wore a battered American Stetson that came down over his ears. He carried, in his two arms, a pink celluloid clock. They all looked up and waited for the soldiers to do something.
Claude approached the woman, and touching the rim of his helmet, began: "Bonjour, Madame. Qu'est que c'est?"
She tried to speak, but went off into a spasm of coughing, only able to gasp, "'Toinette, 'Toinette!"
'Toinette stepped quickly forward. She was about eleven, and seemed to be the captain of the party. A bold, hard little face with a long chin, straight black hair tied with rags, uneasy, crafty eyes; she looked much less gentle and more experienced than her mother. She began to explain, and she was very clever at making herself understood. She was used to talking to foreign soldiers,—spoke slowly, with emphasis and ingenious gestures.
She, too, had been reconnoitering. She had discovered the empty farmhouse and was trying to get her party there for the night. How did they come here? Oh, they were refugees. They had been staying with people thirty kilometers from here. They were trying to get back to their own village. Her mother was very sick, presque morte and she wanted to go home to die. They had heard people were still living there; an old aunt was living in their own cellar,—and so could they if they once got there. The point was, and she made it over and over, that her mother wished to die chez elle, comprenez-vous? They had no papers, and the French soldiers would never let them pass, but now that the Americans were here they hoped to get through; the Americans were said to be toujours gentils.
While she talked in her shrill, clicking voice, the baby began to howl, dissatisfied with its nourishment. The little girl shrugged. "Il est toujours en colere," she muttered. The woman turned it around with difficulty—it seemed a big, heavy baby, but white and sickly—and gave it the other breast. It began sucking her noisily, rooting and sputtering as if it were famished. It was too painful, it was almost indecent, to see this exhausted woman trying to feed her baby. Claude beckoned his men away to one side, and taking the little girl by the hand drew her after them.
"Il faut que votre mere—se reposer," he told her, with the grave caesural pause which he always made in the middle of a French sentence. She understood him. No distortion of her native tongue surprised or perplexed her. She was accustomed to being addressed in all persons, numbers, genders, tenses; by Germans, English, Americans. She only listened to hear whether the voice was kind, and with men in this uniform it usually was kind.
Had they anything to eat? "Vous avez quelque chose a manger?"
"Rien. Rien du tout."
Wasn't her mother "trop malade a marcher?"
She shrugged; Monsieur could see for himself.
And her father?
He was dead; "mort a la Marne, en quatorze."
"At the Marne?" Claude repeated, glancing in perplexity at the nursing baby. Her sharp eyes followed his, and she instantly divined his doubt. "The baby?" she said quickly. "Oh, the baby is not my brother, he is a Boche."
For a moment Claude did not understand. She repeated her explanation impatiently, something disdainful and sinister in her metallic little voice. A slow blush mounted to his forehead.
He pushed her toward her mother, "Attendez la."
"I guess we'll have to get them over to that farmhouse," he told the men. He repeated what he had got of the child's story. When he came to her laconic statement about the baby, they looked at each other. Bert Fuller was afraid he might cry again, so he kept muttering, "By God, if we'd a-got here sooner, by God if we had!" as they ran back along the ditch.
Dell and Oscar made a chair of their crossed hands and carried the woman, she was no great weight. Bert picked up the little boy with the pink clock; "Come along, little frog, your legs ain't long enough."
Claude walked behind, holding the screaming baby stiffly in his arms. How was it possible for a baby to have such definite personality, he asked himself, and how was it possible to dislike a baby so much? He hated it for its square, tow-thatched head and bloodless ears, and carried it with loathing... no wonder it cried! When it got nothing by screaming and stiffening, however, it suddenly grew quiet; regarded him with pale blue eyes, and tried to make itself comfortable against his khaki coat. It put out a grimy little fist and took hold of one of his buttons. "Kamerad, eh?" he muttered, glaring at the infant. "Cut it out!"
Before they had their own supper that night, the boys carried hot food and blankets down to their family.
Four o'clock... a summer dawn... his first morning in the trenches.
Claude had just been along the line to see that the gun teams were in position. This hour, when the light was changing, was a favourite time for attack. He had come in late last night, and had everything to learn. Mounting the firestep, he peeped over the parapet between the sandbags, into the low, twisting mist. Just then he could see nothing but the wire entanglement, with birds hopping along the top wire, singing and chirping as they did on the wire fences at home. Clear and flute-like they sounded in the heavy air,—and they were the only sounds. A little breeze came up, slowly clearing the mist away. Streaks of green showed through the moving banks of vapour. The birds became more agitated. That dull stretch of grey and green was No Man's Land. Those low, zigzag mounds, like giant molehills protected by wire hurdles, were the Hun trenches; five or six lines of them. He could easily follow the communication trenches without a glass. At one point their front line could not be more than eighty yards away, at another it must be all of three hundred. Here and there thin columns of smoke began to rise; the Hun was getting breakfast; everything was comfortable and natural. Behind the enemy's position the country rose gradually for several miles, with ravines and little woods, where, according to his map, they had masked artillery. Back on the hills were ruined farmhouses and broken trees, but nowhere a living creature in sight. It was a dead, nerveless countryside, sunk in quiet and dejection. Yet everywhere the ground was full of men. Their own trenches, from the other side, must look quite as dead. Life was a secret, these days.
It was amazing how simply things could be done. His battalion had marched in quietly at midnight, and the line they came to relieve had set out as silently for the rear. It all took place in utter darkness. Just as B Company slid down an incline into the shallow rear trenches, the country was lit for a moment by two star shells, there was a rattling of machine guns, German Maxims,—a sporadic crackle that was not followed up. Filing along the communication trenches, they listened anxiously; artillery fire would have made it bad for the other men who were marching to the rear. But nothing happened. They had a quiet night, and this morning, here they were!
The sky flamed up saffron and silver. Claude looked at his watch, but he could not bear to go just yet. How long it took a Wheeler to get round to anything! Four years on the way; now that he was here, he would enjoy the scenery a bit, he guessed. He wished his mother could know how he felt this morning. But perhaps she did know. At any rate, she would not have him anywhere else. Five years ago, when he was sitting on the steps of the Denver State House and knew that nothing unexpected could ever happen to him... suppose he could have seen, in a flash, where he would be today? He cast a long look at the reddening, lengthening landscape, and dropped down on the duckboard.
Claude made his way back to the dugout into which he and Gerhardt had thrown their effects last night. The former occupants had left it clean. There were two bunks nailed against the side walls,—wooden frames with wire netting over them, covered with dry sandbags. Between the two bunks was a soap-box table, with a candle stuck in a green bottle, an alcohol stove, a bainmarie, and two tin cups. On the wall were coloured pictures from Jugend, taken out of some Hun trench.
He found Gerhardt still asleep on his bed, and shook him until he sat up.
"How long have you been out, Claude? Didn't you sleep?"
"A little. I wasn't very tired. I suppose we could heat shaving water on this stove; they've left us half a bottle of alcohol. It's quite a comfortable little hole, isn't it?"
"It will doubtless serve its purpose," David remarked dryly. "So sensitive to any criticism of this war! Why, it's not your affair; you've only just arrived."
"I know," Claude replied meekly, as he began to fold his blankets. "But it's likely the only one I'll ever be in, so I may as well take an interest."
The next afternoon four young men, all more or less naked, were busy about a shell-hole full of opaque brown water. Sergeant Hicks and his chum, Dell Able, had hunted through half the blazing hot morning to find a hole not too scummy, conveniently, and even picturesquely situated, and had reported it to the Lieutenants. Captain Maxey, Hicks said, could send his own orderly to find his own shell-hole, and could take his bath in private. "He'd never wash himself with anybody else," the Sergeant added. "Afraid of exposing his dignity!"
Bruger and Hammond, the two second Lieutenants, were already out of their bath, and reclined on what might almost be termed a grassy slope, examining various portions of their body with interest. They hadn't had all their clothes off for some time, and four days of marching in hot weather made a man anxious to look at himself.
"You wait till winter," Gerhardt told them. He was still splashing in the hole, up to his armpits in muddy water. "You won't get a wash once in three months then. Some of the Tommies told me that when they got their first bath after Vimy, their skins peeled off like a snake's. What are you doing with my trousers, Bruger?"
"Hunting for your knife. I dropped mine yesterday, when that shell exploded in the cut-off. I darned near dropped my old nut!"
"Shucks, that wasn't anything. Don't keep blowing about it—shows you're a greenhorn."
Claude stripped off his shirt and slid into the pool beside Gerhardt. "Gee, I hit something sharp down there! Why didn't you fellows pull out the splinters?"
He shut his eyes, disappeared for a moment, and came up sputtering, throwing on the ground a round metal object, coated with rust and full of slime. "German helmet, isn't it? Phew!" He wiped his face and looked about suspiciously.
"Phew is right!" Bruger turned the object over with a stick. "Why in hell didn't you bring up the rest of him? You've spoiled my bath. I hope you enjoy it."
Gerhardt scrambled up the side. "Get out, Wheeler! Look at that," he pointed to big sleepy bubbles, bursting up through the thick water. "You've stirred up trouble, all right! Something's going very bad down there."
Claude got out after him, looking back at the activity in the water. "I don't see how pulling out one helmet could stir the bottom up so. I should think the water would keep the smell down."
"Ever study chemistry?" Bruger asked scornfully. "You just opened up a graveyard, and now we get the exhaust. If you swallowed any of that German cologne—Oh, you should worry!"
Lieutenant Hammond, still barelegged, with his shirt tied over his shoulders, was scratching in his notebook. Before they left he put up a placard on a split stick.
No Public Bathing!! Private Beach
C. Wheeler, Co. B. 2-th Inf'ty.
. . . . . . . . . .
The first letters from home! The supply wagons brought them up, and every man in the Company got something except Ed Drier, a farm-hand from the Nebraska sand hills, and Willy Katz, the tow-headed Austrian boy from the South Omaha packing-houses. Their comrades were sorry for them. Ed didn't have any "folks" of his own, but he had expected letters all the same. Willy was sure his mother must have written. When the last ragged envelope was given out and he turned away empty-handed, he murmured, "She's Bohunk, and she don't write so good. I guess the address wasn't plain, and some fellow in another comp'ny has got my letter."
No second class matter was sent up,—the boys had hoped for newspapers from home to give them a little war news, since they never got any here. Dell Able's sister, however, had enclosed a clipping from the Kansas City Star; a long account by one of the British war correspondents in Mesopotamia, describing the hardships the soldiers suffered there; dysentery, flies, mosquitoes, unimaginable heat. He read this article aloud to a group of his friends as they sat about a shell-hole pool where they had been washing their socks. He had just finished the story of how the Tommies had found a few mud huts at the place where the original Garden of Eden was said to have been,—a desolate spot full of stinging insects—when Oscar Petersen, a very religious Swedish boy who was often silent for days together, opened his mouth and said scornfully,
"That's a lie!"
Dell looked up at him, annoyed by the interruption. "How do you know it is?"
"Because; the Lord put four cherubims with swords to guard the Garden, and there ain't no man going to find it. It ain't intended they should. The Bible says so."
Hicks began to laugh. "Why, that was about six thousand years ago, you cheese! Do you suppose your cherubims are still there?"
"'Course they are. What's a thousand years to a cherubim? Nothin'!"
The Swede rose and sullenly gathered up his socks.
Dell Able looked at his chum. "Ain't he the complete bonehead? Solid ivory!"
Oscar wouldn't listen further to a "pack of lies" and walked off with his washing.
. . . . . . . . . .
Battalion Headquarters was nearly half a mile behind the front line, part dugout, part shed, with a plank roof sodded over. The Colonel's office was partitioned off at one end; the rest of the place he gave over to the officers for a kind of club room. One night Claude went back to make a report on the new placing of the gun teams. The young officers were sitting about on soap boxes, smoking and eating sweet crackers out of tin cases. Gerhardt was working at a plank table with paper and crayons, making a clean copy of a rough map they had drawn up together that morning, showing the limits of fire. Noise didn't fluster him; he could sit among a lot of men and write as calmly as if he were alone.