John Dos Passos.

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and vanished against the ragged purple clouds of the sky. The observer
had waved a hand at them as he passed. They stood still in the darkening
field, staring up at the sky, where a few larks still hung chirruping.

"Ah'd lahk to be one o' them guys," said Chrisfield.

"You would?"

"God damn it, Ah'd do anything to git out o' this hellish infantry. This
ain't no sort o' life for a man to be treated lahk he was a nigger."

"No, it's no sort of life for a man."

"If they'd let us git to the front an' do some fightin' an' be done with
it.... But all we do is drill and have grenade practice an' drill again
and then have bayonet practice an' drill again. 'Nough to drive a feller

"What the hell's the use of talking about it, Chris? We can't be any
lower than we are, can we?" Andrews laughed.

"There's that plane again."


"There, just goin' down behind the piece o' woods."

"That's where their field is."

"Ah bet them guys has a good time. Ah put in an application back in
trainin' camp for Aviation. Ain't never heard nothing from it though. If
Ah had, Ah wouldn't be lower than dirt in this hawg-pen."

"It's wonderful up here on the hill this evening," said Andrews, looking
dreamily at the pale orange band of light where the sun had set. "Let's
go down and get a bottle of wine."

"Now yo're talkin'. Ah wonder if that girl's down there tonight."


"Um-hum.... Boy, Ah'd lahk to have her all by ma-self some night."

Their steps grew brisker as they strode along a grass-grown road that
led through high hedgerows to a village under the brow of the hill. It
was almost dark under the shadow of the bushes on either side. Overhead
the purple clouds were washed over by a pale yellow light that gradually
faded to grey. Birds chirped and rustled among the young leaves.

Andrews put his hand on Chrisfield's shoulder.

"Let's walk slow," he said, "we don't want to get out of here too soon."
He grabbed carelessly at little cluster of hawthorn flowers as he passed
them, and seemed reluctant to untangle the thorny branches that caught
in his coat and on his loosely wound puttees.

"Hell, man," said Chrisfield, "we won't have time to get a bellyful. It
must be gettin' late already."

They hastened their steps again and came in a moment to the first
tightly shuttered houses of the village.

In the middle of the road was an M.P., who stood with his legs wide
apart, waving his "billy" languidly. He had a red face, his eyes were
fixed on the shuttered upper window of a house, through the chinks of
which came a few streaks of yellow light. His lips were puckered up as
if to whistle, but no sound came. He swayed back and forth indecisively.
An officer came suddenly out of the little green door of the house
in front of the M.P., who brought his heels together with a jump and
saluted, holding his hand a long while to his cap. The officer flicked a
hand up hastily to his hat, snatching his cigar out of his mouth for
an instant. As the officer's steps grew fainter down the road, the M.P.
gradually returned to his former position.

Chrisfield and Andrews had slipped by on the other side, and gone in at
the door of a small ramshackle house of which the windows were closed by
heavy wooden shutters.

"I bet there ain't many of them bastards at the front," said Chris.

"Not many of either kind of bastards," said Andrews laughing, as he
closed the door behind them. They were in a room that had once been the
parlor of a farmhouse. The chandelier with its bits of crystal and the
orange-blossoms on a piece of dusty red velvet under a bell glass on
the mantelpiece denoted that. The furniture had been taken out, and four
square oak tables crowded in. At one of the tables sat three Americans
and at another a very young olive-skinned French soldier, who sat
hunched over his table looking moodily down into his glass of wine.

A girl in a faded frock of some purplish material that showed the strong
curves of her shoulders and breasts slouched into the room, her hands
in the pocket of a dark blue apron against which her rounded forearms
showed golden brown. Her face had the same golden tan under a mass of
dark blonde hair. She smiled when she saw the two soldiers, drawing her
thin lips away from her ugly yellow teeth.

"Ca va bien, Antoinette?" asked Andrews.

"Oui," she said, looking beyond their heads at the French soldier who
sat at the other side of the little room.

"A bottle of vin rouge, vite," said Chrisfield.

"Ye needn't be so damn vite about it tonight, Chris," said one of the
men at the other table.


"Ain't a-goin' to be no roll call. Corporal tole me his-self. Sarge's
gone out to git stewed, an' the Loot's away."

"Sure," said another man, "we kin stay out as late's we goddam please

"There's a new M.P. in town," said Chrisfield.... "Ah saw him maself....
You did, too, didn't you, Andy?"

Andrews nodded. He was looking at the Frenchman, who sat with his face
in shadow and his black lashes covering his eyes. A purplish flash had
suffused the olive skin at his cheekbones.

"Oh, boy," said Chrisfield. "That ole wine sure do go down fast.... Say,
Antoinette, got any cognac?"

"I'm going to have some more wine," said Andrews.

"Go ahead, Andy; have all ye want. Ah want some-thin' to warm ma guts."

Antoinette brought a bottle of cognac and two small glasses and sat
down in an empty chair with her red hands crossed on her apron. Her eyes
moved from Chrisfield to the Frenchman and back again.

Chrisfield turned a little round in his chair and looked at the
Frenchman, feeling in his eyes for a moment a glance of the man's
yellowish-brown eyes.

Andrews leaned back against the wall sipping his dark-colored wine, his
eyes contracted dreamily, fixed on the shadow of the chandelier, which
the cheap oil-lamp with its tin reflector cast on the peeling plaster of
the wall opposite.

Chrisfield punched him.

"Wake up, Andy, are you asleep?"

"No," said Andy smiling.

"Have a li'l mo' cognac."

Chrisfield poured out two more glasses unsteadily. His eyes were on
Antoinette again. The faded purple frock was hooked at the neck. The
first three hooks were undone revealing a V-shape of golden brown skin
and a bit of whitish underwear.

"Say, Andy," he said, putting his arm round his friend's neck and
talking into his ear, "talk up to her for me, will yer, Andy?... Ah
won't let that goddam frog get her, no, I won't, by Gawd. Talk up to her
for me, Andy."

Andrews laughed.

"I'll try," he said. "But there's always the Queen of Sheba, Chris."

"Antoinette, j'ai un ami," started Andrews, making a gesture with a long
dirty hand towards Chris.

Antoinette showed her bad teeth in a smile.

"Joli garcon," said Andrews.

Antoinette's face became impassive and beautiful again. Chrisfield
leaned back in his chair with an empty glass in his hand and watched his
friend admiringly.

"Antoinette, mon ami vous... vous admire," said Andrews in a courtly

A woman put her head in the door. It was the same face and hair as
Antoinette's, ten years older, only the skin, instead of being golden
brown, was sallow and wrinkled.

"Viens," said the woman in a shrill voice.

Antoinette got up, brushed heavily against Chrisfield's leg as she
passed him and disappeared. The Frenchman walked across the room from
his corner, saluted gravely and went out.

Chrisfield jumped to his feet. The room was like a white box reeling
about him.

"That frog's gone after her," he shouted.

"No, he ain't, Chris," cried someone from the next table. "Sit tight,
ole boy. We're bettin' on yer."

"Yes, sit down and have a drink, Chris," said Andy. "I've got to
have somethin' more to drink. I haven't had a thing to drink all the
evening." He pulled him back into his chair. Chrisfield tried to get up
again. Andrews hung on him so that the chair upset. Then both sprawled
on the red tiles of the floor.

"The house is pinched!" said a voice.

Chrisfield saw Judkins standing over him, a grin on his large red face.
He got to his feet and sat sulkily in his chair again. Andrews was
already sitting opposite him, looking impassive as ever.

The tables were full now. Someone was singing in a droning voice.

"O the oak and the ash and the weeping willow tree,
O green grows the grass in God's countree!"

"Ole Indiana," shouted Chris. "That's the only God's country I know."
He suddenly felt that he could tell Andy all about his home and the wide
corn-fields shimmering and rustling under the July sun, and the creek
with red clay banks where he used to go in swimming. He seemed to see it
all before him, to smell the winey smell of the silo, to see the cattle,
with their chewing mouths always stained a little with green, waiting to
get through the gate to the water trough, and the yellow dust and roar
of wheat-thrashing, and the quiet evening breeze cooling his throat and
neck when he lay out on a shack of hay that he had been tossing all day
long under the tingling sun. But all he managed to say was:

"Indiana's God's country, ain't it, Andy?"

"Oh, he has so many," muttered Andrews.

"Ah've seen a hailstone measured nine inches around out home, honest to
Gawd, Ah have."

"Must be as good as a barrage."

"Ah'd like to see any goddam barrage do the damage one of our thunder
an' lightnin' storms'll do," shouted Chris.

"I guess all the barrage we're going to see's grenade practice."

"Don't you worry, buddy," said somebody across the room.

"You'll see enough of it. This war's going to last damn long...."

"Ah'd lak to get in some licks at those Huns tonight; honest to Gawd
Ah would, Andy," muttered Chris in a low voice. He felt his muscles
contract with a furious irritation. He looked through half-closed
eyes at the men in the room, seeing them in distorted white lights and
reddish shadows. He thought of himself throwing a grenade among a crowd
of men. Then he saw the face of Anderson, a ponderous white face with
eyebrows that met across his nose and a bluish, shaved chin.

"Where does he stay at, Andy? I'm going to git him."

Andrews guessed what he meant.

"Sit down and have a drink, Chris," he said, "Remember you're going to
sleep with the Queen of Sheba tonight."

"Not if I can't git them goddam...." his voice trailed off into an
inaudible muttering of oaths.

"O the oak and the ash and the weeping willow tree,
O green grows the grass in God's countree!"

somebody sang again.

Chrisfield saw a woman standing beside the table with her back to him,
collecting the bottles. Andy was paying her.

"Antoinette," he said. He got to his feet and put his arms round her
shoulders. With a quick movement of the elbows she pushed him back into
his chair. She turned round. He saw the sallow face and thin breasts of
the older sister. She looked in his eyes with surprise. He was grinning
drunkenly. As she left the room she made a sign to him with her head to
follow her. He got up and staggered out the door, pulling Andrews after

In the inner room was a big bed with curtains where the women slept, and
the fireplace where they did their cooking. It was dark except for the
corner where he and Andrews stood blinking in the glare of a candle
on the table. Beyond they could only see ruddy shadows and the huge
curtained bed with its red coverlet.

The Frenchman, somewhere in the dark of the room, said something several

"Avions boches... ss-t!"

They were quiet.

Above them they heard the snoring of aeroplane motors, rising and
falling like the buzzing of a fly against a window pane.

They all looked at each other curiously. Antoinette was leaning against
the bed, her face expressionless. Her heavy hair had come undone and
fell in smoky gold waves about her shoulders.

The older woman was giggling.

"Come on, let's see what's doing, Chris," said Andrews.

They went out into the dark village street.

"To hell with women, Chris, this is the war!" cried Andrews in a loud
drunken voice as they reeled arm in arm up the street.

"You bet it's the war.... Ah'm a-goin' to beat up...."

Chrisfield felt his friend's hand clapped over his mouth. He let himself
go limply, feeling himself pushed to the side of the road.

Somewhere in the dark he heard an officer's voice say:

"Bring those men to me."

"Yes, sir," came another voice.

Slow heavy footsteps came up the road in their direction. Andrews kept
pushing him back along the side of a house, until suddenly they both
fell sprawling in a manure pit.

"Lie still for God's sake," muttered Andrews, throwing an arm over
Chrisfield's chest. A thick odor of dry manure filled their nostrils.

They heard the steps come nearer, wander about irresolutely and then go
off in the direction from which they had come.

Meanwhile the throb of motors overhead grew louder and louder.

"Well?" came the officer's voice.

"Couldn't find them, sir," mumbled the other voice.

"Nonsense. Those men were drunk," came the officer's voice.

"Yes, sir," came the other voice humbly.

Chrisfield started to giggle. He felt he must yell aloud with laughter.

The nearest motor stopped its singsong roar, making the night seem
deathly silent.

Andrews jumped to his feet.

The air was split by a shriek followed by a racking snorting explosion.
They saw the wall above their pit light up with a red momentary glare.

Chrisfield got to his feet, expecting to see flaming ruins. The village
street was the same as ever. There was a little light from the glow the
moon, still under the horizon, gave to the sky. A window in the house
opposite showed yellow. In it was a blue silhouette of an officer's cap
and uniform.

A little group stood in the street below.

"What was that?" the form in the window was shouting in a peremptory

"German aeroplane just dropped a bomb, Major," came a breathless voice
in reply.

"Why the devil don't he close that window?" a voice was muttering all
the while. "Juss a target for 'em to aim at... a target to aim at."

"Any damage done?" asked the major.

Through the silence the snoring of the motors sing-songed ominously
overhead, like giant mosquitoes.

"I seem to hear more," said the major, in his drawling voice.

"O yes sir, yes sir, lots," answered an eager voice.

"For God's sake tell him to close the window, Lieutenant," muttered
another voice.

"How the hell can I tell him? You tell him."

"We'll all be killed, that's all there is about it."

"There are no shelters or dugouts," drawled the major from the window.
"That's Headquarters' fault."

"There's the cellar!" cried the eager voice, again.

"Oh," said the major.

Three snorting explosions in quick succession drowned everything in a
red glare. The street was suddenly filled with a scuttle of villagers
running to shelter.

"Say, Andy, they may have a roll call," said Chrisfield.

"We'd better cut for home across country," said Andrews.

They climbed cautiously out of their manure pit. Chrisfield was
surprised to find that he was trembling. His hands were cold.

It was with difficulty he kept his teeth from chattering.

"God, we'll stink for a week."

"Let's git out," muttered Chrisfield, "o' this goddam village."

They ran out through an orchard, broke through a hedge and climbed up
the hill across the open fields.

Down the main road an anti-aircraft gun had started barking and the sky
sparkled with exploding shrapnel. The "put, put, put" of a machine gun
had begun somewhere. Chrisfield strode up the hill in step with his
friend. Behind them bomb followed bomb, and above them the air seemed
full of exploding shrapnel and droning planes. The cognac still throbbed
a little in their blood. They stumbled against each other now and then
as they walked. From the top of the hill they turned and looked back.
Chrisfield felt a tremendous elation thumping stronger than the cognac
through his veins. Unconsciously he put his arm round his friend's
shoulders. They seemed the only live things in a reeling world.

Below in the valley a house was burning brightly. From all directions
came the yelp of anti-aircraft guns, and overhead unperturbed continued
the leisurely singsong of the motors.

Suddenly Chrisfield burst out laughing. "By God, Ah always have fun when
Ah'm out with you, Andy," he said.

They turned and hurried down the other slope of the hill towards the
farms where they were quartered.


As far as he could see in every direction were the grey trunks of
beeches bright green with moss on one side. The ground was thick with
last year's leaves that rustled maddeningly with every step. In front of
him his eyes followed other patches of olive-drab moving among the tree
trunks. Overhead, through the mottled light and dark green of the leaves
he could see now and then a patch of heavy grey sky, greyer than the
silvery trunks that moved about him in every direction as he walked.
He strained his eyes down each alley until they were dazzled by the
reiteration of mottled grey and green. Now and then the rustling stopped
ahead of him, and the olive-drab patches were still. Then, above the
clamour of the blood in his ears, he could hear batteries "pong, pong,
pong" in the distance, and the woods ringing with a sound like hail as
a heavy shell hurtled above the tree tops to end in a dull rumble miles

Chrisfield was soaked with sweat, but he could not feel his arms
or legs. Every sense was concentrated in eyes and ears, and in the
consciousness of his gun. Time and again he pictured himself taking
sight at something grey that moved, and firing. His forefinger itched to
press the trigger. He would take aim very carefully, he told himself;
he pictured a dab of grey starting up from behind a grey tree trunk, and
the sharp detonation of his rifle, and the dab of grey rolling among the
last year's leaves.

A branch carried his helmet off his head so that it rolled at his feet
and bounced with a faint metallic sound against the root of a tree.

He was blinded by the sudden terror that seized him. His heart seemed to
roll from side to side in his chest. He stood stiff, as if paralyzed
for a moment before he could stoop and pick the helmet up. There was a
curious taste of blood in his mouth.

"Ah'll pay 'em fer that," he muttered between clenched teeth.

His fingers were still trembling when he stooped to pick up the helmet,
which he put on again very carefully, fastening it with the strap under
his chin. Furious anger had taken hold of him. The olive-drab patches
ahead had moved forward again. He followed, looking eagerly to the right
and the left, praying he might see something. In every direction were
the silvery trunk of the beeches, each with a vivid green streak on one
side. With every step the last year's russet leaves rustled underfoot,
maddeningly loud.

Almost out of sight among the moving tree trunks was a log. It was not
a log; it was a bunch of grey-green cloth. Without thinking Chrisfield
strode towards it. The silver trunks of the beeches circled about him,
waving jagged arms. It was a German lying full length among the leaves.

Chrisfield was furiously happy in the angry pumping of blood through his

He could see the buttons on the back of the long coat of the German, and
the red band on his cap.

He kicked the German. He could feel the ribs against his toes through
the leather of his boot. He kicked again and again with all his might.
The German rolled over heavily. He had no face. Chrisfield felt the
hatred suddenly ebb out of him. Where the face had been was a spongy
mass of purple and yellow and red, half of which stuck to the russet
leaves when the body rolled over. Large flies with bright shiny green
bodies circled about it. In a brown clay-grimed hand was a revolver.

Chrisfield felt his spine go cold; the German had shot himself.

He ran off suddenly, breathlessly, to join the rest of the
reconnoitering squad. The silent beeches whirled about him, waving
gnarled boughs above his head. The German had shot himself. That was why
he had no face.

Chrisfield fell into line behind the other men. The corporal waited for

"See anything?" he asked.

"Not a goddam thing," muttered Chrisfield almost inaudibly. The corporal
went off to the head of the line. Chrisfield was alone again. The leaves
rustled maddeningly loud underfoot.


Chrisfield's eyes were fixed on the leaves at the tops of the walnut
trees, etched like metal against the bright colorless sky, edged with
flicks and fringes of gold where the sunlight struck them. He stood
stiff and motionless at attention, although there was a sharp pain in
his left ankle that seemed swollen enough to burst the worn boot. He
could feel the presence of men on both sides of him, and of men again
beyond them. It seemed as if the stiff line of men in olive-drab,
standing at attention, waiting endlessly for someone to release them
from their erect paralysis, must stretch unbroken round the world.
He let his glance fall to the trampled grass of the field where the
regiment was drawn up. Somewhere behind him he could hear the clinking
of spurs at some officer's heels. Then there was the sound of a motor on
the road suddenly shut off, and there were steps coming down the line
of men, and a group of officers passed hurriedly, with a businesslike
stride, as if they did nothing else all their lives. Chrisfield made out
eagles on tight khaki shoulders, then a single star and a double star,
above which was a red ear and some grey hair; the general passed too
soon for him to make out his face. Chrisfield swore to himself a little
because his ankle hurt so. His eyes travelled back to the fringe of the
trees against the bright sky. So this was what he got for those weeks
in dugouts, for all the times he had thrown himself on his belly in the
mud, for the bullets he had shot into the unknown at grey specks that
moved among the grey mud. Something was crawling up the middle of his
back. He wasn't sure if it were a louse or if he were imagining it. An
order had been shouted. Automatically he had changed his position to
parade rest. Somewhere far away a little man was walking towards the
long drab lines. A wind had come up, rustling the stiff leaves of the
grove of walnut trees. The voice squeaked above it, but Chrisfield could
not make out what it said. The wind in the trees made a vast rhythmic
sound like the churning of water astern of the transport he had come
over on. Gold flicks and olive shadows danced among the indented
clusters of leaves as they swayed, as if sweeping something away,
against the bright sky. An idea came into Chrisfield's head. Suppose
the leaves should sweep in broader and broader curves until they should
reach the ground and sweep and sweep until all this was swept away,
all these pains and lice and uniforms and officers with maple leaves
or eagles or single stars or double stars or triple stars on their
shoulders. He had a sudden picture of himself in his old comfortable
overalls, with his shirt open so that the wind caressed his neck like
a girl blowing down it playfully, lying on a shuck of hay under the hot
Indiana sun. Funny he'd thought all that, he said to himself. Before
he'd known Andy he'd never have thought of that. What had come over him
these days?

The regiment was marching away in columns of fours. Chrisfield's ankle
gave him sharp hot pain with every step. His tunic was too tight and the
sweat tingled on his back. All about him were sweating irritated faces;
the woollen tunics with their high collars were like straight-jackets
that hot afternoon. Chrisfield marched with his fists clenched; he
wanted to fight somebody, to run his bayonet into a man as he ran it
into the dummy in that everlasting bayonet drill, he wanted to strip
himself naked, to squeeze the wrists of a girl until she screamed.

His company was marching past another company that was lined up to be
dismissed in front of a ruined barn which had a roof that sagged in the
middle like an old cow's back. The sergeant stood in front of them with
his arms crossed, looking critically at the company that marched past.
He had a white heavy face and black eyebrows that met over his nose.
Chrisfield stared hard at him as he passed, but Sergeant Anderson did
not seem to recognize him. It gave him a dull angry feeling as if he'd
been cut by a friend.

The company melted suddenly into a group of men unbuttoning their
shirts and tunics in front of the little board shanty where they were

Online LibraryJohn Dos PassosThree Soldiers → online text (page 10 of 31)